Machinations in the Dark

by BaryonBrony

First published

There is a secret held in the dungeons below Canterlot, deeper than the crystal caverns into the roots of the mountain. This secret is a creature imprisoned by the Princesses. It is a source of great knowledge, but may ultimately be a great enemy.

It has been one of the closest guarded secrets of Canterlot's royalty. Deep in a specially constructed dungeon, surrounded by warding spells and powerful magic barriers, exists an enigma. Within a cage that could only be described as something out of a nightmare, it waits and watches all of Equestria. A creature that cannot age, is immune to disease, does not thirst nor hunger, and resists all injury. But, it also holds secrets and knowledge that could safeguard the kingdom. Its powers are frightening, but it is civil enough for debate when patience permits.

Princess Celestia has sought counsel with the creature before, enduring it making deal after deal for its services. The Princess walks a fine line when dealing with it, knowing full well anything could give it an advantage despite its imprisonment. She has had to go back on her word in these dealings, and from this a deep animosity between them has been born. It is a necessary evil as she is convinced this is a being capable of untold evil far and above anything Equestria has ever dreamed of. So long as it remains within the confines of its cell, her kingdom is made safe. So much magic has been woven to ensure that, there is little chance of escape.

So long as the magic holds, there is no danger. So long as the cage remains strong, the nameless creature stays enthralled in his cavernous dwelling. If that were to change--if the magic failed--not even the wisest could say. But one thing is assured, it does not bode well for Equestria.

Chapter 1 - Changing of the Guard

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“It’s dark,” the guard spoke in a hushed voice.

“It is always dark down here. The only light you may have is what we will provide. Those lights may only be used at your post, this path must stay dark at all times.” The second guard also spoke with a subdued voice. He was more decorated, his golden armor of a slightly older design than his companion's dark blues and purples. They walked through the dank tunnel, the dark stifling and oppressive all around them. “These are the basic rules to your new assignment: No unicorns are permitted past your post. Magical items are absolutely forbidden. Only those with a writ of consent with the seal of the Princesses themselves are permitted within your post, including myself. Pegasi must be fitted with a suppression harness if they have the necessary writ. These and plenty more rules, not to mention finer print, will be in the post logbook’s inside cover. When you reach your post you will be fitted with a specialty weapon that you must wear at all times, including off-hours. You may only train with this weapon against the dummies provided. Its use against your fellow guards is punishable by imprisonment by decree of the Princesses. Training with these blades will be required, and a standard amount of hours will be logged. Do you have any questions?”

The briefing had been smooth, well practiced, and articulate. Despite this the recruit not been listening closely; his attention was drawn away by the inky darkness in the tunnel. There was something about the blackness that sent shivers down his spine. He willed his mind to focus on his superior officer and the briefing he had just been given.

“One question, sir," the night pony asked. "Why was I picked for this detail?”

“The answer to that is simple: You are top of your cadet class in combat and efficiency scores; you have no mate, no dependents, and no responsibilities outside yourself; lastly you are not an only child so if you don't survive your family name is not in any danger.”

The recruit’s ears dropped so suddenly that they slapped against the sides of his helmet.

The officer noted the recruit's reaction, and added with a calmer tone, “Carelessness in this position has cost lives, recruit. I hope you will be cautious and follow the appropriate instructions.”

“Yes sir, of course sir," he said solemnly. "I wouldn't imagine doing anything else. Especially if it means death.” The night guard turned his head to look into the darkness as they walked, his expression hardening. "I have a lot of reasons to go home, even after-" he paused for a moment as he considered his words carefully, "my qualifications."

This drew a smirk at the edge of the officer's mouth. “Good. I have found a healthy desire to continue breathing is often the greatest motivation for excellence.”

“Are the prisoners down here that dangerous?” It was unnerving even to ask, as visions of bizarre and deadly creatures flitted through his mind.

“Prisoners? Prisoner, no plural," the officer spoke with a grumble. "There is only one occupant in this forsaken place. The entire path we have walked is just the entrance to his cell. Your post is the guard’s quarters and gateway leading to that cell.”

“Buh,” the recruit fumbled his words as he gaped dumbly. “An entire detail, a full six month duty shift per rotation, all for one single prisoner?”

“That is correct. And, if you are one of the luckiest, you will never have to meet the thing you are guarding face to face. At least hope you won't have to meet him for any extended period of time," the officer said. "It will be healthier."

The pair reached a grand door that looked to be constructed of solid iron, golden markings and rivets glowing on its surface. The glow had emerged from the gloom and murk before them rather suddenly, as if the entire tunnel was filled with a fog so black it swallowed the light.

“Commander Stout Shield to escort Night Guard Ion Cloud to his new post!”

There was a bass clank so deep it sounded as if a mountain of metal had been shifted behind the door. With a grinding rumble, the door slid to the side just far enough for a single pony to walk through.

“This is as far as I go, recruit. I do not have the necessary writ to pass beyond this point," he said, nodding towards the door. "You will receive a further briefing, your weapon, as well as final instructions within. Good luck. I hope to see you again in the service of her Majesties above.” Stout Shield saluted, did a crisp about-face, and within a few seconds vanished into the gloom of the abyssal tunnel.

Although the space beyond the door was gloomy, the torches lining the walls and pedestals provided better light than had been in the tunnel. A quick glance showed them not to be crystal flame torches, but gas nozzles. Each one had a funnel above it that led to a tube system creeping into the ceiling. The same metal that the door was comprised of coated the ceiling and the walls. Those same glowing gold marks and rivets were there too. Ion Cloud's gaze ventured up to a second floor carved into the side of one of the tall walls. He noted each of the sides of the box-shaped expanses had such a carving into it. All the second floor areas were lit with the gas torches to expose meager living quarters, eating areas, and armories. No amount of space was wasted, a textbook definition of basic post barracks. The assignment brief had not been misleading in the slightest. It only took a few moments for other guards in the area to assemble, all looking at their newest comrade.

Ion Cloud was expecting leers and angry glances in response to a new face arriving, but none came. Only calm glances, weary eyes, and even a few looks of relief came his way. The other interesting aspect was the mix of night and day ponies, and none of which sported a Unicorn’s horn.

“Ion Cloud, I am Captain Red Pine,” a decorated officer spoke as she approached. “I see you are a Night Pegasus; be sure that you are fitted with a suppression collar within the hour. The area you are in is the Oculus, the primary area for living and training. Your bunk is up there in the night shift section, grab any one that is empty. Your belongings have been delivered and are waiting on the mezzanine opposite the living quarters. You will be issued a logbook and a duty roster. I don't need to describe my expectations. Do your best and we can all go home. Meet your shift partners and get to know them. Refer any questions to your shift leader, Midnight Harvest. You have two hours to acclimate before your training shift begins.” Yet another obviously practiced speech. The whole of it had Ion Cloud a little blown away. He had never been a part of any military assignment that functioned this smoothly.

As the Captain moved away, a Night Pony walked up to take her place. “You’ll catch on. Come this way,” he said as he headed towards the living areas.

Following the Night Pegasus that had spoken to him, Ion Cloud did as he was told.

“Easy to get caught up around here. Don’t worry about the little details. Let’s get you in a suppression collar, armed, and learning the ropes. I’m Midnight Harvest. We tend to pair night ponies with night ponies and day ponies with day ponies, so you’ll likely be with me on shift since the guy you are replacing was one of us. Sometimes we get mixed, but it doesn't usually happen. So, got any questions?”

“What in the name of Celestia is being held prisoner in this place?” Ion Cloud sputtered.

“Hah, that's everypony's first question. Most then want to know where the food is served. Suppression collar first, though.”

Ion Cloud frowned at the fact that despite being given leave to ask, his question remained unanswered. It took a few minutes, but the rune-covered metal neck coffin they called a collar was finally fitted to his neck and sealed shut. Immediately, the room seemed a little brighter.

“And before you ask, yes we are suppressing your natural magic. Also, no this is not so you will die when you try to walk on the clouds this nasty place very obviously does not have. Earth ponies have very internalized natural magic, so they’re immune. Unicorns have too much expressive magical ability, so even with a suppression collar they are still susceptible. Pegasi of either type fit right in the spot between latent and applied magical powers so that the suppression collar works.” Midnight Harvest snapped the last clasp and hammered the bolt closed to complete the fitting.

“What is this supposed to keep me from doing?" Ion Cloud asked as he fidgeted at the thick metal around his neck. "I mean, it isn't like I would be flying a lot down here, and I can still glide without magic. No clouds to walk on as you said, or weather to affect.”

“It isn't to keep you from using magic--that’s just a side effect. It's to keep him out. Our, ah--guest.” The two guards walked towards the massive door opposite the entrance. “He can use your magic somehow--get in your head. If you had gone much longer without this, you would have started hearing voices. Once you hear the voices, we have to get you out of here or--well--bad things happen.”

They reached the door, and Ion Cloud saw the immense and mind-numbing mechanics that made the monstrous things move. He’d passed through one already, so he knew how thick they were. This was the monstrosity that worked both doors, and it made sense why such huge machines were needed. He could have stood nose to nose with his new partner and the door would have been thicker than the two of them end to end. A single link of the chain looked like it could easily weigh half a ton.

“Only one way in, one way out," Midnight Harvest noted. "Both doors can only be opened from right here.”

“So, that’s his cell? Whoever we’re guarding?”

“Nope, that’s the door to where his cell is. Here, that’s part of the in-processing anyway." He looked up to the door controllers and hollered to them. "Two guards to the cell-block!” They began to work quickly, the same deep and fearsome clangs and thunks of the door arising as the chains began to move. With a slow grinding, the door slid away from the rock wall and opened. There was no eerie pitch-black fog as had been in the tunnel. Instead, a subtle green light emanated from the opening. Midnight Harvest nodded towards it saying, “Hang on to your helmet.”

The two guards moved through the opening and the door immediately closed behind them with a thunderous boom. Ion Cloud clenched his teeth as his eyes adjusted. “Buh,” he muttered once again. “How can--how is this beneath the castle? It's huge. How can something like this exist and no one in Canterlot even be aware?”

“We have a pretty tight lid on this place, and Princess Celestia makes sure it stays that way.”

“But this,” Ion Cloud trailed off. The room was enormous. He couldn't even see the ceiling, only a number of pillars rising up into the void. There were eight of them, all aligned around a single point in the immense room. A house could be built within it and there would be space left over. At the center, amidst magic runes, glowing lights, markings in the stone and pillars, and chains crisscrossing and connecting like a twisted web was a single barred cell. The sight of it chilled Ion Cloud’s heart, his blood turning to ice. They approached, but came no closer to the cell than the web of spiked chains. The huge circular spell rune underneath the cell gave off the bright green light exposing the single occupant. “What is--is that the prisoner? I don't even recognize it.”

“No creature like it has ever been found or seen as far as I know. We don’t even know why it’s down here, or even how long it's been here. The Princesses are the only ones who know and they only give orders to us, not explanations." Midnight nodded towards the prisoner as he continued, "Thank Celestia it’s sleeping. It does that a lot. Pray you never have to listen to this thing talk for long.”

“It can talk?”

“Yeah, it can. I still have nightmares from when it decided to have me for a conversation partner.”

“What is it? Do we at least know that?”

“We have a book with a single record of it by a researcher named Virtuous Sight. She claimed that it’s called a ‘Sapien.’ She studied it pretty extensively from a safe distance after the madness effect was discovered. Though, I think that is the reason she--uh--died. Starswirl the Bearded tried picking up her research some time later, but the effect this thing has on magic--well, they all eventually just gave up.”

“Wait, Starswirl? My brother told me about that unicorn. He lived back when," Ion Cloud paused a moment. "I thought you said there hasn't been one found before this one.”

“That’s right. This is the only one. Been down here a long, long time. More than a thousand years as far as anyone is aware. Like I said, only the Princesses know. Far as we’re concerned, it can stay in here.” The conversation was interrupted by a dull banging, like a bell, though it gave off barely any echo. “Uh, okay. That’s the recall, guess we’re cutting the acclimation short. So much for explaining the cell, but you can read up in your logbook. That sound you just heard, that usually means something big and we all need to report. So, come on. Guess it’s into the deep end for you on your first day.”

The immense door was already opening when the guards reached it, and soon they were bounding through back into the Oculus. Ponies fervently busied themselves cleaning, assembling, sorting, and organizing as Captain Red Pine walked to and fro barking orders above the din. “I want weapons presented, armor polished, and records prepared for review! We assemble for the formation in one hour, inspection to follow immediately! We will be ready! This detail doesn't mean laxing just because we are underground! We are still soldiers of the Royal Guard, and we will look like soldiers of the Royal Guard!”

“What is going on?” Ion Cloud asked as quietly as he could.

Midnight Harvest shook his head as he answered, “Haven’t seen this much bustle since Royal Commander Shining Armor came through. Must be a hot shot.”

“We were only gone a few minutes though.”

“That’s all it takes sometimes. Come on, let’s get you a weapon and get to buffing. Captain Pine is a bit of a perfectionist, and she really means what she says. We have to be prepped for top brass when she gets like this.”

“Are there often inspections?”

“Nope, this is unusual. Something big is gonna happen.”

“Big? How big?”

Midnight Harvest chuckled as he opened a metal case and pulled a strange two-pronged blade out, identical to the one at his own side, and fitted it to Ion Cloud’s pauldron. It locked with a snap. “Well, I've only heard about it happening for a while--but when things get this crazy it usually means royalty. Congratulations, first days are always the most interesting.”

“Royal--buh,” came the signalling sound of Ion Cloud being left dumbstruck.

Midnight Harvest rapped the side of his partner’s helmet with his hoof to shake him out of it. “Yeah, as in Princesses, maybe. Sometimes a Royal Commander, sometimes a General. Doesn't matter; we have to be ready.”

Amidst the chaos, Ion Cloud met his comrades haphazardly between scrubbing the duty tables and rebuffing each floor panel individually after a failed first inspection. Along with Midnight Harvest, Quasar and Hunter Ellipsis were the others assigned to his immediate group. It had been some time since he’d been in a group composed entirely of Night Ponies, and he drew comfort from what they shared.

Clenching his teeth, Ion Cloud scrubbed a stubborn scuff on the metal floor. Blowing on it for good measure, he stood and grinned at his handiwork. Dad had always made him do the hard cleaning, and now that attention to detail was being put to good use. The bell sounded again, sending every guard pony in the entire facility hurrying to the central point. They lined up in sharp formation, snapping to attention with heads held high. Taking his spot with the other Night Ponies, Ion Cloud made sure his stubborn left pauldron was sitting straight before freezing at attention himself.

The grinding and grumbling of the huge gears and mechanisms announced that the doorway was opening. It rumbled to the side revealing brilliant white light instead of the usual thick black fog of the tunnel. It kept going, opening farther than before to show the source of the brilliant light.

“Company!” Captain Red Pine’s voice rose over the sound of the great door. “Present, arms!” The smooth, simultaneous movement of blades rising in honor greeted Princess Celestia as she halted just inside the threshold. No eye drifted her way, the formation remaining unmoved. The Night Ponies especially were not tempted to look as they had to squint, their eyes not made to handle the level of brightness that was beaming from the Princess.

“We were not expecting you, your highness!” Red Pine was still bellowing despite the door no longer filling the expanse with the sounds of its workings. She coughed and adjusted the volume of her voice. “To what occasion do we own this unexpected honor?” The captain’s eyes drifted from the Princess to a half dozen of her personal guard taking station just within the door. Her eyes snapped back to Celestia as the Princess addressed her.

“I wish to speak with the prisoner,” she said in a dulcet tone. She looked kindly at the steely visage of the captain before nodding her head towards the formations before her. “This seems unnecessary, we ask enough of you all as it is.”

“Hardly unnecessary, your majesty! We have prepared the post for inspection if you wish.” With a crisp turn Red Pine took her place at the front of the formation and snapped to attention.

“Company creed is ‘duty and honor before all,’” the tiniest of whispers filtered to Ion Cloud’s ear. He moved his eye just enough to see Midnight Harvest looking at him and then give the slightest of nods.

“Order,” the captain’s loud voice echoed through the Oculus. “Arms!” With the same fluid motion, the guards lowered their weapons as one.

“DUTY AND HONOR BEFORE ALL!” They thundered with a single voice. The Princess smiled warmly, obviously enjoying watching her soldiers and the ceremony, icons of a time immemorial but still true examples of discipline and order.

“Captain, if you would be so kind,” Celestia’s voice sounded as bright as the radiance her magic gave off. It was the one piece of hope inside the dreary Oculus at that moment.

The gears of the entrance door began to turn, the mountain of metal beginning its slow return to close. Opposite them, the door to the cell-block began to wind and rumble as its machinery ground to life. “Valor, have your guards await me here. I will address the prisoner alone.”

“Your majesty, you know I do not approve of this,” the leader of her personal guard said unemotionally. Every guard and soldier within stiffened at the thought of the Princess proceeding alone.

Ion Cloud too felt a shiver run up his spine at the thought, especially after what Midnight had been telling him. Why was the Princess going in alone? What could she want with a prisoner buried so deep that only the guards knew it existed? None of this felt right in his chest, but he kept himself rigid. It was not his place to question.

“I do not require your approval, Commander. Only your obedience.” No matter how sweet her voice, Princess Celestia’s words wilted every ear that heard her rebuke. “This is not a matter I will debate.”

“Of course, my lady. By your will.” The Commander had been unemotional before, but not now. Despite his show of fealty, there was anger in that response.

Ion Cloud could tell; he felt the exact same way. He had seen what was contained on the other side of that door. He knew a little about magic, enough to know one thing: whatever was contained in that dark and forbidding room was a beast. The very presence of it felt as if it would soil the pure light of their ruler. Whatever sort of creature this “Sapien” monstrosity was; it was evil. Ion Cloud could feel it in his heart, and he had a very strong sense that feeling was shared by any who had any kind of experience with it, no matter how short.

As Celestia strode between the two lines of guards, they no longer kept to their strict, unmoving position. Their eyes followed the Princess as she strode towards the opening doorway. All but the Night Ponies, who clenched their eyes as she passed, watched with trepidation.

They knew that the Princess had visited with the prisoner before, but what she could possibly wish to discuss with the creature was an enigma. Although they did not question this not a single one of them wished to simply sit by and allow her to go alone into that hellish room filled with dark magic and fearsome chains.

When the door had opened and the green light poured through, Princess Celestia pressed on. The light of her horn almost seemed to battle the green glow of the magic within, pushing it back into the dark depths. A few more sharp clacks of her metal-clad hooves and the Princess passed beyond the second enormous door. As soon as she did, the white light of her horn was swallowed up from the guard's sight, and the green poured through once again. The gears roared to life, and the door began to close.

“Company--fall out.” Captain Red Pine no longer bellowed her orders, her voice swept up in the din of the machinery. The guards of the Oculus all relaxed, but instead of dispersing they gathered and watched as the great door finally closed with a thundering boom. Every pair of eyes stared as they waited for something to happen.

Nothing did.

“First days, always eventful,” Midnight Harvest whispered to his comrade.

Ion Cloud did not respond, only stared at the door with a feeling of dread in his heart.

Chapter 2 - Deals with a Devil

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The thunderous boom of the door closing settled with barely an echo. The green aura oppressed and consumed the light spell emitted from Celestia's horn. Where it had been blinding moments before, it was now meager and barely more than a bubble around her body. The clicking of the metal on her hooves gave no echo, as if sound too was cowed by the oppressive atmosphere. She passed beyond the web of chains and stood just within, bathed in the venomous green light from the floor and immersed in the hum that emanated from the barred cell. There was a sensation within, deeper than the darkness and unnerving emptiness of before. A feeling that crept into her mind, just outside the realm of focus. A baseless fear dwelling outside reason.

"Well, isn't this an unexpected surprise." The voice was calm, collected, and nothing about it gave any indication of malice. It's effect was quite the opposite; a cold chill ran down Celestia's spine. The fur on her neck pricked, and she clenched jaw as she ignored the shiver down her back. The creature was still sprawled on the ground. It didn't even look like its mouth had moved. Was it still asleep? If it was, was it still aware? She'd wondered this before, as well as many other things about this prisoner. So many mysteries remained, but none related to Celestia's purpose today.

"I would speak with you. Rouse yourself," Celestia said.

The creature murmured, then opened its eyes. It did not move from its face up position, though its eyes shifted to the Princess. They were a muddy brown, and very little about them seemed out of the ordinary. That was the perplexing aspect of this Sapien being. There was nothing about this being compared to all other monstrous creatures that hinted to the cruelty it was capable of. This creature lacked the ever-present aspect to the eyes of all other villains that revealed their nature, their ferocity. The plain brown eyes of this one made its past deeds all the more diabolical.

With a single blink, Celestia missed the transition of the Sapien from supine to standing and staring at her. She had forgotten just how swift it was, the reminder breaking through her composure enough to cause her eye to twitch. She steeled herself, pressing on with the business that brought her. "You were right," the Princess said in a dull tone.

"I tend to be," it said dully. "To what are we referring?"

"Discord--he was not utterly lost. One of the Elements of Harmony was able to reach him behind the veil of chaos and conceit," Celestia spoke pointedly as she stared at the occupant of the cell.

"Told you. Let me guess, the Element of Kindness."

"Yes." Celestia kept her voice level, no hint of emotion bleeding through. She knew all too well what could happen if she wavered.

"It just made the most sense. That element has always been resistant to corruption," it said as it waved an arm to emphasis its point.

"I still want to know how you do that, make these predictions so nonchalantly."

The creature smiled as it shrugged its shoulders. "Logic, as I've said before. My knowledge of past experiences as well as the progression of current events dictate how the future will unfold. I am not entirely trapped in here, you know. Dreamers are untethered from the worldly bonds. This cage doesn't really hold all of me."

"I have been told you sleep quite often, despite not needing it," Celestia said, indulging herself with another question. "Is that how you do it, how you spy on my kingdom?"

"Without so much as a book down in this rank cesspool, do you honestly blame me?" The Sapien interlocked his fingers behind his head and leaned back, though his gaze never broke from Celestia's. "I don't eat either. It doesn't mean I am not hungry. Better than what you give me, anyway."

"You have been offered meals."

The movement was so quick, had Celestia blinked at that moment she would have missed it. The Sapien rushed the bars and slammed its fists against them. There was a crackle of magical lightning as the spells warding the bars flung it back. It cried out in pain, but quickly composed itself, staring at its sizzling hands. With gritted teeth, it looked up at the Princess. It was no longer entirely composed, she could see. Its face was growing calm again, but there was hatred in its eyes.

"I will not eat your rabbit food!" It snarled at her, but otherwise did nothing as it nursed its healing hands. Within moments its hands were perfectly whole again.

"Then you will not eat."

"Pfeh. Figures. All the promises your tongue can spare, but you've never kept a single deal between us," it said angrily as it pointed a finger towards her. "Not once."

"I will not sell my soul for your comforts," the Princess said harshly. "I will take what is owed me."

"I don't want your soul, you stupid horse. What would I even do with something like that?" It flung its arms in the air in frustration as it turned around, pacing about the cell. "I want a decent meal, I don't care if I don't even need it. A walk through the grass, maybe. Though it does pain you so, any semblance of hope for my freedom."

With a steady gaze, the Princess spoke in a hard tone, "You would have slaughter for a meal."

The Sapien scoffed and buried its face in its palm as Celestia continued.

"The grass on which you walk is bloody. The freedom you speak of is doom to any who mistakenly fall upon your path."

"Come on, Big C. That's just insulting."

"Princess Celestia is my name, and that is how you will refer to me."

"See, there you go. Always needing that little extra bit of control." The creature chuckled to itself. "What are you going to do if I don't, your Princessness? Flog me? Torture me? Ponies and torture?" Its voice took on a mocking tone. "Oh no, keep those pillows away, I can no longer handle the fluffiness!" Its face morphed from the jeering sneer to a glare as it stepped forward again. With that same evil gleam of hate in its eye, the Sapien grabbed the bars of its cage.

The protection wards burst to life, lashing at their prisoner. Lightning and fire surged from the bars into its arms, the flesh on its hands beginning to sear away. The entire time, it did not even flinch. "I have been your prisoner and slave for more years than I can keep track of. Deal after deal made, and never once have you made good on your promises. Come on, Celestia," he raged as the flesh of his arms turned black and began to wither away from the destructive magic he was unleashing upon himself. "Bring your righteous wrath on me. Let's see if you can do worse than you already have."

The Princess turned away as the Sapien continued to cling to the bars. Such self-harm she wished no part of. "You have brought this upon yourself," she rebuked curtly.

"Not true!" It yelled, squeezing the bars all the harder. "I didn't choose to come here. I never wanted to be here!" Finally releasing the bars, the Sapien held up its hands to show the seared and crumbling ruin that remained. It took a deep breath, staring at the damage before once again speaking in a calm voice, "But providence does work in wondrous ways. So, tell me my sweet Princess, what bargain can we make today? I'm so excited to find out the new and intricate ways you plan to utterly screw me over." It turned its blackened hands over, showing all that remained was charred sinew and bone with remnants of muscle clinging hopelessly to the ruined appendages. Then, with a wave of its arms, the flesh regenerated completely.

Celestia scowled. It was showing off now; the containment spells were no longer sufficient to keep its powers locked away. She composed herself, desiring to move on rather than to argue. "You were correct about Discord; he has turned from his chaotic ways." She kept herself calm, despite the ugly feeling in her stomach from the display it had just shown her.

"He might have learned his lesson once, but don't think he's been tamed. He'll return to old habits once or twice--I think. I can't be certain, chaos is not exactly easy to predict."

"You seemed to predict his actions fairly well on both accounts of his villainous past. Now you cannot be certain?" The light from Celestia's magic intensified as she raised her voice. "You must do better than that. I will not have a being that powerful be free among my subjects without knowing for certain."

"It depends on what you are willing to offer," the Sapien said as it folded its arms across its chest. "I believe my last deal with you was for a certain remnant piece of a defeated unicorn king. A piece I know you recovered, but I haven't seen the smallest sliver. Before that, I was promised an actual meal--another empty promise. Before that, a respite from this sunless cavern," it said gaudily. "When that promise went unfulfilled I thought maybe I could barter for items instead of freedom, especially ones with a bit of sentimentalism. I guess not. Perhaps if I make a deal for a piece of string in return for my services, you will actually keep your word."

"To allow you to possess such an item as that remnant is too dangerous."

"For you."

"For Equestria."

"For you." It settled its hands behind its head again. "But very well. I'll make a new deal with you. First, what do you want?"

"Tartarus has been sundered for some time. From what we know, the guardians have returned nearly all of the escapees. Several have eluded them, some of whom have the darkest of powers and the will to use them to do harm."

"That is not something you need to be worried about for now. At this moment, your attention would be better used focusing on your protégé."

"How do you," Celestia's voice trailed away as her eyes shut in resignation. She did not wish for the headache that arguing with it would cause. She knew it spied, she couldn't stop it, and that was enough. "What does Twilight Sparkle have to do with this?"

"She has proven herself readily, correct? If you're worried about Tartarus and the beasties it held, then Twilight is your best hope. Perhaps an acceleration of plans? Before you deny it, don't bother. I know how Twilight Sparkle fits into this grand scheme, and you are better off including her. She'll make a better example than you ever did."

"I will need more than riddles, prisoner." She could not prevent the note of disdain from invading her tone when she spoke. The Sapien was pushing her, just as it always did.

"Ouch, I guess a demotion from honored guest was inevitable. Oh, how I am wounded."

"Stay your babble, and answer me."

"Fun as a wet graveyard--fine. If we are so insistent on answers, the only way to survive what is coming is to put every hope in her. She is already the Host of Elements, now she must ascend beyond that. A true icon of harmony, like you Princesses were. Starswirl had the right idea, and you've been planning this yourself. Maybe not this soon though, so do something about that."

"What you suggest may very well destroy her," Celestia said, her voice low.

With a deadened chuckle, the Sapien shook its head. It had control of the discussion now, and its reaction made Celestia feel as if she were a child being scolded. The temptation to silence it with force was unnervingly strong.

"It better not, at least if you like being alive and stuff like that. The baddy coming your way is not like those before it. Eternal night, eternal chaos: neither of these aimed to specifically destroy what lay before them. This will, it being death and all."

"How can you possibly know such things?" Celestia pressed, bringing up the old question once again. "You are entombed in the roots of a mountain and yet you have never been wrong."

"I can smell it. I see it in dreams. Its reveling, really. I would rather see your little utopia razed to the ground and make you watch--but unlike some I have a conscience. So I offer this. Lead Twilight through her ascension; do not leave her to flounder in her new-found abilities. I figure she'll have her fair share of problems, Fate has her methods of testing us you know. If she can handle it, she'll be the one to put faith in."

"And if she should not?"

The Sapien snorted as it shook its head. "How hurtful, lacking faith in your own student. I assure you she will. It's her--heh--destiny."

"As if you know of such things." Turning away, Celestia made her way towards the chain web surrounding the cage. The prisoner's voice halted her dead in her tracks.

"Was I wrong about your sister? Was I wrong about your connection to the elements withering like a dying flower? Was I wrong about the Crystal Empire all those years ago? You should start trusting me some day--it might do you some good."

"You enjoy my suffering."

"Quid pro quo. You loved torturing me first. All those delightful experiments when-"

"That is enough. I have had my fill of you." She passed beyond the chains, stepping back into the dark of the cavern with the ominous green to her back. She had to still her heart; she could feel dark tendrils almost reaching out to her as the creature watched her from its cage.

"Are you not forgetting something, fraulein? I never work for free. Every deal we make comes with a price, whether or not you care to pay is irrelevant. You're already in debt so what's the harm in a little more? What is one more coin on the pile?"

The Princess halted, and after a deep breath she turned her head to stare.

The Sapien grinned at her. "Ooh, chilling. Tell you what, I'm going to make this one easy. So simple that you won't lose a thing. You won't miss it."

"What is it?"

"A kiss," the Sapien chuckled to itself when he saw her reaction of disgust. "The price of this knowledge is a kiss."

Celestia actually felt her stomach turn. That she would deign to come into contact with this beast in such a fashion was utterly unthinkable.

"You can leave, rant about how nasty I am, call me a monster. Despite all that, I am still keeping track of your tab in my head. One of these days, I will collect what's owed me."

"We shall see," Celestia said as a bolt of blue light shot from her horn into the door ahead of her.

"Yes," the Sapien growled as the great door began to drift open, its voice drowned in the cacophony. "We shall."

Its eyes stayed fixed on the Princess as she moved beyond the door. It just stared, watching it slowly drift shut. It slammed closed, and silence enclosed the vast chamber. Sitting in the gloom, the prisoner let out a slow sigh, then leaned back. "Ten million bottles of beer on the wall, ten million bottles of beer. Take one down, pass it around..."

Chapter 3 - Just Conversations

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"What a day," Midnight grumbled as he flipped his head forward and launched his helmet onto the cot. "I have seen Princess Celestia go in there twice before, and not once including this time has she never come back out looking happy. In fact, she actually looked mad this time round. Bugger must have been snippier than usual."

"Why does the Princess even go in there? You've said that talking with the prisoner is bad. Yet she apparently does it enough that you've seen it three times in a five month span." As he unclasped his shoulder-plates, Ion Cloud let them drop beside his own bunk. The night guard were bedding down, having completing their shift only after the Princess had departed. Every single one of their number was exhausted, some already asleep in their armor.

"To be honest, I don't know and I don't ask," Midnight responded. "If I had to guess it's because he knows things he shouldn't. He's--I don't know--clever or something. Too smart, too wily for his own damn good if you ask me. Knew things about me just by looking at me, or reading my mind. Something like that."

"And that is the issue? He could perhaps learn too much?"

"Oh that danger is long since passed. He knows way, way too much."

"Then what's the point?" Ion Cloud sounded more confused now than curious.

