• Published 26th Oct 2019
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The Heart Beats Still - ArgonMatrix

In the fledgling years of the Crystal Empire, the first Crystal Princess defends her realm against unyielding darkness.

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Chapter 2 – All for One

In a flash of amber, Princess Amore and Sable Rook appeared at the northernmost outpost. Amore’s skull throbbed from the exertion, but she didn’t care. She grit her teeth and looked about.

The beacon itself was untouched. No signs of a conflict in the immediate area, either. Amore furrowed her brow. One of the border guards stationed here, Basalt, stood beside Citrine Star. Both ponies had turned her way, eyes stark. Another guard, Asphalt, sat facing the distant tundra. His coat was dull and lifeless. His ears pressed flat.

Cobalt, the third guard stationed here, was nowhere to be seen. Amore frowned and cantered forward.

Citrine shifted a glare on Sable Rook. “I sent you for backup, not the princess herself!”

“Sorry, Captain,” Sable said, “but I thought she should know.”

Citrine went to say something else, but Amore cut them off. “Where is Cobalt?” she asked, her voice a sharp edge. She looked to Basalt. His face was ghostly; his eyes locked in a silent scream. From this close, she saw that his coat was matted and damp. He stared back at her—or through her. She couldn’t tell which.

Scowling, Citrine looked past the outpost, where the fields tapered off into an endless wasteland. “From what I can gather,” they said flatly, “a pack of umbrum passed themselves off as Equestrian refugees. He believed it. Tried to go help them.”

“We told him not to,” Basalt said in an eggshell voice. “We told him. We tried to stop him. But… he wouldn’t listen. And…” He trembled and squeezed his eyes shut. Citrine put a hoof to his shoulder.

“They took him,” Asphalt muttered, still looking away. “He’s gone.”

Amore’s mouth went dry. “Gone?”

“Kidnapped,” Citrine spat, as though the word itself were at fault. They shook their head. “It’s not a tactic the umbrum have used before. I don’t understand why they would start now.”

Amore’s eyes snapped to the tundra. Wind-blasted snowbanks rolled out as far as she could see—which wasn’t far, as precious little sunlight could penetrate the ancient storm. A wall of blizzard and dark fog obscured the rest, swirling in the gale like a wildfire—minus the warmth and light. The clouds above churned and roared. In a word, it was oblivion.

And one of her ponies was trapped out there. One of her family. Her heart screamed at her to take off into the wilderness right then and there. He couldn’t be far. He would have put up a fight. But he needed help. He needed her. She could still find him. But she had to go now. She could—

She stopped. Each of the ponies around her wore a different expression, but they were all broken. With tempered willpower, she dampened the inferno in her soul. She inhaled a shaky breath, allowed it to fill her, and exhaled smoothly. Time was of the essence, but she had to do this right.

“It doesn’t matter why,” she said. “It only matters what we do now.” An angry spark shot up through her horn, and a beam of pink light struck the beacon overhead. Its color shifted from gold to dull red. Two similar flares shot from the beacon itself, flying east and west towards the nearest outposts.

Amore turned her gaze on the mare beside her. “Thank you for alerting me, Sable. Return to your post, and be safe.” The guard gave a sharp salute and galloped west.

Beckoning Citrine aside, the princess’s eyes went dewy as she approached Basalt. She draped a wing over him and guided him to where Asphalt sat. She extended her other wing and folded both ponies into a huddle. They met her eyes. “I know you have both just been through something dreadful, and I am so sorry to put this on you. I wish we had more time. But I need you to stay strong right now. There’s a good chance that this was a diversion—something to break our spirits before another assault.” She wrapped a hoof around them both, pulling them even closer. “I will bring him back. That much I promise. Until then, I need you both on high alert while I’m gone. I pray that it won’t be necessary, but I need you ready, just in case. Can you do that?”

Basalt swallowed. His eyes steeled over and he said, “Of course, Princess.”

Asphalt’s gaze broke. “I should’ve been faster,” he said, his voice quivering like dry branches in the wind. “I should’ve stopped him when I had the chance. I’m so sorry.”

