• Published 1st Jun 2019
  • 1,591 Views, 103 Comments

The Tomb of the Nameless Evil - Klamnei



Sidestory to Fecundity. The Elements of Harmony and Maud Pie struggle to learn the ancient secrets of Mount Everhoof's most deadly cave.

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Part 4 - The Hate-Filled Dragon

“I’m afraid I won’t be of much help, Princess Luna. Neighsay cut ties with me when he found out I’m not ‘of pure tribal descent’... Hmm? Oh no, it’s fine. I have a thestral ancestor on my father’s side six or seven generations back, and my mother’s house, House Radiance, is originally from the Crystal Empire. They moved south about a year before Sombra’s coup.

“It still gets my goat, though. The thestral bit is unique, but every family from here to Whinnyapolis has some crystal pony heritage! What did that bigot exp—never mind...

“Neighsay and I first met some twenty-odd years ago. We crossed paths at the Sire's Hollow Inn when he was staying there to weather a snowstorm. We got to talking, one thing led to another, and soon we were writing letters to each other every week. We started seeing each other proper once Spring came around, and while we didn’t do anything THAT heat season, the one after...

“You want to know what hurts the most? Even now, after everything that’s happened, there’s a part of me that still loves him. Heaven knows I fought to keep what we had, but even when I gave up and married someone else, I sent him pictures of Sunburst twice a year. I remember how happy we were when we found we were going to be parents. I remember all the plans we made for our wedding, for our child, and everything beyond. I remember the tears of joy he cried when he held our son for the first time. There’s a good, kind, loving stallion beneath all that poisonous hate, and I thought I could free him from the horrible values he’d been raised with...

“But the seeds had been planted too deep. I later learned he'd been burning any kind of mail from me without even opening it. He might’ve never known he’d been destroying his son’s photos if they hadn’t met up in Canterlot… Hmm? Yes, they met once; though Sunburst refuses to tell me much.

"I'm afraid that if you want THAT story, you’ll have to go one of them.”

-Stellar Flare of Sire’s Hollow


WHAM!

“PINKIE!” Twilight’s forcefield collided head-on with another of Sector Three’s invisible walls. Corrosive dark magics were scorched by harmonic flame, the gagging stench of burnt plastic filling the air. “That’s the fourth one!”

“Having… problems!” Pinkie grunted and clenched her teeth. Her premonitive warnings were being muffled, smothered by an unseen woolen blanket. “My Pinkie Sense—rrrrggh, isn’t… WORKING WITH ME!”

The back half of Sector Three was as unpleasant as the front. The wide, sinister, stony path was both winding and frigid, with a new addition of black crystals now protruding from the walls. The multiple branching corridors were lined with carvings of creatures—ponies, mostly—stacked like living architecture, their anguished faces and twisted limbs putting the girls on edge. There were more invisible walls and black voids than ever, the eerie twilit haze continued to mar their perspective, and the constantly changing wind required all of Twilight’s attention.

Maud blinked several times. “My Maud Sense is also malfunctioning. Something’s wrong.”

Everyone besides Pinkie stared at her.

“...That's the second time you've mentioned that without sayin' what it does,” said Applejack.

Maud may as well not have heard. “Stop a moment, please. I’m going to scan for divination wards.”

Rarity cocked her head. “Divination wards? Why would—” It suddenly clicked. “Oh my stars. The Pinkie Sense tells the future...”

Maud rummaged around for a special scanner attachment. “The leylines already interfere with most forms of magic. Future sight is no exception, but to a lesser degree. An additional layer of geomancy-based divination wards WOULD hide this place from outside scans, scrys, and seer powers, but only if said wards were placed all throughout the caves. Just having them farther in wouldn’t be enough.”

They came to land on a precipice overlooking a steep slope. Dozens of feet below, a sea of gnarled, twisted stalagmites (Maud called them helictites) snaked all about the misshapen rocks like a petrified briar patch. Glints of razor sharp crystal were visible all throughout the ‘patch’, black as night and getting more frequent deeper in.

Twilight’s thoughts whirled while Maud worked. The presence of divination wards would explain why they’d needed the Elements to track Cadance’s curse. Curious, she tried casting a simple air temperature scan, and sure enough, the spell failed outright. But that just made things even more confusing—the craftsmareship on display here, while evil, was nothing short of brilliant. The clever placement of every trap and spell, the genius of every alchemic horror… there was no way someone so meticulous and passionate would get lazy placing wards!

“We need to make these walls visible somehow if Pinkie can’t sniff ‘em out,” said Applejack. She paced back and forth in the forcefield, the soft click of her armor mixing with the whum of magic and buzz of Maud’s scanner. “Any ideas?”

Fluttershy tapped her chin guard. “Is there enough moisture in the air to make it snow, Rainbow?”

Rainbow shook her head. “Air is dry as a bone from all this wind.”

“I could use Disintegrate again,” said Rarity. “It’s not ideal, but it’s better than fumbling around an invisible maze.”

Pinkie made a face. “Shooty-shooty death beams seems like overkill, doesn't it?”

Twilight grunted as the wind shifted again. The hexed invisi-walls were a problem, but she was more worried about the black voids. At first they’d just been some kind of warped temporal magic, but now they were starting to contain all kinds of twisted magic. Some still contained time magic, some contained destruction magic, some contained illusion magic, and some were just tears in reality. Some even contained a magic Twilight didn’t recognize, so alien and complex that it was difficult to describe. It was… a vastness? The opposite of a singularity, yet somehow contained. She wanted to call it a window, but that wasn’t quite right...

Maud lowered her scanner and brushed back her mane. She glanced over at Twilight, whose multicolored flames warmed even the ground they stood on. “ “Looks like my hunch was right.”

But Twilight wasn’t listening. Instead, she was speaking to address Pinkie. "I agree using Disintegrate is a little overkill, but we already—agh, stupid wind—know it works. I’d rather not experiment and trigger some other nightmare.”

Pinkie had to give her that one. “...Shooty beams away.”

Twilight willed her Element to pour energy into Rarity. “Carve a path for us as fast as you can. This—greh—wind is driving me bonkers!”

Rarity meeped. Her magical aura doubled, the blazing hot power making her wiggle in place. She didn’t burst into flame like Rainbow had, but she could feel something happen inside her. “My word…”

“Twilight,” Maud said again.

Twilight did a double-take. “Huh? Oh, you’re done! Can you explain what you—whoa—found as we go?”

Maud pursed her lips. “Alright, but there are divination wards all throughout the rest of the cave system. They’re all being powered by individual black crystal nodes.”

Twilight bit back a curse. “That doesn’t make any sense! I mean, the black crystal does, but—nngh—why would there be wards down here and not—”

The subtle change in Maud’s expression clued Twilight in.

“...You’re kidding.”

Maud snorted. “If only.”

Applejack looked between the two sour-faced scholars. “What now?”

Twilight sighed. “C’mon. Fly and talk.”

Rarity took point now. It took a moment to figure out how to implement their new strategy, as the brutal wind deflected anything thrown or held in front of them. Though fortunately (or unfortunately) the walls were so numerous, all Rarity had to do was channel a beam and 'wiggle' it around a bit.

“So,” Twilight said to all of them. “Based on everything we’ve seen so far, it’s pretty clear this place was made to stand the test of time. The spells are stored in—oof—long-lasting crystals, the alchemic constructs were placed in stasis, and everything in general is set on reloadable triggers. The geomancy seems to be set up like that as well, so I doubt this place needs much power most of the time.”

Maud curled her lip at the thorny helictites below. “But wards don’t work like that. Not only are they energy intensive, they need to be on all the time. They can be placed in a focus like any other spell, but they need constant power once activated. If there’s so much as a hiccup in the energy supply, or the power levels go below a certain threshold, they’re destroyed.”

Twilight watched the continued green lights erupt from Rarity’s horn. “The planet leylines could serve as a power source, but you’d need something—snkkt—drawing up a ton of mana at all times. You’d also need some kind of mechanism filtering the mana, and then an infrastructure to distribute it!”

Fluttershy frowned. “Drawing up the mana? Like drawing water from a well?”

Twilight nodded. “Think of a water filter for your kitchen. It needs to be replaced regularly, right? A mana filtration system is no different.”

“It might even be what’s causing the corruption,” said Maud. “Though something tells me it’s more than a glorified mana filter.”

