• Published 7th Aug 2013
  • 80,467 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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Meeting the Big Wigs

A fist-sized rock surrounded in a shady aura floated right in front of my face. No tricks, magnets, or wires held it up; the thing really levitated off the ground. It took all the spare willpower I could muster to not grin stupidly. They actually thought this was a punishment!

Officially, I was being forced to clean up the mess I made of their castle while Shining Armor breathed down my neck, but they were delusional if they thought I’d regret anything. After my first suggestion – a massive order of spackle and wall posters – was forcefully denied, I worried that I was in for some serious backbreaking labor. But nope, they told me to fix the place with real, tangible magic.

What was going through their heads? Here was an opportunity to bend the mystical forces of an alien universe to my whims, and they assumed this would teach me a lesson. Honestly, if that was how they doled out sentences, then I was gonna commit every crime on their books and probably invent a few new ones in the process.

They told me to lift the rubble into place, which took an incredible amount of concentration, and wait for Shining Armor to magically fuse it together. Simple in concept, but I kept screwing it up. Focusing on the positions of several dozen fragments was surprisingly difficult to do, since it was basically a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. My jailor steadily lost his patience, but not even that could bring my spirits down.

The thrill of casting spells was fantastic and I reveled in every moment of it. God, I hoped the novelty never wore off. What could be more enjoyable than suddenly learning you have powers? Other than getting my hands back, of course. Still though, having magic was a solid two-thirds as good as having hands. Kinda sad that the ponies took it for granted. Magic was the kind of thing that mankind dreamed about for as long as civilization existed. Just thinking about it made me fail to keep an excited laugh inside.

And suddenly, my vision was filled with pink. Ah, there it was: the one screen door on my submarine, Shining Armor and his infernal shields. “Dang it! This again?” I asked. My mirth quickly evaporated. “What’d I do now?”

The last time I tried to break out of one of those things I almost blew myself up, so I wasn’t keen on trying again and he knew it. Any and all sudden movements got me put in the magical equivalent of a holding cell. Did I sneeze? Barrier. Levitate the debris too quickly? Force field. Make eye contact? Into in the freaking bubble.

We were up to, like, nine separate occasions since we began. I counted.

The white unicorn walked to the front of the barrier and eyed me scrutinously for any sign of a threat. “You’re scheming,” Shining Armor accused. “Nopony smiles like that unless they’re up to something.”

I self-consciously brought a hoof to my mouth. “Because I was smiling?” Oh, right: the fangs. To anyone else, even the most innocuous smile looked like a villainous sneer. “Come on. There’s no part of that that says evil schemer.”

Shining Armor tapped forcefully on the barrier, eliciting a loud, glassy ting. “You are such a schemer,” the captain asserted. His caution born of savviness would’ve been appropriate in any other situation, but from my perspective he was acting paranoid to the point of absurdity. “Everypony remembers you bashing at my wife’s shield like a foal at an aquarium, but don’t think I forgot about all your traps and mind games. You can’t play yourself off as some one-note conqueror; I know you’re planning something.”

To avoid provoking them any further, I had been totally cooperative ever since my failed jailbreak. Shiny, however, refused to believe that I wasn’t biding my time to cause the apocalypse or something. In his eyes, the fact that I wasn’t doing anything terrible was proof that I was going to do something especially heinous in the near future. There was simply no shaking his personal assumptions.

In a land as colorful as Equestria, morality was startlingly black and white. Either that or Shining Armor just hated Sombra so much that he couldn’t see me as anything but a supervillain. No matter what I tried to tell him, he might as well have plugged his ears and went ‘la la la, I can’t hear you’ for the last hour or so.

“Dude, you need to relax,” I said. Shiny shot me a stern glare in response. I’d been the recipient of a lot of glares recently, thus confirming his need to chill out. Shining Armor was one step away from becoming one of those doomsday preppers, or developing an ulcer, whichever came first. “Man, are you going to keep doing this, or are you gonna let me patch up the freedom-hole?”

The captain paused to tilt his head. “Freedom hole?” he dryly asked.

“Yeah. The hole I blasted in the outer wall can’t really be called an escape tunnel, so I just made something up. Freedom-hole.”

Shining Armor refused to dignify that with a response. With a sigh, he dispelled his barrier so I could get back to work. “Let’s just get this over with.”

And we were off: lift the rocks, bunch ‘em together, and let Shiny do his thing. Over and over it went. Deviations were met with the force field, and attempts at conversation were answered with a cold ‘hrmf’ from the white unicorn. If making magic boring was at all possible, then Shining Armor was just the pony to do it.

Over the course of our repairs, I had found that increasing the number of levitated objects made things noticeably much more difficult than increasing the size or weight. It probably had something to do with splitting my attention, but lifting five one-pound rocks was exponentially harder than lifting one five-pound rock. This required experimentation.

Not receiving his next shipment to fuse together, Shiny looked back to me and groaned. “Will you please take this seriously?” His voice teemed with irritated resignation.

“I am taking this seriously,” I insisted, not that Shining Armor believed a word. The tiny model of the solar system circling my horn may have damaged my credibility slightly.

Impatient and exasperated, Shiny grunted and rubbed his eyes with a hoof. How he accomplished that I had no idea. “Just try to work faster. This is a very busy time for our country and I’m needed elsewhere.”

Despite his jumpy and distrustful disposition, I got the feeling he’d be pretty cool guy if I weren’t his archnemesis. He defined himself by his long list of duties, he jumped to the defense of his wife, and he placed his nation’s safety above his own. The whole reason we were down here instead of letting the crew that reinforced my cell do the work was to keep me occupied and away from any other ponies.

Once again, I fit a bunch of rubble into a damaged part of the wall and Shiny’s magic fixed it seamlessly, not a single crack to be found.

“How do you do that?” I asked after watching him do his wall repairing spell a few times. To alleviate the boredom I tried to segue my labor sentence into free magic lessons. My horse-magic needed work.

“Do what, the spell?” he asked. The unicorn rolled his eyes. “After everything that’s happened today, you think we’ll teach you anything?”

His words said one thing, but deep down it got him thinking. How could Sombra not know something so simple, he wondered. The dark unicorn used his magic all day, but then again, levitation was a spell that all unicorns knew by instinct. Outside of that, Sombra had done nothing past his tricks with crystals and smoke, and performed terribly at that. It was like something knocked loose his entire, vast arsenal of dark sorcery from his mind. Which begged the question, what else was forgotten?

“C’mon, what’s the harm in it? This would go a lot faster,” I mentioned leadingly.

“You certainly couldn’t go any slower,” he retorted.

He had a point. I was awful, the kind of awful that made Shiny wonder if he should take over my part of the work for the sake of expedience. It was nearly time for dinner and only two of the walls were done.

“I’m not that bad, am I?”

Shining Armor, in response, casually levitated every piece of rubble at once, made them circle around, and then dropped them back on the floor. I got the hint.

“Right, I’ll try to pick up the pace.” I paused and considered my options. “Hey, I got an idea. Lemme try something.”

With a darkening of my horn, a sourceless shadow covered the bottom of the wall’s breach. Black crystals erupted from the shade a moment later and shot upwards until they rammed into the ceiling. Through the cloud of dust it kicked up, we could see that the breach was no more. Just like that, the hole was sealed.

“There. All done,” I smiled. He told me to repair the wall, and by a narrow definition of what constituted a repair, I did exactly what he asked. Crystals covered the whole breach, but my restoration was embarrassingly uneven and no effort was made to turn the natural crystalline structure in to a flat plane. Also, the dark color clashed with the rest of the room.

Shining Armor was not happy. In fact, I’d say he was categorically unsatisfied with my attempts to speed things along.

“Are you kidding me? Absolutely not.” A single bolt of magic shattered my shoddy patch job back to its ruined state. He then stomped a hoof meaningfully in front of the original rubble, silently demanding that I do it right.

“Fine,” I muttered disappointedly. “I was just trying to help.”

“You’d better clean up your act before the princess gets here. If you think you can mess around in front of somepony who raises the sun every day, you’ve got another think coming.” He said. It was a veiled threat disguised as a warning, but to his surprise, the invocation of Celestia flew right over my head.

“Raises the sun?” I asked doubtfully. Shiny stared at me completely unamused, so I took his word at face value. “Ha! Man, this place is nuts. You know, I actually wouldn’t put it past ya.”

Manual celestial motion. Why not? This dream was going out of its way to be as much of a fantasyland as possible, so anything might be true. Maybe leprechauns were a real thing. Perhaps the moon made of cheese? Did Equestria share a border with Candyland?

Baffled by my complete lack of fear, Shiny wondered how in the world I had never heard of Celestia. She was practically a force of nature in herself. That’d be like not knowing that the sky was blue or that autumn leaves were removed via stampede. Just how profound was the tyrant’s amnesia? Shiny pondered the unwelcome implications. If this pony had none of his memories, then can he really be considered the King Sombra that he once knew? A chink appeared in Shining Armor. He wouldn’t admit it, but my obliviousness damaged his suspicions.

________________________________________

The tap of hooves on the crystalline floor seemed to fill the whole palace as Cadence paced back and forth, waiting anxiously for the arrival of the other two alicorns in Equestria. She had high hopes that the sisters could impart some normalcy on this uncontrollable situation.

Also, she unabashedly hoped that her fellow princesses would arrive before it was her shift on Sombra duty.

The demands on the ruler of the Crystal Empire took a considerable toll on her psyche. She and her husband shared their burdens equally, at least on paper, but her half of the work was significantly more stressful. The reason was that Shining Armor had many years of military experience behind him, all of which applied directly to his current responsibilities. Experience, not just training; there was a considerable difference. Cadence’s lack of hooves-on practice caused her to run herself ragged making sure everything ran smoothly, and throwing Sombra on the pile debilitated what little confidence she had left.

It was a private fear of hers that if she failed to bring the Empire up to speed, then Celestia would send Blueblood to take her place. With that kind of motivation, she had a fire lit under her twenty-four-seven.

“They didn’t take a chariot did they?” she worried. “That would take forever.” Just as the words left her mouth, thankfully, she felt the magic of her surroundings bend to the will of something powerful.

“Wretched knave, thy time is at hoof!”

A loud pop from a teleportation spell announced the arrival an even louder Princess Luna. She decked herself out in an armored version of her usual regalia, complete with a crested helmet and thick, lunar-themed barding. Her eyes burned brightly and her horn blazed an aura of blue power. The room visibly dimmed and arcs of lightning sparked around the princess of the night, as if to draw attention to the arcane might that she gathered in her horn.

“Downfall approacheth, King Sombra, weep if thou must!” she exploded with the full din of the Canterlot royal voice. Luna’s battlecry exploded about the room, rattled any items not secured to the ground, and caused the windows to shake. Seemingly unaware that only Cadence was present, the living war horn continued. “Justice shall triumph anon and evermore! For honor and glory we smite thee!”

Not finding her prey in front of her, Luna hopped back and forth a few times, always landing in a combative stance, to check every corner of the room. “Where art thou, miscreant!?”

As the seconds ticked away unanswered, Luna finally noticed that her declaration was not the harbinger to a grand and terrible duel. She blinked confusedly – an action ill-suited to her burning, luminescent eyes – and powered down her horn.

“Princess Mi Amore Cadenza,” she shouted, “why hath no pony challenged us? Where doth the villain…” Stopping herself and lowering her voice to a manageable level, Luna took off her helmet and cleared her throat. “We mean, where is Sombra?”

Cadence held up a hoof to stall the conversation until the ringing in her ears subsided. A part of her was sorely tempted to keep Luna on the warpath just to be rid of the king as soon as possible, but the circumstances demanded that everypony be as calm and clear-minded as possible.

“He’s here. We have him in custody.”

Luna hummed neutrally. While she would never wish a fight upon anyone, she was somewhat disappointed that she didn’t get to relive some of the good old days. Being from antiquity, her idea of keeping the peace involved confronting evildoers and beating the crap out of them. Much like the problem that Shining Armor faced, the idea that Equestria kept getting attacked and subsequently defended without any of her involvement irked the night princess to no end. An old-fashioned battle for the Empire’s future would have been delightfully cathartic.

A second pop heralded the entrance of Celestia, who wore the same old thing she always had on. Princess Cadence brightened substantially when she heard that second teleportation spell. No offence to Luna, but the eldest alicorn stood in a league of her own.

Celestia too prepared herself to unleash a torrent of magic upon arrival, but in contrast to her gung-ho younger sibling, she clinically scanned the room before turning to Cadence questioningly.

“Is anypony hurt?” she asked.

“No,” Cadence was quick to respond. “Nopony was hurt when we captured King Sombra. Even with all the damage to the city, we all got out unscathed.”

Celestia breathed a sigh of relief. “Good. I was so worried. In your letter, all you said was ‘Danger. Help. Sombra has returned.’ You didn’t even sign it.”

“And thou didst include a superfluous number of exclamation points,” Luna added, holding up the note. “We took that to mean the situation was especially urgent.”

The two of them arrived expecting to see the same scenario as last time play out. But when they didn’t see Cadence’s gigantic shield protecting the city, the sisters feared that they would meet Sombra lounging in the throne room surrounded by the shards of a shattered Crystal Heart. They would need to rely on Cadence to clarify what had happened.

“Yes, that was sent the moment we captured him,” she explained. “Since then, some light has been shed on the problem, and the situation is somewhat more, um,” she searched for a diplomatic word to explain the impossibly stupid events of the day, “peculiar,” she finished. Adjectives failed her. “Shining Armor is looking after him, and Sombra… he’s a bit loopy right now.”

Celestia tilted her head curiously. She found it odd that Cadence was frustrated and confused, but by all appearances unafraid. “Loopy?”

“Yes. There is something terribly wrong with him, like I’ve never seen before. Trust me, you will see what I mean. I’ll have Shiny bring him here now,” she said. Her horn flashed briefly to send a magical summons to her husband.

“Escort him here?” Luna wondered. “Why is he not secured in the dungeons?”

Cadence hung her head and avoided eye contact. “There were issues,” she mumbled. The jailbreak was not something she looked forward to explaining. “I’d rather not go into specifics, but we have him contained for now. Honestly, it would be best if you saw him for yourself.”

“If you have him under control, then why were we summoned?”

Even though the situation was deadly serious, and calling for help from the princesses was unquestionably the best course of action, Cadence still felt like a foal having to explain how she made a mistake.

“Well, he’s not so much ‘under control,’ as he is not currently attacking anything. I… I just don’t know what to do. We should count ourselves lucky we’ve avoided a disaster, but as it stands he has already casted several dark magic spells, destroyed private and government property, fled from justice twice, frightened the entire city into a panic, insulted royalty, and threatened a uniformed guard. Already, that’s half of the major crimes we punish, and he did them in alphabetical order,” she huffed. “So much of this doesn’t make sense, and I don’t think it will no matter how I try to sort it out.”

