The Lunar Chalice

by Spirals95

First published

A magical chalice prized to Princess Luna has resurfaced in the collection of a wealthy Griffon family. To retrieve the enchanted cup, she sends one of her followers and his friends. But some of Equestria's enemies have plans for the chalice.

The Lunar Chalice, an ancient artifact created by the legions of Nightmare Moon, is an ancient cup that corrupts potions and their ingredients. Although it was presumed to have been lost when Princess Luna was banished, it has recently resurfaced in the collection of a wealthy griffon family.

Princess Luna has sent Techorse and his friends Midnight Blaze, Shadow Breeze, and Flaming Ivory to retrieve the chalice. While Techorse struggles to manage his team of recently-made friends, Midnight tries to cope with family issues and a voice in his head that just won't leave him be. To make matters worse, it seems there's another individual after the chalice, and what he intends to do with it may change the fate of Equestria.

Why oh why couldn't have Twilight and friends been available?

This story takes place in my Alternate Universe, set shortly after the beginning of Season 3. It is a project dedicated to my friends on this site, and features their OC's.

Midnight Blaze belongs to Wolven5
Shadow Breeze belongs to his owner.

Cover Art by the talented HoodwinkedTales

Prologue - Legend of The Lunar Chalice

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The Lunar Chalice

By Spirals 95


Over a millennium ago...

A secretive inn sat in the reclusive deep woods just outside of Equestria's borders. The log and thatch building, large and imposing with a stone chimney that burned wood day and night, was well protected by the heavy evergreen trees surrounding it, casting shade and darkness over the tavern despite the afternoon sun's best efforts to shine light on it. A pony who stumbled upon the inn might think it was the den of a wealthy thief lord or some other kind of lowlife, but it was merely a hunting lodge and bar that escaped the "Solar Tax" that Celestia had imposed on any place of business that stayed open after the sun had set. While that law was "in the best interest of safety" and heavily favored by the wealthy and the ponies who basked in the glow of Celestia's favor, those who enjoyed the night life felt cheated by it. But here was a rustic and inviting place outside the borders that felt like home to the unfavored.

Arpeggio Inkwell, a loud and pompous unicorn stallion of white coat and blue eyes, approached the building, hugging a green patched cloak to his body to conceal his identity, while struggling to keep his messy black and gray mane hair tucked underneath as well. He approached the large wooden door that permitted entry to the lodge, and knocked with a front hoof. A small trap door opened on the face of the entry way, and a soft pair of pink eyes scanned him over before closing the safety hatch again. The door opened, and Arpeggio entered.

The inside of the tavern turned out to be rather extravagant. Besides the log walls, fancy furs, tapestries, and lit chandeliers that hung from the slanted ceiling, many tables with soft white tablecloths were spaced out in the room. Smaller candles in glass bottles were placed at each table, and the front of the building featured a large mahogany wooden throne decorated with antlers, likely shed by foreigner bucks who had come to the woods to do their yearly drop of their antlers in privacy.

Each pony in the room was also wearing a hoof, and was focused forward on the throne, empty currently. Arpeggio took his seat near the front, sitting on an empty wooden chair, and kept quiet, just like the others in the room. Very little conversation short of whispers was happening.

"I cannot believe I have agreed to this..." he thought aloud, looking around the room.

Ponies of every trot of life were around him, from poor farmers to some of the most wealthy individuals he had known about. Rich and poor sat at the same table, treating each other as equals. After all, they were there for the same reason.


The chandeliers in the room blew out suddenly, darkening the tavern and silencing all in the room, the only remaining light coming from the candles on the tables. With a loud bang and a flash of blue energy, Princess Luna appeared on the rustic throne, sitting and staring out at her subjects. To her flanks appeared four dark pegasus guards, armored in silver, with wings like bats.

"Remove thy cloaks, let me see your faces!" bellowed Luna, raising her left hoof.

Every pony in the room dropped their hoods, including Arpeggio, whose mane bounced freely out of the cloth in its curls. At his table turned out to be a group of merchants, unicorns and earth ponies mostly, who looked forward at Luna with the same lack of contentment.

"A good afternoon, my most loyal followers," bellowed the Princess of the Night, standing up from her throne, an angry look on her face, "our time has finally come. For almost a century, mine own kindred hath brought tyranny and despair to Equestria. Laws that punish those that favor the night, taxes that squeeze the wealth out of the successful, and favors to the servants of the Sun!"

The four guards left her side, and brought in a large pewter cauldron, whose legs curled down to the floor, and an engraving of a dragon on the front let the group know the sinister intent of the magical cookware.

Princess Luna continued her monologue in her loud tone, "We are the ones who go unloved while those of the day continue to gain all the fame and glory! We are the ones who work while others sleep. Celestia's birthday is celebrated with a festival of roses, whilst I receive nothing. The guards who put their lives on the line for my sister during the day receive double the pay and honors than the ones who protect us from bandits in the darkness. Celestia's greed and corruption must be punished!"

Arpeggio felt extremely uncomfortable and wish he hadn't have come to this diabolic meeting. He was the court composer of the Princesses, but had spent more time with Luna as Celestia paid no attention to his music. Yet he could not find fault with the Princess of the Sun. He knew that the reason Princess Luna went ignored was not because Celestia was corrupt herself, but the lack of gratitude of Equestria as a whole.

The problem had begun centuries ago. At the start, the Two Sisters ruled Equestria with the Harmony their family had discovered, and all was well between them. Back then, most ponies were just hoping to be able to survive, with the number of bloodthirsty monsters and the threat of starvation looming. Every pony was thankful for both Celestia's work and Luna's, Celestia's sun provided their crops with the light needed to grow, and Luna's watch of the night protected them from the monsters, bandits, and the icy cold. But things had changed over the hundreds of years, technology and the advent of a more modern economy meant businesses that opened only during the day, and a taboo for ones open during the night like bars and inns. Most of the more ferocious monsters had been cast into the prison Tartarus by Equestria's allies, the wraiths who lived just to fight monsters for fun.

These strong changes led to heavy division in Equestria, and Harmony itself seemed to be threatened. Ponies who worked during the day looked down upon the night life, especially the wealthy elites who chose to suck up to Princess Celestia, and even bribe their way into getting minor nobles to pass laws taxing establishments they found "distasteful", again, the places of the evening Luna's friends and followers enjoyed. They could care less that what they were doing was destroying Princess Luna's life, and making a lot of Equestria miserable.

"Everything is about to change on this evening," continued Luna, interrupting Arpeggio's inner monologue, "for today the Eclipse shall blot out the Sun, and the night shall last forever!

The room burst into cheers, except for the musician, who sat there dumbfounded. Were they really going through with this plan a few years in the making? A plot to overthrow Celestia?

The cauldron was already half filled with a whitish liquid, likely just milk, but the guards returned, carting in an object covered with a velvet cloth. The covered object was presented to the Princess of the Night, who laughed and removed the cover with a quick swish of her magic. It was a large silver chalice, dotted with gemstones on the long neck, with an insignia of her crescent moon on the front of it.

"Behold!" said one of her guards, "The Lunar Chalice! Forged by your strongest unicorns using dark magic forbidden by our disgusting Enemy, it will corrupt any potion whose ingredients are measured by its cup! Concoct our drink for the evening, your Majesty, and let us taste true power!"

Princess Luna hovered the cup over the cauldron of common milk, and with a flash of energy summoned a vial of potion catalyst she had hidden underneath the floorboards of the establishment, teleporting it from underneath the building to just about the chalice. The cork came out, the bottle surrounded by her aura, and she poured the contents into the chalice, a light blue liquid. As soon as it hit the inside of the cup, the fluid darkened to a pitch black, the cup's moon glowing white. Princess Luna then poured the fluid, dark as motor oil, into the milk, and a wide cone of dark energy surged from the cauldron as the milk was turned into a mutagen by the effects of the chemical from the chalice.

The guards approached the cauldron, and started to fill wooden cups with the potion, using the dragon's mouth carving as a spigot. Soon a glass of the potion was available to every pony in the room. But the Lunar Chalice was empty again, and Luna held it, she was not going to partake in the drink at all. Instead, she was given by one of her unicorn guards a greenish bottle, a wine decades old that Luna loved very much, expensive and rare, but perfect for the occasion.

She uncorked the bottle, and poured the wine into her chalice, which did not recognize it as a potion ingredient and therefore didn't react. Now she too had a drink like her followers, who raised their cups, along with Arpeggio, who was not too eager to drink.

Princess Luna raised the chalice, "Drink hearty, my friends! For after, we will vanquish the day, and bring forward a new Equestria!"

The ponies tipped their glasses and finished their potions as Luna consumed her glass of wine, but Arpeggio let his spill on the floor while pretending to drink the potion near the edge of his table. Around him, the potion took effect on the others, changing them into creatures of the night. Their wings became sharpened and bat-like, and their irises became diamond shaped. Sharp teeth replaced their ordinary bite, and they laughed at their new forms darkly, knowing the royal guard was in for a shock.

"The distraction hath been set," whispered a guard to Luna, "the hydra has been released and most of the royal guard has left to dispatch of the beast."

"Equestrians of the Night!" shouted Luna, dropping the cup to the ground, "We strike now! To the castle where my foolish Sister knows not what is coming! Equestria shall be ours!"

Princess Luna's horn erupted a beam of blue energy, destroying the ceiling and flying through with her guards and the supporting pegasus ponies. The others galloped out of the inn to follow, leaving Arpeggio alone and miserable in the empty bar. He slowly walked up to the chalice, left on the ground with a few drops of wine leaking out, and stared at it.

With a soft glow of magic, the unicorn picked up the magical cup, and hoped there would be peace after this evening. This cup would serve as a reminder of what happened that fateful night, he believed, as he tucked it away underneath his cloak, and turned to go watch the battle from a mountain near the castle.

Of course, we know how the story goes from there...

Chapter 1 - A Princess's Summons

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Chapter 1

The throne room at Canterlot's castle was empty, yet bright, light filtering in to the high-ceiling room where the thrones of the Princesses sat. Princess Luna, normally preparing for her nightly delve into the bad dreams of her troubled subjects, stood near one of the windows, letting the soft rays warm her up, as she felt cold from something troubling her. Her two loyal guards gave each other concerned looks, but stood in silence, hoping that their leader was going to be fine.

“Yet more loose ends crop up,” she sighed, tilting her head up, “do you suppose I will ever truly be free?”

Silence would likely further her pain, but the guards Jools and Jops didn't see it as an opportunity to answer. The brothers stood there like rocks, the white pegasus ponies having normally tended to Celestia had no idea how they could help her sister with her problems.

Eventually though, one of the brothers knew they'd have to say something to the distraught Princess Luna. They had been informed that morning by the royal about her new predicament, and to keep it a safe secret from her sister, which would not be easy.

Jools decided to be the first to speak, and grunted in his masculine voice, “Well my lady, you're doing the right thing by having something done about the situation at hoof.”

“I appreciate your kind words,” she answered glumly.

There was a knock on the massive doors to the throne room, and Princess Luna called out for the visitor to enter. The throne room doors opened, and escorted in by two gray unicorn stallions was Techorse, a green earth pony stallion with brown, messy mane hair, blue eyes, and his cutie mark of three yellow checkmarks stacked like chevrons, which sometimes disguised his profession as an inventor. On his back was a metallic saddle, his favorite invention way ahead of its time, a robotic toolkit which concealed his personal gadgets dubbed the “Battle Saddle”.

“Techorse, you're here,” said Luna, smiling as she turned away from the window, “thank you for coming on such short notice.”

Over the past year or so, Techorse had been introduced to friendship by Twilight Sparkle and her friends after having a rough start in Equestria. The young inventor had also developed a good relationship with the Princesses, and was eager to help them whenever he could.

“Of course your Majesty,” answered Techorse, a smile on his face, “you wanted to see me and bring a few of my friends?”

“Yes, as you know, Twilight Sparkle and her friends are out on a diplomatic mission to Saddle Arabia,” confirmed the Princess, nodding, “so I hoped you would be available to take on this task for me.”

Earlier that morning, Techorse had been checking his mail at his small fortress built on the edge of Ponyville, when he saw the red royal wax seal over a letter addressed to him. The instructions from Princess Luna were to gather some friends and meet at Canterlot Castle to discuss an important task she had for him.

“Of course, your friends don't seem to be with you,” she said, looking behind him just to make sure they weren't in the doorway, “were they let in by the guards?”

“They weren't permitted past the tea room,” sighed Techorse, “Do you think you can come downstairs and explain to us what's wrong? Your letter made it seem pretty dire.”

“Absolutely,” answered Princess Luna, “Jools, Jops, you are dismissed.”

The two guards nodded and left the throne room with them, with Luna and Techorse proceeding down a set of marble stairs down into the main area of the castle, where they turned left to enter the tea lounge. The room was open, with many bay windows letting in light, a fine wooden table draped in white tablecloth sat in the middle, where servants had brought tea and fresh cookies for Techorse's friends. Two were seated at the end near the snacks, making the table seem rather unnecessarily large.

One was a pegasus with a graphite coat and a black mane with electric blue stripes running throughout, his brown eyes timid, yet bright with energy. His cutie mark, a black colored heart with a white dove over it, declared his role as an ambassador. The other was a very light gray unicorn with a fluffy and messy black mane and tail, a single white stripe running throughout, and a cutie mark of a flaming note on a set of piano keys.

“Oh wow, never met either of the Princesses before in my life,” said the unicorn, getting up from his seat and walking over to Princess Luna, “It's an honor to meet ya! Name's Flaming Ivory.”

Despite his rough, city-like talk, Flaming proved himself to be a bit traditional as he took Princess Luna's hoof in his and kissed her metal slipper gently before returning her leg to the ground.

“Flaming Ivory, I suppose you are a musician,” she said, looking him over, reminding her of a servant she once cherished so long ago.

“Piano, of course,” he smirked, “what else is there?”

Princess Luna took amusement at the comment, then addressed the pegasus, “I've already met you, Shadow Breeze. I hope your training as a diplomat for Equestria is going well!”

“I'm so close to my final exam,” he answered eagerly, flapping his wings and hovering in the air in front of the alicorn, “your sister should have my assignment ready soon... I hope.”

He landed in front of her and bowed gently before standing back up.

“Techorse, Celestia and I are happy you've made other friends besides the girls,” said Princess Luna, turning and addressing all three of the stallions with that bit of worry still stuck on her face, “and now that you're all here and the girls are out, I am counting on you to help us in her place.”

“Just say the words, Princess!” said Flaming Ivory confidently and highly informally.

Princess Luna's horn glowed a soft light blue color, and an image of a silver chalice appeared out of thin air in front of the stallions. The silver cup with a crescent logo on the front and sapphire gems dotting its stem rotated slowly so they could get a good look.

“This is my clearest memory of my chalice,” explained the Princess, “my favorite cup since ancient Equestrian times. A thousand years ago I took a last drink from it before being banished to the moon. Now that I've returned, I want to reclaim the chalice and keep it here in Canterlot.”

“Oh cool, a treasure hunt,” said Shadow Breeze, smiling, “I guess it means a lot to you!”

Princess Luna gained a worried expression and continued, “This is more than just a treasure to me. While I'm very ashamed to admit it, this chalice was forged by unicorns loyal to me when I allowed that demon to transform me into Nightmare Moon.”

The three stallions' ears dropped in surprise, tilting back in worry.

“Uh oh... it's cursed?” asked Techorse, hoping that wasn't the case.

“It is not cursed in the traditional sense of the term,” Luna admitted, “it was forged from a magic sensitive silver, in tune with the light of the moon I protect. Whenever the chalice is exposed to the light of the moon, the cup corrupts any magical liquid poured into it. Thus, one with evil intent can measure the ingredients of a potion during the full moon using this chalice, and create evil brews with terrible power!”

“So the chalice corrupts potions only when exposed to moonlight?” said Techorse, simplifying the explanation.

She confirmed his answer, “Yes, and while many artifacts created by my followers were destroyed, the condition of requiring moonlight helped it to avoid destruction, or so it would seem. It has recently turned up in a collection, and I need it back to prevent it from falling into the wrong hooves.”

“So what's the matter?” asked Flaming Ivory, raising an eyebrow, “Can't you just go to the chump with this cup and demand it back?”

Princess Luna didn't appreciate his attitude and growled back, “The chalice is in the possession of the Fletcher family, a wealthy griffon household that live in the city of Stargazer's Peak. They have refused to give back the chalice on account of its value, given that it's a keepsake of my past mistakes, and have refused to see me. I need a diplomatic team to trade for it.”

“That sounds like a job for Shadow here,” said Techorse happily, patting his friend on the back.

“Exactly, but I wanted you to lead the expedition Techorse, as the griffons in Stargazer’s Peak have heard of your cooking appliance business and frequently use your ovens meant for use in the mountains,” the princess continued, “your inventions have given you a bit of a name there.”

“Among other things I'm sure,” joked Flaming Ivory, aware of Techorse's adventures.

Princess Luna ignored the humor, “I have an offer for twenty five thousands bits for the chalice on a scroll. Please take it to the duke and duchess of the Peak and offer to trade the money for the chalice. Griffons will usually accept a generous offer such as that.”

“Gladly, and thanks for this assignment,” said Techorse, “I was getting a bit bored with Twilight being out for so long.”

“Aren't you short a team member?” asked the Princess, looking over the stallions, “I do believe you responded to the message I sent saying there would be four of you on this journey.”

“Oh, he had some things he said he needed to take care of with family,” answered Techorse, scuffing his right hoof on the ground, “we'll pick him up on the way to the train station to head out east for Altitude’s peak.”

“Good,” she said, smiling, “and once again, thank you so much for agreeing to help. If this chalice were to get out, there's no telling what kinds of dark magic might happen.”

“D... dark magic?” gasped Shadow Breeze, terrified of the thought.

“Come on, Shadow,” assured Flaming Ivory, “we're just gonna go get the cup, and there won't be any dark magic sailing around, ok?”

“Ok,” answered the timid pegasus, perking up.

Techorse turned to them and said with a smile, “This is going to be fun. Let's head for the train station and wait for our fourth pony.”

“Good luck Techorse,” said Princess Luna, “and thank you.”

“It's an honor,” he assured her, before heading out with his two friends at his sides.

The Princess thought as she watched them leave, “I hope they can retrieve that accursed cup. I only told them the least of what it can do...

Chapter 2 - Midnight Blaze's Calling

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Chapter 2

Just a few miles away from Fillydelphia, an arcane oddities shop sat out near the roads that led out of the large city. Into The Mystic, a humble yet surreal store to visit, was the home of Midnight Blaze, who perfected his art of crafting magical tools and quite often a joke item or two as well. The inside of the cluttered store was lined with his various inventions, but almost all of his business came from the sales of control runes he crafted using his magic, stones imbued with magical energy that activated machinery and defenses in castles and factories across Equestria, such as shields and energy cages to trap pests. It was this more frequent business outside his shop that let him continue to live and operate his store, which didn't see all too many guests. A blue unicorn, with a black mane and tail like a wolf's, his lighter blue eyes and stripe in his mane hair failed to convey his quirky nature and friendliness once you got to know him.

Midnight was finishing up the process of closing down his store, dusting the long wooden shelves like a library in the open, darkened room, with strange chandeliers lighting the place becoming dimmer. He had received his letter from Techorse earlier this morning, asking him to meet him at the train station in Canterlot by four in the afternoon, with the urgent note that Princess Luna needed his help in locating an artifact. Since magic tools were his specialty, the unicorn was aware Techorse was trusting his expertise in the matter and was gearing up to go help.

He waved around a duster made from ostrich feathers over the shelves, cleaning up some of the filth from the past week, when he heard the chimes hung above his shop's door ring.

"We're closed," called out the blue-coated stallion, "I'm shutting down early today, I have to go help a friend."

"I'm sure you have time for me... son."

Midnight Blaze's heart sagged, his throat tightening up for a bit.

"No, not now..." he cried inside.

"Hello father," answered Midnight in an uninterested manner.

He dropped the feather duster on the shelf just as his parent came around the shelf to face his son. Ignitus was a large, overbearing unicorn with a reddish coat, a strict look in his eyes colored like hot coals. His mane, black like his son's but with gold highlights instead of light blue, further contrasted him from his offspring, right down to the nature of their cutie marks. His was a flaming shield overlaid with a short sword, while Midnight's was an inverted crescent with a supernova in the center. About the only thing they had in common was their exposed hooves style of coat hair on their legs, even then, that was concealed by Ignitus's dark trench coat.

"I've come to talk to you," he said to his son.

"I figured," answered Midnight, twisting it with just enough sarcasm to irritate his father.

The older stallion grumbled, then continued, "Listen, I've received word on your upcoming travel to help Princess Luna. I think it'll be good for you to see what it's like to travel like I do, helping to solve other's problems, instead of sitting here tinkering. It could be a good lead into you becoming a member of the Royal Guard like your 'uncle', and myself."

Midnight tried not to let his blood boil over the commentary. His father had always wanted him to become a soldier just like himself. But Ignitus had left the Canterlot ranks years ago to become a wandering defender of Equestria, working more as a private investigator than a true guard. Midnight hated how his father left his mother and younger brother at home so often to "fight the good battle" out in Equestria, which in this day and age meant just solving a case or simply preventing a robbery.

"Why can't you just leave off about the guard already?" groaned Midnight, "I bring in a plenty good living making runes here like your grandparents did..."

"My grandparents did not have the same life as myself," interrupted the elder, sneering at his son, "we've been over this. I must help with Equestria's problems, it is our duty as a family to do so."

"Which you've never explained," countered Midnight, scowling, "leaving the rest of your family out in the cold without telling us why."

"You don't need to know why," sighed Ignitus, "trust me when I say you don't want to know. Now, if you like this quest, will you please consider giving up on this stupid inventing hobby of yours and becoming a real stallion?"

"Dad, Techorse is also an inventor, ya know, the pony I'm helping out?" growled the son, "We have the same exact hobby."

The father knew he was going to say that, and knowing he had his son in a trap, sprung it on him mercilessly, "And when was the last time you crafted a decent weapon like Techorse? I've heard of his exploits before, my foal, those new 'laser cannons' and his monster-busting 'battle saddle'. He's a warrior and a friend to us all."

"Yeah well, he hates using them, if you knew him," sighed Midnight, shaking his head, "he always feels bad after getting into a scrape. I've been right there when it's happened."

"I didn't say you had to like being a fighter for Equestria, just that it needs to happen, instead of this dead-end dream you have of creating some gap-closing device that will bring earth ponies and unicorns in line," Ignitus explained.

Midnight felt crushed. His project, the mindstones which would allow a single pony to control an object belonging to them using just their thoughts, was his life dream to help earth ponies manage tools meant for unicorns. Techorse had been successful with a kitchen appliance business along the same lines, and he wanted to contribute to society as well. Every time his father showed up though, it was the same thing, that his dream was idiotic and that he should give up doing what he loves, what his cutie mark meant, to pursue his own vision of what his son should be like.

"If you loved me, you'd support me," he said, sniffling a bit, trying not to cry.

Ignitus felt a twinge of pity, but he had to remain strong for his reasoning, "I do care about you, Midnight. It's why I push you."

"Well, you're pushing me away," answered the young one, "now get out, I need to go to Canterlot and catch the train."

"Very well, but promise me you'll take this with you," asked the unicorn, his horn glowing orange as he presented a gift to Midnight magically.

It was a small brown paper package, wrapped up with plain string. Midnight took it and inspected it with his own magical aura, looking over it.

"Open it, please."

Midnight unwrapped the package, revealing a fine leather notebook in blue, with his own cutie mark on the front.

"A personalized journal?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

"A travel log... but yes, you're right," answered his now smiling parent, "and there's a fresh pen inside too. Use it to keep track of your progress."

"Sure," he muttered, taking it with him as he walked over to his saddlebags, packed with some of the things he thought he would need for the long journey ahead, "I need to close up shop, dad. Can you please get going?"

Ignitus said not another word, only following his son's instructions as he stepped outside. Midnight came out soon with his bags tied at his sides, locking his shop with his key before giving his father one last look of contempt. The red unicorn stood there as he watched Midnight walk away from him, shaking his head slowly. He remained lost in thoughts about his son until long after he had left, and eventually decided he needed to return to his latest case.

A few steps away from the shop, however, and he rapidly spun around, drawing a small dagger out from underneath his trench coat magically.

"Who's there?" he demanded.

The figure on top of the magic shop snickered, "It's only your cousin, Ignitus. Put the letter opener back in your pocket."