“Do not put this on yourself, Asphalt,” Amore said, nudging his chin up. “You did nothing wrong. If you are to blame anypony, blame me. I should’ve more strongly enforced the notion not to trust any outsiders.” Her jaw clenched. “But it’s too late for that now. You are strong and capable. I wouldn’t have stationed you here if you weren’t. I need you to believe in your strength. I know it isn’t easy. But I believe you can do this.” She offered a wan smile. “I’m sure Cobalt does, too. Can you be strong for him?”

Light colour had returned to Asphalt’s coat and mane. He said nothing but gave a firm nod.

Amore squeezed both guards tight before releasing them. They trotted over to the outpost, Basalt with a hoof on Asphalt’s shoulder.

“Amore,” Citrine said, their mouth a harsh line. “When you said ‘while I’m gone,’ you didn’t mean—”

“Citrine,” Amore said, frowning, “nopony else can help him. You know that.”

Citrine countered Amore’s frown with a dark grimace. “I know. It’s suicide for anypony else. But you can’t go. Not only are you beat, but if another assault happens, another breach might, too. If you’re M.I.A., the Empire doesn’t stand a chance.”

“Then what am I to do?!” Amore shouted. Citrine flinched, their eyes more than a little wide. Reining herself, Amore straightened her back and said, “Do I leave him to die? How could I call myself a leader if I abandoned one of my ponies—one of my friends—when they needed me most?” She slumped to the ground. Her tiara felt cold and unfamiliar. “What am I to do?”

A few times, Citrine went to say something. Yet each time, their mouth worked in silence. A long sigh passed their lips. “You’re our leader because we trust you. To keep us safe. And to make the hard decisions.” They approached and touched a hoof to Amore’s shoulder. “Not every question has a right answer.

“I know what I’d choose, but I’m not a princess.” They took a few steps back and saluted. “Whatever you choose, I’ll stand by it.”

Amore looked Citrine over. Their words were taut, their stance rigid, but their eyes sagged. The face of a parent whose child hadn’t grown up to be what they’d hoped. She looked to the outpost. The two ponies within had just witnessed their friend being dragged to Tartarus, and still they held their posts. All in her name. She cast her gaze to the Empire. Everypony in every building slept soundly at night, knowing she’d be there for them. Forever and always.

She imagined any of them—all of them—caught in an umbrum’s cold clutch. Alone and afraid, crying for help that might never come. Her heart twinged, and the image crystallized.

Standing, she fixed Citrine with a level stare. “Captain,” she said, “I need you to remain at this outpost. Help these two with their duties… until I return.” Citrine’s mouth tightened further, and it nearly brought Amore to tears. She threw a hug around them. “And I will return. I promise.”

There was a long pause. “Yes, ma’am,” came the quiet reply. They returned the embrace with one trembling hoof.

Drawing away, Amore said nothing more. She met Citrine’s gaze one last time and turned her back to the Empire. No time for second thoughts, she launched into the vast unknown.

Even the light of an alicorn’s magic shone timidly against the maelstrom of the arctic wastes. It hadn’t been so dark in ages past, but the emergence of the umbrum had warped the clouds from ruthless stormbringers into immortal harbingers of gloom. Their presence bore down on Amore like an avalanche as the Empire’s light vanished behind her.

That was to say nothing of the blizzard itself. Howling winds buffeted her every move and sent ice shards tearing across her coat and feathers. Snow hardly had time to gather on the ground before the gale ripped it away and carried it back into the chaos. Flight would have been impossible, even for Amore, were it not for the crucible of magic in her bosom. It manifested as a glossy membrane around her body, blocking the worst of the wrath.

The shield drained more energy than she would have liked, but it was necessary. Her glide wobbled and her mind begged for rest. All of it was secondary to her mission. Her vision refocused.

The landscape revealed nothing. Any trace the umbrum’s passage had left had probably been swept away as quickly as it had appeared. She turned her gaze skyward, hoping to spot the telltale black mist that typically served as an omen during an invasion. But if such a thing existed, it was invisible in the dark clouds.

She sent out the occasional pulse of magic, hoping to strike something unseen. Yet while each blast made her head ache, they produced nothing but melted snow.