“Princess Cadence,” Celestia spoke soothingly. “It’s okay. We are here to help in any way we can. You have done a fantastic job so far.”

“Thank you,” Cadence visibly relaxed. But before she could continue, her horn blinked. “Ah, Shiny’s on his way. We can meet up with them in the dining hall. The last time we questioned Sombra he revealed nothing useful, but maybe together we’ll have better luck.”

Celestia nodded in agreement. “That would be for the best. If Sombra still poses any kind of threat, we should all stay together in case our meeting turns sour.”

“Good. I’m glad to know that we won’t be alone. But before we go in there, though, there’s something you need to know. It’s about Sombra. He’s not entirely himself.”

________________________________________

Shining Armor and I walked back to the main section of the palace. Or, more accurately, he walked while I sat there uncomfortably. The two of us had finally started to get some productive work done when his horn blinked for some reason and he told me it was time to go. Curiously, I tapped my own horn and wondered if I could set alarms on it. He said that Cadence was waiting for us, so we left the rest of the repairs undone. This, of course, meant more time in the holding-bubble.

I really hated that thing.

“I can walk, ya know.” Sitting within a sphere wasn’t very comfortable, especially when I wasn’t used to having a tail. There really wasn’t a satisfactory position I could fold myself into, and I’d been fidgeting around for the last couple minutes to no avail. Shining Armor would have to develop a more ergonomic cage if he expected me to put up with this over the long term.

“And you can also sit there,” he answered to my disappointment.

“Is this going to be a thing from now on, where you just carry me around everywhere? Can you at least make it bigger so I can lounge back?”

Shiny was nothing if not patient, but everyone had their limits. I could tell by the way his ears kept swiveling. “You’re going to complain the whole way, aren’t you?”

“Yup,” I answered without shame or hesitation.

After taking a moment of careful deliberation to weigh his options, and another to grumble a bit, he decided to let me go. I’d like to think he was being nice, but more likely he wanted to remove a future annoyance and figured it would be infeasible to lug me around everywhere. Also, it let him save his magic in case he really needed it.

The disturbing resemblance to carrying a royal palanquin may have also been a factor.

“Much better. Thanks, man.” I stretched out the second I touched the floor. The aches and pops were in the strangest places on this alien body, especially since I still wasn’t used to it. Imagine a full-body phantom limb, but in reverse, if that makes any sense. I was going to start walking to shake the feeling off, but Shining Armor wasn’t about to give me free reign of the place.

“Eyes forward. No talking. Maintain a constant pace,” he ordered, because a favor from him had more caveats than a wish from a spiteful genie. “Anything else puts you back in the force field.”

“Yeah, sure dude,” I said, breaking all three of his conditions at once. “So we’re meeting up with Cadence, right? What’d you’re wife want?”

His horn illuminated threateningly.

“…Okay, shutting up now.”

________________________________________

I stayed quiet for the rest of the trip, which had to be a personal record for me. A few minutes later, Shining Armor brought me to a massive room with a massive table with a massive spread of food on it. It was a grand hall with decorations strung around that must’ve been able to seat a couple dozen guests. It reminded me of a mead hall or, less majestically, an elongated cafeteria table. Cadence was there with two other horses. They also had wings and horns, so I made a mental note that all female unicorns had wings. That wasn’t important though. I had larger concerns.

As someone whose idea of decadence involved ordering outside of the dollar menu, the sight of the banquet hall instantly made my mouth water. The food shimmered in the light, but not in a way that looked glazed or covered in sugar; it was just sparkly somehow. Becoming painfully aware that I hadn’t eaten anything all day, I made a beeline for the food and totally ignored the guests Cadence brought with her.

Said pony was less than pleased. “Sombra, get over here.”

“Eh?” She sounded more frustrated than usual so I stopped myself. “Oh, we ain’t eating yet.” Reluctantly, I left the pile of food undevoured, but not before a final rapacious leer towards a particularly shiny… thing. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted it. The second Cadence was done talking, it was mine. “Okay, what do you need?”

Before I could make my way over, however, Shining Armor yanked me back by the tail to deliver a warning. Or an admonishment. They were kind of the same thing with him.

“Listen, I don’t care if you want to doom yourself, but I will not tolerate any offences to the crown. Watch your language and keep yourself in line, and we won’t have any problems. That mare over there is princess of all Equestria, so you’d better be the most courteous stallion she’s ever met.”

The horses standing beside Cadence certainly looked the part. One was much taller than the other and they both had manes that flowed in an unseen breeze. They must have been wigs, like what judges wore, because if they ever stopped flapping they’d drag along the ground. They probably used their horn-magic to make it float everywhere.

I’d worked out that Princess Cadence wasn’t the top dog around here, but if her guests were part of the real royal family, then things were about to get a lot more complicated.

Wow. They really brought out the big guns on this one.

Welp, no time like the present. Swallowing a lump in my throat, I worked up as much confidence as I could and strolled right over to the giant white horse. She was easily double the size of anyone in the room and had a horn as long as a man’s forearm. Half of her face was concealed beneath a pastel rainbow of colors and her other eye was locked firmly on me. She checked me over suspiciously but didn’t say a word, like she was willing to let me make the first move but wouldn’t be surprised if I lashed out at her. Finally, after a moment of nervous consternation, I broke the silence between us.

“Dang, you’re a big one,” I said, having to crane my neck to see her eye to eye. Cadence gasped quietly and Shining Armor face-palmed hard enough to leave a bruise. “You can relax. I won’t cause any trouble.”

The big mare had a stately poise about her that I expected from royalty, but she wasn’t about to fool me. I’d seen this joke a thousand times before; you expected to meet someone important and you made a big show of introducing yourself, but it turned out that the real person you were looking for was someone totally unexpected. Extra points if you made fun of them first. Sorry, dream, but I was one step ahead of you.

Obviously, she was the bodyguard.

Walking right past the huge white horse, I sauntered over to the shorter blue one. “So you must be the princess I’ve been hearing about.”

She barely waited for me to finish talking before she shouted right in my face.

“Indeed!” the night princess boomed. Luna spread her wings and puffed out her chest, doing a marvelous job of looking down her nose at me. It might have been silly to feel threatened by pony, but I was now acutely aware of her full battle-dress. “We are Luna, princess of the moon and stars! By Our right as co-sovereign of Equestria, we demand thou yieldeth to Us at once!”

Mother of God, it can’t be emphasized enough how much that hurt my ears. This pony could challenge her own echo to a shouting match and win. Recovering from her explosive declaration, I ruffled my hair back into place and answered. “Uh, sure. I yield.”

Princess Luna ignited her horn and began to float into the air – not fly, since her wings were still splayed aggressively. “Then be routed beneath the full onslaught of Equestria’s - Wait, what?” she landed back on her hooves and canceled the light show. Apparently, the night princess didn’t think it would be this easy.

To make sure she got the hint I sat down and put my forelegs up in a surrendering motion.

“Oh, um… then Huzzah!” crowed the mare with no indoor voice. She yelled just as loud as before, but it was obvious she was just trying to save face. “Victory hath been achieved through diplomatic means! A wise decision, villain!” Then, to my surprise, she visibly deflated and pointed to her bodyguard. “Alas, if peace is thy desire, we suspect ‘tis our sister thou wishest to address.”

“Our sister?” I wondered out loud.

Cadence instantly stepped in and shoved me towards the towering white mare. “No, you aren’t related to them; that’s just how she talks. Now go speak with Celestia.” Noticing the confused and slightly disturbed glances she received from her guests, Cadence groaned tiredly. “I’ll explain later.”

“Fine. Fine,” I submitted. Walking up to the bigger horse, I tried to position myself so I could see whatever horrible facial disfigurement she kept hidden under that hair. I bet she had an eyepatch. “Your name’s Celestial, right? What’s good?”

Cadence grabbed me by the ear. “She is Princess Celestia.” She stressed the title so strongly that she practically hissed. “Show some respect.”

I looked to Cadence with eyes half-lidded. “Of course.” Another princess. Alright, that made what, three total now? All in the same room? Okay, brain, you won. I promised that the second I woke up, I’d try to get in touch with my feminine side. But please, I’m begging you, stop it with the princesses already.

“Is there anyone here who isn’t royalty?” Ambling back to the entrance, I got right up to one of the guards’ face. “How ‘bout you? Are you secretly a duke, or something?”

Before the guard could break his stony vigil, Shining Armor came over and pushed me towards the apparent princess. His surprisingly sharp horn made an effective prod. “Cut that out. We have a lot of things we need to tell the princesses, and I’m sick of you clowning around.”

That he didn’t say ‘horsing around’ made the universe a little less bright. It was amazing how fast they shifted to treating me like a harmless annoyance. Just a few hours ago, it was like I was a walking atom bomb. At this rate, I gave it a week before they saw me as little more than a slacker roommate who refused to pay rent.

“Listen,” Shining Armor continued. “She isn’t just a princess. Celestia is the single highest authority in all of Equestria. Her word is law and your fate is in her hooves.”

I stopped in place, looked to Celestia, and then back to Shiny with worry evident on my face. “… For real? So, like, she’s the boss around here?”

Shiny nodded.

“And you have actual royalty, not just harmless old people who don’t do anything?” I asked. Shining Armor scowled, which was something I’d seen enough times to recognize as his serious face. Uh-oh.

Like the icy sobriety of seeing a cop in one’s rear-view mirror, all my good humor died. In all likelihood, I had just incited law against me.

Again.

“I am so sorry!” I rushed up to the white horse – the other white horse – to make amends. Jesus, could I have just one introduction where I didn’t make a fool of myself? Crap. Ooooooh crap. There had to be some way to mitigate this before it joined the long, winding conga line of humiliations I’d suffered today.

“Hi, princess, we got off on the wrong foot. I mean foreleg… hoof. Let’s just start over.” Okay, princesses were vain, right? Thinking fast, and putting on the most transparently fake smile ever, I tried to find something about her to compliment. “The name’s Sombra. You, um… you have hair like George Clinton!” I blurted. “I really like your mane. Very psychedelic.”

Well… that just happened. Why do I do these things to myself?

As was typical, no one knew how to respond to the things I said. You know what I learned today? I learned that I was rock-effing stupid. Stifling the urge to bash my head against the table, I hid my face beneath a hoof. Christ, I needed to learn when to shut up.

The princess, as expected, was the very face of suppressed, irritated confusion. “Thank you,” she stated without any inflection at all.

Woo. Crisis averted.

Celestia mouthed ‘loopy?’ to Cadence, who nodded her head in confirmation. The white mare then put on a neutral expression and spoke to me in a way that exuded superiority without crossing into condescension. “King Sombra, as I’m sure you have already guessed, your return to these lands is a delicate subject, and we have a number of questions we need you to resolve. From this point onward I need you to be honest, serious, and forthright. This matter will most certainly incite passions throughout the Emp-”

Loudly clearing her throat, Cadence grabbed Celestia’s attention. She motioned for her to come closer, so the taller princess lowered her head to let the pink mare whisper something in her ear.

“Truly? Not even that much?” Celestia sounded surprised. Any further conversation was inaudible from my end.

That interruption finished, Celestia stood up to resume her talk with me as if nothing had happened. “As I said, your reappearance will awaken many traumatic memories for the ponies of this city. In the interest of fairness, I am going to offer you a chance to explain yourself, your motivations, and whatever plans you may possess. Can I trust you to answer us to the best of your ability?”

“Yeah, sure,” I shrugged. No skin off my back. Despite embarrassing myself far, far too often, I had high hopes for this one. See seemed a lot more tolerant than the others.

“Excellent,” she said. “Then have a seat.”

And with that said we all prepared for what was sure to be a wonderful dinner with absolutely no awkwardness or misunderstandings at all.

“Great,” I chirped. “I’m so hungry I could eat a hor-rrrmph.” My mind worked faster than my mouth and I stuffed a bread roll into my muzzle before I could finish my sentence. That didn’t count. It did not count. I stopped myself. See, I was getting better at this.

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

“Nuhfnng.”

________________________________________

Dinner started out uneventfully. Celestia didn’t even touch her food before asking her first questions, but they were all basic stuff like ‘what are you doing here’ and ‘what are you planning.’ But, because my responses were just ‘I don’t know’ repeated ad nauseam, I offered them no answers or help whatsoever. They weren’t sure if that was good news or bad news.

On my end, the most important revelation of the day was that my horn could just telekinetically grab what I wanted from the table without having to ask for it. That changed my earlier opinion: magic was now three-fourths as good as having hands. Over the course of the meal, though, I discovered that it was considered rude to just levitate stuff straight into my mouth. It seemed arbitrary to me, because I was never actually touching it, but I had to magically use a use the utensils to pick things up instead of just taking it straight from the plate. Fruit, bread, or other finger-food was fine, but they looked at me funny when I floated a long river of nectar out of my cup and into my mouth.

Conversation died down once they realized I had no answers to give, so when the silence stretched out too far I took the initiative to start asking about whatever happened to be on my mind.

“So… uh, Celestia. I have to ask. Why do you make your hair go all flowy like that?” I pointed at her mane.

“Hmm?” Blinking, she fluffed her mane as if this was her first time ever seeing it, and a second later the whole mass sagged completely limp. I stifled a laugh to avoid grief from Shining Armor. Apparently, making it flutter around was the sort of thing that was so natural for her that she didn’t even notice she was doing it. If I had to guess, asking that question was the unicorn equivalent of making people aware of their blinking patterns, or that their tongues couldn’t find a comfortable position in their mouths.

A glow of her horn later and her hair flowed again, but it was less fluid and took conscious effort. “It’s so it doesn’t touch the floor,” Celestia responded as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

I nodded sagely. Totally called that one.

As if afraid of losing control of the situation, the princess quickly brought things back to more serious topics. “King Sombra,” Celestia began. “I understand that you have suffered some recent memory loss. I am not sure if you are aware of this, but we have some prior history. Do you know who I am?”

“Aw gaut shom. Ahem.” I had to pause to choke down a mouthful. “I got some info from Shining Armor, but nope. Never met’cha before today. Also, I don’t have memory loss. I’m just not the guy you think I am,” I responded. She nodded, humoring me but not really believing. “Oh. And before I forget to ask, Shining Armor told me you raise the sun. How does that work? Is that more unicorn magic, or do you just – I don’t know – chuck it up there like a shotput?”

I swore I saw a faint glint of amusement in Celestia’s one visible eye. Luna, however, took it as an insult.

“Hast thou no decorum at all?” the princess of the night snorted. “Thy manners certainly hint at it.”

“I’m just asking,” I shrugged. “With mythology like that, you can never tell what’s a metaphor and what’s supposed to be taken at face value.”

