• 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 4 – Storm

The screams woke her.

Amore sat bolt upright. A harsh chill had overtaken her bedroom. She couldn't tell how long she’d been sleeping, and right now it didn’t matter. The blankets ripped from her body with one strained wing flap and she ran to the window.

Pulsating black fog consumed the Empire’s edge in a bank ten ponies thick. It rimmed the outer fields for as far as Amore’s view allowed and likely farther. It rolled forth at a glacial pace, suffocating the landscape inch by inch. The sky above was light but overcast, and the clouds swirled inward like dark, tempestuous harbingers.

Amore’s heart leapt to her throat. The umbrum had staged large-scale attacks in the past, but never like this. At their current pace, she guessed they would be upon the outer buildings in ten minutes or less. She didn’t spare a second thought as she launched out the window.

A dull ache permeated her body as she glided down between the palace’s spires. She ignored it, following the sloping walls until she reached the ground, impacting on the cusp of the Crystal Heart Pavilion.

Hundreds of eyes darted her way. “Princess!” the crowd boomed, their voices running the full gamut of emotion. They erupted into a noisy maelstrom, slinging questions like mud.

Amore flared her wings and called, “Silence, my little ponies.” She scanned the courtyard as the din began to calm.

Most of the Empire was already here. Civilians huddled close together, many in familial units but some with friends or strangers. Guards and soldiers stood scattered throughout—most near the edges where the crowd tapered off. Other ponies were still galloping in from the surrounding streets. Foals wailed and murmurs rumbled. Nopony’s coat had completely lost its shine, but many were noticeably duller. A cold wind whipped about, tangling manes and tails through sheer turbulence.

The Crystal Heart, for its part, shone bright. Amore lingered on it for just a hair.

Her gaze landed on a group standing by the palace’s southwestern entrance. Citrine Star stood alongside three other ponies: their first and second lieutenants, Jade Shine and Marble Knight, plus Amore’s royal advisor, Crystal Quill. All of them met her eyes with a mixture of relief and confusion.

All but Citrine. Amore shared a terse look with the captain before turning to the crowd at large. “I wish I could say more, but we have little time. Everypony is to remain no less than a hundred hooves from the Crystal Heart—make sure everypony has room. If somepony in armour gives you directions, follow them. Defenders of the Heart, make sure nopony leaves this plaza.” Eight guards nodded their assent.

“Wait for further instructions while we amass our defenses.” Her eyes went dewy, and she gave a faint smile. “Thank you. I’m so proud, and I’m sorry. I love you all.” The cacophony only seemed to build as she finished. Amore frowned. With a deft leap, she closed the distance to her assembled aides.

“Grace,” Crystal Quill said, bowing as Amore touched down, “you are a sight for sore eyes. But are you well enough to—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Amore said. Her eyes steeled over as she looked to the horizon. The shadows crept higher like some perverse sunrise. “The soldiers can only do so much. Without my magic, the Empire will not endure this.”

Citrine scowled at the ground. “She’s right. Even with all hooves mobilized, we’re not ready for something this big.”

“Neither are they,” Amore said. “They’re moving slowly; they’re still recovering.”

Marble Knight’s brow furrowed. “Why would they attack if they’re weakened?”

“Because they know we’re weak, too.” Amore raised her head high, her spine going straight. “Marble, you stay here and coordinate the pavilion guards. Help them escort everypony into the palace. They’ll be safer inside.”

“Are you sure, Princess? Surely the closer to the Crystal Heart, the better.”

“We need to maintain the calm, which means they can’t witness any combat. And the palace is close enough to the Heart to be safe. Umbrum can’t get very close to it, even if they materialize.” Her focus pivoted to her advisor. “Quill, find our most recent census. Gather as much of the staff as you can and perform a headcount together—the faster, the better. If anypony is unaccounted for, let Marble know. He can handle it from there.”

Quill’s frizzy mane frizzed more, but she nodded. “Of course, Grace.”

Lastly, Amore shifted to Citrine and Jade Shine. “Citrine, gather our remaining forces. We’ll split them in three, and each of us will lead a charge. You take the south. Jade, take the northeast. I will start northwest and make my way around as needed.”

Citrine’s mouth became a tight line. Jade nodded sharply and said, “Understood, Chief! We won’t let ya down!”

Amore gave a forlorn smile. “Thank you, my friends. I have faith in all of you.” Her wings spread wide, wrapping the whole group in a downy embrace. “I’ll see you on the other side of this. Be safe.”

