• Published 23rd Apr 2018
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Flash Sentry and the King's Ghost - Carabas

Flash Sentry, hero of Equestria and all-round cad, reckoned a peaceful posting in the Crystal Empire would keep him far away from any danger. He reckoned wrong.

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Chapter 2: A Whiff of Chloroform

A healthy imagination’s a horrible thing to possess.

Case in point, the couple of days between my arrival and the summit. At first, every shadow seemed to hold a vengeful loyalist to Sombra until inspected and found loyalist-less. Every stray glimmer from a crystal surface that had just been minding its own crystally business and reflecting nearby light sources found itself suspected of harbouring dark magics. A chambermaid who ambled into my quarters one evening to change my sheets might have been Sombra. She wasn’t, but it was a close-run thing.

I kept my outward cool, of course. Ponies would have asked questions if a national hero emitted terrified bleats all the time instead of normal discourse. But it took some doing. Trotting about with the impression that one’s back has become a target for unknown and deeply sinister forces is never good for a stallion’s ease of mind.

Glimpsing Carrot Top a few times over said days should have been somewhat reassuring. She’d usually be found somewhere in the wake of Chalcedony, who seemed to constantly drift through the palace like a very purposeful vision of loveliness, directing staff and overseeing preparations here and there, with Carrot Top close to her at most times. At least she was a source of violence and terror in my favour, should anything happen. But alas, all that did was remind my imagination that there were things out there she was on guard against.

Still, there were a few distractions on hoof, not least of which was my semi-official duty of making a good impression on the crystal ponies. That, I can claim with no false modesty, is a skill at which I excel. All I had to do was look sufficiently like the very image of Equestrian martial valour while smiling benignly enough to be approachable, and answer whatever questions the crystal ponies had while I stood on guard outside the palace or patrolled sedately here and there about the city.

They’d come up singly or in groups, I’d receive them with a Grade 3 Disarming Smile, and they’d quiz me on what had changed in the rest of Equestria since they’d fallen out of the loop (“Manehattan? Isn’t that just a couple of kelp-gatherers’ huts and a hole in the ground?”) and what had remained reassuringly samey (“Threats to all creation still as regular as the equinox, aye?”). I could answer with some authority — I’d done my research into what were and weren’t considered dangerous postings, after all — and for my trouble and in short order, found myself greeted and feted in taverns in my off-hours.

And I’ll grant them credit, their notion of what constituted entertainment was close to mine. True, their idea of a spectator sport was jousting, and their thespians wore hose and plate-sized ruffs unironically. But they played an antiquated version of backgammon that had yet to catch up to modern developments in the field of cheating, and the drink they served in their taverns was eminently drinkable for having been frozen in time for a thousand years. A few passed on rumours about yet more drinkable and venerable vintages lurking down in the palace’s own cellars. I would have thoroughly investigated said rumours before the summit. Alas there always seemed to be a pair of butlers armed with austere glances on duty, and I was obliged to withdraw on each attempt with muttered excuses about double-checking palace security.

Relations of a more conjugal nature weren’t in the offing either. The social mores of the crystal ponies still seemed to expect that prospective courters torture a lute or what-have-you outside the window of the subject of their affections before entry through said window would even be discussed. Willing though I may usually be to go to great extents to indulge my caddish vices, I just couldn’t bring myself to go that far. What’s any lute ever done to me that I should hurt it so?

And so I waited out the two days, put my talents and vices to work in keeping me distracted from the possible target on my back, and all throughout, other beings trickled into the palace to prepare for the summit. I recognised a lot of the high-and-mighty types from Canterlot and environs, as well as representatives from the territories, and even a few foreign types. Sleek and well-groomed ponies, griffons, buffalos, minotaurs, zebras, all sorts … as well as, most saliently, the Princesses and Element Bearers themselves the day before the summit.

I announced the latter when they arrived at the palace that day, though didn’t stay long after, in order to urgently pursue practising my legerdemain at the expense of what had hitherto been a perfectly fair game of backgammon in a tavern several streets away. Further path-crossing occurred, though, and it occurred shortly after tomorrow dawned. The day of the summit itself.

It dawned so innocently, as well.