From off the roof of the building jumped Captain Arbiter Axechop, a white pegasus pony, as big as Ignitus with a blue cape clasped around his neck, the clasp containing an image of his cutie mark, a broad axe formerly meant for darker purposes. Most notably, Arbiter was missing his left eye, a dark scar through the organ remained, and a black eyepatch covered the wound. Arbiter had been Canterlot's replacement Captain after Shining Armor went to work with Cadance in the Crystal Empire. In fact, Shining had replaced Ignitus years before, but Ignitus's "discovery" caused him to leave his work, and start his investigation job.

The cape drooped to the ground as Arbiter stepped forward to face his relative, a sinister snicker in his voice.

"That was a rather blunt conversation with your son, don't you think?" asked Arbiter, smirking.

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't spy on my family," he answered sternly, "it's none of your business why Midnight won't become a soldier."

"Your choice of words gives everything away," laughed Arbiter, "I came here to talk to you about this adventure Princess Luna has Techorse going on with your son."

"Oh?" asked a curious Ignitus, eager to hear the likely overheard information.

"You seem to believe that by spending time with Techorse, Midnight will end up turning into a hero as well," said Arbiter, "I can tell you from experience that green stallion's no hero maker. Learned that the hard way."

"So I've heard," sighed Ignitus, "you just had to pick a fight with a friend of Twilight Sparkle's, didn't you? Honestly when I heard about what you had done, I believed it was the end of you, or worse... they'd cast you into Tartarus."

"Ignitus, this is the point I'm trying to make and why I had to follow you here," continued Arbiter, his good eye tracking his cousin as he walked around to avoid his gaze, "Techorse is not going to have the effect on your son you want. I viewed Techorse as an enemy, and he turned me into a... friendly rivalry, of sorts."

"You two are best of friends now after you tried to do him in?" chuckled Ignitus, a rare moment of genuine joy.

"We are not best friends!" grunted Arbiter, a blush forming, "I'm merely saying Techorse's mode of work is to crush his opponent, then offer them redemption, following in the footsteps of our own Element Holders. He isn't a soldier, nor does he want to be one."

Ignitus's ears folded back in disapproval, "You're saying I'm being set up for disappointment? My son's going to be stuck as a lousy gemcrafter for the rest of his life?"

Captain Arbiter frowned, frustrated with his cousin, and drew from a sheathe underneath his cape a longsword with amethyst gemstones glowing at the base of the hilt. The glowing stones tracked the Captain's eyes, and with their power, the sword floated in front of him as if being held.

"Your son's gem project has given me this sword, and my previous method of sword use," explained the Captain, "I think his place in Equestria is different from what you want, but it's still quite useful to the military if that makes you any happier."

He re sheathed the blade, taking note of Ignitus's subtle curiosity, and continued, "Look, I understand what you found out before everything changed in Equestria. It's definitely not comfortable, and it certainly explains my own tendencies and history as well. But don't end up like me Ignitus, don't sacrifice family for some sense of justice Equestria doesn't need."

"I suppose that's how we're alike," sighed Ignitus, "too cynical and too dark for a world glowing in Celestia's sunlight."

"Perhaps, but I think it's more of a matter of perspective, something we all need," he replied.

"You've changed, Arbiter..." trailed Ignitus as he sensed his cousin's newer nature.

"Well, I've seen the light," answered the pegasus, closing his one eye and smiling gently, "and perhaps Midnight's journey will help you see it as well. That's my hope anyways."

He spread his wings and stepped back, "Now, I must head back for Canterlot. I'm sure you have your own business to attend to."

"Of course, safe travels cousin," answered the red unicorn, nodding.

Arbiter took to the skies, his cape fluttering behind him, leaving his cousin to think about the conversation below. Perhaps he needed to change, and not his son as he had thought. But he wouldn't consider that option quite yet, there was still the possibility Arbiter was wrong, and that Techorse would make Midnight turn over a new leaf. The unicorn tightened the cords on his cloak, and slunk off to get back to work.

Midnight Blaze had managed to make it a few miles away from his shop on hoof, he could have tried a little teleportation to get ahead, but he couldn't stew on his father's ignorance while casting, so he elected to stare at the ground while mulling it all over. The path was lined with tall oak trees, the green leaves soaking in the early afternoon sun, and the gentle breeze of the spring moving the branches gently. From someplace in these trees, Midnight Blaze thought he could hear a voice calling to him.

"He doesn't understand. I do."

The uncanny message sounded almost like his father's voice, and Midnight Blaze stopped staring at the ground, looking up and around. There wasn't anypony around, certainly not his father. He decided it was probably just his imagination, and continued to walk forward.

"Do not worry, you will be by my side soon. All your dreams shall come to pass then."

That voice was definitely not a figment of his imagination. Midnight Blaze stopped and looked around rapidly, starting to panic.

"Who's there?!" he demanded, "This isn't funny!"

But the voice had stopped, it would not address him again.

"I must be so anxious about dad I'm hearing his voice in my head," the unicorn told himself, "and that's definitely not what I want to hear the whole time I'm helping out Tech. Gotta stop thinking about it and move on."

Midnight picked his head up, the distraction having stopped him from thinking about his father, and he trotted on, hoping he could still catch his train.

Chapter 3 - The Train Incident

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Chapter 3

Canterlot's train station was a place bustling with activity, massive sets of tracks set beneath concrete platforms, with brass arches over them, running up the walls to a fancy glass dome roof. Ponies shoved past each other in the congested station, arguing as the conductors of the titanic steam engines in the stations pushed back to try and maintain order. These were commuters trying to leave Canterlot after a long day at work, and as usual impatience and fatigue from the grind was getting the better of the crowd.

Despite the noise, Techorse and his friends were seated a bit more comfortably on the other major platform opposite of the commotion. They sat on a pink painted metal bench behind their engine and train. Flaming Ivory took notice of the fact that their platform was relatively empty save for their own conductor and a few others loading cargo onto some of the boxcars on the train.

“Ha, look at those fellas pushing around over there,” he said, pointing at the crowd with a hoof, “makes a guy thankful he's a musician and not an office drone.”

“Be nice Flaming,” criticized Shadow Breeze, “they've had a rough day.”

Flaming Ivory noticed the piece of jewelry hanging around his pegasus friend's neck, and continued, “Yeah, I guess. But what time is it anyways?”

Shadow Breeze didn't bother to look at the overhead clock, and instead focused on the amulet around his neck. The diamond-shaped red ruby gemstone, encased in gold like the chain that kept it around his neck, glowed slightly as a thick ray of shadow extended from the gemstone and onto the floor, where it displayed a clock face.

“It's about four,” he muttered, looking at the hour hand displayed on the face of the clock before the shadows receded into the jewel.

The shadow amulet was an artifact he had found one evening while exploring a cave the first time he left Cloudsdale to pursue a career in diplomacy, against his parents' will to some extent. The pegasus hadn't thought much of it at first, but it was capable of producing shadowy energy at will, but it was controllable by almost anyone who borrowed it. He was told by an expert artificer that it was a shadow puppetry toy and nothing else. He'd believe it if it didn't occasionally make the shadows explode...

“So we've got fifteen minutes then before this old piece of junk takes us to Stargazer's Peak?” asked the pianist, interrupting Shadow's thoughts as he glanced back at the train.

It was a massive beast, a large freight steam engine far different from the one that went through Ponyville, black in color with eight mighty wheels painted white coupled together to the pistons at the front that dragged the strong engine forward. The boiler making up the bulk of the machine was at rest, although thin wisps of steam escaped from the wide smokestack on top of the engine. Behind it was a mixed train, with three red-painted passenger cars at the front, and a line of boxcars to carry cargo.

“It's not a piece of junk, Flaming, it's a freight train,” said Techorse indignantly, “there's only a few passenger cars because only a few ponies visit the mountain town we're going to.”

“Yeah but it's an overnight, I was kind of hoping for an actual bed,” sighed the unicorn, “we're going to lose a lot of sleep.”

“We get there early enough in the morning that we can just sleep at the hotel Princess Luna got us a few rooms for,” responded Shadow Breeze, “it'll be late, but we'll be fine.”

“Speaking of late, where's Midnight at, the train leaves in fifteen minutes and they're going to be boarding us soon,” worried Techorse, looking to see if his friend was somewhere in the crowd.

Midnight pushed his way past the horde of workers trying to board their afternoon ride home, his ticket having already gotten him this far into the train station. He knew the departure time was in minutes, and he'd have to hurry. It took him shoving a little bit, as he was trying to avoid using magic indoors, and found his friends on the opposite side of the platform, which he crossed carefully to their side via an overpass bridge laid in an arc over the track. The three other stallions looked up at their friend, their faces lighting up from them knowing he'd made it. But before he could actually make it to his friends, Midnight paused as that nagging voice came back.

Are these your friends? I can't wait to be introduced to them.

Techorse frowned when he saw Midnight stop and look around for the source of the voice. He hadn't heard it himself, and was worried something was troubling his friend.

“Midnight, we've got to get on board,” he called out, “come on!”

Midnight thought he was going nuts as he couldn't find the obvious stalker, and trotted up to Techorse and company.

“Finally,” declared Flaming Ivory bluntly, “let's get going!”

“S... sure,” stammered Midnight, looking around again, “sorry I was late, guys.”

“No problem,” answered Techorse, “is something wrong? You seem a bit worried.”

The blue unicorn was tempted to tell Techorse he felt like he was being watched, but he decided to lie for the sake of time, “Well, no, just something with family. Let's get on the train, I'll talk about it later Tech. Right now I want to get to know your other friends, I haven't met them before!”

“Well, you'll have plenty of time on this trip!” said Shadow Breeze, “My name's Shadow Breeze, and the short fused one is Flaming Ivory.”

“Hey, I'm not short fused, I'm just easily bored,” snapped Flaming.

“See?” snickered Shadow.

Midnight smiled, knowing he was going to like Techorse's other friends, but as the ponies went to the conductor to board the first passenger car, the voice whispered again in his ear, making him cringe.

Don't let them know about me just yet. We need this to be a surprise.

After that, the specter seemed to leave again, and Midnight didn't hear a word while the ponies got settled into their own passenger car. The other passengers had filled the previous two cars, leaving them by themselves in the final one as per the Princess's instructions to the railroad. Luna had demanded they treated her team as well as they would treat her, and so, the four ponies were seated down in front of a large window on the left of the train car, a rounded red cushioned sofa and granite table in front of them. The other passenger cars had these rounded seats as well that put a group of four together, they were luxury cars meant to make the overnight journey a little bit more bearable, with room to sprawl and relax, and the table to play a game or eat a meal on. A fancy blue carpet ran the length of the car in the middle, and a small lavatory sat on the far front right of the car, and the ceiling was decorated with white painted floral patterns, a red cord hanging from one of the decorations.

Techorse took his seat next to Flaming Ivory in the back of the couch, with Midnight and Shadow sitting at the sides. The whistle of the train sounded soon after, and the engine began to chuff as the boilers were ignited and steam was pushed through the pistons, turning the wheels. With a sense of great power about it, the steam engine started from the station, pulling its heavy cargo behind it dutifully as its boiler came to full heat. Once the train had made a safe distance from the station, a switch track up ahead directed the engine away from Canterlot, and the engine traveled past a control tower and interesting array of signal lights before heading out on the lone track for Griffon territory.

About a half hour into the journey, the team was already beginning to show signs of boredom, having caught up fairly quickly. Flaming Ivory knew he was in for a long ride, so he opened up his carry on bags and took out with his magic a fancy magazine, purple on the front with a picture of a mare playing a keyboard on the front, titled Notehounds. He flipped through the pages of the issue, with its large obnoxious font on front, and came to a very interesting section.

The unicorn whistled, and then promptly chuckled to his buddies, “Hey guys, check this out.”

Once the other three stallions had bunched up around him, Flaming Ivory smirked and flicked open the centerfold of his magazine, getting a reaction of surprise from his friends.

“Woah!” exclaimed Techorse, shock in his eyes.

“Oh my...” whimpered Shadow Breeze as Midnight gritted his teeth.

“Heh, thought you guys would like it. Check out the knobs on her,” said Flaming, poking a hoof into the spread pages.

It was a picture of the latest model of electronic keyboards produced by Flaming's favorite company, so long it spanned the centerfold's length of three pages, with all sorts of buttons and knobs to control how the music it produced sounded, its echo, and all of the other modern options available. It was propped up on a heavy tripod, meant to be played on a stage.

“This is the OmniChord 30-Z,” explained Flaming Ivory, “the biggest electronic keyboard in Equestria, with the most options and the best sound quality. Will never be able to actually afford one, but I thought you guys ought to see, especially Techorse, since it's a cool gadget, in a way.”

“Yeah, that is a really neat keyboard, but how are you supposed to play that?” asked Techorse curiously, “With all those buttons I wouldn't be shocked if the thing also made coffee and did your laundry!”

“Oh it's easy enough, just gotta get used to all the extra options, but boy do these sound good when you plug them into a decent amplifier,” answered the musician, “of course, nothing beats the string piano, but I would love to get my hooves on one of these monsters!”

“Especially if it actually did make coffee too,” joked Shadow.

“That's silly, who'd invent that?” asked Flaming.

Techorse laughed, “Please don't tempt me!”

A soft “ahem” from beyond the magazine made the stallions stop, and they looked around it to see a stewardess in front of them, an earth pony with a blue hat and dress waiting patiently for them to look up. She had a blank, disbelieving expression on her face, to her they could have been looking at anything in that spread out magazine.

“Oh um, sorry,” said Flaming Ivory, collapsing the centerfold as his cheeks went red.

Notehounds huh?” she asked, her throat dry.

Flaming Ivory choked up, “Yeah, I uh... read it for the articles.”

“Mhm,” she answered in disbelief, “well, anyways, Princess Luna wanted us to give you some drinks to make it through the night. Would you all like a nice cup of lemon tea?”

“Yes please!” answered Shadow Breeze eagerly.

The stewardess passed out a nice set of white teacups, and left the stallions with a kettle of boiling water and a box of lemon teabags to get started with. She poured them each their first cup, and then, after giving Flaming Ivory one last look of contempt, pushed the drink trolley out into the back of the passenger car and into the connecting bridge between the cars to go serve the other guests.

“What was that about?” asked Techorse, waiting for his tea to steep.

“Well, Notehounds is kinda more for rockstar ponies,” explained Flaming Ivory, “I'm a jazz guy, but ponies from Canterlot don't like seeing rock music instruments, never mind hearing them.”

“Is this like that thing where if you play a rock song backwards it's supposed to sound like Tartarus or something?” asked Shadow Breeze awkwardly.

“Yeah...” answered Flaming, nodding slowly, “I've never been able to get a gig in Canterlot because of that. Makes it hard to be a good musician if you can't.”

“Don't worry, something will turn up,” assured the pegasus, smiling.

Nighttime had fallen over the train, now out in the plains in front of the mountains, smoke and steam sent into the air as it moved along, the moonlight shining down on it. In the engine's control room, exposed to the chill of the night, the four engineers controlling the machine continued to feed the beast coal and keep the speed regulator set properly. The four earth ponies, dressed in their striped shirts and overalls, could sense some kind of a disturbance. Some kind of noise other than the engine was coming from above the train, and they looked about in the darkness for it.

“Did you hear something?” one of them asked.

“Yeah, of course, could be anything, probably just some birds...” answered one of his companions.

Without another sentence, one of the engineers spotted something and let out a terrified scream, but a figure had sounded the whistle on the train, muffling the panic. Just as they had come, they left, and the train's situation had been radically altered.

“That waitress hasn't come back yet,” said a sleepy Flaming Ivory, his head firmly planted on the table in front of him, “we're gonna need more caffeine if we want to survive this.

“Well, the car they use to store everything's just in front of ours, right behind the coal bunker,” suggested Techorse, “we could always walk up and ask, if the door's not locked.”

“I'm not going out there!” whined Shadow Breeze, hating the idea, “We might fall off.”

“Shadow, there's guard rails for a reason, we'll be fine,” assured Techorse, “let's go on up.”

The four got up from the table and headed to the front of the car, a latch in front of the glass door that led to the outside world. Techorse's battle saddle's side ports opened up, and the pair of robotic arm manipulators he used to grab things extended out, the thin metal hands reaching for the latch. Soon he opened it, and the machinery retracted back into the saddle with a whirring noise as the doors on it closed.

“It's going to be chilly out there,” said Shadow again, still not convinced he should be going outside.

Flaming Ivory rolled his eyes, “Don't be a weenie. Think of the free drinks.”

Outvoted and feeling like no one was listening to him, Shadow's ears sunk back as the other three ponies stepped out into the night. The metal bridge that connected the cars had a convenient set of rails to prevent accidents, and the three ponies crossed it single file, shortly followed by Shadow. Techorse undid the latch on the car ahead, and opened the door slowly. It was pitch black inside, much to his surprise, but he helped his friends to get in before fumbling for a light switch and turning it on.

When the car illuminated, Shadow Breeze screamed. All four of the engineers and the stewardess were unconscious on the floor of the car, with kitchen equipment scattered everywhere.

“Holy crap!” exclaimed Flaming Ivory, his fluffy hair standing on end, “Are they...?”

Midnight Blaze's mouth hung open in fear, but he slowly approached the stewardess and held a hoof to her muzzle.

“She's still breathing!” he said with relief.

“So are the engineers,” continued Techorse, nodding as he checked the vitals of the other four crew members, “and they don't seem to be hurt. Think they got sprayed with some kind of sleeping chemical.”

Midnight Blaze inspected the stewardess closer, and noticed a smell of turpentine on her breath.

“Our waitress's breath smells like concentrated sleeping potion, guys, I think they were held down and forced to drink some.”

“Hey, guys,” whispered Shadow Breeze, his eyes widening at a sudden thought, “You know what this means don't you?”

“Yeah?” asked Flaming Ivory, “Guess we're not getting those drinks, huh?”

“No... if the engineers are here...”

Techorse's heart skipped a beat, “Oh no... we gotta get up there quickly!”

The four ponies left the knocked out ponies behind in the car, nearly bashing down the front door. Before them was the tall coal bunker, with another safety rail around the edges. Shadow Breeze worked up the courage to fly over, but the others had to go around since the coal couldn't be climbed on. They noticed there was no connector between the coal bunker and the engine, but it was a narrow gap, and the three others jumped into the control room of the train.

It was a bulky wall of complex metal parts, valves, and levers running all over the place, with a massive glowing cavern in the center where coal was fed into the firebox to feed the engine. Steam pressure gauges and a water level meter dominated the left side of the console, whereas the actual controls were on the right, mostly regulator levers to control speed.

“Oh man, how do we drive this thing?” cried Flaming Ivory, looking over all the valves and controls, “There's so much I don't know about trains...”

“Techorse, do you know how steam technology works?” asked Midnight Blaze hopefully, “Because steam engines are bit out of my jurisdiction.”

“Sure I know how a steam engine works, but driving a train isn't the same thing,” he said, gritting his teeth, “but all we have to do is stop it and wait for the engineers to wake up.”

“Great, except the brake's been broken off,” said Midnight, pointing with a hoof at a place on the floor of the room.

The base of the lever remained, but the handle where the brake was supposed to be was snapped off, a wooden fragment was all that was left.

“The train will run out of coal eventually and we'll coast to a stop then,” concluded Techorse, nodding, “Looks like whoever did this intended on us not getting there on time.”

Shadow Breeze noticed a piece of paper folded over once taped to one of the red circular valve handles, and removed it with his wing, opening the piece of paper with his hooves in front of him. His face went pale, as much as a pony's could, as he saw the contents of the note.

“Techorse, you should see this!” he whimpered.

Techorse and the others stepped over and looked at the piece of paper. In it was a crude drawing of the four of them on their sides in front of a wrecked train, X's over their eyes and their tongues hanging out.

“Ok, first of all, rude,” complained Flaming Ivory, “second of all, if those jerks are still on this train, I'm gonna give them something to think about!”

“Wait, why did they draw the train being wrecked?” asked Midnight, going over the paper himself, his light blue eyes darting over the caricature, “We're just going to run out of steam.”

Shadow Breeze swallowed back his fears, and spread his wings, flying up to see how their invisible enemies planned on crashing the train. The pony landed quickly on top of the train, the boiler's thermal jacket keeping him from burning his hooves on the metal body. The pegasus couldn't see too far in the dark, the headlight of the train having been shut off, and he returned to the cabin.

“Somepony's shut off the train's headlight,” he said, “can we get it back on?”

Midnight Blaze cast a light spell, illuminating the controls completely with his horn, and located the switch connected to the headlight of the train. Flipping it with his hoof, the path ahead was illuminated as the light came on, and Shadow Breeze checked again, flying up to the top of the train and landing on it behind the smokestack. He felt panic when he saw that just a mile ahead, was a hairpin turn in the track to avoid a river.

Landing again in the control room, he quickly explained, “There's a really sharp turn up ahead, and we're stuck going at full speed!”

“Heh, well those losers forgot we can just have Midnight here teleport us off the train safe and sound,” chuckled Flaming Ivory, rubbing a hoof on his front, “let's get out of here and watch the derailment, might be fun.”

“Except those other two passenger cars full of ponies and the crew might go squish,” cried Shadow Breeze, tears welling up in his eyes, “we can't leave them!”

“Whoever did this knows us too well,” said Techorse, anger swelling in his heart, “they know we wouldn't abandon the crew or the other passengers and would ride the train down rather than leave them. They're sick.”

“There's got to be a way out of this,” said Midnight, “I'll try moving the brake magically.”

“You can't, it's been welded shut,” answered Techorse, shaking his head.

“Then we just cut the cars loose and let the engine go,” grumbled Flaming, “let's do that.”

“I don't know if we have time to cut it,” said Midnight quickly, “we should just try to free the brake now!”

Shadow Breeze dried his tears, trying not to think about becoming a puddle in a train wreck, and sat there gloomily while his friends argued about what to do, a few minutes from them derailing at high speed. Suddenly, he thought about something he could do to help, and started to fly back behind the coal bunker again.

“Shadow, where are you going?” asked Techorse.

“I've got an idea!” he said, “wait here!”

The three remaining ponies sat there trying to quickly come up with a plan, Flaming Ivory peeking out the side and seeing the sharp turn coming up.

“We'd better hurry...” he said, “otherwise we're toast!”

“Let's jam the brake and see if we can work it!” suggested Midnight, “If we're lucky we might...”

Suddenly, a very loud hiss was heard, and the screeching of steel as the train suddenly started to brake without warning. The three ponies were tossed forward, smacking into the controls of the train as it ground to a halt, sparks flying from the tracks underneath. Even though the coal was still burning brightly and the wheels on the engine were still trying to turn, the rest of the train had ground to a halt, and the weight of the cargo was holding back the engine, which strained against its load until finally, the couplings snapped off from the conflicting forces and the wheels stopped altogether, letting the train come to rest on the sharp turn.

Techorse peeled himself from the control panel, along with his friends.

“I think I lost a filling...” trailed Flaming Ivory, standing up.

“What was that?!” exclaimed Midnight, rubbing his head.

Shadow Breeze returned to the control panel, a big smile on his face, “I stopped the train! I can't believe it!”

“Excellent work Shadow, how'd you do it?” asked Techorse with approval.

Shadow Breeze blushed and scraped his hoof on the floor, “I... I pulled the emergency brake in the passenger car. The little red cords coming from the ceiling?”

A few moments passed before the ponies realized how trivial the answer to their problem had been, and they laughed nervously about it for a moment.

“Boy are we stupid,” chuckled Flaming Ivory.

“We were panicking so much we forgot the obvious,” admitted Techorse, wiping some sweat from his forehead, “but hey, we didn't go off the rails, that's what matters. Thanks Shadow.”

“Well, the other passengers seem to be ok despite the stop, so now what do we do?” he asked, folding his wings at his sides.

“We wait for the engineers to wake up, and have them fix the train,” answered Midnight, “Looks like we're stuck here for a while.”

Flaming Ivory smirked and started walking for the front car, saying back to his friends, “In that case, since the crew is still knocked out, I'm helping myself to the food and drinks.”

Techorse rolled his eyes and returned to the controls, looking them over. It was clear they had been smashed up, but several scratches had been placed deep into several of the valve lines and hoses, like claws had been raked across them. After analyzing the scene, he followed his friends back into the train, for a well-deserved cup of coffee.

Chapter 4 - The Lecture

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Chapter 4

A spacious lecture hall was brightly lit at the university, a wide open room with rows upon rows of chairs for students to sit in while their professor demonstrated. White colored walls ran the sides of the hallway carpeted in blue, and the back doors clacked shut as the students filed in to listen to their educator, Midnight Blaze, who was giving a lecture on some of his magical inventions.

“The mindstone is the future of household tools,” declared the unicorn, proud that he was finally able to give a lecture on his life's work, “with it, earth ponies and pegasus ponies will finally be able to use equipment only unicorns could pick up.”