Maybe Celestia used the sun as a symbol of her office. Or maybe she was responsible for the solar equivalent of winding the clock every day. For all I knew, she could’ve been the physical avatar of the sun itself. Or… uh-oh, maybe she raised the sun the same way the Aztecs did. Celestia didn’t seem the type to gore out a still-beating heart, but I proved myself a poor judge of character lately. Anything was possible.

“Myth? Thou doubtest Our sister’s power?” Luna turned to Shining Armor and Cadence to silently ask what was up with this guy. They shrugged in unison.

“It’s not so much doubt, per se. I’m just having trouble imagining it.” I scratched the back of my head. “I get the feeling this is gonna start an argument, so let’s talk about something else. Cadence let it slip that I’m supposed to be ruling a place called the Crystal Empire. Any idea where that might be?”

Shining Armor, making absolutely certain to show no outward signs of worry, swallowed a bite of his dinner before answering me. “Never heard of it,” he said. The prince then quietly signaled for his guards to take down the obvious Crystal Empire banners strung up in the banquet hall. “You really shouldn’t jump to conclusions like that.”

“Shoot,” I said to myself. “This dream really isn’t making things easy for me.”

It was then that Celestia belatedly noticed what had gone wrong with this whole situation. “Not to interrupt, but aren’t we the ones asking the questions?” she pointed out.

“Yes we were,” Cadence groaned. “This happened before. He has a way of flipping the tables on you with asinine babbling. I honestly don’t know if it’s intentional or not.”

“It’s not asinine…” I felt a little insulted.

“Yes it is!” she asserted. “I swear, everything you say is ignorant or just plain dumb. Back in your cell you spent a whole twenty minutes asking why Shining Armor’s magic is pink while mine is blue when, and I quote, ‘it should be the other way around.’”

“And I’m right!” I argued with a surprising amount of vigor. “Just look at the two of you. You’re pink, and he’s got blue hair. It fits! How are you not getting this?” The others assumed correctly that we had spent way too much time on the subject.

“You don’t know anything about magic!” She pounded a hoof on the table.

“My horn is bigger!” I snapped right back.

To prevent us from devolving into childish bickering – a bit too late, but the thought counted – Shining Armor spoke up. “Honey, don’t let him get to you.” He offered her a glass of water, which she downed all at once.

“Thank you. I’m sorry, Shiny, but he really brings out the worst in me,” she said, giving me the evil eye.

Luna had been staring at me thoughtfully for a few minutes and had an idea. “If he is going to talk anyway, We propose he be allowed to ask his questions. It should let us see the extent of his memory loss.”

“For the last time, I don’t have amnesia,” I insisted. “I told you, I’m not Sombra. I just really, really look like him.” No, that wasn’t quite right. “Or… uh… well, yeah I’m him, but not really. It’s, like… think of this as a long-term possession. Have you ever had a project that someone else took over, and they went in a completely different direction than what you would have done? It’s like that, but with life.”

Luna planted her pony-elbow-analogue on the table and rested her head on a hoof, looking to me with the unamused skepticism of a parent who caught a child in an obvious lie.

“And what direction hast thou planned for thyself?”

Pausing from the food, I circled a hoof in the air searchingly while I gave it some deep thought. “Hmm. Dunno,” I came up blank. “Just not evil. Other than that, I don’t have any plans.”

“Alas, we have returned to where this all began,” she bemoaned. “In the interest of determining more about thee beyond, as thou eloquently phrased, ‘dunno,’ we again propose that thou continuest asking questions of us, that we may learn of thy state of mind if only by indirect means.”

“Awesome,” I agreed before anyone had a chance to differ. “Because there’s something that’s been bugging me for a while now. We’ve got a prince, a princess, a princess, and another, much larger princess.” I pointed to each one individually. “Is there a king? Other than me, I guess. Or queen, more likely.”

Everyone shifted awkwardly. A couple of the ponies returned to their food so they wouldn’t have to speak. There must have been some elephant in the room that no one wanted to address.

Celestia, seeing that no one was going to tackle this question, was the first to speak up. “We have no queen. Nopony, not since the founding of Equestria, has ever laid claim to those titles.”

“Really?” I asked. “Why’s that?” If she was queen in everything but name, then why not go ahead and seize the title? That seemed so pointless to me.

“You,” Luna, pausing from her meal, answered harshly. “Thou, specifically, art the reason nopony would dare to use the titles of King and Queen. Our sister would hold that office, had it not been irreparably tainted by thine influence. Chrysalis comes to mind, and she too paid for her arrogance. King and Queen are forevermore the labels of tyrants and invaders.”

Oh. I felt my ears flatten against my head. Even though I personally had nothing to do with it, they were still – in a manner of speaking – talking about me, so I couldn’t help but feel some sense of guilt.

“… Sheesh, he was that bad, huh?” I mumbled quietly before thinking about the implications of her explanation. “Oh! That means you know stuff about me, right? While we’re on the subject, can anyone tell me who I am?” I pointed at my head and moved my hoof up and down to indicate myself. “I mean, who I was before I was me?”

“Pardon?” asked Celestia. She didn’t expect the memory loss to reach that extent.

“No one’s told me the story about this Sombra guy. Heck, I only learned the name by overhearing it. Everyone either refuses to tell me or quickly changes the subject. Asking Shining Armor and Cadence was useless, even after trying over and over again all afternoon. I mean, not to beat a dead horse, but-“

Luna spat out her entire drink. Coughing a few times and making a huge mess of herself, she glared at me in horrified disgust. “WHAT!?”

Mouth, brain, why couldn’t the two of you just get along?

“Er, right. Poor choice of words. You guys definitely wouldn’t have that expression.”

“Expression?!” she squawked. “What hast thou done, where such a thing was common enough to become an idiom?”

Taken aback for a moment, I wondered why they thought I was the one who went around smacking corpses. Realization, however, was pretty much instantaneous and it made me face-whatever-the-bottom-of-a-hoof-was-called.

Crap, they must’ve thought I was talking about Equestria-ponies.

“Wait! I can explain.” I fervently motioned for Luna to sit back down. “Sorry, I keep forgetting not to mix you up with the other kind of pony. This sort of thing will probably come up again, so I’m going stop it right now before we have any more misunderstandings.” I spoke as slowly and definitively as I could. “To make things perfectly clear, I was talking about Earth-ponies. You don’t have to worry about them. None of what I said applies to you.”

Luna would have done another spit take if she was drinking anything so she settled for a disturbed gagging sound. Before she could explode, however, Shining Armor piped up. “Hold it. I heard some of this second-hoof and I need you to clarify things for me. Back when you were talking with Cadence, what was it you said about earth ponies?”

“You mean back in the cell? I don’t think I talked about Earth-ponies to Cadence,” I answered. Thinking back to the interrogation, however, a single offhand remark came to mind. “Oh! Wait. Yeah, I did mention it once,” I laughed and smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry, they’re nothing like you.”

“If you could elaborate for us, that would be very helpful,” he led me along.

No surprise they were curious about that. I already explained to Cadence that humans were the only intelligent beings on Earth, but they probably had trouble coming to grips with the reverse-Gulliver’s Travels scenario I laid out for them.

“There’s not much to say about Earth-ponies. They’re just big, simple, domesticated animals we use to work our farms: basically, a tractor made out of meat. They’re useful for all kinds of manual labor and a lot of people treat them like pets. I never dealt with one myself, and it never appealed to me because A, I’ve never been on a farm, and B, I just don’t have the heart to whip ‘em when they start acting up. Besides, I lived in the city. No one in their right mind would bring them into a busy urban environment. It may be a hard pill for you to swallow, but Earth-ponies aren’t people. They’re brainless. I can’t even picture an Earth-pony having a job or going to school. They’d probably stink up the whole town.”

The audience of royals was stunned to immobility. Over the course of the explanation, both Luna and Shining Armor had dropped their silverware. They had some idea about Sombra’s opinions on earth ponies, but this casual bigotry was so much worse than they could have possibly imagined. And I still wasn’t done. Let it be known that no one in existence dug his grave deeper or more enthusiastically than me. Gloriously oblivious to the growing hostility, I batted the Sword of Damocles like a birthday piñata.

“I mean, all they do is eat, plow, poop, and run around, probably stepping in the aforementioned poo while they do it. They’re animals. You really can’t mention them in the same sentence as any of you.” I pointed to them indicatively. It was supposed to mean Equestrians in general, but they assumed I meant unicorns specifically. “You’re civilized. There’s just no comparison.”

I nodded satisfactorily. There. That ought to set things straight.

Celestia’s mouth hung open in profound, abject horror and the eye that wasn’t hidden behind her hair shrank to the size of the period at the end of this sentence. “W-whip?” she stammered. The implications sickened her. Was that the kind of thing that happened during his reign, she wondered. He denied them education and segregated the populace!? And beat them!? By all she held sacred, such horrors could not be allowed to pass. In her mind, if Sombra held those kinds of attitudes, then he truly was beyond redemption.

And once again I proved myself incapable of taking a hint.

“Relax, they’re just livestock,” I helpfully clarified. This, of course, accidentally confirmed her fears. “And like any animal, you gotta show ‘em who’s boss before they’re put to work.”

I found to my confusion that no one took comfort in my words. The pink under-princess looked especially shaken up.

“See!” She shot to her hooves and pointed to me as if I’d just confessed to witchcraft. “This! This is what I was afraid of. This is why he needs to go back in the ice!”

Celestia shook herself out of her horrified stupor. “I… I can’t. He hasn’t done anything yet,” the highest princess sounded like she was trying to convince herself. Those were definitely offenses worthy of banishment, but she made it policy to never throw the first punch. Celestia was the type that couldn’t in good conscience resort to violence unless it was explicitly in self-defense. She would have no problem defeating Sombra if need be – in fact, the fight would be over in the blink of an eye – but as someone who preached harmony as the central tenant to her rule and way of life, she would do a tremendous, hypocritical disservice to herself by striking preemptively.

“No, Princess,” Shining Armor cut her off – actually interrupted Princess Celestia herself – as he lost the last bit of his tolerance and understanding. “He just said ‘earth ponies aren’t people,’ like, a second ago. There is nothing ambiguous about that. He needs to go.”

Cadence backed him up. “Shiny’s right. It’s only a matter of time before he backs up his words with action. This may be the start of his real personality seeping through. Everypony in the Empire is in danger!”

The white alicorn hesitated in her response. “I…” her mind raced for another solution but came up with nothing. “I suppose you’re right,” she exhaled sadly. “There is simply too much at risk to take chances.” Agreeing, but sounding depressed at the thought, Celestia had hoped that once – just once – she could solve a conflict without banishing it, sealing it away for generations, or blowing it up. Not to mention the ethical issues of striking down an undeniably insane individual without a trial. The fact that really twisted the knife was that she knew history would remember this day as a clear-cut victory for justice. With heavy reluctance, her horn took its golden glow.

But then I put my foot right in it. For once, luckily, it worked in my favor.

“Jeez, what’s with all these reactions?” I wondered aloud between bites of some unknown, hay-based horse-food. When they said ‘back in the ice’ I assumed they meant kicking me out of the city and into the snow outside. That just meant I’d find another town and start this whole thing all over. No worries. “I told ya, I’m not talking about you. Not unicorns, not whatever you three are, and not even the sparkly dudes outside. Earth ponies,” I stressed. “Ponies from Earth.”

Celestia let the magic in her horn disperse. “From… Earth?” The gears in her head spun rapidly. “Wait a moment, you two,” she silenced whatever yelling Shiny and Cadence were about to do with a single wave of her hoof. At long last, someone finally noticed our problems with capitalization.

“Earth,” she reiterated. Only the fact that Earth was a name proposed for Equestria made her realize our mistake, and therefore stopped her from banishing me into the nuclear heart of the sun. “Can I assume that ‘Earth’ is the name of a place?”

The room became eerily quiet, but it was such a basic question that I answered without a hint of nervousness. “Yeah, that’s where I’m from. What, Cadence didn’t fill you in on anything?”

Reluctant to admit that such an enormous misunderstanding could result from something so foolish, she pressed me for details. “Where you are from…” she repeated thoughtfully. “In truth, I find it rather unbelievable. Perhaps I am simply grasping for any reason to find a peaceful solution, but please, tell me exactly what you mean by ‘Earth.’”

“Like I said, it’s where I’m from; Earth is a whole other planet. It’s kind of like here, but dim the colors a bit and make the buildings taller. Also, cars. There’re lots of cars.”

Totally unconvinced by my words, Celestia narrowed her eyes. “Every time you lie to me is another century of banishment,” she threatened.

That made me stop eating. Specifying a century seemed like overkill. Why not just make it lifetime? Celestia wasn’t screwing around. “I ain’t lying. Just ask Cadence. She had, like, this crystal that buzzed when you didn’t tell the truth. Actually, yeah. Let’s bring that rock back out. It’ll show you.”

Still cautious, but feeling somewhat permissive thanks to the absolute certainty she heard in my voice, Celestia hummed anxiously and moved to stand directly in front of me.

“There is no need,” she dismissed. Celestia stared right into my eyes and her horn took on a faint, yellowish glow. “For centuries, I’ve dealt with an endless stream of slanderous courtiers and every brownnoser in Canterlot. I’ve long ago learned to see past their deceptions. If you are lying, I’ll know,” she firmly stated. “Now swear to me that everything you said was true.”

“All of it,” I complied without hesitation.

Celestia, for her part, detected no trace of trickery. “And ‘earth ponies are animals,’” she pursued. “Enlighten us.” This was the real cornerstone of her suspicions. Because no part of Equestria had ever been named Earth, she believed there was a good chance that most, if not all, of the dark pony’s memories were fabricated. Whether or not Sombra gets banished depended on those speciest comments being part of the fictional creation of a diseased mind. Hoping for a sensible excuse, but not actually expecting any exonerating details, she waited to see if I could climb my way out of the hole I dug for myself.

I responded immediately. “I meant that literally. Sure, they’re smarter than most animals – at least, smart enough to be trained to do stuff – but they aren’t, uh… hmm. I want to say ‘human,’ but that doesn’t really apply here. They don’t talk or think. They’re not, um…. God, what’s the word.” It was probably the stress from being grilled like this, but I was brain-farting so hard I could actually hear it. “Sapient! That’s the word I’m looking for. Ponies aren’t sapient. None of them are.”

Again, I told no lies.

It wasn’t often that something rendered Celestia speechless. “… but… you’re…” She even glanced around to the others in the room, as if comparing them to me to confirm that yes, the pony in front of her really was a pony. I gave her an answer, technically, but for all the sense it made, it might as well have been one of those paradoxes you say to make robots explode.

Luckily, Cadence had already dealt with this insanity and was happy to help.

“It’s part of his delusion. He thinks he’s a gorilla.”