I’d just roused myself from early-morning delirium, thoroughly polished and strapped myself into my dress barding, and ambled out on my rounds. On one of the upper floors, there was a commotion in the direction of a room that I’d clocked before — host to a dusty old mirror and little more — and I sidled my way there. It never hurts to be aware of any possible danger before it becomes aware of you, after all.

I rounded a corner in the corridor and stood for a moment to get my bearings, at which point Equestria’s newest princess collided into me skull-first. Mutual yelps rang out and she fell back. Gallantry-enhancing instincts which ran slightly deeper than my marrow kicked smoothly in, and I leaned in to help Princess Twilight to her hooves, giving her a medium dose of the Grade 5 Winning Smile as I did so.

She looked up with … recognition, possibly? It surely couldn’t have been affection, it hadn’t been a Grade 7 Smile or anything like potent enough to get that sort of reaction, and I hunted about for something smooth and disarming. Something occurred. “We've got to stop bumping into each other like this.”

Sometimes, I awe even myself. I trotted on in a suitably guardly manner, aware of conversation breaking out at my back between her, Cadence, and the other Element Bearers. Cheerful enough incident. One day, I presumed, I’d regale a whole litter of grandfoals about that time a princess concussed herself off me. But the fact that the whole group had apparently been trotting from the mirror room filled me with some trepidation. What was the significance of the mirror?

Once I was sure I was out of sight of the group, I lurched back into my wary sidle. If it had been a mirror that had just received the attention of all of them, then true, it wasn’t likely there was anything sinister about it. But look where that logic had gotten me so far.

I crept up to the room in question, and carefully craned my head round the ajar door. There stood the mirror, looking suitably mirror-y**. Other than that, nothing out of the ordinary, which is always a suspicious sign.

**Though Flash Sentry appears not to comment on it or to have joined the dots on this occasion, the object of the discussion is the dimension-bridging Crystal Mirror itself. Said artifact features regularly in the Times of Twilight as the cause of so many incidents too well-known and convoluted to be worth detailing here, such as the short-lived Sirenny, or the Night Of The Two Lunas. As somepony still in the process of preparing forthcoming memoirs for publication, let me assure you that Flash’s own perspective on the latter episode is a fascinating one.

I held my breath, wings tensed and ready to send me flapping away in the safest possible direction as soon as danger threatened, and kept a wary eye on the mirror. And I just about managed to not shriek when a soft voice at my side burred, “Inspecting the premises, Lieutenant Sentry?”

I whipped my head round, and was rewarded with the sight of Chalcedony. Trepidation vanished, to be replaced with happy gurgling from the atavistic inner stallion. I suppressed said gurgles, as well as the urge to find and clout a lesser stallion to prove my excellence as a partner, and nodded respectfully. “Good day, Chalcedony. Another round of security checks before the summit shan’t hurt anypony.”

She laughed brightly, the sound of it comparable to a clear mountain stream if you’re one of these soppy gits who thinks in terms of mountain streams and such. “Such diligence. We are all in very safe hooves, it is plain. How heartening to have you here.”

Parsed through antiquity though it may have been, I could tell when somepony was trying to lay it on with a trowel, and those nights where a lack of lute-tormenting skill had kept me lonesome now looked considerably more distant. Still best to play it smoothly, though. “Only doing my duty, Chalcedony.”

Chalcedony smiled, her velvet-dark eyes glittering like something a princess would wear about her brow. “Duty becomes you, Lieutenant Sentry.” She glanced from side to side, and then beckoned me with a hoof. “Please, trot with me for a spell. I have my own checks to make before the day’s events, and your company would assist greatly.”

“Oh? Well, I’d be happy to help, ma’am.” I glanced briefly back towards the mirror, and then fell in happy lockstep beside Chalcedony. The white robes she wore, I noticed, glimmered as if inlaid with enchantments and silvery thread. She turned to me as we trotted on.

“One of our old mysteries, that mirror,” she remarked. “The Crystal Empire has many of them. Mysteries made in days long past, the very names of their makers dust, their lore contested. We know not what the mirror does.” Her expression shifted for a moment, as if steel doors behind it had slammed shut. “Wiser and crueler minds tried to unravel its secrets as well. Do you think your princess has just succeeded where they failed?”

I shrugged. “If anypony could, I believe she could. She’s got form for uncovering ancient mysteries and sometimes saving Equestria into the bargain.”