Midnight walked over to the black granite counter top near him, where one of his precious mindstones sat attached to the base of a large salad fork.

“Watch, I'll pick this up without using any of my magic,” he said proudly to his class, focusing on the fork.

The amethyst colored gem at the bottom of the oversized eating utensil glowed brightly, and it started to float into the air as Midnight Blaze's eyes tracked it. After a few moments of hovering the fork in front of his face to show the class, he dropped it back on the table. Pleased with himself, the young inventor trotted over to a nearby green chalkboard, which was covered in runic symbols drawn in white chalk, and a diagram of the Equestrian brain with several arrows pointing to a drawing of a diamond.

“Mindstones are enchanted to attach themselves to the thought patterns of the Equestrians that own them,” explained the unicorn as he pointed at the drawing, “each of us has a unique pattern, just like our cutie marks. I hope someday to perfect the technology so that all Equestrians will be able to maximize their abilities.”

Proud of himself, he turned around to face the students, eyes shut, “So, are there any questions?”

Midnight found himself not getting a response from his class, so he opened his eyes. All the students he had been teaching were gone, and the room had grown eerily dark and quiet. He knew he had heard the chatter of the pupils before he started giving his lecture, but he couldn't remember what any of them looked like. It was as if they hadn't actually entered the classroom to start with.

“What happened?” he sighed, his ears drooping in disappointment, “Was I too boring?”

Not at all!

It was that stupid voice again, and Midnight gritted his teeth, looking around for it, but his eyesight couldn't quite get through the darkness. All he could see was a faded figure, clearly a larger stallion, as he had imagined his unwanted guest to be based on his voice.

“Oh no, it's you...” growled Midnight, “Look, if you don't stop talking to me, my friends are going to think I'm nuts!”

“Oh, well that's a shame, now isn't it?” chuckled the specter, staying in the darkness but clearly smiling, “I thought your presentation was delightful. Your mind is far too good for what that ignorant fool thinks you should be doing.”

Ignorant fool?” thought Midnight, curling his front hoof in caution, “Does he mean... my dad? How does this guy know about me and my father's fights, and why the hay does he care?

“Your thoughts aren't as safe as you think they are, Midnight,” warned the stranger, “though your guess about your father is accurate, I am a bit disappointed that you don't seem to really understand why I'm supporting you.”

“I probably don't understand because you're making me think I've gone crazy,” answered the unicorn gruffly, “if you're trying to help me, why are you making me look like I have a mental illness?”

“Mental illness, Midnight Blaze?” mocked the darkness, “I am no mental illness, I am very real. Unlike your 'dad', I want to talk to you, to support you, and see this mindstone project to completion. That's why I'll be meeting you very soon.”

“Who are you?!” demanded Midnight, stomping his hoof back down, “And how come you can read my mind?”

“Only one who cares about you,” answered the voice, “enough to watch over you and guide you to me, where you'll be exactly what you deserve to be. For now, all I can do is consult your mind, whether you're awake... or asleep.”

Midnight understood now that he was dreaming, and looked around nervously. This was obviously a horrible nightmare, and any second now, Princess Luna would step into the dream and ask him about the progress on restoring the chalice. But these thoughts were intercepted by the shadows and the darkness, and it continued to torment him.

“Princess Luna isn't here, nor will she be able to enter this dream,” said the voice eerily softly, “I cannot have her keeping us apart. As it is, one of my loyal servants has made a tiny error in trying to stop you from reaching your destiny by breaking your train.”

“Oh yeah,” muttered the unicorn in response, “the engineers had to come to, and we all fell asleep in the car while they got out to fix it and get us moving again.”

“No matter,” assured the voice, “his mistake is forgivable and easily understood. Patience and calculation is important, Midnight Blaze.”

Midnight could sense the slight annoyance, and knowing he was dealing with something out of the realm of what he knew and understood, he decided to grovel in hopes of getting peace. The room was beginning to get extremely cold, as if his body heat was being drained from him slowly.

“Please, whoever you are, don't make me go insane! I'll do whatever you want, just get out of my mind!”

It answered honestly, “You're already doing what I wish, why should I leave? I enjoy our conversations, and I have no intent to harm you, the opposite in fact. You'll see soon enough.”

Midnight Blaze was shaking like a leaf now, and the force in the room seemingly took notice as it relaxed, returning his body heat rapidly.

“Before you leave me for now, I'd like you to promise me you'll make sure those ponies traveling with you stay with you,” it requested, “they should be present for your ultimate triumph in life.”

“My friends?” gasped Midnight, “You leave them out of this!”

“There will be no arguing about this, if you told them I exist they would indeed believe you to be insane,” reminded the spirit calmly, “Now, make sure they stay with you until we meet, and also...”

Without warning, the ceiling of the lecture hall was ripped open, and bright rays of light shone down, dispelling the darkness and flooding the room with light again.

“Until we talk again...” whispered the fading voice, just as Midnight Blaze was shocked awake.

“Midnight wake up, we've made it to Stargazer's Peak,” said Techorse softly, shaking Midnight with a front hoof on the back of his neck.

Techorse and the others had already woken up hours ago. With the engineers having had to get out of the train and repair the wheels manually, they hadn't made it to the city to sleep at the inn. Each of the other three ponies had gotten only six hours of sleep by napping on the train's separate seats, but they looked much better than Midnight. The poor unicorn looked as if he hadn't have slept a single minute, his eyes were heavy and his expression was miserable.

“I guess you were tired,” Techorse continued, encouraging his groggy friend to wake up, “did you sleep ok?”

Midnight was tempted to talk about the nightmare, but he could remember his dream vividly. They'd think he was crazy if he told them about the voice, so he simply smiled.

“Yeah, I slept fine. Just need some more caffeine, I guess.”

“Heeey now that's the idea,” interrupted Flaming Ivory with a happy laugh, “Let's go bug our very thankful wait staff whose lives we totally saved for some coffee!”

“I'm sure they'll love it if you keep bringing it up,” sighed Shadow Breeze, shaking his head and smirking.

“Come on Shadow, I'm new to this adventure thing,” answered the musician, “besides, I know you want a nice hot cup too!”

The pegasus yawned, and then blushed a little bit.

“Well, maybe a little bit.”

“All right, we'll go talk to the staff for some coffee,” said Techorse, “we'll bring you one Midnight, just stay here.”

Midnight nodded slowly as his friends left the train car, leaving him alone to his thoughts as he looked out of the window at the rising sun. The mountains were clearly around them now, and the air felt much colder, perhaps why he was a bit chilled in his dream.

“This is all just me being upset about dad,” he reasoned, still sure he wasn't actually talking to someone real, “Besides, Luna doesn't have time for every pony's dreams, I was just lying to myself to make the nightmare more comfortable.”

Princess Celestia was attending to a charming yellow orchid, a handsome flower that had been given to her as a gift by the local greenhouse for helping them fix their facility the last time it was damaged in a storm that had swept through Canterlot. The beautiful plant received a fresh drink of water from a small can the alicorn held with her magic above it, and she smiled at her new treasure.

“Celestia, I need to speak with you for a moment,” said her sister from behind her.

The Princess of the Sun put down the watering can next to the plant and turned to face her sibling. As soon as she saw her sister's facial expression, the smile given to her by the orchid disappeared. Princess Luna looked very upset about something, her eyes betraying her feelings.

“What's wrong?” asked Princess Celestia, “I haven't seen you this upset in a long time.”

“It's Midnight Blaze, Techorse's new friend,” explained Luna, “You see, I sent him with Techorse to retrieve the Lunar Chalice. I wanted it to stay a secret, but now something terrible has happened.”

“The chalice?” asked Celestia, taken aback by the name of the artifact, “I thought it had been destroyed.”

“Perhaps I should have been more upfront, but no, it has not been destroyed,” admitted Luna shamefully, “that evil cup still exists in the collection of an affluent griffon family. I have sent Techorse and his friends out to retrieve it as Twilight Sparkle is absent... I wanted to protect the chalice from abuse.”

Princess Celestia had known about the chalice and what it had done in the past, but in the modern world, it was unlikely anyone would even know how to use it, “Luna, I am pleased you have sent our friend Techorse to retrieve the chalice. Everything is behind us now, there's no need for shame anymore.”

“That is not what I am worried about,” continued Luna, shaking her head, “I am worrying because I have not been able to dreamwalk with Midnight Blaze. I was able to locate Techorse, Flaming Ivory, and Shadow Breeze's dreams, but Midnight... wasn't available.”

Her sister could tell that wasn't a good sign, but not knowing much about Midnight besides the fact that he was Techorse's friend and was aiding him, she made a suggestion.

“Perhaps Midnight did not sleep tonight. The stress of this quest you've sent him on might have given him a sleepless evening.”

Celestia's confidence in her answer was soon broken with Luna's response, “I would agree under most circumstances... but I was not unable to locate Midnight's dream and sleep pattern. I found them, but I could not get in... it was if I was being... pushed away by a strange force.”

Luna sighed, and then continued as her guilt got the better of her, “Perhaps he did not want me there. I have never been denied entry before, but I can understand why. I should have done the retrieving myself like Flaming Ivory suggested.“

The other alicorn watched her closest family member's head and demeanor sink slowly. It was clear the subject was making her feel bad, and Celestia didn't want that to continue. Perhaps it was time for a break, and she knew just how to convince Luna to take one.

“I don't know much about Techorse's other friends besides Shadow Breeze, who is about to become our next diplomat,” said Celestia, smiling again as she hinted at a much needed change of topic, “would you like to tell me about them over tea?”

Her sister's happiness returned, her head lifted up again and a weak smile returning, “I'd... love to.”

Chapter 5 - Stargazer's Peak

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Chapter 5

Barely functioning with its rudimentary repairs, the freight train finally reached the station in Stargazer's Peak. The engineers were forced to remove the brake and regulator assemblies entirely and rely on a wrench attached to the valves to adjust their speed, but they had made it safely with all passengers uninjured, thanks to their special guests sent by Princess Luna. The station was an outdoor stop, rather humble with just a water tower and a ticket booth. Nearby was the high-altitude town, its stone carved homes with thatch roofs clearly of griffon origin.

Techorse was the first to step off the train into the station, taking a good look around at the city in front of them. He could see several griffons dressed in conductor's uniforms talking to some of the train engineers, a few were discussing the sabotage from the night before. Since most of the ponies who went to Stargazer's Peak were tourists, and the griffons there would hate for their tourist industry to be harmed, the griffons running the station took the act seriously and went to report it to the local authorities for further investigation.

“All right, we made it!” cheered Flaming Ivory as left the train, making it onto the platform.

Shadow Breeze and Midnight were the last to get off, joining their friends on the platform. They didn't have any luggage, as they were only planning on being there for the day to negotiate for the return of the chalice. As they turned to leave, one of the conductors of the train hopped out from the steam engine's mutilated control center, and walked up to Techorse. He was a taller earth pony with a tan coat and bright green eyes, his black mane tucked underneath his blue cap.

“Wait, before you go!” he said, “Once again, thank you so much for saving the train and protecting the passengers. We're talking about free train fare on our line for life here once this gets to the board of directors.”

“I appreciate the offer, but what we really need is for this to be kept quiet,” requested Techorse, “whoever sabotaged the train wants to believe we're not here today.”

“A bit too late for that son,” answered the conductor, “we've already contacted the local police. But hey, the free passage offer is still on the table.“

“All right, but we really need a way to send a message back to Princess Luna about what happened,” said Techorse sternly, “she deserves to know she's not the only one gunning for her chalice.”

“Oh, so that's what the Princess wanted, something that belongs to her?” asked the conductor, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow with a hoof, “Guess those jerks who blew out our controls must be trying to steal it to sell for a ton of dough.”

Knowing about the magical properties of the cup, Midnight hoped that the others looking for the chalice would only be interested in the handsome pile of money it was worth. Maybe someone else found out about how much they were going to offer the duke and duchess of the Peak and was hoping to steal it first. But a bad feeling in his gut told him otherwise.

“Well don't worry!” continued the worker, interrupting Midnight's thoughts, “We've got the cops out looking for suspicious behavior, and there weren't any stowaways on the train, so whoever did that to us is probably gone now. Good luck getting the Princess's treasure back.”

“Thanks...” trailed Techorse, hoping for a name.

“Oh yeah, my name's Timetable,” he answered, smiling, “we'll see you at the station for the ride back.”

“Great! Hopefully we'll have that chalice with us,” said Flaming Ivory confidently.

The four turned away from Timetable and started to head for the gravel path that led up into the village, when they were stopped by an eager passenger who had waited patiently for them to stop talking with the conductor.

“Hey, wait up!” he called, getting the team to stop.

He was a pegasus pony, about their age, with a pleasant gray coat and blue eyes, light blue hair with a black stripe in a jagged mane that fell off to the sides, and a tail that was tied back with a narrow band near the base. His cutie mark was a set of letter a's, one uppercase and one lowercase next to each other on a leather-bound book.

“Thanks for saving us back there,” he said, “my name's Typesetter, pleased to meet ya!”

“You're welcome,” answered Techorse, trying to be friendly, “I'm Techorse, and these are my friends Shadow Breeze, Midnight Blaze, and Flaming Ivory.”

“So what do you do?” asked Shadow Breeze curiously.

“I'm a professional writer,” answered the other pegasus proudly.

“Ah, so unemployed then,” Flaming Ivory joked with a smug look on his face, earning a nasty look from Techorse.

“Flaming, you hop from gig to gig as a jazz artist, you're one to talk,” he said to him.

“It was just a joke,” complained the unicorn, rolling his eyes, “sheesh Techie.”

Anyways,” grunted Typesetter, “I actually own a pair of bookstores that my parents gave to me, one in Canterlot and one here. When I'm not writing, I'm selling books to the tourist. The griffon locals never seem to want to buy anything though.”

“Typical,” sighed Flaming Ivory, “but hey, bookstore owner is a pretty neat job.”

“It's pretty rewarding, but during the tourist season sales are better up here, so I move up and work the store here while the Canterlot outlet is run by my sister,” the author explained, “want to come see the shop?”

“We'd love to, but we've really got to get going to the duke's estate,” explained Techorse, “we're on an errand for Princess Luna.”

“Well see, that's where I come in,” snickered Typesetter, “the duke recently announced that he has forbidden ponies from entering his estate grounds.”

“What, why?” asked Shadow Breeze, “That seems really strange.”

“It is, and the locals are upset about it too, they've never seen their leader act like this before,” nodded Typesetter in agreement, “I used to see tourists come to visit his rose garden all the time, he made good money off of admission to see them and have tea there. But recently the duchess hatched a daughter, so maybe he just wants more time with his new chick.”

“So how are you going to help us?” asked Techorse.

“Well, the duke has always ordered books from me, and I get to make one final shipment to his library,” he continued, pointing back to a cardboard box being offloaded from the train, “if you come back to the shop with me, we can come up with a plan to get you inside. Think of it as a thanks for not letting me become railway slime.”

Techorse smirked at the comment, “Lead the way!”

Typesetter's bookshop was called The Fine Print, a standalone shop in the center circle of the griffon town. It was made from stone like the other buildings, and was insulated with both thatch and some kind of tile roofing that kept water out of the home. A brick chimney ascended into the sky from the side of the store, and the two-floor building had a wooden door entrance in the front, which Typesetter unlocked using a key tied around his neck.

The inside of the bookshop was clean and well-lit to the surprise of the guests, featuring a small cafe area sunk into the ground near the front of the building right next to the idle fireplace. Bookshelves were scattered in the main floor area on red throw carpets over the cold stone floor, and the front desk where Typesetter worked had a set of coffee machines and a cash register for him to complete his sales with. A wood staircase led to the above loft area, where Techorse and his friends could clearly see a bed and some other amenities where their new acquaintance lived when his shop was closed.

“Nice place you've got here,” complimented Shadow Breeze, “It's really simple, but cozy.”

“You should see the store in Canterlot, much better than this,” he said, “I've got an entire apartment attached to that one, and it doesn't freeze overnight.”

After locking the door behind them, he ushered them over to the lounge area, where he started a fire in the empty fireplace to get the room heated. They sat around on the comfy, haphazardly arranged beanbag chairs, and warmed up.

“So, why did you guys need to get into the duke's estate again?” asked Typesetter.

“Princess Luna has sent us on a mission to offer the duke a sum of bits in exchange for her Lunar Chalice,” answered the green stallion, shifting in his chair, “she says the duke has not wanted to give back the chalice.”

“What? The duke said no to Princess Luna?” asked Typesetter, his mouth falling open, “That's... that's the strangest thing I've heard yet about him. Something is definitely not right here.”

“What do you mean?” asked Midnight Blaze, “The duke hasn't always been like this?”

“Well I mean, his new child might have something to do with it,” he responded, his ear flicking once, “but Princess Luna is such a loved name here. She practically founded the city.”

“Oh?” asked Flaming Ivory, curious.

“Yeah, before she was banished, Princess Luna gave Stargazer's Peak a generous donation of astrological equipment to build the observatories located just outside the duke's estate. That's why we're a big tourist attraction, ponies come here to observe deep space through the ancient magical telescopes Princess Luna had constructed. Of course, it's been a thousand years and the arcane telescopes don't work, but they're museum pieces now.”

“But then why would the duke not want to help out Princess Luna?” asked Techorse.

“There's no way he's forgotten the history of the town,” said Shadow Breeze, “do you think he's found out about the chalice's power and he wants it for some reason?”

“Maybe he wants to keep it for himself to try to reactivate the arcane telescopes,” figured Midnight Blaze, “deep space telescopes powered by magical energy tend to be fueled with something, so it might be the only way to make fuel for them.”

“I've got just the thing,” interrupted Typesetter as he pointed at the table, “this book right here on the table.”

The coffee table had a good pile of books on it, including one put face down on the table opened to a particular page. Flaming Ivory spotted the book, and knew it wasn't the one Typesetter wasn't talking about. But when he had a closer look at the cover of the green book lettered with silver, he could see that it was written by him.

Jungles of Intrigue, by Typesetter...” thought Flaming Ivory, as he picked up the book with his magic and began to read from the page.

“Without warning, the half-snake, half-pony creature wrapped her long, powerful body around the hapless explorer Font Maker. 'Mmm, aren't you a little lost?' she hissed teasingly...”

Typesetter, turning red, quickly grabbed the embarrassing work of fiction from him, “Whoops! Sorry about that...”

He replaced the self-authored book with the actual history book he was going to show the ponies in the room, a big red volume with a picture of the biggest observatory in the town.

“This is a history book on the telescopes,” he explained, “maybe one of these will give us a hint.”

“Well Midnight, you're the expert on magical tools here, take a look,” said Techorse, encouraging his friend.

Midnight Blaze smiled and started to flip through the pages while his friends watched, coming to the information he was look for.

“Here it is,” he said, pointing at an open page describing a potion recipe, “this is the list of ingredients used to make the fuel for the telescope's operation. The fuel is spent in a combustion chamber to both move the telescope and power the arcane conduits to magnify the image in the lens.”

“Can I get that without the ridiculous vocabulary?” teased Flaming Ivory.

“Sure, it means this fuel is burned in an engine of some kind to power the telescope,” answered Midnight, ignoring the musician's teasing.

“But would the chalice be necessary to make the fuel?” asked Techorse.

“I wouldn't think so,” said Midnight, “but the only way to be sure is to ask.”

“And that's what you're going to get to do,” assured Typesetter, “we're going to go make that book delivery, and you guys are going to help me unload it.”

“They'll never fall for it,” sighed Shadow, shaking his head, “there weren't that many books in the pile, and they'll probably watch.”

“Do you have any other ideas?” asked Typesetter, “I really want to help you guys meet the duke, but he's been so strict lately...”

After a few moments, the author stood up, “Wait, I've got it! We'll need a little help from another buddy of mine though. Let's go talk to her.“

Typesetter extinguished the fire with a nearby pail of sand, fizzling out the hot coals, and then led his friends to the front door, which he prepared to lock up. Flaming Ivory picked up the green adventure book while he wasn't looking, and brought it up to the writer.

“So, how much for your little self-published gem here?” he asked, holding the book up to the author.

“I can't sell you that, that's a draft of my work in progress,” answered Typesetter, “and it's not really meant to be published at all, it's just for my friends in Canterlot.“

“I dunno, seems pretty interesting to me, a stallion lost in the jungle ends up struggling with some kind of mutant ponies,” said Flaming Ivory, “I wanna find out what happens.”

Typesetter cleared his throat, “I'm not sure, you'll just find it awful. My friends and I are kind of weird.”

Flaming Ivory smirked and flicked his white-striped tail, “Have you seen me and those guys? Two inventors, a wet noodle diplomat, and a traveling musician. We're total weirdos too.”

The author seemed comforted by his kind words, “Well, I guess you can read it if you want to. I won't ask for money for it, just let me know how it is.”

“Awesome,” said Flaming Ivory, tucking the volume into his saddlebags with his orange magic aura.

Typesetter brought the others through town, where the ponies got to see how griffon life was up in the mountains. Due to the economy largely centering around tourism and the astronomy museums, most of the griffons owned shops where they sold things to ponies who had come to visit. The real rush of tourists would not come for another week, so many were preparing their places for opening, stocking shelves and opening up storefronts with various wares. The buildings were huddled close together, but many mountain flowers grew in the planters that separated out the village streets, and a crystal clear river of glacial water flowed through the town, so pure it could be drank from directly, and one of the griffons sold pewter mugs just for that purpose.

Eventually after a tour of the town, a theater building located just outside of the village sat attended by a small group of griffons who were talking about the latest play they were going to show. Typesetter smiled and brought Techorse and company up to the birdlike residents.

“Hello Kaila, Jordie,” greeted the gray stallion, getting the first two's attention.

Kaila was a tan-feathered female with a soft personality and a warm voice, her talons groomed perfectly and shined, she wore a light blue sun hat, and was usually the lead of whatever performance was being shown at the theater.

“Oh hello Type, nice to see you around here,” she said, batting her feathery eyelashes, “I see you've brought some guests.”

“Yes, and we need your help. These guys need to see the duke, but after his decree, not sure that will fly,” he said.

“Yeah well forget about the duke,” grumbled Jordie, stepping past Kaila, she was a black and white plumed lady, with piercing hot pink irises, “he's a jerk. Lemme see these ponies.”

Jordie was wearing a backwards blue baseball cap, and seemed to be chewing gum, cracking it in her beak while looking over the ponies in front of her. In contrast to Kaila's sweet perfume and makeup, she smelled of gunpowder and burnt feathers.

“So what do you guys want,” she said, standing on her hind claws to get a better look, “we're busy here getting ready for a musical, and it's getting pretty messy.”

“Oh, so you're part of the play, too?” asked Shadow Breeze, smiling.

Jordie wasn't having any of it, “Guess you could say that, I do pyrotechnics. I'm not pretty like Kaila here, so I blow stuff up.”

“Please be kind, you are beautiful, somehow,” choked Kaila to her friend, not really helping out.

“Whatever showgirl,” she answered, “so, what do you guys want anyways?”

“We're looking for a way to get into the Duke's estate without being caught,” answered Techorse, “apparently he hasn't been taking guests lately.”

“Yeah, I know,” said the griffon, cracking her gum again, “I used to do fireworks for his estate during celebrations. Used to. He fired me.”

“What my friend means to say is,” laughed Kaila nervously as she pushed past her, “she has good reason to help you get in! We've got plenty of costumes in the back, and I think we know just the ones to fool the duke's new security.”

“Fantastic,” said Shadow Breeze, eager to try, “what are we going in as, pizza delivery?”

“Heh, you wish...” chuckled Jordie, spitting her gum out onto the sidewalk carelessly, disgusting Kaila.

Techorse and his friends didn't think they were going to like what Jordie's plan was, but getting inside to see the duke was more important than whatever embarrassing costume Typesetter's friends could come up with. Following the two griffons and their support staff, the ponies entered the theater to go put on their costumes.

Chapter 6 - Enter Rosseth

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Chapter 6

A gray-feathered griffon stood outside of the velvet colored doors of the duke's estate. Garth was a strong guard for the wealthy ruler, and tall and imposing griffin with a bandolier full of throwing darts strapped to his front. Such a setup made him look strange, but no pony or griffon had tried to enter his master's estate, so his job was clearly getting done.

The duke's home was a large mansion, roofed in red tiles atop whitewashed walls that contrasted with the cheaper thatch roofs of the other homes in the area. Each of the twelve distinct segments of the estate were connected to the central courtyard Garth was protecting, the rose garden the duke loved so much beginning to look even more beautiful as the petals of the roses detached from their blooms and sank to the floor.

