• Published 11th Jun 2012
  • 4,240 Views, 180 Comments

Renaissance Pony - Dafaddah

In the late middle ages, Celestia foresees trouble for humanity and seeks help

  • ...


Renaissance Pony

Chapter 18: Machinations

by Dafaddah

Globe spanning editorial team: Microshazm and SecondLaw

"Yes, yes! Hold thy steeds, I come!" These midnight calls are becoming a cursed habit! thought Starswirl. As is this Royal Canterlot Voice nonsense. The banging on his door continued unabated as he simultaneously tried to rub the sleep from his eyes with one hoof, struggle into his night robe, and hobble on three legs to the entrance of his quarters.

He grumbled as he raised the bolt and opened the door. "Is everypony in the castle conspiring to rob me of my sleep this week?" The door creaked open, exposing a green muzzle sticking out of an amorphous heavy cloak. Nevertheless, he knew immediately who it was, and stepped aside.

Clover the Clever rushed into his antechamber, pulling off the heavy garment while Starswirl shut and re-bolted the door. The look the stallion gave him was troubled, and his eyes were wide with fear.

“Lad,” said Starswirl, “I haven’t seen you this afraid since the night little Hydrangea was born. What is it?”

“Maestro, we sent out a recovery team last night. They failed to return,” said Clover in a low voice. “We just got word from our agent in the Crystal Empire. They were caught and will be brought before Sombra soon.”

Starswirl felt his heart drop into his stomach. He swallowed and tried to show a calm demeanour to the younger stallion. Behind Clover in the parlour, a small bulb on the mantelpiece broke and its contents wisped away rapidly out through the window.

“Who was it?” asked Starswirl. A flash of light emanated from the parlour, momentarily blinding both unicorns.

Clover squinted and looked back to his teacher. “It was Sky Blue and Summer Breeze, Maestro. Sky’s the young pegasus who is the nephew of...” Clover's jaw dropped and he hastily bowed as a large white figure moved into sight.

“...Hydrangea Blue," finished Princess Celestia. "The very same mare who gave her life to save your dear wife’s, and for whom your sweet little four year old filly is named.” She acknowledged Starswirl’s bow with a nod of her head. “With my sister leaving for the Crystal Empire on the morrow, this could not have happened at a more delicate time.” She turned her gaze back upon Clover, who was visibly trembling.

The Princess took a deep breath. “Yes, Clover, I am aware of this little clandestine operation you, Princess Platinum, and Starswirl have organized to rescue ponies from the mines of the Crystal Empire.” She winked at the elder mage. “Thankfully not everypony thinks me so obsessed with the law that I can’t overlook a bit of pony smuggling when I believe it might save lives.”

“The question, Princess, is what can we do about our captured pair?” said Starswirl.

Her gaze turned inward for a moment. “Luna categorically refuses my help in dealing with Sombra, even though the thaumic disturbance from the Crystal Empire grows almost daily. And your solution to the vote in the Equine Assembly has left me little room to manoeuvre.” This time she made her displeasure at Starswirl’s initiative plain. “Increasingly, ponies from all over Equestria are feeling a strange malaise, even amongst those who are unaware of the dreadful things happening in the Crystal Empire." She looked up.

“Starswirl, this delegation to Sombra fills me with dread. Your reports on the situation there do nothing to ease my mind. Perhaps it’s time to bring together the Elements of Harmony and have them join my sister in the Crystal Empire. I know for a fact that she will be bringing the three Elements she holds with her.”

Starswirl took a moment to consider his words. “Majesty, that is taking quite a risk.” Starswirl’s expression grew grim. “Your sister does not approve of what you have done with your own three Elements. Will she co-operate should we decide to use them?”

Starswirl glanced at Clover, who stared from one pony to the other, evidently aghast that he should openly express such doubts of Princess Luna. He felt a wave of guilt for having put the young unicorn and Princess Celestia in such an awkward situation.