A few seconds passed. Celestia blinked, raised her hoof as if she had something to say, and then put it back down to mull things over. “You… failed to mention that.”

The pink alicorn closed her eyes and massaged her temples. “Humans. They’re from the future, or something.” She seemed embarrassed to say the words aloud. “That’s not the important part. It doesn’t matter what is in Sombra’s delusion, the problem is that he has one in the first place. The whole thing took a backseat to him insisting that the world is a dream.”

She had told the princesses that Sombra was seemingly insane, had lost his memory, and had developed an entirely new personality, but not much else. An outside observer might call this a tremendous oversight, but from her perspective that whole ‘human’ matter was just icing on the crazy-cake, an inconsequential detail to a much grander issue. So, when she summarized events for Celestia, that inconsequential detail got axed.

Equestria’s highest princess pieced together the new information. “Then there is a chance that everything he mentioned up until this point was all in his head? Those things he said were imaginings of his fanciful human-world, not memories of past actions?”

Cadence nodded tiredly. “He doesn’t even know what country he’s in.”

Shocking everyone present, Celestia put her whole body into a sigh of palpable relief and even put a hoof to her chest to quell her beating heart. “Oh, thank goodness,” she laughed, but it was a stressed and jittery thing. “Phew… Okay, Luna, you can stop now.”

Raising an eyebrow at Celestia’s seeming non-sequitur, I looked to the night princess’s seat and found that it was empty. “Luna? Hey, where’d she go? She was here just a second ag- WOAH!”

I turned around to see, just inches away from my face, Princess Luna charging up the granddaddy of all magical attacks. Her back, neck, and legs were ramrod straight, essentially turning her into a pony-shaped artillery cannon. Motes of light gathered at the base of her horn, aggregating and brightening until a pint sized nova appeared atop her head. She closed her eyes, perhaps because the light was too bright even for her to handle, or because she didn’t want to see the results of the imminent, point-blank annihilation she was about to wreak.

“Jesus Christ, put that away!” I pushed Luna’s chin upward so her horn pointed to the ceiling. “What is wrong with you!?” I scowled to Cadence and Shining Armor. “Another one! That makes three; there is now a majority of people in this room who’ve tried to kill me. Good God, just… just give me second. Wow. You ponies are all about killing, aren’t you?”

While the ponies bristled at my sweeping generalizations, Luna powered down her horn and was none too happy about me manhandling her jaw. She tried to wiggle her way out, but there was no frigging way I’d let her point her horn at anything but the ceiling.

“Release Us at once!”

Celestia stood up to make sure things didn’t get out of control. “Sombra, you must understand that-“

“A second!” A dark grey hoof cut her off. Celestia hadn’t been shushed in decades, but today was a day for new frontiers so why stop now? The ponies obligingly kept quiet while I wiped the sweat from my brow and took several deep breaths.

“Alright,” I began. “Let’s start over. From now on we’re gonna be civil. Just simmer quietly if you vote we all be civil.”

Shining Armor, Cadence, and Luna all simmered quietly.

“Perfect,” I let go of Luna as a peace offering. Celestia, satisfied that I was a total nutcase instead of a complete monster, happily retook her seat. “Now we’re gonna stay that way. No more rash decisions. We’ll all be calm and collected. You got that, ponyone?”

“Everypony,” Shining Armor corrected.

“Yeah, that.” Trying to give him a thumbs-up only resulted in me pointing at him. “So,” I tapped a hoof on the table. “We good? We’d better be. You know, for figments of my own imagination, you guys really don’t like me that much.”

The ponies nearly winced at the speed in which I brought us all back to square one.

“Are we still on this?” Cadence said groggily. That mare had reached her wit’s end a long, long time ago: an impressive feat for a single afternoon. “Sombra, no matter how strongly you deny it, this is not a dream.”

“Says the talking horse-princess.” I rolled my eyes. “You know what? I think it’s time to put this issue to bed once and for all. I am a human, ponies can’t talk, and none of this is real. I thought I explained this well enough already, but I guess you’re more of a visual learner.”

Despite repeating myself several times they just didn’t get it, so I grabbed a little something to make a more drastic demonstration. Everyone gasped when I slapped my foreleg flat against the table and magically commanded a knife to fly just above my limb, blade pointed downward like a poor man’s guillotine.

“Sombra, put the knife down!” Cadence demanded. Turning to her husband, she shot him a panicky look. “Why did we give him a knife?”

“It’s a butter knife,” he shrugged bewilderedly. “We didn’t think it’d be a problem.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay. Relax. If you’d just let me demonstrate, you’d all understand. I’m gonna prove to you, once and for all, that this is a dream. Nothing hurts me. Watch,” I said with supreme confidence. Then, to everyone’s horror, the knife slammed downward into my foreleg.

Was there a word that meant the opposite of ‘eureka?’ Something appropriate for those times when deep-seated presuppositions come crashing down violently. I had yet to feel any significant pain during my stay in Equestria thanks to a long chain of dumb luck combined with the ponies’ reluctance to kill me. I dodged all but the weakest of Shining Armor’s attacks, that shock collar was tingly at best, and blowing myself up only made my ears ring. All of that failed to do me harm, but this knife performed its knifey mission to the letter.

I just stabbed myself to the bone. The ponies stared at it wide-eyed with their mouths slightly ajar.

Once several moments of stunned inactivity passed, Cadence was the first to speak up. “Um… Sombra, are you oka-“

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!” My scream made the whole room flinch.

Wildly flailing my leg around did nothing to dislodge the knife. No, I was not okay! Why would she even ask that!? Blood gushed all over the place, spraying everything like a red, gory lawn sprinkler. “AAAAAAHH! AAAAAAHH! AAAAAAAAAHHHHH! GET IT OUT!”

I fell to the floor and began racing erratically around the table using only three legs, inundating the floor with more splattered blood than a kitschy horror flick. Let it never be said that I handled pressure with any semblance of grace.

“GET IT OUT! GET-IT-OUT! GETITOUT-GETITOUT-GETITOUT-GETITOUT! AAAAAAAAHHH!” I shrieked. “Why isn’t anyone helping me?!”

To the ponies’ credit, they were trying to do just that. Shiny dove after me while Cadence struggled right behind him to get a lock on me with her levitation spells. The problem was that they couldn’t catch me while I dashed around the room like a chicken with its head cut off. Luna seemed to want to assist, but hesitation glued her to her seat and she looked to her sister as if asking for permission to intervene.

Celestia, on the other hand, just sat back to watch how this all played out.

“Sombra, stop running!” yelled Shining Armor after an unsuccessful tackle.

“IT WON’T COME OUT! IT’S STUCK THERE FOREVER!” By now I had baptized the entire room, ceiling included, with little droplets of my blood.

“If you’d stop struggling, I could – Ow!” Princess Cadence got punched right in the lip by my madly floundering hoof. The impact drove the butter knife a little further in.

“OOOOWW! OH GOD, IT’S SO MUCH WORSE BECAUSE IT’S DULL!”

While Shining Armor redoubled his efforts, Luna, no longer willing to tolerate whatever the heck this was, stood up and ignited her horn. “Halt!”

An indigo outline shone around me and suddenly I was weightless. Still running in place, I floated a couple of inches above the ground. This meant I was stationary long enough for Shining Armor to tackle me from a full gallop.

“OOF!” a unicorn bellowed painfully from the collision. That was Shiny. Apparently, Luna overdid it on the levitation spell, so instead of taking me down to the floor, he smacked into me like a bird into a clean window.

“Captain!” Luna gasped in shock. In her surprise, the levitation cut out and I fell to the floor.

“OOF!” Same sound, but it was me that time. My adrenaline faded now that there’d been a lull in the action, so my panic subsided and I could stop screaming in all caps. As both Luna and Cadence rushed to the captain to see if he was okay, I was left whimpering pathetically on the floor.

“Owwwww-wow-wow,” I whined, cradling my injured foreleg protectively. Though it was little condolence, the butter knife dislodged from one of the impacts. “Oh my God, that hurt so much!”

“Well, yeah,” said Cadence forcefully as she hoisted Shining Armor back to his feet. Her voice hadn’t decided if it was supposed to be angry, appalled, or taken aback.

“No, no, you don’t understand. That HURT. Like, with actual pain.”

I received no pity at all from the assembled horses. Shining Armor was the least sympathetic. He had a grueling time coming to terms with the fact that, yeah, all this did just happen, but more importantly he was royally ticked off that I socked his wife in the jaw. “What did you expect? You stabbed yourself in the fetlock!”

“I don’t know what that is!”

He pointed at my pony-wrist. “See the gushing hole in your leg? That’s where your fetlock is.”

“But I can’t be hurt!” I insisted in futile denial. “This is all a dream. You can’t feel pain in a dream!”

Princess Cadence tried to instill some sense of levelheadedness on this wild and idiotic mess. “Sombra, that is what we have been trying to say this whole time,” she said as reassuringly as she was able. “I’m sure this is very difficult for you, but you need to come to terms with this.”

A full body shiver signified my encroaching fear.

“Nope. No, no, no, no, no. That can’t possibly be right. That- But, that would mean all of this…” I stepped up to Shining Armor, got really, uncomfortably close, and stared directly into his eyes. Understandably creeped out, he backed away, but I followed him for every step.

“What are you doing? What is this?”

Slowly and scientifically, I poked him in the face to prove that he was really there. I was half expecting my leg to pass straight through him like a hologram, but I had no such luck. The prodding continued, each time more forcefully just to be sure, but Shining Armor’s head remained obstinately solid.

“This is happening. Jesus Christ, this is really happening.” My face paled from equal parts disbelief and significant blood loss. I kept bopping him harder and harder to prove the universe wrong.

Bap. Bap! Smack!

“Sombra!” Shining Armor yelled. I was pretty much punching him in the face at this point. Every hit smacked audibly in the dead silent banquet hall. “Stop that right now!” Losing his patience, he grabbed my hoof and planted it firmly on the ground. “What’s wrong with you?”

The sensation of touch, the reaction to my prodding, and the continuous throbbing of my leg led me to one inescapable conclusion.

“You’re real,” I whispered. “Holy crap this is all real! This whole time! You!” I rushed up to Cadence and pointed an accusatory hoof. “Are you real too?!”

“Sombra, I think you need to lie down.” She tried to calm me, but composure had been tossed out the window a long time ago. Mushing her face between my hooves, my eyes bulged as I pressed my forehead against hers, practically headbutting the mare in the process.

“Yes or no! Answer the question!”

Cadence carefully chose her words so as not to provoke a violent response. “Yes. Everypony you have spoken to, and everything you have seen or done, was not a dream. All of it was real.”

I unceremoniously dropped the princess on the floor and shuffled back a few steps, never breaking eye contact. “Impossible. Then explain all the weird, magical horsiness that’s been happening today!”

“Other than you?” quipped Shining Armor while he helped is wife off the floor. Cadence mouthed ‘horsiness’ in confusion.

“Yes! Everything’s crazy but me!” I screamed crazily. “Talking horses, functional magic, glittery food! I am a paragon of rationality compared to you! Just look around!” Stubbornly denying the undeniable, I searched for one of Equestria’s many, many impossibilities to shove in their faces. It didn’t take long. “All the guards are identical!”

They looked at me like I grew an extra head. Even knowing that I claimed to be an alien, there were just some things they couldn’t imagine not taking for granted. Shining Armor was the first to pick up on what was going on, and so was the first to answer.

“An enchantment is put on the armor to give them identical appearances. The illusion is dispelled once it’s all taken off, but when they’re on duty it’s part of the uniform,” he said.

“Enchantment?” My head snapped toward him at whiplash-inducing speed. He found my predacious grin unsettling enough to step backwards: a terrible decision because I instinctively advanced on him. “A-ha! The magic! By definition magic can’t be explained.” I had ‘em now. “You can’t just say ‘it’s magic’ like that’s a satisfying answer.”

Cadence addressed that one. “Yes we can. There is an entire library on magic right here in the palace, and every major city has an academy dedicated to it. Magic is a vast field of study with thousands of years of history and progress.”

My eye twitched.

“Forks!”

The prince clenched his teeth. “I told you to watch your language.”

“No, this.” I grabbed a salad fork from the table – incidentally, the one Celestia was using at the time – and held it out for them to see. “You thumbless mutants can’t grip anything! How’d you even invent this stuff?”

They gave me a generous eight to ten seconds to notice that the fork was manifestly being held by my hoof. With a disturbingly horse-like snort of frustration, I tossed that thing behind my back for its betrayal.

“Yeah, well,” I searched around fearfully and with a lot less confidence. “What about this?” Spitting on the concept of personal space, I zipped over to Princess Luna’s side and spread one of her wings demonstrably. “How can a horse hope to fly with these puny, impotent, tiny, little wings?” Luna’s expression darkened with each adjective.

If the princess of the night had to talk to me right now she’d probably bite my head off, so her sister chose to answer that one. “It’s magic.” Celestia poured herself a cup of tea to hide her beautifully self-aware smirk. She must’ve been upset that I stole her fork. “You didn’t think our wings were aerodynamic on their own, did you?”

Stopping there would have been an exceedingly wise decision. Everypony, save possibly Celestia, was jumpy, scarred, and more than capable of holding their own in a fight. But even after I’d personally insulted all of the most powerful beings in Equestria, I just kept shooting myself in the foot. Metaphorically, that poor foot was already a misty splattering of chili, but hindsight only works after the fact so I opened fire.

I had one final position to fall back upon. One last linchpin in my argument remained to show them all the truth.

“Her!” I shouted. Jumping on top of the table, I shoved my hoof centimeters away from the rainbow-maned princess’s nose. “She’s like twice as big as the rest of you. I mean, where – outside of ant hills and high schools – is there a single, giant individual that gets to rule over everyone else? That ain’t normal!” Making darn sure Cadence knew I was right, I seized Celestia’s head between two hooves and thrust it towards the pink mare. “See this? Really soak it in, Cadence. Look at this fatty!”

Half the room had a synchronized heart attack. Celestia, to her credit, showed no outward signs of irritation. Not wanting to light a powder keg, Cadence ran damage control as best as she could.

“Celestia isn’t… you- I… No!” Her brain ragequit on her. Hey, I never said she was up to the task. The Crystal Princess, one comment away from ripping out her own mane, opened her mouth a few times before any sound could come out. This was the last straw. If looks could kill, then Cadence’s face would have exterminated all life in Equestria. “Moon!” she screamed. She looked straight at Celestia and pointed at me. “Send him to the moon!”

In the back of my mind I knew my behavior was inexcusable, but a haze of angry denial clouded my thoughts. Later on, I’d be hammered with guilt for this, but, like I said, rational decision-making failed me at the moment.