Applejack couldn’t help but laugh. “Wouldn’t that be the cherry on this dung sundae. This whole falutin’ mess caused by a filter? Tell that to the victims’ families.”

They passed over the cliffside briar and came to another sheer drop. They descended with care while keeping an eye on the numerous black voids around them, the voids’ magics both varied and perverse. The shaft’s circular walls were covered in fierce claw marks, but when they got to the chamber below, there was no sign of any creature, not even bones. Just more barriers, black voids, and even larger and more angular helictites.

Maud gestured to her still-beeping scanner. “According to the energy readings in the rock, this entire cave system was warded until a thousand years ago, when these ‘new’, dark geomancy-powered wards were made. I’m not sure what happened to deactivate the original wards; it may have to do with Sombra, it may not.”

Fluttershy’s gaze fell on the black crystals. She couldn’t even count how many there were, and those were just the ones she could see. “How do we know which ones are powering the wards?”

Twilight clucked her tongue. “I'm not sure it's even worth trying to disable them. What do you think, Maud?"

Maud studied her scanner a moment longer. There were low beeps when the scanner was pointed above or behind, and high beeps from ahead or below. The highest, loudest beeps came from the black crystals. She pulled out a worn-looking abacus and did some calculations.

“While the outermost wards are the weakest, they have the most range and overlap,” she said, ears drooping. “So, no.”

“This bites!” Pinkie huffed. “Stupid anti-Pinkie Sense thingies... we were cruising through this crummy place! Why’d that butt Sombra keep these dumb things on?”

Twilight couldn’t answer that. The only thing that came to mind was Sombra lived in the time of Princess Amore, who was the most powerful seer who ever lived. You’d need divination wards overlapping every square inch of this place to keep her from finding this place, so maybe he was in the middle of supplying the wards with ‘emergency batteries’ when something happened? But what could’ve caused—

...Oh.

OH...

Rainbow watched Twilight’s mouth fall open. “You’re onto something, aren’t you?”

Twilight glanced back at the retreating cliff. “The damaged area we passed… it was caused by a—ah—mutacite rupture, wasn’t it? A blast like that would release a lot of energy, and all that energy was directed up! Maud, can you tell if something like that would be enough to make the power flicker?”

Maud referenced her scanner a few more times. She muttered some equations to herself in the silence. “The mana pulse would have to retain cohesion through the rock, but assuming the infrastructure is a closed circuit, yes. Any wards without a backup, i.e the ones on the upper levels, would be destroyed.”

Twilight clapped her fiery hooves. “It all makes sense! Celestia and Luna told Gleamig that Princess Amore was literally older than Equestria’s founding! We know this place is at least that old as well, maybe even older, so the original wards—eep—must’ve been concealing this place until Sombra stumbled across it!”

“Okaaaaaaaaaay,” said Rainbow, noting the others’ blank looks. “So putting aside I’m the only one knowing who Princess Amore even is… you’re saying she never knew about this place because it’s even older than her?”

“I didn’t even know eels HAD princesses!” said Pinkie.

“It has to be older!” Twilight told Rainbow. “Princess Amore was wise and just! She was friends with the other princesses! She taught time magic to Starswirl the Bearded! There’s no way a pony like that would allow this place to exist! The only explanation is if Sombra found this place before she did, his ‘innovations’ created dark geomancy, and when he saw the divination wards were plugged straight into the power system—ergh—he got nervous and wound up causing the very thing thing he was worried about—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Applejack held up her hooves. “Back up about four or five steps, missy. Y’mind explaining who the hay Princess Amore is?”

“First Crystal Empire princess,” Rainbow said in a rush. “Super-powerful seer, made herself immortal by ripping her soul in half and creating the Crystal Heart. Was buds with Celestia and Luna, taught Starswirl a bunch of stuff, got turned to crystal and shattered to pieces by Sombra. He took her pieces and ran off with them, and when he came back with an army of shadows, he said Amore was ‘scattered to the winds’. Nopony knows if she’s alive or dead, but the Crystal Heart still works so... she’s alive? Maybe?”

There was another long silence.

“Her WHAT got ripped in half?!” Rarity said.

“Cripes, Rainbow, and here I remember when you hated brainy stuff.” Applejack shook her head and turned to Twilight. “Look, I’m not one for wild theories. I don’t think I need to tell ya you’re walkin’ a tightrope here, but I will say that just because things ‘make sense’ doesn’t mean they’re true.”

“Yeah!” Pinkie said. “Don’t you remember what you learned you were studying the Pinkie Sense?”

Twilight certainly remembered learning the limits of her patience. “I’m not sure that’s relevant—”

“BUT,” Applejack said over her. “I’ll admit, if there’s anyone smart enough to figure this mess out, it’s you. As long as you keep in mind any theory—even ones that ‘explain everything’—are still theories, I’m with ya. Deal?”

A warm fuzzy feeling glowed in Twilight’s chest. “Have I mentioned I missed you all these past months?”

Applejack chuckled. “We missed you too, sugarcube.”

They continued down the treacherous twisting way as fast as they dared. The alien helictites grew larger, thicker, and more obtrusive, some reaching so high they resembled ancient macabre trees. Soon they were traversing a ghastly underground forest marred with pustulous voids and cyst-like crystals. The ground between the larger helictites wasn’t much better—covered with thinner, straw-like clumps of stone that, from above, looked like petrified spaghetti.

“Alrighty,” said Applejack, watching Rarity cast spells like she was in a trance. “You were sayin’ you think Sombra found this place before this Amore gal. It sounds like he started messin’ around with stuff, but that messing caused a kaboom that knocked out a chunk of the anti-Pinkie Sense things. Then what?”

Twilight cleared her throat. “Assuming I’m in the right ballpark... that had to have been when he assaulted Princess Amore. He would’ve realized she—nngh—was going to find this place without all its wards, so he probably wanted to get as much of a jump on her as possible.”

Rainbow’s ears perked up. “Didn’t Sunburst say nopony ever found out where Sombra went afterwards? Maybe he came back here! It’s got a heap of stuff right up his alley, plus there’s security for days!”

Maud felt a chill. “He could have experimented here to better his understanding. Compromising this security grid might’ve even been practice for the Crystal Empire’s city defense grid.”

Twilight sucked in a breath through clenched teeth. “The modified traps... what if he wasn’t adding to the fortifications, but preparing for his invasion?! Depending on how much time passed between him fleeing the city and the invasion, there—”

A memory flashed in Twilight’s mind. The Canterlot throne room, Celestia and Luna standing before her. A map of the Crystal Empire conjured on the floor. Celestia was explaining how the Crystal Empire had been banished for a thousand years by King Sombra. She and Luna had flown north as soon as they heard what had happened to their old friend Amore, but by the time they got to the city...

“Twilight?” said Fluttershy.

Twilight’s heart hammered in her chest. “...The Empire had already fallen by the time Celestia and Luna got word about Amore. That means Sombra had to have invaded the city within days of attacking her; maybe even hours! There was no time for any kind of practice, mustering of forces, or anything else! His plans, his army of shadows, his EVERYTHING must’ve been ready before he caused the explosion that—agh—knocked out the upper wards! That renovation project had to have been one of the last things he was working on!”

And that’s when something else became apparent; something that formed a horrid ball of lead in their stomachs.

“Wait,” Applejack said. “If Sombra came back here after foalnappin’ an immortal princess, but attacked so soon after there was no time for anything, does that mean she's still…”

the mother waits

the mother waits

THE MOTHER WAITS

The only one who hadn’t been paying attention was Rarity. For everyone else, a numbness enveloped them like they were looking outside their bodies.

“‘Her sacrifice can be undone.’” Fluttershy gulped. “Did she… know?”

Maud’s voice was a whisper. “‘Futures twisted, futures turned. One succeeded... the others burned.’ Could she have seen…?”

Rainbow grit her teeth. “‘A balance could indeed be struck, until the Seeds of Evil’s Bane could turn the tide and let peace reign’. She didn’t just need the Elements, she needed US. All she could do was buy time.”

Pinkie stared at the sigils on her hooves. “All that fixed point in time stuff...”

Divination wards thrummed around them. The ones here were weak, far-reaching and numerous, but the inner ones were stronger with a shorter range. It didn’t make sense to first renovate the inner ones if trying to keep OUT a seer, but to keep one...

Twilight felt dizzy. “She must’ve known what Sombra’s rise to power would mean. She must’ve even known what he’d do with her! it might even be how she planned to buy time!”