Celestia blinked her eyes. Only one who knew her well would have seen the hurt briefly reflected there. She flashed a pained smile. “I have confidence that my sister will do what is right when the moment arises, Maestro, and so should you.”

Clover still looked as if he had been told to swallow a cat. He placed a hoof on the young stallion's withers. “Don’t worry, lad. I’m sure her majesty is quite right and that we've nothing to fear. Let’s get the other elements here in the morning.”

Princess Celestia and Clover both looked relieved. She nodded her head. “Starswirl, I’m relying on you to do what must be done if the situation in the Crystal Empire becomes untenable.” Her stare bored into Starswirl’s very soul.

He smiled. “Yes, majesty,” he said, putting more confidence into the words than he truly felt. “We will hold nothing back, and we will not fail you.” He knew what she was asking. From the plainly audible gulp next to him he guessed so had Clover.

She stared at him a moment longer, her troubled expression giving way to one of embarrassed relief. “Good. Then I’m sure the two of you still have much to discuss, and I cannot delay the dawn, even for two worthy stallions such as yourselves.” A warm smile lit her ethereally beautiful face, and she disappeared in another flash of light.

“Well, lad, it’s finally time to prove that the Express isn’t just for smuggling ponies. We have some planning to do.” Starswirl indicated a table in his parlour sporting a half empty bowl of fruit. I’ll need to have that bowl filled more often! he thought, and followed Clover in.

“Sky Thunder?” hissed the voice, “I, Summer Thyme, am most disappointed in you!” Even though it was a low whisper in the semi-darkness of a dingy cell, Sky could hear the irony in Summer's voice.

Sky grinned and rubbed the back of his still throbbing head as he picked himself up from the dirty hay. “Hey, I was under pressure,” he whispered back. “And by the way," he gestured with his eyes back towards the cell door, "I’m sure that this is all a misunderstanding and that kind unicorn will help us get a fair hearing from King Sombra.” He chose what he said carefully, all the while thinking: Please, uncle Hy, get my Summer out of this mess!

They had been kept in separate cells for a number of hours, but then the guards had literally thrown him in with Summer. They obviously can hear everything we say, which is why they put us together, he thought. His concern for Summer fought with the urge to rush up and hug her. It’s safer for both of us if we don’t appear to be so close.

There was the sound of keys jangling and a gate opening. The sounds of several ponies’ hooves on the stone floor reverberated, until he saw the door to the cell open again and three ponies were roughly pushed into the small cell with them. The guard took one look at Sky’s surprised expression and laughed uproariously.

“Har! Sorry we cain’t give you lovebirds any privacy t’night. We’ve got a royal delegation visitin’ all the way from Equestria and we needed to clear the upper levels a bit. So you sweet’arts’ll just have to put up with some comp’ny in our fine accommodations. The more the merrier, eh? Har!” He laughed all the way out and locked the door.

The new arrivals looked Sky and Summer over. Seeing the pegasi’s folded wings, a look of fear passed over their muzzles. They huddled together as far as they could from the pair. Sky had seen the reaction before. Sombra employed pegasi and unicorns to keep the Crystal Empire’s earth ponies subdued, and consequently they were feared by most of the population. One of the ponies coughed, showing evidence of an advanced case of Crystal Lung.

Sky inched closer to Summer, giving the other ponies a bit more room. “I just hope that unicorn can help these poor ponies as well as us.”

Summer nodded silently.

“We’d better get some sleep. If there’s a delegation from Equestria here that unicorn might show up at any time.” He lay down next to Summer in the straw. With a last glance at the crystal ponies eyeing them warily, he closed his eyes.

The Thestral Guard detachment formed up in two parallel lines along the red carpet leading to King Sombra’s throne. As Princess Luna progressed down the aisle at a regal pace, the Guards saluted her with impeccable timing, a display of precision and discipline that brought a smile to her lips. King Sombra’s own unicorn and pegasi guards seemed clumsy and rude in comparison, and the expression on their muzzles bore witness to the fact that they knew it.