“Ah, just so. Heroes abound. What a happy age we have awoken in.” Chalcedony sighed as we passed through the doorway leading down a spiralling stairway. The dark blue crystal walls and steps glimmered about us, specks of light glittering in them like captive constellations. Our hoofsteps echoed as we descended. “Lieutenant Sentry, may I confess something to you?”

“By all means.”

She leaned closer to me, all but whispering her next words, and I was achingly aware of the honeysuckle perfume she wore. “I have tried to unravel you. Learn what warranted your arrival here, your exaltation as a hero of Equestria. And I confess … I am delighted by what I found. You were truly so instrumental during the Battle of Canterlot?”

“I did my modest part.” Out the rote words came. “Other ponies served with much more distinction and courage, and they deserve the recognition I’ve received and more.”

Chalcedony clapped her forehooves mid-trot and beamed, and managed to not tumble down the stairs with sheer poise alone. “The gallant response. I am not easily fooled, Lieutenant.” She laughed. “It has been a long week for me, such a long and busy week, but I am still sharp enough to pick up on that much.”

“I sympathise, though I doubt I’ve been kept anywhere near as busy as yourself.” I added a touch more bashfulness to the smile. “Really, though, you give me too much credit.”

“Not enough, I feel. And please, you must not diminish yourself. We have spent so, so long a time in darkness, without valiance, without hope. And when it comes again to deliver us from our oppressor...” She leaned closer yet, her dark eyes glimmering, her face near enough that I felt her breath brush across my snout. “...why, it intoxicates.”

I had never picked up a lute in my life, and thank the stars, it looked like I would get to keep up that good habit. “I can only imagine what it must feel like.”

“I wish to share something of the feeling. Are you going to ask where I am leading you?”

“I live to oblige, ma’am. Where are you leading me?”

“To our wine cellar.”

Some part of my unconscious mind perked its ears up and tried to scream a warning, but was overruled by my hindbrain. As it was concerned, Hearthswarming and my birthday had both just come early. “Oh dear. Will I be mugged there?”

She laughed. “If you wish. But I rather had the idea that, in this window of time before the summit, and before the butlers must start uncorking the choicest bottles, I show you a vintage I’m rather partial to.”

“You have my interest”

“I propose we share it, Lieutenant … or Flash, rather? If I may call you Flash? We share it, and see where things take us.”

Whatever train of thought I might have had before all this was sent plunging merrily into a chasm of pure excitement, and only the shreds of whatever conscious thoughts I had going kicked in hard enough to make me ask, “Not that I’m not very, very intrigued by your proposition, Chalcedony, and not that I’ve every bit as keen as you to put it into motion … but what’s brought this on?”

“Because it’s been a very busy week for both of us, and a moment’s relaxation wouldn’t go amiss. Because I do very much like you yourself and what you represent.” Chalcedony smile was positively vulpine. “And because we will be obliged to be respectable and presentable for the entirety of a summit today, and what madpony would ever undertake that completely sober?”

Sound answers on every front. I let myself be led down the winding length of the stairway, and in hardly any aeons at all, we emerged into the wine cellars though a discreet entryway. A veritable maze of towering wine racks rose around us, spidering off into corridors and sub-sections wherein I could only presume minotaurs roamed. Little lights glimmered and drifted into the dark crystal ceiling over our heads, illuminating the rows of dusty dark bottles on every side.

Not a sound to be heard. Chalcedony had been right; the butlers must have been limbering up elsewhere before getting stuck into the day’s uncorking. Regardless, I spoke in a whisper. “My word, it’s like trotting into a connoisseur's fantasy.”

“The old lords of the Crystal Empire were assiduous about keeping this place well-stocked. Our king less so, though he never made much use of it. Come, this way.” She beckoned me on. I tried my best to look as though I wasn’t admiring all the age-old vintages on either side, and most likely failed miserably.

Round a crooked bend, and past yet more towering wine racks, and round yet more corners to the point where I suspect the geometry of this place was starting to eat itself, when Chalcedony said, “Here.” I stopped and looked at what she’d pointed at. In one low-down part of the rack, there rested what seemed like a fairly nondescript bottle to my eyes — made of crystal, like much else here, and alive with the light glittering in hundreds of little facets. She seemed avid though, and she drew it out with her magic and sighed as she uncorked it with one smooth motion.

