Forty-eight hours before the fall of King Sombra and the Crystal Empire...
Few ventured out this far into the Frozen North, let alone this close to sunset. Nothing lived, prowled or hunted here, for there was neither shelter nor food and no sound for many miles. Earlier in the day, one could have caught a glimpse of sunlight reflecting off the tallest spires of the castle at the heart of the Crystal Empire, but that was only if Celestia's sun had enough strength to burn through what felt like an eternally present cloud layer. That alone these days was rare due to the burning, all-consuming hatred of the Empire's ruler for the golden body and its bearer.
And yet, incredibly, the sun was permitted out this day if only to light the way for a smoky dark cloud that moved silently over the white, barren landscape. It moved slowly, with only vague memories to guide it to a destination it had once lain in as a baby and visited as a young stallion and spent the rest of its turbulent life trying to forget.
The cloud ignored the fewer guards this far out, barely registering their salutes as they recognized the form of their King. He/it was going in what it perceived was the correct direction, using their positions as a marker until they faded in the distance, lost to the whiteness below and the glare of the accursed sun.
Not wanting to dwell on the unpleasant anticipation of his meeting, his thoughts drifted, pulled into a pleasanter direction – most notably earlier in the day, waking to the soft, warm mare that had cuddled up against his side in their slumber.
How long had it been since that had happened? That a mare had willingly done that? Looked that peaceful in his bed? Not since.
The occasional concubine since her was never permitted to stay with Him past his need for them that night. The thought of waking up alone again if she escaped or even had just left momentarily to use a chamber pot brought up memories so unbearable, the entire kingdom would suffer for his resultant pain.
“I will never leave you,” Nyx had sworn, refusing to budge when He had made it clear she was to go back to the concubine's chambers after their tryst. The declaration had made its way through His addled, conflicted emotions only through her determined, steadfast gaze into His red crystal eyes, the reassuring stroking of His foreleg, her ever calm voice. Tartarus knew why, but it soothed His unstable, aggressive Umbrum nature to take comfort in her in all the ways she was offering herself to Him at that moment.
To have her body was expected...
...her loyalty, hoped for...
...her love had been nothing short of a miracle.
He was so preoccupied, He did not see the crystal marker jutting out of the snow next to a cave until He was practically on top of it. With a grunt, He halted His forward momentum, dropping to the ground and reforming into His pony form – the smoky essence condensing into a sturdy, well-built, charcoal-coated stallion the near size of an alicorn. It was accented with a coal-black mane and tail that flowed over and from him, ever moving, despite the lack of a breeze. The green flare of the magic to accomplish this transformation from smoke to stallion faded back from his eyes, removing the purple tinge of dark magic at its corners as well, revealing clear, bright red crystal eyes perfectly matching the color of the sentry crystal embedded in the cold hard ground before Him.
“King Sombra!” the two guards saluted in synch, holding the salute until He acknowledged them with a nod.
He stared at the crystal marker which served as the entrance to the Umbrum prison, weighing logic and rational thought against His desire to speak to a creature He knew to be deceitful, opportunistic and manipulative, even if only by a single exchange of words and through legend. No amount of honeyed words or trickery could move Him – that was not His concern. He was more annoyed that His emotionality had driven Him here. Still, the emotion would not abate and thus had driven Him here to settle not just His mind, but His heart as well.
Before turning to the unpleasant business awaiting him, Sombra addressed the guards. “Hard Strike. Cold Wave.”
The unicorn and pegasus, respectively, snapped to attention. “Sire!” they chorused as one.
“Your loyalty is noted and appreciated,” their King addressed them. “Relax and listen well, stallions, for the protection and safety of our Kingdom rests on your withers out here in this forsaken land and thankless outpost.”
His stallions eased back their stiff postures at his behest. Nodding in approval, he paced in front of them for a moment. “The Grand Commander and I know well this assignment may appear insufferable, even a punishment. Black when Iron Blade and I were young and eager to please, we too were stationed out here by my mother, Queen Tua.
“I was convinced we were being punished. So was Blade. He kept asking me which noble's daughter I had bedded to be condemned to this post.” He grinned at the memory, the two guards joining in his mirth.
“Since the thought of dishonoring my position and family in such a manner had never even occurred to me at the time,” he continued. “I began to wonder in earnest why we were there as well. We were the best in our class – none were faster, nor stronger. Blade was already garnering a reputation as being at one with his sword, the top of all classes before him, including our own.”
“That evening, I demanded to know of her why she had specifically requested we be assigned here.” He paused, settling down on his haunches before them. They too sat. “Can you guess why?” he asked them.