She looked up to the throne where King Sombra sat, wearing the crown of the Crystal Empire and dressed in the grey uniform and cape of its Royal Guard. He seemed completely oblivious to the interplay between their respective forces. A glance from the corner of her eyes showed that the throne room was for the most part deserted, not a good sign, but she was confident her Guard Captain was already sizing up the situation. Good, she thought. This way there’s less scope for collateral damage.

She arrived at the dais. A smaller vacant throne stood to the right of Sombra’s at an angle, presumably so the two sovereigns could converse. Sombra rose, nodded, and beckoned her to take the other throne. She nodded back, climbed three steps of the dais, and stood before King Sombra. She looked into his eyes. They had a certain glow to them and a ghostly impression of flames wreathed his head. Nevertheless, she knew in an instant it was him.

“Welcome to the Crystal Empire, Princess Luna. Please sit with me.” The two each took their respective seats. “Let’s ensure our deliberations are not interrupted, Princess.” At a gesture from Sombra, the doors of the immense hall closed and his guards relaxed slightly. He looked at Luna expectantly.

“Very well.” She gave the signal and her own detachment assumed parade rest, appearing no less lethal for the change.

She had been gazing at Sombra all the while.

“Hello, father,” she said. “It has been... a long time.”

Sombra's expression relaxed and warmed slightly. "Hello, my little Luna. How I've missed you!"

Luna took a breath. "Father, why did you break your exile? Did you truly think we would take no action if you did?"

He flashed a brief smile. "We? You still cling to Celestia in preference to your own sire?" He shook his head and sighed. "In answer to your question, things were falling apart in Equestria in her Celestial Majesty’s absence. The windigo incident merely proved my point: these ponies in which she and her parents were so proud are nothing more than an incomplete and inferior replica of ourselves. They are like foals, simple creatures, too weak to govern themselves. It is a kindness for such as we to take them under our guidance, no?”

Luna didn’t know if her father had seen the brief blush of shame on her face at the mention of the windigo invasion. The thought that he had, as much as his words, vexed her. “You seem to forget that one of Celestia's parents was also my mother, and briefly, your wife." She sniffed. "Do not confuse how Celestia and I govern Equestria with the ham-fisted oppression of your own regime, father. Our concern is nothing less than the happiness of our subjects.”

“Ha, ha, ha!” Sombra laughed on his throne and lean forward. “I have no doubts about your motivations nor your convictions, my daughter! Unlike that pale hypocrite, you have never flinched from doing what was necessary." Leaning back, he grew serious. "No, despite our differences of opinion, I have always been proud of you, Luna, especially in these past decades."

"Words are easily said." Luna looked warily at her father. "But deeds speak louder and far more eloquently. When you returned to Equestria you broke your word, and then you came here and usurped this empire by subterfuge and murder." Luna finally let some of the misery she felt be reflected in her expression. "Thousands have died!" She stood and waved a hoof. "Truly, how can you sit there and to my very face profess that this was worth it?"

"Ha, ha, ha! You most certainly are right, my daughter." He raised a hoof in imitation of Luna's gesture. "All of this isn't worth it. It's a minor country of deluded earth ponies, cowards who quake in fear at the sight of a unicorn or a pegasus. What a farce of a nation! Who would be foal enough to want this pocket empire in the frozen north?" He stood from his throne. "Not I, that's for sure!" His eyes glowed brighter. "No, I came here for something else entirely. I came here to restore what was rightfully mine by birth! I came to this contemptible, puffed up backwater..." The wreath of flames around his head grew bigger. He clutched the collar of his shirt and pulled it aside. “...for this!”

Luna stared, eyes wide. The sight drew her gaze and refused to let it go. “What is it?” she whispered. She tried to turn her head, but the object steadfastly refused to let her look away.

Her father smiled crookedly. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” He stroked it with a hoof. “I call it the Alicorn Amulet, for it restored that which was taken from me. By her.” These last words were said with a sneer.