Garth leaned up against the door, his front arms crossed over him, and looked up as he heard steps taken in the garden. Typesetter, the local book merchant, had arrived with a stack of books to deliver to the duke's library, as had been expecting. But Garth was curious about another set of ponies following close behind Typesetter. There were four of them, and they were dressed in overalls, dark shirts, and black caps. One of them had a fluffy dark brush held in some sort of mechanical assistance tool that resembled a set of arms, probably some kind of unicorn novelty. No matter how strange they looked, Garth knew they weren't invited and would need to get rid of them.

“So, you're Typesetter then with the duke's books?” he grunted, keeping calm about the unexpected guests.

“That's me,” answered the pegasus, smiling, “I've got the ones he asked for, and I'll stock them in the library for him like always. Is he in today?”

“Yeah, but he's still taking no guests,” sighed Garth, “now who are these clowns? They look stupid.”

“We're chimney sweeps, sir!” explained Techorse, holding up the fluffy brush, “We're here to take the soot out of the main fireplace like the duke asked for a few weeks ago.”

Garth didn't believe the duke had asked for chimney sweeps to clean out of any of the fireplaces, but also figured it would be better to just let them clean than to risk them running off and telling the townsfolk the duke wasn't even accepting basic services anymore.

“Ok, get up there and clean out the stack,” he growled, pointing to the brick chimney in the middle of the home, “and don't spill any ash into the house.”

“Great, thanks!” said Techorse, “Let's get to work guys!”

“Grab a ladder and get up there, ponies,” instructed Garth, pointing to a nearby gardening ladder laying on the ground near a rose bush with shriveled leaves, “I want to see you go in, and come back out.”

They obeyed the griffon's instructions, setting up the ladder against the side of the building and climbing up to the tile roof, then again scaling a drain pipe until they reached the large chimney's opening.

Shadow Breeze peered down the filthy passage and coughed, “Do we have to do this, Techorse?”

“It's the only way we were going to get in,” confirmed his friend, “once we're inside, we'll figure out where the duke is and get the chalice back.”

“Don't you think he's gonna be upset we broke into his house?” asked Flaming Ivory, raising an eyebrow, “Hard to trust a guy breaking and entering.”

“I've got good reason to think the duke is having problems with his life right now,” Techorse explained, a stern tone to his voice, “we need to find him and help him out, whatever is wrong.”

“Techorse has a point,” said Midnight, “his sudden stop of letting guests in is really bothersome, and since we're on a diplomatic mission from Princess Luna, it's our job to settle problems with Equestria's allies.”

“We'd better get cracking then,” nodded Flaming Ivory, “after you, Tech.”

Techorse climbed up to the mouth of the chimney, and undoing a rope at his side, lowered the twine into the wide rectangle lined with soot. After securing the climbing rope to the brick, he grabbed the edges with his mechanical arms still outside of his saddle concealed by the coat of the costume, and slid down. His friends followed him one at a time, until all four ponies were lost in the darkness below.

“Crud, we're stuck on something,” grumbled Flaming Ivory, his horn and eyes glowing orange as he lit up the inside of the chimney.

“No we're not, we're sitting on the smoke shelf,” said Midnight Blaze, pointing at a metal flap in front of them, “that's the damper of the chimney, we're shut inside.”

“Can we open it?” asked Shadow Breeze, tapping on the closed metal plate.

“Not from this angle,” sighed Midnight Blaze, “should I teleport us in?”

“I think you might need your energy, moving four ponies in would be a problem,” answered Techorse, “I'll drill through the damper using my laser cannons.”

“You're going to shoot it? Come on Techorse, we're already invading a house,” whined Shadow Breeze, “now we have to cause property damage?”

“I'll pay the duke back for the damper later,” comforted the inventor, smiling gently, “we really need to be able to get in.”

The robotic arms snaked back into the disguise, and Techorse removed the coat before drawing his weapons so as to not tear it. Twin metal tubes backed with small cylindrical power converters emerged and aimed for the metal plate. Techorse's saddle read his thoughts, and aimed the lasers for the plate, emitting two bright yellow beams, which slagged the metal where it hit in an orange glow of melted steel. Moving around carefully, Techorse cut out the damper from its base, creating a large hole that filled the chimney with light.

Each of the ponies dropped through the rapidly cooling hole into the fireplace area, clean and swept out of all the ash and wood chips. They had a look around the room of the mansion, a grand central living room area filled with expensive pieces of furniture from various griffon artisans, featuring a distinct floral print. A fancy glass coffee table sat in the center of the room, flowers set in a vase that seemed to need more water. There were also many paintings of famous griffons, including one of the duke and his wife hanging above the grand fireplace, slightly crooked.

“Let's ditch these costumes,” suggested Flaming Ivory, beginning to take the clothing off, “these itch like crazy.”

“Agreed,” said Shadow Breeze, discarding the chimney sweep disguise to the floor as his friends did the same.

“Let's find the duke's throne room and confront him about these bans,” ordered Techorse, pointing ahead with his hoof.

Duke Gavin sat on his throne, bored out of his mind with being a leader of an isolated mountain community. His white-feathered head and light brown body plumage gave him eagle-like qualities, but his blue betrayed some kind of feeling of dread. To his right was his beautiful wife Grace, turquoise feathered with a beautiful tiara of silver and ruby on her head. The throne room was an open area with large, rounded windows illuminating the tall structure held up with a few columns. Tapestries depicting the roses outside in the gardens hung on the walls between the windows, and a circular blue carpet surrounded the throne in a ring. Behind the throne was the centerpiece of the room, and a clear indicator of the royal family's oddities, a large aquarium filled with a single species of fish, a stubby brown fish with an under biting jaw and small, sharp teeth.

The door to the throne room swung open suddenly, having been bashed open by Flaming Ivory in a dramatic entry. Gavin and Grace shot up from their thrones, surprised that they were being confronted by ponies they could have sworn were banned from their home.

“What is the meaning of this?” demanded the duke angrily as he stood up from his throne, “None of you are allowed to be here!”

“Yeah well, we're here now, and we want some answers,” snarked Flaming Ivory, stepping forward with his friends.

Techorse watched as the duke seemed to hesitate for a moment before sitting back down on his wooden and velvet throne.

“I suppose if you went to the trouble to violate the law to see me, it must be something important,” he agreed reluctantly, “ask your questions and leave.”

Shadow Breeze bravely stepped forward, being the diplomat of the party, “Sir, we've been sent by princess Luna, she wants to negotiate a trade for her chalice that's in your possession.”

“So this is about the chalice then?” asked Grace.

“Grace, my wife, please,” interrupted Gavin.

“Gavin, we must explain ourselves or they won't leave,” continued his wife assertively.

“Fine,” he responded, grunting before turning back to the ponies, “the chalice is not for trade, it belongs to Stargazer's Peak now.”

“We're prepared to offer 25 thousand bits in exchange for the chalice,” said Techorse, “payable immediately with no questions asked.”

“Twenty five thousand?” choked Gavin, his beak dropping open, “What an offer...”

“So you'll think about it?” asked Shadow Breeze eagerly.

Gavin noticed out of the corner of his eye that Garth and Gina, his guards, had entered the room quietly and were slowly approaching his guests. All he had to do was keep the ponies talking for just a little while longer.

“Think about it? I've already made up my mind no matter what offer gets made,” said the Duke, chuckling to himself.

“Princess Luna has requested the cup back herself,” Midnight Blaze countered, “she might be willing to go higher if you really want it.”

Duke Gavin stood up and pointed down at Midnight, a haughty look on his face, “That silly moon exile can have her chalice when she pries it from my talons!”

The others were taken aback by his mean insult, except for Techorse, who stood there dumbfounded by the duke's comment. Eventually, his anger overcame him, and he stepped forward to speak.

“You're not the duke,” said Techorse angrily, “you're an imposter!”

The couple on the throne seemed to jolt at Techorse's accusation, and his friends gave him strange looks.

“How dare you accuse me of such a thing!” growled Grace, hoping her guards would hurry up without being spotted or heard, “What grounds do you have for such an accusation?”

“Our friend Typesetter told us Princess Luna was the benefactor of this town and its best friend,” explained Techorse, the doors to his mechanical saddle opening, “not only did you insult her, you also haven't tended to your rose garden, your personal joy.”

“Hey that’s right, when we got here, all the flowers were starting to die of neglect,” said Midnight, catching on, “you haven't just gotten rid of pony guests, you've also fired all of your employees.”

“Things have been tough recently, you buffoons,” he growled, nearly foaming at the beak, “all of these things you are saying are filthy slander! I should have you thrown off the cliff side. I'm Duke Gavin, ruler of Stargazer's Peak!”

The ponies would not give up, they pushed forward towards the duke with intent to overpower him.

Shadow Breeze also added into the conversation, “That's another thing, Gavin. When we met some griffons from around here, their names did not start with G. Only griffons from Griffonstone really like to name themselves that way.”

“Yeah, and you look nothing like your portrait,” scoffed Flaming in regards to the painting over their fireplace.

The “duke” and his wife looked at each other, then shrugged.

“Ok, well, you found us out,” said Gavin, “I'm not really the duke, and she's not really the duchess. But you'll never get word out about it.”

Garth and Gina jumped on top of Flaming Ivory and Shadow Breeze, knocking them to the floor suddenly. Gavin and Grace grabbed a pair of daggers from underneath their thrones and walked towards Techorse and Midnight.

“Hey get off!” grunted Flaming Ivory.

“You should have turned back when we took down your train,” said Garth, “but you ponies never listen.”

Techorse wanted to attack, but the griffons already had a hold of his friends, and they seemed more than likely to be trained with the knives they held or had at their sides.

“Put them in the detention room with the others,” ordered Gavin, “we'll keep them quiet.”

The four were taken down into the dark wine cellar of the estate, which had been hastily converted into a prison by the four griffons who had taken over. A barred gate sat over an archway in the cellar, a single wine room being partitioned off to hold the prisoners. Techorse and his friends were shoved into the room, Techorse's saddle was taken from him and thrown outside the cage.

“Let's tell our employer we've been found out,” said Gavin to Garth, “once he gets away with the chalice we'll probably be clear to let these losers go.”

The griffons locked the barred gate shut and left the ponies trapped inside. Turning around, they finally got to meet the real duke and duchess of Stargazer's Peak, along with six other griffons who were likely the custodians of the estate, and poor Typesetter, who was sitting next to them with a sad look on his face. A silent griffon chick, held snugly in her mother's arms, cooed softly and reached up for her mother, who tried to rock her baby gently and keep her calm.

“Oh, hey guys,” he said glumly, “the second you left... Garth knocked me over the head and put me in here.”

“Don't worry about it Typesetter, we wouldn't have even made it inside without you,” assured Techorse, who then looked up at the real royal couple.

They were both golden plumed with soft brown head feathers, the duke was a bit portly and appeared to have a set of feathers on his chin that almost gave him a goatee'd appearance, while his wife, similarly larger, stayed close to her husband. Each of them had been stripped of their royal garments to be worn by the rogues, and they both relaxed their worried faces to talk to the new ponies in their cell.

“Are you the real duke and duchess of Stargazer's Peak?” asked Techorse.

“Yes of course, and staff!” he answered in a friendly, but hasty voice, “One minute we're all having tea before going out to work on the roses, and then next we know we're being stuffed into a cell by those Ironbeak mercenaries!”

“They jailed a hatchling,” sobbed one of the gardeners, “a hatchling!”

“Ironbeak Mercenaries?” asked Midnight Blaze curiously.

“Yes,” said the duchess, “those griffons were hired from a notorious mercenary agency to lock us up so that their boss could steal the chalice. Ironbeak members are wanted criminals and are not welcome in griffon towns, but they tend to pop up from time to time when they want something, especially something expensive and rare like Luna's chalice.”

“But how did they figure out you had it?” asked Shadow Breeze, “Princess Luna told us she'd only been talking with you.”

“When I found Princess Luna's cup in my grandfather's old trunk, I penned a letter to Princess Luna right away, she's a celebrity around here ya know, and helping her out is a top priority of mine,” explained the duke sheepishly, “but it looks like I forgot to put my royal seal on it and the letter got read by someone else too... whoops!”

The infant turned its small beaked head to face Shadow Breeze, and giggled before reaching out with a talon and beginning to play with the amulet around his neck, melting the pegasus's heart.

The duchess added, “At least they promised they would let us go once they get the cup. A shame Princess Luna has to lose it though.”

“We can't let that chalice fall into the wrong hooves,” Midnight cautioned, “it's got magical powers that could easily get abused. We need to get you out of here and back on your throne.”

“Oh I do hope we can stop them,” sighed the duke, “but we'd need to get out of here first.”

“Well luckily those guys happened to lock up two unicorns,” snickered Flaming Ivory, moving over to the locked door, “lemme just melt this thing and we'll be out of here.”

“I didn't know you were into fire spells,” said Midnight, smirking.

Flaming Ivory scoffed, “Fire spells? Who said anything about that? Watch this!”

After yelling at the top of his lungs, his eyes glowed orange, and a bright beam of energy shot from his horn into the lock, slagging the tumblers and rendering it useless. Once the glow died down, the unicorn casually pushed open the gate.

“After you guys,” he said, smiling.

“Wow, such a powerful unicorn!” marveled the duke.

“He's not powerful, he's just mad a lot,” teased Shadow Breeze, getting an eye roll from the less than amused musician.

They all exited the cell quickly, where Techorse put his saddle back on and gathered everyone together for the plan to take back the estate.

“What do you want us to do?” asked the duke, “We're all ready to help!”

“You've got to get your wife back up to the throne room and start kicking those mercenaries out of your home,” said Techorse, “we'll find where the guy who hired them went and take back the chalice.”

“Sir, we'll make sure you get back upstairs,” said one of the gardeners, “I'm up for a little revenge after being locked up, and so are the others.”

“Let's go visit the shed outside the cellar stairs,” suggested another one of the groundskeepers, “the gardening tools might help us a bit.”

“We'll head back up the other staircase the way we came,” Techorse finished, agreeing with the plan, “and we'll meet in the throne room once we've secured the chalice.”

“Right, good luck, and thank you for breaking us out!” said the duke, leading his team up the other staircase to the door outside.

The four ponies rushed up the stairs and headed in the opposite direction of the throne room, back past their pile of disguises in the main living area and into a hallway illuminated by side windows.

“Who do you think's the leader of those goons, anyways?” asked Flaming Ivory, a bit short of breath, “Another griffon?”

“Possibly,” answered Techorse, keeping up a good gallop, “but whoever it is, they're not getting the chalice, right guys?”

“Right!” answered Midnight and Shadow together.

The door ahead was a wooden, iron gilded entrance, chained shut from the inside. Midnight Blaze pulled ahead of his friends, and charged up a magical attack, sending a wave of light blue energy out to meet the entrance. Arcing magic struck the doorway, knocking away the chains and slamming the door open. The ponies ran inside, finding themselves in a large stone storage room hastily converted into a potion laboratory. In each corner of the cold, scary room was a set of glass pipes, tubes, and beakers, each of them bubbling with multiple colors of liquids. A massive fire was lit in the fireplace at the back of the room, bringing to boil a large cauldron, in front of which was a figure in a blue cape.

As soon as he was sure his guests were in the room, the figure turned around. He was a zebra, a handsome specimen of his kind, but something seemed a bit off about him. Instead of the usual pure light gray and black patterns on his coat, his muzzle was darkened with brown, the unusual patch extending down his chin and neck. He had tribal looking markings near his brown eyes, and all along his neck, including one over his nose. The zebra's striped mane was well groomed, only a few notches were cut from it, and a pendant of silver and opal hung around his neck. From the amulet, a narrow band of blue magical energy snaked out, the magical rope wrapped around the Lunar Chalice. The magic cup bobbed and hovered as it was held in place by the zebra's magic pendant.

“Why hello,” he said smoothly, giving the team a patronizing smile, “are you looking for this?”

“As a matter of fact, we are,” said Techorse sternly, stepping forward, “I don't know who you are, but you'd better make plans to give back Princess Luna's chalice.”

“You don't know who I am?” answered the zebra mockingly, placing his front hoof over his heart as if offended, “I'm offended, Techorse, seeing as I know who you and your friends are. Princess Luna was so nice to send the duke another letter telling him you were coming.”

“So we can add reading somepony else's mail to the growing list of reasons to beat you up,” laughed Flaming Ivory, “great, keep going pal!”

“Ah Flaming Ivory, letting anger control you as usual?” chuckled the zebra back, “It's hard to compose when you keep losing your composure I'd bet.”

“All right funny guy, that's enough. Who are you?” demanded Flaming Ivory.

“I am Rosseth,” answered the potion maker, smiling and giving a stage bow, “it's nice to finally meet you all.”

“I don't like that name, can I call you Ross?” asked the unicorn smugly.

The zebra stood up, turning red, “What? No! You can't call me Ross, that's stupid.”

“All in favor of calling him Ross?” asked Flaming Ivory, turning around and raising his hoof.

Shadow Breeze and Midnight raised their hooves, big grins on their faces, and Techorse raised a mechanical arm out of his saddle.

“Well, sorry buddy, you're Ross now,” said Flaming Ivory, turning around, “anyways, why'd ya take the cup, zebra?”

“What, you think I'm going to give away what it's for? I'm not that dumb,” he responded, moving the chalice away from view, “besides, it's none of your guys' business.”

“Oh yeah it is, look at all this potion making equipment,” interrupted Midnight Blaze, pointing at all the glassware, “we know you can corrupt potions with that chalice, and that's why we're here. Princess Luna was afraid something might happen to it.”

“She was smart to believe so, but it's too late,” he said.

Techorse's saddle doors opened again, and his laser cannons emerged.

“That's what you think, Ross,” he grunted.

“Ah, the battle saddle,” the zebra sighed sarcastically, “I was hoping I'd get a chance to go up against it.”

After setting the chalice on the floor gently using the power of his pendant, Rosseth stepped forward, “Of course, I'd like to warn you that my amulet is a close cousin of Shadow Breeze's there.”

“Doesn't matter, it's four against one!” said Shadow Breeze with a hint of uncertainty in his voice.

Rosseth tossed away his cape, and laughed as the amulet around his neck glowed, bright light shone from the gemstone as rays generated multiple copies of the zebra in front of him, complete with their own amulets. There were six copies in total, and they all looked at the team of four ponies, who recoiled in shock.

“Why'd I have to say something,” cried Shadow, his ears drooping.

The squad of clones charged for the ponies, firing blasts of magical energy from their necklaces at the crew. Techorse opened fire with his laser cannons, sending bolts of explosive yellow electromagnetic energy towards the figure on the far left. Alternating shots struck the zebra several times, and the illusion shattered like a pane of glass before disappearing into thin air. The remaining clones turned their energy blasts on Techorse, who stopped shooting and started running as the bolts narrowly missed him, exploding on the wall behind, chunks of stone flying from the walls.

Shadow Breeze turned to face a clone who opened fire on him, a blast of energy narrowly missing his head, and flew up into the air before charging an attack from his own amulet. A cluster of shadow energy formed a rounded, cartoon bomb in shape, which launched down at one of the clones, fuse lit. There was a loud blast as the shadow bomb exploded, destroying the illusion and sending another flying into the potion equipment, destroying it in a vapor filled explosion as the room filled with smog and haze from the mixed chemicals.

“Yeah!” cheered Shadow Breeze, before his celebration was cut short with a burst of energy to his left wing, making him yelp and fall to the floor helplessly.

Three illusions remained, and they all intended to jump upon Shadow Breeze and finish him off. Flaming Ivory gave a shout and bravely charged one of the zebra images, smacking into it with his horn and knocking one out of the way. The stabbed illusion disintegrated, and the others turned their attention to Flaming Ivory. Two energy bolts to his back knocked him down, burning his coat and scorching the back of his mane hair.

“Ahhhh!” he shouted in pain, trying not to collapse as the other two approached him.

Midnight charged up a shot from his horn, and let loose with another arc of energy in front of him, it cut through the stone floor towards the remaining two enemies. One of them was caught in the wave, bisecting it neatly before it disintegrated. Just one was left, and it turned around and charged Midnight, intent on doing any damage it could.

The blue unicorn realized he had to charge another shot quickly, or else the final illusion would be on top of him. He was suddenly struck by another shot, making him wince, and nearly knocking him over.

“Come on,” he shouted, hoping to get off his own shot.

Just as the clone was about to reach him, a pair of projectiles soared from over his head, and arced down on the hapless illusion, whose eyes grew wide before it disappeared in a fiery pair of blasts as the rockets hit the floor in front of it. When the smoke cleared, Midnight turned around, and saw Techorse, his saddle sporting its missile racks, now smoking from the launch. The pair of launching platforms disappeared back into the device, and pulled out a fresh pair of small red-colored rockets before Techorse stored them again.

“Good shot Techorse,” said Midnight gratefully, trying to calm down.

“All right Ross, it's over. Your illusions are gone,” said Techorse, stepping through the chemical fog and ignoring Midnight for a moment.

Shadow Breeze got up from the floor, and walked over to the mist, flapping his wings to push away the fumes. Rosseth was gone, along with the chalice, having used his magical illusions as a distraction to get away.

“Crud, he's run away,” groaned Flaming Ivory, standing up, “who was that guy anyways?”

“I don't know,” said Techorse, shaking his head, “but we've got to tell Princess Luna. She needs to know the chalice is in Rosseth's possession. Maybe we can still figure out where he's headed with the chalice.”

Have we already failed Princess Luna?” thought Midnight Blaze, “We've lost the chalice to that guy, and we might not get it back...

Midnight looked at the ground as they exited the room, trying not to think about the fact they had messed up their mission. Just then, as he closed the battered door behind him, he heard the last thing he wanted to.

A voice reminded him, “Don't worry, all will work out. Have faith, Midnight Blaze.

Chapter 7 - A Secret Meeting

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Chapter 7

Now that the duke's home had once again been secured, law enforcement showed up to take away three of the mercenaries, who had been beaten down by the gardeners with their shovels and rakes, their wings bound with rope to keep them from escaping. Techorse had brought his friends back to the rose garden, where they found the duchess and her husband talking to the police.

“Oh, it's Princess Luna's friends,” she said, turning away from the griffon officers, “you're alive and well I see.”

“Of course we are lady,” laughed Flaming Ivory, “wouldn't be Luna's best otherwise. Not even a scratch on us!”

Taking notice of the slight injuries on the ponies, the duchess crossed her arms, “Seems to me you had quite the fight, actually.”

“Eh, par for the course, but we pulled out ahead in the end,” admitted Flaming Ivory.

“Not really, we lost the chalice to a zebra who was crafting some kind of potion in your home,” explained Techorse, disappointed, “he was the one who hired the mercenaries.”

“We're very sorry about the loss of Luna's prized chalice,” said the duke, “but we'll make it up to you by rewarding you all for saving Stargazer's Peak from those brutes! Just name it.”

“Thanks, but we've got to go after the chalice thief,” explained Techorse, turning down the favor.

“I understand, but if there's anything else we can do for you, just let us know, ok?” answered the royal griffon.

Typesetter approached Techorse and company, “I guess this is goodbye then?”

“Looks like it,” answered Shadow, “thanks for helping us out, Typesetter.”

Techorse got an idea, and turned back to the duke, “Maybe there's one thing you could do for me.”

“What's that?” he asked, “Say the word, Techorse.”

“Well, my friend Typesetter here is an aspiring author. Do you think maybe you could help him establish himself more as a writer?” asked the inventor as he pointed at the gray coated pegasus.

The duke looked at Typesetter, who was smiling nervously, “Hmmm, well now, I guess in all my years of being duke, I've never actually had a book written about my famous rose garden! I'll help you out like Techorse asked by commissioning a new book on my estate, and then we'll get it published. Sound good Typesetter?”

“Yes! Thank you sir,” answered the pegasus gratefully.

He turned to Techorse and threw himself around the stallion, embracing him in a hug, “You guys are the best!”

“Hey, it's the least we can do after your help. Don't forget to say thanks to the girls at the theater though, they helped a bit too.”

“We'll make sure the theater gets extra patronage this year,” assured the duchess, “is there anything else?”

“Just a ride out of here back for Canterlot,” Midnight Blaze requested, “we've got to tell Princess Luna we've lost the cup.”

“There should be another train leaving soon,” said Typesetter, “I'll get a message out to Princess Luna by courier. I hope she's not too mad.”

“She won't be,” Techorse sighed, “of course, she'll be miserable. I don't want to get everyone down, but based on all that potion equipment, I'd say the zebra we encountered is trying to use the chalice's potion affecting abilities to craft something evil.”

One of the police officers stood up from talking to the tied up mercenaries and walked over to the duke. He had overheard Techorse's statement on the possibility of an evil brew in progress, and felt like it would be a good time to share the information he had learned from his captive suspects.

“Excuse me, Duke Percher, Duchess Downy,” he interrupted, “we've finished questioning the mercenaries, and I believe I have an answer for Mr. Techorse. Since they're not getting paid their bonus for keeping you locked up, they were happy to share everything about their boss.”