Now, given that I just assaulted royalty right in front of the pony charged with her protection, there was a certain white warhorse who couldn’t allow such an insult to go unpunished. In a maneuver I’d only seen before in professional wrestling, Shining Armor dove across the table, knocking it over in the process, grabbed be about the waist, and slammed me into the floor in one smooth motion. The whole spread of food slopped all over the place and the huge, heavy table slammed on the ground with a heavy crash.

“That’s enough!” he snarled. “You’ve gone too far this time, Sombra.”

All bets were off. While I struggled to break free from the captain, Luna figured she’d get in on the action too. She put her helmet back on and charged up her horn. “Back to the shadows from whence thou came, beast! Nopony dishonors Our family so!” The only thing preventing her from unleashing armageddon right there on the spot was the fact that Shining Armor had me in a choke hold that kept him within the blast radius. “Captain Armor, seize his crown! We wish to claim it as a trophy.”

Scuffling about in a violent pile of spilled food, an unsettling amount of blood, and their own furious anxiety, Shiny, Cadence, and Luna teamed together to put an end to the dictator once and for all.

And yet, like the eye of a hurricane, Celestia remained absolutely serene in the middle of this whirl of chaos. She finished off the last of her tea without a care in the world, softly cleared her throat, and said:

“Stop.”

That was it. No magic, no threats, no glares, and she didn’t even move from where she sat. She did nothing but tell us, in a nearly conversational tone, to cut it out.

And it was as if time itself stood still.

I did not know why I froze in my tracks, but in that moment I felt an unyielding sense of dread and I could have sworn the walls were closing in around me. Everyone looked to Celestia the way a soon-to-be-liquefied deer stared into the headlights of an oncoming semi. Were it within our powers, we’d have stopped our own heartbeats.

Okay, maybe, just maybe, there was a reason the big one was in charge.

The white mare, notably unstained by all the blood I flung everywhere, walked over to me with a sympathetic look on her face. “You suffer from some rather unique false impressions, King Sombra. It must be difficult to have one’s worldview shattered so completely. Are you all right?”

“Graaak!” I choked. It should be mentioned that we froze exactly in place when she spoke up.

“Captain, would you please stop strangling the prisoner?” Celestia politely requested. When the princess wanted something done, that mare absolutely drizzled with authority so Shining Armor dropped me without a moment’s hesitation.

After a few coughs I could breathe again. Rising shakily to my hooves and stumbling like a drunkard, I began pointing to the guards, the city just outside, my horn, and anything else I thought was fake or impossible. “Whaa… heh… aweh… buh?” I asked. Such eloquence had not been heard since the days of bards and troubadours.

And then I passed out.

________________________________________

Nopony had any idea what to say. It was one of those difficult moments where everyone knew that something needed to be done, but nobody had the foggiest idea of how to proceed.

“In all my years…” Celestia gawked at Sombra’s unconscious form.

The elder princess of Equestria was someone who had seen everything, and I did mean everything. History always repeated itself and Celestia, to put this in perspective, was a few thousand years old. No matter what situation she faced, she had already seen it, watched the sequels, tolerated the spin-off, and sat through the inferior reboot. By sheer wealth of experience there was nothing she was unprepared for.

Except for this. You could almost call it a compliment.

“His personality. It’s unrecognizable. Even without the delusions, something profound must have happened to his mind. Is there nothing of him left?”

Cadence, currently the most experienced in dealing with the dictator, answered her princess. “If there is, then it’s buried pretty deeply. That’s the reason we’ve been keeping such a close eye on him; nopony knows if his true nature will show itself.”

The guards, with some trepidation, took hold of the dark pony and carefully brought him out of the room. Sombra neither stirred nor woke, but he did gargle the whole time. The former tyrant may or may not have swallowed his own tongue. They’d have to check on that.

Cadence watched the procession and groaned. “Ergh, it’s my turn, isn’t it?” As was their agreement, King Sombra must never be without supervision from one of the two royal ponies. Shiny would take a double shift if she asked, but she knew it wouldn’t be fair. As if reading her thoughts, her husband was about to make the offer but Cadence cut him off. “No, dear, it’s okay. I’ll go. Just tell the princesses everything I told you and try to find a way we can fix this.”

And with that said, she gloomily left to follow the guards, quietly griping that the trying tyrant had ruined her whole day.

Once Cadence was gone, Princesses Celestia and Luna looked to Shining Armor with concern etched on their faces.

“She’s been under a lot of stress lately,” Shiny answered their unasked questions. “But all things considered, she’s handled this amazingly well.”

Luna somberly agreed. “We cannot imagine how difficult this must be for her. What are our options?”

“Bleak,” he responded bluntly. “Sombra is mentally unfit for a trial and physically incapable of being imprisoned. As for more direct responses, the two of you won’t banish him unless he makes the first move, and apparently the Crystal Heart agrees with you. We have nothing.”

“You and Princess Cadence handled him admirably thus far,” Luna pointed out. “King Sombra seems to be well under control.”

Shining Armor shook his head in firm denial. “But how long will that last? The second he learns how to break out of a force field, he’s gone. All we have is a hasty, makeshift solution, not something we can really count on. Things would be so much easier if we could just lock him away, but we can’t.”

They were stumped.

“Princess Celestia, you’ve been quiet. Please tell me you have a plan.”

Time and experience forged Celestia’s mind into the single most astute and enlightened perspective the world could possibly offer: a veritable font of judicious wisdom unmatched by any living being. Faced with no other recourse, Shining Armor awaited the peerless council of his immortal sun-queen.

Celestia just shrugged. “I have no idea.”

The captain drooped miserably. Even Luna, possessing the most down-to-earth and familiar opinion of her sister, couldn’t imagine her not having some advice to impart.

“But you’ve been around for over a thousand years,” Shiny half-stated, half-pleaded. “You have to know something, anything.”

Regrettably, the princess had nothing to add. “I am sorry, Captain, but even amongst my myriad experiences, this is… unique, to describe it politely. I am just as lost as you.”

Any further conversation was mercifully interrupted by a creak at the door and an awe-stricken gasp. Shining Armor lolled his head wearily. He totally forgot about the desert course.

The staff waiting at the door was treated to the bizarre sight of some distressed nobles standing in a mess of spilled food in a room covered in blood. “Um, your majesties,” a servant stepped back to avoid walking into a small gore-puddle, “is this a bad time?”

Shiny wordlessly righted the table with his magic and signaled form them to come in anyway. After everything that just happened, some stress-eating sounded like a great idea.

Visibly disturbed, the servant-ponies brought in their cart of sparkly desserts and passed them out. They had to try hard not to slip on the greasy mess of food and bodily fluid. None of them envied the ponies who would have to clean the mess off the floor, walls, and furniture. Oh dear, and the ceiling too? The maids were going to throw a conniption about this.

Shiny and the alicorn siblings happily accepted the sweets as a welcome distraction. They all needed a moment clear their heads.

Celestia was never one to turn down cake, her favorite food, especially since that time Pinkie Pie wolfed down an entire prize-winning pastry before she could get a piece. Lately, it seemed that every time a cake was brought out, it would always wind up destroyed or smashed into somepony’s face. Fortunately, this time the chaos chose to detonate before desert could be ruined. She was looking forward to this moment since she sat down, and yet, looking at the delicious dessert on her plate, she couldn’t bring herself to take a bite. Something Sombra said made her lose her appetite.

Celestia waited until the other royals focused squarely on their deserts and looked at her own flank self-consciously. She gave it an experimental poke, then another, before sighing forlornly and pushing her plate away uneaten.

Sombra would pay for this.

________________________________________

Like most of the palace, the infirmary was nearly empty. King Sombra had few if any loyal subjects at the end of his reign, so the entire palace staff consisted of new hires. Recruitment was slow because many crystal ponies still feared the castle, leaving the place with little more than a skeleton crew. It was part of the reason Princess Cadence was so overworked.

The Crystal Empire remained intact throughout the Pre-Classical and Discordian eras of world history, and they were the only pony kingdom who refused to band with the other tribes at the founding of Equestria. Their lack of allies necessitated militarization, and the palace showed lingering signs of that past. The oversized medical wing she now entered, for instance, once housed the recuperating soldiers of long-forgotten battles. Many of Cadence’s projects involved repurposing such things for more peaceful ends, such as her order to convert much of the military training ground into a sports facility.

Changing the Empire’s culture proved much more difficult. Jousting was immensely popular, but she had to cancel any future exhibition matches after that poor team from Trottawa got decimated by her gladiatorial subjects. But now was not the time to ponder such things. There was a discommodious dictator she had to oversee.

Nodding to a physician timorously spying on the one occupied room, Cadence approached her saluting guards for an update on the situation. “How is he?”

“He would not stop foaming at the mouth, your majesty, so we put him on his side to ensure he did not suffocate. Since then, nothing has happened.”

Par for the course at this point. Cadence wondered why she was ever afraid of this guy. “Good. Open the door. I need to speak with him.”

“Yes, my princess.” The two of them unlocked the door and entered first. Once safety was assured, they took positions at either side of the door and allowed Cadence to enter.

And there he lay, the source of her woes and stress. She saw to her physicians’ credit that they did properly bandage his leg. Approaching cautiously, she called out for him. “Sombra.”

“HRAAAALBGLAAAB,” the twitching, volcanically drooling form of the former tyrant gargled. His eyes were rolled completely back into his skull, but were still wide open, and his limbs splayed out wide and undignified in a way that reminded her of how Shiny would hog the bed in his sleep. Worse, he kept making these gross, throaty gagging noises. All in all, Sombra looked like someone stopped an exorcism halfway through.

She got no other response from the dark pony. The dictator’s brain had not yet finished rebooting from recent revelations, so she kept repeating his name in the hopes that he’d wake up. The only other option was to shake him awake, but she wasn’t about to touch him. Not without a long pole, at least.

Watching him spasm as if in a nightmare, the princess could only wonder what he was thinking about.

________________________________________

I won’t bore you with the details, but my state of mind after I collapsed could be best summarized by screaming at different pitches and volumes. Panicked shrieking, angry roars, sobs of denial, et cetera and so on. I wasn’t proud of it.

The whole process lasted about ten minutes and all it accomplished was making me feel sorry for myself. Regaining a sliver of my composure, I started thinking about my situation to keep my mind occupied. I thought about how I got here, what went wrong with the universe, and how I fit into it.

I thought I was dead, and in truth I already made my peace with that fact. I croaked, snuffed it, kicked the bucket, bought the farm, rode the pale horse, and other such euphemisms, especially that last one. Before I woke up with hooves, I was certain that I was a goner, and I knew for a fact I had a near-death experience. It was really fuzzy – something about a staircase was all I remembered – but it definitely happened. And my body… well, let’s just say it wasn’t in pristine condition. With that in mind, the only rational options to explain my predicament were death or a coma.

And yet I felt pain: real pain from a real hoof on a real horse.

I could no longer take for granted that this was all something my brain cooked up. Sure, dreams can provide some sensations, but nothing as painful and realistic as a knife through the arm. Honestly, I didn’t even know where to begin. Is this real life, or is this just fantasy? Was I caught in my own mind’s escape from reality? Coma, death, or real life: they all had strong points vying for them.

Look, all the evidence said this was real, but my whole life experience was screaming ‘you’re in a dream, buddy’ because, seriously, c’mon.

Desperate for a solution, a crazy thought entered my mind. If I really was dead – and there actually was life after death – then maybe I wasn’t quite worthy enough for the good afterlife. Think about it: what better way was there to prove that I wasn’t evil than to put me in the body of someone who already was? Sombra was supposed to be a villain. I had all this power, everyone expected me to be malicious, and I was in a position where I could get away with anything. The only thing holding me back was my own self-control. Could this all be an elaborate test of character? Was Equestria a purgatorial proving ground for my immortal soul?

Man, the Bible was gonna need one whopper of a revision if that was the case. Just imagine the look on people’s faces if that went down at the pulpit.

Or, somehow, was this fanciful horse-world an actual place, unconnected to any dreams or afterlife? Some series of events occurred to take my real, concrete soul and stuff it into a real, concrete horsey-king. It was the least likely explanation, but at this point I’d throw anything at the wall to see what stuck.

I couldn’t even figure out what happened to me. What was I supposed to do? Filled with existential dismay, I allowed myself to sink silently into depression for some unknown stretch of time.

… Wait a sec… Wait. Wait up. Stop moping, self, I just had an idea.

What was the difference?

If any one of my admittedly baseless ideas were true, then how did it affect me? I already decided to spend my time convincing everyone I wasn’t a villain, so none of those theories threw a wrench into my plans.

Option one: coma. There were no consequences to what I did, but being evil would leave a bad taste in my mouth. Option two: purgatory. God was going to get straight-up Old Testament on my rump if I didn’t behave. And finally, option three: I was alive and also a mage-unicorn. That meant that these ponies were real individuals to whom I’ve been kind of a jerk this whole time. Already I felt guilt seeping in.

Nothing changed. Many possibilities presented themselves, but they all had one solution. It was the same answer offered by religion, law, and philosophy the whole world over: Just live, and don’t be a dick.

And so it was decided. No more angst. Just work up a smile and live.

It didn’t matter if I really believed, because no matter how I tried to slice it, it was more pragmatic to play along. If Equestria did exist, then I had a long, full life ahead of me that I was currently ruining by alienating myself from this world’s locals. And if it was fake, then the only damage I’d do to myself by accepting this place would be waking up one day and saying ‘Wow. How did I fall for that?’ Acting as if Equestria was real reaped either infinite rewards or nothing at all.

Basically, I enforced upon myself a ponyified Pascal’s Wager. From my perspective, there was no downside to wholeheartedly diving right into this madhouse.

Furthermore, these Equestrians didn’t seem fake to me. Compared to the actors in my dreams, who were only there to fill a role, these ponies had their own personalities and acted in ways independent from my desires. What, then, was the functional difference between them and real people? ‘Cogito ergo sum,’ and all that. I was here and they were here, so that made Equestria no more solipsistic than Earth.

Alright, Equestria, time for round two. Screw it. I’ll be Sombra. I’ll take command of his dark magic and everything that goes with it. But if the universe wanted me to Quantum Leap into this role, then I was going to play it by my rules. Who said that darkness had to be evil? Who was destiny to tell me what I could or couldn’t do? Fate or God or whoever was going to have to sit back while I seized life by the red, pointy horn!

Our short lives are not to be taken for granted. We are all phantoms piloting a flesh-and-bone construct made eons ago by nuclear fusion. That’s nothing mundane; that’s a superhero’s origin story. If I was to live again, then I owed it to whatever revived me to live to the absolute fullest. The real Sombra built up a heartless, sadistic image from a lifetime of cruelty and I was gonna shatter it. From now on, I am the new King Sombra! I am the king of the Crystal Empire! I-

________________________________________

“Ah’m thuh horsey-king,” I mumbled incoherently. Dang it, why’d I have to wake up on that one?