Luna could feel the power coursing through the amulet. Its thaumic aura was not unlike that of the Elements of Harmony. However, where their power uplifted and attracted, the Amulet exerted pressure. Looking into it felt like galloping into a strong wind. Her heart pounded in her breast.

“Yes!” he chortled. “You feel it too!”

Luna struggled to respond. Why... can’t... I... think? It was as if the very world had shrunk down to the size of the Amulet: its hold on her senses was so overwhelming that all else faded into insignificance. With a huge effort she was able to blurt out one word. “How?”

Sombra’s smile was a predatory rictus. “The crystal ponies! Centuries of earth pony magic has caused thaumic excrescence into the very bedrock of the land! All along the ley lines, crystal ore formed. Distilled, it is the very essence of thaumic potential. I have concentrated it all into this one object of power, and through it I am made whole again!”

The edges of Luna’s sight were growing dim. The sound of her father’s voice became tinny and weak, all but drowned out by the sound of her beating heart. Something dark at the core of her being had reacted to the amulet. This something desired the amulet, with a burning and all-consuming passion. All sight faded but the amulet. Thought fled. I... want!

She stepped closer to Sombra and growled. “You don’t deserve it!” she shouted. Oddly, as if she were a stranger in her own mind, a piece of her could still observe what she was doing, but was powerless to act. Luna, what are you doing? it asked.

“You were never strong enough!” she heard her own voice say. “You were always a follower, joining one lost cause after another.” Please, stop. But the voice was not done. “And finally it was just you and Discord, and you failed. You do not deserve the amulet.” Please. “But I do!” A mist of green and black shrouded her head. “Give it to me,” hissed the voice.

Sombra stared in disbelief and rage at his daughter. “What?! You would betray me, your father?” The darkness about his eyes deepened. “I thought I could reason with you. I thought you would understand why all this was necessary.” He sneered. “I thought you would come back to me and together we could rule this world!” His howl of anger and anguish reverberated through the lofty room.

Luna stepped forward. “The amulet!” she shouted, eyes glowing green and streaked with black. “Give me the amulet!”

“Never!’ shouted Sombra. A wall of thaumic equipotential built up between the two, bathing the entire throne room in an unearthly light. The nearest Thestral and Crystal guards were bodily thrown back by the thaumaturgic discharge.

Finally, their respective guard detachments realized that they were now in open conflict. As their sovereigns fought an unmoving battle of magical will, the guards engaged each other. Despite being outnumbered two to one, the Thestral Guards proved by far the superior fighters. In moments Sombra’s Guards were incapacitated, and the Thestrals converged on the pair fighting a magical battle upon the dais.

‘Your forces are defeated. Surrender!” said Luna through gritted teeth.

“Are they now?” said Sombra. “Then perhaps your own troops can fight in their stead!”

The part of Luna that remained lucid heard the sounds of renewed clashes around her. Behind Sombra and the amulet she saw her own thestrals fighting each other. The shock enabled her to focus away from the amulet for just a moment, and she noticed many of her guards’ eyes had become opaque ovals of green glowing light. Those guards were now fighting their own comrades, of which several had already dropped and lay in pools of their own blood. Her concentration wavered.

“No!” she cried, and with all of her will fought to regain control of her body. There was a loud snap and she felt herself falling. An anguished voice echoed in her head. The amulet! It must be mine! She heard Sombra snarl in triumph, and then everything went dark.

With a sniff, Hyacinth Blue looked at the bloodied area surrounding King Sombra’s throne. Oddly enough, most of Princess Luna’s Thestrals seemed to have joined Sombra’s personal guard. He bowed to the King. “Well done, your majesty! What do you wish done with the princess?” The princess in question stood immobile, and looked almost grey. From certain angles it was possible to see sparkling reflections, as if she lay within a solidified thaumic field, which he assumed was actually the case.

“Take her to the dungeon, Blue. The spell I placed on her will keep her incapacitated.” His expression hardened. “And tell the guards that if any harm comes to her I will personally flay their hides.” He sighed and suddenly seemed like a completely different pony. “She is special to me.”