"Look, I don't know. I don't think the Captain knows. Heck, I would be surprised if the Royal Commander knows--what with how grumpy he always looks when Princess Celestia comes down here. Do you know what that tells me?"

Ion Cloud shook his head.

"That tells me, 'don't ask questions that can get a pony noticed.' We're here to do a job, not to ask why or to gripe about what we're doing. We have rules for a reason. Don't ask questions, and don't talk to the prisoner. Simple as that."

"If he already knows so much, what's the harm in talking to him?"

"There you go asking questions again. Look, it's dangerous, okay?" Midnight patted a hoof against his head as he spoke, "He can get in your head just by looking at you, and that isn't the worst of it." Dumping his chest plate onto his pillow, Midnight grunted and worked at a boot as he continued his rant. "I remember the guard that was in charge of my orientation. Her name was Nebula Storm, and she was hardcore. I mean, Princess Luna's personal bodyguard for a while before she was assigned here, that kind of hardcore. She trained half the current Night Guard herself. This one time the gate messed up, the chain link got caught up in the gears and we had to fix it before it would open. She was stuck in there by herself. She was only stuck in there for forty-five minutes. Granted, that's stuck in there all alone with only the Sapien watching, or, more likely, running his yapper." Chucking his last boot onto the cot, Midnight Harvest took a haphazard seat on its edge and rubbed his eyes with a foreleg. "It just wasn't her anymore when we finally got her out. I mean--she was always snappy with this tough-gal, 24/7 soldier mode image, right? Sure, she opened up like a total of twice the entire time I worked under her command. But that might have been just to show she wasn't totally a machine. Buddy, she was a sobbing mess when we finally got that door open. Muttered something about it was all her fault, couldn't make out much past that. She had to be taken out. I hear she even had to retire. Last time I got word was about two months ago. She's in a hospital, and hasn't spoken a single word since she got there."

Ion Cloud was silent for a few moments as he tried to process the story. When he finally spoke his words were low. "Just from being trapped for forty-five minutes? Does it have some kind of magic that can do that?"

"Maybe. All those spells in there are supposed to make sure he can't use magic of any kind. I mean, the bugger can't even touch the bars, they'll cook him--seriously, barbecue. Still, he got in her head and turned her all inside out. Worst part was, when we got in there to pull her out the Sapien was whistling this tune. I don't know what it was, but I swear it is still stuck in my head. There's no doubt about it, he's one bad egg inside that cage."

"I wonder if he was always that way," Ion Cloud mused.

"Whoa now, hold those thoughts and keep them to yourself. Thinking like that can be dangerous. We don't pity, we just make sure whatever we're guarding stays put. Follow orders, don't make waves." Midnight Harvest made a wavy gesture with his foreleg. "Remember that little speech about not asking questions. Shush up, and do as you're told. Keep him in there, and we can go home sane."

"From what you're telling me, it sounds like we won't be a whole lot of good if he decides he wants to go on a little holiday," Ion Cloud commented begrudgingly.

"Yeah well, we have precautions for that. Equipment, procedures, the whole drill."

"Then that's what the weird fork-swords are for? That's our 'equipment?'" The weapon moved slightly as its user emphasized it with a shake.

"Two-prongs we call them, and yes. They shoot lightning if aimed at the prisoner." Midnight observed Ion's scowl in response. "Oh don't give me that face, I'm serious. That Sapien guy actually got out of his cage a couple hundred years back. Electricity is one of the only things that they found out hurts him. So, from then on all guards were equipped with these lightning blades just in case. That's why we don't train against each other with them. They spark like mad when they touch each other and can actually start fires."

"You think that would be in a manual or something," Ion Cloud muttered with an ungrateful tone as he hopped into his cot.

"Psh, yeah--like we ever have time to read manuals. Have you seen the logbook? Catch some sleep, we have shift in six hours." Unceremoniously shoving his gear over into a pile beside his bunk, Midnight Harvest climbed into bed and was snoring softly within minutes.

The new guard on the other hand could only stare up at the gloomy ceiling of the small alcove he now called home. Suddenly six whole months felt like an eternity. He was there to guard some kind of bizarre monster that could twist a mind just by speaking. The whole situation felt bad, and there was a nagging in the back of his mind. He remembered that same feeling from when he was a lot younger. He and his twin brother both crying out for their father to come scare the monsters away. Now he felt the same sensation as he had just before their dad had came in and made everything better, the feeling that something in the dark was watching.

Ion let out a long sigh. He felt silly. He shouldn't be so easily frightened. He was big for his tribe, a pony practically carved out of wood and built for the rigors of military service. His brother might have gotten more of the brains, but brawn was all Ion Cloud's territory. He was always the one to stand up to the scary things. He was the one who made the bullies at his school think twice before talking themselves into a scuffle. Now, here he was in his bunk actually fighting the urge to pull covers over his head and wait out the monsters. He felt silly and terrified all at once. If this was the effect of real darkness, there was no shortage of dislike in Ion Cloud's heart for it. It was a departure from the freedom and acceptance of the night that he had always felt. Safe under a moon guarded by the matron of his tribe. There was no moon here, no sun either. Just that inky fog to one side and eerie green to the other, held back by two enormous iron doors. He felt like a mouse in a trap.

As his eyes drifted shut, the new guard felt a shiver run down his spine. Barely noticeable, but just enough to make him turn over. Eventually sleep came, though fitful.

He groaned when he felt someone nudging him. Blearily trying to focus on who was pushing him, Ion tried to rise but found himself dizzy and off center.

"Hey, shift is coming up. Best get ready."

"Wait--what? I," Ion Cloud mumbled, trying to make sense of what was going on. "I just closed my eyes."

"About five hours ago, yeah." Midnight sounded as exhausted as Ion felt.

"I don't remember-"

"Your dreams? Yeah, we don't have those down here." Midnight Harvest, for the first time, sounded solemn as he delivered the news like a blow to the face.

Ion Cloud fell back against his pillow, angrily looking up at the glow-light fitted into his alcove's ceiling. "I hate this place."

"Yep. Boots on, helmet fitted, up 'n' at 'em." The night guard were ready quickly, though none looked exactly pleased. Only Midnight was any source of actual optimism, however dull. At least their breakfast was good, hot grain meal with corn and junipers, and even hot coffee to get a jump.

When they all assembled again Midnight held up a piece of paper as he spoke. "Alright teams, let's split up the roster. Bolster, you guys will be on gate one. Penum and her merry band on gate two. Word from the top is we have to have a walking patrol in the cell-block at all times from now on."

A groan came from all but Ion Cloud as he looked about, still getting his bearings among his new comrades.

"Yep, it sucks. That's why I'm taking it, and only volunteers. Everypony else gets choice between armory and ledgers." Putting the piece of paper into his book, Midnight shoved it into a saddlebag and waited. "Well, don't let me keep you all from jumping at once."

"Count me in, boss," one of the guards said almost immediately after. Ion Cloud hadn't learned his name yet.

"I will as well." Ion Cloud made himself heard with a nod to confirm his choice.

"New guy has guts," one pony said from behind that was followed by some affirming murmurs.

"Alright, get yourself situated and we're golden. Ion Cloud is our new face, and is going deep end first. See you all at end of shift." The Night Ponies all bowed their heads before quickly dispersing.

It was all rather a blur, maybe because of the remnants of fatigue still lingering. Ion Cloud forced himself to stay alert as he passed through the great iron gate. He sucked in his gut as he walked back into the gloom and green of the cell-block cavern. The octagon of pillars and spider-webbed chains was still an unnerving sight that hadn't changed at all. It probably never would. As the door closed behind them, the trio let out a collective sigh at the task before them.

"Well--just so long as nothing horrific happens, this should be a cakewalk."

The third pony rolled his eyes and quipped, "Love the vote of confidence, boss."

He glared for a moment at the pony then a spark of realization crossed Midnight's face as he looked back and forth between his two comrades. "Oh right, intro. Ion Cloud, Pleiades. Pleiades, Ion Cloud."

"'Sup," Pleiades said with a wave.

Ion Cloud only nodded in return.

"Good, we're all besties. Cell-block patrol is just roaming the walls, your logbook has the details if you aren't sure. We split up to make certain we have as many eyes from as many angles as possible to be sure nothing freaky is going on with the prisoner. If it does, we report it. Not much to see from the other side of that door, so this is more preemptive work. We usually keep this up until whatever higher rank stops being spooked. If you guys see anything just shout it to the gate guards. Oh, and do make an effort not to be chatty with the prisoner. He's creepy. Ion, just remember our little chat."

Turning his gaze slightly, Ion Cloud stared past his superior toward the center of the cavern. He looked past the chains and right into the cage where the prisoner was standing, watching them. Their eyes met, and the creature waved to him. With a flinch, he returned his focus to Midnight Harvest. There wasn't much left to be said, so the three gave each other a nod and split up for their patrols. Occasionally they met, sometimes exchanged short words, but otherwise the area was quiet. Something about the room dulled the desire to converse. Even Midnight seemed considerably less chatty when he and Ion paused to speak an hour or so into the detail. After they parted Ion Cloud felt freakishly isolated.

Hours seemed to pass before he again caught sight of even a hint of his comrades emerging from the murk. The sheer size of the cell-block made him feel like he was getting vertigo. The only thing his eyes could focus on was the cavern's green center. Everything else was being consumed by that black foggy darkness he had first seen outside the facility. Whatever it was, it was bringing back the feeling he'd had in his cot hours before, that twinge on the back of the neck that told him something was staring at him. It twisted his stomach in knots and flooded his veins with ice.

He heard something odd, and his ears perked up. He followed the sound with his eyes back to the cell. The prisoner was doing something with its hands. They were a bit like a monkey's hands now that Ion Cloud actually paid attention, but more delicate and obviously greater in dexterity. In fact, this Sapien creature reminded him a lot of a monkey. Notwithstanding the fact that monkeys didn't really cause feelings of dread and terror. Drawing himself a little closer, Ion Cloud squinted through the green light as he watched the prisoner turn and bend parts of its hands in ways that looked as if it would hurt. Though, it never looked to be in any pain. It would bend them, they would make a popping sound, then everything would go back to normal. It was as disturbing as it was fascinating.

"Keep staring and you might just get a headache from not blinking."

The prisoner had spoken, and it didn't sound far away. Ion Cloud blinked, flinched, then gave his surroundings a panicky look as he found himself only two paces away from the cell.

"You aren't the first that's gotten all hypnotized. Don't let it ruin your lunch," it said rather dully.

Without a word Ion Cloud whirled around and was about to escape through the chained web. He had to get away, especially with the creature talking.

"I didn't mean to hurt her, you know. The lady your buddy was talking about, I mean."

A sudden curiosity overwhelmed Ion Cloud's panic to escape. He turned and gave the Sapien an over-the-shoulder stare, trying to gauge whether he should follow his instinct of fear or curiosity.

The prisoner spoke before he could come to a decision, "She was nice, the lady I talked about. Nebula Storm, I think that was her name. She got locked in here, door got stuck. So she just walked over, started talking with me. So I talked with her. I can go years in here without any conversation, but it's nice when I get a chance to have a heart-to-heart. The door got fixed, and it startled her." It waved a hand across the bars as he emphasized the story. "She touched the bars of my little slice of home--you know the rest. I'm not a bad guy, not like you think I am."

"How do you know what I think?"

"I know more than you think I do. I know you were scared last night, worse than you have been in years. I know you wanted your dad to come and make everything better. You wanted your twin brother to spout some long chemistry rant even though it confuses you. When he does that you can focus on it, his voice drowns out the world. You even dreamed about your little sister, even if you can't remember it. You do still dream by the way, but your mind loses touch with it between being asleep and being awake. That would be because of me, sorry about that. Magic is a funny thing." The tone of the prisoner's voice went up and down at odd times, but never once did he sound more than somewhat bored.

"I was told not to talk with you." Ion Cloud's voice stuck to a low, almost monotone level to match the prisoner's.

"Yet you walked right over here."

"You said that you hypnotized me."

"I said you weren't the first to have that happen," it said, waving a finger in Ion Cloud's direction. "I don't do it intentionally, it just sorta occurs when ponies are around me. Stuff happens that isn't my fault, that's why I told you my little story. Figured I would before you bolted."

Ion Cloud couldn't bring himself to respond, but neither did he leave. He simply kept his eye on the prisoner. The Sapien stared back, but never wavered from his placid expression. The moments continued to stretch without a sound.

The prisoner broke the silence again, "Are we having a staring contest?"

Something popped into Ion Cloud's mind. He'd been thinking about it a little, but now that he had the chance the question burned hot. He asked it before he could check himself, "What did you say to the Princess that worried her so much?"

"Whoa," the prisoner said, obviously surprised and a little startled by the abrupt question.

"She's the guardian of the day, nothing phases her, yet she looked disturbed when she left you. What did you say to her?"

The prisoner crossed its arms and huffed, "Well aren't we getting a little nosy. Not really your business what goes on between her and me."

"I'm your jailer now; your every action is my business." Ion Cloud turned to face the prisoner, eyes forward and his glare as intimidating as he was capable of making it.

"You," it paused as it stabbed a finger at Ion Cloud, "Are bad at having conversations."

"Answer the question." This time Ion's voice was barely more than a growl.

"Why should I?" The Sapien's tone still sounded bored, if a little annoyed. "Gonna zap me if I don't?"

"You said sit in here for years without a single word from anyone. The first real conversation you had ended with you looking even more like a monster. You say you're not the bad guy, so tell me the truth. You want a conversation so badly, there you go."

"This is an interrogation, you nit. I hate being interrogated. Celestia takes some kind of perverse pleasure grilling me for every ounce of info she can get. I've resorted to being vague just to get my kicks. It always flusters you ponies."

"Consider me flustered. Answer me or I'm leaving." Ion Cloud noted under his breath, "I'm already in enough trouble as it is, probably."

"Oh you are NO fun."

"I'm a member of the Equestrian Royal Guard; they don't issue us a sense of humor."

There was silence for a moment, then the prisoner burst out laughing. It lasted only a few moments, but it was genuine. The Sapien sat on the floor, crossed its legs, and sighed contentedly.

"That was terrible, but my god it was funny. Guess my mind has slipped far enough to fall for cliché. I like you, Ion Cloud."

"Are you going to answer my question?" Taking a seat, Ion Cloud let himself relax a little. He kept his expression a stoic mask, but he let out the tense breath he didn't even know he had been holding.

The Sapien just chuckled, running a hand through his unruly hair. "Aheh--hmm. Celestia comes here sometimes because I can figure things before they happen. Not visions or premonitions or anything like that, so don't ask if I can see the future or something bogus. I can see what is going on, the flow of events, decisions being made all in real-time. Don't ask me how, I stopped questioning it. The fact is, all I do is put two and two together." It drilled two fingers into the sides of its head as it continued. "General cause and effect from what I see to what I have seen as applied to what may be. It's not premonition, it's science and magic working together with a little creative application, or so someone smarter than me put it. As for what made Celestia so upset--I told her she'll likely be having to deal with an exceptionally powerful opponent, and soon. She didn't take it well," it muttered with a slight sneer.

"I did get issued a sense of when someone is lying. The Princess wouldn't act like that over something as common as a threat. This is Equestria, that's an average weekend for us."

"Oh great. A clever guard, just what I need," the Sapien murmured loudly enough to be heard. "I thought we were going to have some fun talking about science."

"That's my brother. You got me."

"Your brother sounds delightful."

"He's neurotic and flighty."

"What family doesn't have one of those?"

"You're stalling."

"Yah, why do you care? I answered your dumb question. Not my problem if you didn't like it."

"I am in this pit to make sure you keep to yourself. I don't exactly have anything better to do, despite being warned to steer clear of you. Besides, I asked what you did to the Princess, and no threat would make her leave with that look on her face. Not Princess Celestia. What did you do?"

"I just asked for a kiss," it said with a grin.

Ion Cloud's brow furrowed.

"Ah, let the gears turn in your mind. What a rogue am I," it pressed a hand against its forehead dramatically. "That I would ask such disrespect upon royal countenance?" It shifted abruptly from its melodramatic tone, "Oops, waxing poetic. Not like she said yes. Hell, she never keeps her word at all. Might as well have some fun with it, not much else to do down here as you might have guessed. Wish I could have seen her face, though. Sounds like she had a doozy on her way out."

"You're despicable."

"I know! I've been locked up for fifteen-hundred years, give or take a century. You'd be despicable too; or crazy with your gaggle of imaginary friends and a whole heaping load of hallucinations. Strange that I'm not, actually," it trailed off as if realizing something. The Sapien stood as its voice began to lower, taking on a faraway tone. "I don't think I can go crazy." It's eyes drifted, something taking its mind far away. After a moment its head moved quickly back to Ion Cloud and stared intently. "You know what that makes me? That makes me maddeningly sane."

"That was not my first impression. You talk like you aren't all there. If you are so set on wanting conversation, why act like a psychopath?"

"I haven't had a conversation this long in months. Whether an argument, a debate, what the friggin weather is, I don't care! Fifteen-hundred years! Locked in a cage!" It ranted, throwing its arms into the air in frustration as it began to pace. "I break my fingers for laughs! I take what I can get. Even if that was an imaginary friend. Heck, the very fact that you pushed as hard as you did interested me, and so I stalled to keep that going."

"That was annoying."

"I am aware, but it kept you talking to me, didn't it?"

"So are we done with this back and forth? Why in the name of heaven would you ask for that? A kiss? You know how that sounds, don't you?"

"I've asked for a lot of things from Celestia in return for a myriad of tips and bits of info. I am a the sort of 'adviser' who you don't have to worry will call in sick. She's made plenty of offers in return for my services, and always found excuses to go back on her word."

"Princess Celestia would not break her word," Ion Cloud said in an offended tone. It angered him to hear slander against his ruler.

"She does when it serves her own purposes. There are quite a lot of things she does that you doe-eyed ponies see as benevolent that are actually utterly self-serving. She's a Princess, of course she's spoiled."

Ion Cloud began to protest but was interrupted before he could say a word.

The prisoner continued, his voice sounding angrier as he went, "It was actually that conceit she tries to bury deep down that drove her own sister to some kind of weird darkness mutation. Apparently, ignore a problem long enough and it becomes unforgettable, and grows sharp teeth."

"Too far," growled Ion Cloud.

"I'm not the one that made a holiday about her not being around anymore. How more 'unforgettable' can somebody get. And while I'm on the subject--with how much I have given, I feel I've atoned one hundred fold for my crime. For every agreement I've made, I have only ever received more and more time in this cage. Kinda makes you think that maybe a particular royal brat is making excuses to keep me here so I can be her little canary? I don't deserve this."

"What did you do?"

This question seemed to take the prisoner off guard. He had expected another outburst, but that had sounded calm. "Wait--you are here to keep me inside this hole, and they don't even tell you why?"

"We aren't supposed to ask why." The prisoner was on his feet. It startled Ion Cloud, he hadn't seen him move. Had he teleported? There was no sign of magic, and the cage was designed to prevent magical use. The only other explanation was this Sapien was simply faster than his eyes could follow. That was not encouraging.

"Not supposed to ask why? Are you serious? How in the hell do you figure your world out without asking why? Not asking why, not questioning the status quo is how some of the worst atrocities came to pass on my own world. You keep living without the why and sooner or later you will be wondering when you sacrificed more than you thought you were willing to--all too late."

"Was there no trust on your world?"


"That is sad to hear. I can see how that has colored your opinions."

"Well, aren't you're opinions a little colored? I've spent a long time here, a really long time. It's about what's around you, not where you're from. My opinions are colored by my environment. Very green, with a few touches of death metal black." The prisoner pointed at the floor. "Before you lecture me on trust, remember that I have not left this cell for longer than your bloodline has existed. I was around before there were any Night Ponies, or Thestrals, or whatever you call yourselves now. You're a product of Nightmare Moon, you know--well, her magic at least. I'm getting off-track. Look, a huge majority of my time here has been in this cell. I am told so often that I am dangerous and evil that I honestly feel like I believe it. So much for trust."

"Why are you even in this cell to begin with?"

"Got ripped from my world to this one. Pulled screaming from my life and family and thrown into the dirt of Equestria--literally. I was scared, hurting, confused--so I lashed out. Your whole world just--it hurts being here, okay? So I lashed out, and two ponies died. I've been here ever since."

"You were ripped? What do you mean?"

"Summoned, really."

"Summoned--against your will?"

"Yes, I went from making dinner for my sister to thrashing and swinging on a stone floor. I had zero choice in the matter. There was no magic at all in the world I come from. Go from that to a place where the air itself is magical, and everything else included. It's excruciating. Overwhelming." The prisoner ran his hands through his hair. "My life sucks, and now I get my kicks by occasionally injuring myself. Oh, and I mess with people's heads unintentionally, or something. Throw in some arguments with the royal blowhard and you got me in a nutshell." A silence fell over the two of them.

Ion Cloud didn't know what to say, and the prisoner didn't have anything more to add. The silence was odd, the fact that the two of them had been conversing so spastically and rapidly; now that there was nothing it was almost unnerving.

Moving slowly, the Sapien moped to the other end of the cage. With back turned to the guard, he let out a sigh. He didn't move at the impossible speed he had before, trying to shake off the uncomfortable sensation of his guard's eyes following him. He could look in those eyes and see a whole life flash before him. There were so few secrets ponies could hold from him, as much as he wished otherwise. He just stared out into the gloom, knowing full well it was his presence there that made it so dark. He didn't even have to try, it just happened. Like warm breath on a cold winter day, it was an effect of his existence on his environment. And like that warm breath, there was nothing he could do to stop it from fogging the glass.

Checking over his shoulder, the prisoner saw his conversation partner had backed up and was speaking with the leader, Midnight Harvest. He could hear what they were saying if he wished to, but he chose to ignore them. He'd rather not know the subject of their whispering since it was likely a rebuke for their conversation. He could be wrong; Midnight Harvest seemed like a fair leader. He was the only guard the prisoner had ever had that referred to him as a "he" and not an "it." He absolutely hated being called "it." That degraded him from a living, thinking thing into a piece of furniture. A sofa was an "it." He might have royalty walking all over him, but last time he checked no one was using him for a nap. The thought actually made him chuckle to himself. The fact that a fleeting thought like could amuse him immediately sobered the feeling. "Gonna start liking puns at this rate."

He felt the temptation to escape to the outside again, flee his body and view the whole world at once. The trip to Equestria had changed him, giving him that power. Now he could close his eyes and be everywhere, see everything. It had been unnerving once, now it was nothing more than an aspect of his existence. To a younger self it would have seemed like a gift, but it was all hollow. He remembered a similar feeling when he watched television so many lifetimes ago, it had the same feeling of emptiness. He watched the world, able to see but not interact.

He could hardly stand it anymore. That had been his lot in life for a thousand years. After the first few centuries he had begrudgingly accepted it. Now, he had trouble imagining anything else. He wished he would go mad sometimes, insanity would take away the weight and stress of his whole being. It never happened. His awareness was never consumed by voices or hallucinations. He was unaffected by age, by disease, and apparently even his mind was immune to change. He couldn't go crazy even if he tried. For how many times he had tried, it had gradually become obvious how fruitless his attempts were. As he had shown the Princess even today he could regenerate from any injury. Everything about him was frozen just the way it had been when he first arrived.

He let his awareness drift back to the present moment, and to the guards behind him. They had finished whispering. He could feel Ion Cloud's eyes on his back. If he closed his own eyes, he could see himself through them. It was too unnerving to continue, so he stopped as soon as he did. He heard Ion Cloud's voice and realized he was talking to him.

"We have been talking my whole shift; it's time for us to go."

"Only feels like a few minutes, doesn't it?"

"Yes--so you can upset time as well?"

"Maybe. I guess it's all in how you interpret it," he said, not turning around. "I'll try to do what I can about your dreams, no promises. Say hello to Luna for me if it works. Tell her I will try to be nicer from now on, just as she asked. I have enough reason to now."

Ion Cloud sounded curious as he asked, "So you do control whether we can dream?"

"No, not exactly. I guess control just isn't the right word, but I'll see what I can do You should go now. I'll see you again if I'm awake, I hope." He let himself fall, collapsing onto the floor in a heap. There wasn't even an attempt to catch himself. He could usually just flip a switch in his mind and the void of sleep would be on him, but he didn't. Not this time. He stared up towards the emptiness of the ceiling above and listened.

He could hear Ion Cloud dragging his hooves on the floor as he joined the other guards to leave.

Pleiades was the first to break the silence as they walked. "Well, you don't look completely insane. Guess the thing left your brain in your skull. What did you two talk about?"

They didn't know he could hear them, but it still made him frown.

"I asked him what he said to Princess Celestia. He asked her to kiss him."

"A kiss? No wonder she left so flustered. That's weird. Like--gangly monster wants kisses weird. Which is what it is."

"He also said he isn't here by choice," Ion Cloud's voice lowered as he spoke.

"Well, it is not like he is in there because of career options."

"I mean Equestria. He isn't here in Equestria by choice."

"So he's an alien? Weirder and weirder."

The voices were getting more distant, then the big door boomed and ground as it opened. He sat up to watch as the guards left. He saw Midnight Harvest staring at him, and he stared back. The moment went on and on, the two locked eye to eye. When the other two guards had passed through the door, Midnight gave a very short nod and was gone.

The door was closing again. There was really no point in staying awake now. Humming to himself softly, he flipped the switch and felt the void of sleep coming quickly. In moments he collapsed, and was silent.

Chapter 4 - The Logical Conclusion

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Ion Cloud settled into his temporary home, and the weeks passed. The prisoner kept his word concerning the dreams. Although they were not every night, any dreams--no matter how blurred and murky--made living in such gloom more tolerable. An even better bit of news was when mail call was implemented a month into his detail. Apparently mail had been forbidden before as the front gate was only ever unsealed for new recruits and the monthly supply drop. The supply drop had a very stringent list of what was permitted, and was also the only time that ponies who had completed their detail were permitted to leave. Mail or any personal items weren’t allowed for reasons not divulged.

The change came after Captain Red Pine learned that she was being transferred. Ion Cloud recalled how she had made it her goal to adjust the permitted supplies on those drops to include mail. While every attempt she made had failed, she finally found a way. Every time a new recruit was brought to the Oculus, they would bring along all the mail. The new recruit would be saddled with the mail bags and distribute it all once they arrived. The amount of times the door was unsealed did not change, and the supply drop was not laden with more than the necessities. This loophole made the Captain very popular for the remainder of her command.

Ion Cloud was happy with the new arrangements. He enjoyed getting letters from his family, although it was sometimes difficult to explain the items from his parents. He often resorted to the explanation that his mother and father loved to travel, and always sent him souvenirs. Cookies or other simple items would have been easily explained. Bonsai trees, jester hats, a double-horned trumpet, and even a crystal ewe from the Empire were far from simple items for an Oculus guard. Unable to house all the items in his small alcove, Ion was more than happy to share his souvenirs with his fellow guards.

One such gift was to Midnight Harvest when his six month tour was up. Ion Cloud gave him the jester hat, an item Midnight had often worn around on his few off hours. There wasn’t a pony among them that could keep from cracking a smile as Midnight Harvest hopped and skipped as he left, humming loudly with a jingling jester hat bouncing around on top of his head as he vanished into the dark tunnel. Captain Red Pine had shown interest in his bonsai tree, which Ion Cloud admitted to knowing nothing about. He offered it to her on the spot, and she accepted it warmly, promising it would be a good gift for her daughters. He recalled her often talking about her children during off-duty moments, and how much she regretted having to serve in the Oculus and be separated from them. Ion sympathized, knowing how much worse officers had it than the guards. The stories of officers serving double time or more than guards whether they had a family or not was disheartening. He was glad that he could offer her something that brought even a little joy.

The double-trumpet he received, he kept. He played well, and enjoyed filling the Oculus with the deep and soothing sound of the large brass instrument. The only item that raised more than a few eyebrows was the one that came from the Crystal Empire. The small crystal ewe was locked in with them, and they had no means of sending it back for a long while. Many were worried the lack of outside air and proper food would be the death of the tiny creature. But, one of the Night Ponies by the name of Shadow’s Penumbra took it upon herself to care for the ewe. Under her wing, the small creature found a home, rations from the Night Guard's own provisions, and what happiness they could provide. It became something of a mascot, and was named Padlock.

Ion Cloud had to bid farewell to friends and comrades often. Every supply drop meant someone would leave. Captain Red Pine left two months after finding the loophole to allow mail. Midnight Harvest had left the month before that, Pleiades taking over his position. Shadow’s Penumbra was the most recent, and she took Padlock with her as she left the Oculus forever. It was made even more difficult to live in the dark and gloomy dungeon knowing that if he made friends, he would soon have to say goodbye.

The months went by uneventfully. The prisoner mainly slept, doing very little the few times he was awake. Princess Celestia appeared two more times following her visit on Ion Cloud's first day, and on both occasions the prisoner remained asleep. During her second appearance a loud boom came from the cell-block. Before the guards could even rush in, the Princess stormed out with a scowl on her face. It was nearly a month after the Princess's last visit that Ion Cloud caught the prisoner awake. Despite their previous encounter, Ion Cloud's attempts at conversation were met with relative silence. The prisoner only answered the question of why he refused to speak with the Princess.

"We have nothing more to say."

New ponies came, veteran ponies left. That was the way of the Oculus as Ion Cloud discovered. As the time passed he found himself moving up the chain of command. He wasn't the only one in that regard. He remembered that word had come of a new Princess being crowned. None of the guards from the Oculus could attend, of course, but it was interesting news. That had been two months ago according to Ion Cloud's faithful count.

He was keeping a detailed track of how long he had been there, and how long he had left until he could go home. At two months remaining in his time in the Oculus, one of the most anticipated events came to pass. The Equestria Games were beginning, and every pony there was on the edges of their seats to learn all that they could. Despite sports scores and other news traveled very slowly to the underground prison, the guards were determined to find out everything that they could.

There was a betting pool between the day and night shifts about which teams would succeed in what event. Though the Pegasi seemed to be secretly conspiring with each other to vote for Cloudsdale, regardless of shift. Ion Cloud was a bit hesitant to put money into a pool, but he had high hopes for his favorite speedster taking it all the way in the single-set free-fall burst races. He knew the relay rally might be the most popular of the flier's competitions, but he had been a burst speedster himself back in school and enjoyed the sport immensely.

A burst race was a sprinting competition much like that of the Earth Ponies, only they were performed straight up so the athletes were fighting gravity the whole way to reach the finish line. Starting from free fall to turn around and zoom straight up was no easy feat, and often only the strongest and most skilled of Pegasi could compete. Because it was a dead sprint event, most trick fliers avoided the competition. Despite this, Ion's choice speedster was none other than a Wonderbolt, Surprise. Wonderbolts were amazing sport fliers, but few entered sprint events such as burst races because the training required weighted flying which could effect their speed over longer distances. Going against this stigma and her own small stature, Surprise had qualified for the games twice before. She'd never earned a medal, but Ion Cloud had hopes this year would be different.

As the scores and details of the games were spread around the Oculus, Ion considered his other favorite event. While a resident of Cloudsdale where speed and flying events reigned supreme, he was a rabid Jousting fan. As contenders went, Rampage Avalanche was by far his favorite. Some said the eleven year veteran of the sport was getting a bit too old, but he was still a force to be reckoned with. If the rumors were true, he had trained in the Saddle Arabian deserts with some of the huge monsters that lived there. This could explain how he was so freakishly strong. Ion Cloud, and an entire generation of Jousting fans revered him as their childhood idol. When it was announced that this was Rampage's last Equestrian Games, the betting pools went wild. Ion Cloud put almost every bit he had from his stipend towards the veteran taking home gold.