“Y…re ...wake,” something said.

“Weugh?” My bleary eyes slowly regained their focus and I saw a familiar pink form solidify in front of me. With my habitual bad decisions and terrible luck, this kind of thing was inevitable; I always knew I’d wake up next to a horse-faced woman on all fours. Too bad it had to be literal. “Hey, Cadence.”

The princess prodded me with dull end of one of her guards’ spears to get me to stir. By the soreness in my side she’d been at it for a while.

“Good. You’re finally awake.” She discarded her prod. “We need to talk.”

“Heck yeah we do. I’ve had some time to think, and I’ve come to some very important realizations.”

She regarded me suspiciously while I rolled off the bed and onto my hooves, and that suspicion turned to alarm when my horn took on its toxic, green and purple bubbling.

A large slab of dark crystal rose in front of me on command, and I took a good, long look at the face in the reflection. No matter which angle I turned, the face looked nothing like me, not even how I imagined a pony-version of myself to look.

“I’ve decided that I am King Sombra.”

The blood drained from Cadence’s face and her horn ignited.

“But not like that!” I amended before she had a chance to overreact. “Like, good. Good-Sombra. You get what I mean?”

She most definitely did not get what I meant if her breathing rate was any indication.

“Just hear me out. See, the thing is, whenever someone sees me, they will see him. As far as everyone else is concerned, I am King Sombra whether I like it or not.”

“You are King Sombra,” she contended.

“Exactly. But you’re seeing what I am, not who I am. No one can. Even though I’m not him, others will still treat me as if I was. I can’t just say ‘Nope. Different guy.’ and expect them to follow along. His actions will follow me wherever I go,” I explained. “So I asked myself, how do I fight it?”

Cautiously, the princess waved her guards off and dimmed her horn. She didn’t actually get what I was talking about, but understood enough to know that I wasn’t about to torch the place. She was certain she was being lied to, but had nothing to support those suspicions.

“And the answer is ‘Don’t. Just give up, it ain’t happening.’ There’s no way I’m going to get rid of his reputation, so instead of denying it all together, I can change it from within.”

Cadence wore a decidedly non-princess-like, ‘are you freaking kidding me’ sort of expression. “Is this a joke?”

“Not at all,” I answered. “With enough time and effort, the things I do will steadily overwrite whatever bad stuff the old Sombra did.” I failed to notice Cadence’s worsening scowl while I prattled about my plans nonchalantly.

“Alright, step one to life in Equestria is to ditch the dream logic. A lot of the stuff you guys told me was dismissed as unimportant at the time. Looking back, I’ll bet there were all kinds of things I misread thanks to my flippant disregard of my surroundi-“

I shut my stupid mouth.

In my mind I heard a sound not unlike the squealing tires of a car accident. My eyes opened with long overdue revelation. “Oh my god.” If I were closer to the wall, I’d have bashed my head against it so hard my horn would snap. “This is the Crystal Empire, isn’t it?”

Cadence froze in place. “It n-no it’s-” she stuttered. It will forever remain a mystery how something with fur could turn that pale.

“That was rhetorical, princess. I got enough of a hint form the crystal ponies living in the crystal buildings of their crystal city, eating crystal food, and basking in the light of the Crystal Heart,” I huffed. “The rest was guesswork.”

Unbeknownst to me, Cadence’s official title was Crystal Princess, but after everything I said there was simply no more room for that final nail in the coffin. Oh, and the city was located near a place called the Crystal Mountains, so that coffin was basically a pincushion of discrediting evidence. My assumptions: they shan’t be missed.

“So the ponies are freaked out not because I’m some foreign invader, but because I was actually here oppressing them for God knows how long?”

Afraid of how I’d react, but knowing that she could hide the truth no longer, she wordlessly gave a quick nod.

“Well, that’s just perfect,” I barked. “Wow… Okay… Man, I’ve really got my work cut out for me. I take it back; this one ain’t gonna solve itself.”

You know that problem I have where I say the wrong thing at the wrong time? It happened again.

“Solve itself!” Cadence exclaimed. “That’s what you assumed?!” I’d seen Cadence afraid, confused, angry, and in shock, but this was the first time I saw her burn with righteous indignation. The jarring transition from cautious timidity to concentrated ire forced me back a few steps. A DJ couldn’t turn tables faster than this.

“You thought your crimes would just fade away? That if you waited long enough it would all blow over? You- you arrogant… Argh!” she screamed. The princess was so enraged that she couldn’t even think of an insult. “Do you have any idea what you have done?!”

“N-no?” I backed up so far my rump bumped into a corner, but Cadence was always right in my face. “He – I mean, I- uh, Sombra let power go to his head, right? I can fix that.”

“Fix it? Fix it!” she roared. “Your reign left the whole Empire with scars, both mental and physical, that will never disappear! You personally devastated a prosperous kingdom into ruin! The crystal ponies still have nightmares about you!”

“Holy crap, really?”

“Not to mention the recent assaults on the city,” she continued her rant, probably unable to hear me. “Both of them!”

“I get it,” I said, unsubtly telling her to stop. “Cadence, please take it easy with the world-shattering revelations. I just woke up from a whole thing about that.”

Even though she wasn’t supposed to reveal anything about Sombra’s history to me, she was just so angry at what she perceived to be my indifference to the suffering I caused that she couldn’t stop herself. The only thing that her fiery eyes could see was the scared faces of her subjects, and to hear the impertinent, almost careless audacity in which I dismissed their anguish sent Cadence into an outrage. The princess spilled her guts, letting out all the dirty secrets she knew about Sombra and shoving them in my face, as if daring me to brush them off.

“Do you still think you can fix everything? How about the fact that you froze them in time for a whole millennium? Do you have a plan to make up for that? And then there was the forced memory wipes!”

“Thank you, Cadence, that’s quite enough.”

But it wasn’t enough. Cadence hoarded a lot of pent up frustration over the past several hours and she wasn’t about to let me off so quickly. “That’s Princess Cadenza to you, and we’ve barely scratched the surface! Did you know about the slavery?”

My jaw went slack. “What. Woah, wait, just how evil was this guy?”

“The worst! The whole Empire was forced beneath your yoke. And we still don’t know the full extent of your cruelty!” my pink interrogator seethed. “Do you have anything to say for yourself!?”

“I… he- I’m not…”

While my head spun from learning of my previous tenant’s crimes, Cadence mercifully stopped. For a few seconds, anyway. “And you forced poor little Spike to watch an illusion of himself being abandoned by the only family he’d ever known. Spike is a baby, by the way.”

Okay, that, right there, was all I could take.

I slowly turned to gawp at Cadence, my face twisted by anathematic revulsion. “… eh?” I squeaked. By the conviction in her eyes, I knew she wasn’t lying. This time, I actually did walk over to the wall and bash my head against it. “OH, COME ON! That’s, like… WHAT?! How-? What conceivable purpose… a baby?!”

That was far, far beyond anything I could have imagined. I realized that I was supposed to be a tyrant, and that throughout history people did terrible things to stay in power, but that was just being rotten for its own sake. This was puppy-drowning levels of needless cruelty. I wasn’t just a villain; I was Equestria’s answer to the Pharaoh of the Exodus. I was the worst pony ever, and as close to a personification of evil as anyone could become. Cadence was right; there was no fixing this. I felt like I needed to throw up.

But she just kept going. “And those are just the things we know for certain. We’ll never know it all because the crystal ponies, who lived through it all, actually prefer to keep their minds erased than to remember what you did to them!”

Not for the first time, I found myself asking why it had to be me. Why did I have to be him? Out of anyone else in the world I could have become, the face in the mirror had to be the single worst of the lot.

“Well?!” my pink interrogator seethed. “Say something!”

“I- I can’t…” Deep breaths. Deep breaths. “Sorry, I’m just a bit hyperventilatey right now.”

I couldn’t do it. No. It was too much. I knew he was hated, but I never thought it would sink to such depths. Amazed by how much I underestimated how vile my new identity was, I sank to the floor with a faraway look in my eyes.

Cadence got the hint that I was about to pass out a second time, so she stopped her verbal assault to let me quiver in silence. Panting heavily, the pathetic and dumbfounded reaction I gave her was enough to extinguish her ire for a fraction of a second. “… you actually didn’t know…” she whispered barely loud enough for me to hear. Her moment of weakness was instantly repaired, however, and the unforgiving scowl returned to her face just as quickly.

That was where I realized the hidden truth of the matter. If this was how I felt about Sombra, then just imagine how she and the rest of the city must feel. Cadence wasn’t naturally angry, or spiteful, or distrusting like I’d assumed. She was hurt. Sombra hurt her badly, and her whole nation shared in that pain.

Snapping back to reality, the tiniest spark of hope ignited in my chest. “This… this changes nothing.” I said under my breath. Blinking my eyes back into focus, I belatedly noticed how watery they’d become. “If anything, it just makes it more important.”

“What are you saying?” the princess asked, but I was too busy forming a plan in my mind to answer.

“… That’s it,” I smirked. “That’s it. I get it now! That’s it!”

________________________________________

While Cadence checked on their unquestionably disturbed prisoner, Shining armor filled the co-rulers in on the whole Sombra issue.

“You’re kidding,” Luna deadpanned. She even dropped out of her flowery, antiquated manner of speaking, having found the bluntness of modern speech to be a better way to express her doubt and vexation.

“Sorry, princess, but no,” the prince responded. “The whole thing’s been verified by a lie detector. The question now is what we do with him. I don’t care if he thinks he’s a human, a goldfish, or a fire-breathing dragon, what matters is whether or not he’s a threat to the city.”

“Is he, though?” Luna wondered. “Sombra may be considerably more powerful than an ordinary unicorn, but his danger stemmed from his willingness to commit atrocities, not from his strength. Our every clash has ended in his unequivocal defeat, and without a single casualty. To use a modern colloquialism: we’d wipe the floor with him.”

“No way. There is always the chance of collateral damage, so I’m trying to put off a fight until we have a guaranteed, instant win. You didn’t see what his last invasion did to Cadence. She was ready to collapse by the time Sombra was defeated. I won’t put her through that again.”

In stark contrast to all the doomsaying going around, Celestia had spent the whole conversation in contemplative silence. While the others prepared for the worst case scenario, a marvelous thought occurred to her. “Correct me if I am wrong, but all of our fears hinge on Sombra remembering who he was, and attempting to regain what he lost.”

“Well, yes,” the captain answered. “Isn’t that obvious?”

“It is,” the princess continued, “but I believe we are asking the wrong question. We are asking when he becomes his former self, as if it is a forgone conclusion. But what if it isn’t inevitable? And even if we can’t stop him from regaining his memories, what if the consequences can be prevented?”

They were going to need some clarification on that one.

“Sombra asked us to tell him his own history. Don’t you see what that means? Other than his name, I doubt he knows anything about himself. His mind is confused, broken, and – I suspect – malleable. This provides us with a unique opportunity to rid ourselves of an enemy and, with any luck, turn his powers to more constructive purposes.”

Thanks to the presence of magic in Equestria, emotions were perceptible, external forces no less real than the laws of physics. But even with this in mind, the ponies couldn’t help but think that Celestia was being a bit too idealistic for her own good. Not everypony was as powerful as her to afford the luxury of mercy.

Shiny found that idea disturbing in more ways than one. First, Celestia’s plan involved a distinct lack of banishment and smiting. Secondly: “Are you telling me that you want us to brainwash him?”

“No!” she exclaimed, mortified by the thought. “Goodness, no. I believe rehabilitate would be a better word. In our conversation with him, I detected no malice or dishonesty, so for the time being this is his real personality. He genuinely does not want to hurt anypony. All I want you to do is to reinforce that notion.”

Semantics, Shiny thought. He could admit that the current king was a lot more preferable to the old one, but he sincerely doubted that Sombra, the most odious pony in the world, could ever be reformed like Celestia hoped. Shining Armor agreed with his wife that the reprieve offered by Sombra’s madness was temporary, and that the second he came to his senses, the dark unicorn would be right back to his execrable villainy.

But, ultimately, no other ways to deal with the dictator existed. Celestia refused to seal him in the ice and the Heart was on the fritz for some reason. The captain reluctantly chose to follow his princess’s suggestion, if only because there was nothing else he could do.

“I doubt it, and even if he can be tamed, how do we make him sane while keeping him crazy?” asked the prince. The alicorns looked at him strangely, and the stallion shrank under their gaze. “Sorry. It’s… it’s been a long day,” he muttered. “You know what I mean. How do we keep the benign personality in place, while convincing him that he is, in fact, a pony?”

“Why bother at all?” Luna asked. “If he is evil, then he should be sent to the dungeon. If insane, then he should be committed. In either case the solution is to simply keep him contained. Why waste further effort?”

“No, Luna, you misunderstood. When I say we can’t just lock him away, I meant that we actually can’t just lock him away. We tried that already and it didn’t work.”

Luna wasn’t one to bother with the velvet glove approach. She was doing her best to learn how to be more diplomatic, but until then she wasn’t ready to venture out of her comfort zone. This was the same pony who still couldn’t break out of the royal we and once tried to turn Nightmare Night into a feast in her honor. “We could call upon the Elements of Harmony,” she suggested. It was pretty much the only other thing she could think of.

Shining Armor frowned. Relying on Twilight and her friends rapidly became the doctrinaire solution to Equestria’s woes, and he felt it was unfair to constantly put them in danger. “I meant what can we do. Lately it seems like every threat we come across ends with us foisting our problems on my little sister.”

“She and her friends have proven themselves quite capable,” Luna maintained. “We stand before thee as living proof.”

“Yes, but my city and my wife are already in danger; I’m not about to put my family in harm’s way too.”

Celestia interjected between the two of them. “While I too am confident in Twilight’s abilities, I have to agree with Shining Armor. The magic of the Elements of Harmony is mysterious, even to me. But both the Elements and the Crystal Heart function under one principle: they restore order. Where there is disharmony, they bring peace. What was corrupted is restored. If the Heart failed, then so would the Elements. The only reason Sombra could have survived the light of the Crystal Heart was if there was nothing to correct.”

The white stallion could hardly believe her words. “Nothing!?” he spat. This was the closest to anger that Shining Armor could ever feel towards Celestia. “He’s a sociopathic, power-hungry, objectively evil psychopath who enslaved an entire ethnicity! You and your sister should get together and cram him into the ice like you did before. Can’t you see what he represents? Strike him down while he’s weak!”

Luna, despite sharing the captain’s viewpoint to the letter, shook her head sadly. “That would be inadvisable. When we first sealed King Sombra away, his banishment was supposed to be permanent. He could only escape by subverting the spell itself. If it was broken once, then it can be broken again should his memories return in the course of his exile.”