Hyacinth raised an eyebrow. “Oh, a former acquaintance?”

“No,” said Sombra. “She’s my daughter.”

“Oh,” said Hy, genuinely confused.

“What about the mage, Starswirl?” asked Sombra.

“Nopony has seen him, nor the several other members of the Equestrian delegation who are part of his staff.”

“That is troubling,” Sombra raising a hoof to his chin.

“We will keep searching. In the meantime, I have a delivery to make.” The body of Princess Luna floated gently in the air behind him. He bowed and left with his burden.

Starswirl the Bearded crept stealthily through the back passages of the Crystal Palace. His invisibility cantrip would prevent him and his friends from being perceived by any casual observer, as long as they didn’t touch anypony. Thank you for teaching me that one, Celestia! he thought. Finally, they made it to the rendez-vous point near an external window.

“So what are we going to do now?” asked Clover.

“We,” said Starswirl, “and the Crystal Ponies are going to fight back.” As they were all invisible it was impossible for Starswirl to see the lad’s expression, but he had a good idea of what might be on his mind. From a pocket inside his cloak he pulled out a small vial and crushed it under one of his hind hooves. A moment later there was a flash of light and Princess Celestia herself appeared. Starswirl also negated the cantrip, allowing all the ponies in his group to see each other.

“Since you have called me I assume my sister has failed in her mission,” said Celestia sadly. “Please... tell me what happened.”

“Sombra defeated her. It seems he’s magically turned her to stone, majesty, as well as ensorcelled most of the Thestral Guard detachment that accompanied her. We have a report that she has been transported to the castle dungeon. The same source has informed us that our missing pegasi are also incarcerated there.” He lifted the hem of his cloak, showing several pieces of jewellery, each sporting a huge coloured gem. “I was also able to get the Elements of Harmony from her baggage.”

Celestia looked sadly at the display. “So then, are we ready, Starswirl?” she asked.

“Yes, majesty,” he replied. “The volunteers of the Overcloud Express have been marshalled, and are ready to move. Our advance scouts report good news: the enemy’s defences have mostly been planned to fight ground based forces, and from non-magical attacks at that. We will attack the palace and seek to extract your sister and our agents. Then we will assist you in defeating Sombra.”

The Princess nodded, looking grim. “Then let us begin,” she said.

Iron Anvil was a truly muscular Crystal Pony. He had been condemned to work in the mines for preventing one of Sombra’s pegasi goons from stealing fruit from his sister’s stand at the market. Once in the mines he was condemned to death for striking one of the unicorn overseers. The day before the sentence was to be carried out he escaped with the help of the Overcloud Express and had been a member ever since. Today he pedalled mightily, one of four earth pony 'engineers' powering the huge flying machine.

The Maestro called it an Air-screw. Also on board were a pegasus pilot - her magic made the craft much lighter than it would have been otherwise - and a unicorn whose sole job was to dish out and protect them from magical attacks.

Together they could haul some twelve ponies and take off and land in places where it would be impossible for a pegasus drawn chariot. There were three such Air Screws in the attack force, and it was their job to get the princess and the rest of the Equestrian delegation out of the Crystal Palace dungeon.

Flying around them impossibly fast were also six Tri-planes. He glanced over his sweating back as one flew by. Each Tri-plane looked like a large box kite with a smaller screw set in back. An earth pony pedalled to make the screw turn, while a pegasus piloted and a unicorn provide defensive and offensive magic. The Tri-planes’ job was to protect the Air-screws from attack by enemy pegasi. Or at least that was the plan. None of this had ever been tested in a real engagement. He gritted his teeth, the corners of his lips curling up slightly. Better look out Sombra, he thought, Iron Anvil’s coming down at you from above!

Periodically he saw the Crystal Palace. It was not very close, and the side building that also housed the dungeon was now visible. He heard the sound of an alarm bell ringing. Several flights of pegasi burst from the Palace. The gap between them closed inexorably.

