• Published 5th Aug 2014
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CoH (Book One) : Of Magic and Masquerades - Diespitris

It is up to Twilight Sparkle to find a way to protect the Crystal Empire on her own. Yet, when its former king offers her a helping hoof, she has two choices: befriend him, or reveal him. Despite her choice, there will be consequences to face.

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Chapter Six : Into the Rabbit Hole

Once the sun finally set, and as soon as Twilight was certain that Spike was fast asleep, she teleported out of the shadowed bedroom. The spell landed her a block away from the palace in a spark of violet light. She didn't remain still for long. The bright flash was sure to attract attention, so she made a run for the eastern sector of the empire. She didn't have a problem locating the mysterious hoofprints. Though the traces of their existence long since evaporated within the barrier, all that was needed was a quick peek outside to confirm that she found the right spot.

When she stepped outside the Crystal Empire's boundary, the tiny snowflakes of a light flurry landed upon her mane and coat. She looked towards the starry sky. She was no weather pony, yet she could tell by the single gray cloud that hung overhead that the light snowfall wouldn't take a turn for the worse. She pushed forward with ease, following the trail as it lead her away to its undisclosed location. There was no need to conjure any light; Princess Luna's full moon radiated a serene glow that smoothly reflected off the surrounding snow. Her path was well illuminated.

The path carried on for more than a mile, during which the flat tundra gave way to smooth hills. There was a light in the distance then—visible only when the young unicorn reached the top of one of the tallest mounds. It didn't look like candlelight. It was fainter, and sapphire in color. But, it wasn't far. She was almost there.

Twilight broke into a gallop, kicking up powder in her wake. Her heart pounded within the confines of her ribcage as she closed in on the source of the illumination. Soon enough, she skidded to a halt at the mouth of a large cavern. She slowly entered, a bright glow encompassing her horn to counteract the dimness within. The interior was smooth and it smelled of wet earth. The icicles that dangled from the ceiling were slowly melting and their tips dropped the occasional bead of water.

She shivered when a cold drop landed on her head. She made a mental note to keep an eye on the ceiling, in case of potentially hazardous falling ice spikes. Although, the number of icicles visibly decreased as she rounded the tunnel's sudden curve. It was here that she discovered the source of the bizarre light. There were clusters of blue crystals that clung to the walls, similar to wall sconces.

They were not natural formations, for she could sense the magic that pulsed inside them—the same magic that caused them to glow with unseen fire. She was knowledgeable in the school of Alteration, which possessed what was needed to make objects emit light, but she knew not what magic allowed a pony to grow crystals such as these. Despite her desire to know, she resisted the urge to study them and she trekked onward into the large, round chamber that set at the end of the rocky corridor.

At first glance, it was obvious that somepony was living there. Furniture carved from stone or magically-preserved ice set about, as well as a few shelves that were carved into the walls and stuffed with books. A campfire, blazing and contained by a circle of rocks served as the centerpiece of the makeshift home. Beyond that, the mouth of a second tunnel came into view, which undoubtedly lead deeper underground.

“Hello?” she called as she trotted up to the warmth of the flame. There was a certain coziness to the room that she didn't expect from a lair that belonged to an evil king. The presence of the tiny library made her wonder where he acquired the books. “Anypony home?”

On the opposite side of the room, she suddenly heard the grading sound of hooves sliding on stone. She wasn't the only pony in that cave. Biting down on her bottom lip, she moved towards the spot where she heard the noise. At first, she believed it came from the second tunnel but, no, it came from someplace closer—darker, and just out of the firelight's reach. She didn't have to really investigate to confirm it. Before she could make it there, the large body of a familiar stallion emerged without warning, only to take off down the other tunnel just as quickly.

Twilight immediately gave chase. “Hey, wait!” she called. “Come back!”

Unlike the entrance tunnel, this one branched off into numerous paths. It was some form of miracle that she was able to keep up with Sombra. Even when the unicorn stallion utilized his magic to teleport out of her sight, it was a piece of cake for her to teleport after him though the magical residue he left behind. Of course, that didn't stop him from teleporting again and again... and again. All she saw of him during that time was his obscured form. He didn't speak, and he didn't stop.

The Sun Princess's apprentice slammed her hoof down on the ground, releasing a frustrated shout. How many times did she teleport after the elusive ex-king? Thirty—forty times? Enough was enough. Though her special talent was magic as a whole, she had to relent. It was obvious that Sombra didn't want to see or speak with her. It was the opposite of what she expected. She anticipated some form of attack, especially since she was alone and in a position where she could easily be taken off guard.

She looked around at the small channel she currently occupied. It was relatively warm, and the arcane crystals that clung to the walls shed more than enough light upon her surroundings. With the exception of her own breathing, it was eerily quiet. But, not entirely. Somewhere in the deepest reaches of her mind, her own voice called out,“Where am I?”

And a familiar, crazed voice answered, “The caves beneath Canterlot, once home to greedy unicorns who wanted to claim the gems that could be found inside. And now, your prison.”

“Help! Help!”