But yet there was one issue that lingered in her mind. Wouldn’t Amore need to have found this place before Sombra to make such a plan? How had she discovered it despite the wards? How had she gotten through the traps and withstood the corruption? The Crystal Heart could repel the evil here thanks to amplifying and empowering half of her soul, but could the other half do the same?

“Scattered to the winds.” Rainbow looked around. “You don’t think…”

It was a knee-jerk reaction more than anything else. On impulse, Twilight tapped into her divine spark, activated her Soul Sight—

WUMPH

—and forgot about the changing wind. She slammed into Rarity, whose latest Disintegrate spell went wide and sailed towards one of the pulsing black voids. The void in question seemingly ate the spell... but then the ray came sailing straight back at them.

“WAUGH!” Their forcefield crumbled to dust. The frigid wind hit them like a brick wall, everypony shunted left and sent tumbling amongst wizened stone, crystal growths, and unseen barriers. Maud’s scanner went sailing. Flowy manes and tails blew everywhere. Twilight’s flames almost died out before blazing anew. The girls fought to right themselves amidst the chaos—

KZZZZT! \

But not before half of them collided with an invisible wall. Dark magic clashed with warded steel as magically-enhanced agony lanced through them that. The others yelped and scrambled to avoid a seven-pony pileup, Rarity already summoning up her magic—

WUMPH

She and Applejack were flung to the side. Fluttershy was able to compensate, but Maud, who was atop her, fell plummeting twenty feet to the withered mess below.

Fluttershy meeped and dove after Maud. Her Element-enhanced speed allowing her to close the distance and grab her… but pulling up was another matter. They smashed into the crystal and porous stone in a mess of feathers and fuzz, sending up a dust plume that tossed debris into the wind.

Twilight and the others ripped themselves off the hexed wall in a shower of sparks. Rainbow and Pinkie dove into the dust cloud after their fallen friends. Twilight spotted Applejack using her rope to lasso a bulky stalagmite, Rarity beside her and erecting a new forcefield. They were scarily close to a void with one of those vast, alien auras.

“Girls!” Twilight made to teleport—

THWACK!

A chunk of debris hit her head. Colorful flames dimmed, magic fizzled, and all the wards Twilight had been maintaining shorted out. The merciless wind picked her up and sent ragdolling past Applejack and Rarity towards the ominous emptiness.

“No!” Rarity's aura enshrouded Twilight, but she misjudged the wind’s strength. Applejack was already throwing her rope, but the wind was blowing against them.

Twilight opened her eyes. The last thing she saw was her friends’ looks of horror…

Before falling into the rift.

Meanwhile-

“What are you doing?” Proxy asked.

Neighsay worked his jaw over and over. There was an annoying sensation around two of his lower teeth like something was stuck between them. Said teeth had grown wickedly long and sharp like the others, but none of them felt strange during or after the change. It finally was so distracting he’d stopped and fashioned a telekinetic toothpick.

A moment later, Neighsay spat out his dental filling.

“Oh! You’re regenerating!” Proxy watched him examine the tiny piece. “You must be able to feed off hatred and fear after all!”

Neighsay ran his tongue along his fangs. Sure enough, the tooth that'd had the filling was whole. “Maybe it can do something about this blasted headache.”

They were in a bulbous tunnel between canyons. There were two traverseable paths here: a low path laden with spidery frost and pitfalls concealed by thin ice, and a high path of fragile ledges amidst a deadly ceiling of needle-sharp stalactites. Neighsay had taken the former at Proxy’s urging, but the mist and reflective surfaces limited the distance of his portals. The creased, angular ice here was patterned like reptile scales, and there was a thick, frigid mist that, apparently, would freeze the lungs of any unprotected soul.

Neighsay had been breathing it just fine for a while now.

“The headache should alleviate in no time.” Proxy’s throng of voices always came from everywhere and nowhere around Neighsay. “The more time you spend here, the more hale you’ll become! This place is now sacrosanct to you!”

There were a lot of words Neighsay could think of to describe this hellhole, but ‘sacrosanct’ wasn’t one of them. “Right…”

The swish and thrum of magic mixed with the clack of his hooves. The corrupted blue of his magic mocked him every time he lit his horn, but he refused to accept it'd changed color. His aura was orange, damn it—it only looked blue because his confounded eyes had gone all crazy. Of course colors were going to look off when he could suddenly see in the dark...

"Not much farther."Proxy guided Neighsay towards a slippery slope leading out of the mist. At the top, the high path angled down to continue on and out of the tunnel. “The exit is just around the bend.”

Neighsay portalled up the slippery slope and got his bearings. The first thing he noticed was the bend Proxy had mentioned had a distinct quality about it—it was pure dark crystal: the walls, the floor, the ceiling… everything. There’d been bits of the stuff sprinkled throughout the sector, but it’d never replaced the ice entirely—

—sire's hollow. a sleepy gated village in the northern equestria highlands, where rustic stone buildings with pointed towers lay nestled amidst lush, leafy trees and carefully-tended bushes. where ponies of all types and ages wandered the streets without fear regardless of the time of day. where seasons and years passed but the town remained the same...

...and where many years ago, had had chosen to make his home.

“here comes firelight and winterspring,” said his beloved stellar flare beside him. “and would you look at that—they really are pregnant again.”

neighsay smiled. “always have to compete with us.”

they were lounging on the porch of their wonderful three-story home. tall, ancient oak trees dotted the yard while massive white pines loomed over the lattice fencing. they watched their three children play together while wind chimes sang in the gentle breeze, the smell of fresh bread wafting from the nearby bakery.

stellar scooched closer and kissed neighsay's cheek. “they’ll be hard pressed to catch up with this lead.” she put a hoof on her wide, pregnant belly. she was only five months along, yet already she looked overdue. “i wonder how much longer we can keep it from them?”

neighsay put his hoof beside hers. he could feel the faint flutters of life within, the unborn triplets twitching in their sleep. “i’m surprised they haven’t figured it out already."

stellar giggled. “it’s funny. when fire and i were both so set on only having one when we dated in college. to think we'd both marry someone else and have three children apiece—and counting, no less...”

neighsay watched sunburst play catch with his sisters. “i doubt many ponies go through life always knowing what they want. i know i didn’t.”

stellar rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes. “my mother once told me, ‘the heart knows what it wants. you just need to quiet your mind to hear it.’’”

neighsay kissed the top of her head. “i don't know what i'd do without you.”

“but it didn’t stay open, did it?”

stellar was gone. his children were gone. he was in an abandoned field choked by thorny vines, said vines long since grown around him and trapped him in place. never once had neighsay ever tried to free himself, not even when the thorns pierced his skin and his bloody wounds festered.

“you’ve no idea how much you hurt her.” a terrible, deafening voice thundered above neighsay, its massive owner hidden from view. “you’ve no idea how much you’ve hurt anyone, not even yourself. but you will soon; oh, very soon. consider this a taste of what’s to come, because i’ve discovered something not even the puppet knows. something delicious, something delectable—i can feel it buzzing on my tongue already...”

neighsay was in agony. every little twitch and movement brought fresh pain, and the effort to breathe was worst of all. that didn’t stop him from screaming, but no matter what he did, his torment continued on—

“Anomaly!”

Neighsay blinked. He was back before the dark crystal bend. The only change was that the persistent hollowness was now like a gnawing, desperate hunger.

“This isn’t the time to rest!” Proxy said. “Come! The Sanctum awaits!”

Fast-freezing tears stung Neighsay’s eyes. He was whole and unscathed, but he could still see them playing catch in his mind’s eye. He could still hear the wind chimes, still feel Stellar’s warm embrace, smell her rose shampoo. He felt empty inside, alone—

“ERGH!” Neighsay jerked his head. He buried the turmoil as deep as he could, his numb mind never registering the offering being devoured. “N-Not... nnngh, real!”

It didn’t make much deduction for Proxy to realize what had happened. They wisely kept silent as Neighsay shook like a dog, his coat, mane, and tail hair flying off in clumps.

“Wh-Why…” Neighsay’s exhales were as cold as the ice. Black and gray hair fluttered to the ground like ash, but Neighsay couldn’t see anything through the tears. “That hasn’t happened… s-since outside! Why now!?”