Harvey banked left hard and dove towards Sombra’s oncoming pegasi forces. He was normally a pretty timid pony, but there was something about piloting one of these flying machines that woke the predator hidden deep inside. Sky refused to go on mock dogfights with him, but he had provided Harvey his piloting call name: Scythe. A picture of the tool was painted on the plane’s tail, like some aerial version of a cutie mark.

“Ready fireballs!” he shouted to Speck, his unicorn artificer. “Maximum volley, multiple targets. We only get one chance at a first impression!” He laughed. Nopony on the ground would ever believe he would say such a thing.

“Aye!” replied the unicorn, his horn glowing as he prepared his spell. Speck got his call name form the spots on his flying cloak after he first flew with Scythe. Despite the ribbing it caused him, he came back to fly with him the next day.

Plow was a deceptively powerful earth pony. Thin as a whip, he was tireless at the pedals and so fast that theirs was by a solid margin the fastest of all the Tri-plane crews.

Carefully he lined up with the hapless defenders, and just as he expected, the first pegasus flinched and began to bank right. “Fire!” he yelled.

Several balls of flame exploded from Speck’s horn. The first one hit the banking pegasus in the wing, melting feathers and causing him to spin out of the battle. The second ball caught the next pegasus in line squarely on the chest, singing fur and causing that pony to screech and dive headlong for the massive fountain in the Palace Square. The third ball hit the next pegasus defender on the flank, hiding his cutie mark with a dark scorch. That pony howled and dove out of sight.

“Three in one strafe. Not bad!” shouted Scythe. He looked around and noted that close to half of Sombra’s pegasi had already left the field of engagement. The Tri-planes buzzed like angry wasps around the Crystal palace tower, and the Air-screws advanced on to their target unmolested.

From a balcony near the bottom of the Crystal Palace, he saw a flight of Princess Luna’s Thestrals take flight. He smiled. Reinforcements! As they gained altitude and approached, he noticed a strange green glow around their eyes. I wonder what that’s all about, he thought, and waited for his allies to arrive.

Princess Celestia took advantage of the uproar caused by the arrival of the Overcloud Express force to make her way deep into the palace. The doors to the throne room weren’t even shut. She entered the room unopposed.

Sombra sat upon his throne, surrounded by his guards and, quite disturbingly, much of the Thestral detachment Luna had brought with her. It didn’t take him long to notice her.

“Well, well. Look who just strolled in uninvited,” called Sombra from upon the dais. Many of his guards began to move in her direction. “The Heiress of Harmony has come to visit me in my humble abode. I’m honoured, Princess.” He sketched a mock bow.

“I’m not here to trade insults with you Sombra,” said Celestia. “I’m here to take my sister, and you, back to Equestria and justice, respectively.” She stopped about half of the way to the throne itself. “Stand down and submit.” Her voice left no room for debate.

“Oh my. Has the lily-white mare finally condescended to do her own dirty work?” Celestia noted an evil green gleam to his eyes and a wreath of flames around his head. “How unconventional. You usually have no qualms sending my daughter into danger in your stead, just as you did earlier today. As her parent I am most vexed with you.”

“Oh? Need I remind you that you’re the one who turned her into a statue?”

“I did nothing so crude as what you did to Discord. The enchantment is purely temporary, until she regains her senses,” sniffed Sombra.

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean, ‘regains her senses’?”

“I mean that she attacked me, her father, unprovoked!” Sombra’s expression grew angry. “I know my Luna. She would never willingly cause me harm.” His expression darkened even further. “It must be because of you! You have poisoned her mind against me!”

Celestia was honestly taken aback. “You can believe any delusion which you might conceive, King Sombra,” said Celestia archly. “But know this: my sister came here of her own free will, even though I recommended strongly against it. It was her plan all along to ask you to step down willingly, or should you refuse, to disable you and remove you from the Crystal Empire.”