Celestia nodded, seeing where her sister was going. “And having learned how to escape at will, he could reappear at his leisure. That is, when the empire is most vulnerable.”

That didn’t sit well with Shining Armor. Nopony wanted to admit the implications, but everything led to one undesirable conclusion. “So we’re stuck with him, is what you’re saying.”

“For now that seems to be the case,” Celestia acknowledged sadly. “I am sorry, Shining Armor. But it is currently our best option.”

The prince-captain’s voice was heavy with disappointment. “Alright,” he murmured, “but don’t think this is over. Let’s not dwell on things we can’t fix. We’ll find a solution once we know more about him. So what do we know? How could Sombra go from a malicious destroyer to,” he waved a hoof in the general direction of the infirmary, “that?”

The two alicorns followed his hoof with their eyes to where said unicorn was being kept. “That is a very good question,” Celestia acknowledged. Neither of them really put much thought to it, being more concerned with the ponies’ safety than the hows and whys of Sombra’s revival.

They’d only been here since dinner, after all.

Luna chose to go with the easiest answer. “If nopony ever heard him speak at length until today, then perhaps he was always so disturbed,” she suggested.

Shining Armor strongly disagreed. “No, I don’t think it can be that simple,” he argued. “The old Sombra we fought was focused and deadly. He kept several contingency plans and was only stopped thanks to Twily and her assistant’s wildcard interference. I’m pretty sure this new one’s been eating paint chips or something. He’s nuts.” Discarding the problems with his lost memories, there was still a metaphysical ‘Sombra-ness’ that the current pony lacked. The cruelty and aggression that defined the dictator was supplanted by an oblivious, almost naïve enthusiasm that the captain found rather annoying.

Celestia also recognized the change, but was still just as uninformed as her sister.

“The Crystal Heart exists to abolish evil. It could be that when Sombra was purged by its light, it destroyed so much of him that there wasn’t much left,” she pulled straight from her flank.

Shiny found her answer slightly more plausible, but still unsatisfying. “Hmm. I could believe that for the memory loss, but where did these human fantasies come from?”

Celestia was uncertain and it showed. Few situations presented themselves where she hadn’t treaded before, but this Sombra conundrum was a jumbled mess of inscrutable x-factors.

“The mind is a mysterious thing, especially one that has been damaged so severely. Perhaps it simply needed to fill in the blanks. Humans are obviously a stand-in for the Crystal Empire. No magic, high technology, and tall buildings all fit into place in a way that cannot be coincidence: There were no unicorns besides Sombra himself in the empire, the palace is considered a wonder even by today’s standards, and at the time of his banishment this was the most advanced of the pony kingdoms.”

“That still doesn’t explain why his brain would jump species like that,” Shining Armor said.

Celestia straddled a line between brainstorming and justification. “I cannot be sure,” she admitted. “The only times I’ve seen memories twisted in such a manner was as a coping mechanism. But if that is true, then something must have happened to make him want – perhaps need – to disassociate himself from ponies altogether.”

“Princess, that’s quite a stretch.” Shiny held on to his doubts, but even he was starting to come around. The pieces just came together too well.

“We concur,” added Luna. “Sombra was the very standard upon which evil is judged.”

Not even Celestia was fully convinced by her own argument, but something needed to be said to make sense of this situation. As she already stated several times, she did not have the answers. But her sister and nephew-in-law looked up to her for guidance, so she had to say something to put their minds at ease, even if she wasn’t so sure of it herself.

“If Sombra was completely unrepentant, and wholly evil to his very core,” she began, “then the Crystal Heart would have ended his life. As I said: corruption is eradicated. Were he nothing but corrupt, he would die. As for his delusions I have only my own assumptions. Supposing, as I suspect, that his evil was purified by the Crystal Heart, I can only imagine that his madness was born of guilt, something like ‘I couldn’t have done those terrible things, because King Sombra was a unicorn, and I am a human.’ The weight of his own crimes may have been too much strain for his mind to bear.”

That hit way too close to home for Luna. As Nightmare Moon, she was stopped before she had a chance to hurt anypony, but she lost a lot of sleep wondering what would have happened if Twilight didn’t get to her in time. What if Nightmare Moon hurt or killed a pony? Luna was unsure if she could bare that kind of guilt.

Celestia was wrong, of course. Utterly, unambiguously, indefensibly wrong, but she made so much terrible sense. Luna and Shining Armor ate up every word and accepted her groundless conjectures as iron-clad truth.

“There are still so many more issues,” she continued, “other than his lost memories, he still thinks the world is not real and does not believe himself to be a pony. But I believe there is still hope. We all saw how he reacted to his self-inflicted wound. At the very least, Sombra can’t possibly claim to be in a dream anymore. Hopefully now he won’t be suffering from two delusions at once.”

Just then, the muffled, but unmistakable voice of Sombra boomed from behind closed doors. “I have discovered my mission in life!”

“Three delusions,” Celestia amended without missing a beat. “It seems Princess Cadence has been busy.”

Shiny quickly jumped to his feet, still certain that any news regarding Sombra was bad news. “And she might be in danger! We need to get there right now!”

Celestia agreed immediately. “I will get us there right away. Gather around me,” she said as she prepared a teleportation spell. The white princess didn’t expect in any imminent disaster, especially with Cadence in charge, but on the off chance things went south, she needed to be there. “Be on guard, you two. None of us know what to expect.”

Shining Armor and Luna took positions at her side and Celestia’s horn turned gold. The white mare cast her spell around all three of them-

________________________________________

- And they reappeared next to Cadence and me. After all that had happened, things like teleporting didn’t even faze me. I swore to live as if this were real, so no matter how impossible something seemed, I made sure to let it pass without comment. So yeah, teleporting. Why not?

“Hey, everyone, you’re arrived just in time,” I greeted casually.

“Thou mean we caught thee just in time,” Luna accused. “What art thou planning?”

Of all the responses she expected from me, she did not anticipate a bright, face-splitting smile. “Fixing the Crystal Empire, that’s what!”

Standing beside her, Shining Armor gasped sharply. “Cadence, get the Heart right now. We’ll hold him here.”

“Oh, stop it already and let me explain.” I’d become a bit sick of their nonstop paranoia. “Me being here in Equestria couldn’t have been an accident; I can’t accept that I got put here by some random mistake, especially as someone so infamous. Nope, I’m here for a reason. I’m sure of it.”

The ponies chalked that statement up to delusions of grandeur, bringing the total up to four.

“At first, I thought this was all about me, that there was something I had to learn or do.” I paced back and forth, motioning with my hooves to explain my point in a way that probably only made sense to me. I’d always been one to talk with my hands, and the lack of hands did nothing to change that habit.

“But then Cadence told me what this Sombra character did to your city, and I realized something. I’m not here for me,” I smiled as warmly as my face would allow and pointed out a window to the Crystal Empire, “I’m here for them. We’ve got a whole city of people scared out of their minds, and it’s my job to fix it.”

Shining Armor leaned over to Cadence. “What kind of anesthetics did the doctors give him?” he whispered.

“None,” an utterly stunned Cadence answered. “He’s stone-cold sober right now.”

Not even listening to those two, I gleefully continued. “When someone falls in front of you, you pick them up. When somebody is struggling to hold something, you help them carry it. Anytime someone is right in front of you and needs help, you have an obligation give it. This is no different.”

I punctuated my little spiel with a determined smirk and a firm stomp to the ground. If there was one – and so far, only one – advantage hooves had over hands, it was the satisfying, definitive clap they made on the floor. Finishing my statements with a good stomp made them seem so much more conclusive.

“Luna, earlier you asked me what direction I have planned for myself. Well, I found it. The Crystal Empire needs my help. I’m telling the people. Everyone – I mean, everypony,” I winked, “needs to hear the good news. I’m gonna walk right out to the city and tell ‘em all that everything’s going to be alright!”

Be it from alarm, interest, or excitement, there wasn’t a single pair of ears in the room that didn’t shoot straight up. Shining Armor scrambled to block the doorway as Cadence rushed up to me, her tail flicking in anxiety. “Wait! No, Sombra, you do not get to go outside. In fact, stand at the exact center of the palace and don’t move!”

“Nuh-uh,” I shook my head. “I’m totally gonna do this.”

“No, Sombra. Don’t you dare!” shouted Shining Armor from his post at the entrance.

“This is happening!” I insisted.

“No!” the couple snapped in stereo.

“YES!” I shouted with a mighty leap. Activating my shadow-powers at the apex of my jump, I seemingly dove into the ground. There, a smoky patch of darkness slid across the floor right between Shining Armor’s legs, zipping away from the royal ponies and disappearing around a corner.

“After him!” Shining Armor shouted. There was no telling what would happen if Sombra was allowed to speak to the whole Empire. He needed to be stopped. All of the royal ponies recognized this and darted for the exit.

Tragically enough, all four of them tried to leave the room at the exact same time. The subsequent clogging of the doorway gave me enough time to flee out of sight.

“No! We can’t let him get away!” cried Cadence. Desperately squirming and twisting around, she managed to pop herself out of the mass of noble ponies, but, unfortunately she was too late. Galloping out of the infirmary and rounding the corner revealed no clues to my whereabouts.

“Where?” Cadence’s eyes dashed back and forth, looking for any sign of a shadow out of place. “The balcony!” she exclaimed to the still-squirming pile of Equestria’s executive branch. “If he wants to address the Empire, that’s the only place he would want to go. We can’t lose him! Let’s go!” she shouted.

Her husband managed to squeeze himself out from between two alicorns, and so became second one out of the medical wing.

He barged his way forward with the same bull-like ferocity he displayed in today’s first chase against Sombra. Sprinting with all his might, he tore through the palace at a breakneck pace. His wife spread her wings and flew through the narrow corridors just ahead of him.

Their hearts sank every time they turned a corner and didn’t see a shadow racing along the floor, knowing that Sombra could already be at the end where he’d be showing himself unsupervised and unrestrained to a populace who thought he was under control. Following a twisting path of labyrinthine halls and spiraling stairways, the two of them reached their destination with unsurpassable speed.

Celestia and Luna were already there. The ageless alicorns simply teleported to the balcony and would have been happy to bring Shiny and Cadence along if they hadn’t dashed away like they did.

Sombra, however, was nowhere in sight. Eyes scanned every corner, ears swiveled to hear the faintest sound, and horns ignited just in case. Glancing back and forth with guarded caution, Shiny readied himself for a second bout with the shadow-stallion. Quite literally jumping at shadows, and even tapping a few just to be sure, Shining Armor couldn’t find hide or hair of his elusive prey.

“Darn it all, where did he go?”

________________________________________

Down in the dungeons and past several half-repaired walls, I materialized out of my slithering shadow. Originally, I planned to head to the balcony, but I had no idea how to get there. Fortunately, I knew where to find another suitable rupture in the palace carved by none other than yours truly. My freedom-hole began as an escape attempt, but it would now serve a nobler purpose. Strutting confidently to the wide open break, I breathed deeply and let loose a resounding bellow.

“Attention, pedestrians!” I thundered.

That shout echoed across the whole landscape, and all activity in the town ground to a skittish halt.

“Behold! I am King Sombra of the Crystal Empire! That’s right! The same one y’all tried to chase out of town this morning – not that I’m bitter or anything – and I am absolutely stoked to announce that I am not evil!”

The crowd was about to perform their obligatory screams and pointing, but I continued before they had the opportunity.

“Not anymore at least; it’s complicated. The point is, things are ‘bout to change around here. You may be asking yourself, ‘hey, aren’t you that evil guy who did that evil stuff?’ Well, you’d be half-right. The old pony is gone, and I’m in charge now! Listen up, because I have a confession to make.” I paused dramatically to make sure everyone was listening.

“Everypony, I am a space alien!”

No one gasped like I expected them to. Instead, they either shuffled backwards or ensured that there was some form of cover between me and them. Oh well, on with the show.

“I’m not kidding! Sombra is dead; long live the new Sombra! I’m seizing control of this body and walking it around like a meat-puppet. And that’s good news for you! As an extraterrestrial ghost from another dimension possessing the body of an evil, sorcerous, unicorn-emperor, I promise you that the tyranny you once knew is at an end!”

What a unique sentence. Public speaking wasn’t a forte of mine, as should be surpassingly obvious by now.

“But it ain’t enough just to say it’s over. This place needs to heal, and by virtue of controlling the one who caused all, I’m in the best position to help. The real Sombra terrified this city. Like that guy,” I pointed to a random onlooker. “Yes, you, the shivering one who’s trying to hide. Don’t think I can’t see you! That’s exactly the kind of reaction I’m gonna get rid of. I’ll exterminate it!”

The pony dashed into a nearby building at my inexcusably terrible choice of words.

“I am not just me. I’m not just Sombra. I am me-in-the-body-of-Sombra. From now on his name is mine and his power is mine, and so his crimes are mine to resolve! I’ll take all the baggage that malicious jerk left me and I’m setting it right!” I laughed enthusiastically, but there was a distinct chance that it sounded like malevolent cackling. “You heard that, everyone! The Crystal Empire will never be the same! It begins. IT BEGINS!”

Keep in mind that this was all being said in the deep, dark voice of an evil villain: not exactly the sound of optimism. I’d become used to this voice via nonstop jabbering, so it no longer sounded like a rockslide, but even then, if I hummed next to someone playing a bass guitar you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Nevertheless, I reared up on hind legs and spread my front hooves wide, smiling ecstatically for the whole world to see. “I am King Sombra, and you’re gonna love me!”

________________________________________

When the first words exploded across the empire, Cadence and Shining Armor felt like they’d been kicked in the stomach. Cadence blanched again and Shining Armor, unable to turn paler than he already was, developed dark lines under his eyes. Here was their worst enemy, unrestricted, with free access to their citizens. And he openly blabbed about his delusions! If they couldn’t find a way to put a positive spin on this, those crystal ponies were going to have a meltdown.

“The dungeons!” Shiny somehow managed to gasp and shout at the same time. Without a single instant separating realization with action, the captain shot back into the palace at a full gallop.

Cadence was about to take flight to get to the breach faster, but was held back by the white foreleg of Celestia. The elder mare shook her head with a faint smile and beckoned the younger princess to take a seat. On a day to day basis, Celestia had two moods: maternally supportive or mischievously bored. Cadence was unsure which of the two her princess was displaying now, and they might not have been mutually exclusive.

“Auntie, please,” she begged. Why couldn’t Celestia see the exigent need to silence that blathering maniac?

Cadence looked to her pleadingly. Celestia looked back expectantly. Frustrated but unwilling to disappoint her only superior, Cadence closed her wings to her sides and took a seat next to Luna. She made a mental note that she and her husband really needed to learn the teleportation spell.