Proxy had suspicions, but nothing concrete. “It might be that jewel you carry. We did say it's an ingredient for your cure, but unless you use all three ingredients at once—”

“They’ll… h-hurt me.” With shaky magic, Neighsay pulled off his saddlebags and dumped out the Tear. It rolled onto the ice and slid against the wall, its faint energies strengthening ever-so-slightly.

“By the tribes!" Without the medallion’s magic in close proximity, the merest dregs of holy energy made Neighsay recoil. "No wonder I—hrk… have a headache!”

Proxy honestly couldn't say, but it was true the jewel had been at odds with the medallion all this time. Perhaps prolonged exposure to such clashing energies was the culprit? “You need to get it away from you. Hurry, open a portal to somewhere safe, then kick it through—

Neighsay dry heaved. His numb mind throbbed, the world spinning like a merry-go-round.

“Never mind!” Proxy said in a rush. “Just run before you pass out, for Master’s sake!”

Neighsay was already moving. He staggered around the bend towards the safety of the mountain’s dark heart, his symptoms fading the farther away he got. The Tear of Laughter glittered until it could no longer amplify any source of optimism and joy, then at last the darkness flooded back in once more.

Neighsay emerged into the floor of the final canyon. It was smaller and flatter than the ones he'd traversed, extending primarily to the northwest with a small alcove to the southeast. The harsh conditions and otherworldly river of light remained... but the similarities ended there.

“Well, then,” Neighsay sneered. “I see somepony made themselves at home.”

It was like a dark reflection of the Crystal Empire. Sombra's black crystal didn't just encase the entirety of the ravine, it'd been formed into twisted faux-buildings of grotesque design. Statues of ponies in chains marched single file down the dismal streets towards a miniature mockery of Crystal Empire Castle. Said castle was defended to the utmost: a spiked wall with defense towers, ballistae stationed everywhere, and patrols of guards in mind control helmets. The only way into the castle was a drawbridge, but surprisingly, it was already… down?

“You recall the six trespassers we commandeered, yes?” Proxy said when Neighsay asked. “We’d lost all but one of them up to this point. The final trespasser was able to lower the drawbridge and enter the Sanctum itself, but the effort used up the remainder of their strength.”

Neighsay tut-tutted. “So close, and yet so far.”

He ignored the siren song of the dark crystals and portalled past little Sombra’s vanity project to reappear in the castle courtyard. The mountain’s mouth-watering energy was even stronger now; even overwhelming the call of the crystals. Neighsay couldn’t help but lick his lips, his empty, ravenous hunger roaring.

“For all of Anomaly B’s desecration and meddling, we’ll at least acknowledge his trap making skills,” Proxy said. “Given your astuteness, however, you should be able to spot the problem with this picture.”

Neighsay grinned like a shark. “The Crystal Empire didn’t exist in your master’s lifetime, and even if it did, there's no way she'd construct something so obvious. She's all about concealment and deception.”

“Well said.” Proxy directed Neighsay to the east canyon wall. “The true Inner Sanctum is there.”

The entrance was encased in crystal like everything else. There weren’t any noticeable handles, levers, or pressure plates, or anything else to indicate it was there. Proxy led Neighsay to a concealed ledge some ten feet up, where he found a hole with a switch inside.

KA-CHUNK

Frozen stone grated against foul crystal. Deafening sounds of splintering and shattering rocked the ravine as a crease in the wall appeared. Ancient doors broke through the crystal and opened beneath Neighsay, revealing a crystalline antechamber with circular walls and a low ceiling.

A frozen corpse lay just inside the black interior.

“Come,” said Proxy. “Your prize is on sub-level three.”

Twilight opened her eyes.

There was no surface beneath her hooves, nor any friction to the air. There was no wind, no form of scent, no temperature or sensation. The light of her flames burned, but they illuminated nothing. Twilight's ears twitched with the sound of her own breath. Her thoughts were muddled, wandering, and incoherent. Her wings found no purchase when she tried to fly, and even her magic was useless.

She called out into the void. No response.

Twilight’s heart beat faster. The emptiness’ was like an all-encompassing presence that sent chills down her spine. She could swear something was moving… or perhaps it didn't need to. Her limbs felt tingly, a great weight bearing down on her more and more. It felt like time was slowing down—or was it speeding up?

Was she sinking? Was she drowning? Was she even alive?

“Wh-What…” The smothering dark clawed at Twilight. Her raspy inhales were deafening, an invisible hand closing around her chest. Every movement and sound she made felt like sacrilege. It felt like the abyss was peeling away the layers of her mind like an onion, her thoughts and memories being laid bare. Emotions and desires continued to be exposed to the black, featureless vacuum whether she liked it or not. Twilight whimpered and flailed, but she was a flea trying to stop an elephant.

She screamed. Her immortal mind withstood the battering, but the hungering void grew more determined. The mortal, vestigial remnants of Twilight’s psyche were flayed and peeled one by one from her subconscious to be devoured before her eyes. Her divinity endured, but the strain allowed her to glimpse the true nature of this ‘absence’; a glimpse she didn’t want—

FWOOOOOOM!

A multicolored beam pierced the expanse. Wrathful harmonic forces tore into the hungering dark like wet paper, invigorating Twilight's mind and soul in the process. The shadowy tendrils she hadn’t even known about were burned off her body in an instant.

Clarity struck like lightning. Twilight remembered what'd happened now; recognized what the light was. She still couldn’t move or cast magic, but as she thought this, the multicolored beam coalesced into a shining tether and yanked Twilight forward.

“WAH!” Twilight felt her senses returning. The abyss regrouped in her wake and made to attack once more, but the Elements weren't done with it. Four more multicolored beams exploded out of nowhere to deliver another grievous rebuttal, shredding it without mercy again and again.

There was an unholy shriek. The distortion was collapsing around Twilight, her vision pulsing with colors she’d never seen. She could only pray the Elements would be able to get her—

BOOM!

The black rift exploded. A crackling eldritch pulse shattered the brittle rock before the actual blast kicked up even more dust. It did little to deter the girls, however, for they were already readying to attack again...

“WAIT!” Rainbow spotted a fiery silhouette in the dust. “WE GOT HER! SHE’S OUT!”

Twilight’s eyes spun in their sockets. She was just regaining her senses when her five armored friends glomped her from every direction and sent her reeling again. They might’ve fallen into another rift together had she not thrown up a new forcefield before the wind changed.

Maud breathed out a sigh from a nearby alcove. “Thank goodness.”

Twilight had never been more grateful for earth pony resilience. Everypony was talking at once, either checking her over or still trying to hug her. “I-Is anyone hurt?”

After a quick check, it seemed the injuries were minor. Fluttershy had lost some feathers, Applejack had a bloody nose, Pinkie had bruised her shoulder, and Maud had gotten some cuts. Everypony else was just shaken.

“I think you got the worst of it,” Pinkie told Twilight. “Good thing you're the tough one!”

Applejack snorted. “Tough don't mean invincible. You gave us a right scare, Twi.”

“I'm just happy the Elements didn't get bounced back like my Disintegrate spell.” Rarity said. “Speaking of which...”

Twilight managed a laugh. “Y-Yeah... my bad on that one.”

“What happened in there?” Fluttershy asked. “It felt like something was attacking you!”

Twilight swallowed hard. It felt like she'd peeled a scab before it'd healed. Her vestigial mortal instincts and mental responses, which had been lying dormant in her subconscious since her ascension, had been carved off to leave her with only alicorn ones. The lingering tatters of her mortal psychology, snipped off like loose threads.

“Even if I could explain what… e-erm, that was, I wouldn’t.” Twilight took a deep breath, then let it out long and slow. “Trust me when I say you’re better—offff—ERRRRGH, I’ve just about HAD IT with this feathering wind! I’m ready to MELT a path the rest of the way!”

The others winced. A heated glow shone behind Twilight’s teeth, fiery spittle flying from her mouth like stirred-up coals. She snarled and seethed, nostrils flaring—

Rainbow put a prismatic wing around Twilight. She nuzzled her marefriend’s blazing mane, planting soft kisses up Twilight’s head with warm hums. “Easy, beautiful...”

Poor Twilight was going to get emotional whiplash at this rate.

“I suggest we try dispelling the walls.” Maud pulled her winter jacket tighter. “Melting a path could work, but I’m not sure how the mutacite to Element-infused flames.”

Twilight scrunched up her face. “I wasn’t actually—n-never mind. Dispelling's not a bad idea, now that I think about it. My sister’s the real—ugh—forcefield guru, but if Rarity can manage the wind for a bit, I’ll see what I can do.”