“You lie!” shouted Sombra, leaning forward. “It’s you who wants to take away my power and again leave me helpless and weak.” As he leaned further, a large gold pendant slipped from beneath his shirt and hung before his chest. She could see the outline of a unicorn head and feathered wings. Even from this distance, it seemed as if its small red eye was watching her.

She could feel the call of power, heady and intoxicating. It whispered to her every insecurity and self-doubt. It promised inviolability, control, a world of perfect order and Harmony unbroken. With the amulet she could simply impose harmony. Nopony could resist, nopony.

No! Celestia shook her head. With alarm she noticed that she was now surrounded by Sombra's guards. In a blink she created a force bubble around herself just as Starswirl had taught her. She then created a thaumaturgic lever to shove it forward suddenly. The guards nearest her were thrown back. She galloped towards Sombra, her force bubble scattering the guards unlucky enough to be in her path.

Sombra rose from his throne and roared. The green glow in his eyes became intense and he also began to gallop towards Celestia. Beams of sickly green light projected from his eyes, leaving scorch marks on whatever and whoever they touched. They approached headlong and Celestia projected a blast of white light from her own eyes, pushing back the beams from Sombra's. She braced herself, and the two collided in a flash of green and white light.

It was a moment before Celestia regained her senses. Sombra lay on the floor next to her shaking his head. They looked up at each other simultaneously, and both were enveloped in flashing force bubbles. Lightning burst forth in resounding crackles where the bubbles met. Celestia could clearly see Sombra's face. He leered at her across the short expanse.

"The last time I was in this situation I won!" shouted Sombra.

Celestia smiled her own fierce scowl. "Then it's time to show you that I don't mind getting my own hooves dirty!" There was a blast of magenta light and Sombra was sent sprawling again.

Sky heard a rattle as the guard approached. Behind him was a familiar blue unicorn followed by a dark shape floating it the air.

The pegasi guard approached their cell. Laughing, he unlocked the door. "Since you lovebirds 'ave been such good prisoners we've a treat for you." He waved behind him. "You get to share a room with an honest to goodness princess. Imagine that. Har!"

Behind him the floating object lowered to the floor. It looked to be a statue of a pony. The unicorn approached. The guard stepped back to give him room, and had only time to blink in surprise before slowly collapsing to the floor.

"Nice punch, uncle Hy!" remarked Sky. He went to the door and wrapped the stallion in a fierce hug.

"Uncle Hy?" said Summer. "This unicorn is your uncle?"

"Yep. He's my dad's brother. That makes him my uncle."

"And he works for Sombra?"

Uncle Hy winced. "I guess it's worked for Sombra now." He chuckled as a scroll and pen levitated from under his cloak. "Starswirl is standing by. Now that I that I've located you, let's get you all back to Equestria." The pen scribbled quickly across the page, then the document disappeared in a puff of smoke. He turned to exit the cell.

"Uh, Uncle Hy?"

"Yes, Sky?" the unicorn glanced back over his withers.

"What about them?" Sky pointed at the crystal ponies huddling in the corner.

"Follow us." Hy said to the ponies, and then smiled. "One way tickets to freedom on the Overcloud Express, complements of the Stationmaster." He saluted.

"He's the Stationmaster?" Summers's eyes were fit to burst from her head.

"Indeedy!" said Sky. "That's my uncle Hy - my favourite uncle." He winked to the unicorn in question. "Don't tell uncle Mo I said that."

With a laugh Hyacinth Blue shook his head and exited the cell. He resumed levitating the statue of the princess. Warily, the three crystal ponies followed them out.

Iron Anvil felt the Air-screw shudder as it landed on top of the castle annex that housed the dungeon. He was in charge of the "ground crew". He peeled out of the craft with two of his fellow earth pony engineers. Behind them scrambled Fillygree, their unicorn artificer, as well as four more ponies from another of the Air-screws. It had taken Iron several months to get used to working with pegasi and unicorns, the dreaded enforcers of Sombra's guard. But he had to admit, the ones working with the Express were good ponies, nothing like Sombra's acolytes.