Frowning, Twilight shook her head of the distant memory. Another dull scrape then prompted her to turn her head to look in the direction of a darker shaft. For a second, she thought she caught a glimpse of emerald. “I know you're there,” she said, knowing that her voice would carry, “and now I know you're here.” Her brow furrowed. “I don't know why you helped me, Sombra, but I want to know. I really do. So, I'm coming back tomorrow and you are going to talk to me!” Stomping her hoof for the second time, she spun around and took her leave.

Of course, there was no guarantee that Sombra would have a change of heart and talk to her. The only thing of which she was certain was that he would still be there when she returned. He had no place else to go. Twilight, on the other hoof, had a warm bed awaiting her. So, she departed from the cave—unaware of the curious eyes that watched her as she left.

~ *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~

Morning arrived all too soon. By the time Twilight successfully returned to her assigned room unnoticed, it was close to two in the morning. Sleep came easily enough, but it felt as though daylight came in the blink of an eye when she was slowly awakened by the golden rays that shone in through the window. Groaning, she rolled over and pulled the silk sheet over her head.

Unbeknownst to the unicorn, Spike was awake and, unfortunately, he wasn't about to let her slip back into a peaceful slumber. He jumped up on the bed. “Hey, Twilight, it's morning,” he said, giving her shoulder a shake. Her response was to mutter something unintelligible and wave him away with a flailing foreleg, so he shook her harder. “C'mon, Twi! Get up, it's almost time for breakfast!”

Her stomach growled at the mention of a morning meal. Curses, she thought with a sigh of defeat. “Okay, okay,” she grumbled. She tiredly kicked the sheet away and, running a hoof through her mane, she slid off the crystal bed. “Let me fix my hair first.”

Spike followed her to the vanity table. “So, sleepy-head, were you up late or somethin'?” he asked, grinning.

Twilight smiled and rolled her eyes as she smoothed the tangles out of her mane and tail with a brush. Oh, if only he knew. On second thought, would it be wise to let him know? Spike was a trustworthy confidant, especially if he was sworn to secrecy under the sacred Pinkie Promise. She mulled over the thought, weaving the last ribbon around her tail. No, she would have to think more on it before she came to a decision. “I wasn't reading, Spike,” she then said. “I was a little restless, so I went for a walk. Guess I got back later than I wanted.”

It wasn't the complete truth, but it also wasn't a complete lie.

The young dragon certainly bought it. “Huh, I didn't hear you go anywhere,” he replied. “I was out like—” he snapped his claws— “that. Slept great, too.”

“Well, that makes one of us then.” Smiling, she trotted to the door and she pulled it open with her magic.

The last thing she expected to see was Flash Sentry on the other side. The look of surprise on his face and his raised hoof were signs that he was just about to knock. “Oh,” he uttered awkwardly. He then rubbed the back of his head and laughed. “You caught me off guard there, Miss Twilight.”

She chuckled. “Sorry about that. How may I help you, Mr. Sentry?”

“Please, just call me Flash, and Princess Cadance sent me to retrieve you and your assistant for breakfast.” He turned and smiled. “C'mon, I'll escort you two down to the dining hall.”

“Sweet!” exclaimed Spike. He pulled himself up onto Twilight's back. “Let's go grab some grub!”

With her assistant in tow, Twilight proceeded to follow the guard. In such an empty place, however, it only took a few silent minutes before she felt the need to strike up a conversation. “So, Flash,” she said, “how was your first night in the Crystal Empire?”

He looked over his shoulder at her. “Peaceful,” he replied. “I had no idea that an entire empire could be so quiet at night. It's totally the opposite of Canterlot.”

“I can definitely see how that would take some getting used to, especially if you grew up there.” Canterlot was a busy city that came with a bustling nightlife. It wasn't as energetic as that of Manehattan or Baltimare, but it was enough to guarantee that there was never a silent night in the Royal City.

The stallion nodded. “Yep, Canterlot-born and raised! You, too? I mean, I guess you did if you're Princess Celestia's pupil.”

“Well, you guessed right.”

“I'm surprised I never saw you around before.”

“Yeah, well, I spent the majority of my fillyhood either reading or studying under the Princess.” It was both, most of the time; she prided herself in multitasking.

Spike rolled his eyes. “That's an understatement,” he muttered. “Twilight here had her muzzle buried in a book almost every hour of every day before we moved to Ponyville.”

Flash's eyes widened. “Wow, seriously? You really like to read, don't ya?”

Her cheeks turned pink. “Uh, yes, I do...”

“Hey, I'm not judging! You're an Element of Harmony, the student of Princess Celestia herself, and you helped save Equestria twice so far. I'm sure all that reading helped you achieve those things one way or another.”

She felt her face grow hotter. It was uncommon for her to hear others speak so highly of her accomplishments. “Thanks, that's nice of you to say.”

“No problem.” The pegasus stepped out of her path as he opened a large door. “Well, here's your stop! Go on in, I won't keep you and the little guy waiting.”

“Thank you very much, Flash.”