“Back at ya,” Citrine said, their eyes unable to meet hers.

Amore’s wings folded in, and each pony broke off in their own direction. The princess carried off to the northwest and waited for her battalion to gather, her eyes glued on the distant darkness. Memories from the bottom of that glacial abyss flooded to her, making her shiver. She centered herself, closing her eyes and feeling her chest rise as she drew on her connection to the Crystal Heart. It held strong—the collective light of her friends and family filled her with renewed vigor.

Her eyes opened, sharp as blades. This wouldn’t be pretty, but they would survive. Even if it killed her.

They stood together at edge, glaring into oblivion. And oblivion glared back.

The crawling wall of shadows didn’t even slow as the full force of Amore’s military readied their pikes. Amore herself stood on a rooftop near the outskirts, wind billowing her mane. She analyzed the countryside for any sudden movement or flicker of magic.

In their current form, the umbrum could not advance much farther—Amore knew that from experience. They would have to become corporeal, which made them vulnerable. She prayed they were weak enough that few would be able to hold such a form for very long. The full scale of the umbrum's injuries eluded her, but they had to be extensive. A small part of her believed that, just maybe, this battle wouldn’t even breach the city itself.

The first of the umbrum manifested, their corpse-like faces roaring out of the fog like spirits through death's veil. War cries boomed as Amore's army charged ahead to meet them. The princess took to the skies and dove into action.

Umbrum that saw her approach returned to the miasma. A less perceptive cluster scattered to wisps as her amber spears lanced down. Each shot felt like lightning in her brain, but she bore it through clenched teeth. She coasted at a safe distance, scanning for more tangible umbrum.

She saw none. Looking to where her soldiers charged distantly, even those umbrum retreated. None of their eyes flared. None of them even tried to attack. The whole wall lurched to a halt as her ponies got close.

Her blood ran cold. Something was wrong.

One umbrum—still ethereal—blitzed for the nearest soldier. It whipped a dozen tiny tendrils at the stallion’s face and pulled itself down, latching on like a leech. Another umbrum followed. Then another. A whole swarm of them screeched out and clung to any pony they could reach. The soldiers’ screams were muffled as they dropped their pikes, trying to pry the beasts off with frantic hooves.

Amore barreled into a nosedive. Light beamed from her horn in a wide cone, bathing the ponies in radiance. The umbrum shrieked and fled, leaving dark cuts around the eyes and mouths of their victims. Amore’s heart raced as she looked to the next platoon over.

They too were thrashing and crying as the umbrum ripped into their features. Amore pumped her wings and hauled forward—but as she drew near, the umbrum vanished into wisps. Her ponies’ faces twisted, and their screams came out garbled and hoarse. Eyes wide, Amore landed beside the closest soldier. Grabbing both of the mare’s shoulders, she yelled, “Can you hear me?!”

As if in response, the soldier went limp. Her head bobbed lifelessly to one side. But as Amore’s mind jumped to the worst, the pony’s eyes peeled open. Clouded over a dark shade of blue, they turned on Amore. For a moment, she simply held the mare's gaze.

The guard smiled, baring all her teeth. “Too easy,” she said, her voice deep beyond recognition.

Amore dropped the pony like she might burst into flames. Every thought and emotion within her being mangled together in a sickening knot. She reflexively wrapped the pony in her magic, holding her down.

The mare writhed and howled in ear-splitting agony. Shadow-stuff boiled out through her eyes and mouth, condensing into an umbrum that reeled into the dark fog. The soldier lay there panting and sweat-soaked but still alive.

Amore instantly looked to the other ponies of the platoon. Some still flailed on the ground. Others wore pale, slack expressions. And others still had risen to their hooves, galloping towards the Empire with purpose. They hurried down the main roads, making a beeline for the Crystal Heart.

The Crystal Heart which was, at this moment, unprotected.

Tears had begun pouring at some point. This had to be a nightmare. This couldn’t be real. Yet it was. Through every stabbing pain in her heart and mind, she knew it was. And the longer she stood there, hoping to wake up, the more time she wasted.

Shaking herself lucid, she helped the soldier up and sent her fleeing. Amore squeezed her eyes dry and lifted her head. “Fall back!” she bellowed to anypony that might still hear her. “The Crystal Heart is at risk!” She rocketed into the sky and flew down the nearest street.

Biting cold engulfed her and stopped her dead. She looked down to where a group of enchanted soldiers stood, glaring at her with eyes of moonlight. They yanked her to the ground and leapt on her.