“Based on what you've told us, your Highness,” the unicorn Hard Strike spoke up. “It was because you were the best?”
He nodded. “And why out here, in this wasteland would we need to be?” Sombra stood, pawed at the ground. “Because of what lies beneath it,” he continued gravely. “Something so evil it would feed on every stallion, mare, colt and filly until no life remained – anywhere.”
The two guards paled.
“You have family, yes?” he asked them.
“Parents and my sister and brother,” Hard Strike replied.
“Parents and my mare and children, your Highness,” Cold Wave added.
Sombra nodded. “Imagine the Umbrum below escaping and the nearest food source the Crystal Empire – and your families. They would drain them dry, without warning, most likely make you watch as they did so. I trust I need not say more?”
“No, your Majesty!” they both said in unison, the veiled looks of horror at his words assurance that the message had been delivered quite effectively.
“A magic user and a flier in tandem have a chance to get word back to the Empire of their escape. You were chosen with that in mind. Remember that and work together to ensure one of you would make it out long enough to warn us if the unthinkable were to happen.”
They nodded. Sombra turned back to the crystal. “I will be but a moment. I have business with their Queen.” He did not have to turn back to see they were saluting one more time as he walked to the other side of the crystal, used a spell to open the physical barrier and stepped downwards into the dank and the unknown.
Down below the barren tundra of the frozen north, an entirely different world existed. The openness of the plains, clear skies above and chill winds held no sway here, replaced by dank caves and stagnant air. It nearly choked him, but Sombra put up with it for the moment. He wouldn't be in pony form long here.
The quiet echoed his steel-hooved footfalls and he grunted, annoyed the noise would give away his presence sooner than he preferred. The lack of umbrum in this antechamber was no surprise since they were not expecting him and for a brief moment upon arriving, it had given him the chance to pause, trying to remember being brought to this place by his mother, the shadow council and the other Umbrum.
Of course he had been too young to recall it, but something of a blinding flare of red crystal light played deep in the back of his memories, if only imagined to life through the Queen Mare's revelation to him of his origins upon her death bed.
In hindsight, as the King of the Crystal Empire moved through the chamber to where he sensed other umbrum were, he was grateful for the lack of memory. This was a horrid place devoid of everything he had built above and treasured. The life for himself, the grand, dark crystal castle, once pure white-blue crystal, reshaped, reformed and sculpted into a new, more pleasing form by his own hooves. There was also the strength of his armies and miraculously, the friendship and camaraderie he shared with the Grand Commander, Iron Blade, and his growing family of mare and children. He smiled, recalling their warm greetings to him, Blade's newest little one, a filly, who called him, “Uncle Somby”. So strange to be known as that, but so treasured at the same time...
Sombra froze, tensing. Was it..?
A wispy form of smoke paused at the entrance to a larger area. *My darling...my Sombraaaaa?*
Sharia, of course. *Yes, mother. 'tis I,* he answered in the umbrum tongue, stopping where he was.
The smoke creature floated into the chamber, flowing over and around him. Despite his reluctance to journey here and the dread with which he came to confront his turbulent emotional state, her touch brought a peculiar joy, heralded through the tiny electrical current of her life essences, conveyed through his pony skin, touching that part of him that was kin, that was shared in physicality with his kind...
*Myyy childdd. So clossse to my death, the freedom from thisss wretched pony form isss joyousss!* At the time, Prince Sombra had believed her words the madness of sickness, until Mother Tua had actually managed to slip from her dying body just enough a flowing tentacle of pure darkness snaked out and caressed her son's cheek. It was the last, coherent memory he possessed for three days.
Shaking his head violently to dispel the old memory, he realized Mother Sharia had taken his gesture the wrong way and thought he was rejecting her touch. A pang of guilt stabbed his consciousness as she drew back, quivering with sadness. Why should he care for these horrid creatures that were nothing more than a disease to be chained up until their life essences ran dry, ceasing to be a threat to his Empire and by extension, all life in Equestria?
*Sombraaaaa?* Her empty, dead eye sockets seemed to search his impassive face, look beyond the mask he always kept in place for the sake of his position and standing in the pony world above.
But this was not the pony world down here. Could he not let go, just for a moment? Sighing, he let go part of his physical pony form, his lower half melting, dark and shapeless, swirling deadly tentacles out to her. *Memories, nothing more, mother,* he murmured to her in the Umbrum language.
*Will you not ssshare your birthform with me, my beautiful child?*
She wanted to see him as he really looked. There was a joy in that, but also a great danger. He was too unstable as a shadow shade, with no physical emotions to stay his anger and his hoof. If ever there were a time in his existence he felt more like these abominations of life, of the form of ponies in the realm of nightmares, it was when he was a shadow.