The task assigned to Iron's team was nothing less than securing an escape route from the dungeon to the Air-screws. He waved the team forward and pointed from Fillygree to the doors that led into the building. She rushed ahead and swivelled a smoked glass visor over her eyes. Iron looked away just as an intensely bright light lit between her cupped forehooves. It took a moment, and with a clunk the doors swung inward revealing a stairwell leading down. Iron and the other unicorn, Slingshot, rushed into the stairwell followed by the rest of the troop.

They descended several flights before coming out into a deserted corridor. Iron left two earth ponies to defend the access to the stairwell, and then the remainder of the troop burst into the main hall of the dungeon. There were three pegasi and one unicorn stationed there. Unfortunately for them they were looking out of the windows at the aerial battle underway. The unicorn guard was hit by twin balls of lightning and fell to the floor unconscious. The pegasi were also quickly subdued. All four were tied up and the unicorn's head was covered with a hood.

Iron looked around in satisfaction. It was their job to hold this position, and come Sombra himself, that's exactly what they would do!

A scroll materialized in the air just above Starswirl's head. He caught it in one hoof just as it became fully formed. The others looked on anxiously as he read it. "We know where they're keeping Luna as well as Summer and Sky. Follow me!" Together they took off down the corridor leading to the annex building.

His agent had sent him a map, so Starswirl led his crew at a gallop down various halls and stairs. They were only challenged once by a unicorn guard in Sombra's colours. Starswirl's horn glowed and a mirrored force bubble enclosed the guard's head. The unicorn then went careening down the corridor, blinded but otherwise unhurt.

Finally they reached their destination. A blue unicorn stood waiting with a whole crowd of ponies. Luna's immobile form floated in the air next to him.

"Hello Starswirl, Clover." He nodded. Behind him Sky and Summer moved forward and saluted.

"Stationmaster, Sky, Summer. It's truly a relief to find you safe and sound." He hugged each of the three of them warmly in turn. Then he turned to Princess Luna. He examined he carefully, especially the eyes. He levitated her form and turned her upside down, still looking closely at her face. He touched the fur on her neck: it was as inflexible as the hardest stone. He gently placed her upright back onto her legs. The other ponies looked on in bemused confusion as he concluded his examination.

"Clover, please come here and when I tell you flash a tight beam of white light into the princess' eyes." Clover moved into position. His horn glowed. "Now." There was a brief flash of painfully bright light. "Excellent!" He rubbed his forehooves together. "All of you stand back for a moment. The thaumic field I am about to conjure will be lethal to any who touch it."

He moved back himself and concentrated a moment. A glow spread from his horn to encompass Luna's entire body. Her form went totally black for a moment, and then returned to colour and motion. Her head drooped to the floor as she gasped for breath.

"The amulet!" she cried, then slumped down to the floor.

"Princess Luna, are you injured?" asked Starswirl.

When she looked up her eyes momentarily swirled with green and black. The colour slowly faded and her breathing slowed.

"Starswirl." Her voice was barely above a whisper. "What happened?"

"It appears Sombra has learned temporal magic. His spell enclosed you in a zero-time bubble. It was quite clever, actually, but once I figured it out it was easily enough dispelled."

Luna looked at him for a moment. "Thank you. I'm in your debt, Maestro." She looked up at him miserably. "But I must report I have failed." Tears began to drop from her muzzle. "Oh, my poor Thestral Guards! He made them kill each other! Where is Sombra now?"

"Your sister went to battle him herself, Princess. We should..." he stopped as Luna jumped up onto all fours, eyes wide.

"Celestia!" she shouted, and disappeared with a pop.

All eyes turned to Starswirl. "Clover, come hold my hoof. The rest of you, follow the Stationmaster to the main guardroom. I have a force ready to extract you from this place waiting for you there."

Clover approached and placed a hoof in his.

"For your information, we are going to willingly teleport into the middle of an alicorn battle. Are you ready lad?"

Clover looked scared, but nodded his assent.

"Here we go." They jumped.