Amore unleashed a bright flare, yelping at the fire in her horn. The ponies collapsed as the dispelled umbrum blew off into the sky. Scrambling to her hooves, Amore readied her wings.

Something lunged from an alleyway, tackling her sideways. She rolled to a halt, pinned to the earth by another pony. He raised a hoof to strike her, but she pressed her glowing horn to his temple and held it there, evaporating the shadow within. The soldier tumbled off her—Amore caught him and eased him down. Standing again, she glanced around. Another six umbrum-possessed ponies flanked her already, aimed to pounce.

Amore bit her lip, tasting iron. “I’m sorry, friends,” she whispered. “I’ll come back for you.” She closed her eyes and imagined the Crystal Heart Pavilion in vivid detail. Her magic stressed and strained, feeling as though it might rend her skull in half, but it obeyed. She vanished in an amber blink.

She reappeared an instant later, standing up by adrenaline alone. Clutching her head, she opened her wild eyes. The blur quickly cleared as she took in the plaza.

The Crystal Heart spun lazily in its beacon, its glow dim. Citrine stood next to it, their hind legs poised to kick. A pallid green glaze hid their eyes. They met Amore’s stare, and a thin smirk split their muzzle.

Hooves electric, Amore screamed and dove at the creature. Simultaneously, it bucked with Citrine’s hooves and sent the Heart flying. Amore connected, tumbling together with the umbrum in a flailing mess. She held it down by the shoulders and channeled her magic.

A few lonely sparks sputtered from her horn. She reached for her head on instinct, and the umbrum punched her temple hard. Her vision went white as she toppled. Sight returned just as the umbrum hurdled over her, galloping to where the Heart lay near the edge of the plaza.

“Get away!” Amore shrieked. She crouched low and pumped her wings, shooting up and ahead of the umbrum. She stretched her hooves for the Crystal Heart.

Her head snapped backward as a bitter magic snagged her mane. The umbrum lifted her up, its eyes aglow. It grinned. “After you.” The world whipped past as the beast hurled her into the palace doors at top speed.

Amore collided headfirst. The doors splintered and ripped from their hinges, barely slowing her. Screams filled her ears as she smacked into a pillar with an audible crack. She fell to the floor like a ragdoll. Her whole body felt like a single, flaming nerve, soothed barely by each shallow breath she took.

Something prodded her. “Princess?” a small, trembling voice said.

Looking up, Amore met an adolescent colt’s tear-soaked eyes. Despite the fact that her whole world was ringing and red, she instantly recalled his name—Steel Bolt. He was an apprentice to his father Crucible, the blacksmith.

Past him, hundreds more ponies were gathered in the foyer. All of them beheld her with one of two faces: quivering and broken or blanched and wide-eyed. Some held hooves to their mouths. A few—the guards especially—glanced to the doorway before facing to her again.

Amore recognized every pony. She would keep them safe. No matter what.

Marble Knight rushed forward and extended a hoof. Amore took it. She didn’t meet anypony’s eyes directly—she couldn’t bear to. Instead, she focused on the doorway and wiped her muzzle of both blood and mucus. “Stay inside.” Her voice could’ve sundered mountains. She galloped forward and launched into the fray.

More possessed ponies had arrived in the pavilion, smiling with all their teeth. Amore banked left, aiming for where the Crystal Heart twitched in a dark aura. She didn’t even make it halfway before getting caught in the very same magic. It didn’t toss her this time. It simply locked her there, helpless.

“I think that’s enough from you.” The Citrine-shaped monstrosity approached. Its sneer could’ve bent light. “Little bitch doesn’t know when to quit.”

Amore tried for her magic again, but it wouldn’t come. She glared through Citrine and into the core of the beast itself. “Get out of them.”

The umbrum chuckled. “Trust me, I don’t plan on staying in this meat sack any longer than I have to. Its love is nauseating. I won’t have a use for it anyway once this is dealt with.” The Crystal Heart floated higher.

Gasps and cries rang out. All eyes turned to the palace doors, where a cluster of ponies had gathered behind the lineup of guards. They were mostly staring up at Amore, mouths agape.

“No!” Amore shouted, struggling against the magic. “Don’t hurt them!”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it. An audience is exactly what we need!” Shadows licked out between Citrine’s teeth. The umbrum's face glowed as it stepped between Amore and the crowd. “Behold, peasants! I present to you the only two forces that ever stood a chance against my children and I.” It thrust Amore and the Crystal Heart even higher. “Both are at our mercy. Both are useless. And both are about to be destroyed before your very eyes!”