This was how they kept themselves entertained, not to mention sane, down in the Oculus. Despite lagging behind the events of the world above, they still enjoyed themselves. Those who left the Oculus behind would no doubt have trouble catching up, but that was a worry for another time. Patience was the virtue of the guards, and they were happy to wait for word of the world above them. When they couldn’t wait, such as for word on the Equestrian Games, they gambled.

The new captain, Kite Glider, was the worst of them all. She was from a rich family, and she had plenty of bits to sweeten any pot. It didn't even seem to matter much what she bet on so long as she was betting. This habit led several to think she may have a bit of a gambling issue, and convinced the rest. It didn’t bother Ion Cloud at all, as he found her to be a kindred lover of Jousting. He discovered this to be a perfect method of getting to know her a little better and found a respectable, if easy-going, leader in the new Captain. He hadn’t previously known many of the day shift guards closely, but after getting to know the Captain he found himself spending more time with their ranks. He found himself once or twice wondering if there could possibly be something between the Captain and himself, but recalled the purpose for their presence in the Oculus. Thus, Ion Cloud did not act farther than simply befriending the Captain.

That was life in the Oculus. Ion Cloud remembered what Commander Stout Shield had told him about the dangers of the prison, but found some of them difficult to believe in. Even some of those who were on their last month claimed it had been more quiet than usual. The prisoner seemed to be asleep nearly all the time, as if the world just couldn't hold his interest. It made everyone's jobs easier. There wasn't as much worry. The fact that they all occasionally were able to dream--though those dreams were broken and fragmented--relieved the atmosphere immensely. Doom and gloom was no longer the first impression of the Oculus detail.

While still unpleasant the Oculus was now more tolerable than previously, as the few remaining veterans could attest. The routine made it almost mindless and they had to keep special calendars to remember exactly what the day was, but that was probably the worst part. Before he even knew it, Ion Cloud was having a discussion with his squad leader about the change-over of command. Pleiades only had a few days left. The undeniably laid-back guard was happy to leave, the underground had seriously "harmed his groove." Ion Cloud didn't know what that meant, but he figured Pleiades was ready to be on his way. Duties were discussed, rotations double-checked, and everything he needed to know covered.

Ion Cloud couldn't help but feel a little jealous of Pleiades. Only a few days and his partner was back to the wonderful sky and crisp air of night, away from the confining madness of being underground. Pleiades was visibly excited to get back to surfing the coast of his hometown in Las Pegasus, as he made every pony in earshot quite aware. The two friends chatted and joked about the silliness of a Pegasus loving to surf, but Pleiades defended himself well.

"It's a different sort of rush, bro. You can fly up high and do a straight dive down through a thunderstorm and not get the same rush. Water's powerful, dude. Power like that gives a rush you can't put in words," he would rant.

Ion Cloud was sad to say goodbye to his friend. He was too used to the jokes and calm demeanor of the happy, free-spirited Pegasus. While he was sad, a bit of excitement was building for him as well as his turn to depart the night shift was next. Back to his family, his hometown, and then onto everything he'd planned for his life. Only a month to go, and then he was free.

The day of Pleiades' departure came quickly. The gate was opening and the Night Guard had lined up as they did when bidding a member farewell. They stood at attention as Captain Kite Glider held a medal of meritorious service.

Then the quake shook everything.

With a flare of his wings Ion Cloud tried to make himself heavy. He tried a moment too late as the floor rushed up to smack him in the face. His eyes were filled with a bright flash and stars as he was left groaning on the shuddering ground. Thrown this way and that for a few moments, Ion Cloud did his best not to pass out. When he finally came to a stop, he had to force himself up. A quick scan showed him he was not the only one nursing his bumps. Every guard in sight had been flung from their hooves, or out of their bunk, and was now moaning on the floor or simply unconscious.

The rumbling continued, and another horrible quake tore through the Oculus. The ground split a few inches, and the walls suddenly sprouted cracks. What guards were able to get their bearings began shouting orders and making sure everyone had weapons at the ready. The outer door was already open, but nothing was coming through the dense black fog. The guards shone a powerful light through the entrance, but to no avail.

For some recovery was quick, others remaining out cold. Ion Cloud had his two-prong ready and aimed, but something was nagging him. Since nothing was coming from the outside, he focused on the crack that had appeared on the floor. He followed it, and saw it led all the way to the other door and into the cell-block. He felt like his heart was stalling in his chest, but he still managed to work his mouth, "Guards! The prisoner! Secure the prisoner!"

Another heavy rumble precipitated the next quake. This time everyone was ready. They kept their feet, watching the crack on the floor grow another inch wider as several more crevasses burst open along the walls. The rumbling finally subsided, only to be replaced by a far more ominous sound.

A loud, harsh bang rang through the Oculus. Ion Cloud shot a wide-eyed glance to Pleiades; they both knew exactly where that had come from. They focused on the cell-block door as another harsh bang reverberated through the iron. Something was hitting it from the other side. It was not hard to guess what that was. They could hear muted shouting coming from the other side, then the harsh crackle of lightning. Silence fell, and the seconds ticked away. Only the sound of a hard swallow, or a shifting hoof broke the steady quiet. Before anyone drew the courage to utter a word, the bang came back. It was so loud it shook the walls, a dent appeared in the door as it bent towards them. Everyone's muscles tightened and tensed, weapons at the ready. Another bang, another dent.

The Sapien was coming through.

The next slam shook the door so hard that machinery began to fall away. The gears shrieked as metal scraped and tore. The guards at the controls were thrown off. A few quick-thinking Pegasi were able to snatch the guards out of the air before they could hit the ground. The slamming came again and again. More dents and cracks appeared in the iron. The chains were falling away, gears breaking and flying as the force of the blows ripped apart the machinery.

One final overwhelming crash echoed through the Oculus as a hole burst through the door. The force tore through over two meters of iron and wood and magic like paper.

Every guard tensed. Ion Cloud gritted his teeth, not daring to make a move.

No green light poured through despite a hole big enough for a head, or a hoof. The silence was even more troubling than the banging. Not a single pony moved. No trigger-happy guards made the fatal mistake of discharging their lightning early. They knew to wait, to watch. With focused glares they watched a seeping, pitch-like darkness ooze from the hole and spread over the area around it. It moved, shivered, undulated like something from only the deepest nightmares. It spread along the iron door with a vicious hiss. Rust advanced before the black ooze, corroding and eating away at everything around it. Whispers began to pierce the air. Quiet at first, but quickly becoming louder as a huge crack split down the middle of the door.

Before the whispers grew loud enough to be understood, the ooze tightened and the door was cloven in two. Like a titan had pulled from the other side, the entire door was sucked into the foggy blackness of the cell-block and vanished. The pieces could be heard clanging and slamming through pillars and against stone before silence fell again.

This was it, every heart froze and every drop of blood turned to ice as the guards stood ready. They watched the same black ooze seep from every inch and corner of the enormous hole where the iron door had stood. The stone around it crumbled from the corrosive, evil black goo.

Then it stopped.

Halting as if it contacted an invisible wall. From the gloom and murk of the darkness before them, the prisoner emerged.

He stepped forward, his gait lazy, his arms hanging limply. He strolled from his prison without a hint of aggression. Darkness was wafting off his body like a cloud, the aura making the air heavy with an acrid smell that made more than one guard flinch.

Not a single guard made a move, horror drawn over their faces as they watched the display before them. This was corruption incarnate. It crumbled stone, eroded iron, even burned the air.

Coming to a rather flamboyant halt at the edge of his seething carpet of black death, the Sapien looked at the guards before him and grinned. "So--shall we begin?"

Lightning cut through the air like razors as the darkness surged in.

Chapter 5 - Hubris

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The sun shown once again over the lands of Equestria. Princess Celestia watched from her balcony, a firm expression set upon her face as she gazed over her kingdom. It was not a heartening sight, her mind wandering to the events of the past few days.

In the wake of Tirek's assault, Canterlot was left in shambles. His battle with Princess Twilight had far-flung repercussions. Their magical strikes left much of Ponyville and Canterlot in drastic need for repairs. The contest of blows and blasts of arcane might had unleashed shockwaves that nearly shook the mountains down to its roots. In Canterlot, the castle had taken the brunt of Tirek's wrath. The walls had protected a great deal of the lower portions and street levels, but the palace itself was in shambles. Repair crews were already hard at work, but there was an overwhelming amount of damage.

Celestia could not remember a time her home had been in such a state as she moved slowly through the halls. Decorations in tatters, windows shattered, even whole walls had been broken down. Guards were stationed at every passage, some standing at the ready while the rest aided in cleaning the rubble. With Tirek locked away in Tartarus, the danger was passed but the Commanders of the Royal Guard still felt the need to demonstrate their readiness. Shaken from the attack, weariness was apparent in the guards' demeanor yet they remained vigilant.

Celestia nodded to each group as she passed, trying to keep a smile on her face. Her subjects had endured so much in recent years. Discord's chaotic rampages looked like mere annoyances in comparison to an invasion of changelings and a towering, magic-siphoning warlord bent on their destruction. The most joyful news of her day had been the report that no casualties proved fatal.

After her long walk through the palace, Celestia reached the mural hall and gazed up at the stained glass. Because of their enchantments the windows had survived the powerful quakes. A blank mural was already beginning to glow, ready to be sculpted to depict the heroic actions of Twilight Sparkle. Her timely transformation to an Alicorn was truly what had saved the kingdom. Her understanding of unity and the power it held was what gave her the strength to properly use the abilities her ascension granted her. Celestia brimmed with pride at the notion that her student might some day surpass her. The Princess mused that these deeds were not only worthy of praise, but the beginnings of legends.

So lost in her own thoughts, Celestia did not hear the steps of another pony approach.

"You should be resting, sister." The calm, soft sound of Luna's voice broke Celestia's reverie.

Turning to regard her sister, Celestia smiled and shook her head. "I should be seen, not hiding away as so many try to rebuild their homes. Tirek's attack left so much in ruins. We are symbols of hope, and our subjects need to see us."

Luna nodded, but noted, "Exhaustion cannot accomplish that."

"True. But right now, I do not feel too tired."

Luna joined her sister watching the magical glass before them shimmer. Light flew across it as images began to appear. Princess Twilight Sparkle in brilliant glory, magic flaring out from her angelic form as the other members of the Elements of Harmony took position around her. In a halo of light and grace, the powers of harmony were descending upon the depiction of Tirek, banishing him once more to Tartarus. The memory of being trapped there herself, even for a short time, made Celestia flinch. There were few more unpleasant experiences than that.

Recovered from her thoughts of Tartarus, Celestia drew her gaze from the window back to her sister. "I am glad that what little warning we had was enough to prepare."

"You mean your vision?" Luna asked.

"Yes, my vision."

"I recall you being on edge before even that, sister," Luna caught Celestia's eye as she spoke. "Even your dreams were marked by a fear of something looming. How could you know?"

Celestia took a deep breath before she answered, "The predictions that came before my vision aided in the preparations that allowed our victory over Tirek. Without those, and without my vision, I fear far more than the destruction of property would have been the outcome."

Luna took a step back, and her expression dipped into a scowl. "Predictions?" she asked with a furrowed brow. "Please tell me they are not from what I fear they may be, sister."

Celestia's smile softened when she saw her Luna's expression. "I saw it fit to be prepared. Ensuring we are ready for what new or old foes may come is my duty as a Princess, no matter what disreputable source that knowledge may come from."

"Disreputable--you mean the Sapien, don't you." Luna's voice softened as if she were fighting not to shout. "You called upon the services of that creature below the crystal caverns?"

Celestia looked at the younger Princess, and was met with a hardened glare.

"You would break your promise in dealing with such a callous and immoral creature? You speak its name as a byword, yet you would make a bargain despite this?" Luna's voice rose, but she caught herself. "Why would you be act in so foolhardy a manner? There is no action the Sapien takes without demanding a price, and that price is always too high! You have told me this yourself!"

"My dear sister, please calm yourself." Celestia waited as Luna's heavy breaths slowed. "I made my promise that I would not deal with the Sapien unless the need was great. For centuries, I have kept that promise. I would not go back on my word to mother unless I had no other choice. Your return as Nightmare Moon was the first time in hundreds of years that such an occasion was even warranted."

Luna's expression began to soften from her hard glare.

"I made greatest haste from Ponyville when I felt your presence, or should I say 'hers,' return. The creature we have wisely imprisoned had long ago informed me that my connection to the Elements of Harmony would wither away since our separation. It was correct. I needed to find those who could take our place, and quickly. It turns out that what I sought through the Sapien's counsel, Twilight Sparkle and her friends accomplished on their own. I returned in time to see you had been freed by the new bearers."

"And what wisdom had it imparted to you? That we were to be replaced forever? That I would be free? None of these things could have been altered, with or without its counsel," Luna said in a low tone.

"On the contrary. The creature said that the newest bearer of the Element of Magic was a being of great potential. To learn that it was none other than my own protégé was indeed rewarding. Though I have been required to deal with it, the knowledge I have gained in return has restored hope where once none existed. Its most recent prediction did not even come to pass! It spoke that a great enemy would arise, and with it death and destruction would follow. Only Twilight Sparkle would be able to overcome it. It has all come to pass, but not a single pony died in contrast to its prediction. Perhaps the time has come that my dealings with it are no longer needed if its predictions no longer hold true."

"It would brighten my heart if this came to be." Luna looked at Celestia and sighed. "But I fear a darkness has taken root from this, Celestia. How many promises have you made to the Sapien? How many do you plan to leave unfulfilled?"

"It is a prisoner of the crown of Equestria, it does not have the right to compensation. Not only this, but it is a perpetrator of the most heinous of crimes. I did not see fit to grant its requests. Especially the vile ones it makes," Celestia spoke with disgust.

"You promise it payment then fail to deliver on your word?" Luna moved away from Celestia as her expression turned desperate. "It is not stupid! You know that it will not simply sit by and allow itself to be taken advantage of. How could you do this? How could you put the entire kingdom in such a position?"

"I did what I felt was necessary," Celestia pleaded.

"At the cost of our people's soul? The cost not only from the darkness you know this being to possess, but from the lies that you have so casually paid in return for its aid. What of your necessity now, Celestia?"

Fear and horror was drawn across the Princess's countenance. "Sister, we have seen fit to ensure that what happened before can never happen again. I retake my oath, never again need I seek the word of that being! We have proven it to be wrong! We have welcomed a new Princess among us! Peace may finally be achieved without fear of the darkness."

"The damage is done, Celestia. You have broken your oath and allied with the darkness. I above all other ponies know that you can not simply turn away. It owns a part of you. Do you not remember Virtuous Sight? She said much the same as you concerning the Sapien. Would you follow in her hoofsteps?"

"It is bound, Luna. It will reside in that dark hole forever so long as I have a say in its fate. For its crimes I would have its cage thrown into the ocean, but I am no executioner. What power it holds is in threat and in word, but nothing more. It has no power, not anymore, not ever. We have made certain of that, sister."

"Has he not escaped before? Twice in fact, if I recall."

With a slow exhale, Celestia looked into her sister's eyes. If only she could let her share in her own confidence. She had spent centuries researching magic to make sure that the prison she and others had built for the creature was faultless. "As I said, my dear sister," Celestia said calmly, "I have taken great precautions. Spells within spells woven and perfected to contain that monster. We have nothing to fear." She punctuated her statement with a warm smile and a nod before returning her gaze to the mural.

"Nothing to fear? Did we not just endure the rampage of a monster that feeds upon magic itself?"

Celestia suddenly found her breath stalled within her lungs.

"Tirek devoured the magic of every stallion, every mare, every filly he could reach before nearly erasing our whole kingdom from the map. Not even Discord was immune to him," Luna's voice rose. "No matter how intricate, any spell fails if the magic is drained. Have you not considered this for even a moment?"

Celestia could feel the warmth drain from her face as Luna went on, horror beginning to twist her stomach inside-out.

"We may already be too late, Celestia. What shall we do then?" Luna whispered. Her shouts had dulled as if mirroring the dread that was drawn over Celestia's face.

Turning her face away from the mural, Celestia clenched her jaw as hard as she could. Her pupils had shrunken to pinpricks as she tried to calm the raging thoughts in her mind. She finally mustered the strength to look at her sister.

Luna stared back, a similar glint of fear in her eyes. "Then you must question the fact that perhaps whatever the Sapien predicted has not yet come to pass. If this is so, then my sister, we may well--"

"Your majesties!" The interrupting call came from a guard, wheezing as he recovered from a dead sprint while still sliding to a halt before them. He was bowed even before he had stopped completely, sucking in air as he rose quickly. "We have surveyed the damage, but the great vault was breached. The seals guarding it were shattered, and the entirety of it has been upended. We have accounted for all but two items. The Phoenix Medallion, and the Horn of King Sombra. We cannot locate them anywhere."

Luna kept her eyes on her sister, not looking towards the guard. "Celestia--what did you promise him?"

There was no answer.

She was not even in the room any longer. A white and gold streak had torn through the hall, leaving nothing but a trail in her wake. Celestia's hooves did not even truly touch the ground as she bolted through the hallways. Magic was bleeding from her horn as she accelerated to a maddening speed, a fiery white blur of desperation as she descended into the lower levels of the palace.

When she halted, golden flames blasted off her body like a vaporizing cloak. Embers had piled around her hooves from the friction of her charge. Several guards were standing at the entrance to the dark path, ambling about as if unsure of how to proceed. The secret entrance had been obliterated, almost nothing was left of it. Within, the darkness was so thick it was as if it had become tangible. The stone of the path, once smooth, was now crumbling and decrepit as if aged a thousand years. Where once had been smoke and fog now dripped a viscous and foul substance that hissed on contact with anything but itself. Gritting her teeth, Celestia slammed a rear leg back as the light that had been coming from her horn exploded into a blinding inferno. She focused it right into the opening and listened as the darkness shrieked and wailed before dissipating. Like the cries of the damned, it struck fear in every guard in earshot, and they froze in place. Not the Princess, though. The moment the way had cleared, she vanished again in the white blur of unimaginable speed as she raced towards the Oculus.

In moments she was there, and gazed upon what had once been the prison. She stood on the once great iron door, the remnants of it so twisted and mangled she could barely recognize it as scrap. The Oculus was in ruins, scorched stone and blasted walls were the least of the damage. The corruption of the black substance was everywhere. It had eaten into the floor, into the walls. Pillars were crumbling, barely able to keep themselves upright. But that was not what drew the Princess's eye. Driven into the ceiling were the chains that had created a web around the prisoner's cage. At the end of each of those chains, hung upside down from their back legs, were the guards of the Oculus. They were all swinging listlessly, none making a sound. The horror in Celestia's eyes came from deep within her soul. This was cruelty not even her nightmares could have brought about. The hanging ponies drew her eyes towards the inner door. Slashed into the walls above the hole that an iron door had once existed were three giant words.


Her eyes followed a single chain down from the middle of the message. There hung Captain Kite Glider by a single leg. Blood dripped from her onto the ground below. Only a moment passed and Celestia was by the officer's side. She did not know whether the Captain lived, her gaze was absorbed by what had drawn the blood. Slashed into her side was a second message carved directly into flesh. The Princess took a shaky step back when her eyes fell on something wound loosely around the Captain's throat. A simple magical nudge loosened it, and a biting grip came over her heart.

It was a simple piece of string.

Nothing was out of the ordinary or mysterious about it. Only the memory of the prisoner's rebuke blaring in her mind. He'd resorted to asking for string, because every other bargain they had made she'd broken. Now, with an empty glazed stare her eyes fell back on the words cut right into the Captain's side. They would haunt her worse than the blood that dripped from the wounds.

"P.S. I'm coming for you next."

Chapter 6 - What Ally is Time

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"Thank you for coming so quickly," Luna spoke somberly. With a nod, Princess Cadence tried to muster a grin but it fell away quickly to a grim visage. There was little joy to be had simply from the feel of the air in the room.

Cadence sat beside the darker Princess and hazarded a question. "Is she alright?"

"I fear for her. She cannot decide upon anger or fear, and that has severely affected her judgment. Canterlot's guards have been spent, the ranks emptied in her fervent hunt for the escaped prisoner." Luna paused as Cadence caught her eye, concern marking her face. She continued, "I have barely had chance to do much else than ensure the city does not fall to disorder. We must focus on our rebuilding, but Celestia is consumed by this chase." With a turn of her neck Luna stretched as if to relieve her aching neck. "What have you been told," she asked.

Cadence did not answer at first. She thought for perhaps ten seconds, but scowled as if the knowledge was not available to her. "I do not know very much. Only rumors, and those are few and far between. I was told a prisoner escaped from the dungeons, and is considered dangerous. Beyond that, I have heard next to nothing. Your message told me to make all haste, and I did so. Who is this escaped prisoner... what is it?"

"Honestly, we do not know. We call it a creature, for we know little else of what to refer to it as. Many, many years ago a researcher by the name of Virtuous Sight spent great effort in learning the secrets of this being. Her reward was madness that led to her own destruction. She burned down her home, with her inside. All that research was lost with her. Only the label of 'Sapien' was left in the ashes. That is what we have called the prisoner since." Standing and stepping away from the hearth, Luna went to a small tray set aside on a table.. She lifted two cups, pouring something hot into both as her eyes closed with a long, drawn out breath. She looked pained, as if wracking her mind for information it seemed better left forgotten. "Years later, when the pony tribes began to overcome their differences and join together, it was decided that the existence of this Sapien be kept a secret for the good of all. Starswirl the Bearded had not at first approved, but ultimately agreed upon this decision as he went on with his own studies. This was short-lived. The madness that claimed Virtuous Sight had begun to take hold of him, and the prisoner was finally moved deep underground where it could no longer torment unicorns."

This was not pleasant knowledge, and it was written on Cadence's face. "It causes madness in unicorns?" She wondered aloud as she blew on the Berrywine tea habitually. Cadence had heard rumors before, though sparsely so concerning the existence of some otherworldly being. For the once secretive Princess of the Night to be so forthcoming meant times were indeed dire. The question that arose in her mind carried too much weight to be kept silent. "Why have we never shared this knowledge before? I feel this is something I should know if it poses such danger."

"It is an... embarrassment. Our mistakes and shortcomings from a different era. Times passed that we have for so long fought to keep hidden. Now, I fear we know of no other way in dealing with this situation. I only share this with you now because I fear you are in as much danger as any other. The Crystal Empire may be a target, though it is only speculation."

This caught Cadence's attention, her ears stiffening at the notion. "How can you be sure?"

"The Sapien made its escape during the attack. Exactly when this occurred, we are unsure though it left its dungeon in tatters. We still hold out hope for those assigned to it as guards." Taking a moment to collect herself, Luna took a sip from her cup. "Before it escaped, it took with it two items from the grand vault. The first is an ancient item of great magical power, the Phoenix Medallion. The other was the horn of King Sombra." Silence succeeded this revelation. Luna was staring into the small fire lit in the hearth, but she could feel a piercing gaze upon her back. The silence thickened the air to the point that Luna needed to continue. "We know next to nothing about the magic that this creature commands, only that it can alter the mind. If its magic is strong enough then with the power of the Phoenix Medallion it could potentially resurrect the Dread King."

With a start, Luna backed up a step as Cadence rushed to her.

"But why," she cried out as she placed her front hooves against her aunt's shoulders, tears welling up in her eyes as she fought them back as best she could. "We have done nothing to this creature! The rumors I have picked up were from Celestia, and barely bits and scraps at that! I never knew it, I never suspected, and I never wronged it! Why would it unleash this evil upon us once again?!" With care Luna leaned her head forward and rested it against Cadence's cheek as the fear finally broke the resolve. The younger Princess gritted her teeth as tears poured down onto the velvet carpet. "I... we cannot..." she choked through the heaves that broke through. "Why would it do this?"

"Because we have hurt it." Luna drew her gaze to the red, blurry eyes that begged of her comfort and answers. "This Sapien has been a prisoner of the crown of Equestria for over one thousand, six hundred years. Its imprisonment predates the joining of the tribes by centuries. It hails from a time when magic was more unfocused--a crude form--if you will. For a great deal of time it was the subject of experiments. In our care it has known pain and misery, and it has fought back before. Now I fear what it may do. Its mind is a mystery, and I have not the means to predict its actions. If it does seek revenge, it could destroy far more than those who have harmed it."

"But we are innocent," Cadence sobbed.

"I fear that may no longer matter."

There was a soft cough from the doorway. Luna stood, blocking Cadence from the view of whoever had disturbed them. A Night Pony stood at attention there, a scroll tucked under a wing.

"My sincerest apologies, your majesties. I have word from the hospital concerning the Oculus guards, as per your request."

"Leave it upon the ground and take your leave," Luna spoke in hushed tone. The guard obeyed and was gone. A blue glow surrounded the scroll as it levitated towards the Princesses. Focusing her magic, Luna unwound it and looked at the report. Her eyes darted back and forth over what was written, slowly widening, and upon finishing they stayed that way as she lowered the parchment. "Not a one."

With a big sniff, Cadence looked up to her aunt inquisitively.

Luna gave a short, relieved sigh as she set the letter away for a moment. "The guards around the Sapien's prison. What it did to them... I could have sworn that would be their death. They are all alive. What is more, even the most gravely injured is expected to make a full recovery, scars not withstanding." Luna's face scrunched, the gears almost visibly turning in her mind. She thought long and hard, going over possibilities and explanations for this, though finding little in the way of logic. "There is no reason why any should have survived. If this creature was capable of hanging them from the ceiling, then what kept it from killing them?" Her last question made Luna's face twist as if it caused her pain. "What horrid thoughts have I. Reason should not lead me towards the death of my subjects."

Princess Cadence was gradually recovering from the fear that had gripped her heart. Though it ebbed slowly, it was in no way gone. It had eased enough that she could wipe the tears from her eyes without worry that more would take their place. She still shuddered at the terror that had so consumed her, and the icy feeling that it was still quite real within her. Sombra had been a force of nature, destructive and ruthless in their last encounter with him. Even weakened to the point of barely taking physical form he had almost consumed the Crystal Empire. If resurrected again, how could she even consider standing against him? The Crystal Ponies would be finished if their former king returned.

But there was a spark, a tiny flicker of hope from the darkness. The fact that this Sapien had spared the guards that had served as jailers to it. Despite a chance to end their lives, destroy those that it could have easily seen as sources of pain and reminders of confinement, it spared them. Was that hope? Was there something to that? Too many villains could pale in comparison to the death and fear that Sombra was capable of unleashing. If this creature planned the Dark King's resurrection, what sense was there in sparing a handful of ponies?

She was letting her fear drive her again. Taking a deep breath, Cadence eased it out as she extended a hoof. She didn't feel much better, but she was calmer. Tears were still battling in her eyes as she remembered of her long holdout against Sombra The horrors he'd poured into her mind as she'd held him at bay. She set her jaw, forcing those memories away. This frailty towards fear was unbecoming of her, and she knew it. The fact that Luna, with whom even a smile was rare, had offered comfort was more encouragement than she had been expecting. But with danger and darkness looming, she had to set fear aside. She ruled an Empire that connected every corner of Equestria by its magical power. Now was the time to be strong.

Banishing the dark whisper of dread from her, Cadence moved to Luna's side as the Princess of the Night reread the report. "Luna... what can you tell me about this dark creature other than its history? What should we be prepared for?"

"It has never given us any clues to itself, though I fear I have only engaged with it once before. Celestia has had far more experience with it. Only what we have seen in the times it escaped has led us to speculate its abilities. It has mimicked the magic of unicorns; this I have seen with my own eyes. Celestia wrote of a time it broke free while I was trapped on the moon as well."

"She wrote it down? That isn't something she would have shared so easily. I know her well enough that she isn't one to include violence in the journals she keeps."

"She has a notion for taking record of events that should be remembered well... but what she did not do is offer me access to it. I took it up on my own accord. That is of little consequence. What her writing described was that the very touch of this creature is dangerous. It has a corrupting influence that manifests like a disease. It is a corrosion that eats away flesh to leave nothing behind but a corpse. Even the smallest touch can infect, and from that point there is nothing more that can be done. Only to endure watching the victim be eaten away slowly. It is a most vile perversion of magic, but accounts have thus only made record of two such deaths by this. As if it desperately fought to keep its powers in check," Luna muttered as she began to trail off.

"From your tone, I take it there's something more on your mind," Cadence encouraged.

"At the passage to the prison was a foul substance that corroded the very stones it covered. My sister banished it with her magic, and it cried out as if alive and in pain. It was a wholly demonic cry, one I fear I may never forget. It is enough to say that the creature has discovered a means of corrupting everything in its area. Turning the very darkness into a substance that destroys all it touches. Despite this, it took no lives. None whatsoever. The black substance was a physical manifestation of the corrosion, I feel it has no other explanation. Again, no lives have been lost. It simply does not make sense."

"Maybe it does not wish to kill?"

"I believe the same. It did not wish to kill them," a voice interrupted the princesses. Both stiffened, turning in tandem to see Celestia standing in the doorway. "Why should it? Wasted effort if its plans come to fruition."

"I did not expect you back, sister," Luna spoke coolly.

"I saw the entourage from the Crystal Empire. I am glad to see you, Cadence. I wish times were better," she said with sincerity as she bowed her head slightly.

"Luna has been filling me in with the details. This is something I feel we must bring Princess Twilight Sparkle into the fold on as well. She is no more safe than the rest of us."

"Perhaps, but for now I am hoping that this abomination can be recaptured before it has time to accomplish its goals. There is great evil it could do with the items it stole."

Luna continued her thought from before, keeping her voice level and passive as she did. "The truth of the matter is, putting all pretense and prejudice aside, we have no idea what it plans to do."

"I do," Celestia said in a harsher tone. Cadence was taken aback by this. She had always seen her Aunt as being a voice of reason and serenity. Now, it felt more as if Luna was taking that route while Celestia was falling to anger and resentment. The comment she had made left the room in silence as they all stared at one another for the pause until the shock of Celestia's tone caused died away.

"There were two messages, aside from a room of hung ponies."

Cadence forced down the desire to scowl at Celestia's seeming dismissal of such a horrible sight. She convinced herself that it was a slip of the tongue.

Oblivious of Cadence's discomfort, Celestia continued, "One was three simple words, 'Tobias was here.'"

"What does that mean?" Cadence asked as she looked to Luna, but was met with a shaking head. She didn't know either.

"Tobias is its name." This elicited a long, empty pause. Taking a seat, Celestia flitted her gaze from one Princess to the other. Both bore quizzical expressions, as if unsure how to consider this information. "I have known it for some time. I simply saw little point in using its name."

"I am sure that Tobias took no offense in that," Luna muttered sarcastically.

"That small offense pales in comparison to what it took from me," Celestia snapped. She quickly composed herself, but the harshness of her outburst took both her companions by surprise. "Forgive me, I've not placed much consideration in what it calls itself. I saw no need to refer to it in any other capacity than what those who have studied it established. Virtuous Sight had labeled it a 'Sapien' and that is what I do as well. Whatever it calls itself is immaterial."

The discomfort was becoming palpable, driving Luna to change the direction of the conversation. "What was the second message, sister?"

Celestia's response was hardly what was expected of the Princess of the Day. Her ears drooped, head tilting forward just enough that her mane fell over her face.

"It simply said, 'I am coming after you next.' I can only guess that it was targeted towards me."

"Oh, Aunt Celestia," Cadence murmured softly as she came to sit beside her. She drew herself in to hug her aunt, hoping to offer anything she could do to cheer her.

"We have given it reason to hate us. I am not surprised it seeks revenge."

With a jerk, Celestia's face moved up just enough that her hair revealed the piercing glare she had aimed squarely at her sister.

"Imprisonment, experimentation bordering torture, ridicule, and lies stacked upon lies to take advantage of its gifts; these are not actions of benevolence on our part, Celestia."

"Had I the courage within me I would have done worse. That monster deserved nothing." The bitter and pointed tone had come back in earnest. Even Cadence took a step back, surprised at the aggression emanating from her fellow Princess. "I wish I had the fortitude to end it, but have never found the resolve to do so."