It was when he was the King of Shadows, in form as well as in fact.
Their movements had stirred up the awful smells and staleness surrounding the two umbrum, wafting it in from the main prison area until he could stand it no more. He had sworn to himself the entire trip here from the Crystal Empire he would not do this, but the stench made him hesitate to keep his pony olfactory senses. As long as he could keep his temper intact...
Letting the rest of his body dissolve, the King let another sigh escape him, this time in momentary relief and pleasure. As used to his solid pony body as he had come to be in his life, this was what he truly was...a murky shadow creature denser than the birth mother who swirled happily around him now. He had forever been changed and reshaped by the power of equine blood and the kiss of moonlight ages ago.
*This is not Umbrum form, mother...how can you accept me as THIS,* he murmured, a pair of emerald and red crystal eyes leaking violet energies in the center of the dark mass searching Sharia's empty eye sockets.
*Mother Tua and the ressst of us chosse thisss for you, my little one,* Sharia's whispery voice declared without hesitation and with all the love of a mother who had been beyond desperate to keep her offspring alive at the time. *You were ssso tiny, ssso weak. You were dying and it wasss your only chance to sssurvive.* She nuzzled her wispy form up against his dark mass...he could feel her maternal love seeping through the nearly non-existent barrier of their bodies, passing from her to him. He felt himself start to sink into the bliss of the bond. How he had missed for and longed for this!
*Now, you are our King, my Sombraaa,* she purred, watching his eyes half lid in pleasure. *So ssstrong, ssso powerful. Ruler of ponykind. I am ssso proud of you, my little shadow colt. The Dark Onesss gave you back to me...rescued you from death!*
*Mother...* Sombra's voice softened. He swayed, unaware of when she had expanded her smoky form to embrace her now grown child, hold him as loving parent would. *I've – I've missed this so much!*
*Mother Tua kept you safe,* Sharia cooed to him. *A blessed accident when the moon blood changed her too and she left us. You will sssave usss from thisss wretched existence that possess us, asss Mother Tua knew you would!*
Words as triggers, dredged up memories from beyond the barrier that had made them once unreachable. ”Wretched?!?” Prince Sombra repeated, shrinking back from the smoky tentacle of darkness that issued from his Queen Mother's very pores. “What...what are you? Some thing that has possessed my mother? Taken her form? Is this why she is sick?!?”
The King dragged his consciousness back from the resurfacing memory, his quivering form betraying his mind's attempt to shove the memory back into the deepest recesses of his psyche. If he let it overwhelm him now, make him lose control...
Once back under control, the floating, bright eyes suddenly lit with insight, then narrowed on the female umbrum before him.
*I cannot save you, mother,* Sombra declared, turning away with an effort and sharp disappointment. *I cannot save any of you.*
The umbrum mother drew back from the embrace. *Sombraaa...*
*No,* he said firmly. *This is not open for debate, nor for discussion.*
Sombra mentally winced as Sharia turned her emotions off, growing cold in the blink of an eye. Damn these volatile, umbrum emotions! he cursed, his own feelings growing colder in response. Fine, this would serve him in the end anyway, as a lack of emotion always did when ruling the Empire...
*Then why do you come here, Sombraaa?*
Sombra shifted back into pony form, disliking how hard it was to fight to keep his feelings in check as shadow. Once accomplished, his mask as ruler returned with the ease of decades of practice.
Or so he thought it had.
*I - * he frowned. Why was this so damn hard to get out? *I...fear I am losing my edge.* He pawed at the uneven, cracked earth beneath his hooves absently.
Sharia's circling of her child had ceased as soon as Sombra had shifted back into solid form. Now she floated, almost stock still in front of him, perplexed at his words. *Your 'edge'?* she repeated. *What does this mean, 'edge'?*
Of course she wouldn't know what the colloquialism meant, he reminded himself. *The discipline with which I rule the Empire.*
That got through to the umbrum. *Ah, the – what is it the ponies call it? Ruling with an 'iron hoof'?*
*The lack of compassion,* Sharia elaborated.
Sombra balked at the phrase. *The need for order,* he offered in its place.
*You deny this, Sombraaa?* the creature asked him. *So you have compassion?*
*Not for those who would usurp my - * he began to explain.
*You are growing weak, child?* Now the creature's voice was edged with concern.
*No!* he stomped the dry, cracked earth defensively, offended.
*Then what is the problem, Sombraaa?*
*I – I feel different as of late,* he relented, realizing only at that moment what the problem was. Or was it that he was only just now admitting it not only to another living soul, but to himself as well?