“No!” Marble Knight broke loose from the crowd, charging headlong at Citrine. Three umbrum were upon him before he even cleared the stairs. They pushed him to the ground, where he struggled and squirmed under their weight. “You won’t get away with this. You won’t win!”

Citrine barked a single, throaty laugh. “It’s too late for that, you cretin. Look around!” It swept a hoof across the landscape. The vast wall of umbrum in the distance loomed ever closer, already overtaking the farthest buildings. “My children roam free. Your army is ours. Your precious Crystal Heart is powerless.

“All that’s left now…” It passed the Crystal Heart to another umbrum and bored its hungry eyes into the Crystal Princess. The full brunt of its magic strangled her body. “…is to break your hero.” The force became a vice around Amore’s throat.

She gulped a final breath before her airway shut. She pawed at her neck and tried to force another inhale, but nothing came. It was everything she could do not to panic as the muffled wails of her citizens filled her ears. Her chest burned and her eyes bulged as her vision began tunnelling.

She locked eyes with Citrine. Memories of their last conversation filled her mind. Suddenly, nothing else mattered. In a quiet, raspy voice, Amore said, “Citrine. I’m sorry.”

Citrine’s smile dropped. “Shut up.”

Tears clouded Amore’s eyes—and not just from the pain. “You were right. I should’ve listened. But it’s not too late. Please. I know you’re in there.” The world around her was fading.

The umbrum’s grip wavered, and Amore managed a sliver of air. “Shut up!” the creature roared. Sweat glistened on its brow.

Somehow, Amore smiled. “Thank you. For everything. I love you. And I know you love me.”

A screech split the air—a vile blend of Citrine’s voice and something alien. Amore fell to the ground and pulled in a heavy breath. She watched as Citrine squirmed, stomping their hooves and flicking their tail as they fought an unseen battle. Green smoke and ichor oozed from their every orifice until the umbrum finally let go. It manifested a small distance away, laying on its side in a grisly heap. Citrine barely caught themselves as they staggered sideways.

Amore struggled to her hooves and threw Citrine in an embrace. The captain squeezed her close, burying their wet face in her mane. They coughed and whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Amore cooed. “You’re safe now.”

Not for long.” The two ponies broke from their hug, scowling as the tall, skeletal umbrum pushed itself up. It snapped a look over its shoulder at the possessed pack behind it. “Ira, you fool. The Heart!

Lieutenant Jade Shine’s eyes flashed a morbid red, sending the Crystal Heart skyward. Every umbrum locked eyes on it. A low thrum filled the air, shaking Amore to her soul. Countless rays of black energy shot up, striking the Heart directly. They coiled into an angry, shadowy sphere around it. Cracks immediately formed on the Heart's surface.

No!” Amore flew straight for it. All warmth fled her body as she pressed into the darkness entombing the relic. Remarkably, it didn’t hurt—it only numbed her. She clutched the Heart close to her body. Pieces of the crystal were already falling away.

She couldn’t hear anything over the thunder of magic—she couldn’t speak either. She could only watch. She watched as her ponies, guards and civilians alike, flooded out of the castle and swamped the umbrum. She watched as some of the possessed soldiers broke from their spell, their eyes burning coals. She watched as Citrine hurled themselves at the umbrum leader, wrestling it to the ground.

She glanced down at her own body. It was fading. Quickly. Dark gashes widened across her coat like a hundred rotten maws. Her feathers withered to ash. Her mane and tail burned in a black inferno. Still, she felt none of it. But by looks alone, one thing was obvious: she would not survive this.

She looked at the Crystal Heart. No light came from it. Its facets were dull and grey. Shadows poured into it from every direction, rupturing it from within. Tears fell from her cheeks, boiling as they hit the relic’s surface. It would not survive this either.

But one of them had to survive. There was no other way.

Amore took one last look around the Crystal Empire, admiring all of her little ponies’ faces. Her friends and family, whom she loved with all that she was. She smiled and pressed her horn to the Crystal Heart.

Clamping her eyes shut, she dug deep within herself. Through her body. Through her mind. Even through her heart. She followed the lines of light and love that permeated her entire being. She found the epicenter. The core.

It appeared in her mind’s eye—a formless, radiant essence. It was so familiar. Then, of course it was. It was her every thought. Every feeling. Every memory. Every ounce of magic. This was everything that made her her. The Princess of Love.

She ripped the whole damn thing out.

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