"Sister!" Luna gasped.

"This creature never deserved mercy!" Celestia countered, the heat rising in her voice. "It twisted minds and ruined lives! Its very existence is a plague to us, a corruption without end! I spent two centuries studying a means to be rid of it, even attempting to return it to where it came from! Nothing worked! We are cursed with this monster."

"It is not at fault for existing." Luna maintained her even voice. "Had it been taught to control its powers-"

Celestia interrupted her sister with a stamp of her hoof. "It killed," her voice cracking as she gritted her teeth so hard they bared to the others. She finally managed to finish, "Starswirl!!" Her shout shook the small tea room as her head leaning all the way up to gaze towards the ceiling. Her demeanor shattered, Celestia grimaced as she let the words flow. "This is the beast that killed Starswirl the Bearded." Only shock followed from this revelation.

Cadence was rendered speechless, her mouth open in horror.

Luna's expression hardened. Her eyes narrowed, her brow furrowed, but nothing more.

Finally gaining the strength to speak, Cadence did so in a shaky voice, "He was--but he--there was an explosion in his tower. An accident, some kind of spell gone wrong." Cadence's expression was already morphing from shock to sorrow once again. "The very spell that Twilight made right, that led to her ascension! You're saying--that was all a ruse?"

"He did not die in his tower that day," Celestia whispered solemnly. "He lived on, maintaining secrecy as he continued his work. The Sapien, it killed him. There is nothing more to say."

"And yet another lie brought to light," Luna sighed. "And I am ashamed to confess that I was aware of this. I have been dragged into this spiral of lies and secrecy all to conceal a single entity." Taking to her hooves, Luna strode past the others towards the door. "Only because I swore to Starswirl to follow your counsel concerning this prisoner have I kept my shame and guilt hidden over the lives lost because of this deceit. Now those secrets are crumbling into dust. I see that when we give our word then we should keep it only when it is convenient. When will the lies end, Celestia?"

"Luna-" Cadence tried to interject, but was hushed by a much louder shout.

Luna was not to be interrupted, "When will it end?! Is there ever an end?" Her voice rose with every word. "Perhaps when we have all perished?" She roared. "When your actions have doomed us all just for you to save yourself from embarrassment?! What more must befall us before you learn, Celestia?! Consider it, because I will no longer be party to this." A dash and she was out the door, fuming as she dove from the balcony. A swift shadow passed the doorway as she flew up and was gone.

"Wait!" Halting at the balcony as she chased after Luna, Cadence just watched her soar away. "We need you," she whispered as she hung her head. This day was getting worse by the moment. The all-consuming fear that the tyrant would return, compounded by the knowledge that a being of perhaps even greater power would facilitate it. All the information she was trying to file in her mind was bouncing around alongside her erratic emotions. It made her head throb.

"Let her go, she needs time. We all need more time." Slowly regaining her composure, Celestia turned to address Princess Cadence as she returned to the tea room. "Luna and I have never truly seen eye to eye. This subject is particularly hard on us both." A forced smile crossed her face. Though she tried to make it genuine, Cadence could tell she was not smiling for happiness. "It is best that we work now to prevent further damages by the escaped prisoner."

"Tobias." Cadence's interjection took Celestia mildly by surprise. "Please, if only both you and Luna took a moment where Tobias was no longer an 'it,' no longer 'the Sapien.' If we could change, then maybe we could repair some of the wrongs that we have done. Perhaps even reason with him. So long as you make him a monster, that is what he will be."

"Cadence, it is a monster. Two ponies-" Celestia trailed off as she forced back tears. "Only two may have been killed intentionally, but dozens have lost their lives because of its foul corruption. It induces madness, drives so many beyond all shadow of hope. Others it leaves hollow, broken, and trapped within a labyrinth of their own thoughts. Once confined, it lost the power to cause so much misery. What it can do now that it is free," Her voice broke again, but she recovered with a sad smile. "No my dear, it is truly a monster. And I will consider it as such."

Cadence and Celestia moved to leave the room. With her head held high, the Princess of the Day strode regally without a hint of the show of weakness she had had before. To her left, the Princess of Love was hardly in the same realm. Her ears drooped, her head was hanging, and her mind was trying to put pieces together that refused to meet. When they were back out in the sunlight, she let the warm rays hearten her. A deep breath of the crisp air and she at least felt a little more grounded.

Her voice strong again, Celestia spoke with assurance, "I know my sister holds so many ideals sacred that she is firm in her actions to appease them. I wish I could be so idealistic, but I have learned over the years that we cannot always be so immovable. Luna would not have me take the advantage that the Sapien provided. To deny an advantage would have drowned all the world in darkness, its counsel has prevented this much. Too many times in my reign over Equestria, powers have risen to destroy all that our ancestors fought to build. I would not let those things be destroyed because of ignorance. I sought to abolish this ignorance, and the Sapien facilitated that."

"You do not sound very appreciative."

"Because there is no atonement possible for it now. Perhaps once I thought this could be achieved, but the creature only ever sought gain for itself. It never acted without promise of payment. Eventually, I simply resorted to taking what I believed what it owed the crown. If my judgment is held against me, then so be it. But I have done what was necessary, and for that I judge myself guiltless for my actions."

"Perhaps that alone is why Princess Luna is so resentful. She sees what has been done to Tobias is wrong. Though, as you said, there is little time left to ponder such things. No matter what, I feel in my heart that a darkness is coming. I have felt this darkness before when King Sombra fought me for control of the Empire. I felt this same darkness in the depths of Tartarus. It is not a good omen."

"We have stood our ground against the darkness and succeeded before. We have at our back the light and the harmony of magic the likes of which Equestria has never before witnessed. We cannot fail." Smiling towards the sky, Celestia caught sight of a grey cloud far off towards the horizon. She squinted, concentrating on it as she noticed it was swirling ever so slightly. The difficulty was not so great now, as the angry-looking cloud was growing by the second. Bursts and bolts of light danced downwards from it towards a spot in the mountains, hidden behind a peak. From the ground that the lights struck, flashes of brilliant light splashed against the mountainsides all around it.

The spiral in the sky began to compact, thickening and darkening as it reached down towards the chaotic array of light below it. A brilliant flash illuminated the whole of the area, and from it a glimmering wall of transparent gray erupted outwards like a wave. Both Princesses tensed as the wave washed over the city, taking with it a wail that passed just as quickly as it had come. The sky-spiral collapsed. The storm spewed a stream of light and magic, like a volcano would throwing molten earth, down towards the mountains. It vanished behind the obscuring peak, but the devilish green display was sign enough. It went on for moment upon moment, each stretched to such that a single heartbeat felt like an eternity. Finally the storm broke and dissipated at an unnerving speed, leaving only the grey cloud above the mountains. There, in the dark shadow of the cloud, the lights condensed and grew until a final explosion of glow cast all around it in brilliance. A shape of a bird with upward-stretched wings took form in the light, then all fell still.

The clouds were gone, the lights had vanished, and everything was as it had been before. Hundreds of eyes on street corners and from windows had gathered to watch this grand performance. Some even clapped their hooves, claiming they had witnessed a strange and beautiful magic show and lamented being so far away. Some made mention of the strange scream they had heard, but others dismissed it as just a way for the magicians behind the show to get their attention.

High on one of the palace towers, Princesses Celestia and Cadence were far from amused or entertained. Celestia had to swallow a bitter taste in her mouth that turned her stomach. Beside her, Cadence had resorted to leaning against the railing, her eyes hidden against her forelegs as she could no longer hold back the fear that once again taken hold. She knew this magical sensation all too well. She shuddered as she felt it gripping and clawing towards her heart and mind, entombing it in the worst fears and nightmares that magic could offer. All the worse for her, she'd encountered it before.

Feeling a hoof against her shoulder, Cadence turned towards her aunt who was looking down at her compassionately. Steeling herself, Cadence followed Celestia's glance and they both faced the source of the dark magic. "Time is no longer on our side, Cadence. This is no longer a hunt. I believe war has just been declared on us all."

"I fear that it may be far worse than that, Celestia," spoke Cadence in barely a whisper. "I fear it is far, far worse."

Chapter 7 - Three's a Crowd

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Confusing flashes of light went crisscrossing through his mind's eye. He felt a headache that bordered intolerable, but couldn't react to it. It was like the stars and flashes and pain held him underwater, surrounding and crushing him. For a moment Ion Cloud forced an eye open, blurry images zooming this way and that. He thought he saw something, a shape maybe, but it was gone. His eye closed again, and as he slipped back beneath the surface he thought he heard music. The pain and lights returned, and he fell away once again.

The shock of consciousness hit like a falling rock. He didn't jump, cry out, or even move. He felt as if a massive weight was holding him perfectly still. Groaning, Ion Cloud painfully forced his eyes open. Blearily, he tried to make sense of where he was. He was somewhere bright, which was already confusing him. White walls, something soft behind his head, even the dull music did very little to help him come to his senses. What was this place? Where was the Oculus? Pushing with his elbows, Ion Cloud tried for a split second to move, and immediately stopped. His entire body felt like it was exploding. He tried again to cry out, but could only manage a dull moan. He had to blink a few more times, the blurred surroundings slowly coming into better focus.

The room was fairly blank. He could hear something next to him beeping. As he was not unfamiliar with these sorts of surroundings, it didn't take long for Ion Cloud to recognize he was in a hospital room. With great effort he looked down, finding the little remote beside his right hoof. It was discouraging how hard he had to work to simply move his leg and push the nurse button. When he relaxed, he felt as if he'd been working out for over an hour. He was exhausted.

The response was swift. Two nurses rushed into his room, both brightening when they saw he was awake. By his side in seconds, they began checking the numerous devices around him, several times recording his vitals manually. Opening his mouth, he tried to speak but found his voice absent.

The nurse to his left put a reassuring hoof on his shoulder and smiled sweetly. "Don't worry, guardsman. We've had to keep you sedated for the past three days. It's wearing off, so you'll be feeling better soon. For now, rest." She nodded to her partner and he took a chart before leaving the room. She made some final checks on Ion's IV bag, a medicine drip, and on the casts that encased both his legs.

Ion took notice now that his legs were covered in plaster. He couldn't tell what was more disturbing, the fact that it had taken him that long to notice or that he couldn't feel a thing. Moving his head back towards the nurse took all Ion could muster. The whole time his body was reacting in slow motion. He decided then he did not like being sedated. Opening his mouth again, he forced words to form. "Three--days?" He managed, the words more air than voice.

The nurse blinked in surprise, obviously she had not expected him to be able to speak so soon. "That's correct. We had to keep you sedated since you were brought in. You've been in and out of the operating room almost the entire time. I am happy to say that you can expect to have full use of your legs again."

Ion Cloud swallowed painfully as he stomached this. The nurse placed her foreleg across his head, making notes as she continued her check-up. The attention was making him feel uncomfortable, but there wasn't much he could do. With another glance to his casted legs, he managed to rasp, "How--bad?"

The nurse sighed. She made the little head motions indicating that an internal argument was in full swing. Back and forth, like she was having a conversation with herself all in her head. "I think that is best left to your doctor."

With all the will and strength he had, Ion Cloud put his hoof on top of hers and looked up at her. "How--bad?"

Her face scrunched, but finally she relented. "Bad." For a second she looked as if that was all she was going to say, but with a sigh and a nod she continued. "Both knees and a hip were dislocated. Your legs had sixteen combined breaks, plus numerous lacerations from the chains that had to be removed surgically. It sounds more awful than it truly is. Everything is reset, and you should be able to walk with assistance within a week." There was a knock at the door, drawing away the nurse's attention. The stallion was there, and he made a motion before walking away. Turning back to Ion Cloud, she smiled. "You have a visitor. He has been waiting for some time for you to wake up. I think you should rest, but he has been very insistent. Please do not push yourself."

A Night Pony strode in, grinning when he saw Ion Cloud was awake. Pulling a stool to the bedside, Midnight Harvest propped himself beside his partner. "Well, look at you. How the hell are you even still alive?"

"Tough," Ion croaked.

"Hell yeah you are. Are they giving you protein bars? I'm afraid you'll wither away if they don't feed you right."

"Idiot," he mumbled with a smirk.

"Do you want some dumbbells?" Midnight was grinning wide now.

With a slow roll of his eyes, Ion aimed his right leg at his friend with difficulty. Lifting it the rest of the way, Midnight bumped his head against it to complete the mock punch. "Others?" Ion Cloud asked quietly.

"You had it a lot worse than most. Not worse than Kite Glider, but she's awake too. Grouchy, but awake. She'll have some wicked scars, but it is what it is. You're all alive."

With a broken sigh of relief, Ion Cloud settled deeper into his bed. "Good." Even with single word responses, his whole chest felt tired. He was dizzy, but leaning back helped. "Any water?" He asked, his voice still sounding raspy.

"You bet. One second," Midnight said as he jumped up and trotted out the door. He was only gone a moment before returning with a cup balanced on his head. "Look, you got a crazy straw! Oh look, you can roll your eyes, at least that still works." Midnight took a glance back towards the door as Ion drank. "You mind having another visitor?"


"He says come on in!" The pony entered in a set of hospital scrubs, pushing an IV pole with his head as he hobbled. One of the pony's right rear legs was bound and casted, but he moved well enough with three.

Ion smirked as he watched. "Hey--dude."

Pleiades beamed in response. "Look who finally decided to wake the heck up. You might be big and tough, but damn if you like to snooze." Taking a seat on the other side of the bed, Pleiades grinned at the nurse as she finished scribbling on her clipboard. "Hi."

"I have everything I need," the nurse said as she set her clipboard into a small pouch at her side. "If you need anything, let us know."

"We'll keep him out of trouble, nurse," Midnight responded with a wink to his friend. "Won't we, Pleiades?"

"Yep, yep," Pleiades agreed conspiratorially.

"Just don't get too excited, you three. Two of you need to rest. The third should not overstay his welcome." She walked out and vanished down the hall.

The moment they were alone, Midnight threw a bundle of gauze right into Pleiades' face. "Don't you get started on the nurses. They have needles."

Pleiades just snickered, despite the gauze assault. "Just being friendly, boss."

"Oh, just being friendly," Midnight mimicked. "You are the most typical guard to ever exist. All you think about is chasing a tail." He ducked as he avoided the gauze thrown back in retaliation. "So, everything went hooves up?"

Ion Cloud grunted before he spoke up. "Yep." He took another drink from his glass, not really caring if he looked silly. He was used to his friend's hi-jinx at this point. Taking as deep a breath as he could, he coughed hard and winced. "Sucked, but feeling better."

Nodding, Midnight Harvest shifted into a more serious expression. He glanced to Pleiades, who adopted the serious tone. With a quick peek towards the door, Midnight made sure there wasn't a lot of traffic before leaning closer to Ion Cloud. "I just wanted to give you a heads up. There is some kind of crazy going on after what happened in the Oculus. The you know what got out, vanishing like a unicorn at a mud-runner's competition. Half the guard is out looking, and all we're getting is more questions. I wouldn't have a doubt that inspectors are coming with about ten billion of those questions and scowls till the end of time."

"Looking forward to it," Ion grumbled as he emptied his glass. "Kinda surprised they weren't here already."

"That's what I'm here for. A heads-up is the least I can do." Taking Ion's glass, Midnight set it aside, then he froze. His face was blank for the few seconds he was looking away. With a start, he came back to the group. "Whoa, sorry. I don't know where I went for a second there."

"You were talking about us being questioned," Pleiades said with a wave of his leg. "And how we'll probably never see the light of day again. Okay, not the last part."

"Yeah well, that isn't all," Midnight said as he leaned closer. "Not hearing this from me, but Princess Celestia is taking a major interest in this. I mean, she is on the warpath. Ever since this big light show in the mountains we've all been at max alert. I don't think the guard has been this mobile for a hundred years, if not more."

"On the warpath? Is that even a thing? I mean, from Princess Celestia? That doesn't sound right." For once Pleiades' voice lost some of its upbeat. He sounded shocked. That was not common for him.

Ion Cloud shared that confusion. His brain couldn't wrap around it. In fact, ever since he'd gone to the Oculus, everything he knew had been thrown into the tumble dryer. Princess Celestia had been nothing but a shining example of hope and wonder for ponies everywhere. In the years after Nightmare Moon's defeat, and the thousand years before, she had worked tirelessly and lovingly to assure Equestria was a land of peace. Even his people, ponies warped by Nightmare Moon's magic so long ago, were accepted as equals. Now, his mind refused to wrap around this rumor of her aggressive actions. There had to be something else going on. Vaguely noticing that both his friends were staring at him, Ion Cloud roused and coughed. "What?"

"I asked if you knew anything," repeated Midnight. "I mean, you are the only pony I know of who spoke with the prisoner for such a long time." His face shifted to a more faraway expression as he added, "Well, spoke to it for so long and isn't nuts." He recovered before asking, "Did you learn anything? Did it say anything to you?"

"Come on, Midnight," Pleiades said accusingly. "Ion Cloud is pretty busted up, and he's already going to get grilled. You don't need to interrogate him."

"It's okay. I'm better," Ion Cloud muttered as his voice sounded less scratchy. "Better MH than a pony I don't know." A coughing fit halted the conversation. It took a few moments for Ion to recover, and a few more for him to catch his breath. When he spoke up again, his voice was barely a whisper, "Some guard I am."

"You're a damn legend," Midnight declared, only to have Ion actually punch him in the shoulder. The strike barely had the strength to shift its target on his chair.

"Well I don't think we should all just sit here and wait for our interrogations." Smacking one hoof down on another, Pleiades' eyes glimmered. "I for one don't like the idea of sitting in here, nursing my owwies until somepony comes in with a folder ten inches thick with sunglasses and starts asking me the same thing a kajillion times."

"Look at him go," Ion muttered.

"If I hear 'Mr. Pleiades,' from a spooky pony with a fedora for a cutie mark I am making tracks for Saddle damn Arabia. No, no, screw that; I'm going to the Crystal Empire. They don't have Pegasi in Saddle Arabia, harder to disguise myself."

"That and you'll get eaten by Dune-Maws before the week's end." Midnight's jab made Ion Cloud sputter as he tried to muffle a laugh.

Pleiades tried to puff up as he retorted loudly, "Those are a myth!"

"Sure they are. So then, 'Mr. Pleiades,' what do you suggest we do? Ion Cloud is half dead, you have a bum leg. No offense," said Midnight to Ion. He received only a shrug in response.

"I say we act like proper guards and find this Sapien jerk and put him back where he belongs. You and Ion Cloud should come with. We've always been a good team," Pleiades grumbled.

"Two problems with that," muttered Ion Cloud as he readjusted himself against the pillows at his back. "First--he blew up his cage. Second--if Princess Celestia is on the warpath, which I have a lot of issues believing," he trailed away into a cough. Taking another deep breath, Ion continued, "Then what are three Night Ponies going to do? We are not exactly an elite force of well-trained trackers."

"I can surf."

Ion just rolled his eyes before mumbling, "Not helping, Pleiades."

"Cloudy has a good point. What the heck are we going to do? Are you actually suggesting we try to hunt down some kind of ancient, apocalyptic eldritch monster that just so happens to be one of the biggest secrets in the kingdom? I think the Princesses would admit to their sweet-tooths before that happens."

"We all have sweet-tooths," Pleiades said on queue with his stomach growling.

"Not helping, Pleiades." Ion Cloud grinned as Pleiades glowered at him.

Rubbing a hoof against his temple, Midnight finally stated what he had been thinking, "Yes, not helping. In fact, this is your idea! Is there a way to make it any less improbable?"

"Look, I have the ideas. You guys run with them. That's how this relationship works," Pleiades stated only to have his friends groan.

"Not helpi-" a pillow collided with his face before Ion could finish.

"I'm serious you two. We all did our time in that hellhole. When the going got tough, we all got strung up like Hearth's Warming decorations. We know more than any pony out there what we're up against." Pleiades almost continued, but was interrupted.

"We don't know anything." Midnight and Ion said in unison.

"That's more than other ponies!" Shaking his head for a moment, Pleiades realized what he said had made no sense. With a deep breath, he continued more calmly, "We don't know anything about it, but we know it exists. I say we ditch and go on an adventure. Wouldn't be the first time some ponies decided to band together and ended up saving the entire world."

It was Midnight's turn to roll his eyes as he shook his head at Pleiades. "We are hardly a trio of chosen heroes. How do you even plan to get out of here? Ion Cloud here has been sedated for three days. He just woke up about---what---an hour ago? Maybe? His legs are a wreck, your leg is a wreck. We aren't going anywhere fast." Midnight's last comment left the three with a heavy silence. Each wanted to say more, but there wasn't much to say.

As his head drooped, Pleiades sighed. A little life had gone out of his voice when he responded, "I just feel so useless right now. We were supposed to keep that whole place locked down, but it came to crunch time and we all got bulldozed. He walked right through us."

"I got a few good hits, I think," muttered Ion Cloud as he fiddled with his nurse call remote. He tended to fidget when he was anxious, and there was plenty of that in the room with them. "He was trying really hard not to get hit, but I got him."

This caught Midnight's attention. "Let's back up a little. What actually happened? I don't even know on account of not actually having been there. I just know the Oculus is gone and all of you guys are here recovering from one hell of a beating."

Pleiades halfheartedly tapped at the bottom of his stool to make himself turn in circles, though he didn't get far before his IV line made him stop, only to have him start in the other direction. He took a deep breath, but let it out without much to say, "It wasn't pretty."

"We tried to take him down, and he fought back." Scrunching up his nose, Ion Cloud then shook his head saying, "No, fought back isn't right. He was all over the place. I mean he's fast. Stupid fast. Running in between us all, dodging and leaping and careening this way and that. Hell, half of us went down because we were hitting one another. That's when I got a good hit in. I've heard ponies cry in pain, but there was nothing even remotely right about the noise this thing makes. I couldn't tell if he was laughing, crying, screaming, or," his voice lowered as his mind seemed to hold that one memory. He glanced up, seeing he had his friend's full attention. "I feel like I'm crazy, but I swear I heard another voice. Like, something was muttering only I didn't understand it. Two different voices, four different things going on." Pushing his hooves into his temples, Ion groaned. "Or I'm still high and my memories are totally screwed up."

"I got hit by a two-prong shot way before that. I don't remember anything," Pleiades added apologetically. He shrugged, but Midnight nodded at him. It was not his fault, and they all knew it.

"The lightning slowed him down just enough. We got a few more good hits. He went down, but only for a second. The whole time making all those sounds." Taking a deep breath, Ion let it out in slow bursts before a hard swallow. His throat was really hurting, but he had to get through this. "When he got back up, I can't even really say. I can't remember how he got up, or--or if he even did. There was the black stuff, and more of the cry-laughing. It was twisting all over, but too dark to really tell what was going on. Then the chains, and then I woke up here. It all happened too fast."

There was a pause as Midnight thought about what he'd just heard. He sighed, and spoke calmly, "I can't imagine any of your peers could have been much more attentive than that. Hopefully I can make a few inquiries, especially since I used to be your commanding officer. That may not mean much outside the Oculus, but it means enough to the right ponies if you ask nicely. Might dissuade enough interested parties to give you two the rest you need."

"You mean time to plan a proper escape?" asked Pleiades as he spun on his stool. He'd actually picked up his IV pole just so he could make full rotations.

The calm quickly evacuated as Midnight glared at Pleiades, though he was smirking as well. "It may not be the best idea to make any kind of explosive escape from the Royal Canterlot Hospital, knucklehead."

"Come on, boss. You haven't even heard the part where I use a gurney for a launch platform and three gowns as a parachute."

"We're Pegasus," Ion Cloud said. "We don't need parachutes."

It was finally Pleiades' turn to roll his eyes. "Says the only one I have ever met that has used his fellow Pegasi for shoulder bench-pressing."

"It's called a military press," Ion quickly corrected.

"Well I call it showing off!" They both shared a chuckle at that.

Listening to the two go back and forth, Midnight Harvest just smiled and shook his head. He checked the door before standing up. His two friends turned towards him, but he held up a hoof. "I've overstayed my welcome. Family members are supposed to be allowed in pretty soon. That, my friend Pleiades, is why you should stick around. Save any escape attempts until after being discharged."

"Check, boss."

"Take care, Midnight."

"Both of you do the same." Walking off towards the door, Midnight went back to humming a tune as he passed into the hallway. The hospital was busy, but he made sure to keep out of the way. For that brief moment he felt right as rain. Some of his best friends were going to be okay. He had been thinking the opposite for the past two days, and good news was welcome. With a happy sigh, he went on humming as he made his way out of the hospital wing and onwards towards the lobby. It was only a few flights of stairs down and he was there.

The good feelings he'd had were already draining away. Midnight turned his head back and forth, narrowed his eyes as he searched. He finally saw the pony he was looking for seated beside an arrangement of plants, just out of sight of the lobby's door. Wearing only a scarf and a saddle sat Stout Shield. The commander was reading a newspaper, a cup of something hot beside him. There was another pony beside him, whispering something before leaving.

Seeing his chance, Midnight made his own way over. When he was close enough, he spoke in a low voice, "I've done as was ordered, Stout Shield."

"I'm still a commander, you know."

"I thought you were trying to be discrete, seeing as you are out of your armor."

"Report," the commander snapped.

"I got as good a recounting of what happened as I think we'll get. Guard Pleiades was rendered unconscious quickly. Guard Ion Cloud recounted the attack in more light, but it matches a few other descriptions. It appears the prisoner was taken down, but then it was too dark to tell afterwards. More mention of the dark twisting substance as well."

The commander paused to take a sip of his drink. "The sounds?"

"Crying, laughing, screaming, and--what I can best describe as chanting," Midnight said with an uneasy feeling. He didn't even like saying it.

"So none of them heard the same thing, but all of them heard numerous sounds at once. Odd."

Midnight took a deep breath, then girded himself before speaking. "All due respect, this is not the place to be having this conversation. Besides, I don't think we'll learn much more than we already have."

"And just what exactly are you planning to do instead? We have very clear orders," Stout Shield said firmly, though he made sure to keep his voice calm.

"There is no question of that. But for now, I feel that these guards deserve their rest, and maybe a few friends and family be allowed to see them. They've been through a lot, sir."

The commander pursed his lips, but finally nodded. "Very well."

"Thank you, sir. It is the least we can do for them." Turning towards the doors, Midnight Harvest only stopped when the commander asked him one last question.

"Where exactly are you going?" The commander gave his question a moment to sink in as he took another sip of his drink. "You have a duty to fulfill."

"I will fulfill my duty, sir. I would never abandon my orders or my purpose. But, for today, I need to go home. After what I just--I would like to return home, sir."

After several agonizing moments, Stout Shield finally sighed, "Fine, go. Report back at suncrest tomorrow."

"Thank you, sir."

"Before you go, what the hell do you plan on doing that you are so bent on getting away for?"

Glaring straight ahead, Midnight Harvest could have flown right out of his own skin with the anxiety that burned in his veins. But, with a slow inward breath, he let his answer out before walking away, "Sir, I plan on drinking until I can forgive myself for what I just did." As he left, he kept himself turned away. Midnight had no desire to reveal the tear that ran down his face as he left.

Chapter 8 - Forgotten Rendezvous

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The dull thud of the mug hitting the floor gave no echo. Midnight Harvest just stared with bloodshot eyes at where it had dropped. He'd emptied it, and a dozen before it. His other mug was still half-full. The pony reached, but watched as his leg split into two hazy images. He tried to fit his hoof into the handle, but only pushed that mug over too. He bared his teeth, clenching so hard it hurt. Giving up on trying to use the mugs he flopped onto the table and slid his legs to wrap around the bottle. Three empty ones were strewn around him, two others broken in the kitchen. With difficulty he finally managed to tip it so the opening was in his mouth.

His sense of balance did not approve as he leaned back. Midnight tipped over and collapsed onto the floor, losing his grip on the bottle. The cider spilled onto him, inciting him to try and save what he could. Without thinking, he simply tipped the bottle up over his mouth, quickly filling it with more than it could handle. Turning over and retching, he coughed and spat while trying to evacuate his lungs of the burning drink. He coughed again and again, and finally gagged. He'd recovered from his fit only to reach once again for the bottle of cider. Grabbing it and lifting it to his mouth only resulted in a few drops falling. He'd spilled the rest.

Gritting his teeth again, Midnight began to shake. His eyes squeezed shut as he convulsed, shudders running down his spine. With every flinch and shiver he brought his legs in closer to his body. He tucked his head and held it between his legs as he curled into a ball. The sound that followed started as a sob before droning on into a long groan. His expression was frozen in pain as he gripped his head tightly. The sound he was making trailed off as Midnight began to hyperventilate. He sucked in quick, spastic breaths before he clenched and groaned again.

With a start he shook himself out of the ball and looked around. The mug he'd dropped still had a bit of the cider in it. Midnight dragged himself to it as quickly as he could and dumped what was left down his throat. It was barely a mouthful. The mug made the same dull thump as he let it go and flopped onto his back. He was looking at his ceiling now, unable to recall how he'd gotten into that position. From his back he could see the warm royal blue that mimicked a perfect night sky. The little glow in the dark stars and planets his dad had given him as a gift so long ago made it look like it truly was night. The fond memory was gone as quickly as it came.

He had hoped for emptiness. Instead, Midnight Harvest could only think of those notes. The song that played in his mind every day. The tune that filled his thoughts and his dreams. Even drowning himself in cider and wine couldn't mute it. They'd only made it more clear. Wincing again, he hugged his head and wheezed, "Damn coward." Absentmindedly, Midnight reached around and found a bottle. He lifted it, and discovering it was empty rolled onto his belly, then tried to drag himself towards one of the others on his floor. He didn't make it far before a wave of nausea and dizziness paralyzed him.

The dizzy spell passed, but he remained motionless, spent, without even the energy to keep moaning. The alcohol was burning his stomach, chilling his veins, and making the world spin. But despite everything he'd imbibed the music was still there. It rose above the haze and the burn to continue persistently inside his mind. The song was never overwhelming, never deafening, and never stopped. It continued, just a constant playing inside his mind, gently reminding him every moment of what he'd done.

"I did what you wanted," Midnight whispered. "Please--I did what you wanted." A horrible feeling rose in his stomach. Mustering all the strength he could, Midnight got up and ran to his bathroom. He made it just in time as his stomach refused to hold the cider any longer. After several seconds of spasms and groans he collapsed against his bathtub and took big gulps of air. His body felt like he'd just run a marathon.

Midnight pushed against his tub with a growl. He was sitting in his bathroom throwing up his guts. He was drinking to try and forget his regrets, to silence the song that judged him, but the simple tune was forcing him to remember. Try as he might there was no forgetting what he had done. He almost started to cry, but instead turned to anger. Slamming a hoof against the floor, Midnight shoved himself up. His sense of balance destroyed, it took all his effort to remain upright. He failed.

Tumbling forward, Midnight barreled into the hallway and slammed his head right into the wall. He couldn't fight off the darkness. His mind was already addled. With wine and cider flowing through him, his grip on wakefulness was already weak. The blow only sealed his fate. Lying in his hallway, Midnight finally passed out.

The sound of screaming jarred him awake. Midnight was confused. Where was he? His hallway was gone, he wasn't in his house anymore. He was in the street watching ponies flee from something. The confusion began to leave him as he recognized where he was. This was Canterlot, but it was days ago.

What guard remained were trying to get ponies out of the city. There wasn't been much else they could do. The one that was attacking them could drain the magic from any pony of any tribe. The assault came so fast, and the scramble to save any was frantic.

Midnight realized what he was seeing. Events of his life only a few days ago. The day Tirek had attacked. The day he'd done the unthinkable.

Shepherding civilians through the back streets, Midnight had hoped they could make it to the city gates. They'd not made it far. Now he was standing his ground.