Sharia stayed silent, surprising him. He realized it was because there was more to it than the simple statement told.
*I do not know why,* the umbrum confessed to his birth shadow mother. *It is – unsettling. And those around me, the castle staff, sense it, are acting different. Even Iron Blade...*
*The Commander of my armies,* Sombra clarified. *A friend of many, many years.*
*An ally,* Sharia struggled to grasp the concept.
*More. A confidant. Somepony I can trust.*
His mother made a fair impression of cocking her shadowy head in confusion. The umbrum must not have much of a concept of “friends” or “trust”, he mused. That would explain a fair amount.
*And...their reactions threaten you,* Sharia stated more than asked.
Here was the crux of it. *I – I am not sure,* Sombra replied slowly. He had pondered whether it had or not every free waking moment he had, every moment he had not been with Nyx, that is.
“I will never leave you, my Dark Heart,” a soft, warm voice assured him. It had been Nyx who had told him this, who had soothed his restless, angry soul – a soul so desperate to hang on to the righteous pain of losing Princess Luna that now, without that pain, he was afraid there would be a void in his life and yet, the void had never come...
Was that when the pain had started to fade? When he had taken her to his bed, kept her there through the night, and the next night and the next one, the nights quickly settling into a comfortable routine nurtured by her companionship, her devotion, the scent of her always with him...
Was there something in that? He wondered...
Vaguely he realized Sharia was staring at him, trying to get his attention. How long had she been doing that? The last time he had been so distracted was when he was falling in love with...
His mouth opened in shock. Was he really so dense he had not come to fully realize it UNTIL NOW?
*Gods!* he breathed, utterly stunned. *Nyx!*
*Nyx,* repeated Sombra. His gaze was distant. He failed to see his mother's reaction to the name, as if she recognized it. He locked gazes with her. *My consort...my mate,* he clarified, knowing the umbrum had no word for 'consort' but would understood what 'mate' meant.
*What about this 'Nyx'?* his mother asked cautiously.
*She's the reason!* he breathed. *The reason I feel – differently.* He facehoofed. *I am dense! Iron Blade has been trying to tell me!* Sombra groaned.
*So,* after a moment's silence where both parties digested this revelation, Sharia spoke up. *Your love for this – mare - has made you weak?*
Sombra balked at the thought. Refusing to get back into the argument of that again, he bit back his first reaction in favor of a different approach. *To the contrary, mother. I feel more stable than I have in a long time.*
*But still uncertain?*
His eyes grew unfocused in deep thought. *Perhaps things are beginning to become clear for the first time in - *
Sharia shook her shadowy head. *Poor child!*
*As a vessel for an heir, she would do,* the creature said, thoughtful. *But do not let her cloud your judgment.*
Sombra's face darkened. *She has never 'clouded' my judgment, mother. I cannot be manipulated by her – nor by you.*
His warning was brushed off. *But these emotions do manipulate you, child,* she warned.
The King balked at that. *I have let my temper get the better of me at times,* he admitted.
*You misunderssstand me, Sombraaa,* Sharia said, surprising him. *Anger isss our ssstrength. Embrace it as you always have!*
*I may feed on anger, mother, but I no longer crave it. Every time I have acted in rage, I have regretted it later,* Sombra admitted in an almost tired tone, his ears drooping slightly. *I broke Nyx's wrist in rage over a senseless dream she had, then I almost lost her forever.*
*The price of power, child. Thisss isss why it isss bessst NOT to love.*
He started at the ground, feeling cowed by this tiny wisp of a creature before him. *I thought so as well for decades after Luna was torn from me,* he sighed. *Misery, rage and pain were my only companions that never left my side, fed my strength. They were more constant than Iron Blade's presence.*
This excited Sharia. She swirled around him. *Yes! This is how you keep power, Sombraaa! Embracing it. If the dark-eyed witch weakens you with love, then breed her and send her to the mines. Be done with her.*
He rejected the idea without thought. *No. I cannot.*
*But why if she weakens you?*
*It is not her that weakens me, Sharia. It is my own doubts.*
*She makes you doubt!* His mother's form twitched, flared, angered. *She pollutes your purity with love!* The umbrum's form grew larger, fueled by her anger. Why did her stupid child not see what was so clear?!?
Sombra watched her grow before him, stunned by her sudden fury – though he should have been prepared for it, and also dismayed at how judgmental Sharia was being having not even met Nyx. *Love was my weakness long ago, mother, but Nyx's has been my strength. She calmed me - *
*Calm...weakness...sssame thing for umbrum,* Sharia counseled him. *You cannot have thisss and be ruler, Sombraaa.*
Something occurred to him as she said this. A veil parting in his confusion, like a ray of moonlight lighting his way.