“Excellent,” responded Duke Percher, chuckling, “what did you find out?”

“Their boss wanted the chalice for some kind of experiment he wanted to perform within the Crystal Empire,” said the cop, concern in his avian eyes, “I don't know what they meant by that, but that's a fragile pony community.”

Techorse smiled, “Great! Now we know where he's headed.”

“In that case, you'll need to hurry up and catch your train, we don't have a connection to the Empire,” urged Duke Percher, “good luck, friends, and say hi to Princess Luna for us if you see her again!”

The ponies exited the duke's estate through the front gate and started walking back through town for the station. About halfway through the walk, Typesetter caught up with them, flying down from above to wish them farewell.

“Wait up!” he said, “I wanted to thank you guys again for getting me a book deal with the duke.”

“Aw, you're welcome,” responded Techorse, “you've earned it.”

“Can I still keep the copy of your book?” teased Flaming Ivory.

“Of course!” answered the writer, happy to have a reader, “I hope you guys come back here again someday. News of today's going to spread like crazy, and you'll probably be heroes here.”

“Hey, maybe we'll take a vacation here some time,” said Shadow Breeze, “might be fun.”

“Good to hear guys,” finished the author, “I won't keep you any longer, don't want you to miss your train!”

“Take care Typesetter,” said Shadow Breeze.

The pegasus, eager to get started on his new book, left the team to return to his bookstore. With just a few minutes to spare, the ponies were the last ones on the train headed back for Canterlot, in hopes of finding another train headed for the Crystal Empire.

“I'm glad you could make it here so quickly,” Princess Luna said with a dry strain in her voice, “this is about your son of course, detective.”

Ignitus, his scowl unmoving from his face, stood in front of the princess's thrown and answered, “What about Midnight your Highness? Don't tell me he chickened out of the mission you had for him.”

The alicorn was startled by Ignitus's blunt, mean spirited assumption about his own offspring, and she was speechless for a moment before answering,

“Oh no, Midnight did indeed go on the mission. I've merely just had a night where I couldn't contact him through his dreams, Ignitus.”

“Well it's not unlike my son for him to stay up all night building things,” answered the trench coat clad pony, turning up his front hoof and shaking his head in disbelief, “he's probably just doing his usual avoidance of working on bettering himself.”

“Ignitus, if we could remain on topic...” asked Luna politely, standing up from her throne, “this is not about Midnight's personal choices. This is about his safety, and possibly Equestria's.”

“Well, what do you want me to do? I already try to kick his flank, it doesn't work.”

Princess Luna stepped forward, forcing Ignitus to take a step back. She was beginning to show signs of anger, which her guards nearby could sense. They geared up to kick Ignitus out of the room if necessary, and intentionally shuffled their spears around a bit to audibly inform the unicorn he was treading on eggshells.

“I wish for you to join the investigation concerning the chalice,” ordered the princess, making sharp eye contact, “you are our best detective, and I have a terrible feeling about my friends whom I've sent to retrieve it. There is strong evidence I am not the only one seeking to claim the cup now.”

“Do you have any leads on it besides Stargazer's Peak?” asked Ignitus, removing a pad of paper and a quill from inside his trench coat with a red aura of energy from his horn, “I'll be happy to stake out the last known location myself and report back.”

“I think it is best we wait for Techorse and your son to return,” Luna said as she turned to face one of the windows in the throne room, “I have received word they are arriving back this afternoon by train again, and I do not think they have the chalice. Tell me where they are headed next, and we'll follow them there. If the cup is indeed missing, this will be very serious.”

“As you wish,” grunted Ignitus, returning the writing materials to the inside of his coat, “I'll head down to the train station and wait for them.”

The unicorn turned around, and started to march out of the room, grumbling about his misfortune. Now he had to keep up with his “deficient” son by the princess's orders.

“Ignitus?” she asked, a new tone in her voice.

This made him stop, and his ears perk up a bit. He did not turn around, but he felt something new in Princess Luna's voice, a sense of fear he hadn't felt from any of the princesses in the history of his career.

“Thank you,” came the soft voice.

Sighing, Ignitus huffed out of the throne room, the door quickly shut behind him by the royal guard.

As was to be expected, without a team of trained mercenaries after them, the train ride home was not at risk of being sabotaged. The four ponies sat back at the same table they had chosen the last time, and were mostly staring at each other, trying not to talk about their failure to retrieve the chalice. They were only under an hour away from the Canterlot station again, and were trying to

Who was that zebra?” thought Techorse, his chin resting on the table and his eyes heavy, “And what does he want with the chalice? It was stupid of us to let that lab equipment get blown up, I could have analyzed it...

Flaming Ivory was not buried in depressive thoughts like his best friend, instead choosing to bury himself in Typesetter's book, ignoring the fact that Shadow Breeze was peeking over him to read as well. Shadow Breeze started to shrink back in fear as they both read the passage in the novel.

“The hapless explorer was brought before the snake pony queen, and he feared heavily for his life when he noticed the carvings on the ancient temple she called home featured glyphs of innocent, four legged ponies like himself being led to chopping blocks... the snake ponies above them feasting on the remains.”

“Oh man, this is going to get grisly,” said Flaming Ivory dryly, “poor guy.”

Shadow Breeze couldn't imagine the horror of being chopped up like that, and the timid pegasus sunk in his seat on the train. His friend with the book looked at the worried expression on his face, and took pity.

He smiled and pointed at where he was in the story, “Hey Shadow, come on, there's still half the book to go. If he was gonna get barbecued, the book would be over!”

“That's true,” agreed Shadow Breeze, returning to a more comfortable posture, “I'm sorry Flaming, ever since I've gotten close to finishing my diplomacy education, I've started worrying about the job. I keep thinking I'll make a mistake in front of another nation, and get 'chopped up' myself.”

Midnight Blaze disagreed with the fear, “That'll never happen, Shadow Breeze.”

Are you so sure?

The sapphire blue unicorn groaned and dropped his head to the table, covering his head with his hooves like he had a migraine of some kind. Midnight was getting quite fed up with the voice in his head.

“Woah, what's wrong?” asked Shadow Breeze, placing his hooves on the table.

Midnight removed his trimmed hooves from his head and lied, “Nothing, just have a splitting headache. I must have gotten hit harder than I thought.”

“I'm sorry about that,” comforted the pegasus, “if it makes you feel any better, I'm happy you think I'll do well as a diplomat. You're a good friend.”

“Th... thanks!” stuttered Midnight Blaze, surprised at the accepting words.

Techorse pulled his head off the table himself and smiled at the progress everyone was making towards becoming a circle of friends. Even though he'd lost the chalice and would likely end up disappointing Luna, he was letting it go to try and enjoy the time he was spending with his relatively new buddies. So much had changed for him over the past two years, and it was good to have other stallions to talk to.

“So what ends up happening to the explorer?” he asked, looking at Flaming Ivory.

“Well, let's find out, shall we?” answered the musician with a wink.

A ski resort sat on a somewhat less frozen mountain than the rest of the north, several kilometers out from the main path that led to the Crystal Empire. The mostly wooden building sat near the top of the gradual sloped landmark, pine trees growing all around in a thick hedge, with the paths for skiing cut out from the forest. The mechanical lifts sat dormant, as it was the off-season for the resort, and a lot of the snow had melted away, revealing patches of green grass. Smoke lifted from the chimney of the rustic winter resort, indication that there were guests. But these guests had broken open the locks on the building in order to meet in secret.

Towards the front of the rounded building was a conference room, its fireplace burning brightly to keep the occupants seated inside warm. Three ponies huddled around the back of a massive cherry wood table in hopes of warming up faster sat silently as they waited for their contact to arrive. One was a black-coated pegasus stallion with a white mane that was curled into a ponytail on his head, a thin hint of mustache over his muzzle. The next was a mare who had with her a strange metal cylinder, red in color with the word 'fragile' marked on the side in white lettering. Finally, their boss, a unicorn stallion with a light blue coat and sunglasses over his eyes was staring at the door, waiting for it to open.

“He'll be here, right Dredge?” asked the mare, a bit nervous, the fire they had set would likely attract attention eventually, and get them arrested for trespassing.

“If he doesn't want to lose his prize there, he will be,” answered the unicorn in a thick city accent, “and we've got Switch here to help bargain too. Thanks for coming.”

The pegasus nodded, and turned his attention to the door as well. Soon enough the door to the room did open, and in entered Rosseth, a sly smile on his face as he usually had. As he walked up to the table, the mare noticed that one of the two saddlebags on his sides was full, the other empty.

“So look who shows up,” criticized Dredge, standing up, “you're a few hours late, better have a good reason, zebra.”

“I had a run in with Princess Luna's very best,” the zebra explained calmly, “one of them even had the Shadow Amulet, a member of the same series of amulets mine came from. It seems I'm not the only one out for artifacts anymore, so we'll need to make this quick.”

“This deal's not going to come cheap, Rosseth, we could have just as easily turned this in to Celestia for the big bits,” explained the boss as he turned to the mare, “show him, Doll.”

The mare complied, placing the cylinder on the table and opening it with her front hooves. Out came a small metal briefcase, which seemed to be leaking small amounts of black, wispy smoke. She opened the case, showing only the contents to the zebra, who nodded in acknowledgment. Doll closed the briefcase again, and slid it towards Rosseth, letting it sit at the edge of the table.

“You know,” he said calmly and with a subtle smile as he looked up at Dredge, “you're selling out your own kind.”

“Heh, says you. It's just a decoration now,” snickered the white haired pegasus next to Dredge.

Rosseth felt angry, but simply said in a patronizing manner, “The amount you want to charge me? I think you know this isn't a decoration, and what's going to happen in the upcoming week.”

“Hey enough talk,” warned the gang leader, “you know the price we asked for. Give us what we're owed.”

The zebra's lips curled in delight, “Of course...”

Without warning, Rosseth's amulet fired off a massive burst of electricity, zapping the white haired pegasus nearby, his scream echoing in the room. Doll screeched and backed off from the table, while the boss stood up to deal with the deal breaker.

The unicorn's horn glowed white as he fired off several short ranged bolts at Rosseth, each blast of energy impacting the zebra's head and lower neck. But the image of the zebra shattered as it it weren't really there at all, Rosseth had created another illusion and had used the distraction to roll under the table and get behind Dredge. The zebra swung with his front hoof, knocking him down and sending his sunglasses flying. Doll backed up and stopped when she felt the warmth of the fireplace on her flank, the earth pony nearly burning herself trying to get away.

Rosseth took notice of her trying to escape, and since Dredge was busy getting up, he shot a pair of whip-like filaments of blue energy from his artifact, which ensnared Doll and pinned her to the opening of the fireplace, her tail nearly getting licked by the fire.

Dredge finally stood up and turned around, rage plastered all over his face as he dove to beat Rosseth to a pulp. The zebra simply jumped backwards, right next to one of the windows overlooking the cliff face, and waited for the unicorn to come after him again. Just as Dredge reached his position, Rosseth jumped out of the way, and right as the stallion's nose touched the window, fired a strong blast of energy from the amulet. The projectile smashed into Dredge, sending him through the window, and the stallion disappeared from sight with a fading scream, followed by silence.

Doll cried out in fear, her companions gone, and started to scream bloody murder as Rosseth approached her, a smile that indicated he wanted to deal with her next. Unable to move her hooves, the earth pony mare's face ran with tears as she waited for the zebra to do her in... or worse.

“Please... don't!” she begged of him.

“Relax, unlike them you didn't try to hurt me, so I won't hurt you,” he said serenely, as if his acts of violence were nothing.

He then looked back at the small silver briefcase before turning to her again, “Now if I were you, I'd be thankful I'm taking your merchandise. The police will likely be here shortly, and you'd be in much deeper trouble if they caught you with that.”

Rosseth walked to the table, and placed the briefcase into his empty saddlebag, fattening it nicely. He turned for the door when he heard Doll choke and cry out to him again.

“You're just going to leave me here? What if the fire goes out, I'll freeze!”

The zebra simply looked over his shoulder, and said back calmly, “I wouldn't let a nice mare freeze out here, even if you are a traitor. Those bonds will vanish after an hour or so even if the authorities don't decide to show up, but either way, it'll give you plenty of time to reflect on how you've sold your kind out.”

After delivering the self righteous statement to the sobbing earth pony, Rosseth exited the resort and left Doll to her fate.

Here I come, Crystal Empire... enjoy yourselves while you still can!

Chapter 8 - The Detective's Report

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Chapter 8

The train was at rest again in Canterlot station, the four ponies disembarking from the front of the train feeling as if they had truly come back to square one.

“All we need to do now is take a connecting trip to the Crystal Empire,” said Techorse, leading the way, “I'll get us some tickets and we'll be off.”

“Are we going to spend most of this journey sitting around on trains?” groaned Flaming Ivory, “It's starting to really get to me.”

“Well sorry,” apologized a clearly not sorry Techorse, “we don't have a reliable mean of teleportation right now, Midnight couldn't get us that far, and my own device would only be a one way trip thanks to energy demands.”

“Maybe you should consider buying better batteries,” grunted the musician.

“That's not how...” trailed Techorse before realizing he was being messed with, “nevermind, let's just get the tickets.”

They didn't make it very far in the busy train station before they were spotted by Ignitus, who moved in to intercept the group as they came off the platform and headed back for the ticket booth at the front of the massive station. Midnight Blaze saw his father approach from the newspaper stand he was pretending to be interested in, and he began to feel anxious.

Oh no...

The tall red unicorn stopped the travelers, stepping in front of them. Techorse looked up and into the intimidating stallion's eyes, sensing the same air of authority and gruffness he felt whenever Captain Arbiter got serious.

Ignitus's form relaxed as he extended a warm hoof and a rare smile to Techorse, “Ah, hello, you must be Mr. Techorse. It's good to meet you, son. My name's Detective Ignitus.”

Placing his own hoof out to greet Ignitus and participating in the hoofshake, Techorse relaxed, “Good afternoon, detective.”

Ignitus hadn't forgotten about his sapphire-coated son, who was trying to cower behind Shadow Breeze and Flaming Ivory. He finished shaking with Techorse and returned his strong hoof to the floor.

“I see you're doing a good job taking care of my son Midnight,” he said condescendingly, “I'm glad you've decided to mentor him on how to be a hero.”

Why do you have to embarrass me like this?” cried Midnight Blaze on the inside.

Techorse smiled humbly, “Mentor him? Midnight's my friend, sir. I don't think I'm exactly a hero, anyways, so why does he have to be one?”

“You really are just like Arbiter said you'd be,” laughed Ignitus in response, “unsure of yourself yet preachy. I can see why he likes you, you've got a good heart and a strong fighting spirit.”

“Hey, don't patronize Techie,” growled Flaming Ivory, stepping forward, “make your point and get outta here.”

“Easy Flaming,” warned Shadow Breeze, stopping him with his right wing.

Ignitus continued his amusement, his seriousness mixing poorly with his happiness, “Sure, I'll explain. My son here wouldn't join the Equestrian Guard despite it being family tradition. A fine soldier he'd make, if only he had the right influences, so I'm pleased he's around brave friends like you.”

Techorse stepped up to the insult, “You know Ignitus, my whole life I've been trying to avoid being cast as a soldier. Any fight I take is out of defending another I care about, or myself.”

“But in all honesty that's what being a good soldier is really about,” countered the older unicorn, looking down at Techorse, “you're there to protect the good of Equestria and its ponies. Midnight has no concept of serving others, and you're a good influence on him. Consider it a compliment.”

Understanding he wasn't going to be able to get Ignitus to stop thinking erroneously, Techorse switched tracks, “Anyways, what are you doing here?”

“To get more information on the status of the chalice,” he explained, his aura from his horn removing his notepad from underneath his coat, “I'm reporting back to Princess Luna. She believes the chalice is lost.”

“Unfortunately Princess Luna's right,” sighed Shadow Breeze, “the chalice got stolen by a zebra. He's running off to the Crystal Empire with it.”

“Good information,” nodded the detective, a pen from his jacket levitated over the pad as he wrote down the text, “anything else?”

Midnight Blaze bravely spoke up, “That's just about it, the duke and his family are safe now, but we lost the chalice to Ross, er... Rosseth. We put up a good fight though, he summoned several magical illusions of himself and I got a couple of them with some energy attacks.”

The blue unicorn had decided to gamble by telling his father about his role in the fight. Maybe he'd think he was moving ever so closer towards military service and would finally shut up.

“Is this true, Mr. Techorse?” asked the father.

“Yeah. Midnight put up a good fight and helped us destroy the illusions, but by the time the fight was over the real Rosseth was gone, taking the chalice with him,” he answered, “the griffon mercenaries he hired decided to talk and let us know he was headed for the Empire.”

“Oh, interesting, I'd love to hear about that more,” said the detective curiously.

Midnight was excited his plan was working, but Techorse's awkward look tipped him off to how much time that would take.

“Uh...” he said quickly, “well dad, you gave me that leather notebook, you can read about it in there.”

“Good,” Ignitus muttered gruffly, “I'm glad to hear it.”

“Good save,” whispered Flaming Ivory, nudging the other unicorn and smiling.

“Now,” continued Ignitus, pretending he didn't hear Flaming's statement, “since we know our perpetrator, Rosseth, is headed for the Crystal Empire, we should head there right now. I'll have a carriage take you there since the next train won't leave for three hours. I have to report back to Princess Luna and let her know the chalice has been taken, chances are she will bring me and possibly her sister to the Empire to offer support in the case. You'll find the carriage to the Crystal Empire outside the station shortly, I'll hail it for you.”

“Sounds good,” Techorse replied, “we'll see you at the Crystal Palace. It was nice to meet you, Ignitus.”

“Yes, it was good to meet you too,” he answered, “continue to listen to this stallion, Midnight, and you'll be everything you need to be.”

Ignitus' parting shot pierced Midnight's feelings like a spear, and the unicorn felt a mixture of anger and sadness. Once the detective was well out of sight and had blended into the crowd, Flaming Ivory immediately let loose.

“Man what a jerk,” he groaned, “I'm sorry Midnight, but what the hay is wrong with your dad?”

“It's ok Flaming, long story short, my dad's always told me I have some kind of debt to repay and I need to be a soldier in service to Equestria to do that!” he explained, mocking the tone of his father, “Maybe if he explained why, I'd be happy with it.”

“Well you're not the only one with disappointed parents,” comforted Shadow Breeze, hoping Midnight would perk up, “my parents wanted me to be a musician. They still love me though, and offer support.”

Midnight's ears sank in depression, “It's not that he doesn't love me... I think. I don't really talk to him much of course, we get in fights when I'm not around other ponies.”

“Oh wow, sheesh,” stuttered Flaming Ivory, “you think he's stopped loving you?”

“Yeah, probably. Can we not talk about it, guys?” he said to end the conversation.

Midnight was just not in the mood to have the typical talk about how parents still love you even if they don't approve of what you do. That notion was total horsefeathers to him. All that mattered was getting Ignitus off his back and out of his life as soon as possible so he could continue his arcane projects in peace.

“We'll shut up,” assured Techorse.

“Thanks,” muttered Midnight, “let's just grab the carriage, ok?”

By the time Ignitus had returned to the throne room, he opened the throne room door, only to be pushed aside by a pair of police officer ponies exiting. The detective ignored the rude shove, and entered the throne room to find Princess Luna and Captain Arbiter, the princess's eyes downcast and fixed on the floor. Princess Celestia stood by the largest window in the room, a harsh, brooding look on her face.

“Cousin,” called out Ignitus to Arbiter, “what's happened?”

The pegasus stood up, walking over to confront him, “Those police officers just informed the princess about a skirmish in at a ski resort near the Crystal Empire. Apparently our chalice thief is a zebra named Rosseth, and he was making a bargain with some artifact smugglers. He wasn't too intent on paying, though.”

“I can't imagine why,” sighed Ignitus, “what happened?”

“The police managed to arrest two of the smugglers, but one of them was defenestrated by the thief using some kind of battle amulet,” Arbiter answered, anger in his remaining eye, “we weren't able to find the victim. Princess Luna is heartbroken somepony did this over her chalice, and Princess Celestia... is thinking of recalling Twilight Sparkle and her friends to deal with this.”

“Seems strong hoofed,” argued Ignitus, “we don't need to bring everypony in over just one possible murder.”

“I don't think it's about that, there's evidence the smuggler who fell might have gotten away,” continued Arbiter, “it has more to do with what the zebra stole from them. A lead and crystal lined containment device was found in the room, whatever they were selling to him was something very powerful, and very dangerous to be around.”

“Something radioactive?”

Arbiter shook his head, “Dark magic, cousin.”

Ignitus looked around the throne room for a bit before sighing, “I have a report to give Princess Luna. We can discuss this later.”

“Very well,” answered the captain, stepping aside.

Princess Luna's mane didn't wave as fast as it usually did, and she stared at the red carpet in front of her elegant throne as Ignitus approached her.

“Your Highness, I just got my report from Techorse and my son,” he said, “since Arbiter was kind enough to inform me you're already aware the chalice has been stolen, I want to fill in the details.”

“Please do,” she said, lifting her head up, before looking over to her sister.

Celestia's eyes went unmoving from the windowsill.

“Our suspect is headed for the Crystal Empire,” explained the detective, “now that he's in possession of both a dark artifact of some kind and the chalice, I have good reason to believe he's going to the Empire to try and steal energy crystals as the next requirement for his plan. Whatever that might be.”

“And the boys?”

The detective tipped his hat, “I hired them a cab, they're on there way to the Crystal Palace. We didn't discuss it much, but Techorse will likely warn Princess Cadance and then intercept the zebra before he's able to steal energy crystals from the residents.”

Princess Luna stood up from her throne and shouted, “You mean you sent them to confront a dangerous criminal with a dark artifact?

Celestia turned around from the window, and walked back over to her sister, trying to calm her down.

“Luna, the detective didn't know about the threat until just now,” she said, “perhaps we should go to the Crystal Empire ourselves to offer support.”

“No, that's a mistake,” cautioned Arbiter, “the instant we arrive, the Crystal ponies with their stupid paparazzi behavior will demand answers as to why you arrived. If they find out there's a zebra with a dark artifact around, they'll panic, and that's just what that criminal wants.”

“Techorse and his friends have little time left on their own,” Luna said sternly, “it will be a full moon in just two nights. By then the thief will be able to use the power of the chalice to craft horrible potions. Princess Cadance must be told so that we can retrieve the chalice.”

“With all due respect, Arbiter is right,” said Ignitus, “we need to get the message to Cadance and Shining Armor without the Crystal Ponies catching on that something is wrong.”

“Would both of you be willing to take on this task since our appearance would be a problem?” asked Princess Celestia.

Captain Arbiter smirked, “Is that an order?”

“Suppose it wasn't, don't you wish to see the young stallions get home safe?” questioned Luna.

The pegasus chuckled, “Yes, of course... except Techorse.”

Both the princesses scolded him, “Arbiter!”

“It was a joke!”

Arbiter packed his bags and bid his cousin farewell, as he would be taking a separate route to the Empire in order to stop and collect his own gear. A simple suitcase containing a change of cape and eyepatch, and a few toiletries, and he was on his way to the gates surrounding the cliff side castle. The sun was beginning to set, and it would probably be dark by the time he got there, but it didn't matter to him. This trip was going to give him a chance to catch a threat to Equestria, his usual obsession that had previously gotten him in so much trouble.

The captain stopped suddenly as a sharp whoosh of air was heard, and a dark kunai embedded itself into the path ahead of him in the castle courtyard. Arbiter jumped back, and drew his sword, the gemstone floating the blade near him.

“Who was that? Show yourself!” he demanded, moving the sword around in case he needed to block another throwing knife.

“Relax, it's just me, Arby,” laughed a strong, female voice.

A baby blue pegasus mare with a dark-blue mane edged with a neon take on the same color jumped down from a nearby tree. Her reddish-purple eyes looked up at Arbiter from behind flight goggles, which she loosed with her hooves and placed on her head. Most notable about the pegasus was her smaller left wing, clearly shrunken and damaged.

“Lieutenant Limpwing,” groaned Arbiter as he re-sheathed his sword, “how nice of you to scare me with a throwing knife. How'd you get past the guards?”

“Easy,” she mocked, swooping up the stuck kunai with her good wing, “I bribed the guards with snickerdoodles. I think I see why the changelings got in here.”

Captain Arbiter appreciated Limpwing's moxie, and scoffed with a smile on his face, “Why I ought to court-martial them for accepting bribes from beautiful mares!”

“Hey, you know what they say, Arby, a way to stallion's heart is through his belly,” she said, rolling her eyes, “speaking of which, got plenty of cookies left for you.”