Rarity was too busy squee’ing over Rainbow and Twilight cuddling like lovebirds to reply. “You are just too adorabllllle~”

The first step was figuring out where the closest forcefield was. Tossing a stone answered that question, so Twilight was soon inspecting the individual spellthreads. An alien arcane pattern danced in her mind’s eye—curvatures and interlaced matrices like a looping, twisted skein. Once she figured out how it all made a cohesive whole (and she’d confirmed there were no inlaid traps) she started poking and prodding around.

She started with a light touch and went gradually stronger, upping the ante until she was prodding with enough strength to challenge high-grade military shields. All spells had one or more weak spots within their design, but they weren’t always obvious without the right amount of force. It was only when Twilight really started putting some oomph behind it that she encountered some give, and after rooting around a bit more...

The others gasped. The barrier Twilight had been working on now flickered into view, rippling all the while like the surface of a pond. Then Twilight pierced the spellthreads proper, and with a quick tug, it shattered like brittle glass.

Everyone cheered.

“Okay!” Twilight readied another rock. “The rest should go faster! Let’s go!”

They flew out of the gnarled stone formations as fast as they dared. Dispelling the barriers wasn’t as efficient as the group’s previous methods, but it did let them progress. he eerie, sourceless light continued through the wide, bizarre descent down a spiralling chasm, the crumbling cliffs littered with tributes to depravity. Twilight could feel the others’ eyes on her as they went—Luna’s speech about ‘an immortal’s downfall begins in the mind’ no doubt echoing in their heads, but this wasn't the time for a therapy session. She'd talk about it later when they weren't somewhere with danger around every bend.

Their journey was uneventful until the end of the sector. They suspected they were getting close when the wind died out, but became more sure after the dreary light faded and the rift-ridden labyrinth ended. It wasn’t much surprise when Maud announced soon after they’d exited the primary resonator’s range.

That's when the already-frigid temperature took a noticeable nosedive. Twilight still kept everyone warm, but considering what’d just happened… well, let’s just say nopony commented when both she and Rarity put up frost wards.

“Look there.” Applejack pointed to a strange, aurora-like ribbon flowing out of the rock above. “I know we’re up north and all, but I don’t think that’s normal.”

Twilight’s hackles rose. The divination wards kept her from scanning the light, so she turned to Maud.

“It appears to be some kind of modified Light spell,” Maud informed them. “Not a ward, but still connected to the mana well like the wards in the upper caverns.”

Twilight rubbed her chin. “More evidence to support the power didn’t 'flicker' down here. If so, everything down here that requires a steady feed is intact.”

Fluttershy cocked her head. “Does... that mean there could be MORE danger? Or does that mean the light’s safe?”

Rainbow snorted. “Nothing down here is safe. For Pete's sake, even the air has tried to kill us!”

“The dead ponies are safe!” said Pinkie.

...

Pinkie shrugged. “I’m just saying.”

But even if the light wasn’t dangerous, they all agreed it likely wasn't for their benefit. Thus, Twilight located the source of the Light spell and dispelled it—

“Oh, come on!” The strange ribbon ceased flowing, but the residual light continued to float through the air at a brisk, zooming speed of an inch a minute. “How does that even work?!”

“I did say it was modified,” Maud said.

“Mrrghghghggh.” Twilight ran a hoof down her face. “Let’s just keep going.”

“We’re getting close, aren’t we?” Rarity asked. “Please say we're close.”

Twilight grunted. “It's a good thing the Elements' lock is still working. We’ve a half-mile to go vertically, and three-quarters of a mile diagonally—southwest, to be exact.”

Applejack groaned. “Oh, please be a straight shot...”

The cave grew colder and more corrupted. Translucent ice crept along the stone walls and across the pockmarked ground ahead of them, becoming more and more prevalent until it replaced the rock entirely. Maud, of course, voiced displeasure of superior minerals being replaced by boring hydrogen and oxygen.

They rounded a corner and came into a cavern rivalling the size of Ponyville’s Town Square. In the center was something they recognized—a building-sized monument of a snake devouring its own tail. It was an exact copy of its colossal counterpart save for its size.

“Oh, this again.” Rarity curled her lip. “I didn't think it was possible, but I do believe it’s even uglier in ice!”

As before, there was an opening in the foundation. The way forward was down another set of uneven stairs, but even though Maud's equipment was quiet, the group remained wary. They followed the light down the stairs while on pins and needles.

“Maybe this is a fake-out!” Pinkie said at last. “That's the best way to keep someone on edge!”

“Maybe.” Twilight glanced back at the melting mess being left in their—her wake. “Or maybe there's more to this ice.”

Rainbow’s gaze lingered on the thawing walls. “I dunno. I actually think Pinkie—”

“The next primary resonator is just ahead.” Maud said as her device beeped. “Be ready.”

At the bottom of the stairs they found… a hole. A six-by-eight hole, to be exact, which the ribbon of light flowed into. Upon flying closer, they saw it opened up into a humongous canyon at least as long and wide as where they’d encountered the ooze golem.

The group skidded to a halt.

“What the—” Applejack looked back the way they’d come. “Did we go the wrong way?”

Twilight frowned. She couldn’t tell the canyon's depth, but her pegasus vision also allowed her to see caves and pathways carved out of the canyon’s frozen walls. "I'm not sure, but it looks like everything down there is ice."

Maud's expression was glum. "The first area was natural, the swamp area was artificial, the area we just left was natural, and now we have this. It'd seem the areas are alternating between naturally made and alchemically excavated."

Rarity’s eyes widened. “Wait... is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that if the traps aren't built aren't the locations, then the locations are built around the traps? Please tell me I'm not crazy."

Applejack raised an eyebrow. "I... ain't been payin' that much attention, to be honest."

Rarity rolled her eyes. "I'm talking about efficiency. Maud says the swamp cavern was made by hoof, so that probably means the maker had a vision for the traps and was willing to go the extra mile to make them work. I'm guessing they either couldn't or didn't want to do that for the entire place, so they optimized the traps to fit the cavern in the places they left untouched. If this next area is artificial and it starts with a sheer drop..."

Rainbow cringed at the looming freefall. "Being in the air is bad. Got it.”

Twilight had to agree. “Grab on, everypony. We’ll teleport.”

She charged up her horn while everyone huddled in. She powered through the interference, focused on a ledge below, and...

FLASH!

Ice. Everything was some varying form of it. Light scattered shadows across every slick surface amidst the dry, stifling air. The ribbon of light split into multiple lines lazing across the canyon every few hundred feet. An aura of hostility pervaded the dizzying depths like a hand gripping their chests. Bridges, pathways, and tunnels were everywhere, many of them aimless, others defying logic entirely—

VWUM

The ribbons of light brightened. The alluring walls flashed and glowed, every breath they took suddenly feeling like sacrilege. Twilight and the others felt their Elements flare, the hateful presence pressing down on them.

“Bring it on!” Rainbow dropped into a crouch. “Whatcha got this time, huh?!”

Twilight felt naked without being able to scan with magic. Their reflections were everywhere, always drawing her eye—

a pair of once-animated suits of armor were flung into the canterlot castle throne room. twilight, fully ablaze with glowing eyes and a toothy snarl, stepped over the destroyed golems as they crumbled to ash. four more golems ran up to intercept her, but she incinerated them with a literal roar of flame.

“look, girls,” said rainbow. “twilight’s come to play some more.”

twilight barely even recognized this place anymore. the flowers, the fountains, the stained glass windows, the chandeliers, the long red carpet… it was all turned to stone. the emblem of the sun and moon had been split in two. there’d once been two humble thrones here—now there were five iron seats.

“do you really have to keep trashing my golems like that?” rarity sighed at the fallen armor. “i spent an hour and a half making those.”

“you’d have spent zero hours if you hadn’t petrified the last underlings,” applejack groused beside her.

rarity stuck up her nose. “as if i was going to let their brutish comments go unpunished! besides, if you think my statue count is bad, you should hear pinkie’s tally.”

pinkie shrugged. “i like seeing their expressions—”

twilight interrupted with a horizontal pillar of flame. her former friends countered with a blast of corrupted harmony. yet twilight wasn't overwhelmed like she’d been so many times before—this time, the two attacks actually cancelled out.