Tirek was chasing them, or at least had been. He was in front of them now.

Armed with only a spear, Midnight put himself between the civilians and a warlord.

Midnight tried to charge, but couldn't. Magic surrounded him, pulling him off the ground. He was face to face with the beast. He stabbed with his spear, but the weapon broke in half. He was met with only laughter, Tirek insulting his attempts at resistance. Midnight retorted angrily, cursing the much larger opponent. It did no good.

He had no control over his words, like a passenger in his own body. The scene was playing before him, and he was powerless to stop it.

Tirek opened his jaws, and the magic-stealing power was rising up.

"Wait!" Midnight yelled. "You want magic? I know where you can get a whole belly full."

The warlord halted, looking suspiciously at the pony he held in his magical grip. "I know where I can get all the magic I need. You are just an appetizer."

"A couple of terrified ponies?" Midnight asked with a sneer. "Hardly an appetizer. I'll make you a deal. Let the ponies behind me go, and I'll show you something that will make a much better meal for a brute like you." His taunt was met with narrowed eyes. "Or you could eat up our magic and never find it. Your choice."

Thinking for a moment, Tirek glared down at the huddling ponies before him. They cowered, quite the opposite of the hovering guard. "Fine," he growled. "But if you think you can trick me, I will make you regret the moment you were born."

Without hesitating, Midnight waved at the group he was leading. Once they had disappeared around a corner, he finally addressed his captor, "Alright. We're looking for a cave on the side of the mountain. It's below the castle, on the far side. We're looking for some glowing green marks. That is, if you are any good at getting past illusions."

"And you would just reveal this willingly?" Tirek demanded, still suspicious.

"I gave my word."

"You gave your word," Tirek mocked. "Very well, then let us find this cave of yours."

Midnight felt trapped behind his own eyes. He could see and hear, but despite all his efforts could not move. His body would move, but it was not him doing it. He was a prisoner inside himself. The harder he fought to try and move, the more constricted he felt. He was aware for a moment that the events before him were getting murky, images flashing by more quickly, so he focused harder on being free of the nightmare. This was a flashback he did not want. He'd just drunk himself into oblivion to make this all go away. Now he was in the midst of it, a captive to his shame.

He could not even close his eyes. He saw they were in the cave, which only pushed Midnight to fight harder. He wanted to wake up, wanted to get away. No matter how much effort he expended, Midnight still had to watch. He couldn't even close his eyes. He had to watch as Tirek looked around at this strange cave. It had crystals that glowed a deep emerald. They pulsed, and ribbons of green light filtered to the ground. The spot they touched glowed the same bright green as the symbol on the floor of the cell-block. They had reached its source.

"What is this?" Tirek had demanded.

"I don't know, some kind of magic," muttered Midnight in response.

"You don't know? Then how did you know it was here?" Tirek still sounded suspicious.

"I don't know, I just did," he murmured as the music played in his mind again.

The music from his memory overlapped with what he was already hearing. For the first time, it was getting louder. It echoed in his mind, the sound of whistling. It was so loud now, his thoughts consumed in a cacophony that beat against the inside of his skull. Everything went dark for a moment. then he could see he was lying on the ground; Tirek had vanished. He didn't remember how he got there, or how long he had been lying there.

Slowly lifting his head, Midnight looked around. He was still in the crystal cave, but the green glow was gone. It struck him then that he could move on his own. He wasn't just an observer, he was back in control. Then came the greater realization: the music was gone. He thought about it, searched for it, but it wasn't there. He couldn't even recall how it went. In that one moment, he smiled. It was no longer in his head. He knew this was a dream, but at least for that moment he was free.

The sound of footsteps broke the elation. A shadow had moved into the cavern's entrance, the figure's silhouette now moving towards him. He watched it approach with wide eyes, finding he was only able to move his head and neck. He knew exactly what was coming for him. That had to be why the music had stopped. His usefulness had met its end. This was it for him.

"So fatalistic," a calm voice spoke. The shadows finally broke from around the figure. Tobias knelt down beside Midnight, looking him in the eye. "I won't break our deal." He placed a hand on Midnight's forehead, an honest smile on his face. "I wanted to thank you. You gave me so much more than I even hoped. I wasn't about to go back on my word. I did as you asked, plus a little extra. Thanks again, Midnight Harvest." Standing up, Tobias made his way back towards the cavern's mouth.

"Stop!" Midnight called out. It surprised him when Tobias complied. "We all know what you are going to do," he continued. "Please, I know you can be reasonable. I know you like to make deals. I want to make one. What do you want in return for leaving Equestria alone? Screw everything else. Me and you, right now. You can have anything in my power to give you. You can kill me--I don't care. Just leave Equestria alone."

Tobias looked back at the Night Pony. His expression never changed, but there was something in his eyes. It looked almost kind. "I'm sorry, I cannot make that deal."

"Then why the hell show me this?" Midnight snapped at him. "I know what I did, I don't need a reminder! We made a deal, sure, but I already have to live with this! Don't make me relive it!"

"You did not plan on living with this," Tobias said softly. He had not even needed to shout, he'd silenced Midnight easily enough with his insight. "It makes the most sense. You drank yourself nearly to death because you blamed your friends for what you did. Or at least that is how you feel. You interrogated them secretly, gave them the impression that what happened was their fault. It wasn't. That's why you have no intention of trying to live with what you just relived."

"Well," Midnight growled. "Don't you have it all figured out."

"Most of it. Maybe not all. We're still working on the details. It's always the details. Let me offer you one. Listen to Pleiades again. He has some good ideas. Make it right, and help him."

This took Midnight by surprise. "He wants to hunt you down and recapture you. He wants to put you back in a cage."

Tobias only grinned as he spoke a single word, "Good." Extending a finger, he poked Midnight in the head. "You won't remember this, but you'll know what to do."

He was jolted awake. Whipping his head back and forth, Midnight quickly came to his senses. A headache screamed its presence, but there was no time to worry about it. He had to get back to the hospital. That thought burned in his mind so hot that it made whatever pain he felt inconsequential. He couldn't figure why he felt this way, but he knew one thing was clear: he'd made a mistake trying to dissuade Pleiades. He'd made the mistake of tricking his friends, whether it was a lie of omission or not. The worst mistake of all, he'd made a deal. Even if it wasn't for himself, a deal was a deal. Pleiades offered a way of righting that wrong. Prepared or not, he was going to help them. He had to make things right. Anything and everything from this point was his fault. He couldn't run from that.

This new frame of mind overwrote everything he'd felt the day before. He had wanted to drink. Maybe even drink himself to death--he wasn't sure. That no longer mattered. He knew what he had to do, and that was make things right. He wasn't about to live a lie for the rest of his life. He wondered for a moment what could have shifted so much in his head, but he couldn't recall. Whatever it had been was gone. But now was not the time for deep thought. He was out his door in a flash on his way to the hospital. He had a lot of explaining to do.

Chapter 9 - The Grace of the Heart

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There was a knock at the door, shattering the silence of the small office. Seated at her desk, Celestia didn't move. She'd been staring at the bare surface of the desk for some time. Even after the loud knock she did not budge or flinch. Her eyes remained on the smooth surface. There had been papers before her some time ago, but they were gone now. She couldn't recall when they had been removed. The whole day had been a haze, as had the one before. Now she simply sat and stared, the stress and worry had finally worn her down enough that her fatigue was too strong to ignore.

The knock came again, and Celestia sluggishly turned her head in the direction of the door. Her horn glowed as she pulled the door open with her magic. She did not wait to see who had come, expecting a guard or attendant with a new report. She had begun to dread them as bearers of bad news. Levitating a pen before her, Celestia awaited a piece of paper to sign. Instead she felt something on her shoulder. She looked up to see a gentle smile on Luna's face.

Luna spoke first, her voice calm and warm. "I have spent the past days in anger. I felt as if I had been led astray. Because of the hurt I felt, I was blinded to the effect of my actions. Cadence came and spoke to me before she left, and for it I am glad. I now feel I would have been lost without her wisdom." Luna took a step forward and hugged Celestia. Her older sister was shocked for a split moment, but quickly accepted the embrace and returning it.

"What did she say?" Celestia whispered, weariness saturating her words.

"That I have walked this dangerous path before," Luna whispered back. "I did not forgive you in the times long ago, and many suffered for it. Should I not forgive you now, my resentment may build once again. I know you have kept secrets. I know you have hidden the past." Luna felt sadness welling again in her sister's heart, and she hugged her tighter. "For so long has loneliness been your only companion. I thought in my own darkness that I was the more cursed of us both. I was banished to solitude, my essence trapped far away. But, I had the stars as my companions, I listened to the songs of the cosmos and they comforted me. Left behind, you were tasked with repairing a kingdom, governing on your own. Of us both, you were the one truly alone. What companion had you but yourself? Of us, you were the most burdened. How should I be the one to place judgment upon you if you had only yourself to turn to?" Leaning back to look at Celestia's face, Luna smiled at her. "I sincerely ask for your forgiveness, dear sister."

Celestia's countenance broke, tears streaming down her face a she laughed weakly. Hugging Luna again, she had to fight to get the words out, "Of course--of course, Luna. I will always forgive you." Pulling away to wipe her tears, Celestia nodded quickly in gratitude. She felt a burst of life and energy that had been utterly foreign to her only minutes before. Now, she felt lighter than air. A thought popped into her mind, making her laugh again, "How long have you been practicing that speech?"

Feigning surprise at Celestia's question, Luna gave a reserved chuckle before composing herself. "I had at first thought to simply wash my hooves of this entire matter. But what an ugly feeling it left in my soul. So, I then considered my words carefully." She tapped a hoof against her chin thoughtfully. "For the speech? Only the majority of the past day--or so." The sisters looked at one another, and started laughing together. "Do not spoil my moment! I was so nervous that it would be for naught!"

"Never, Luna. Not a word was for naught." Wiping her face, Celestia kept smiling. She looked exhausted, but relief was washing over her so much that she hardly felt it. "I was so scared that I had taken a turn down an already traveled path."

"I will not so easily be drawn to the path of darkness as before. You should have more faith in me." A worried expression banished the smile from Luna's face. "I admit, I did not react well to the revelations of the past several days. That is a conversation for another time, though."

Celestia shook her head in return. "No, sister. I think now is the best time to be forthcoming. Secrets have served me well before, but now they will only do greater harm. I have spent too many years relying on unreasoning habit. Centuries I have spent, as you stated, alone. I think it best that those habits be put to rest."

"Perhaps," Luna said as she let a grin pull at the side of her lips. "But before we commence such a sober conversation, we should have the whole of our company present. Before you have dealt with these concerns alone, but no longer. Our numbers of sovereignty have quadrupled. All need be present, only then can we approach the dangers of this escaped creature with every confidence."

This statement brought Celestia to a thoughtful, though downcast gaze. "Cadence made all haste back to the north. It would be unkind to demand of her to return so soon."

"This is no time for our kindness. This is a matter of greatest attention and importance." Luna let a soft sigh from her nose before she also shook her head. "But I believe it best to also extend our apologies as we ask this of her."

Turning towards the window, Celestia spoke absentmindedly, "I agree."

"I am more interested in the fact that my indomitable sister has been afraid for my integrity. I dare say I have not had the most outstanding record, but let us leave what has passed as only a painful lesson." Closing her eyes, Luna lifted her head and appeared deep in thought. "I have learned from the mistakes I have made."

"Then I envy you. I feel that all of what has happened over the past several days is all my fault," Celestia said in a somber voice. "Everything that's going to happen--those will the stories I am known for." She took a sharp, deep breath. The strength to battle her emotions was waning, but she had just enough to continue. "Luna--I'm terrified. I've done so much for Equestria. Tried so hard, never considering that I could be sealing its fate."

Drawing her sister's head down against her shoulder, Luna embraced Celestia warmly. The show of such emotion and compassion had been uncharacteristic of her before, now her sister was truly surprised. When Luna spoke, it was with a voice much softer and kinder than her usual, "Celestia, be at peace. No one shall argue the good you have done for Equestria. Without you, all would have been lost. So many times have you placed yourself between innocence and the path of destruction. For one thousand years, you were the stalwart defender of righteousness. We could debate methods, but I do not question your intentions. You did what you thought right."

Again Celestia had to resort to a whisper as she buried herself against Luna. "But I have broken promises, destroyed trust, betrayed those to whom I gave my word. That creature-"

"Sister," Luna interrupted. "We must take heed of the wisdom of our fellow Princess. His name is Tobias."

"T-Tobias. It--he--he," she stuttered. "He predicted that the powers of the Elements of Harmony would leave me. My connection to them would wither, and it would be my fault. Disloyalty, dishonesty, unhappiness, unkindness, all these things I am guilty of. Without them, my magical powers have diminished, and his prediction came true."

"Do you truly believe these are facts of your character? Disloyalty, dishonesty, unkindness? These traits do not describe your heart."

Celestia sniffed, trying to regain her bearings, "Yet despite all that I've done, the Elements have still passed on."

"Perhaps this only means that the time had come for new bearers to take possession of them. We do not know," Luna comforted.

"But it--he did! Nothing he's predicted has ever been false!" Celestia pulled away suddenly, marching to the window and peering out as if searching the lands for a sign of the creature she ranted about. "Now he is unleashed upon our homes, our subjects! They are innocent and I have allowed such a monstrosity to walk free!"

"Sister!" Luna's shout drew Celestia's wide-eyed gaze back inside. "This obsession is unbecoming. We are princesses, you and I. We must set an example." She slammed a hoof on the wooden floor, the metal guard on her leg leaving a scuff on the wood. "We must be of stalwart visage. Our appearance must be hearten and encourage our people in the face of darkness. So long as you obsess and recoil you can only bring fear to those who would seek you for strength."

"I don't know what else to do," Celestia muttered.

Luna snorted in response, but her expression was more of passion than anger. Her voice rose, emboldened. "We shall take upon ourselves the path to victory just as we have before! We have overcome such darkness, such despair, and all times we have gained back the light and hope that our subjects adore. The powers of harmony are wondrous tools. The strength of love has made safe all of Equestria on two separate occasions in as many years. Are these not things from which you may draw courage?"

A sad smile spread over Celestia's face as she walked back towards her sister. "I have no lack of courage, Luna. I would charge headlong into the most vicious evil, even if I had no hope of survival. No, I'm scared for our people. I'm scared that he will punish them for what I've done"

"It is a possibility," Luna said apologetically. "Which is why we must gather Princess Cadence and Princess Twilight Sparkle. With them, we must bring to light all knowledge of Tobias we have available. Even I am much in the dark about his true nature."

Upon hearing this, Celestia was visibly affected. Her eyes flinched, shutting tightly as she took in a sharp breath. She held up a hoof before Luna could rush to her side. "Forgive me. A thought," she paused as if searching for the right word. "Overwhelmed me. I fear I am the one who has kept you in the dark on such matters."

"You? It is no fault of yours," Luna assured "I decided long ago to wash my hooves of this whole matter. I even promised to distance myself, and have kept it all this time."

"To whom did you make this promise?" Celestia asked pointedly. "Do you remember?"

"I--well," stuttered Luna as she trailed off. She thought deeply, but the pensive expression was slowly turning to a frown. "I do not recall, not entirely. Mother, perhaps. I made her a promise--but I do not remember what it concerned."

With a far-off look on her face, Celestia nodded. She did not seem encouraged as she spoke, "I feared as much, but I had held out a hope. Perhaps--this won't be as easy as I'd first thought. It doesn't matter. The truth must be known, and it's my responsibility to reveal it. I am the one who has kept it hidden for so long."

"Why?" Luna asked. "For what great reason did you fight to keep this hidden even from me? Was it your own promise to mother?"

"No--I mean--not entirely. I did make a promise to mother that I have not honored, and for that I will be held responsible. But I have also confided in others before, and it has never ended happily."

"Then let this time be different. Twilight Sparkle and Cadence are so young, and they have eyes not clouded by the darkness of the past. I have great trust in them both, Celestia."

"As do I," Celestia agreed.

"Then confide in them, and in me. You no longer need face this alone, so do not believe that you must."

Celestia grinned again, genuine happiness breaking through her mask of fatigue and weariness. "Luna, how did I keep everything together for so long without you?"

"Wisdom, wits, and a great deal of luck perhaps? If not, I am not adverse to aiding in the cleaning of your messes. We are not perfect."

"Well," Celestia said jovially. The sisters laughed, but they could not hide the anxious tone they still carried in their hearts. "You are wise, Luna. If I had listened to you before, so much evil could have been averted. Now-"

Luna again interrupted her sister, "Now you will cease this self-blame. You may hide it well, but I am not so easily fooled. Guilt and blame serves none. We shall seek resolution together."

"Yes, of course," agreed Celestia. Her mood was already improved greatly, and now she felt a spark of motivation rising in her. "I have letters to send. There is a lot to discuss."

Luna nodded in response as she said, "Yes, there is."

"I have to warn you, Luna. I have never found a solution," Celestia spoke gravely.

"You did not have Twilight Sparkle. I doubt there is a pony in Equestria more capable than she. Have faith, and have trust, sister. We will prevail."

Celestia still appeared unconvinced. She may have been laughing only moments before, but doubt was already taking hold of her again. "I simply do not know how the past can provide answers. It has only sadness and darkness."

"But it has the truth, my dear sister. The truth may offer the greatest tool of all for victory. It may offer clarity." Nodding her head in confidence, Luna turned back to the door. "I will take my leave. I have great faith in you, Celestia. We shall overcome this together." They shared a hug, and Luna left the office. The clack of her hooves growing softer as she moved away.

Sitting back at her desk, Celestia sighed. Tears were welling in her eyes, but she still smiled. Her sister had given her strength she didn't even think she had available to her. She'd given her hope, and that was a more powerful gift than she could have imagined. Using her magic, she took out two spare pieces of paper and a quill. It took her only a moment to think of the words, and she began to write to her fellow princesses.

Soon, she had sent the letters on their way. Standing alone in her office, Celestia watched the horizon as she once again sighed. No smile accompanied it this time. "Oh Luna," she lamented. "I only hope you can still forgive me once you know the truth."

Chapter 10 - Consider the Debts of the Past

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Spike went tearing down the hallways of the palace as quickly as he could. With a letter in hand, he was on a mission to find Princess Twilight. For the first few days of living in the new castle he'd been excited to be in the new, much larger home. The necessity of rushing between dozens of rooms instead of only a few diminished the luster of their new arrangement. When he finally found her in one of the upper floor studies, the young dragon was gasping for breath. He held up the letter, wheezing out just a few words, "Letter--from--Princess--Celestia." He collapsed forward the moment Twilight's magic plucked the scroll from his hand.

"Are you alright, Spike?" Twilight asked, engrossed in inspecting the letter.

Spike tried to respond, but was still trying to recover his breath. Instead, he gave a thumbs up and continued to gasp for air.

Twilight looked away from the scroll for a moment as she stared at her assistant worriedly. "We will have to find you a better way of getting around."

"I--know." The small dragon slowly regained his bearings. "But it's from--Princess Celestia. Could be--important."

Her inspection finished, Twilight broke the seal and read its contents. "My dear Twilight Sparkle. A matter of the highest importance has come to light in the wake of Tirek's attack. Your immediate presence is requested in Canterlot. I tell you this in utter confidence. It is not to be shared with any others as this is a matter only for the ruling party of Equestria. We await your arrival. With respect, Princess Celestia." Lowering the scroll, Twilight had to swallow to relieve her parched throat. She hadn't even noticed how stiff she had become while reading the letter.

Twilight was about to say something when she heard Spike softly snoring, looking down to find he'd fallen asleep on the floor. Her magic lit up once again, lifting the little dragon and setting him on a cushioned chair. He curled up immediately, settling into the cushion. A smile broke at the edges of her mouth, but vanished as her attention returned to the letter.

The chance to have more responsibility had always been something Twilight desired. She'd shouldered quite a bit already as the Element of Magic, and now more so as a princess. At any other time she would have received this letter happily. These were not the happiest of times.

In the shadow of Tirek's attack, Ponyville was in a state of disrepair. The center of town had escaped the brunt of the battle, but even so the townsfolk were tearing many down to be rebuilt. The library had been restored as part of the new palace, but many of the books it had contained were lost. The outskirts of the town had taken the worst of the fight, and now lay in ruins. The ponies of Ponyville worked efficiently, but even they could not put their lives back together in only a few short days. The victory celebration had been sweet, but the hard part was officially in full swing.

Now she held a letter from Princess Celestia on a matter of the utmost confidence. This was something she apparently did not wish to write down, and that often meant it was bad. There was already plenty of stress thanks to the rebuilding of Ponyville, and now she had matters of state to agitate her.

Now an uneasy feeling was growing stronger in the pit of Twilight's stomach. She ignored it as there was an important matter to deal with before she departed. Rolling the letter back up, she trotted out the door. It would have been easier to simply teleport, but she wanted the extra few minutes to think.

It was simple to get lost in her thoughts, but anxiety followed her even there. Dark and uneasy imaginings filtered through her mind as she walked. She still felt frazzled by the time she arrived at her destination. It felt like she'd traveled there in no time at all and accomplished little more than stressing herself out. She had an idea of why Princess Celestia had contacted her. If it had anything to do with the feeling that had been growing in her stomach since the attack it would not be a surprise. Though it did little good, she tried to ignore it as she focused on the door ahead of her.

Twilight knocked, and heard a short gasp come from within.

"Please come in," the voice of Mayor Mare called out.

Twilight did so, making it halfway in before she stopped to gawk at the mountain of paperwork before her. Partially buried in the middle was the unkempt Mayor, signing something onto a rumpled piece of parchment before her.

"Oh, your highness! How wonderful to see you!" The Mayor set her pen down and scooted out of her paperwork fort. "Thank you so much for allowing me to work in the palace while my office is being rebuilt. I am nearly caught up on the work orders. I was just finishing a speech in celebration."

Twilight smiled at the thought that writing a speech could be anypony's idea of fun. "That is wonderful to hear. I wanted to let you know I've been summoned to Canterlot. It sounds important."

"Oh my," Mayor Mare gasped.

Twilight nodded as she asked, "Do you have everything you need?"

"Of course, your highness. Ponyville will be nearly finished by the time you get back!" Then she added somewhat apologetically, "Well, so long as you don't get back until tomorrow evening."

"I'm so glad," Twilight responded with a smile. "Owlicious will be here if you need anything else."

"He has already been so helpful. His filing skills leave quite the impression, perhaps my staff could learn from that. Then again, he is much smaller--and can fly." The Mayor's eyebrows rose as an idea crossed her mind. "If it is important business in Canterlot then you should be on your way, your highness."

"I just didn't want you to think I'd disappeared, especially after the past few days." Twilight Sparkle was finally able to crack a real smile as the Mayor nodded. "I'm hoping for good news. The magic of the Elements of Harmony did grow a castle in the middle of Ponyville, so anything is possible. I guess I won't know till I get there. Take care, Mayor!"

"The same to you, Princess Twilight Sparkle!" the Mayor said with a wave.

A blast of light came from Twilight's horn as she vanished from the study. The Mayor blinked a few times to shake the stars from her eyes, then gasped when she saw all the paperwork around her had been meticulously organized. With a happy titter she went back to her speech.

It was simple enough for Twilight to find her friends as all but one were in the throne room. She explained the situation, and wished for them to pass on her goodbyes to Fluttershy. She had not expected the resistance she received. The letter did ask for Twilight to journey alone--as she understood the phrase "a matter only for the ruling party of Equestria" to mean--yet she found herself being pressured to fly ahead with Rainbow Dash and meet the rest of her friends for dinner in Canterlot at a place of Rarity's choosing.

"The train will arrive just in time for dinner!" Rarity gushed. "And I hardly think the town will miss us for a single evening. I find it rather unkind you would try to sneak away to Canterlot and leave us behind."

"I just think that's what Princess Celestia wants, Rarity," responded Twilight apologetically.

"Well it isn't like we're going to barge in with you! It's Canterlot, darling! There is plenty to do elsewhere! Which means I have so much to prepare! Oh, I must start immediately!" With a dainty wave of her hoof, Rarity turned and galloped off muttering about a new dress.

Knowing there was no stopping Rarity when she put her mind to something, Twilight Sparkle sighed with resignation. "Well, I guess there's no harm in everyone meeting at Canterlot. I can't imagine meeting with the princesses will take all day. So why not, let's all meet in Canterlot tonight." Twilight smiled when she saw the excitement in the faces of her friends.

As she prepared to leave, she felt the weight in the pit of her stomach get worse all of a sudden. It made her feel nauseous. She considered sharing this, but feared Pinkie Pie would prescribe enough cake to ground her.

"We gonna go already? We can get, like, two flying lessons in on our way to Canterlot!" Rainbow Dash spread her wings and blasted off into the air.

Twilight watched for a moment before muttering to herself, "I think Rainbow Dash overestimated my flying ability. Why else do I usually still take the train?"

"Well, best get after her before she is too far off. You know how excited she can get." Applejack tipped her hat as Twilight took off. "We'll see y'all later!" She and the others waved farewell before turning back towards the town.

The only pony remaining was Pinkie Pie, still waving and grinning even after the two friends had vanished into the clouds.

She was not the only one who watched them fly away. Keeping a sharp eye on the two flying ponies, Tobias stepped away from the shrubs that obscured him. He watched as they both soared higher and higher before vanishing. "Right on time," he muttered to himself before turning away. With a hop he came down and launched himself into a hard run. Within moments he was charging up the side of the mountain, bits of rock and dirt kicking up in his wake.

The mountains north of Ponyville had made for a relatively safe place. He'd been yearning for someplace a little more colorful than valleys of stone and dirt, but he'd had little choice. There was too much risk, too many variables he needed to account for. He needed to get the last piece of the process before he could make a move. That was vital. This thought echoed in his mind over and over again as he continued up the increasingly steep side of the mountain.

Pushing harder and harder, he approached the top quickly. He reached a peak and jumped over, sliding down the far steeper slope on the other side. Getting his stride he went from a slide to a sprint, careening down the mountainside at breakneck speed. He was so fast, but it didn't frighten him. He'd been waiting for so long to get to use his abilities in the outside world, frivolously or otherwise.

It felt too good not to let loose. The wind rushed through his face and hair; the sunlight on his skin felt even better than the air. He had known what the sun would feel like, the information had always been available in his mind. It had never been accompanied by the actual feeling, at least not in this world. There was nothing that rivaled this sensation.

Flinging his arms out to his side, Tobias whooped as he pushed off from the slope. Gravity pulled him down, but the rocks were steep enough that he was airborne for several seconds. This was his favorite part.

He had made this run several times, and it still was not getting old. With bent legs he waited until barely a fraction of a moment before he struck the rocks. He kicked downwards, the force impacting the mountainside hard enough to cause a small crater as he flew like a missile up and away. He was tempted to holler for joy at the exhilarating rush of speed and altitude he was achieving. Gravity quelled the temptation by once again pulling him back towards solid ground. He kept himself steady as he landed, skidding to a halt amidst a spray of pebbles and dirt. Taking a deep breath, he exhaled it hard and let the sound echo into silence. He'd dreamt of this for centuries, but never once thought it would be so invigorating; knowing he had the ability and actually being able to use it were worlds apart.

This was what he had wanted for so long: to breathe clean, fresh air; to run without anything to stop him or hurt him. This was freedom--or at least more freedom than he'd had in more time than he cared to think about. The tranquil thoughts ebbed away as he remembered where he was headed, and why. Looking over the ridge he could see the cave; a quick sprint and he would be there.

Everything so far had been predictable, from the time it took Celestia to listen to the reason of her sister, to her sending the letter drawing the guardian Princess from Ponyville. He could move forward with his plan, and he was glad to do so. There was very little time left.

Bounding down towards the cave, Tobias decided to make one last check before moving forward. He saw the mouth coming up, and he braced. The cavern had a large opening near the head of a valley, and all he needed to do was skirt around the corner and smash into the wall. This was the simplest method of slowing down. There were numerous broken and cracked spots from this repeated practice.

Brushing himself off, he continued on deeper into the murk and gloom of the cave. He only took a few steps into the opening and already the light was almost completely gone. Oppressive black fog pushed back against the sunlight, swallowing up any that ventured too far in. The border of the darkness grasped out and clawed at the light, daring it to try and encroach further.

Tobias strode right into this dismal gloom, consumed immediately by the wall of miasmic fog. Once he did the darkness began to recede, keeping pace with him, and leaving only a normal cavern entrance behind. The thick mist swirled around his body, streams of it twisting and bending in a chaotic dance as if excited to welcome a friend back. His eyes adjusted quickly, they were used to this sort of dark.

His reason for leaving the sunlight was just ahead and to the left: a large opening in the cave, big enough for perhaps a house. The farthest wall writhed and contorted, purple bolts of magical energy shooting over the surface of the viscous slime that completely covered it. The material was broken up by green and red cracks split and glowing in it, skirting the border between liquid and solid in a mesmerizing fashion. Absorbing and redirecting magic, it all drew into the center.

Suspended only a few feet off the ground and halfway melded directly into the wall was a decrepit form. Tobias pursed his lips reflexively as he approached, watching the sickly pony shiver and wheeze. "This is it," he said quietly. "Today's the day. We're putting you back together."

The skeletal unicorn lifted his head to look at Tobias. Through a limp and matted mane glowed two dull pricks of red light. The eyes reflected the state of the body: weak and frail. He lowered his head again, hanging weakly from the wall where half of his body was still contained.

Reaching up, Tobias waved his hand through the dark aura that wafted from Sombra's body. He was careful not to touch the pony, but he liked to watch how the mist swirled around his fingers in a hypnotic dance. Breaking from his reverie, Tobias spoke again in a low voice, "I'm going down there. I know you'd argue if you were in your right mind, but I can't sit and do nothing anymore. Done that for a long time, kinda gets boring." Tobias watched Sombra lift his head and meet his gaze once more. "Besides, I have a better handle on things now. I've had a long time to think, and to practice in my head. Time to put that to good use instead of hiding in a crypt made of rock." Tobias took a step closer so that he was less than an arm's length from the unicorn's head. "Time to put you back together just like I promised I would."

"Crys--ta--lss," the pony hissed.

"Maybe later." Leaning just a little closer, Tobias looked deeper into the red eyes. "For now, keep fighting," he spoke quietly. His face was slowly losing its stoic mask as he watched the unicorn battle to take simple breaths. "I'm not giving up, you know me better than that. I owe too much. I owe you too much. So, don't give up. Like I said, I have a plan."

"Give--me--my--crys--talsss," Sombra growled again as his head lowered for lack of strength. Drops began to fall from his mouth onto the stone ground.

Following them, Tobias knelt and pressed two fingers into the drips that had landed. He rubbed a thumb through it before smelling it. "Blood, oh hell," he cursed as he leapt to his feet. "Sombra, come on man! You made it four days! Remember when I said we would get our window in four days? Today is that day! You can make it just a few more hours!"

The pony's head did not rise up again.

Panic officially set in Tobias' chest. "Damn it, no! Sombra!" he cried out. Turning around, he was on the other side of the cave in the blink of an eye. He threw aside a pile of ragged clothes and sticks and snatched up a circular piece of gold. Back at Sombra's side, he held up the medallion. It flickered, but did nothing. "Sixteen-hundred years to charge and you pitter out in three days, piece of--fine, hard way then." Gripping it more tightly, Tobias lifted it again and closed his eyes. Dark streams of energy arced out from his arm and curved into the medallion as bright golden light surged from the jeweled center. Flames tore out from the other side, bathing his arm and shoulder in an inferno that took all of Tobias' mental will to ignore. He focused the medallion's magic on Sombra, even as his arm was slowly ripped apart.

The light blasted away the darkness surrounding Sombra, causing the pony to cry out in pain and clench his eyes tightly shut. Tobias was shaking within a few seconds as the medallion continued to fight back, his flesh splitting and tearing away from the flames that bathed it.