“This wouldn't happen to have anything to do with my objectives for the next few days, would it?” he answered, ignoring her “flirting” he secretly enjoyed.

“Maybe,” Limpwing teased, “I might have just happened to spy on the throne room after I got in. Have to keep you on your hooves somehow.”

Arbiter started walking past her to head for the main gate, Limpwing staying at his side at a playful trot,

“I suppose it's pointless to tell you no then?”

The lieutenant said sarcastically, “Look at it this way, I get to use the skills you've taught me this year, and you get have your best friend with you, the totally trustworthy, honest spy who can't possibly be in this for the wrong reasons!”

“And what might those reasons be, Limpwing?” he asked.

“Getting to see Techie embarrassed when we have to rescue him again,” she answered.

Captain Arbiter laughed, “I think we're too hard on the lad.”

“But picking on Techorse is so much fun! And you know he can take it.”

“I suppose it's a good thing he can take a joke and relax, unlike some others I know...”

Limpwing immediately caught on, nothing was hidden from her, “So this is about that big dork in the trenchcoat, huh?”

“That 'big dork', is my cousin,” grunted Arbiter, giving her a dirty look, “Ignitus really needs to remove his grasp from his son's withers and let him be.”

“Ah, I see. He kind of reminds me of you before you got your sense of humor,” she said.

“I do not like where you're taking this.”

Limpwing stepped in front of him and sang annoyingly, “And we know who gave you youuuuuuurs!

“Yes, Limpwing, we both know Techorse helped me lighten up,” he said, “doesn't mean we're friends.”

“Of course not,” she giggled, “hey, maybe your cousin will learn from Techorse without needing to try to cut his head off.”

“Did you come here to go with me, or to just make fun of me?” he asked angrily.

“A little of both,” answered Limpwing, “gotta keep that ego of yours in check too, Arbiter.“

“Fine, so maybe we're not so different,” agreed the captain reluctantly, “I'd like to not talk about it very much, thank you.”

“No problem,” she said as they reached the outer limits of the castle, “I'll keep quiet about it. I'm just trying to figure out what's going on, it's my hobby.”

“I thought bribing my guards and interfering with my personal life was your hobby,” teased Arbiter, stopping her before she could walk out the gate.

Limpwing turned around, “What's the difference?”

“Well, it seems you've taken a specific liking to how I'm doing.”

“Maybe I am,” she answered, “or maybe I'm just looking for an excuse for an adventure. Guess we'll find out, huh?”

Arbiter shook his head in disbelief and followed her out of the castle grounds to go catch a ride to the Empire. The princesses didn't need to know the spy mare was with him, he figured, and he really did want the company. They boarded another carriage headed out of town, where Limpwing took out her concealed box of cookies and attempted to feed the captain a couple of the treats. Arbiter hated cinnamon, but he didn't really notice the flavor. There was something about getting a cookie from Limpwing that made him like it anyways.

Chapter 9 - Some Heart to Heart

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Chapter 9

Nightfall over the Crystal Empire came with the city's street lights brightening rapidly, and the residents returning to their homes for the evening. The only activity left in the magical city was a soft glow from the center of the Crystal Palace, continuing to generate power for the thermal shield that kept the bitter cold out of the habitable zone of the city limits. During the day, the Crystal Heart stayed at the base of the palace, but at night it rose up into a specially guarded room, perhaps also as a way to make it easier to defend in an emergency.

Two guards of the night, clad in the heavy silver armor typically issued to Crystal Guard members, stood outside one of the main entrances when the blue carriage pulled by four earth pony stallions arrived at the front. The doors opened, and Techorse exited with his friends. After quietly tipping each of them enough so they'd be able to spend the night inside the warmth of the city, he started to approach the guards.

“Identify yourself,” said the first one, his eyes unmoving.

“Techorse, here to discuss some pressing issues with the royal family,” answered the inventor, stepping forward.

“What kind of matters?”

“Are we seriously doing this?” sighed Flaming Ivory, rolling his eyes at the guards.

Shadow Breeze took the initiative and presented the two guards with the now voided deal to trade for the chalice.

“Hey, sorry, my name is Shadow Breeze, I'm a diplomat for Equestria,” he said shyly, “these papers might help. Princess Luna has lost her magical chalice, and the crazy guy who stole it is headed this way. It's a dark artifact, so we kind of want to stop it here, before it makes the crystal ponies upset.”

“Haven't heard of you, sorry,” answered the other, yellow-coated guard, “you'll have to wait here until we get someone to check your files.”

Flaming Ivory finally lost all patience and stepped forward confidently, he knew the guards would only try to stop him from pushing past, or else they'd be overstepping their boundaries. His horn and eyes softly glowed orange as he pulled the first guard's dog tags to his eyes.

“Soo, Mr.... Pilum, nice name, by the way, awesome parents ya got there,” he said quickly, “you're telling me you can't recognize an Equestrian hero?”

“It's a matter of safety,” returned the guard calmly, with no verbal urge to harm Flaming, “and I would really appreciate it if you admired my new tags from a distance.”

“Man these are good tags though, I really mean that,” answered Flaming as he turned off his magic and let them fall back under the guard's armor.

“This is a really pressing issue,” urged Shadow Breeze, in hopes of persuading them, “we've got to speak with them soon.”

“We can't really do anything until we know this guy is really Techorse...” answered the guards, who were starting to enjoy wasting their time.

Techorse's eyes moved away slightly from the guards and onto the door of the palace, which had opened slightly. Shining Armor had poked his head out of the doorway, apparently having overheard the conversation while wandering around the palace, and smiled when he saw Techorse. The unicorn slowly walked up behind his guards, and he made a motion with his hoof telling the friends to stay quiet.

“And what if it is me?” asked Techorse, smirking, “you'd look pretty stupid, wouldn't you?”

Pilum finally lost it, “Look, we don't know who you are, but we're going to make you leave if you don't wait.”

“Hey Techorse!” shouted Shining Armor, springing the trap, “These two morons giving you trouble?”

“Celestia's blood...” muttered Pilum as he hung his head.

“No trouble at all,” teased Flaming Ivory, smiling.

“What are you doing here?” asked the former captain, “It's ten at night.”

“We'll tell the whole story once we get inside and settled, I don't think you're going like this,” said Techorse a bit sadly, “is Cadance here?”

“No, she went to deal with a rocky marriage out in Cloudsdale, she'll be back tomorrow hopefully,” he answered, “come on in guys, I'll get some snacks going.”

“Awesome, food!” cheered Flaming Ivory.

As they started to walk to the entrance, the annoyed Crystal Guards behind them grumbling about their humiliation, Midnight looked up at the spire of the palace and saw the soft glow of the Crystal Heart coming from the center of the tower.

Do not go near that.

Most of the rooms in the Crystal Palace, had tall, imposing reflective rooms and hallways, and even the lounge Shining Armor brought his friends to was no exception. It was a cozier room with a fireplace burning fresh wood cut from the pine forests outside the Empire, and some comfortable bean bag chairs that were clearly his wife's idea surrounding a stained glass coffee table rounded out the large room. A grand piano sat to the left of the area, ebony casing around ivory keys and brass pedals, but the entertainer had gone home for the evening leaving it unoccupied. The table was piled with cookies, chips, slices of pizza, and plenty of drinks both hot and cold for Shining's guests to enjoy.

“So, since Cadance won't be back until tomorrow, thought maybe we could just chill for tonight, already got the maids getting rooms ready for you,” suggested Shining Armor, pulling out a canvas bag from underneath the table.

He removed a few plastic boxes from the bag and set them on top, “I got out some Power and Valor decks, we could have a sweet five-way game.”

“Shining, I know Cadance isn't here, but I really want to talk about the situation,” interrupted Shadow Breeze bravely, “please.”

“Oh... all right,” he said, frowning in disappointment.

“Thanks,” answered the pegasus, “so, in a nutshell, Princess Luna found out that her magical chalice she lost a long time ago was in the collection of a griffon duke. We went to go get it, but it was stolen by a zebra named Rosseth.”

“I think Twiley was telling me about Princess Luna's chalice a while ago,” Shining Armor interrupted, scratching his chin, “that's the one that makes bad potions, right?”

“Right, right,” continued Shadow Breeze, “so anyways, that zebra with her chalice is coming here.”

While they were talking, Flaming Ivory's brown eyes wandered over to the grand piano, and he started to lose track of the conversation as the urge to play built up in his heart. Eventually the temptation overpowered his manners, and he quietly slid off of his bean bag chair, creeping up to the piano. He climbed onto the ebony playing bench in front of the massive instrument, and carefully lifted off the cover, beginning to play a soft, quiet piece of his own to sooth his nerves. The others looked back at him a little bit, but they didn't seem to mind his playing since he wasn't participating in the talk anyways.

“... hey I'm happy to help you guys catch a thief,” said Shining Armor confidently, “we can send the guards around to look for him and get the chalice back. You seem worried over nothing.”

“But it's not nothing,” insisted Shadow Breeze, his eyes displaying worry, “Rosseth also stole a dark artifact and is taking it with him.”


Midnight Blaze cut in, “So, we think that maybe Rosseth is trying to use dark magic within the Crystal Empire. You know what will happen when the Crystal Ponies see dark magic, right?”

Shining realized what they were implying, and he gritted his teeth, “Oh...”

Shadow Breeze declared with a pained voice, “If Rosseth combines the chalice with whatever dark artifact he stole, he'll be able to demonstrate a massive act of dark magic, scaring the crystal ponies and sending them into a panic. There will be chaos, disorder, screaming...”

Flaming Ivory ramped up his musical piece into a dramatic, loud, and scary set of chords to emphasize Shadow Breeze's dire choices of words, making everyone stop talking and give him a nasty look. The unicorn stopped playing immediately and covered up the keys again.

“Heh, sorry... couldn't help it.”

“Anyways, we think there's a good chance he wants to cause civil disorder in the Crystal Empire,” said Techorse, “we need to come up with a way to stop him and take back the chalice.”

“Yeah, but... why would a zebra want to get the Empire to riot?” argued Shining Armor, “I mean, what's in it for him?”

“Crystals,” suggested Midnight Blaze, “the power crystals naturally occurring around here are the strongest power source on the planet. Maybe he wants to steal a good number of them during the chaos. He had hired some mercenaries to deal with us back in Stargazer's Peak, maybe he has more here. All your guards would be diverted away from the stockpiles by the rioting, and he could just walk right in and help himself.”

“Woah, you know a lot about the power crystals,” said an impressed Shining.

“They're the centerpiece of my magical tool project, I call 'em mindstones,” said Midnight Blaze, reaching for his bags on the floor magically.

He removed a smaller example of the stones and set one on the table in front of Shining Armor, “I've learned how to modify Imperial Crystals to read the brainwave patterns of the owner, letting objects be moved by thoughts just like magic.”

“Sounds interesting,” he said, picking up the stone with his magic and looking it over, “guess it's for earth ponies, huh? Sounds a lot like how Techorse says his saddle works.”

“Right, but mine runs off of electronic components, Midnight's is something the laypony can use,” answered Techorse, “I think most ponies would be more comfortable with something that looks like an artifact, which is why I've supported Midnight's project.”

“Plus you're known for kitchen stuff,” teased Flaming Ivory as he returned to his chair, “it'd be an awfully big leap from ice cream makers to mind reading doom robots.”

Flaming Ivory laughed as he avoided a hoof swing from Techorse. Shadow Breeze shuffled around on his bean bag chair, and wanted to get the conversation back on track.

“Shining, will you help us out?” he pleaded.

“We can have a patrol set up to look for him, sure,” said Shining Armor, “so what's this guy look like?”

“Well, he's a zebra with a thick mane, but he has a patch of brown coat fur running from his chin to his stomach,” described Shadow Breeze, “and he has an amulet like mine, but it has a rounded opal gemstone, and it creates evil copies of himself...”

“So he's armed and dangerous.”

“They're really only good for making a distraction, which is how he got away from us,” Techorse answered, slightly disagreeing, “he's done a lot of bad things for this grand robbery, but I'm not sure how dangerous he actually is, yet.”

“Then we'll have to treat him as if he's the most dangerous type of thief,” said Shining Armor, sighing because he knew Techorse was being soft, “we can't take any chances.”

“Just remember, he wants us to go on the offensive,” reminded Shadow Breeze softly, “we really don't want to be too harsh, or he'll take advantage and get away again.”

“Let's not get ahead of ourselves, we need to wait until Cadance gets back tomorrow morning anyways,” said Techorse in hopes of ending the conversation.

A few moments of time passed in silence before Shining Armor pointed with his trimmed hoof to the deck boxes.

“Soooo, want to play now?”

“I don't know the rules,” admitted Shadow Breeze meekly.

“Best way to learn is to play.”

“I call the superheroes deck!” interjected Flaming Ivory.

Techorse was just glad the conversation was over for now. He was worried that he might mess up again and lose the chalice for a second time to his new enemy, but he was also concerned Shining Armor would throw too much military force into the situation and lead to a diplomacy crisis that would upset Princess Luna and make her feel even worse about the impact of her lost chalice. Despite all the possible hazards, Techorse was aware he was being trusted as more than just a plan B to sending Twilight to take care of the situation. Now he was concerned only about how he was going to stop Shining Armor's ridiculous deck he'd played against before that prevented him from doing anything even remotely close to resembling winning the game.

After a long, well-fought game, the stallions were taken to their rooms for the evening to sleep well for the day ahead. Midnight was ushered to his own by one of the castle employees, it was a large, open room with a giant king-sized bed made from the finest fabrics that could be imported. Fancy curtains hung from the singular, gigantic window at the side of the room, and the walls were lined with various dressers.

“Sheesh, I'm only staying one night!” he chuckled.

“Ever been to the Crystal Empire before? We kind of like guests,” said the maid who took him there, giggling, “plus, you're friends of Shining Armor. Only the best!”

“Well thanks, I think I'll settle in!”

She nodded and turned around, closing the door behind her. Midnight quickly discovered a large, equally luxurious bathroom was connected to his bedroom, and took an hour-long bath in boiling hot water to ease his mind. Following brushing his teeth and brushing the knots out of his slick haircut, he started to head for the massive bed when he heard a knock at the door. Opening it, he found Techorse, who was dressed up in a simple set of thin gray pajamas with light blue stripes.

“Techorse, you ok?” he asked, “This isn't about Shining clobbering you again is it?”

Techorse said with a chuckle, “No, I'm not too hurt about that. Shining spends all his disposable income on games, anyways, so he has the best cards.”

Midnight laughed, “How does Princess Cadance put up with him?”

“Same way any wife puts up with her husband's hobbies I bet,” he answered, “a lot of eye rolling and 'that's nice, honey'.”

“Anyways,” continued Techorse with a more serious tone, “I've been noticing you've been acting worried, or like your head has been hurting. Is something wrong? I wanted to ask you myself because Flaming would have picked on you if I brought it up back there.”

Midnight began to sweat a little, and hoped it was just the soaked heat from the hot bath,“Oh, well... Flaming's a cool guy. I wouldn't have cared.”

Techorse didn't seem so convinced, “Well, I'm still a bit worried about you. What's wrong?”

The unicorn feared the voice in his head would torture him if he squealed, and answered, “It's just... about my father. No big deal, I'll try not to let it get to me so it doesn't worry you.”

“All right,” said Techorse, accepting the answer, “have a good night Midnight, and try to forget about it.”

“I've been trying my whole life, Techorse,” sighed Midnight, closing the door.

The green stallion's ears sank in pity about Midnight's situation with his dad, and left to go back to his own bedroom.

It had been about a half hour since Techorse had left, and Midnight lay in the darkness of the bedroom, snuggled up underneath the thick, heavy blankets of the bed. He was trying to get to sleep, but he feared falling unconscious and having another encounter with the strange specter in his mind. How in Equestria was he going to be able to keep the voice from coming back?

The young unicorn bolted up from his bed, “Wait a minute... it told me not to go near the glow. I wonder...”

Midnight Blaze got out of his bed, and took with him one pillow and a smaller blanket he found in the drawers, dragging it behind him with his magic as he exited the room quietly.

What are you doing?

Ignoring the voice, he wandered down the empty, dark hallways of the palace, avoiding the guards until he reached a central section near the center of the citadel, where a guard stood by an armored door. Midnight wondered how he was going to get past the guard, until he wandered away from the door in a bored manner. The unicorn seized the opportunity, and got through the armored door quickly.

Behind it was a large, rounded room with narrow, thin windows surrounding it. The room was bright as day, a large column in the center rising up to half of the height of the room, and a soft, light-blue colored field of energy surrounding it in a tube. At the apex of the ceiling, the Crystal Heart hovered, rotating slowly and sending pulses of energy down the tube into the palace's depths. Midnight couldn't believe he was looking at what might be the most famous artifact in Equestrian history, and slowly approached the powerful object.

After staring at the power source for a good long minute, Midnight Blaze placed his pillow on the floor of the room, then the blanket, and laid down to go to sleep, ignoring the light in his eyes.

So this is your plan? Using the Heart as a night light?” teased the voice in his head.

“If it gets you to leave, sure,” answered the unicorn, practically talking to himself.

It laughed, “You're being ornery, yet I don't blame you. I will depart for now and leave you be, sleep well.

The Crystal Heart stopped rotating, and reversed direction slowly until the flat edge of the heart faced the unicorn on the floor. Midnight Blaze, his eyes closed, didn't notice the artifact's behavior, nor the fact that the room was dimming quickly. Finally, the unicorn managed to drift off to sleep, convinced the voice would leave him alone for one night.


He bolted awake again, certain the voice had returned despite agreeing to leave him.

“You said you were leaving me alone!” he screamed, not waiting to take in the environment.

Ignitus recoiled from his son's shouting, “Easy son, it's me!”

“D... dad?” he asked with surprise, “What are you doing here?”

Behind Ignitus stood Shining Armor and several of his guards, standing in surprise at the scene. The Crystal Heart was shining down a spotlight from its center upon Midnight Blaze, and the instant Ignitus stepped towards him, the circle of bright light widened to accommodate the detective.

“I came here to help Techorse stop the chalice thief,” he said, “Shining Armor's stallions noticed the Heart wasn't producing power, and we came to check it out.”

Midnight Blaze stood up as Techorse and the others entered the room. Immediately Techorse opened up his saddle and pulled out a small diagnostics tool, which he began to work with using his robotic arms in order to examine the Crystal Heart.

“What's going on, Techorse?” asked Flaming Ivory, a pair of headphones over his head which normally helped him to sleep to some classical music.

“My scanner shows that the Crystal Heart is lining this room with some kind of invisible shield,” he said.

“So it didn't stop making power?” asked Shining Armor, “That's a relief.”

“Yeah, it's as if... it was protecting Midnight, for some reason,” continued Techorse, “artifacts are not my specialty, reactors are, but all that energy output usually goes somewhere.”

“Am I in trouble?” asked Midnight Blaze, looking at the guards who were glaring at him.

“There's a reason the Heart is on the ground floor during the day,” answered Shining Armor gruffly, “it's off limits during the night. We should have you arrested for this.”

“And the instant you do that, I'll be happy to let the Princesses know you did,” chuckled a voice behind the group.

The ponies in the room turned to watch Arbiter and Limpwing enter, the captain's black cape fluttering behind him.

“Arby, Limpwing, hey!” said Techorse eagerly, stowing his PDA and walking over to them.

“Good morning, Techorse,” he said, “I'll be happy to talk to you once I put my predecessor in his place.”

“Arbiter...” growled Shining Armor, his eyes narrowing.

The pegasus was larger than he was, but Shining was not scared of Arbiter, nor his scarred-over patched eye.

“Shining, it seems the Crystal Heart called out to Midnight Blaze in his sleep, and he must have sleep-walked into this room. You should think about the fact that a piece of mineral has more pity for the lad than you do,” he teased.

“You're out of your jurisdiction,” reminded the blue-haired unicorn sharply.

“And you're out of your mind,” countered Arbiter, “arresting one of Techorse's friends would surely earn you the frying pan from Cadance. Or worse, when Techorse inevitably tattles on you to Twilight. Given their status together, it'd be quite a risk.”

Shining Armor groaned and stepped back from Midnight and Ignitus, “Fine. I guess we can forget about this for now. It's late.”

The Crystal Heart stopped projecting the spotlight, and returned to its normal pattern of rotation and sending power pulses down to the ground level. Midnight Blaze and his father walked away from the center of the room back to the others.

“Let's just go back to bed, ok?” said Shadow Breeze.

“I didn't realize we were having so many guests, I guess this chalice going missing is pretty bad after all,” Shining figured, “we'll meet up again in a few hours to go over the plan.”

“All right, later,” answered Flaming Ivory, leaving the room as he switched to a brand new music track.

Everyone left the core room to go back to sleep, but as Midnight headed back for his room, Ignitus stopped him again.

“Who's giving you trouble, Midnight?” he asked, “That artifact decided to lend you help, and I'm thinking maybe our suspect is after you.”

Of course, Midnight wanted to tell his father that his overbearing nature was the problem, but he knew it'd be pointless and lead to more yelling, so he came up with another lie.

“I guess I've just been having trouble getting used to hero work,” answered the unicorn in hopes of appeasing his strict dad, “the anxiety's gotten me all worked up and the Crystal Heart wanted me to relax.”

“I could believe that, it's very tough on you, but I'm happy you're finally stepping up to the challenge,” answered Ignitus, “you're becoming a real stallion.”

“Sure,” answered Midnight groggily, turning around and heading for his bedroom, “have a good night, dad.”

Ignitus knew his son was making things up, but it was just the way it had to be. Midnight was going to be a good soldier no matter what, it was what was required of him. But as he left for his own room, he heard some kind of a strange ringing in his ears that wavered in sync with the pulses of the Crystal heart.

It was as if the artifact was silently judging him.

“If only you really knew,” muttered Ignitus at the iron door that led back to the room, “you'd be on my side.”

Then, as he pushed the tinnitus out of his mind with a low cough, the detective walked away into the darkness of the palace to go get a good night's rest.

Chapter 10 - A Zebra's Tale

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Chapter 10

“Here's your waffles, sir!”

Rosseth folded up his morning newspaper and set it down on the table in front of him, right next to a steaming mug of hot coffee. Having reached the Crystal Empire early that morning, the zebra had slept at one of the inns at the far edge of the city, and now was trying to wake up with a nice breakfast to keep him one step ahead of his enemies. His waitress was a cute earth pony mare, yellow in color with white hair tied up with the head ribbons citizens of the Empire found comfortable. She set down his plate, a wide metal platter stacked high with four Belgian-style waffles nearly turned white with the amount of powdered sugar the chef had piled on top. He chuckled and wondered if the large syrup bottle she set down next would even be necessary.

“Thank you sweetheart,” he said smoothly, “these look absolutely wonderful.”

The waitress gave him a wink and a smile before turning around to serve another customer, her long tail swishing near the table. Rosseth brought the plate of waffles closer to him using his hoof, and grabbed a bite from the stack. She seemed quite pleasant to look at, and her friendliness probably carried over outside her job as it did for many crystal ponies.

“Rosseth, what are you doing?” thought the zebra, “There's no need to take a liking to these soon-to-be-gone disposables. They're ponies, not a zebra like you, they have no interest in getting to know you anyways! That's why you're here.

He tried to finish his food, but couldn't get through the third waffle due to the outrageous portions the restaurant had served him. After shamefully pushing the plate away from himself, the waitress came back to carry the leftovers away. She smiled to let him know there'd be no judgment over the wasted food, and tried to start a conversation as she cleaned up the table.

“So how was it?”

“Excellent, as I thought it would be, thanks,” he said to her, smiling.

“Glad to hear,” the waitress answered, sweeping a few crumbs off the table with her hooves, “you know, we don't get too many zebras here in the Crystal Empire. Any reason you're up here?”

“Business,” answered Rosseth, using his typical lie, “I have some things to take care of for my career, including paying a visit to Princess Cadance if she's in town.”

“Oh, going to see the Princess on official business? Must be important,” she said in a supportive way, “so what's your job, anyways, to have to work with royalty?”

The zebra decided he was going to tease his server with a little bit of wordplay. He was beginning to take a liking to her, and felt playful. It wouldn't matter anyway once his plan had been completed and she would be out of his mind for good.

He leaned back in his chair, “I work in the potions industry, and I've come up with one that the Princess absolutely must see. It's quite the powerful recipe, I even think it'll leave her... speechless.”

“Oooh, good luck!” she answered, batting her eyelashes at him, “I'd ask just what your new potion is, but I'm sure it's a company secret.”

“And you'd be right,” laughed Rosseth gently, “of course, it's much easier to keep it secret from greedy coworkers than it is from flirty mares serving good food.”