“well, well.” rainbow sat up and cracked her neck. “about time she started playing for keeps.”

“guess that means we should too.” applejack got to her hooves. “are we petrifying her and turning her later, or turning her right now? i vote for the former, personally.”

“i vote now.” rainbow hopped off her throne. “obvious reasons aside, i wanna conquer the whole world by week’s end.”

“we could do that now if we really wanted,” rarity said with a yawn. “i say petrify now, convert later.”

a strange grin spread on pinkie’s face. “there’s no kill quite like overkill! i vote let’s turn her now and have some fun!”

which meant the deciding vote was fluttershy. she remained silent as she watched twilight close the distance, examining her with a look reminiscent of maud. the stone floor was melting in twilight's wake. murder seethed in her glowing eyes. she was an avatar of vengeance and destruction, her rage focused on five betrayers.

“Twilight,” Fluttershy said. “This isn’t real. Turn down your flame.”

white, golf ball-sized spheres appeared to orbit twilight in a ring. everything was melting now, yet it still wasn’t enough. she’d stop these five monsters even if it meant incinerating the entire city. nothing would stop her this time—

Twilight.

Eyes. Clear, beautiful blue eyes. Twilight gasped and staggered as the world reasserted itself. The rage and grief shattered like flimsy glass, memories of a false history evaporating like steam. No fall of Equestria, no crushing betrayal, no petrification rampage. There was still a thrum of evil magic, however... It looked like it was being deterred by—

“S-Stare…” Twilight gulped. The sector’s bewitchment was a storm, but Fluttershy was the eye. Or eyes, rather; and that didn't look to be changing. Twilight wasn’t sure if Fluttershy was immune or had broken free, but one thing for certain was that Twilight had encountered this effect before.

“Sombra’s mirror...” Twilight recast her Mass Frost Ward while Fluttershy locked eyes with Maud. “Another ‘innovation’, I’m guessing.”

Colors and shadows danced before Maud's eyes. She gasped and fell to her knees with a splash, the cold water restoring her other senses in a blink. “W-Water… water?”

That was when Twilight remembered what Fluttershy had said. Thinking quick, she jumped into the air and reinforced the thawing ledge with a molded forcefield. “Maud! Stay close to Fluttershy while she frees the others! The primary resonator’s effect is some kind of bewitching aura!”

Maud regarded her fiery flying form. “...It'd seem you were either right about the grid not 'seeing' you, or we were wrong about flying being bad.”

Twilight hesitated. “L-Look, it’s worth the risk with how fast I’m melting everything. Just sit tight there while I modify everyone’s darkvision to see through steam—”

"That may not help us much." Maud rubbed one of her bandaged cuts. “I only got a glimpse of the canyon's layout, but it looked very disorienting. I think we may have dropped into a giant maze."

Twilight’s ears drooped. “And we can't use divination magic. Knowing the artifact is southwest will be useless if we have to take a winding route to get there. It could take multiple excursions to get through."

Meanwhile, the others had just come to their senses.

“Ugh…” Rainbow rubbed her head. “I dunno what that was, but—whoa! What’s with the fog?”

Applejack managed a laugh. “Forgot about that stare of yours, Fluttershy. You just saved our hides.”

Rarity hugged her. “Our hero!”

Fluttershy giggled. “It was nothing—”

“Hey, Twilight’s flying!” Pinkie leapt up to hover beside her. “Guess we were wrong about—”

Everyone’s hair stood on end. The cold rushing wind of something unseen sped towards them, something that seethed with corruption. Suddenly, a putrid frostbolt erupted from the fog towards Pinkie—

KRKKKK!

A thrown geomancy scanner took the hit.

“LAND!” Twilight threw up a barrier just as the next salvo came. Countless frostbolts assailed the half-melted platform, the others diving for cover, as well.

“What was that?!” Applejack said to Maud over the noise. “Did you throw your—”

“Not now!” said Rainbow.

The pummelling continued several more seconds as the ledge continued to melt around them. Twilight held the molded forcefield in place, but by the time it was quiet again, the outcropping was all but gone. The group stood and braved a look into the soupy mist. They couldn’t see anything.

Pinkie put a hoof behind her head. “Whoops?”

Six dirty looks stared back at her.

“More ghastly ice magic…” Rarity stuck up her nose. “As if we hadn’t had enough of that! These countermeasures are getting ridiculous!”

“Oh, NOW they're getting ridiculous?” Rainbow gestured around them. “Where have you been the last few hours?”

Twilight ignored them and looked to Maud. “That was your scanner, wasn't it.”

Maud helped Pinkie up. “Never mind that. At this point, I think you should make good on melting a path to the artifact—or rather, carve one. Creating an ice tunnel would certainly be faster and easier than wandering through a booby-trapped maze on hoof.”

Applejack looked between them. “Uh, hello? Did y’all forget the whole ‘surrounded by exploding rocks’ thing? I thought that’s why we weren’t doing that in the first place!”

“I thought it was because braving the caverns saved time and energy.” Rarity adjusted her glowing mane. "Not to mention we were chasing Neighsay.”

“Which isn't the case anymore,” said Fluttershy.

Rainbow crossed her hooves. “What were the chances a resonator goes boom again? Like, two percent?”

“Four,” said Maud.

Twilight’s eyes flicked back and forth. “I have been getting a sense of how the mutacite feels to my terrakinesis. I’ll probably not detect some here and there, but if I make the ray really thin and small, I may not even chance the four percent...”

Pinkie pretended like she was speaking into an intercom. “Paging Doctor Twilight Sparkle, repeat. Paging Doctor Twilight Sparkle! We have a plan the requires surgical precision! Report to the operating room immediately!”

“The Sanctum isn’t large,” Proxy told Neighsay. “The floors get smaller the farther down you go, and the majority of them hold little but memories. We’ll be impressed if you lose your way.”

The Inner Sanctum was like a mausoleum. Encased in dull black crystal like everything else, the circular, empty interior was the size of a planetarium. The flat floor and ceiling held no markings or openings, the concave walls were smooth as glass, and aside from a central column with a pair of reflective doors, there was little of note. Indeed, if Neighsay had to describe his first impression of the place, it’d be ‘underwhelming’.

“You said sub-level three, right?” The corpse at the entrance was of no interest to Neighsay. He never even got close to it—he portalled from outside and emerged in beside the Sanctum’s central column. “Why that level?”

“We’re not sure why Anomaly B set up shop there,” Proxy said in a droll chorus. “We did note he enjoyed going up and down the stairs; perhaps that’s why.”

Neighsay paused. “You’re joking.”

“You’ll recall he was insane,” Proxy said. “A functional, lucid kind of insane, but as the old saying goes: revenge by any other name is just as sweet.”

Neighsay sucked on his teeth. “I’m… pretty sure that’s not how the saying goes.”

“Perhaps you're thinking of a different one.”

Ultimately, Neighsay decided not to press it. Instead he took a deep breath of the stale, hate-polluted air and reveled in the cold a moment. He might’ve taken even longer to appreciate the ambience, but the undecorated room was proving a bore. He started looking for a light switch before realizing the folly of that.

“You should feed,” Proxy said upon Neighsay’s stomach growling again. “The Master never researched the effects of harmonic energies immediately after shadowfrost exposure, but if Anomaly D’s ‘stabilization’ was going to produce unintended side effects, they’d have shown up by now. You know how to consume feelings, yes?”

Neighsay wiped the drool from his lips. It was probably just his imagination, but he was so hungry that magic in general was starting to look appetizing. “I’ll eat once we’re done. Did Sombra come back here after the Empire returned, by the way?”

Proxy’s voices paused. They fell into a hushed jumble of whispers, but eventually did reply. “...He was using the Sanctum as a staging ground after the Crystal Empire returned. We believe he was meaning to plot his next move, but we never particularly cared. You’ll find his machinations on the third sub-level.”

Neighsay smiled; a cold, cruel action that revealed far too many teeth. “Then let’s not waste time. How do I—”

VWUM

Neighsay’s smile became a scowl. “Persistent, aren't they?”

“Not waste time, indeed.” Proxy directed Neighsay to the entrance controls. “Quick, close the door. The column in the middle of the room is the Central Stair. It’s the only way to go from floor to floor.”