“It was no trouble at all. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to return to my station.” He smiled, then bowed his head as he turned in the opposite direction. “I'll see you around, Miss Twilight.”

Twilight paused for a moment as she watched the stallion walk away, then she strolled into the dining hall. “He was nice,” she said.

Spike frowned. “Yeah, but if he calls me 'little' one more time I'll set his mane on fire.”



Shaking her head, she made her way to the long, crystal-carved table that set in the center of the chamber. Her brother, Cadance, and all her friends were already seated and enjoying the variety of breakfast items that had been placed out for them. The smell of the warm food made Twilight's mouth water and her stomach rumbled in anticipation.

Applejack was the first to notice her and Spike, and she waved them over. “Mornin', Spike! Mornin', Twi!” she said. “Come 'n get some of this here grub while it's still hot!”

In unison, everypony's attention shifted to the violet-colored unicorn as she took a seat between Princess Cadance and Rainbow Dash. Across the way, Rarity immediately set a clean plate in front of her—flashing a quick smile to Spike as he slid into the vacant seat at her side. “Long night, Twilight?” she inquired.

Twilight levitated a scoop of applesauce onto her plate. “Hmm?”

“You're normally an early-riser, darling. Some of us thought you would sleep right through breakfast.”

“Oh, yeah, I had trouble sleeping last night, so I walked around outside for a little bit. I got back later than I intended, though.”

Cadance chuckled. “Perhaps we should have let you sleep in, then.”

“No, it's fine. It was actually Spike who got me out of bed this morning.”

“That's good, and probably better than if you were awakened by Flash Sentry pounding on your door.”

“If I had known we'd be staying, I would've packed my alarm clock. I would've made it down here sooner.”

Rolling her eyes, Rainbow Dash wrapped a foreleg around Twilight's shoulders. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's not like you're a fortune-teller or anythin', but now that you are here, I can tell everypony—”

Without warning, Pinkie Pie appeared between them—pressing the tip of her nose against that of her unicorn friend. “Gee, Twilight, if you needed a wake-up call so bad I would've let you borrow Gummy!” She held her stoic, marble-eyed pet above her head. “He's great at waking ponies up!” She beamed with cheer, oblivious that the tiny alligator was now attempting to chew on one of her ears.

Twilight forced a smile of her own. “You... You brought Gummy with you?”

“Of course, silly! I couldn't leave him at home by himself.”

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “How the hay did you even—”

She was interrupted for a second time as Applejack covered her mouth with a hoof. “Leave it be, sugarcube,” she sighed. “Tryin' to make heads or tails of it will only make yer head hurt.”

Rainbow glared at her, but she wisely took the advice. Clearing her throat, she crossed her forelegs on the table. “As I was saying, I wanted to let everypony know that I'll be spending the day down at the arena.” Her lips curled up into a large, excited grin. “The crystal pony guards heard of my and Fluttershy's jousting matches, and they want me to help them get back in shape!”

Fluttershy's ears folded back against her head as she sank into her seat. “You aren't going to make me go, are you?”

“Nah, Shy, you can sit this out.”

Rarity frowned. “Is it a good idea, though?” she questioned. “It sounds awfully dangerous.”

“Hey, I'll be wearing armor!”

“Well, that's a given, and it looks marvelous on you, but what about—”

Shining Armor gently tapped his hoof on the table. “It's safe, I assure you,” he said, glancing over the face of every mare at the table. “I checked all the arena's gear myself and it's all training equipment. The crystal armor sets are enchanted to deflect minor physical forces and the lances are purposefully dull. Rainbow Dash and the crystal guards will be fine.”

Twilight huffed out a sigh of relief. “That's good to know, Shining.”

The alicorn seated beside her merely nodded, not daring to speak with her mouth full of porridge. Everypony else seemed pleased with the information, so various conversations carried on without worry. As she satisfied her hunger, Twilight unknowingly drowned out the voices as the previous night's events repeatedly played out in her mind's eye.

Sombra had quite the hideout. It was distant, warm, and he even went through the trouble of constructing his own furniture. Yet, for reasons unknown, it seemed that he was making trips back and forth between the empire and his den. She concluded that one of those reasons was to retrieve the books that were stashed on his shelves. She guessed that even a tyrannical ex-king needed reading material.

But, what else? What else would he need out there in the cold, barren...?

As Twilight lifted a fragrant orange slice to her mouth, it finally dawned on her. Crushing the juicy fruit fragment between her teeth, she smiled and glanced over the plates, bowls, and baskets of food that littered the table's surface. Even for seven mares, a stallion, and a dragon, it was far too much. There would be leftovers, and that gave her a most wonderful idea.

Author's Note:

Sombra's an elusive son of a gun, isn't he? Don't worry, there will be more of him in the next chapter.

Also, in case you awesome people missed the update, I went back added "Suggested Listening" tracks to every chapter, as well as some format editing. I will continue to do so with future chapters, since it's something I planned on doing ever since I came up with this fanfiction.

Well, I finally got around to it. Yay!