Ribbons of light and magic went out from the medallion and into Sombra's body. The icon's life-giving energy was restoring him, but it was still not enough. With a sound like the shriek of a great bird the medallion itself burst into flames. A powerful blast of light came from the jewel, and it forcibly tore itself from Tobias' hand to clatter across the ground, once again casting the whole cavern into darkness.

Tobias could only stare at his arm, palm still glowing red hot. A simple clench of his fist was all it took to heal the wounds, but it did not remove the pain that still lingered. He took several deep breaths for him to regain his composure.

With stalled breath he stared expectantly, waiting for a hint of movement. The seconds ticked by as if in slow motion. Sombra's eyes drifted open with a groan of pain so low it was barely a sound. "God," Tobias sighed in exasperation. "Freak me out, why don't you?"

Eyes lazily drifting open and closed, Sombra finally looked straight ahead after some difficulty. He looked right into Tobias' eyes, and with effort forced out three simple words, "If--I--must."

They just stared at one another for a moment. Tobias blinked a few times, processing what he had just heard. It finally clicked, and his face broke in a grin. He grunted, then chuckled, and before he could hold it back laughed out loud. "So deep down you really are still the Sombra I knew." He reached out as if to pat Sombra on the shoulder, but halted himself when he noticed what he was doing. The grin Tobias had had only moments before vanished when he saw what he nearly did. He took a deep breath before he spoke again, "I'm going to fix this. I owe you that, and a lot more. You made me a deal, and I won't forget it."

"A--deal." The unicorn mimicked.

Tobias grunted again, a smirk peeking at the edge of his mouth. "That's right. Just like in the old days."

"Promised," Sombra whispered as his head hung limp again. His strength was nearly gone.

"Yeah," said Tobias forlornly. "Like I promised. Like I planned." Turning around he fell back against the smooth wall that Sombra hung from. Sliding down to take a seat, Tobias rested his face in his hands. "Like I've wanted to do for centuries. God, listen to me. Centuries, like it isn't even a big deal." Looking down at his arms, he stared at the markings they bore. He even traced the snake tattooed on the right as it wrapped is way up towards his shoulder. "Centuries," he repeated again.

He waited a few moments, hoping to hear Sombra say something. Only silence filled the air, broken occasionally by the sound of labored breathing. He would glance up occasionally, but there was nothing of note to see. Pulling in his knees, Tobias wrapped his arms around his legs and stared for a while. The cavern was dark, but he could see everything as if it were day. "It's weird," he said to the gloom before him. "I have been dreaming about this, thinking about this. Me getting out, being free. For so long I thought that maybe it wouldn't happen. I'd be stuck in a cage for eternity." He looked up at Sombra contemplatively. "Only a few ponies in all that time being nice to me, and you were the best of them. You were kind and this was what you got in return."

Slowly relaxing, Tobias crossed his legs. He let the tension out with slow, easy breaths. He'd gotten rather good at it in his cage. There had not been a whole lot else to do to pass the centuries. Looking to his left he reached out and grasped the dark material that covered the wall. He pulled some of it off, letting it run between his fingers and down his arm. "But I'm going to make it right. I'm going to fix this. I promised." The material stopped its wayward oozing and began to retract back towards his hand. "And once I do, then I'm keeping all my other promises. I'm making good on all my other deals." The slime began to spread out through the air from his palm, warped and curving as it took shape. "I made a plan, and I finally get to put it into action. By the time I'm done I'll-I'll" he trailed away when he looked up at Sombra's unconscious face again. "I'll be talking to myself."

Pushing up, Tobias got back to his feet. He gripped the forming object more tightly as he turned to face Sombra. He felt it harden in his grasp before holding it out towards the unicorn. "Plan ahead, you told me that. Always plan ahead. Well, I have. I have a plan to turn this whole messed up world right around." Tobias disappeared and reappeared in the blink of an eye. He'd grabbed the medallion, holding it next to the black shape. "It all starts here. With this medallion, and with this," he said as the black shell around the newly formed item crumbled away. The lumpy casing broke away to reveal a perfectly constructed violin. "You let me practice, so I thought it would be appropriate for putting our plan in motion. Besides," Tobias said as he held up the instrument. "We both know the way to a pony's heart is through their ears."

Setting the medallion on the ground in front of Sombra, Tobias made a crisp about-face and vanished into the murk as he made his way back towards the entrance.

Chapter 11 - A Stranger Came to Ponyville

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Doors slammed. Windows snapped shut. Whispers and gasps of fear echoed in the air. The few ponies brave enough to hazard a peek hid again almost immediately afterwards.

Tobias was well aware of how the inhabitants of Ponyville reacted to anything new or different. He had watched them be suspicious concerning Griffons, as well as outright terrified of a zebra. It was no surprise to him they were terrified by his presence.

As he strolled down the main street every pony in sight fled. Occasionally a foal's curiosity got the better of him or her, but inevitably would be scooped up by a parent and vanish back indoors. The ponies of Ponyville were a carefree population, but easily upset.

Tobias was fascinated by the gap between generations as he listened to the many hushed conversations. The young were curious, but the adults acted to protect themselves and their children. On occasion these two impulses would clash, and arguments would arise. The foals who sought to investigate would argue with the adults who worried about safety. It was one of the reasons that the ponies of Ponyville were so interesting to watch. There was no place quite like it in Equestria.

Tobias slowly approached the marketplace, a denser part of town, when he passed a house that caught his attention. A colt watched him through a window, eyes wide and smiling as the strange creature passed by and gave a little wave. Tobias returned the gesture, but the colt vanished from the window. He smiled, surprised to be greeted at all. He had not anticipated a welcome, expecting he would have to do much earn one. Perhaps the young colt heartened him a little, perhaps that was just the inspiration he needed, either being the case. He continued to the marketplace fountain with less doubt in his heart and a spring to his step.

He hopped up onto the stone border of the basin and spun around to face the way he'd just come. With a flourish he fitted the violin against his chin, and slowly brought the bow towards the strings. A series of long, slow notes filled the air before Tobias halted and turned two of the pegs. He played the same long notes, and nodded when he was satisfied that the instrument was in tune. He touched the bow to the strings and with a bow flew into a jig. He spun and bowed and kicked around the edge of the fountain, his music echoing through the marketplace in a frenzied beat.

His eyes were closed as he continued the song and dance around the circumference of the stone basin. The tempo accelerated towards the finish and at the last note he threw out his arms. The finale was immediately met with a handful of stomping hooves, shouts of praises rising to fill the near empty square. Opening his eyes, Tobias saw that a few ponies were coming out of their homes and shops to get a better view of this musical marvel on their fountain.

It was only that few at first, but more and more were venturing from doors and around corners, curiosity overpowering their cautious nature.

As the ponies continued to approach, Tobias put bow to string once more and began to play a slow, calm melody. There was no dancing this time around. He instead chose to take a seat on the stone edge and sway in time with the music. The tempo began to pick up slowly, the notes playing in his mind as if he had the music before him. He continued to play harder, letting the notes in his mind guide his motions through the song.

He finally struck the climax. Standing up, he bobbed back and forth as the music poured from his swift movements. A final brisk pull against the strings and Tobias finished the song with a pluck and a tap against the body. Again opening his eyes, he saw that a very large crowd was gathered. As the song ended the ponies burst into cheers and stomped their hooves for him. Taking a seat once again on the fountain, he simply grinned as he continued to pluck a few strings absentmindedly on the violin.

"Sorry for scaring anyone, or uh, anypony," said Tobias haltingly, a stutter working its way into a few of his words. "Didn't really mean to. Just passing through--thought it might be fun to play a few songs, maybe get a bite to eat? Don't have any money--pay my way with some music?"

"What kinda thing are you?" A young voice piped up from the crowd. Tobias grinned and watched as the little filly was quickly silenced by her mother.

"I am terribly sorry," the mother apologized.

"Oh it is quite alright. I have had very similar reactions from ponies before," Tobias responded with a smile as he plucked another string. "To answer your question, little girl, my name is Tobias."

"You mentioned you like something to eat? My family sells the best apples in town," another filly spoke up.

Tobias smiled sweetly to the young pony. "The best apples? Can't say I've had an apple in a very long time. Tell me, what is your name, seller of the best apples in town?"

"Applebloom," she responded happily.

"Applebloom?" Tobias plucked another string, the sound echoing a little longer than the last time. "I take it then that Applejack is your sister? The famous Element of Honesty?"

"That's right! How'd you know?" Many ponies looked to one another, matching Applebloom's curiosity. Several murmurs echoed through the crowd as well.

"Oh I know quite a bit. Word travels fast if you listen for it." With a flick of his wrist, Tobias brought the bow back to the strings of his violin. "But, that is quite enough of that. I promised a song to pay for an apple, so what sort of song strikes your fancy?"

"Well, what was it that you were just playing?" Applebloom asked, followed by a few ponies repeating the question.

Tobias drew the bow slowly across a few strings before he answered. "Just some of Tartini's sonata in G minor. But something tells me somber music isn't what my new audience desires. How about, let's say, a good old sea-shanty jig? Those are a whole lot of fun to dance to. What do you say, my new friend?"

"Sounds like fun!" Applebloom exclaimed,her voice mixing with the shouts of agreement through the whole crowd.

Tobias drew his bow away for a moment, plucking a string one last time before launching into the new song. He looked down at his violin, watching tiny ripples cross the surface from where he twanged the string. He kept his smile as he placed the bow in the right position and stood up on the fountain.

"Gather around, my friends," Tobias shouted. "I have a little lesson to share. The question of the day is, 'What do you do with a drunken sailor?' What better way to answer such a wonder with a bit of music and dance?"

With that, Tobias launched into a spirited rendition of the catchy tune. The sound of the violin was quickly accompanied by the happy chorus of singing ponies. The music traveled far and wide, drawing more and more ponies to the marketplace. There was never a wrong time for a good song and dance for the citizens of Ponyville, and the sound of this new tune was irresistable. It echoed through streets and alleys, even reaching as far as the countryside beyond. Each echo traveled farther and farther out, drawing more and more curious ponies towards the source.

When the melody and sounds of singing reached the train station, the conductor was only just beginning to stoke the fires of the locomotive. His ears twitched a few times, and he felt a deep, burning curiosity. He didn't know why, but he felt compelled to find wherever this music was coming from. Jumping out of the engine, he walked a few paces towards the music, trying to identify which direction to go. His ears swiveled this way and that before they finally perked up all the way and he took off for the source of music.

"Did the conductor just--did he just run off?" Rarity wondered as her head popped out of a window. She watched the conductor disappear around a corner, her mouth agape. "We have an appointment in Canterlot and he runs off," She huffed in disbelief.

Pinkie Pie's head popped out of the next window, a wide grin spreading across her face when she heard the sounds that drifted through the air. "Yeah! I don't blame him, don't you hear that? Sounds like a party! Wait, they're having a party! A party and I'm not there!" With a blast of confetti, Pinkie Pie shot out of the window and went tearing after the conductor.

"Wait, Pinkie! But what about--" Rarity's voice trailed off into a pout.

"Sorry, Rarity," said Applejack as she patted her friend's shoulder. "Though, does sound like some kind of happening is going on in town. I'm a mite curious myself."

"Well, so am I!" Rarity complained. "But--we made a promise to meet Twilight and Rainbow Dash in Canterlot! If we do not leave immediately, then there shall be no time for anything else!"

"Hmm, look at it this way." Applejack pulled herself out of the window and landed on the station deck before pointing towards the engine with a hoof. "We have to get the conductor back so we can get on our way."

"We should simply be on our way, conductor or not!" Rarity pointed towards the engine as well. "How hard can it be to operate? It's a train!"

Applejack just shook her head, "Whoa there, Rarity. I know a thing or two, but not a lick about trains. Besides, I hear they're mighty dirty with all that coal up in the engine. You wouldn't be wanting to get all sooty before the how-to-do in Canterlot."

"And we wouldn't want to take his train," a whisper came from back inside the car. Fluttershy pawed at the wooden floor when Rarity turned back towards her. "I mean--if it were my train--I wouldn't want anypony to take it. Unless they asked nicely. Or--or they had a good reason to."

"This is a good reason! There is no better reason!" With a final huff, Rarity relented, "Oh very well. We shall find our conductor and be off as soon as possible! I didn't want to take his train to begin with! Come along, Fluttershy!"

Fluttershy backed a little deeper into her seat as the white unicorn passed her by. "Oh, no thank you. It does sound like ever so much fun, but I don't think I would be of much help getting the conductor back."

"Yes, but it was you who convinced me that it is better to ask nicely. Come along, my dear." Rarity batted her eyes persuasively. "Please?"

Trying to hide inside her mane did Fluttershy little good as Rarity pouted at her, "Well, okay. I mean--if it means so much that I come along."

"Oh, it always does Fluttershy! Let us be off, we must hurry!" Following after Pinkie Pie, Rarity and the others took off at a canter towards the source of the music and singing.

At the source was a massive crowd. The marketplace was full of circles of dancing ponies, all singing happily to the resounding violin music that poured through the whole town. Still on top of the fountain, Tobias danced and jumped gleefully as he sang, leading all the others in the words.

"With a loud hurray / They joined me in the fray." He skipped as he sang with a few colts and a filly mirrored him beside the fountain.

"Soon we cleared the way / O'er the rocky road to Dublin. One, two, three, four, five / Hunt the hare and turn her down the rocky road and all the way to Dublin, whack-fol-la-de-da!"

The entire crowd all threw their hooves into the air and shouted, "Hurrah!" Laughter filled the square as Tobias played another colorful finish then threw his arms into the air just like the ponies around him. Stomping their hooves they all looked eager for more. Several voices called, "Another! Another!"

"I'm running out of dancing songs!" Tobias shouted heartily, and was met by more laughter. "These are the sort of songs I learned back where I came from! Well, these and waltzes, and those are boring! We don't like boring songs, do we?"

The ponies roared together, "No!"

Tobias continued, driven by their enthusiasm, "We like fun songs!"

A cry of approval rang out through the crowd. The fillies and colts bounced up and down eagerly awaiting more.

Beside the fountain sat Applebloom, handing apples up to Tobias and laughing as he whispered something funny before plucking the fruit up in earnest.

He took a bite of his treat happily and plucked another string. He heard Applebloom ask him to play something, but his attention shifted. He could see a blur of pink moving through the crowds of ponies towards the front, following behind her were the other three he'd come to Ponyville for; four bearers of the Elements of Harmony.

"You bet we do!" A shriek went up as the pink blur came to an abrupt halt right in front of Tobias. Pinkie Pie had an enormous grin on her face as she bounced up and down in front of the fountain. "This looks like a ton of fun, play more!"

Lifting an eyebrow, Tobias again plucked a string and let the sound echo across the crowd. He watched the other three approach in his mind's eye. They were about to come into view of his physical eyes, and that meant it was time for things to take a different turn. He'd been plucking very specific strings, playing very specific notes, and now he would need only one more. Lifting the violin, he plucked a final note and let it resonate through the air. Whistling , the shrill sound began to grow louder and drift through the entire marketplace.

He played the same note again and it spread out, dulling the very air around him. Matching each note he whistled with his instrument, Tobias let his well-practiced song play through the ears of all around him. Each mournful sound deadened the air a little more, each new note louder than the last.

Ponies went silent, their faces relaxing to the sounds that now drifted around them. The few ponies that still murmured drifted into incoherence as the music took hold of their thoughts. By the time the whistling ended, there was no cheering. No hooves stomped in applause. Only silence came as the entire crowd stared at Tobias, their hollow eyes locked on him without blinking.

Dropping down from the fountain, he tucked his violin and bow under an arm. "And that, little Applebloom," Tobias said softly, "was a very old song from my home."

The filly stared at him, her head tracking as he walked towards Pinkie Pie.

"It's from a time when there was a war, and all the men had to go fight. No one wanted them to go, but they had to. Their friends wanted them to come on home, so they made a song about them doing just that. 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home,' that's what it was called." Stopping a few steps before the pink pony, he turned back towards Applebloom. "It's a nice story, at least for the Johnny's that made it home." Tobias paused a moment in thought before adding, "It always got stuck in my head though, so I learned to love it."

His free hand moved to the back of the violin and reached through it. The surface rippled like water, and he drew out a golden disc. The Phoenix Medallion began to cast soft golden light on Pinkie's face as she continued to stare blankly.

After a few moments, the light died away. Tobias reached to his strings and plucked one, the crowd before him immediately parting to make a path. "I was here for a long time before I noticed the song in my head again. I liked to whistle it, not much else I could do. Ponies--well--weren't very nice to me. So I whistled, a lot."

He walked through the opening they made, approaching Rarity, Applejack, and Fluttershy. Like all the others they were dazedly watching him, their heads turning slowly to follow as he came closer. He continued to speak as he moved away, knowing that to Applebloom he still sounded as if he had never moved.

"I didn't know then how much music could help me here," he continued as he lifted the medallion in front of Fluttershy. "Turns out it doesn't just get stuck in my head. Whistle it just right, and it gets into any head that hears it."

The glow poured over Fluttershy as well. When it finished, the medallion was visibly shinier than before.

"Once its in, it isn't coming out. Stuck in your head, playing over and over. Taking over every thought you have," Tobias spoke softly, a dark tone coloring his words.

He lifted the medallion in front of Rarity, and it poured its golden light out just as it had with the others.

"Same thing goes for me, I guess. Getting into heads, plucking some strings while I'm there." The glow did its work and he pulled it away; the medallion was even more brilliant than before. "Sorry if I'm rambling, I don't really get to talk a lot. Guess I just have a lot to say, especially to an audience of such good listeners. I'm not so used to a kind ear."

Finally placing the medallion before Applejack, Tobias let it do its work while all of Ponyville watched.

"I'll have to repay such kindness. I promise I will. But for now, I have another promise to keep," Tobias said with a far-off expression. "A promise I made to someone who was kind to me a long time ago."

The Phoenix Medallion shimmered brilliantly in his hand. It had never been this pristine, even in the vault. Despite this, Tobias had doubt if it would be enough. He steeled himself in the knowledge that it would be. Plucking a final string on his violin, Tobias watched the town all turn and slowly walk back towards the buildings. Only the fillies and colts remained behind, all still staring at him. One of the fillies came forward, her face blank. Her voice came as a dull whisper, but the words were clear.

"Play one more song, please," she said.

A weak smile took the side of Tobias' mouth. "That I can do. I have to leave, but I'll play as I go. You just go on home, you'll hear it the whole way. It's my favorite song, you know. It's called Danse Macabre." Stepping in beat to the music, Tobias made his way back out the street he'd walking in on. He played the sorrowful music, listening to it fill the air as the rest of the ponies all returned home. "My very favorite song," he whispered as he departed from Ponyville.

Chapter 12 - Friends or Foes

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Flames burst to life, once again banishing the darkness of the cavern. The Phoenix Medallion hovered in the center of the room, an inferno raging forth from it and consuming the entirety of the far wall. Colors danced amidst the fiery surge, oranges and blues and pinks that dazzled and sparked. As the flames began to pool into the center, the darkness too began to draw inwards. What had once twisted and convulsed upon the wall now moved with great haste inwards to where the unicorn had been suspended.

The medallion sparked and hissed as bolts of fire-red lightning shot out from it in all directions. The flashes illuminated Tobias standing behind the icon, arms extended forward and hands open as streams of dark power flowed into the medallion. His eyes were squeezed shut as bolts of energy sheared portions of his body away. The light exploding from the item before him was oppressive on its own, brighter than the midday sun, but he never relented. He pushed back against the light and the powerful bolts, unwilling to give up. The damage to him was extreme--darkness surging from the wounds like black steam in the brilliance of the flames--but he did not stop.

With a final blast of light, the magic rushed into the point where Sombra had been, and detonated. Flames consumed the entire room as the explosion rushed out the tunnel towards the entrace. The blast shook the mountain from its roots to its peak, the fires rushing into the air in the shape of a great bird before vanishing.

The cavern was still intact, though shaken and cracked from the force of the magic. When the fires died away to only smoke, a single light lit the gloom. The Phoenix Medallion steadily pulsed as it hovered in the air, the soft red light becoming weaker and weaker before it disappeared entirely. The magic spent, the golden item dropped to clatter onto the stone floor.

A growl came in response to the echoing clang of gold upon stone. A piercing light of blood red burst to life from the smoky cavern and illuminated the medallion where it lay. It widened from a beam until it threw light in all directions. No longer decrepit or sickly, Sombra stood renewed and whole once again.

He glared down at the medallion with a look of suspicion before glancing around the large cavern. He was alone, but he sensed something else. An overwhelming feeling pressed upon his mind. This brought attention to the fractured, painful emptiness he felt. He pushed back against the pressure, but the emptiness only deepened. Only one sensation filled this void where was once a mind: anger. Where memory had claimed dominion there was now only rage, and it spread like a cancer through the emptiness. Pushing against the pressure on his mind focused his attention back to the waking world.

Great amounts of black tar-like ooze seeped from the walls and ceiling. It gave an acrid, bizarre smell; one that he was not unfamiliar with. His eyes slowly panned across the cave, spying only piles of tattered items and junk. Despite the emptiness he saw he felt something staring at him from every direction.

"Hello Sombra," said a voice that echoed erratically. "That's right, isn't it? I'm not sure what you prefer to be called anymore." The voice was coming from every direction.

His head turning this way and that, Sombra bared his sharp teeth. He knew that voice, but there was something else behind it, a deep thrum in the words that made his head hurt as it echoed through his bones. The red light from his curved horn blazed even brighter as it violently threw the smoke that still hung in the air away from him. The rush of air accompanied a boom as magic poured from the unicorn. His eyes glowed brightly, displaying the intense magical power.

The black ooze coating much of the cavern hissed and withdrew from the pain-inducing light. The hiss began to grow louder, and after only a few moments it had become a cry of pain. The light burned and seared at the blackness, and it found no place in the cavern that it could retreat to. With remarkable speed the ooze rushed to a single spot and slammed into the ground. A malformed figure rose up from the writhing pool of darkness, appendages of tar-like muck fighting to be free of the coagulating mess. With the same surprising speed, one of the appendages broke free and slashed out like a whip to fight off the offending light.

With a roar, Sombra raised a magical barrier and braced as the tentacle of slime smashed against it. It splattered around the magic ineffectually. The light at the tip of his horn grew brighter, and he released a beam of pure light at the twisted abomination before him. The red blast struck the mass and it popped, splashing the ooze everywhere once again.

What had once been a cry of pain was now an earsplitting shriek. Sombra's ears flattened against his skull as he raised his barrier once more to stop a glob of the unpleasant-smelling material. It cut through his magic as if it wasn't even there. He snarled as the goo struck the stone beside him and immediately began to sizzle.

"Stop!" The voice screamed. "Make it stop! It hurts!"

The glob leapt back through the air as the mass was already beginning to reform. This time, two large appendages rose up very quickly. The caustic sludge shaped itself into arms bearing enormous claws. The talons swung out at the source of the light, and this time passed directly through the magical barrier.

With barely a moment to spare Sombra dove out of the way. The clawed arm sliced through the cavern wall with no difficulty, leaving behind trenches in the rock.

"Turn it off!" The voice pleaded, the sound of sobbing and laughing cutting through the air along with it. "It hurts! It burns!"

A misshapen head emerged from the twitching mass. It split apart and nearly collapsed as it fought to remain in one piece. The arms no longer swung out, but retracted and grasped at the malformed head as it split into many pieces, like a blooming flower. The light from Sombra's horn caused the surface of the twitching mass to ripple away from the magic, hissing and releasing a dense black murk in the form of fog.

"I can't--" the voice tried to say, but a shriek overwhelmed its words. "Too bright!"

The claws pulled away, ripping and rending the unstable head as they did. It reformed into an almost uniform shape as a single, massive yellow eye split open on its surface. The eye took up the entirety of where a face should be, and its gaze burned like a fire inside Sombra's mind.

"TURN IT OFF," the voice roared with a boom. The fog that poured from the mass struck out, but curved back and surrounded the amorphous figure in a shroud of darkness.

Without the arms striking at him, Sombra had a moment to collect himself as he watched the swirling vortex of black fog before him. The light from his horn no longer pierced the darkness, but he was not to be dissuaded. He was driven to strike again, and his horn obeyed. The magic charged once again, and the beam of light shot out like a laser towards its target. The impact blew the cloud of fog apart, and a figure was hurled back against the wall.

It was no longer a mass of inky sludge, but had partially reformed itself into a proper shape. Something itched in Sombra's mind as he stared at it. It wasn't complete, but what had been reformed was familiar now. It matched with the voice, the smell, and made the itch even worse. It was a burning sensation inside his head, and was quickly turning into pain. He clawed at this feeling in his mind, trying to calm the feverish itch that was rapidly becoming intolerable.

He stared at the shape before him. Brown and tan and red and brown again, hair and skin and clothing so familiar that it was tearing his memories apart as they tried to form themselves into a complete picture. The figure suddenly moved, but Sombra was too taken up with his own thoughts to even react. The too-familiar face came into view, still not completely reformed as he stared into its eyes. It reached out a hand that everything in his mind screamed to avoid, but he could not--his body was disobeying his mind. The hand touched the side of his cheek, and a feeling of pure agony ripped through him.

He felt a part of himself being pulled out, drawn like a searing poison from a wound. It clawed and fought to remain, but the touch could not be denied. That part of him that fought so desperately to remain was vanishing from his mind with increasing speed. Every moment that it lost its grip, the pain lessened--replaced by an icy chill. The agony of before was gone. That part of him was drawn away completely, and its grip released its hold on his mind. The hand immediately drew away, and Sombra collapsed.

Sombra stared ahead blearily, unable to make sense of what his eyes were taking in. He watched the figure collapse in front of him and lose its form once again. It was reduced to a pile of tar and sludge, but not for long. He watched as it rose up again, the arms that bore the immense talons stretching out as the malformed head emerged. The claws pressed against the sides of the head as if they were trying to keep it together as the whole mass began to change. The black sludge was tightening, shaping itself into an actual body.

Arms, legs, a head, each forming as the mass shrank and compacted. Colors returned, brown hair and tannish skin covered by a red shirt and brown trousers. The transformation was finally over, and before him sat a very familiar creature. A feeling in Sombra rose, and gave him a start when he recognized it as happiness. It felt so alien, but he was enthralled to have it course through his veins once again.

He tried to rise, but weakness overtook him and forced him back down. This was barely a setback as Sombra gritted his teeth and forced himself up. With a force of will equal to a force of muscle the unicorn stood to his full height, towering over the hunched form before him. He knew this boy, though he could not remember why. Nor could he remember why he was so happy to see him. All he knew was that this creature was familiar to him.

It looked so small and feeble as it sat there, head still grasped between its hands. Sounds were echoing through the cavern as it bobbed back and forth. The sounds of laughing, of singing, of moaning, but they were growing more distant and quiet with every breath. Soon only the sound of soft murmuring coming only from the creature, no longer from the walls surrounding them.

With slow, mechanical movements the creature turned its head up towards Sombra. It looked up at him with its small brown eyes, then down towards the ground behind him. He was compelled to follow the gaze, and--lo and behold--he caught sight of a treasure. There on the ground was the Phoenix Medallion. He was shocked to see it, but then sense began to form in his mind. He knew enough, especially concerning the lack of any memory: he had to touch it for the magic to be completed. He didn't know why he knew that, but such a trivial question would soon be answered as he wrapped the medallion in his magic and levitated it towards him.

Reaching forward with a hoof, Sombra touched it against the smooth golden side of the medallion. A tidal wave of images smashed against his mind with such force and ferocity it nearly knocked him off his feet. He remembered Tobias, he remembered the laboratories, his study, his libraries. He remembered so much research, so many new spells. A king and a queen, princesses, servants, a grand castle. He remembered so much about his studies, about crystals, about the enigma behind him. He recalled darkness, anger, fear, and a loathing for many things. He saw the Crystal Empire, remembered the pain of his reign, and the forces of light that banished him. Above all, he remembered the conversations with Tobias, and what that had led to.

Sombra dropped the medallion, his head swimming with so many memories and images that he could barely keep track of them all. By the time he had made enough sense of the storm in his mind he became aware of just how tired his legs were. Flopping down onto his backside, the unicorn let out a haggard sigh.

Tobias watched intently. He felt a shudder run down his spine that left an itch in the back of his mind. The longer he watched, the worse it got. He was not about to be distracted now, this was a moment he had been waiting for for so long that it hurt to think about. He was happy to see his friend, even if he looked quite different than he used to. As he stared, the unicorn's shape seemed to warp, growing worse along with the itch. The shape split and curved at strange angles. He focused more intently, trying to cut through the fog that was forming in his head.

The unicorn turned its red gaze right at him, and Tobias smiled. It was going to be better now. He'd gotten his friend back. The itch was turning into a burn in his mind as they stared at one another, but he tried harder to ignore it. Pain was not going to distract him now.

"You," Sombra growled. "You are not where you are supposed to be."

The smile on Tobias' face evaporated. He stared at the unicorn, matching the glowing red eyes with his own dull brown. They were locked for one long moment after the next. Shadowy drifts of darkness and mist were seeping into the air, driving away what little light was there. Only the piercing red glow of Sombra's eyes cut through the murk.

Tobias heard murmuring as he grappled with a strange feeling welling inside him. Voices picking through his mind that had not been there before. The darkness had never been an issue for him, but now he found himself unable to focus. He saw Sombra before him, but the image was scattered and splitting. He saw two distinct images for a moment, one calm, the other enraged. Fingers curling, Tobias fought to regain control. The feeling was turning to a burning fire, ripping through him as it rose up his spine. He heard the murmuring again, as if someone were trying to speak underwater.

The rising burn reached his head, and vanished. The silence of the cavern returned, and before him stood the enraged Sombra. They remained quiet, both staring as if contemplating making a move.

Finally, Sombra broke the contemplation with a scathing question, "What have you done?" The hollow sound of his voice did not echo in the expanse of the cavern. Strange murmurs and whispers followed it instead.

Too taken up in what he had heard, Tobias paid no heed to the strangeness of the unicorn's voice. He took a deep breath and responded as calmly as he could muster despite the burning inside his chest that refused to leave.

"What I promised," he retorted. "I put you back together just like I said I would. Sure it took a while, and I had to use the Phoenix Medallion but in the end I managed it. I thought you'd be happy with me."

"I remember everything, Tobias," Sombra snarled. "I remember two lives, and one of them was far darker than even my worst nightmares could have conjured. I am far from happy," he said, his words growing louder. "You should not have used the medallion."

"I never would have had to if you hadn't experimented on the aspect," said Tobias as a deep echo from his voice reverberated through the cave. "You should not have tried to make yourself more powerful over the idiotic pursuit of frivolous knowledge. And yet, here we both are. Whether you like it or not, this is how things happened."

The murmuring grew and grew as Tobias watched Sombra seethe, his words not much more than growls.

"Because you have an incessant need to ensure events occur as you see and will them." Sombra stood back up once again, staring at the boy with a piercing glare. "You sell promises like a vendor sells apples. You promised to make things right for me? Did you once stop and think about what I have done, and what I would have to endure if my right mind were restored?"

"What you did was not my fault!" Tobias yelled as he jabbed a finger towards Sombra. "You asked me to make things right if everything went wrong, you made me make that promise! I got out, and I kept my promise! I thought that might make you happy, or at the very least grateful. Not--not angry at me!"

"And yet you still spout that word as if it means anything to you," Sombra said, ignoring Tobias' accusation. "It's your currency, what you peddle in a twisted venture for your own selfish enjoyment," he said harshly. His curved horn was glowing now, more brightly with every breath. "I did not attack out of the insanity that festered within me--thanks to you--but because I am all too aware of what you truly are. You have left nothing but darkness wherever you are, and hatred in whatever you touch. You may claim immunity to them, but those who suffer because of you cannot."