Neighsay punched the control switch with magic. The tall doors concealed themselves once more within the cliff, leaving him and Proxy alone in the dark. He now turned his attention to the wide, shiny, and obvious stairway doors set with a heavy slide bar. His eyes caught the reflective surface as he pulled the handle—

“AHHHHHHH!” Neighsay scrambled away. The creature he’d just seen recoiled as well, their gold eyes seething with foul shadowfrost. Both entities tripped and fell at the same time.

“What in the...” An edge crept into Proxy’s tone. “What did you do now?!”

Neighsay couldn’t breathe. His headache had returned with a vengeance, blood thudding in his ears like a drum. That… that THING was—NO! H-H-He was just seeing things again!

“Wait…” Proxy took a closer look at Neighsay. It was then they realized their error—they’d retained a hidden way to access Neighsay’s psyche, but they’d been so spent they hadn’t noticed that Neighsay’s mind had gone numb! It was like an anaesthetic!

And under that concealing shroud, the mental ‘scar’ within...

“YOU!” It was hard to tell anything in Neighsay’s mind now, but near as Proxy could tell, the entity had spread to infect the entire psyche. Granted, Proxy’s knowledge of pony mental trauma was equally nebulous, so they ventured a tad deeper into—

CHOMP

“Did you just… ” Proxy felt the spell accessing Neighsay’s consciousness being torn away… followed by a swallowing sound. “That’s not documented anywhere in the Master’s research! Don’t tell us that stupid anomaly’s stabilization—”

Neighsay heard more laughter in his head. It sounded like his voice… but fouler. He didn’t know why, but something about it incited a cold fury in him, one that was accompanied by a strange tingling in his throat.

“N-nO…” Neighsay got up. At the same time, so did the monster. They stared each other down, then yelled in a savage voice that changed into something deeper. “i’VE cOME… TOo… fAr!”’

Wintery blue magic roared to life. Power unlike anything Neighsay knew surged from the depths of his mind. Proxy was saying something, but the damned laughter was drowning out the words. The golem’s succulent energies within the medallion were like a juicy grape on the vine…

The reflective doors were ripped off their hinges with a horrendous SNAP! Neighsay strode towards the spiral stairway beyond amidst total darkness… yet a shadow loomed over him all the same.

“You’RE Not mE.” Neighsay didn’t know who was talking anymore. All he knew was that wasn’t his voice. “i knOW whO i AM...”

He dashed down the Central Stair. The creature followed no matter how fast he ran, its ugly features taunting him every time he passed a door. Pale white and completely hairless. Hungry gold eyes oozing with shadowfrost. A fanged, manic grin. Proxy was still trying to get Neighsay’s attention, but Neighsay didn’t care anymore. It was probably just another lie. The stupid golem would be eating their words soon, or perhaps...

Each floor had a landing leading into the space proper. Neighsay had passed two already, now coming up on the third. The creature was there waiting, of course... but Neighsay had seen how thick the doors were. As soon as he gained line of sight, he opened a portal and jumped before the creature could try something.

ZRRM!

And just like that, he was in.

The high-ceilinged room was magically insulated to protect the items inside. It’d been fashioned into a mix between a living quarters and a lab; and as Proxy had mentioned, the circular floorspace was much smaller than at the entrance. Sombra’s living amenities were sparse—a bed, a wardrobe of capes and regalia, various hygiene items, some dark crystal furniture, no food or water anywhere. His work-related items were varied and numerous: tables, bookshelves, workbenches, engineering tools, books of all kinds, scattered notes and maps, magical reagents, geomancy instruments, diagrams, assorted apparatuses, and even more things Neighsay didn’t care to examine.

What grabbed Neighsay's attention most was the device installed into the wall. It was a spherical rune-covered metal mesh, about the size of a beach ball and reinforced with joists within an ornate circular array. Suspended inside was a glowing curved spike of some kind, almost resembling...

Neighsay’s lips parted. “rEGenERaTe…” He put a hoof to his own horn. Would his start to look like that? All black and red and ugly? The fluted surface of Sombra's severed horn was wrapped in fine crystal threads like nerve endings, causing its bloody red glow to flood the room. “a HoRN rETAins ITs chargE, evEN iF...”

Sombra’s horn seethed with untold energy. Neighsay’s new senses revealed what might otherwise take longer to see—it was absorbing the mountain’s ambient empathy via the device. A number of spells had been cast that the horn was maintaining, just as Neighsay had suspected—

We still have time!” The medallion flashed with Proxy’s murmurs. “You’ll need our help to do this before your pursuers arrive! Our goals align now more than ever, Devourer!”

Neighsay blinked several times. Devourer? Who… was Proxy talking to? He knew he’d had a fit there, but Proxy hadn’t ever referred to him as the puppet is right. Listen to what they say for now, but keep your voice down. There’s no telling when the Bearers might show up...

Right. Neighsay kept a cool head and crept over to the machine without a sound. His headache lessened to a mere echo as he muttered under his breath, “Tell me how to destroy it, Proxy.”

It soon became obvious Proxy had studied every facet of the device. Neighsay followed the careful instructions with a decent amount of speed, but there were still problems here and there. The steps began with easy things like ‘flip the switch within the shielded enclosure beside you’, but the rest were more involved. He had to make one delicate adjustment at a time starting with the outer portions and moving inward, all the while being careful not to mess up his own work. First was the absurd outer array. Next was the runed metal mesh, while easier, still wasn’t a cakewalk. Recalibrating the network of crystalline threads preserving the horn was the hardest of all, but with a careful touch and a few close calls...

“That's it!” Proxy said. “Get clear of the array, shut the enclosure’s blast door, then throw the switch!!”

Neighsay obeyed. Now in the nearby enclosure with barely enough space for one, his last thought before pulling the lever was Proxy’s intent was to ‘remove Sombra’s defilement’. Hopefully this would be good enough to uphold his part of their deal, because once this thing was trashed, he was getting the hay out of here.

KA-CHUNK

FWWWWWWWWWWW—RRRRRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMMMMM

The metal mesh crackled and spun. The array flashed in a seizure-inducing display, brighter and brighter until it hurt to see. The crystalline threads hummed in a chorus that soon rose into a deafening whine. Now at its apex, the clamor and light even penetrated the protective enclosure. The noise was pure chaos, a strange frequency that penetrated air and rock alike. Neighsay could see the dancing lights even through his eyelids!

The black crystal in the room began to crack. It started around the device, but quickly cascaded in a series of crackling snaps. The sphere of influence spread until it was as large as the sound had travelled, though the exact measurement was anypony's guess. The cracks grew finer and finer until all black crystal in range was reduced to glittering magic, and only then did the shrill whine stop—

CHK-CHKKKKK… VMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM

Now the machine was emitting a strange thrumming. The crystal’s broken-down magic was being drawn to the machine like a magnet, dark energy zooming in from all directions to be reabsorbed into the horn.

“It’s working…” Proxy’s voices were in awe. “IT’S WORKING!”

Neighsay wasn’t sure what was happening. All he knew was a great amount of magic coalescing into a single point; enough to make drool fall from his lips on a constant stream.

After what felt like an eternity, all was silent once more.

“FINALLY!” Many of Proxy’s voices were laughing. “AT LONG LAST!”

Neighsay dashed out of the compartment. The ruined array was covered in ice, the metal mesh half-frozen and cracked open like an egg. Several of the crystal threads had snapped, and the few that remained crumbled to dust before his eyes.

As for the thing they’d been attached to…

“What…” The horn’s glow was so bright it hurt Neighsay’s eyes. Its staggering power distorted the air, sizzling red tendrils dancing along it like solar flares. Whether Sombra had actually been this powerful in life or not, the energy in the horn now was beyond anything Neighsay had encountered you understand everything now. Now is your chance; take the horn before it turns the crystal pony freaks into berserkers! GO!

Of course. It was all so clear to Neighsay—Nightmare Moon had never been ‘purified’, it’d all been a ploy to corrupt the other alicorns. The Elements had always been under her control from the moment they tried to face her, and she’d sent them here so she could bolster her army with crystal pony shock troops! Images of dead-eyed crystal ponies cutting a swath across Equestria played before Neighsay’s eyes. Canterlot, sacked. The three tribes, enslaved. Stallions would be worked until they died, mares forced to breed with thestrals and produce battalions of Dreamrealm invaders. Soon Nightmare Moon would have enough of a force—TO CRUSH YOU LIKE AN INSECT—

“AGGGH!” The psychic presence of Queen Chrysalis made Neighsay crumple. There was no sickly-sweet coercion; only rage and impossible power. He thrashed and writhed on the ground mere feet from his prize.