And so, the three of them sat there, letting their subjects listen to the poorly improvised speech of King Sombra as it echoed throughout the city.

________________________________________

“It is now occurring to me that I should’ve prepared a statement beforehand. To be honest, I’m playing this by ear.” By that point I maundered through this thing without any real plan. My outline consisted of ‘I’m not evil, I’m secretly an alien, and I’m going to make everything better.’ Once that was done, I had no idea where I was going with my speech.

When I squinted hard enough, I saw that the crystal ponies were completely lost as to how they were supposed to deal with this whole situation. One of them, however, held something red – either a tomato or a brick – signifying that my welcome rapidly exhausted itself.

“I can’t reiterate this enough; I’m not going to hurt you. No more evil. Oppression is done. And furthermore, I-”

“There you are!”

Well, shoot. The captain of the guard clambered through the destroyed wall behind me. He must have sprinted pretty dang hard to get to me. The stallion was completely out of breath.

“Sombra! Step away from the freedom-hole,” Shiny demanded. The second the words left his mouth he flinched. “I mean the breach in the castle wall,” he corrected. The madness was spreading.

Shining Armor’s interruption momentarily put my speech on pause. “I’m kind of in the middle of something,” I whispered harshly.

Rudely enough, a pink outline formed around me as Shining Armor, in no mood to talk, cast a levitation spell on me. Thinking quickly – or, rather, instinctively following the first idea that popped into my head – I grabbed the edge of the wall a split second before Shiny pulled me back into the castle. A game of tug-o-war began between the two of us: his magic against my grip.

“Grrgh!” he struggled. “Get back in the palace before you ruin everything!”

At that point any form of eloquence, scarce and pathetic as it may have been, was abandoned in favor of spilling out as many words as possible. “So yeah, I’m totally a good guy now!” I rambled loudly. “I’d go into detail if someone wasn’t dragging me off stage.”

“Let go!” the aforementioned someone ordered.

As he tried to reel me in like the scrappiest marlin ever, I clung to the edges of the wall and kept yelling to the audience. Having only seconds before my forelegs gave out, I grunted and strained to spew as much as I could from my freedom-hole onto the attentive faces below.

“Mark my words! This day signifies the advent of a new era for this city. We’re gonna be in the history books, people! From now on, I, ruler of the Crystal Empire and history’s greatest monster, shall be the best king who ever lived!” I proclaimed as a tattoo appeared on my butt.

And right then I lost my grip. In much the same way a slingshot works, Shiny’s telekinetic tugging released so much force all at once that I smacked right into him with the overwhelming power of a football lineman. One of the fat ones.

“PWUEH!” All of the air in his lungs exploded outwards from my inadvertent, horizontal cannonball. We wound up tumbling cartoonishly end-over-end until we crashed into one of the far walls. Fate despised us both in equal measure, but was seemingly done with me for the day, so I ended up on top of the poor guy.

A few coughs and a groan of pain later, the imaginary birds circling our heads fled the scene.

“Owww,” both of us whined simultaneously. I was honestly at a loss over who was to blame for this one.

“Sombra,” Shining Armor wheezed, barely able to draw breath. “I hate you so much.”

“Yeah, I know.” I wasn’t in much better shape. “But I think, one of these days, we’re gonna look back on this and laugh. I bet even now, those citizens are thinking to themselves ‘Wow. Who’d’ve thought that even he could change so much.’ It won’t be long now ‘till I win over their hearts and minds.”

It sounded like I was deceiving myself, and I’d be the first to admit it. But ultimately, one must realize that how we reacted to our station was our choice to make. Things like anger and self-pity never solved anyone’s problems. Life was what you made it, and by God I was gonna make it something good. So even if Equestria stripped me of my humanity, threw me into an alien world, and foisted me with the worst reputation imaginable, I’d still find a way to make it work. Bring it on, universe. What else ya got?

And as for Shiny… eh, he’d come around eventually.

“Get off of me,” my fellow unicorn shoved me off with one mighty push. “What were you thinking? You’re lucky you didn’t cause a panic out there.”

“It can’t be any worse than how they felt before.” I offered him a hoof to help him up which, unexpectedly, he accepted. “Nothing but good can come of this.”

Then, as if answering me, a single tomato arced through the freedom-hole and splattered on the floor. If Shiny hadn’t pulled me away when he did, it would have hit me in the face. Strange as it may sound, I actually took that to be a positive sign. “See? We’ve already progressed from fearful despair to riotous anger. And it’s only been one day! Just you wait until I really get started.”

The implication meant that this was just the beginning of a whole lot more of this crap, and it was in no way lost on Shining Armor. “Started?” The captain froze in place and his ears perked aggressively. His eyes narrowed even while twitching and his lip rose into an angry snarl.

“Uh, dude, you okay?”

________________________________________

Back on the palace balcony, the alicorns, respectively confused, amused, and face-palming, had to take a moment to mentally digest what may have been the worst speech they ever heard.

Celestia was all smiles. “Well, that certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.” As far as she was concerned, that sold it. Sombra was no longer Sombra. While, yes, there was the danger that this only represented a temporary loss of his mental facilities, at least – at the very least – they should at see how this all developed before passing judgment.

And if he did turn evil, then the Crystal Heart would work again. Boom, problem solved.

The queen in all but name looked to her fellow princesses for their opinions. “What did you two think of it?”

They didn’t share her enthusiasm. Luna still had trouble making sense of this whole scenario. She had one ear perked upwards and the other flat against her head in sheer bafflement. “I- I don’t…” she mumbled. Things would’ve been so much easier if they just showed up, blasted the red-horned freak, and left in time for dinner.

Cadence, on the other hand, just didn’t care anymore. After everything else that happened today, one more drop in the overflowing bucket didn’t mean much to her. “I’ll have to make a speech of my own, or at least call a town meeting,” she said. Capitulating to the lunacy, she decided to focus her energies on damage control rather than her futile attempts at containment.

“Will you really need to? He seemed quite clear about his intentions,” said the taller princess.

Let’s be honest here: Celestia had no business being this trusting. Based solely on the information provided, anyone with a lick of sense would have taken Sombra out back and executed him like an aging sheepdog. Princess Celestia, however, was not without her biases. She believed without exception that there was good in everyone, and even the vilest beings in the world possessed a seed of nobility buried deep within their hearts. The misunderstandings at dinner nearly shattered that belief, but subsequent events brought it roaring back. Yes, she decided, he can be redeemed. If only to validate her personal worldview, and prove that harmony pervaded all that lived, King Sombra will be brought to the side of the light.

The thought of it brought a smile to her face.

Her satisfied musings were cut short, however, by a cacophonous racquet from inside the palace. “Hey! Stop. I take it back. You can use the bubble again!” they heard Sombra’s voice loudly plead. Distressingly enough, it was accompanied by the noise of several bumps, a number of loud bashes, and at least one shattered vase.

Out stomped Shining Armor, horn aglow and brow furrowed, followed shortly by me being forcefully slid across the floor.

A faint outline signified Shiny’s low-level telekinesis spell – the magical equivalent of pulling someone along by the hand – which kept me moving forward whether I liked it or not. Being clumsy and unfamiliar with quadrupedalism, however, I tripped several times along the way and found myself being dragged across the floor for nearly the whole route. I must have knocked down every piece of furniture in the building. Furthermore, a lot of dust had not been swept from the floor of the understaffed palace, so pretty much all of it was in my coat now.

“Got him.” Shiny looked like he just ran a marathon.

Dropping me in the center of the balcony, he cut off his spell. Then he held me up like a mob enforcer and told me in no uncertain terms: “Don’t you ever, EVER, pull a stunt like that again!” The whites of the unicorn’s eyes turned slightly pink, either from his magic showing itself or from his veins bulging with rage-induced blood flow. “You crossed a line today, and if you ever cross it again I will show you all of the wrath I am capable of!”

Celestia placed a comforting hoof on Shining Armor’s quivering shoulder to break up our fight before it started. “Now, now, Shining Armor, he said what he needed to say. The moment is passed. I believe that your – shall we say – guest, is not the threat you consider him to be.”

“Told’ja so.” I folded my forelegs and nodded definitively. Content to let them all stew in how right I was, I added no further comment.

Shining Armor dropped me to the ground and stormed off to the other side of the balcony to let his arteries burst in peace.

“That being said,” Celestia ominously continued. She turned my way and used her full height to instill as much intimidation as possible. It worked. “Your behavior is unacceptable. Even if you meant every word of your little speech, you still have given us very little reason to trust you. You’ve insulted all of us in turn, professed many disturbing opinions, and have yet to apologize for the damages you caused. For today, I am willing chalk it up to a string of accidents and misunderstandings, but if I hear of anything else you do wrong, there will be consequences. Is that understood?”

All I could do was nod dumbly. For reasons I’ll never understand, her veiled threats scared me a lot more than Shiny’s explicit ones. “Yes, ma’am.”

Once Celestia finished her piece, her expression softened. Actually, it didn’t just soften, but noticeably brighten to the point where she bore a subtle grin on her face. “Greatest king who ever lived, you say?” she chuckled. It was a genial and good-humored laugh that carried no hint of mockery. “You certainly have a ways to go. If that is the path you have chosen, then you’ve certainly set some high expectations for yourself. I sincerely hope that you are up to the task.”

That marked the first time an Equestrian spoke to me without a lurking sense of suspicion and fear. I found myself amazed at just how much that meant to me, and in my shock I couldn’t find the words to respond. While I remained mutely surprised, the princess let me be and moved to address the rulers of the Crystal Empire.

“Shining Armor, Princess Cadence,” she began. “You two of you are some of the most responsible ponies I know. I shudder to think of what could have happened to the Empire if you were not here.” The white mare paused to let her and her subjects prepare themselves for what she said next. “And while I realize this will be a considerable burden to you both, I must ask you to continue monitoring him. Until such a time when he is rehabilitated, or becomes a threat to your wellbeing, he is to remain under your watch.”

“But-“

Celestia raised a hoof to squelch any protests. “You said yourself, captain, that we have no other options. I too am uncomfortable with how things turned out, but there are times when there are no guarantees and we must take a leap of faith. Of course, if you ever find yourself overwhelmed, or if you feel that Sombra is returning to his old ways, you need only call on me and I will come running.

“And Cadence,” she mentored her adoptive niece. “What is right, and what we wish to be right, are not always the same thing. Remember that it is our promotion of harmony throughout Equestria that justifies our authority as princesses. I am not asking you to forgive him, but the first step towards harmony is tolerance. Give him a chance. We would make liars of ourselves if we did anything less.”

“That goes for you too, Luna,” she added after a short pause

Apparently Celestia had eyes in the back of her head, because Luna’d been giving me the stink eye while she thought her sister wasn’t looking. Immature, perhaps, but I got the point: these two were a pair of god-tier mages who wouldn’t even hesitate to bring me down if I ever stepped out of line.

Though quite frankly, with my luck I wouldn’t so much step out of line as trip over it and accidently demolish another chunk of the palace. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

Putting that thought on the backburner, I hooked my front legs over the railing and looked down at the ponies below. The crowd grew even larger than before and all of them watched the balcony nervously. Even though they knew that three alicorns and a military leader protected them, they still wilted beneath my stare.

My resolve hardened with every averted gaze and fearful step backwards. I now realized that this was why it had to be him, why it had to be me. I needed to be Sombra. Being anyone else wouldn’t have the same impact or give them the closure they desperately needed. Sombra burdened this blameless city with a legacy of pain and oppression. I was here to soothe those fears and mend those wounds.

They will see me, and what I do, until I make those worries fade from their minds. I’ll make Sombra a clown, a hero, anything but what he was. The boogeyman-like specter of dread he left was not something I could allow to exist. Heck, I’d make him a saint, if need be. Then, maybe – with enough effort – those townsfolk who ran from me, these royals who tried to imprison me, and that child who took one look at me and screamed won’t ever have to be afraid anymore.

Not because destiny imposed it on me or because I believed I had a higher calling. Maybe something was out there guiding me, but I didn’t need anyone to tell me what to do. I chose this because that’s just who I am, and that’s as good of a reason as any.

Feeling lighter and more upbeat, I left my perch at the railing and trotted over to the huddle of ponies. They seemed to be saying their farewells while Cadnece and Celestia ironed out the details of something I couldn’t hear. As I approached, the latter once again extracted a promise from Celestia to intervene in case of emergency. Shining Armor, meanwhile, just stared straight ahead disbelievingly.

“You hear all that?” I slapped Shiny on the back as if meeting up with an old friend. He did not appreciate nor return the presumptuous sentiment. “We’re roomies now! Glad that was cleared up, ‘cause we’ve got a busy day tomorrow.”

His neck popped no less than ten times when he turned to look at me. “… roomies?” he shakily whispered.

The lines under his eyes spread upwards to form a pair of perfect, dark circles. The rest of him got all fidgety and the hair stood up on his neck. If I were to tell him I invented a gun that only shoots orphans, he’d still look at me with less horror-stricken nausea.

“Well, housemates,” I corrected. “Or palace-mates? Obviously, I wouldn’t be in the same room as you two. You’re a married couple; that’d be weird.” At my hasty revision, his internal DEFCON relaxed from ‘abandon planet’ to ‘worst day of my life.’ It was a substantial improvement, but I still dealt with one unhappy customer.

“Stop it. Just stop talking, Sombra.” he demanded. “If you say a single more word to me, one of us is going over the edge of this balcony. It doesn’t matter which.”

My mouth closed with an audible clack. Awkwardly shutting up and giving him a wide berth, I shuffled my way over to Celestia. I kept him in my peripherals the whole time in case he tried something. Sheesh, and they thought I was the crazy one.

“Yo, Celesti- Princess Celestia,” I corrected myself before Cadence could get snooty. “I gotta say, thanks for everything. We all got off to a rocky start, and things would’ve been a whole lot worse if you hadn’t been around.”

I really owed her big time. If it weren’t for her flagrant abuses of executive power, today never would’ve ended on a positive note. “I have merely done my job,” she insisted. “Just see to it that my instincts were not wrong about you.”

“No prob,” I grinned. Everything was looking up. Still smiling, I walked right on up to Shiny and Cadence.

“Welp, if she’s heading off and it’s already past dinner, you pre-electric folks will probably go to bed in a few hours. So, uh, where’s my room?” I asked the assembled ponies. “Not to be too intrusive, but there’s no way I’m spending the night in that cell unless you let me spruce it up a bit.”

Surprisingly, it wasn’t Cadence or Shining Armor who answered, but Celestia. She smiled in a way that I couldn’t distinguish as genuine or covertly self-satisfied. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. Princess Cadence and I have come to an agreement and some guest beds are already being prepared,” she said.

And then came the obligatory stipulation. “After such an eventful day, she and her husband require some much-deserved time to themselves. You will be staying with Luna tonight.”