The minutes passed too quickly. Sweat pooled on her brow, and not solely from the toll on her body. She changed direction at random. She peeled her eyes for anything at all. She fired magic in more frequent and erratic bursts. All in vain. The black world around her would not yield.

She spotted a rock and landed beside it. Immediately her legs buckled, and she keeled into the stone. Her chest heaved, burning with each raspy breath. Her eyes stung under the never-ending torrent of snowflakes. Tears froze as they rolled free, clumping with the ice in her coat. The world went blurry. Her mind fought for anything to hold onto.

Cobalt had a family. Amore knew them well. His wife was a seamstress—Crystal Lace. She had made Amore a flannel scarf for her birthday. They had children, too. A colt—Gallic. He’d earned his cutie mark two months ago. It was a royal guard’s helmet. And their daughter—Berry Splash. A newborn. Weeks old. The Crystalling had been immaculate. Cobalt deserved to see her grow up.

Amore gripped these thoughts for dear life. She closed her eyes and pushed the blizzard out of her mind. It was only her and these ponies. Ponies she loved and swore to protect. Ponies who needed her now more than ever. The cadence of her heart slowed. She called out in silent prayer.

Distantly, something answered.

A glob of clustered lights appeared in her mind. They were far but bright. Warm. Every colour of the rainbow. A few of them shone more fiercely than others.

Another light winked alive. It was a lonely blue mote. It was familiar, and it was fading. Amore latched onto it. It pulled her northeast.

Her eyes flashed open. Without hesitation, she pushed off the rock and launched to the northeast, barreling through the sky with redoubled vigor. Nothing about this direction was apparently different, but it didn’t matter. She had faith.

Soon enough, the earth began to slope upwards. Amore’s heart beat faster as she followed the incline, climbing closer to the clouds. Raw ice jutted out in rough patches as the ridge of the glacier rose higher. And somewhere not far ahead, barely a whisper through the roaring wind, Amore heard moans. The same bone-chilling moans that haunted her every nightmare. Her magic shone brighter.

Ahead, the dark fog condensed into an opaque mass. Roiling shadow-stuff stacked high enough to mingle with the clouds. Hundreds of coldlight eyes blinked to life as Amore’s hornglow burned the edge of the umbrum pack.

Instinct kicked in. Amore pulled on her heartstrings and unleashed a wave of amber light, cleaving through the umbrum like flame through ice. Their primal shrieks blared above the wind as they scattered. She carved a hole in the darkness and dove in headlong.

The world went black as pitch. Amore’s light—blinding a moment ago—now struggled and waned in the spiteful dark. Her magic was strong, but the umbrum were many. Tendrils lashed at her, coiling around her limbs and wings. Spears of hopeful energy sliced them cleanly, but two more latched on for every one she cut.

Dozens of dead eyes alit around her. They grafted onto cadaverous heads that grew from the shadows. Alien whispers filled her ears and ate at her mind. Their eyes shone a pallid white, and the tendrils restraining her tightened as they snaked along her body. They bulged and bloated, cutting gashes in her flesh with every struggle. A cold, ichorous sensation spread to her bones as the darkness slowly consumed her.

Amore clenched her teeth. She pooled all the energy left in her body and found more still beyond that. Unbridled radiance erupted from her horn, forcing every umbrum to scurry away, wailing loud enough to wake the dead. A golden sphere enclosed her—a barrier darkness could not breach. It moved with her as she blasted forward like lightning splitting the sky. Her vision tunneled and reddened. Each second felt like an hour, and she winced with every strike against her shell.

Finally, the fog breathed open and released her. More umbrum whinnied from below, but her focus was dead ahead.

Cobalt stood on the cusp of the glacier—but that was all she saw of him before a wisp of darkness obscured him. The smoke coalesced into a corporeal umbrum. A tall, lanky monster of sickly green skin, grinning into the abyss.

Amore released her barrier and struck the beast’s back with an amber ray. It sent the umbrum careening through the air with a howl. Amore wasted no time watching where it went as she flew beyond the cliff’s edge into the yawning chasm.