The mare giggled and set the plate onto her clearing tray, “How else am I supposed to get tips?”

“Well you've certainly earned this one,” he answered, reaching underneath his cape and pulling out a small bag of bits for her, “I hope you'll take this here so the other waitresses don't get jealous.”

“Th.. thanks!” she stuttered at his generosity, the weight of the bag telling her it likely contained at least twenty coins, if not more, “my name's Lighthearted, by the way.”

With her introducing herself, Rosseth wondered if he could use this friendly conversation to his advantage. If the pests that had attacked him in Stargazer's Peak came back, they'd have a harder time detaining him if the Crystal Ponies saw him as a good guy. The potion maker added a hint of concern to his expression and lowered his voice.

“I'm Rosseth,” he answered softly, “I'm so happy to talk to anyone friendly. There's been this horrible group of guys after me. They think I'm up to no good, but I'm just trying to make an honest living in the potions business. Especially this green stallion with a metal saddle, I think he has it in for me.”

As expected, Lighthearted assured him, “I don't know what their problem is, but if I see that guy and he asks for you, I'll pretend you weren't around.”

“Thank you sweetie, I appreciate it,” answered the zebra as he stood up, dropping the rest of the money required of him on the table, “now, I need to go and take care of that sales pitch to the princess.”

“If.. if you want, since you're new here, I'd like to give you a tour of the empire if you don't mind, this afternoon,” she said, smiling, “I get off at three.”

“Why, we've just met!” teased the zebra.

“I know, but I'd do this for any guest, really, most crystal ponies would,” she answered, rolling her eyes, “it's a courtesy, not a date.”

It was as if blessings were pouring from the sky. Rosseth had no idea where the primary power crystal vault was, but this mare in front of him was likely to let him know if he could just hang out until three without getting caught. That would be easy, if he played his cards right and avoided another fight with Techorse.

“In that case, I accept! I'll be back here at three,” he said, bowing gently, “have a good day now, Lighthearted!”

“Thanks, you too!” she said as she watched him walk away, “And welcome to the Crystal Empire, Rosseth! The best place to be!“

“Thank you!” he answered finally before walking away.

Rosseth chuckled and shook his head.

The best place to be... for now.

Breakfast at the Crystal Palace had been more humble than usual, with Shining Armor wanting to get his guards mobilized as soon as possible. Still, the cooks had prepared a decent meal of toast, scrambled eggs, and hot oatmeal with brown sugar for Techorse and his friends. They sat at the large dining hall table, a fixed piece made from marble, with Ignitus and Arbiter sitting on the opposite side. Limpwing had left the palace early in the morning to do some “advance scouting”, having disappeared from her room without a trace.

Midnight Blaze was still trying to avoid the glances of his father, who was finally without hat and coat. For the first time, Techorse could see just how large the unicorn was, and how menacing he looked. Perhaps the detective's strategy for apprehending criminals was to scare them into submission, unlike his cousin Arbiter, who was happy to use skillful acts of force to subdue his opponents. Either way, Techorse saw his friend chewing on a piece of toast and avoiding eye contact with his father, tension clearly between them. They were all sitting around, chewing in silence, avoiding the talk a healthy family would have.

Flaming Ivory decided to break the awkward silence with a hoofball reference, “Soooo, how about them Hoofington Howlers?”

“I don't keep up with sports much,” muttered Ignitus, cutting into a hard cooked egg with a fork and knife suspended into his aura.


“So what's it like being a detective?” asked Shadow Breeze, hoping he'd get a more solid answer.

“It's a lot of travel, and a lot of hard work, but you get to see the world,” answered Ignitus, putting his silverware down and taking interest in the question, “and my contributions are helpful to Equestria. Last month I looked into a group of ponies in Manehattan going around demanding protection money from the store owners. Fairly easy to see why they called themselves the 'Broken Glass Gang'.”

“Yeah, wave goodbye to your windows if you don't pay up,” sighed Flaming Ivory, “I remember hearing about those creeps. So many broken shop windows and display cases.”

“Right, and the citizens of Manehattan just decided to put up with it and let the police take care of the robberies,” continued Ignitus, his fiery eyes staring into Shadow Breeze's, “that is, until the chief of police's son went to buy a wedding ring so he could propose to his marefriend.”

With the story getting good, Midnight Blaze finally looked up from his piece of toast and listened in. He obviously didn't care about his line of work, but there was something fun about hearing troublemakers getting what was due to them.

Arbiter chuckled, “Oh those poor stallions. I remember this story, Ignitus. Are you sure it's appropriate to tell at the breakfast table?”

“They're adults, Arbiter,” grunted Ignitus, “I think they'll be fine with it.”

“Uh oh,” chuckled Techorse, “if Arbiter thinks this gets crazy, maybe I don't want to know.”

“Anyways,” continued Ignitus as he ignored the interruption, “the chief of police had her son go and choose a nice ring for his wife. He had a piece custom-ordered from a prestigious wedding band company in Manehattan square, and it was held in the store until the goons decided they wanted it for themselves. In the middle of the night, just a day before the proposal, they smashed the store up and stole the ring.”

“How horrible,” commented Shadow Breeze, frowning.

“So I was sent on the case to sort things out and track down the missing ring,” Ignitus explained, “I'd handled many robberies before, and I knew they'd strike again if we offered something tempting enough, so I had the police chief order another jeweler to stock ten hundred thousand bits worth of gold and silver watches.”

Midnight Blaze heard the comment about the watches and cringed. He remembered the story, and knew he was going to be embarrassed when his father had finished it.

“Dad, wait,” he said, panic in his voice.

Ignitus ignored him, “So that evening, the suspects showed up, four of them, all earth ponies wearing ski masks. They break the windows like they always do, and then they enter the shop. I had hidden myself in the vault, and was ready for them. Several of the police officers had taken position in the sewers beneath the store and were ready to jump out.”

“Please stop!” begged Midnight.

Techorse caught on to Midnight's pleas, “Ignitus, I know you're a brave guy, but Midnight's clearly not comfortable...”

“Just a minute Techorse, almost done,” he said, “besides, you're a hero. You won't mind hearing a story like this, I'm sure you've seen a lot like it before.”

Techorse gave him an angry look, but that did nothing to deter him from finishing the story.

“So in they come to steal the watches, and then, I burst out of the safe with an explosive spell. The blast triggers the store alarm, and heavy metal bars come down over the windows and doors,” he said, Midnight covering his head with his hooves, “we had forgotten about the security system, and the police were locked out.”

Shadow Breeze gasped, “Oh no, you were trapped in there with four violent criminals?”

The red unicorn smirked, “On the contrary Shadow, they were trapped in there with me.”

Then, with a calm and collected voice, Ignitus described the horrid event, “All of them rushed me at once, but I was prepared for them. A fire spell was enough to make the one on the right regret their charge immediately, and he was rolling around, screaming as the flames started to eat away his clothing. The other two jumped, and I caught them with my magic before I slammed their faces into the display cases. From the reports it took them an hour to remove all the shards from their...”

Each of the other ponies save Arbiter grew wide-eyed as Ignitus described the scenes of the intense beating he had given the four robbers. One of them thrown through a display case and left to writhe, another burnt, and one more bashed up against the bars.

“...finally, it was down to just me and the leader. I grabbed him by the throat with a constriction spell, and held him aloft in the air, choking him. He wouldn't tell me what his gang had done with the ring, so I decided to take things a step further. I located the colts' room at the back of the shop, and thrust his head down into the first toilet.”

“Sweet Celestia, why?” whimpered Shadow Breeze, sobbing gently, “Make him stop, Midnight!”

“I...I can't,” he answered gloomily.

“Every time he was about to drown, I'd pull his head out and demand to know where the ring was. Eventually he gave up, and spilled the entire story,” finished Ignitus, “it wasn't pleasant, but we got the ring back, and the gang was finished. It was a great service to Manehattan, but I left before I could accept the medal the city wanted to offer me...”

The detective paused as he noticed that Techorse, Flaming Ivory, and Shadow Breeze sat there, mouths agape.

“Is something... wrong?” he asked.

Techorse tried to say something, but Flaming spoke first, “That's messed up! You erased four unarmed guys like that? All they ever did was break windows, and you put 'em in pony bags!”

Ignitus realized he had left out a crucial piece of information and said apologetically, “Oh, I beg your pardon, gentlecolts. I should have mentioned the suspects all survived the ordeal before going into detail.”

“Like that makes it any better,” groaned Techorse, “do you understand how cruel you were? You could have just pinned them down magically until the police got past the bars.”

“Nothing is too cruel for those trying to disrupt Equestria's peace,” stated Ignitus flatly.

“You tried to drown somepony in a toilet,” cried Shadow Breeze, “that's too cruel for anyone!”

“I fail to understand your offense,” grunted the detective, “I was just doing my job, and torturing the leader was the best way to get the information on the ring. I never said my family's duty to Equestria was pleasant, nice, or fun, just that it is necessary.“

“Well, I can see why Midnight doesn't want to follow in your hoofsteps,” said Techorse sternly, standing up from the table, “come on guys, let's go. I'm not hungry anymore.”

The four ponies stood up and left the dining room, leaving a dumbfounded Ignitus and Arbiter alone at the table.

“I don't understand, cousin,” he sighed, “Techorse is supposed to be an Equestrian hero, at least as far as I've been told. I thought perhaps the Broken Glass incident would be mild in comparison to what he's faced in his travels. His saddle is bristling with advanced weapons, as far as I've know from you, and he's supposedly good with them.”

“Techorse is very powerful,” agreed Arbiter, reaching for his cup of coffee, “but he is not much into beating his opponents senseless like you or I. He prefers to only have to take things as far as they need to go in order to defuse the situation.”

“What are you saying, Arbiter?” he asked.

The white stallion sipped from the cup and set it back down before smirking at his relative, “I'm saying that Techorse is idealistic and very gullible at times, but he has something you don't... the willingness to give others a chance. If you were to explain to him why you treat Midnight so poorly, he'd ridicule you for it and give you a lecture. Just like his marefriend...“

“Which is why I’ve made you swear not to tell him our secret,” cautioned his cousin, frowning.

“Right, but the fact you are making me keep it a secret is evidence enough that it's foolish,” laughed Arbiter, “you've done enough, Ignitus. There's no more need for paying back society.”

“We can never do enough for Equestria,” growled Ignitus.

Arbiter turned in his chair to face him directly and confronted the unicorn, “Are you sure it's Equestria you're trying to satisfy, or yourself? I gave up on this stupid game ages ago, Ignitus. That 'passion' for stopping threats to our nation is what led me down a path that nearly resulted in my death. I really worry for you, cousin.”

“Thanks Arbiter, but I don't need you or anypony else to worry about me,” he said, pushing away from the table, “I'm going out there to look for that zebra now. I don't want to hear about this topic again.”

He left Arbiter alone in the room, the caped pony staring at his now cold scrambled eggs and steaming cup of coffee. A sigh escaped the stallion's lips as he reclined in the chair. Getting the message across to his relative was not going to be easy, despite Techorse's rejection and his own logic.

“Guess you'll just have to learn things the hard way, old friend...”

A pink-colored carriage pulled by two pegasus stallions pulled up to the palace, and the doors opened quickly as a dress-clad Cadance stepped out. Her outfit was a simple green dress with a few yellow buttons on the front, and she quickly walked up to the first of the four doors of the palace to get inside as soon as possible. Her crown was missing, and the matching high heels she was wearing made her have an awkward strut to the door.

“Strange, where are the guards?” she mused as she pushed open the door and entered the foot of the palace.

Since there weren't any ponies around to watch, she uncouthly changed out of the dress right there at the doorstep, and put back on her crown and mantle. High heels were kicked off into various directions, and the young princess decided to scratch an itch on her back from the discomfort of the gown.

“From one duty to the next...” she sighed as she placed the tiny crown back on her head, her neck jewelry having been worn underneath the dress, “having two jobs is quite the adventure.”

After stuffing the dress and her shoes lazily into her bag, the slender mare continued on into her home, hoping there'd at least be one staff member to talk to. With the guards gone, chances were her husband was out as well, such was life for a two-job couple.

The hallways were lonely and empty, but on her way back to her room, Cadance spotted Techorse and company brooding in a tea room set aside for guests. She walked up to the door of the room, not spotted by the four, and listened in on the conversation.

“I'm thinking we should ditch the others and go get Ross ourselves,” declared Flaming Ivory, slamming his hooves on the tea table, “we got too many losers like Ignitus and Shining Armor telling us how to do things and then ruining our appetites by telling us how many ponies they've beaten up. Princess Luna said we gotta get the chalice back, so we're still in charge here!”

Luna's chalice has been found again?” thought Cadance as she continued to eavesdrop, “That can't be good...

“Flaming, we don't need to totally remove the others from the situation,” said Techorse, trying to calm him down, “we just have to get the chalice back ourselves before they do.”

“Oh? Why?” asked Shadow Breeze.

Cadance, unable to stand her curiosity anymore, knocked quickly on the glass doors to the tea room with her hoof.

“Come on in,” called out Flaming Ivory.

The princess pushed the door open gently, earning smiles and bright eyes from the stallions, especially Techorse.

“Princess Cadance,” he beamed, standing up with his friends, “good to see you! How'd the counseling go?”

“Good to see you too, Techorse,” she answered, smiling, “and it went great. They're going to give things another chance.”

“I'm glad to hear it!”

“So who are these guys?” she asked, pointing to the other three stallions in the room.

“Oh yeah, sorry, these are my friends, Shadow Breeze, Flaming Ivory, and Midnight Blaze,” he said, a bit embarrassed he was holding a casual conversation without them.

Flaming Ivory tried to bow to her, “It's an honor to meet you, your highness!”

“Please, you can call me Cadance, I'm on a first name basis with most of the crystal ponies... and you're friends with Techorse,” she said humbly, “being a princess is just a title to me.”

“Aw well, I'm just being nice,” answered the musician, blushing.

“Anyways Cadance, we need to talk to you about something,” said Techorse a bit more seriously.

“I'm going to assume it's about Luna's chalice,” Cadance said meekly, “I might have overheard your conversation a bit.”

“That's ok,” forgave Shadow Breeze, adjusting his posture in his chair, “long story short, we were sent to Stargazer's Peak by Princess Luna to try and buy the lunar chalice back from the duke. But when we got there, it was stolen by a zebra! Now he's here, and we're trying to hunt him down before he does something awful with it.”

“He's also in possession of a dark artifact of another kind,” warned Midnight Blaze, standing up, “we're not sure what it is, but it had to be contained in a heavy-duty artifact transport container lined with magic absorbents. At least, that's what my dad told me.”

“So who is this zebra?” asked Cadance curiously.

Techorse answered with a clear tone, “Rosseth.”

The stallions watched as Princess Cadance's face went pale, and the slender princess took a step back, her mouth falling open slightly.

“Did you just say... Rosseth?” she said weakly.

“Uh oh,” groaned Flaming Ivory, “sit down and tell us what you know about this guy...”

She stumbled over to another one of the wooden, padded chairs, and sat down gently, breathing as if anxious. The four others in the tea room looked at her with concerned expressions, and Techorse offered the princess a cup of tea, which she refused.

“Cadance, what's wrong?” asked Techorse, “What do you know about Rosseth?”

“He... he's my... biggest failure,” she answered slowly, her ears sinking back and her eyes going to the ground.

“What do you mean by that?” asked Shadow Breeze, tilting his head.

The princess looked up at him, “Long ago, before the Crystal Empire returned, I grew up learning how to be a marriage and family counselor. About the time I was babysitting and just getting used to my strength in love magic and therapy, I got the strangest case I had ever seen, and rushed into headfirst not knowing what I was doing.”

Cadance eventually accepted the teacup Techorse had pushed her way, and with her magic she picked the cup up and sipped from it, trying to calm her nerves. Once the cup was safely back on its saucer, she took another deep breathe and continued her story.

“It was the strangest thing. A zebra stallion nicknamed Lancer had come to Equestria on vacation from his island nation, and met an earth pony mare named Honeysuckle his age in port. They fell in love, and become a married couple that year, with him moving permanently to Equestria,” continued Cadance, eyes unmoving from her cup of black tea, “they conceived a foal, Rosseth... a pony and zebra hybrid. I always knew they were possible, but I had never seen one before.”

“That explains why he has a brown patch from his chin to his belly,” said Shadow Breeze, “he's half pony and half zebra!”

“Rosseth was never ostracized for his appearance, thankfully, but Lancer and Honeysuckle started to drift apart from each other. I think they rushed their marriage too fast, and realized they weren't very compatible,” she said, “I later on met a different zebra and pony couple with better luck, but...”

“But what about Ross?” asked Flaming Ivory, trying to keep things on track.

She realized she was getting off topic, and adjusted herself, “Right, sorry. What happened was, I tried my hardest to make sure Lancer and Honeysuckle stayed together, for Rosseth's sake and to prove myself as a learning Princess of Love. But... I failed. They divorced, and I was reprimanded heavily by my peers in Canterlot for my failure.”

Shadow Breeze frowned, “I'm so sorry...”

Princess Cadance shut her eyes, crying bitterly, “No Shadow Breeze... don't feel bad for me. The real loser was Rosseth. He ended up running away from Honeysuckle's home just before he became an adult. Lancer and Honeysuckle begged me to help them find him, and they'd agree on custody... but we never saw him again, and it was all my fault!”


The princess opened her eyes, and saw Techorse's saddle open, the mechanical arms clutching a box of tissues. She grabbed one magically and dried her eyes with it, crumpling the facial tissue in a ball and dropping it on the table before taking another and blowing her nose. Techorse's friends seemed to share her misery, barely able to make eye contact, their faces downcast.

“You can't blame yourself for Rosseth's parents splitting,” said Techorse, “they chose not to work things out. But now that I know Rosseth is out for revenge against you... I think maybe showing him your pain over it might be just the thing to get him to stop.”

“Oh man, don't tell me we're giving that creep a chance, Techorse,” moaned Flaming Ivory, facehoofing, “he tried to blast us, man!”

“I know, but...”

“No, Flaming Ivory is right,” sighed Cadance, “it's a shame, but we're going to have to bring Rosseth in before we can do much for him. I'm assuming my husband is out trying to catch him, can't wait to tell him too about all this...”

“All right,” answered Techorse, defeated, “we'll bring him in first. Let's go guys, we need to support the guards.”

They stood up, and headed for the door, until Princess Cadance saw Midnight Blaze pass. She stuck out her wing, blocking his exit as his friends left.

“Hold on, Midnight Blaze, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Please, sit back down, I sensed something about you... do I know you?” she asked.

“Probably not,” he answered as he returned to his seat, “what's this you sensed?”

“I sensed something was wrong,” she said gently, “you were sad before I told the story about Rosseth. What's bothering you?”

“Nothing's bothering me...”

Midnight Blaze looked around with his light blue eyes, trying to avoid contact. A feeling started to tug at his heart to talk about it, and the warm smile Cadance had reached out with was quite difficult to resist.

He decided to give up, “I guess you being the Princess of Love and all, I'm not going to fool you. I'll tell you if it means that much to you.”

“I would have been willing to let it go if you weren't comfortable talking about it,” said Cadance, “but I'm glad you want to open up now.”

“Well... I'm pretty sure my dad doesn't love me,” admitted the unicorn, “he's been disappointed with me for not going into the military like he did.”

Princess Cadance almost felt like laughing. If she had a bit for every time she had heard that from a stallion with a very accomplished dad...

“That is a very common thought of young stallions growing up under tough fathers!” she laughed, “I'm sure your father still loves you, and just wants you to be the best you can be.”

“I thought you might say that,” grunted Midnight Blaze, “but he won't leave off about it. I already have a career in magical items, but he keeps hounding me about serving. I know he was Captain of the Guard, and he thinks it's great and all... but why do I have to go in too?”

Cadance stopped him, “Wait, your father was the Captain of the Guard? I'm not sure I follow...”

“Yeah, he's Ignitus, he used to be Celestia's captain ages ago before he quit to become a private investigator.”

“Oh... Oh dear,” she said through gritted teeth, “Shining Armor was his replacement, and then Arbiter after him. I think I can see why he's so tough on you, both of them are pretty brutal.”

“I know,” he said miserably, “my mother wasn't even able to get him to stop picking on me. I don't know how they stayed together honestly, maybe it was because my little brother Twinken wouldn't be able to handle them breaking up.”

“I'm sure things have been hard, but I bet Ignitus still loves you very much,” assured Princess Cadance, “it's very difficult to get somepony to stop loving their own foal.”

“I'm just tired of the harassment and the disappointment, I want to go back to my inventing career,” Midnight groaned, “but even when I show him what it's good for he still thinks its not good enough. Even my friendship with Techorse is worthless to him... he's taken it to mean Tech's mentoring me instead.”

“Oh he's in for a disappointment,” chuckled Cadance, knowing Techorse's nature.

“The worst part is, he says our family owes Equestria some kind of a debt, and that's why I have to serve, but he won't tell me what that is exactly,” continued Midnight, ignoring Cadance's moment of fun, “if he just told me why I have to go and become a soldier, maybe I'd actually think about it.”

“I'll tell you what,” said Cadance softly, “I'll go talk to Ignitus myself and make him tell me why he's being so harsh to you. Since he claims to be in service to Equestria, it'll be hard to say no.”

“That'll just make him more upset,” he answered, choking, “please don't!”

“...and if that doesn't work, I have another idea.”

Midnight Blaze paused, “What is it?”

The princess didn't really want to offer what she was about to, but it was her job to take care of special cases in relationships, and this was definitely worthy.

“I'll pull a couple of strings and get you a nice desk job with the Crystal Guard,” she said, “you'd still have to get your mane cut, and do some basic training, but I'll get my husband to put you through that so you don't have too much trouble. Then Ignitus should leave you alone, and you won't be out on patrol all the time like him. Sound good?”

It wasn't really what he wanted either, but doing paperwork for the military sounded better than being some kind of a front line fighter like his father, so Midnight Blaze agreed reluctantly to the deal. He nodded slowly, and returned Cadance's looks finally after avoiding eye contact for so long.

“Great! I'll work my magic then,” she said, giving him a wink, “now I bet Techorse is outside already waiting on you. Best of luck finding Rosseth.”

“Thank you Princess Cadance!” he said happily, getting up from his chair.

As he pushed open the doors to the room, Cadance called out, “Oh, and one more thing.”


“Please go gentle on him,” she requested.

“It's not me you have to worry about,” joked Midnight, “it's that Flaming Ivory. He's a powder keg, we're going to have to restrain him once we find Rosseth.”

“Oh, well please go gentle on Flaming, too!” joked Cadance, “Be safe, Midnight!”

He left her sitting in the tea room and walked down the empty hallway of the palace alone, happy with the outcome of their talk. Hope that Cadance would figure out what was wrong with his father helped him to take his mind off of his problems. Well, all but one of them...

Why do you need her? You're about to prove your father wrong under your own incredible power. Believe in yourself...

Chapter 11 - Shadow Trapped

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Chapter 11

Midnight managed to catch up to his friends, who were standing near the base of the Crystal Palace, reading a map that was outstretched in Techorse's robotic arms, a couple of passerby crystal ponies looking in surprise at the mechanical saddle and the supporting limbs coming out of its sides. The three were gathered near the middle of the citadel's base, where the Crystal Heart would soon descend and stay for the remainder of the day.

“Hey guys, sorry about that,” he said to them as he galloped up, “what's the plan?”

Techorse turned a bit so that Midnight could peer over him and get a good look at the map of the Crystal Empire. The radial streets from the citadel extended miles in each direction, and there were all kinds of residential homes, shops, and inns marked clearly. Three black circles of ink were marked around some larger buildings Techorse had taken interest in... banks used to store the empire's mined power crystals.

“We're trying to figure out where we ought to go next,” muttered Techorse, a bit frustrated, “says here on the map there are three major power crystal banks in the city. I doubt we'll find Ross just wandering around the empire's streets, so we need to figure out which bank he's going to hit first so we can wait for him.”

“Why not just go with the biggest one?” asked Midnight Blaze, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, but see, Ross ain't a dumb... er, whatever he is Cadance said,” said Flaming Ivory, at a loss for words.

“I think the correct technical term is a zebroid,” Techorse said, finishing for him.

Flaming scoffed Techorse's annoying factoid, “As far as I'm concerned, the correct technical term for him is a pain in the...”

“Stay focused, please,” said Shadow gently with a cough, not wanting to hear it.

“Fine, fine,” said the light gray unicorn, smirking, “anyways, what I was trying to say was... Ross isn't stupid. He probably thinks we're thinking he's gonna hit the big bank first! So we gotta pick one of the other banks first!”

“But what if he knows that we know that he's going to hit the biggest crystal deposit first?” worried Shadow Breeze, “Then he'll hit the biggest one while we're not there!”