The two looked at one another angrily. Tobias felt torn between anger and confusion, but he knew contempt when he saw it and it was the only thing evident now in the eyes of his former friend. That thought stuck in his head as he mulled it over, the dark corners of his mind rising up to pull pieces of it away. His vision fragmented again, the furious and vicious Sombra splitting away from one that looked wholly different. For a split second he appeared to share Tobias' confusion, but the image blurred away to reveal the rage and hate once again.

Just seeing this drove a thought into Tobias' mind. A doubt-fueled fear that he'd managed to push away for so long. Now there was nothing holding it back, and it drove into his mind like a spike.

"So what--" he stuttered. "What was the point of being so nice to me before, huh? So you could finish your spell? So you could turn yourself into an Alicorn? Did you use me?" The skin on Tobias' face roiled, as if something just underneath was shifting. He was grimacing as black veins stretched and pulsated away from his eyes. "We were going to find a way for me to get out of here. Put everything back the way it should be. Fix stuff. Remember those conversations? Huh? You remember that?"

"You are not the only one who has spent a thousand years stuck inside his own mind contemplating the past," Sombra shot back. "I have suffered a madness that drains a soul to nothingness. I cannot forget that, especially not after you used the Medallion! I have lost the ability to forget!"

"You think I wished for that? For what happened to you, then or now? For any of this? What other choice did I have?" Tobias yelled so hard that his voice broke. His arms shuddered as the same writhing under his skin spread through them. "I have been a victim here for sixteen-hundred years! YEARS! I went insane just by coming here! I was crazy for so long I went sane! After you used that spell I went so--so--frustratingly sane! I didn't want to remember either, but too bad for me!"

The darkness surrounding Tobias began to push back against the red light of Sombra's magic. As if the air between them was boiling, the magic and the darkness fought against each other in a desperate play to fill the entire cavern. The light of the unicorn's magic was growing steadily, but it was matched equally by the ribbons and currents of dark energy.

Tobias clenched his teeth hard, his eyes almost consumed in a darkness that split his skin like veins breaking from the surface. Black tendrils flitted and swiped from the tiny cracks that had spread over his entire body. So consumed was he in that single moment of bitter anger that his form was beginning to break down. His shirt and trousers matched the veined and cracking patterns of his skin, and the writhing beneath had only grown more active. He looked as if he were about to explode.

The war that raged within him was tearing his body apart; the ferocity of it like a storm. The anger was fueling his power and striking at the magic before him in tidal waves. There was so much pain, but he didn't care. The fires within him seared his soul, but it didn't matter. The feeling of betrayal, that had to be what this was. This hot, pent-up rage that was breaking him apart from the inside-out had only one purpose now. He had to kill the traitorous unicorn; the shriek inside his mind demanded it.

He saw the sneering face of Sombra before him and it infuriated him. The blurry, tearing images before him didn't matter. He knew what he had to strike at. The almost-silent cries that echoed from Sombra's words were irrelevant, he ignored them. Feeling his arms move almost by themselves, he aimed the blackened claws that were once fingers towards this traitor before him.

"You are no victim, Tobias," Sombra sneered. "You damned yourself."

"Shut up!"

"You brought all of this down upon yourself." The red light of Sombra's magic blazed with intensity far greater than before.

Tobias went from nearly overwhelming him to a forced defensive stance once again. The darkness around his body shaped itself into a shield to protect from the red spotlight blazing away upon him.

"You can never be forgiven for what you've done." The murmuring that accompanied Sombra's voice was getting even louder, and so many more voices flowed through it than before. "Your very first act in this world aside from breathing was murder. Do you think that killing a King can be reconciled? A million promises cannot chip away at the cell you have built for yourself."

"Stop it!" Tobias shrieked again, shaking the cavern with the force of his voice. He grabbed the sides of his head as an all-consuming image overwhelmed his thoughts. Past the pain, past the itch, it was a memory from long ago. A friend--gone for a millennium--now trying to kill him. The image was already breaking apart as he cried out, "Starswirl, stop!"

"You call yourself a victim--you who forced a mother to choose between her daughter and her husband!" Sombra's voice and the murmurs were melding into one as he roared. "You forced one child to watch her mother sacrifice herself to resurrect another!"

With a great deal of pain, Tobias forced himself to look at the blinding light as he tried to fight it back. Hovering before him was the Phoenix Medallion, taken up in an envelope of magic despite the magical attack.

"This is your legacy, Tobias! This is what you leave in your wake! Death, destruction, and tragedy! You wish to undo your wrongs? Impossible! You can no more undo the past than you can account for the future. A peddler, a con-man, and a fake! You are damned, and you will suffer for all that you have wrought upon this world! I promise you that," Sombra's last words were not a roar, but a droning, multi-voiced hum that shook Tobias from his feet to his head.

Like a cold chill running up his body, something gripped his whole being. The pain vanished, and everything was consumed in void.

The darkness shielding Tobias rushed outwards as he snatched the medallion out of the air. The dark energy once again matched the red light on equal terms as the glow of the medallion illuminated a placid, unemotional face. His skin was still split, eyes completely black, and black vein-like fractures made his body appear more like porcelain than flesh. Despite all this, Tobias' face was completely devoid of expression.

"We never needed you," he said in a low, inharmonious drone. "You stole from us. You took part of us, fracturing us. We will be whole, and you will be consumed."

Sombra grimaced as he fought as hard as he could to maintain his magical shield. He squinted through the energy that threatened to assault him if he were to waver, seeing the boy in the middle of it. He had been elated to see him at first after so many years sealed away behind a persona of rage and madness. Now, after so long, he was free. The celebration had been only moments long as his savior had begun to shout and rave at him. It was as if they were engaged in two completely different conversations, and Tobias was growing only more and more angry.

Whatever he was experiencing, Sombra could see that it was rife with fear. The very same madness and fear that he had experienced for so long himself. The battle that now raged between them sapped what little strength he still had, but he was not about to give up. He owed that much to his friend, no matter how irrational and vicious he was.

He mustered enough strength for one last cry. "Tobias, wake up! You are speaking nonsense! Can you not hear me?"

There was no response as Tobias continued to stare placidly. His warped form was nearly undone, the black cracks growing larger. The tar-like material seeped like blood from the cracks to fall hissing through the air. The vile reek that came from the stuff was bad enough, but something else could be felt in the air. It wafted like the fog-like murk, but was a dark far deeper than the eye could see. It was a malice that entered the air like a toxin.

It stalled Sombra's breath within his lungs. As he fought hard against the assaulting aura, he watched as something horrifying turned its gaze upon him. Within the dark cracks were eyes, dozens and dozens of them. A flash of memory burned into his mind of a single enormous glowing eye opening where Tobias' face was supposed to be. These hundreds of small eyes gave that same horrible feeling that the big one had. That same overwhelming sense of antipathy, ferocity, and unbiased cruelty. A feeling he knew well, having channeled it for a thousand years already.

"We will retrieve what has been sewn," said a slew of crackling voices. "We shall be whole. No longer between. The anchor will be secured. We shall consume."

The feeling was getting worse. Sombra was straining to maintain his shield as the black ooze splashed against it, probing for a means of overcoming it once more. He could feel it in his mind, dark tendrils poking and lurking for a means of overpowering all that he maintained to protect himself. It was now or never. A surge of pure will erupted like a solar flare from the tip of his curved horn. The magical blast threw the darkness in all directions, clearing everything around him in a brilliant wave. For a split second the crumbling form of what had been Tobias stood firm, but ultimately failed as it shattered.

Shrouding himself in brilliant light, Sombra disappeared as the golden bolt he transformed into raced out of the cave and high into the sky. It halted only a moment before taking off towards Canterlot like a meteor blazing away through the day-lit sky.

The golden light of his magic cloaked him in brilliance as he descended into the castle grounds. Guards and servant ponies alike gasped and jumped as it shot through the halls. It was so fast and so bright that after a moment had passed they were unsure of exactly what they had seen. When the shooting star approached a pair of great wooden doors, it halted only for a moment before them. Two pairs of guards watched it in surprise, but quickly leveled their spears at this intruding magic.

Undeterred, the shooting star shot forward to pass directly through the thick wood and into the chambers within. The meeting place within was filled with blinding light as it surged about, bouncing off walls and splitting into many different pieces. The occupants of the room watched in shock as the pieces finally grouped together once more and began to spiral about in a tornado of sparkling starlight. In a flash of red the twister was gone.

Sombra opened his eyes. He was in a set of council chambers he'd never seen before. What was recognizable were some of the surprised ponies before him. Their surprise was warranted considering the use of his fail-safe spell. Two of the ponies turned towards him with their horns sparking and fizzling as they charged. He stared for a moment, trying to process why their faces had turned from surprise to anger so suddenly.

Then it hit him. A quick glance down and the memory came back of what he now looked like. "Oops," he yelped. "Forgot about that."

Chapter 13 - Law of Opposites Part 1

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The day had dragged on longer than Princess Celestia had desired. With so many years behind her a day usually felt like merely a fleeting moment. This particular day was lasting an eternity holding little to assuage her anxiety. She had paced the length of the courtyard numerous times, paced in her chambers, paced in the throne room. Everywhere she'd tried to escape her frayed nerves, mangled by memory.

Now she was preparing to unravel secrets too imposing to handle alone. Alongside that very same thought was a wave of stress and anxiety that threatened to swallow her up, drowning her heart in worry so deep that she lost hope of escaping it again. Her head throbbed, whether from the flood of memories or the fear of what might come from the revelations that itched at the tip of her tongue was not something she wished to guess at. Both was decidedly her conclusion.

The sound of a knock at the door shook Celestia from her pained musings. She took in a deep breath, letting the air fill her chest to shake away the nerves and splitting headache. When drawn back from the precipice of contemplation the air felt so much lighter, and so much sweeter. Pivoting on her back legs, the Princess turned towards the door to her meeting chambers.

What she saw could have frozen her heart in her chest. He was there, watching her. Those same piercing brown eyes boring into her like daggers while his mouth turned up in the defiant smirk. The darkness was already spreading, taking up the room from where he stood. How he'd broken through her warding spells without being detected was a moot point, she had a kingdom to defend. Celestia focused, but only pain sparked through her mind. The headache squeezed her skull like a vice as black tendrils surrounded her. She was slammed to the ground, unable to move as their grip seared her flesh.

She couldn't muster a word through the pain, watching blearily as he approached. Before her stood the heart of the darkness given shape and form, and she was unable to even lift a hoof. He was standing before her now, leaning down to stare into her eyes so much more closely.

"I'm coming for you next, Celestia," he said in a voice that in no way fit how small a creature he was. It was deafening.

He reached down and gripped her horn. The pain in her mind became a numbing sheet of white hot agony. The tendrils held her still as the pressure built higher and higher. She tried to scream, but no sound came from her mouth. With a brutal jerk her horn was broken from her head before everything went dark.

Her eyes opened slowly to see the stone floor of her bedchambers. Celestia blinked several times as she tried to come up with a good reason why she was on the floor. She lifted a hoof only to find her body aching. When she lifted her head a burst of pain paralyzed her. Resting her cheek back against the cool stone, she sighed. Her thoughts drifted when the pain was eased from her tired mind. How had she ended up on the ground? Why was she so tense, her head in so much pain?

Furthermore, why could she not remember her dream? The only sensation she could fathom from it were emotions that she did not appreciate. Such things as anxiety, fear, and something too far to reach. It was like a shadow in her mind, but if she thought about it then it was no longer there. She likened the feeling to the hours of dusk when the light plays tricks on the eyes. She felt like she was searching for something that wasn't there. The past several days had weighed on her with greater impact than first suspected; that was her only explanation. The decision to reveal the only things she had ever sworn to keep secret had no doubt soured her sleep for the worst.

Finding the strength to summon a minor spell, Celestia sent a tiny puff of white light zipping out the door. In the time it took for her to finally rise up the spell had done its work. Simple Quill knocked on the Princess's door in response to the magical summon.

"Simple Quill?" Celestia's voice sounded wrought with fatigue.

"Your majesty, I'm here."

"Send out a pair of letters. One to Princess Twilight Sparkle in Ponyville, the other to Princess Mi Amore Cadenza in the Crystal Empire. There is a matter of dire importance, they must come at once." A groan punctuated her request. Celestia had no explanation for this feeling, and willed herself to ignore it.

"Your majesty," Simple Quill responded quietly. "You usually wish to send such letters personally. Are you sure you wish for me to do this?"

"I have a great deal on my mind. They must come at once, simply make that clear. I wish to collect myself properly, and I need this accomplished. Please," she said in a pained voice.

Quill didn't hesitate for a moment as she responded, "yes, your highness. At once." The sound of the scribe bounding off into the corridor filled the air for a few moments before silence fell once more.

Now sure she was alone once more, Celestia made her way to the hearth and collapsed in front of it. The feeling in her heart and body were much the same, as if they had been torn apart and stitched together. There was no seam, no sign of damage, but the pain was there in full. Perhaps she had let her emotions and bias take her mind to places darker than what was safe. She had felt such inexplicable hate towards the former prisoner it left every pony surprised, including her sister. She even found herself shocked when she remembered some of her exclamations after learning of the escape. The shock quickly faded as her thoughts settled on Tobias.

The perfect prison was still no match for the wiles of that creature. It burned in her mind to think that she let her guard down. She should have dealt with him long before, but had never had the courage. Such terrible actions were unnatural for her to even consider, but now they loomed in her thoughts tangible and real. Anger, hurt, pain, and contempt all lit within her as real as the morning sun. All those things flew in the face of all she held true. Yet still, despite clinging to that knowledge, the dark thoughts remained.

"What has become of me?"

The question lingered in her mind. The next few hours were a blur; so taken up in her thoughts from the eerie morning was she that Celestia hardly noticed the hours passing until it came to the moment she found herself in the meeting hall. She did not know why, but being in the hall caused a sense of dread to grip her heart. As if a part of her mind connected the room to pain. She could not recall why, but the sensation was troubling. The thought of the empty dream flitted through her mind, but it was lost when the sound of hoofsteps echoed along the stone floor.

Princess Luna entered, her calm countenance easing the anxiety that burned in air. She would be the one to know how to explain these feelings. Dreams were her realm, and she was unrivaled when it came to understanding them. Could she understand the lack of memory? Was the loss of a dream a message in itself? Making up her mind Celestia opened her mouth to ask. That was as far as she got. The words would not come. In fact, she felt her mouth close as if on its own. A sudden and somewhat sickening feeling seized her stomach just from thinking about discussing the strangeness of the previous night.

Whether from nerves and anxiety or simply the weight of the day's meeting-to-be, she no longer wished to discuss such matters anyway, they were personal. She already had a great deal to divulge, more than enough mistakes she couldn't hope to atone for. If she added to that already sizable list she would have more than she could deal with. Perhaps the choice to keep it hidden was right, at least this time.

Therefore Celestia and her sister did not speak as they waited in the meeting chambers. The silence was comfortable and calming, even if it lasted only a few short minutes. They were minutes of peace.

Knowing how ragged she looked, Celestia was thankful for Luna. Though no words were spoken, she could see compassion in her sister's dark eyes, however stoic her expression was. The feeling that her guard could be lowered was more relaxing for Celestia than the full night's sleep she had been desperately wishing for. A small part of her mind longed to prolong the few moments of serene silence. But, she knew with a disheartened sigh that complete freedom from past and present burdens could only be fleeting.

The silence was broken by a few soft knocks at the door. Celestia's breath was caught in her throat and her heart beat with sudden and unexpected speed. Adrenaline surged through her, and she was frightened more for not knowing why. This was no time to let the anxiety rule her; she needed the will that had served her so well for the past millennium. Summoning herself, she forced a facade of calm into place with a deep breath.

"Enter," she commanded.

The door opened just to reveal Twilight Sparkle's nervous smile as she realized both Celestia and Luna were watching her. When they returned the smile, she relaxed somewhat, but her face showed she was mentally prepared for whatever was to come next.

"Twilight Sparkle, thank you so much for coming so promptly," Celestia spoke as she nodded in greeting, unable to completely wipe away the harried look with her smile. She knew she saw a glint of concern flit through her former pupil's eye, but made no comment, neither did she mention her apparent lack of rest. "There is much we need to discuss, please join us."

"I wish I could have arrived sooner, actually. Your letter sounded urgent." Twilight gave the room a quick look as she entered, though seemed hardly bothered by the sparse decor. "Is it Tartarus again? Did Tirek leave behind a trap?"

"This is a far greater danger than Tirek could pose," said Celestia in a somber voice.

Twilight Sparkle was visibly taken aback, shock playing across her face. No doubt she was remembering the battle she'd endured with Tirek. Celestia was not unfamiliar with the expression having seen it from other ponies. The power and ferocity of enemies the realm faced was steadily increasing, just as she had seen happen so long ago. She had felt the same shock then that Twilight Sparkle felt now.

Luna took a step forward, drawing all attention to her, to Celestia's relief. Fatigue was once again taking hold of her. She needed only think about what she was preparing to say to become completely drained.

"The cycle is unending, it would seem. The light grows stronger only for the darkness to grow deeper." Luna's strong voice echoed in the chamber as she motioned to the marble table that sat in the middle of the room. The other princesses approached it, looking at a design inlaid with gold. "Where there is harmony and balance, there are those which seek to upset the order. For every agent of evil that is dispatched, a new and more devious foe will arise."

Luna ran a hoof over part of the golden markings. It was an intricate design, a work of art to show off a number of cutie marks. When she spoke again, her voice was a little quieter. "It is not a matter of power. Our foes may progressively increase in strength, but the tests they pose on us are unique. We fail because we cannot prepare for what is to come. We must fall before we can succeed. The pattern holds that eventually we will no longer have the strength to rise back up. That is the true intent of the darkness."

Placing her hoof upon the table, Celestia took a deep breath as she continued from where Luna trailed away. "The reason that you were summoned is to discuss how to deal with a very old, very dangerous concern. The darkness has worked tirelessly for countless years to throw trial after trial against us. Now, I fear we must contend with the darkness itself."

"And now I wish that I had knocked," came a voice from the door. Princess Cadence stood there, her mane unkempt and a look of fatigue upon her face that Celestia too easily related to. "Are you suggesting that every villain we have faced has been part of some greater scheme?"

"Yes, and no," Celestia said with a frown. "There is no greater scheme; I do not believe their intent has ever changed, only the method used. Neither do I believe that they know that despite very different methods, they all have sought the same goal. To upend order and harmony, and to bring darkness upon all of Equestria. That has always been the scheme, nothing more."

Twilight sparkle's face scrunched up in thought as she considered this. "I don't get it. We're here to deal with something dark and sinister trying to bring harmony to an end?"

"That something has a body and a name," said Celestia with a deflated look. Even the light in her eyes waned from the thought as she pushed the words from her mouth. "He is called 'The Sapien' by those who find him more distasteful than others, a title afforded by one of his victims. He calls himself Tobias, and has been a prisoner beneath Canterlot for as long as I have ruled. He is the only being in our land that I would describe as darkness incarnate. For over fifteen-hundred years he has been contained in a cell to keep him from spreading destruction across all of Equestria." Celestia looked each princess before her in the eye before she spoke again in a dull, sullen voice. "He has escaped."

She let the silence linger for a moment. She felt the weight in the pit of her stomach grow heavier, but she willed herself on. She would not be taken up by this draining emotion. It was her duty to proceed. "If we are to deal with this threat, we must all know and understand on equal terms. The veil of secrecy I kept was meant as protection, but I fear it no longer serves that purpose. I will tell what I can, and we may all be better equipped. Cadence, I understand you have not had much time to prepare the Empire, so I hope you will not feel this journey to be in vain."

"Wait, I'm the last one to learn about this?" Twilight asked, exasperated. "Don't you feel that this might have been something I could have helped with? I mean--this--darkness thing has been under Canterlot for one thousand five hundred years and I know NOW? After he's escaped to do--what?"

"Resurrect King Sombra," Cadence said solemnly. "A piece of knowledge I dread to reveal to the Crystal Empire. The panic would be disastrous."

"King Sombra?" Twilight Sparkle exclaimed, drawing all attention to her. "So a creature of pure darkness with the power to bring back the DEAD has escaped from its underground prison which was beneath CANTERLOT that no pony knew about and now is free to bring one of the most horrible unicorns to ever exist back to life and I am JUST NOW FINDING THIS OUT?" Twilight shouted as she shook her head around, leaving her mane messy and her eyes in a manic state. It took a moment for her to compose herself, correct her mane, take a deep breath, and continue. "How long has it been since he escaped?"

"He escaped during Tirek's attack on Canterlot," Luna answered calmly. "And I share many of the same concerns, Twilight Sparkle. I too am much in the dark concerning this particular creature. I have only encountered him once, and know little else except hearsay from before my--before Nightmare Moon." Luna and Celestia exchanged glances, and the feeling of tension grew. "I do not approve of secrets."

"I have said before that it was for the protection of all," Celestia muttered. "I just--it was what I felt was right. I was young, and were I able to change the past I would."

"The fact is the lack of facts is the problem. How can we battle a mystery? What do we know? Next to nothing," Luna continued with the still calm voice. There was no hint of accusation, but a glimmer in her eye pointed towards her sister. "This creature is ageless, he is intelligent, he has a volatile reaction to magic, and he is not of this world."

"NOT OF THIS WORLD?" Twilight exclaimed, then seeing once again she was the center of attention she added, "Um, sorry--please continue."

A thoughtful expression came over Luna as she recalled, "My memory is not as clear as I wish it were. I first encountered Tobias when Virtuous Sight was conducting experiments."

Twilight Sparkle leaned towards Cadence and whispered something. With a quick shake of her head, Cadence tried to keep her attention on Luna. Whatever it was could wait.

"At the time he was little more than a strange black monstrosity with a love of quill and parchment." Luna pantomimed a back and forth motion with a hoof. "He could not speak, so he wrote. I remember seeing one of its drawings; it was of a locomotive--the very same we now use as transportation. Virtuous Sight was busy with her experiments, so I was not able to ask any questions. I remember little else. My mother was extremely ill at the time, but she made me promise to never venture into the laboratory again or to go anywhere near where Tobias was kept. I washed my hooves of the entire matter up until," Luna dropped her eyes before finishing, "my banishment."

Taking a long, slow breath Luna turned to match Celestia's gaze. The Princess of the Night no longer had a glimmer in her eye. Her gaze was steely, and did not ask for answers--it demanded them. She took one last breath before she continued from where she left off. "The only other fact I am aware of is that of us all you know the most, sister. Mother made you promise the same as I, yet you betrayed that promise. You pursued this creature, and the knowledge it offered. Knowledge steeped in darkness is no gift."

"You're wrong," said Celestia in a voice so fatigued that she could have collapsed then and there. Instead, she lifted her head and took as regal a pose as she was able. "Mother never made make such a promise. I said she did so that you would believe she had been fair to us. The truth is, she only ever made you promise." The will to remain staunch and upright withered and Celestia drooped her head. "The--Tobias was left to my responsibility."

Luna's face showed no reaction. For that long, horrible moment it was completely expressionless. Celestia had dreaded her reaction to learning this, but now the lack of one cut even deeper than she had feared.

The silence dragged on, becoming more and more hurtful with each passing breath. Finally, Celestia could take no more. "Will you say nothing?"

"What am I to say?" Even Luna's voice was subdued.

"I--I," Celestia stuttered in response. "That you are hurt? That you are angry? That you would accuse me of lying? Will you not lash out, or respond in some way?"

Luna sighed through her nose, closing her eyes as she asked, "Why?"

That single word echoed several times through the room. It took a moment for all within to realize she'd bellowed it in the Royal Voice. The volume deepened the tension, adding a new layer of shock that was already thick in the air.

Huffing and cringing, the remnant's of Luna's composure crumbled further. She looked at Celestia with gritted teeth. She fought to remain calm as she forced her words out. "I do not care what mother may have deemed fair or not. We both had our share of unfairness growing up. But why would--why would you lie?" Tears were staining her cheeks now. "You promised me--you promised there would be no lies between us. Yet you would maintain one out of fear that you would offend petty, childish desires?"

"Nothing has caused more dissent between us than the debate of fairness, Luna." The raw, choking pain in Celestia's throat nearly strangled her words. This was not how she wished this conversation to happen. She wished it never happened, never needed to happen. Yet here she was, opening a door she'd sworn to herself would stay locked. Now she was watching her sister who had so rigorously worked to find peace with herself being torn right back down.

Clenching her teeth so tight that her head shook, Luna sucked in a deep breath. She looked ready to scream, but took only deep hissing breaths. When she finally was able to speak again, the words sounded drenched in pain. "The smallest of lies, Celestia. That is where it begins. Telling the tiny lies, and then it becomes easier to tell larger, and larger ones. Soon, your entire life is nothing but a lie. If you were so quick to lie just so that I would think fairness existed between us, how can I believe that you have told no others?"

"Because I am here, now, and open to speak. I want no more deceit."

"Then why did you lie in the first place?"

"Because it is my fault! All of it, everything!" Celestia shouted, slamming her hooves on the ground. "I have sought every day of my life since then to rectify what I have done! I brought Tobias here! I summoned him! That is why mother did not make me promise! It was my responsibility because it was my fault!" Tears were welling in her eyes, staining the crimson with a watery blur. She drew in her legs and gripped the sides of her head as a dam finally broke. "It was all my fault from the very beginning. I wanted to open the gateway. I wanted to reach out. I brought Tobias here, summoned from some world beyond the reach of any mirror. Before there even were mirrors. Because of that, because of me--father was-"

Celestia was interrupted by a shining flash of light. Bolts and streaks of blazing white surged into the meeting chamber, shattering the moment with a brilliant display. All eyes watched in surprise and shock as the dozens of lights zipped and ricocheted about before swirling together into a blinding tornado. It continued to converge, growing brighter by the moment before a shape appeared in the glowing center. The body of a pony that sparked something in Celestia's memory. She knew that shape, from the hat to the beard there couldn't be any other.

Her wonder was broken when the blazing display exploded in a shower of sparks and the form took true shape. The collective gasp that rose up through the meeting chamber echoed loudly as they all beheld the pony that now stood before them. With the ashen black coat and cruelly curved red horn there was no mistaking his identity. King Sombra had just appeared in the room.

It took him a moment to gain his bearings before he looked up at them with golden eyes. He stared, and they stared back. As if the idea finally stuck he shot a glance down at himself, then spoke in a voice far less imposing than Celestia expected. "Oops," he said with a hiccup. "Forgot about that."

"It's him!" Cadence cried out as her horn burst to light.

She was quickly joined by the others as Sombra watched them in horror.

"No, wait!" The spells were nearly charged. "Stop! Justgivemeamomenttoexplain!" He shut his eyes and cast his own magic in the nick of time. Sombra's shield surrounded him in a bubble as a purple beam of energy hit and splashed over it. Lightning crackled in the air as Luna stepped forward while Twilight prepared another blast to deal with the intruder. Cadence's face was contorted in concentration as she worked on the protection spell. It had worked once before to defend the Empire, banishing all evil like a great shield.

The only one who did not move was Celestia. Her horn was lit, but she did not release the magic. She stared at the unicorn, eyes narrowed. He wore the cloak, the crown, had the same crooked horn. The one detail that struck her was his eyes. They were white, not green, and the irises sparkled with a light gold. Consumed by magic, Sombra's eyes had always been red and green. Now they were different, and she could not stand the sense of familiarity in her mind that came from those eyes. It made her think once again about the image she had seen in the spell that brought him here.

Looking to Cadence, she saw that the protection spell was nearly complete. A sudden feeling of anxiety poured into her, a need to keep that spell from going off. Maybe it was a hunch about Sombra, perhaps it was something more. Her eyes burned, and the nausea returned in the depth of her belly. She had to do something, and so she did.

Standing up tall and placing her hooves upon the marble table, Celestia proclaimed in the Royal Voice, "Enough, all of us." She looked around at every eye now upon her. "That is quite enough." Turning her gaze back upon Sombra, she watched him sit inside his protective bubble. He was raising an eyebrow at her and memories tickled her brain. She knew that gesture, and it was all too bizarre seeing it from a unicorn who had always been a sworn enemy.

The shield bubble lowered as Sombra sat down on the ground where he had appeared. He made no sudden moves, nor did he speak. He simply sat and watched, as if waiting his turn.

"The King Sombra we have faced before would not have simply shielded himself and begged to be heard. Something is wrong here," Celestia said, no longer bellowing. "Quickly, tyrant--explain yourself."

"A tyrant? Hardly!" Sombra harumphed as if insulted by the notion. "Perhaps in a different life, to be sure. Memories of that, but as if through another's eyes. I am no more a tyrant than you are an elephant." Dusting himself off, the dark unicorn took a good look around before his eyes locked onto Twilight Sparkle. They widened, his head shooting forward as he went from looking at to staring deeply. "Hold the mail, you! I've seen you! Well, I've seen all of you but it's hardly here or--never mind. You! You didn't have wings, but now you have wings! Not just transmutation, you actually ascended! That means--oh my lucky socks! You found my spell, you used my spell! YOU FIXED MY SPELL!"

Before she had a second to prepare, or even consider, Twilight Sparkle found herself being shaken about as Sombra hugged her and whooped in laughter.

He danced back and forth on his hind legs as he hugged her just a bit too tightly, muttering and giggling as if to himself. "After such horrid dreams, I awaken to this gift! Oh joy!"

"What--are--you--doing?" Twilight gasped as she was thrown back and forth. "Let--me--go!" She was released immediately, sitting down hard and shaking the dizziness away as best she could.

"So sorry," Sombra apologized. "I uh--I haven't been feeling myself. I've had quite the experience waking up today, and I'm feeling a bit giddy. Could be the adrenaline. Definitely the adrenaline."

"How did you come to be here?" Luna questioned in a low voice.

"Oh, ah yes. Fail-safe spell! I used it to teleport here, wherever here is. I had no set arrival location, so it sent me where I would be safest--or that is what it is supposed to do. And maybe it did--safe and welcome are very different things." He spoke so quickly it was difficult to separate some words, but a picture was beginning to form.

"It was Tobias that did this, I take it," Celestia mused. "Brought you back and then let you go?"

Sombra snorted as he turned to her. He was still smiling, but a sense of seriousness suddenly dropped like a stone upon the entire room. "Oh there was no 'letting go' from that encounter. His offense was with a phantom, but I was still the target in the end." A quick look around gave Sombra an idea of where he was as the princesses were still recovering the last of their wits. "I take it the purpose of this get-together is how to deal with him? He is quite 'out and about,' as I have been fully witness to."

"And with you," growled Luna.

Cadence agreed with a fierce nod as the pink glow returned to the tip of her horn.

Looking from one princess to the other, Sombra nodded as if he understood completely. He reached up and grasped the crown upon his head and slowly removed it to clatter against the stone ground. Taking a deep breath, he bowed low. "Forgive me, your majesties, for causing such distress. I look not like I did in a past life, nor have my actions warranted trust in any regard. In that respect, allow me now to first ask your mercy, second to ask your forgiveness, and thirdly to introduce myself formally."

Sweeping a leg under his chest to accent the bow, Sombra extended the other in a formal manner. "I am Shadowed Night Stars Swirling Bright, or for less of a lungful, Starswirl. Though my form is changed, my mind is restored." The unicorn continued, not noticing all but one princess catch the breath in her lungs. "Princesses Celestia, Luna, Mi Amore Cadenza, and whoever you are I bid you greetings--again."

"Star--swirl," Twilight said slowly. She looked back at Cadence who wore the same wide-eyed expression. "You're Starswirl? Starswirl the Bearded?"

"The not so bearded, I'm afraid," he mused while patting at his chin. "But yes, Starswirl I am--or was. I am a different pony now--of sorts. I don't feel that is my name anymore, not really. As if, it doesn't belong to me. A very strange notion. Tobias called me Sombra, the ponies in my dreams called me the same. That name feels--more appropriate. If distasteful, I understand. You may refer to me as you wish."