A scream echoed to her from somewhere deep. Without thinking, Amore flared her magic and teleported several hundred hooves forward. The rocky ground was suddenly rushing at her. She pulled out of her dive with a force that threatened to snap her spine. She wheeled around in midair, scanned the darkness, and barely made out Cobalt’s plummeting form.

She bolted in his direction, willing her wings to bear this final push. Once she was close, she weaved an arcane net around him and mentally heaved it. His fall decelerated rapidly, dragging him to an unceremonious stop, held aloft in Amore’s magic. She lowered him the remaining distance to the ground, landed nearby, and collapsed.

The world rang around her. Her eyes wanted to adjust, but her hornglow had petered out. She tried to move a hoof, a wing, anything—every part of her refused. All she could do was breathe: hot inhales; hoarse exhales. Each one was fire in her breast. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears. It was all she could hear in the shelter of the gorge. The sound nearly lulled her to sleep.

“Well, now isn’t this something.”

The crackling voice pulled her attention up. A pair of burning, luminous eyes pierced the dark. Amore managed to produce a frail speck of light at the tip of her horn.

A gangly, olive-skinned umbrum floated above her. Patches of its body were scorched away, rendering its frame obscenely skeletal. Its wings had burned to nothing. It held itself aloft with a miasma of shadows that obscured its hooves

It recoiled and hissed at Amore’s light. Then it chuckled—a gravelly, gurgling sound. “I never would have dreamed that the Great Crystal Princess herself would grace our little corner of the wasteland. I’m so honoured.” The umbrum slammed to the earth, standing directly over her.

Amore flinched. She fixed the beast with a glare, but she quickly remembered herself. Craning her neck, she spotted Cobalt a short distance away, just on the cusp of her light: unconscious or dead, she didn’t know. She dragged herself in his direction all the same.

The umbrum followed. “Really, if I’d known you would be foolish enough to abandon your kingdom for a single, measly pony, I would have planned this better!” It snorted a puff of smoke in the princess’s face.

Amore coughed but didn’t stray. She winced at the sharp pebbles digging into her coat and carried on. She honed her focus. She needed to get Cobalt home. Nothing else mattered.

“But of course a saccharine whore like you would be blinded by emotion. Willing to risk everything you hold dear for one meaningless life.” The umbrum’s face pressed close to Amore’s. “Was it worth it?

She thought of Cobalt’s family. Imagined seeing their relieved faces when he arrived home. Or the closure they would have from at least being able to send him off.

“And look at you now. Broken. Powerless. Alone. Couldn’t even save the one you risked everything for. And now you’re at our mercy.” A vast chorus of moans and whispers closed in from higher up.

She thought of Citrine Star and Primrose and everypony in the Empire. Every face she had sworn to protect. Every promise she would break if she stopped now.

“It will take some time for us to recover enough for another attack, but with you out of the way?” The umbrum’s grin split its face in half. “Nothing will stop us. Your home is ours for the reaping. Just as you reaped ours.”

She thought of her own parents. How proud they would have been of what she’d built. How much they’d believed in her. How disappointed they would have been if it ended like this.

“Of course, even if you hadn’t removed yourself from the equation, our plan was already too far along. It was sealed from the moment that oaf fell for our trap.” Dark appendages manifested from everywhere, inching closer.

She reached Cobalt. Pulling him into a maternal embrace, she thought lastly of the Crystal Heart. The connection that she didn’t fully grasp but nevertheless cherished. Her duty to help the relic protect everyone. Her reliance on it to be her guide in the darkest hours. She called to it in a silent plea, for that was all she could do.

“Face it,” the umbrum spat. “You have failed!” The horde of shadow-beasts descended on her.

But they were too late.

An intense blue flash detonated around her. It rang through the abyss, suffocating all noise in a blissful choir. She saw not what became of the umbrum. All of her attention was on holding her friend close and allowing the Crystal Heart’s warmth to envelop them like a fresh blanket. The ringing in her ears intensified, rising to a deafening pitch. For an eternal moment, she couldn’t tell whether she was alive or dead.

Her entire body loosened, and exhaustion punched through her a thousandfold. The light swallowed her whole, and she fell asleep in its cradle.

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