*So,* he began slowly. *You are saying if I be umbrum, I cannot have the love I now feel for her and rule?*
The mother umbrum calmed herself, growing slowly smaller. *That isss correct, child.*
*But Princess Celestia rules, Princess Luna and my father and mother – an umbrum, Sharia...an umbrum ruled before me without resorting to sacrificing what I now feel.*
*And what, pray tell, do you feel, Sombraaa?*
Sharia quivered. *What is – 'content'?* she asked, confused.
*Something you and the umbrum will never have,* he declared, turning to leave.
*Sombraaa, you are umbrum. If umbrum do not have this, this 'contentment', neither can you!* She whipped around in front of him, blocking his way.
*Perhaps. Maybe not even after everything I have done in the name of calling Princess Celestia out for her crimes against Luna and myself and maybe there is no atonement in this lifetime for that. I will have to take the first steps to discover that for myself.* Sombra smirked, thinking of something else. *Besides, as you pointed out yourself, mother, you chose for me to become something more than umbrum. I am also a pony, entrusted to the welfare and protection of a pony Empire by my umbrum mother. I think, in the madness of discovering what she was and what I was, I had forgotten that.*
He sidestepped around her.
*NO!* she screeched, catching up to him after the shock of his words had worn off. *You cannot do this to us!*
He raised an eyebrow. *'Us'?* Sombra echoed.
*Your people...us, the UMBRUM,* she railed, the sound like a stirring of leaves in a violent wind, the crackling sound like fire as they were crushed into dust.
*Again, Sharia, I am not 'your people'. I am neither umbrum nor pony. I am something different, inbetween,* countered King Sombra. *And as such, I have no right to rule here.* He looked at her, pitying her and her fate. *You have ruled in the wake of Queen Tua's death for decades now, and in my absence. You are clearly more qualified by blood and by temperament to do so. You can have the job,* he told her flatly. The entrance was ahead, back up to the Empire. He was not breaking stride to continue this pointless argument with this creature, especially not now that his doubts were settling as to so many things, not just Nyx and his feelings for the TimeWitch that completed him.
Sharia grew again from her rage, filling a third of the cavern with her menacing presence. *Rebellious child! If you don't trust my advice, why come to me at all?*
Sombra stopped at the edge of the crystal guard's magic field, just inside the umbrum's domain. *Oh, I do not know.* he snapped in irritation. *Perhaps because this body you put me in wants me to have a mother – a real mother who is older and wiser than me, can give me advice and cares if I am happy?!?*
*I am older and wiser, child. Why not trussst me?* she hissed.
*Because every word out of your mouth is a deception and a lie. It's corrupted and twisted. All you do and say is so you and the other umbrum can escape. You never cared about me!”
She shrank her form again, stung by his words but also feeling suddenly defeated. *I did, Sombraaa. I could not bear to see my child die in my armsss. I did not care if Mother Tua'sss mad scheme wasss a meansss to an end for our essscape at the time. But now...*
*Therein lies the irony in all this, Sharia,* Sombra observed softly.
*Tua did end up caring for me more once she was trapped in a pony body, like me. Her mad schemes fell by the wayside and in time I became more important to her. In the meantime, you led our people and I became less important to you,* the King of Shadows explained.
*You said you came here for my advice, Sombraaa. Now you sssay I corrupt it, yet there are ssstill doubtsss in your heart you must resolve.*
The mask of the King was falling slowly back into place. She was losing her last, tenuous grip on him and they both knew it.
*I am uncertain of where this will lead me mother, that is all, but I know I must follow what I now know my heart is telling me.*
*If you are still uncertain, son, trust me. I know what is best for you.* She floated closer. They were both so close to the crystal, it buzzed almost unbearably in the parts of their senses they shared as umbrum. *And it is best you stay and lead us!*
Sharia reached out in a desperate attempt to grab him. Sombra stood his ground, looking down where she had surrounded him. He shook his solid pony head sadly and stepped back into the protection of the crystal's field.
His mother screamed and shrank back as the field threatened to tear her to atoms.
*Goodbye, mother. We shall not meet again in this lifetime.*
*Sombraaa! NO!!! DON'T LEAVE US!!!*
King Sombra looked up at the weak yet welcome shaft of moonlight that peeked through the crumbling rock, making a mental note to reinforce the rock with solid crystal when he resurfaced and to strengthen the magical prison wards. There was much to do to protect his crystal ponies and his Empire from these creatures. And beyond that, much to do to makes amends to them and to Nyx...