A strange and uncomfortable silence fell over the entire room. Even Sombra remained momentarily quiet. Celestia stared as her mind rushed through a hundred different images far too quickly for her to even mentally track. Cadence and Twilight Sparkle were afraid and confused, but there was a pair of eyes boring into her that she dared not meet, not yet. She could feel Luna's stare on her coat; it even burned as if she'd drawn too close to a candle.

"How are we to be sure that you are who you say you are, and this is not some sort of elaborate trick," Luna spoke to Sombra though her gaze remained on her sister. It was several moments before she turned her eyes on the intruder. "It seems all too convenient for this to be happening here, now. How can we possibly believe a word you say?"

Patting at his chin, Sombra thought hard for a moment before taking a deep breath. "Let me answer that with a question of my own. You stand upon a hill with a very large boulder. At the top is level ground, which begins to drop off gradually at first, and then steeper. If you rolled the boulder over the edge, what would happen?" His exaggerated flailing of hooves and shaking of head would have bordered comical, though none in the room were in a laughing mood even as Sombra spoke nearly too fast to follow. "It would gain speed as the slope grew more steep. In a very similar manner the events set into motion have begun to gain speed. Mere moments after I regained my own mind Tobias turned violent and attacked me. My use of the failsafe spell brought me to the one place where I could find aid in dealing with that frame of circumstances. In truth, it is not coincidental at all. In fact, this whole path was set in motion long, long ago. The boulder has been gaining speed ever since Tobias first arrived here."

"The matter of which we were about to address," Luna declared as her attention fell back upon her sister. "Notwithstanding the lies told to us all, your confession of fault has drawn my interest more intently, Celestia. All else will be dealt with in due time."

Cadence cleared her throat, holding a hoof up as if asking for permission to speak. Anxiety was still drawn over her face, but there was also an intensity. That intelligent spark of curiosity burned bright in her eyes. When she saw she had all the pony's eyes, she took a step closer to Sombra. He looked to her, and she looked back. Finally, with another cough and clearing of her throat she spoke. "So--you--you are Starswirl?"

"I am, or--I was."

"The Starswirl," she pressed.

Sombra did not miss a beat, answering as if it were perfectly normal. "It's a nickname, for obvious reason, but I am unaware of any other that bore my name. I've of course been out of touch for some time, so I could be wrong. But, from my knowledge I am the only Starswirl that ever was."

"How can you be Starswirl? You can't be Starswirl."

"I'm not. Not entirely. I was Starswirl, now I am Sombra. Another--ah--nickname of sorts. Starswirl was the dough, I am the cake. Ooh, I like that metaphor."

"But--we were told you were dead. How can you be alive after so many years?"

This finally caught the stallion off guard. He tapped his chin again thoughtfully as he needed the moment to consider. "Me, dead? Well, I mean were it any other unicorn I wouldn't be surprised. I have been alive for a considerable number of years. Granted, over a thousand of those years were drowned in a self-inflicted darkness. Oh! Yes of course! That would explain it!" He pointed to Celestia and shook his hoof manically. "You said that I was dead! Very clever! Protecting my reputation and all that!"

"You were dead," she responded dully. "I watched it happen. I saw what he did to you. You died, there was nothing left."

Celestia pushed away from the table. She could no longer stand to be silent, no longer stand the bickering both in her ears and in her mind. There was too much turmoil in the air, too much apprehension. If she did not bring the discussion back to the issue at hand, she feared confusion would take over. She came to a stop only a step away from Sombra and stared into his eyes. They were the same soft gold she knew all too well from her old teacher. There was not even a hint of the power and fright that they once held.

She leaned in just a little closer and narrowed her eyes before she intoned, "How am I to believe you are not still another trick?"

His response was a chuckle, soft and disarming. When Sombra spoke, he did so calmly. "My dearest princess, you should not believe that I am not a trick. What was the first lesson I ever taught you? Never believe your eyes, believe your heart. If you believe in your heart that Starswirl is dead, then that is the truth. In some ways it is the truth. I got the spell wrong, your majesty," he whispered with a bow as he stepped back from her. "Were it right I would have achieved an ascended state of magical being. It was wrong, and it scourged me. I am forever changed, and marred by the darkness that consumed my mind. You are right to doubt me. It is safer."

"Then why are you here?"

"To save myself." This answer left a stale feeling in the air. "Perhaps aid in saving us all; in any way I can. I cannot atone for the deeds of my dark side, but I can stop the spread of a friend's. Of this you have my word."

"He's telling the truth," offered Cadence to the surprise of all. "I can feel it."

Twilight Sparkle nodded as well, though she still looked cautious. "If Cadence thinks its okay, then so do I. Not to mention--Starswirl the Bearded! I can hardly believe it!"

"Neither can I," muttered Luna, just loud enough to be heard. The wounded note in her voice could not be hidden. "I agree with my sister, we must address the issue at hand. Tobias, this heart of darkness, and our horrific lack of knowledge. What is he, where does he come from, why is he here, and how do we stop him? These are the things we wish to know, if I may speak for us?" She was met with nods from Twilight and Cadence. "Starting with Celestia's summoning of this creature as she has admitted. I want to know why."

"Celestia's? Hmm," Sombra pondered as he retrieved his crown from the floor. "Not exactly how I would put it. Half her idea."

"Starswirl, please," pleaded Celestia.

"It is--ah--Sombra, please. I just--that name--my heart does not wish it, at least not right now. If you wish me to not recite the tale," he trailed off as Luna tapped a hoof against the marble loud enough for an echo.

She glared at him with a dark and foreboding gaze. It took a moment before she could calm enough to draw in a settling breath. When she spoke again her voice was collected once more. "There is no avoiding it. We must know, and we must know now. Much is at stake if this Tobias is as dangerous and cruel as some believe."

Celestia felt her heart sink so low she feared it would fall from her chest and plop against the ground. She'd fought so hard for so long to uphold all the good and hope that she could, to bury all the dark things deeper than the deepest mine. She had wished to simply bring them into the fold concerning the danger he posed, the darkness he could spread. To learn the origins of Tobias was a journey into a past she desperately wished to forget. If only she'd been stronger--if she had not confessed--perhaps things could have been turned away from this path.

The quiet voice in her mind hinted to the realization that no matter what, her clinging to hope had been shattered by Sombra's arrival. There was still a piece of her that refused to believe that this creature, a being of such hatred and destruction, was in fact her old teacher. But the eyes, and the way he spoke, and the feeling of when he issued such tirades of knowledge: she had no doubt and that stung. If this revelation stung her so deep, she feared for Luna. She feared what the whole truth would bring. She feared even more that the darkness would be given leave once more to take root in the hearts of her loved ones. Her hopes shattered, that was all she could see now.

"Your majesty?" The question startled her. Sombra blinked at her with one eyebrow raised high. "Are you well?"

Celestia slowly shook her head, but spoke before any could interject. "Tell them," she managed.

With a look of deeper concern, Sombra drew closer. "Are you well?"

"Sombra, tell them," she demanded with what little strength she could muster. Even speaking felt soul-draining at this point.

With a nod the stallion obeyed. He walked to the marble table and tapped on it with a hoof. "I guess the only place to begin would be the beginning. One thousand six hundred and ninety two years ago, if my memory still serves me. That was when Tobias was brought into our world."

"But--why?" Twilight interrupted. "I mean, all this talk of horribleness makes me wonder why even bring him in the first place?"

"Why ever attempt magic in the first place? To see what it does. A doorway to another world entirely; before even the mirrors were established: that was the purpose of the summoning, and nothing more--knowledge, experimentation, the pursuit of intelligence beyond the scope of our world. Two very ambitious and overconfident sisters thought to themselves that they could change the world by visiting another. Princess Celestia--and her twin sister." Gazes were shot towards Celestia, but a raised voice caught it back again as Sombra continued. "I am sure you are all filled with questions! If Luna is Celestia's younger sister, where is this twin? One in the same. Luna was not always the younger of the two, there was a time that she was a twin. A previous life, much the same as I was once Starswirl. In fact, our stories are nearly identical."

"That's impossible," Luna scoffed.

"As is the formula for the perfect cup of coffee but I still managed it. There is no such thing as impossible, only improbable. It was improbable to believe any other world could possibly exist, yet you both tried. It is improbable to think that something alive and sentient could be drawn through a portal opened to that other world, yet you both achieved that. It was only after that point that everything fell apart. What with your father's interruption, the failing of the portal, and the monstrosity that emerged."

He didn't skip a beat as he placed the crown on the table and watched as it began to glow and hover above the patterns of inlaid gold. "I do not perfectly recall the day, my mind is still piecing together some lost memories. I remember the screaming though, that horrid ear-piercing shriek. There is no way to describe true agony like that noise conveyed. Simply existing here was poison to it, the very air was fire to it. A formless creature of grasping claws and vicious eyes that writhed and fought with its presence here. Celestia was drawn away by her father fast enough, the other sister proved not so lucky. The touch of this creature was like nothing I can describe. It fought with anything it touched, both air and stone. She was in the way, and it struck her. That was a terrible way to die. The King fought to save her, and he too was struck down."

Sombra's telling left every pony around him dumbfounded. Only Celestia was left in her pain, recalling that day with the same heart-breaking despair that had gripped her as she watched.

"My memory fails, by this will provide better answers. If all of you truly wish to know what happened, and in a telling better than words can provide, the crown is the key. It was something I worked on before my transformation, before a multitude of mistakes. It has magic of what I was and what I am today. In essence, with the right spells, it can take us all back to the beginning. We can all see for ourselves by using this as an anchor. We can know the face of what has been unleashed." Sombra's face was downcast for a moment before he composed himself again. "I consider Tobias a friend, despite what any of you may think of him or of me. He is a troubled being, but pitiable in some small ways. Perhaps through this, you may come to think much the same."

"I cannot pray for that, not for what he has cost me." Celestia's words held enough spite that Sombra turned to stare, his eyes narrowing as he did. She locked gaze with him to the point that she felt almost self-conscious by how he glared. "I simply find pity a feeling out of my reach."

"Then I hope all our eyes are opened, your majesty. They once were, a lifetime ago. The windows to soul should always be open, always show our true intentions." The crown began to glow as Sombra pointed a hoof towards Celestia. "I hope most of all that you can see what has become of you, and what your eyes tell me now. They are not the eyes of the princess I once knew. They have changed."

The glow was overcoming everything. Luna had disappeared, the wall of light now taking in Cadence and Twilight as it expanded.

Watching the wall of light approach, Celestia could not help but be shaken by Sombra's words. "What do you mean?"

"I mean what I say, your majesty. I have known you a very long time, tutored you through both school and hardship of the heart. Despite all that pain, the princess I taught had the purest eyes of violet that could banish the darkest of thoughts." The wall was beginning to take in Celestia, her breath catching in her lungs as felt something putting pressure on her entire body. The words that Sombra spoke next seemed to make the feeling of being crushed all the worse. "Your eyes, princess--they were never so crimson as they are now."

The pressure was becoming unbearable as Celestia felt something grip her thoughts. It was like an icy claw, and its presence made her flinch. She still heard Sombra, but he was growing more distant. "What have you allowed to take root in your soul, Princess?"

Chapter 14 - Law of Opposites Part 2

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"Aurora!" The scream echoed through the swirling colors and twisted shapes of the infinite.

Twilight Sparkle flailed and fought as she felt herself falling endlessly through the insanity all around her, voices screaming from every direction.

"Don't you lecture me! You're a monster!" That voice. She knew that voice.

The shouting was mixed with an overpowering ringing, droning, and whispering all wrapped together in a cacophony of mind-splitting chaos. Twilight tried as hard as she could to find whichever way was down. Her battle to right herself only seemed to make the rush of images and words flash by faster, all jumbling together into a mess of information too much for her mind to process. The voices and sounds she heard that were once familiar were becoming increasingly alien as her mental grip on reality loosened.

"Because this is the way I choose to appear." A crack of thunder split the screaming that accompanied the words.

"You don't understand, Starswirl, but you will! This is the future! This is what magic has always led to! This is true power!" Every sentence was a new voice, a new conversation, and even more confusing than the last. With each new voice, she also heard more and more whispers which she could not understand.

"Let's slow down. What do you mean by a world between worlds?"

"There are just some things that reason will never answer."

"Because everything's better with portals; except when you open a door with no idea where it leads."

"Stare into the darkness long enough, and it stares back." The whispers were beginning to scratch at the back of her mind as the whispers grew louder.

"Stares back." The words were repeating again and again, growing louder as they overlapped.


Twilight Sparkle clutched her head between her legs, trying to fight away the pain that threatened to swallow her in its tidal surge. She was falling deeper into the abyss with no hope of escaping, no chance of even slowing down. The different voices were all blending together into a rush of deafening whispers as the colors melded together into a darkening tunnel.

She opened her eyes, blurry and watery from her tears as she looked down into the pitch black void beneath her. The void opened up, and an infinite number of eyes looked back.


The void splintered and shattered as cracks flowed like blood up from the emptiness and probing eyes as Twilight Sparkle opened her mouth in an empty shriek. What fragments of reason she still possessed shouted in her mind, demanding explanation for the infuriating nonsensical mess that she was witnessing. Her mind was overwhelmed, it could not fathom what was unfolding before her as the void rose up, threatening to wash over her.

She let her head go and closed her eyes as all reality seemed to shatter around her. Everything was consumed in a blinding flurry of lights and colors and a sound like rushing water, sweeping her up and enveloping her whole being in a rush of broken existences.

It was in that moment that Twilight stopped trying to find up. She stopped trying to right herself. She stopped questioning the madness, accepting it in the overwhelming surge of sensations, sounds, and sights that burned her mind to its very core. That one moment passed, and everything Twilight grasped for slipped away as nothingness overtook her.

Twilight Sparkle floated in the wide, white emptiness. She felt nothing, heard nothing, and was content in that nothingness. In that void there was no time, no connection, just blissful existence without existing. She did not know how long she had been there. It felt like forever, and there was peace in that. When she looked down at herself, the only bit of matter and color in the deep white space, she took solace in that she could add a sense of uniqueness to the expanse. As she made her way slowly across the void, a feeling came over her. That sense of anxiety she always got when she was late for an appointment. What could she possibly be late for in her universe? She was the only thing in it. She couldn't be late, there was nowhere to go.

Perhaps something was waiting on her, but that also didn't make any sense. She was the only thing within her personal pocket of existence. Just as she was contenting herself once more in that knowledge, something happened. It was a strange sort of something. The sort of something that can make one question everything that happens afterwards. That sort of something was a sound, and that was very strange indeed. There was never any noise in her little universe, unless of course she was the one to make it. She couldn't actually recall ever making any sounds now that her mind was on the subject.

If that was the case, what was sound at all? How did she identify the sort of something as sound? She couldn't remember where she learned what sound was, or that the particular one that she had just heard was that of a creaky door. It had unlatched, swung open with a rather obnoxious creak, then closed again. Whatever had opened the door had closed it gently, so as not to aggravate the creaks again, and the soft click of its closing sent the void once again into utter silence. The crack in the perfect serenity was mended, and Twilight went back to her lazy contemplation about the nothingness, and her enjoyment of it.

"Hello," said a voice.

"Hello," responded Twilight.

"How are you?" The voice asked.

"I'm well." Twilight slowly looked about, searching for the source of the new sounds.

"As am I. Isn't that a coincidence?"

"I don't think so," she said in a confused tone. "Is that unusual?"

A head popped into view and the two ponies stared at one another. It was a bluish-gray sort of face with soft, golden eyes. On its head was a big hat that jingled, and a great big white beard hung from its chin. She felt something looking at this new face. The sort of something that she felt when she saw an old friend coming by for tea. How odd though, since she could not recall ever having known any others in her universe. There had never been any friends, never been any tea. Why did she feel this way? It was all so strange, but all so familiar.

"I imagine I should have given some form of warning, and I apologize for not doing so. You see, time magic mixed with Alicorn magic can be a fickle thing. Sometimes you simply glimpse the past, other times you can become stuck between the past and the present. Had you been prepared I have little doubt you would have easily found your way. That not being the case, you are now here. Stuck in what I can only describe as a universe of your own design." The pony spoke in a hurried fashion, its words blending together. "The magic that was cast can overload the unprepared mind, and this personal universe becomes a sort of safe haven for it. It is also an inescapable trap for those wholly unprepared. The very nature of the trap is that you don't see it as a trap. It's the only place you ever want to be. Thankfully, I am here to draw you out."

"Draw me out?" Twilight spoke slowly as she made every effort to wrap her thoughts around the words. "To where?"

"To anywhere. To wherever is not this empty void that you have constructed."

"Constructed?" Twilight placed a hoof against her forehead as she tried so very hard to think. "I made this?"

"In a way. It is very difficult to say for certain whether you created it, or simply found it. This is a place that defies explanation."

"Then, why leave?"

"Because, it isn't real." The pony vanished from view.

Twilight continued to float aimlessly for a moment. She felt something solid at her hind hooves, a sort of floor rising up to her. She sat down as it rose, and found she was now seated on an invisible platform. She couldn't see it, but she knew it was there because she was sitting on it. She looked down, and out of the corner of her eye saw the other pony sitting next to her.

"That's the trap, you see," he spoke with a wave of his hoof. "It feels all too real, but there isn't anything actually here."

"It feels real."

"Of course it does, that's the danger of it. It feels real, you want it to be real; but it is no more real than a waking dream. You cannot live in a waking dream, you can only experience it. In this place, there is no experience. Is that what you wish?"

"I don't know. I can't remember anything else, not really. This place has been my home for as long as I can remember. Forever, I think."

"Perhaps it has been, at least for this place. Forever can mean many things in a world where time has no power. But, for the world you left behind, it could mean quite a bit. Time could be standing still there, forever frozen as you float through this ethereal plane; or quite the reverse for an infinitely more horrifying outcome."

"The world--I left behind? I don't remember it."

"But it remembers you, and that is what is worth the most in times such as this." The unicorn stroked his beard as he looked up and gazed into the white abyss, his eyes very distant. "It means more than you think to be gone for so long and to return thinking yourself forgotten, but instead to find that you have been remembered. For some, that hope is nothing more than a fleeting dream. For you, princess, it is still very real."

"Why did you call me--wait," Twilight said hesitantly. "A princess?"

Twilight watched the unicorn turn his aged face her way. She couldn't read his expression. Perhaps he was considering her question, but she felt it was more than that. He was considering her, his soft golden eyes meeting hers and offering a strange warmth. When he finally spoke, his voice was barely over a whisper. It was not quick and difficult to follow like it had been before, but slow and clear.

"Princess Twilight Sparkle, that is who you are. That is what you are. Burdened with the responsibilities of leadership, and destined with the guardianship of all Equestria. All that you were before coming here was built upon such principles."

"But," Twilight said as she pushed a hoof against her head. "If that's all true--how did I get here? All I remember is being here!"

"When we are trapped in a dream, we can never remember the world outside. When we awaken, how often do we remember the dream?"

A dark feeling filled Twilight's heart; where had once been a calm sensation of satisfaction now grew a burning anxiety. She opened her mouth to speak, but couldn't find the words. Stamping her hoof down onto the invisible platform, she tried to muster herself to shake off the burn of muted panic within her. She felt like something was holding her, clamping down so tightly that she couldn't breath. All she did was think about it for a single moment, but that's all it took. It was crushing her in a vice that she couldn't see. It was forcing her to remain quiet, despite the questions she wanted to scream out.

"How can you tell the difference between the waking world and the dream world? Both are completely natural in their own right. You are a native to whichever you are currently in at that time. A world of your own. But that world can become a nightmare, all it takes is the knowledge that you cannot escape it. One simple thought, and bliss can become torture in the blink of an eye."

"Stop," Twilight gasped before gritting her teeth.

"Stop what?" The unicorn looked concerned as he noticed Twilight's discomfort. "I haven't done anything."

Fighting harder against the grip on her whole body, Twilight managed to gasp, "I can't--breath." She looked down as she felt the grip around her tighten, and her eyes widened in horror as she saw black tendrils surrounding her whole body.

The unicorn jumped up, the tendrils must have become visible to him as well. Shaking his head hard, he tossed the jingling hat from his head to expose a curved, glowing horn. His soft golden eyes began to glow with a brilliant fire as the horn burst to light, red power surging out from it. "I should have known you would try something. Setting a trap though, I should be impressed!" The red light was becoming brighter, now almost blinding. "So, shall you finally reveal yourself? Is this another game, or will you show me your hand?" The unicorn was bellowing as a whirlwind of magic surrounded him. "Come on! I have not been idle in my preparations, no matter what traps you set in my way! If you wish to have her, then you shall contend with me!"

A sudden need to look behind her gripped Twilight so forcefully that her head was moving before she even realized it. She tried to halt herself, but the need was overwhelming. Something was staring at her, a gaze drilling into her mind through the back of her head. She had to see it, had to face it. The moment she looked, she regretted her decision. The tendrils led back to an empty space of grasping claws and piercing eyes. The whiteness simply fell away into a shattered abyss that morphed and distorted chaotically. It was like that part of the world was alive. It was a throbbing, horrible thing that reached out from the depths of her most horrible nightmares.

The withered claws reached out towards her as panic gripped her heart and mind. She couldn't think straight as she stared into the abomination that soundlessly grasped at her.

A rush of red light sent the claws careening back. The unicorn slammed his hoof down, now standing between Twilight and the thing that stared at them. "I said you will not have her without a fight, and I meant every word!" The red whirlwind now encompassed them both, the magic sheering at the tendrils that held Twilight. The black filaments were cut away in moments.

The abyss retreated and vanished, trailing whispers as it disappeared.

The red tornado swirling around them began to wane, and finally vanish completely. Twilight was on her side, holding herself tightly as she fought to compose herself. A few gasping breaths, a few shivers, and a cough came before she found the strength to calm herself.

"I'm a damned fool," a new voice said. It was a deep voice, she didn't recognize it at first.

Twilight lifted her head to find the newcomer. She saw him standing right where her companion had been. Her guardian was gone, replaced by a slate grey unicorn of impressive size that sported a thick black mane. The sight immediately gripped her heart once again. This was different though. She didn't feel restrained, she felt afraid. She knew this pony. She knew exactly who was standing before her.

"King Sombra," Twilight whispered.

The unicorn turned his head in response, looking right into her eyes. Twilight felt the feeling on her heart soften for a moment. The eyes, they were the exact same. The soft gold that gave a sense of warmth; the eyes of her protector. She didn't know what to think now as she pushed shakily to her hooves and took a slow step backwards.

"Ah," he said, his voice raspy. "You recognize me, that's good. At least, I hope it is."

"What have you done with him?" Twilight had to force herself to keep from stuttering. "Where is--where is Starswirl?" The moment the name left her lips Twilight froze, blinking as she tried to grasp her own words. Looking down, she saw black tendrils weakly grasping at her, severed and withering in her wake. "Starswirl," she muttered again. Looking at Sombra, she clenched her jaw for several seconds before forcing the words out. "It never was Starswirl, was it?"

"That depends on the way you look at it. In a past life, perhaps. Now, I am as I appear."

"And--what was that? That thing! That--what was that?" Twilight saw one tendril making a shaking push to try and wrap around her leg. She stomped it hard into the invisible platform. The entire length of it quickly evaporated. "This! What just happened?"

"That is even more difficult to explain, almost impossible for we lack words to entirely encompass it. I can assure you though, we have not seen the last of it. We've ventured into its domain, and it has little desire for us to stay. We need to find the others before we continue, or risk its return. It is dangerous, of that you can be certain."

"The others? The--Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, Cadence. I--I remember." Shaking her head, Twilight squinted and gritted her teeth for a few seconds. "What is going on?"

"You thought about the dream, so you began to see it all as a dream. You saw this place as possibly being fake, not being the true world. You saw through the veil, through the illusion. If even for a single moment, you exposed the thing that was trying to get at you. So long as it remains hidden it can corrupt and affect whatever it desires without scrutiny; that is how it works." Sombra shook his head, his thick black mane tossing about as he spoke. "Once you exposed it, I could banish it temporarily. But, it will not be so easy to drive away again, and now I must press you once again. I can only enter this space, you must be the one to open the door so that we can leave it."

"But--I don't even know how I got here! How am I supposed to get us back out?"

"Just imagine the others, see them in your mind and let the magic out. It will know what to do."

Twilight nodded. She wanted out as quickly as she could, and if that meant doing what a former enemy said then that is what she would do. She recalled Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and Princess Cadence. She held their faces in her mind, and let her magic begin to coalesce. Her horn began to glow, a little at first but quickly growing more bright. The faces in her mind became more vivid, and the light from her horn waxed with them. With a burst of purple light, Twilight suddenly felt herself falling.

Fear grasped at her heart as she fell. The darkness around her was closing in, and she flailed as she tried to find whatever way was up. She felt like a little filly again, hiding in her covers from the monster under her bed. The memory was getting more vivid, feeding the fear that grew in the pit of her stomach. The feeling of huddling beneath the thin sheet, shivering in fear of whatever horror was waiting for her, was all around her. Tears were welling in her eyes, the helplessness taking hold.

She was no longer falling.

Twilight slowly forced an eye open, her vision cloudy through the tears. Surrounded by nothingness, lit by a single beam of light above, was a bed. She knew it all too well, her heart beating harder when she recognized her own covers. The little floral designs, the blueish purple embroidery, there was no mistaking her own bed.

The fear was building again. The same terror that grips a little child from the dark, the kind that cannot be understood. She could only hide from it. She had to hide.

Twilight hiccuped when she found her legs stuck to the ground. She looked down, panic pushing her to fight harder. The black tendrils were wrapping around her hooves, weaving their way up her legs. Crying out, Twilight tried to summon a spell, but nothing happened. She fought to free herself again, but they were just too strong.

Panic was taking her, forcing everything away. Just like her in her bed, the fear was driving out all reason. She knew she had to calm down somehow, she had to get free. Her heart pounding, her body trembling, Twilight looked up and tried to force any kind of hope to the surface. A song, she remembered that much. A song about laughter, and the warmth it held that could drive away fear. She tried to remember the words, tried to fight through the haze that clogged her mind. Opening her eyes, her breath stalled in her lungs when she saw her bed. Black tendrils were reaching from beneath it, wrapping around the posts and creeping over the covers like evil vines. A single huge eye opened in the darkness beneath the bed, and she heard a child scream.

She was screaming, terrified, fighting against the horrible thing trying to take her. She kicked and struggled, desperately searching for any kind of opening that would give her a chance to break free. Memories poured through her mind, spells and other magical tools that might aid in some way, but nothing responded. In a last act, she clenched her teeth and focused, all her might centered into the memory of Sombra casting a whirlwind of magic to fend away the darkness. The power flowed through her, the crisp icy shiver of magic radiating from her coat, focusing in her horn.

"And always remember, Twilight Sparkle," spoke a soothing, warm voice. "Always remember to believe in yourself."

It was Princess Celestia! She had come to help! Twilight felt a surge of energy inside her, and she pushed it all into the spell. She put everything into her magic, an all or nothing chance. The spell went off, and everything stopped. There was no more grasping tendrils, no more crying, no more screaming, no more whispers. Only silence all around her.

Twilight Sparkle opened her eyes, and saw a dull purplish light all around her. She blinked, and pushed up against something. They were her covers. Pushing them down and away from herself, she rose up. She stared when she sat up, seeing nothingness carry on in every direction for as far as she could see. Blinking once, then twice, Twilight tried to make sense of what was happening. It was all going by too fast, so much all at once that she couldn't make heads or tails of any of it. First she was stuck in some kind of void of forgetfulness, then she was being toyed with by some kind of darkness monster, and now she was in her bed. Only her bed was in a new void, and everything was black and silent.

Throwing the covers, she was about to jump off when a spike of terror gripped her heart. Under the bed, it was waiting for her under the bed. A tiny sliver of rationality tried to shine a light against the fear, but it was so strong. She mouthed the words over and over, "it's under there." If she was so convinced, why was she beginning to lean towards the edge? She was fighting with herself, but still the rational side demanded answers. Even if some sort of terrible eyeball monster was waiting for her, she would at least know that she wasn't afraid for nothing.

"Nothing," she whispered, staring upside-down into the empty space beneath the bed. "There's nothing there."

What had she been scared of? Was there something out there? She felt like she knew; she felt that strange itch of a memory sitting just outside her reach. Then again, there really wasn't anything to be afraid of. What else was there? It was just her, just like it had always been.
Sucking in a breath, Twilight summoned a burst of light from her horn. Panic was fueling her spells now, and the tendrils retreated immediately. She knew that feeling, it was trying to make her forget. She wouldn't; she refused to fall back into that void. Even as her bubble of light pushed against the darkness, the darkness pushed back. Her light was quickly waning.

"No," she pleaded. "No, no, no."

She knew herself. She remembered herself, her life, her past. She wouldn’t let it pass into the void. She felt the tendrils reaching for her, and it sparked something new in her heart. The panic and fear began to burn, and anger kindled deep inside. A feeling so rarely tapped, but so happily accepted now that it wasn’t a moment’s thought before funneling it directly into her magic.

Twilight flung open her eyes, magic pouring from them as the tip of her horn exploded with power. “I said no!” Her shield pushed back, and solidified as the darkness waned. “My mind is my own, leave me be!” She pushed with all her might, her anger, and will as the light of her magic split the darkness. It fled, cracking and splintering as a single whisper echoed in its wake.


Fighting for breath, Twilight warily looked this way and that. She was in some kind of ruin, crumbling stone pillars and walls almost totally consumed by vines and growths surrounded her. The thunderous rumble of huge doors closing made her turn around quickly as she saw a remarkably large pair behind her. The doors must have been closing, and now silence fell over the ruins she found herself in.

“Twilight Sparkle?” A voice inquired.

Twilight turned with a start to follow the sound, and found herself looking into familiar eyes. “Princess Luna! You’re okay!” she cried out, relieved.

“I am, though my coming here was--tedious,” Luna’s coat was standing on end, and a shiver ran over her as she spoke.

“Then I think we had similar experiences. It was awful. Was that supposed to happen?” Twilight asked as she continued to scan the ruins around them. She couldn’t recall ever seeing anything like them before.

Princess Luna answered with a shake of her head, “I do not know, I have never experienced anything like this. Nor do I recognize where we have been deposited.” She nodded to the path ahead of them, “but that appears to be the only way.” Luna started walking down the path she pointed out.

“Are the others here?” Twilight asked as she began to follow Luna. “I mean, are we the only ones who made it?”

“I only just arrived when you appeared before me. I have not seen the others,” Luna said dully as she continued down the corridor. “I fear the worst, this magic is foreign to me. If I had known, I would not have so easily allowed it to work upon me.”

As the two walked, Twilight felt a sense of dread looming in her. The path was getting darker, and she knew in her heart, they were moving towards danger. “Princess Luna,” she whispered. “Something isn’t right.”

“I feel it too. We must be brave, there is no other way but forward.” She looked back at Twilight with a calm glance, “and I do not wish to test that darkness once again.”

“I don’t think it was darkness, Princess Luna,” Twilight said as she looked back at the two huge doors. “That was something--terrible.”
“I agree, but I fear the worst is yet to come.”

“What do you--” Twilight turned to face forward, but her voice trailed away. She was looking into pitch darkness. Only Luna was by her side, and the sense of dread now so strong she felt as if something was breathing down her neck. “Princess,” she whispered with a croak, “I don’t think we should turn around.”

“Then that is what we must do,” Luna replied, her own voice strained.

They looked at one another, and as one turned to see what was behind them. Chains stretched down from the darkness like a mad spider’s web, all converging on a large cage. A cage bathed in a venomous green glow, and containing a single occupant.

“That’s--” Twilight said breathlessly.