“Finest and most delectable Aetherwine, Flash.” Chalcedony met my gaze. “I can assume you have a taste for older vintages?”

“Oh, that you can.”

“And perhaps I may offer you a scent?”

“That you most certainly may.” She smiled deeply, and hovered the bottle over to me.

And what sweet bouquet tantalised my nose, as she wafted the bottle by my nostrils?

As she abruptly jammed it right up one of said nostrils?

As I spluttered and released my breath with sudden alarm, reflexively wheezing more in?

As she blurred forward to kick me right in my chest and knock me to the ground, thus redoubling my wheezing?

Why, of course it was a good guff of chloroform.

“Stars above,” I heard Chalcedony murmur before the black walls of the world closed in. “That actually worked.”

It wasn’t the first time I’ve awoken to find myself bound and helpless before some other party — indeed, events of that nature led to me getting into this whole mess — and it perhaps wasn’t the most compromising of such positions I’ve ever found myself in. But it was certainly far from the most enjoyable, and when groggy consciousness set in, unconsciousness turned out to have had a lot to recommend it.

First things first, the sensation of ropes secured fast about all my hooves, forcing me spreadeagled and face-up over what felt like a rough stone surface. I blinked blearily, and as lights swam into focus, I found myself into a dark stone chamber, surrounded by half-a-dozen cowled ponies.

It wasn’t the most prepossessing chamber I’ve ever been in. The dark crystalline walls glimmered red, like a section of the night sky that was playing host to all the supernovas, and the cowls around me cut terrible silhouettes against them.

My gaze rose, though my neck creaked terribly, and I saw more of the stone I’d been laid upon. The rough surface under me swept up into something like a ship’s prow, only more awful. A jag like the head of some primal unicorn curved out from its top, hanging several metres over me, all sketchy angles and crude details. The dark material of the stone itself was something like granite, infused well with obsidian, and lined here and there with glittering red veins.

I didn’t mewl just yet. Instead, for all the use it did, I forced myself to swallow and stare at the cowled types surrounding me. “What on earth is this?” I croaked. “What do you all think you’re doing?”

The foremost of the cowled figures ambled forwards and shrugged back their own cowl. Fire-orange light coursed up around a horn, illuminating the lovely features of Chalcedony. “Everypony,” she said, “behold. A hero of Equestria.”

“Show-off,” one of the miscellaneous cowls muttered.

“Stint your clep,” Chalcedony replied sweetly, “and lend your aid. I have tracked him. Observed him and his vices. And now he is ours, and shortly, he shall be our Dread King’s. His will be done.”

“I’ll be who’s what-now?” I said tremblingly, before trying to recover some of my heroic form. “Some fine crowd you are, tying up a pony! Any of you got the guts to untie me, eh?”

One happy day, some adversary of mine will take me up on that. Alas, Chalcedony rolled her eyes. “You will be untied soon enough. For given definitions of you. And we shall see what our sovereign shall make of you.”

The orange light around her horn blazed, as all the cowled conglomerate raised their voices in a low drone and ignited various horns under their own hoods. A stream of light coursed out from Chalcedony and glowed about the unicorn-shaped head looming over me.

“You’d all be advised to surrender yourselves over to the Princesses right now!” I barked, suppressing a high-pitched edge to my tone that threatened to intrude in. “Untie me now, and I’ll attest kindly on your behalf, but do not —”

From the stone under and above me, there came a cold, sonorous growl. The crimson veins seethed, flecks of unco magic broiling in their depths. And as Chalcedony’s magic sunk into it, aided by her fellows, there rumbled forth a voice.

And that voice was ...

Cold. Cold as the slopes of Hell; deep, deep as the unsounded nothingness past the stars; melodious as a pampered orchestra; and finally, rich and confident as a conqueror assaying their new continent. Imagine diving into a frigid swimming pool of pure, dark, unadulterated chocolatey smug, and what it might say if it could talk.

...Reader, you attempt a suitable metaphor for the voice of King Sombra himself.

And what Sombra himself purred was this: “Salutations. You must be my vessel.”

At that point, as it seemed entirely warranted, I started mewling.