“YOU WON’T FORCE ME OUT THIS TIME.” Neighsay could feel something rushing through him, a fluid of some kind gathering into a viscous muck. A giant translucent serpent with dripping fangs formed to coil his entire body. NOW, SHOW ME WHAT YOU’VE FOUND!”

Chrysalis’ avatar wasn’t perfect. Its grotesque features kept shifting, its eyes bleary and out-of-focus. Her physical and mental grip were the most tangible things as she searched blindly within his numb psyche—

CHOMP

There was a terrible scream. Neighsay could breathe again. The serpent’s coils went limp around him, and something vast, terrible, and hungry was standing over him like a beast guarding its kill. It was so huge it shouldn’t have been able to fit in the Inner Sanctum—let alone this room!

“THE BUG CALLS US AN INSECT,” said a voice. “HOW IRONIC.”

Dizzy. So very, very dizzy. Neighsay couldn’t think straight, his whole body feeling drained. What was he doing again? Right, Sombra’s horn. He waded through a mire of fatigue and pulled himself back up with gold eyes and bloody fangs. He looked up and saw a monster like an absence in space; a cognizant void wreathed in malice. It was peeling Chrysalis’ avatar off him and lifting the writhing serpent up, up, up, up.

“I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME, LOVESUCKER.” it laughed and dangled the avatar over it's mighty jaws. “WHAT A POOR MOVE ON YOUR PART... WAS THIS YOUR FIRST TIME ATTEMPTING SUCH A TRICK?”

The base of Neighsay’s horn burned like mad. Hunger was the only definite anymore. He was looking out of his own eyes, but someone else’s, as well. He swore he was holding something over his mouth, but wasn't he staring at a magical horn? It wasn’t clear what was real anymore...

Then, the emptiness inside Neighsay felt… less, for a moment.

“YES!” Proxy crowed. “Vengeance for the Master! Your miserable kind will rue the day you overran the first facility!”

They were two entities sharing a shadow. One of them laughed as their colossal form swelled to even greater sizes. The other struggled to finish what they’d started, moving forward on shaky steps. One struggled to do what they thought was right. The other didn't care about such things.

Then, the two halves met eyes met for the first time.

“I’D HOPED TO TOY WITH YOU A BIT MORE, BUT…” Their shared vision flickered. Neighsay felt his senses dimming, the world fading to echoes. He was sinking in numbness, like a statue sinking into the ocean depths. He tried to break free and regain control, but it was too late; far too late. There were no dreams, not even the shadow of a dream.

“I THINK I’LL LEAVE YOu there for now,” said a distant voice. “At least until I can devote some proper time to you. Oh, and since you won't be needing it, I'll be using your name from now on. There can be only one Neighsay, after all...”

Then everything went dark.

The new Neighsay opened his eyes.

The sensations were new and foreign at the same time. A thick layer of cotton had been peeled off his senses, yet he felt confined, limited. He had a defined form now, and while he could still feel a certain limitlessness, he was confined to reality’s rules... for now.

“We’re not sure if that failed experiment forced your hoof, but we certainly don’t mind the results,” Proxy said. “You should know, however, consuming her avatar merely freed you of any further psychotic episodes. She is still very much alive.”

Freed him… yes. Yes, Neighsay was now freed. Proxy’s inane banter could be grating at times, but the golem was very good at double meanings.

Neighsay got to his hooves. The black crystal was gone—broken down and absorbed into Sombra’s horn. The Sanctum’s underlying construction was revealed to not be ice, but normal, everyday rock. The aura of unease was more palpable than ever though, made worse by the room’s disarray. Papers had been scattered, devices had knocked over, tables had been disturbed, books had fallen, materials had spilled, and everything close to the ruined machine was either frozen, destroyed, or both.

“Of course, we doubt you care about such things.” Soft chuckles were interspersed between Proxy’s words. “We can guess what you’re about to do, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t make our offer one final time. Swear yourself to the Master, Devourer. Become an agent of her legacy. This measly thing is nothing compared to what you could have!”

Neighsay wasn’t listening. He’d only dared take dregs of the mountain’s corruption before; now he could let it soak into his every pore. The crimson glow of Sombra’s horn revealed his bare white skin was changing; developing hard, glossy black scales like Chrysalis’ avatar. His naked, pitiful tail was growing thicker and longer, soon as mobile and dexterous as a serpent's.

“Or perhaps you’re as shortsighted as your counterpart.” Proxy watched Neighsay wrench the seething horn from the ruined device. “A pity, you would’ve had a place in our ranks. We suppose that means our business is concluded, so we'll just leave you to it..."

And they tried to do just that, intending to separate themselves from Neighsay’s medallion...

“What…” Proxy couldn't move. The golem shifted and struggled, but Neighsay’s icy blue magic held fast. “Devourer!”

Now it was Neighsay's turn to chuckle. The sound was chilling—His flat, nasally voice had turned harsh and deep with an occasional mad lilt. He salivated over Sombra's horn a moment, not even needing to will the ambient power to flow into him anymore; it did so on its own.

A vortex of evil swirled around him and the horn. He bared his glistening fangs, opened wide… and bit down.

Foul energies exploded immediately. Tendrils of sanguine magic arced out of the horn, only to then funnel into Neighsay’s maw in a constant stream. The horn’s long-sustained spells unravelled like yarn to be no more, the raw energies devoured without pause or care. Darkness wreathed around Neighsay as a millennium of soaked-up power surged into his malleable form, his transforming body making the Inner Sanctum tremble.

It was a feeding frenzy. Voracious greed and hunger consumed Neighsay as much as he consumed all the magic he could. Empathic magic, arcane magic, both were on the menu. He could feel himself changing, growing as he devoured more and more. He was aware of a distant tightness and the ripping of fabric as he grew, but the sensations went ignored.

“YOU DARE?!” Proxy realized Neighsay’s magical items were getting being feasted on, as well. Proxy made another attempt to flee, but it was too late. The magic Chrysalis had infused into the medallion was first to go, weeping out in thick, black, viscous globs. Then the medallion’s ancient matrices fell apart piece by piece, leaving Proxy themselves to be shredded like tissue paper. Their loud, shrill protests echoed through the room as Neighsay ate the ancient golem, leaving its mysterious puppetmasters without a mouthpiece—

WHOOOOOSH!

Frigid, knifing winds sprang to life around Neighsay. His body shuddered, doubling in size to stand taller than a manticore. Cruel ice spines with wicked points erupted all across his scaly body. His body lengthened and thickened to reflect more of Chrysalis’ avatar, his serpentine tail gaining curved, crystalline barbs. Freezing shadowfrost coalesced where his mane had been, and an even fouler, colder miasma spewed forth from his nostrils and throat. Ecstasy swept through him as Sombra’s brittle horn cracked in his mouth, and he wasted no time in crunching it to pieces and swallowing every last bit.

“MORE!” The room shook with Neighsay’s decree. A titanic surge hit him, and he doubled in size again to rival an ursa minor. Still he grew bigger, the available space was shrinking by the second as tables and shelves were smashed by his expanding limbs. His features grew more fearsome the more magic he ate, becoming truly monstrous—

There was a great rumble from above.

Neighsay paused. His pony-like ears brushed the ceiling, but he was still so very hungry. Yet the thuds and crashes of rock reverberating through the Central Stair made him wary. A hot, stinging sensation assailed his senses then—magic, he realized—

“AGH!” Neighsay recoiled. That magic wasn’t just searing hot, it was… poisonous! Even just touching had been agony, and worse, the energy had sensed his touch! He concealed his aura as best he could before they could pin him down.

“They’ll find me if I keep feeding...” The fabled Elements of Harmony: Conquerors of monsters, legends, spirits, and gods. Their power was flaring brighter, their searing wrath hot on his trail. His thoughts turned to a temporary retreat, perhaps move to another part of the facility... but it was then he realized what’d happened to the medallion.

“Damn it!” Neighsay gnashed his teeth. He searched within himself for an answer, but all he discovered was he could now shift into mist form like Proxy had mentioned. The means of actual teleporting were unknown to him, and thus the only thing he could do was fight them seven-on-one, or hide and hope they passed him by.

“Perhaps a little of both is in order.” Neighsay ignored the smorgasbord of ambient energy and began dispersing his misty body. "I am a spy, after all..."