Techorse fell for the mental trap, “Yeah, but then if he figures that we'll not go to the biggest one, then change our minds, we'll...”

He paused for a moment, thinking carefully about the logical circle they were trapped in, and worked quickly to dig them out.

“Hey, wait a minute. Just because the bank is the biggest one doesn't mean the supply of crystals stored there is the biggest. Ross is probably going to go for the one with the biggest stock first,” he said as he folded the map and stowed it away inside the saddle along with the arms.

“That's probably a safe bet,” agreed Midnight Blaze, “we ought to go to each of them and ask the locals which bank has the most crystals. Of course, it's going to look pretty awkward asking which bank's the most full...”

“Sounds like you need a diplomat,” Shadow Breeze said, lifting himself into the air with happy flaps of his wings.

“Indeed,” said Flaming Ivory, “you're going to be useful again, Shadow!”

“Thanks Flaming!” he said, deflecting the insult, “But the Crystal Ponies are so nice, I don't think they'll need much more than a please and thank you. I couldn't imagine them saying no.”

“Yeah, hard to imagine Crystal Ponies going hostile,” agreed Techorse, pushing back a laugh, “I had to decline about four free lunches last time I was here. But we're going to have to pick the right ones to talk to, not all the Crystal Ponies help out with the mining operations.”

“I'll figure it out,” assured the pegasus above them, “you guys just work on how we're going to catch the zebra!”

“The technical term is a zebroid!” corrected Flaming Ivory while making his voice sound nasally.

Techorse wrinkled his nose, “Very funny.”

“I'm just teasing,” he said, flicking his fluffy tail, “I'm sure you'll get back at me later, champ!”

An earth pony mare with a sandy-colored coat walked down one of the central streets of the empire, a subtle mixture of happiness and arrogance on her face as was usual for her as she strolled down the roads to go shopping for herself. Wherever she went in her home city, ponies recognized her, and smiled whenever they saw her face. Sometimes, she was even able to use her status to get a nice discount or the latest deal before all the others.

Today's agenda was to purchase a brand new perfume in hopes of smelling nice for a mister Sharp Loupe, a gentle yet influential crystal mine owner from down the street she had her eyes on ever since she had gotten her new, powerful job with Equestria.

“Good morning senator Gaveler!” said a merry crystal pony selling garden tools in a nearby shop.

“Ah yes, good morning,” she answered, “I hope business is doing well for you!”

“It's doing great,” the shopkeeper said, smiling, “have a nice day now!”

Gaveler winked one of her bright green eyes at the shopkeeper without saying another word, and continued her prideful stroll down towards the perfume shop. Her hairstylist recognized her coming down the street as well, and she pulled her over.

“Hang on, Miss Gaveler,” she ordered, pulling her aside, “you've got something stuck in your hair.”

“Oh my!” answered the senator, pursing her lips, “Why thank you for letting me know.”

“Just a bit of a tangle,” said the unicorn, taking a comb out from behind her left ear, “let me fix it.”

She stood there, getting out the knot from Gaveler's long, orange hair spiked with hot pink. The long mane was held back with a blue ribbon, as was her similarly cut tail. Once the offending chunk of hair was straightened and combed into order, the hairdresser bid her favorite customer goodbye, and sent her on her way.

It's good to be the senator,” she thought to herself, “ever since Equestria brought the vote here, popularity has never been so enriching! Of course, representing my constituents is easy when all they ask is that I keep the crystal banks safe and their sales nice and high!

Gaveler reached her destination, the fragrance store right in the center of town she liked to visit when searching for a new scent to try, and pushed open the door with her hoof. A gentle odor of roses and other flowers drifted outside, and the mare took a deep breathe before sighing in relief. The inside of the shop was lined with bottle after bottle of perfumes, carved from large inert crystals leftover from the mining operations in the empire, each topped with a brass sprayer.

The owner of the store, a light blue pegasus stallion, heard his shop door open and emerged from the back wearing an old trench-warfare styled gas mask, which he removed and set on the front counter of his small store just next to the cash register.

“Oh, Gaveler, good to see you again ma'am!” he said happily, fixing his mane hair with his hoof as the mask had messed it up, “Just got done handling some really strong chemicals, they'll burn your nose off without one of these things.”

“I can imagine,” said the senator, looking at the mask's scary appearance, a bulky hose extending from the front, “now if you don't mind, I'm looking for a new perfume that'll impress a nice stallion.”

“Oooh, finally gonna talk to Sharp huh?” he asked, snickering, “Hope you asked him if he has perfume allergies first before coming here. Hard to talk to a date who's sneezing the whole time.”

“It has to be something subtle, or in simpler terms, something you don't need that mask to make,” continued Gaveler, “what do you have along those lines, Diffuser?”

“I've got a brand new mountain lily one,” he answered, batting his eyebrows before setting a yellow bottle on the table with his wings.

“I said subtle, not boring,” groaned the mare, “it needs to be something he'll go crazy for.”

“So subtle, but not subtle,” sighed Diffuser, rolling his eyes.

“I know that my smart, talented citizen Diffuser can think of something nice,” Gaveler teased, batting her eyelashes, “put your mind to it. If he stays around with me, there'll be something in it for you a bit better than one measly sale.”

Diffuser like the idea of a big reward for landing the senator a new prospect, “Welllll, there is one thing I've got. It's a peppermint spray made from the extract, kind of like a very faded candy, but once you've been around it a while, you just notice a fresh smell like clean linens. I think it might be what you want.”

She was presented with the bottle, a rounded crystal of opaque white and green that was cut in the shape of a spearmint candy, and the mare tried a puff of it on her hoof, smelling the concoction deeply. It was the perfect smell she wanted for her big date, and she laughed gently as she looked back at Diffuser.

“Now, see? That wasn't so hard, was it? Just put it on my tab.”

The bottle was quickly swept up into her purse, disappearing into the red bag. Diffuser ran up the price of the bottle on his register and set the receipt aside for when Gaveler would send him his check later in the month. He knew he was going to be getting his bits from her, she always paid him whatever price he asked so long as she got to pay it later!

“Sure thing,” he answered finally, knowing the sale was secure, “good luck! That Sharp's a lucky stallion!”

“Luck has nothing to do with it,” answered the older mare, smiling back at him.

Sharp Loupe poured himself a nice glass of spring water as he sat outside of his favorite bookstore, his most recent purchase open in front of him at one of the tables provided by the shop. An earth pony stallion with a tan coat hidden by a fine suit and a white mane with orange stripes, the young mine owner minded his own business with his book and his drink. Occasionally he would glance up from the fiction novel to watch the other ponies go by, and then he'd return to the work once he got bored with ponywatching.

“Oh Shaaaarp!” sang a merry voice all too familiar.

“Hmm?” he answered, looking up from his book.

“A very good morning to you, Sharp Loupe,” said Senator Gaveler, standing in front of him, fluffing her hair with a hoof, “how's the book?”

Sharp had been receiving friendly visits from her over the course of the past month or two, sometimes getting a nice gift from the mare, like a new book or a bottle of his favorite drink. He had been cautious about the gifts, suspecting she wanted some kind of political favor since he owned such a vast and productive mining operation. The stallion hoped he could get her off his back if she expected some kind of a favor.

“It's very nice, thanks,” he answered, smiling in an effort to be friendly to her.

“So what kind is it?” she asked, leaning in closer while batting her eyelashes, “Action? Mystery....”

Gaveler leaned closer and made clean eye contact with Sharp's big orange eyes, “Romance?

“It's the middle one, mystery,” he answered, ignoring her advances, “a brand new book by a pony who lives outside the empire, goes by the name Wishful.”

With her moves on him apparently not dropping the hint enough, Gaveler sighed and smacked her lips.

“Sharp, what I'm trying to say here is, I've been meaning to ask you something for a while.”

Totally oblivious, Sharp closed his book and gave his full attention, “Oh, sure senator, I'm sorry.”

“Oh please, we're the same age, call me Gaveler,” chuckled the mare, waving a hoof in front of her face as if fanning herself in embarrassment, “now, onto my question... would you like to accompany me on a little outing?”

From her purse came two red-colored tickets lined with silver, each with the same time stamped on them. They were passes to one of the greatest restaurants in the empire, The Champagne Palace, one of the hardest ones to get reservations for with usually over a month's wait. Sharp saw the tickets, and finally understood why the senator had been visiting him and talking to him so much. It wasn't a political favor she was after... she wanted him!

“Oh... oh my,” he said, blushing, “those are tickets to The Champagne Palace...

“I was wondering if perhaps you'd like to eat supper with me next week,” said Gaveler in a gentle way, “I've watched you work so hard to maintain that business of yours, and, well... I was hoping you might want a nice break.”

“Sheesh, I am so sorry, Gaveler,” answered Sharp, standing up, “all those times you visited and hung out with me, I thought you were going to ask me to fund your next campaign or... something a bit more sketchy. Forgive me!”

The mare's ears fell back, “Heavens... no, I... oh dear. I should have thought about the consequences of giving gifts to somepony in your position. Did you think... I was bribing you?”

Sharp sat back down, his business suit in a mess now, “I did... I just thought there'd be no other reason for a senator to be giving me gifts. Getting caught making a deal like that would ruin me.”

Gaveler thought she was going to cry, having messed up everything just by trying to be nice. All of that confidence she had was gone, and she slowly put the tickets back into her purse while trying not to sob.

“Well, ok... I'm sorry,” she said slowly, “I suppose I'll go now. I didn't mean to upset you.”

“I haven't said no yet.”

Her face lit up, “Oh?”

“Well now that I know you were being nice to me for real... I kind of enjoyed it,” he answered.

She squealed and hugged him, “Thank you! It's a date.”

“Come on Gaveler, don't make a scene,” laughed Sharp.

A unicorn came along and banged her hooves on their table, “Hey! Techorse is here! Didn't you two see everypony else going to watch?”

“Techorse?” asked Gaveler, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, he's here on a mission from Princess Luna, and he's got his buddies with him,” she answered, nodding eagerly, “he's the guy who helped during the invasion!”

“Oh, yes, now I know what you're talking about,” said Sharp, “let's go meet him! I'm sure he's got a good reason for being here.”

Gaveler felt like the moment was being ruined. Her moment. Even if one of Luna's friends was in town, he shouldn't be distracting her new stallion from their date planning. She carefully concealed her annoyance with a smile, and walked with Sharp side by side until they reached a crowd of crystal ponies surrounding the four stallions.

“Hey, hey, no pictures!” shouted Flaming Ivory as he was blinded by a camera.

“Mr. Techorse, Mr. Techorse!” asked an earth pony stallion wearing a reporter's hat, “Why are you in the Crystal Empire?”

“We're looking for Princess Luna's chalice,” he answered, going slowly enough for the other pony to take notes, “it's been stolen by a zebra who's loose in the empire right now!”

“Scandal! Outrage!” declared the fast-talking reporter, “So any good leads on this perpetrator? Need any help finding him?”

“We've got the guards helping us, but if you see a zebra, let us know, we need all the help we can get,” responded the stallion, nodding.

“Oh! Mr. Techorse!” sang a happy go luck pegasus mare, “Could you please show us your big, strong, robot arms we've heard about before?”

Techorse laughed, “They're not big or strong...”

“We just want to see your machine saddle work, oh I bet it's cool!” she squealed.

“Come on Tech,” teased Flaming Ivory, 'elbowing' Techorse with his front leg, “give the mare what she wants!”

He rolled his eyes, and quickly spotted a nearby flower growing from out of a lonely crack in the pavement. So, he walked over, and the doors on his saddle opened with a mechanical whir, giving way to the jointed, thin metal limbs as they reached out. Techorse picked the flower with one of the hands, and gave it to the pegasus mare, who put in underneath one of her hair ribbons and screamed in joy.

“All right, all right, a picture of the lady and Techorse!” said the reporter, stepping up, going back for the camera around his neck.

Since he was an earth pony, he had to stand up on his hind legs and struggle to operate the bulky camera around his neck with his hooves. Midnight saw his plight, and frowned, before getting an idea and walking up to the reporter quickly, drawing out a small sapphire gem with his magic. The gemstone was pushed onto the reporter's head, and he dropped to all fours before complaining at the unicorn's antics.

“Hey, hey, what are you doing!” he said quickly, “Stop touching me!”

“Trust me, this'll help you,” assured Midnight, before seeing a flash come from the gem.

With a quick motion, he magically adhered the gemstone to the camera, which was now slaved to the reporter's thoughts.

“Try moving your camera just by thinking about moving it, as if you had robot arms like Techorse,” instructed Midnight.

“Well ok, don't see what that's gonna do...”

To his surprise, the gemstone glowed, and the camera was lifted up in front of his face. Out of shock, the reporter released the magic link by accident, and the camera dropped back around his neck, the strap tugging on him.

“Hey! This is crazy,” he said, trying it again, this time lifting the camera up to his eyes and snapping a photo of Techorse and his fan mare, “What is this thing?”

“It's a mindstone,” he answered, “I don't really need to explain how it works, but I'm hoping to make them out of crystals from here instead of gems some day. They're a bit pricey though.”

“This is such a good idea, I... I gotta do a story on it sometime,” the reporter said, laughing out of happiness, “This'll be big!”

“You really think so?” said Midnight, elated.

Gaveler, having had enough of Techorse and his friends' distractions, pushed forward with Sharp.

“Excuse me,” she interrupted rudely, pushing the reporter aside, “yes, hello, which one of you is Techorse again?”

“Me,” answered the green stallion, smiling as his saddle retracted the arms and closed tight, “how can I help you?”

“I'm senator Gaveler, our empire's representative outside of the royal family,” answered the mare, bowing gently, “I understand you're very busy so I'm going to have to ask everypony else here to leave you to your work.”

“Awww!” came responses from the crowd.

“I really appreciate the help, senator,” thanked Techorse, “but we've got a little time, we're mostly going to be laying a trap for the zebra we're after.”

That particular zebra was watching from a nearby rooftop, having climbed up stealthily in order to watch for his opponents. Rosseth looked at the four ponies facing the large group of residents, and wondered how he could slow Techorse down long enough for him to take the crystals he needed. Looking around, he spotted the amulet around Shadow Breeze's neck. A small wisp of shadow energy flickered from the gemstone, and Rosseth's knowledge of artifacts led him to believe his adversary could control shadow magic, just as his gave him illusions and electricity.

“Maybe that amulet Shadow Breeze has could be used to stop him,” pondered the half-zebra aloud, “I've just got to get the crystal ponies aware of its dark powers, and then they'll do the rest for me!”

He quietly descended from the roof with a careful jump, and found a mare in the very back of the crowd who wasn't able to hear much due to her shorter height. Tapping her on the shoulder with a striped hoof, the young adult spun around to see him.

“Oh hey, a zebra!” she said, the usual crystal friendliness coming through.

“Yes yes, I'm a zebra,” he said, rolling his eyes while smiling.

She giggled, “So what's up, stranger?”

Rosseth asked in the most polite of manners, “Well, I've noticed you're all trying to see Techorse and his friends. One of them is named Shadow Breeze, and he can do cool tricks with his amulet. I'd like to see them. Do you think you could go to the head of the crowd and ask for me?”

“Oh yes,” answered the mare, “I've been stuck back here anyways, so maybe it'll be fun. Wait a second.”

She pushed through the other ponies, shoving her way to the front, where she saw the four stallions. One of them was indeed wearing a bright red ruby amulet, and she walked up to him.

“Hey mister, are you Shadow Breeze?” she asked.

“Yes,” he smiled, “is there something I can do for you?”

“Yeah, actually, I wanna see some of the tricks you can do with your amulet!” she answered, jumping up and down, “I've heard they're cool.”

“Sure!” he answered, grinning, “Watch this.

Without thinking, Shadow Breeze let his amulet activate, and long tendril of shadow energy came out, silencing the crowd as it formed a shadow puppet in the air of a tree shedding individual leaves. Many of the crystal ponies, to the horror of Shadow, started to scream at the sight, and he rapidly shut off his trick, letting the shadow energy snake back into the gem. Techorse and Flaming Ivory frowned at the mass terror and panic that had spread through the crowd, and the reporter snapped a quick photo of the 'horror' before beginning to shake in fear.

“Oh my goodness, what happened?” he asked, looking at the terrified ponies.

“Dark magic!” shrieked one of the mares, “He... he's with...”

“Why? WHY!?” screamed another pony.

Gaveler had a little bit more sense than her fellow crystal ponies, but she knew why they were panicking. The shadow art had reminded them of a much worse time in their lives, and dark magic was very much against the law. An idea came to her mind, which made her smirk sinisterly before she pointed with a hoof at Shadow Breeze.

“Seize that stallion at once! Arrest him for the illegal use of dark magic and causing public disturbance!”

“What?!” cried Shadow Breeze, cowering as several crystal pony stallions marched forward, hatred in their eyes, “I didn't mean to do anything! How was I supposed to know you hated shadows?!”

Heh heh, now those stupid stallions won't get in the way of my plans with Sharp!” thought Gaveler, before chuckling as Shadow Breeze was pinned down by the stallions and propped up.

“Hey, hooves off Shadow!” said Flaming Ivory angrily, his eyes beginning to glow orange, “He didn't do anything to hurt you guys!”

“Ah but he did, you see, you've reminded us of our suffering,” explained Gaveler, “even common shadow magic is illegal, as it is an art of our captor.”

“But I'm not trying to hurt ponies,” begged Shadow Breeze, “please don't hurt me!”

“Well I think we can go easier on you seeing as you were only trying to entertain, but you'll still be in prison for a while,” she said, “take him away, and lock him up until we can get a trial for him.”

“Senator, I'm warning you,” said Techorse sternly, his sense of justice apparent, “if you do this to Shadow Breeze, you're going to put everypony in danger. If we don't have him here, it'll be harder for us to stop that zebra.”

The mare who had suggested the shadow puppet show suddenly felt her throat run dry, “Uh oh...”

“Sorry Techorse,” laughed Gaveler haughtily, “it's the law. You're welcome to visit your little friend whenever you want. In the meantime, we'll be happy to aid you with your zebra hunt.”

Sharp had felt some horror from seeing the shadow magic, but he felt sorry for the kindly pegasus being dragged off by the stallions. Gaveler came up to him and smiled, leading him away already from the dispersing crowd, and wondered if she was doing the right thing.

The remaining three ponies stood there, anger on their faces. One timid mare approached them, the one Rosseth had talked to, tears running down her face as she walked up to Techorse.

“Mr. Techorse, I think I did something really bad,” she said, about to cry, “the zebra you were talking about? He told me to ask Shadow to do tricks. I didn't realize his tricks were going to be shadows.”

Flaming Ivory shouted, and a column of orange energy filled with musical note shaped sparks shot into the sky, emptying his anger through his magic. After the blast left his horn, his eyes returned to their usual brown, and he fumed to himself.

“That pain in the flank Ross tricked you!” he growled, “And he's gotten Shadow put in the slammer! I'll rip his stripes off one at a time when I get my hooves on him!”

“I'm sorry!” bawled the mare, spooked by Flaming Ivory's anger, “I didn't mean it!”

“We don't blame you,” assured Techorse, “Ross is up to no good, though. If you see him again, let us know. In the meantime, we'll try to deal with Gaveler and get her to let Shadow out of jail.”

“Ok!” answered the mare, standing up and wiping her tears away, “I'm sorry for crying, I just got a bit scared by the shadows... and your friend going ballistic.”

“Ugh, sorry,” answered Flaming Ivory, “maybe Shadow's right about that whole powder keg thing.”

“I'm going to go looking for that zebra again, see you later,” she said.

The pegasus mare smiled and left the three stallions to figure out what to do.

“You know what, this is all that Gaveler's fault,” growled Flaming Ivory, “she's a jerk and a total creep.”

Midnight Blaze smirked, “Well she is a politician...”

“We need to just catch up with her and explain what's going on,” ordered Techorse.

“You already explained what's going on,” said Midnight, “if she didn't believe you the first time, what will another try do for us?”

Flaming Ivory, of course, wanted to do things the aggressive way.

“Well, I say we dig up the biggest dirt we can find on her and make her get Shadow Breeze out of prison,” he said, slamming his hoof on the ground.

“Blackmail? What are we, Discord?” joked Techorse.

“Maybe Flaming is right, but we don't need to dig up any dirt, because we already have it!” said Midnight, grinning.

“Of course I'm right!” said Flaming, before awkwardly continuing, “But wait... what dirt do we have already?”

“She's thrown Techorse's friend into jail... if she doesn't let him out, we'll just let Cadance know and she'll deal with the senator,” answered Midnight, snickering, “she doesn't know we're friends with her, too.”

“You're right, Midnight,” said Techorse confidently, “I'm sure Cadance wouldn't be too happy about this. Let's see if Gaveler's wiling to let this go first, though.”

Knowing the direction she had left in, the stallions left in pursuit of the senator. Shadow Breeze would be free whether she liked it or not!

Chapter 12 - Garth's Revenge

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Chapter 12

High up on the balcony of her lovely town home in the middle of the crystal empire, a mare tended to a beautiful window planter of tulips she had started growing ever since the sun had returned. Bright yellow and red blossoms on hearty green stems stuck out from the planter, a ceramic pot long and wide filled with nutrient rich soil. The pegasus mare hummed as she held a watering can with her right wing, giving the plants a refreshing drink.

"Pretty soon you'll be ready for the gardens," she said to her flowers, hoping the old adage that talking to them might help them grow.

Normally the sunshine beamed down onto the roof, but while watering, the usual sunlight started to get a bit dark, prompting her to stop watering and look up. She tried to scream, but a clawed arm reached out and closed her mouth shut. The watering can fell to the rooftop, spilling everywhere as she started to whimper.

"Hush, pony," said the griffon in gray plumage, holding her mouth shut.

He reached behind his wing and pulled out a piece of paper depicting Rosseth, showing it to the terrified mare.

"Have you seen this zebra?" asked the intruder calmly, "Have you seen anyone like this?"

Without having seen Rosseth, the pegasus's heart rate skyrocketed as she feared she was going to get hurt for not knowing. Bravely, she tried to shake her head even as the talons started to dig into her cheeks.

"Fine," he said, "you're not going to tell anyone you saw me. You're smarter than that, right?"

She nodded, finally earning back her peace of mind when the claw was removed from around her muzzle. As soon as the invader had spread his wings and flown away, she sat down on her rooftop, and seriously weighed the risk of warning the rest of the city.

Catching up with Gaveler hadn't been hard, all the stallions had to do was ask each crystal pony they came to questions as to where their senator had gone. Along the way, one of the crystal guards out on patrol crossed paths with them as he scanned the street they were on, and Flaming Ivory pulled him over.

"Yo," he said, stepping in front of the purple-coated armored guard, "I need your help."

"Oh, I see you're one of the guys with Techorse from earlier," he answered bluntly, "what do you need, son?"

"You gotta relay a message to Princess Cadance, our buddy Shadow Breeze just got thrown in prison by Senator Gaveler for using shadow magic," he said.

The guard went silent for a moment before clearing his throat, "Well... I hate to say it, but... that is quite illegal."

"It was an accident, not you too!" groaned Midnight.

"I can still alert the princess, but it may not do much good," the guard said, "ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it."

"He was set up and then thrown in without bail," mentioned Techorse.

"That's different, I guess," he mused, regaining composure, "I'll go talk to the princess about it and see if we can get him out for you."

"Thanks," said Techorse as the guard strolled down the street.

Flaming Ivory shook his head, "How come our guards are this stupid? Don't they know we're the good guys and Gaveler's a crook?"

Techorse rolled his eyes, "Let it go, Flaming."

"Hey, here's an idea," continued the unicorn, disobeying the instruction, "why don't we just let Ross have the crystals? We might as well with how incompetent those guys are."


Midnight intervened, "Guys, can we stick to the original plan of getting to Gaveler and talking to her about this? I doubt Rosseth's going to raid the vaults in broad daylight, so we at least have until nightfall to get Shadow Breeze out of jail."

"Good, we've got a few hours to 'persuade' that nag then," Flaming Ivory said, cracking the vertebrae in his neck.

"And we're in luck," said Midnight, pointing with a hoof to a store down the street, "she's stopped with that stallion at the jewelry store on the corner there. Looks like she's decided to do some shopping with him."

The three walked towards the senator, standing in front of the big glass window of the jewelry shop, admiring the display cases out front. Each case featured several long strings of pearls or other gemstones, and Gaveler scanned them all with desire.

"Oh Sharp, aren't these necklaces simply gorgeous?" she said softly, "I bet they're all from gems your company has dug up."

Sharp was rather good at taking a hint, "Oh I doubt it, but if you see anything you like, I might be able to get you something just like it. I used to make jewelry myself, you know."

"You know a craft? That's just... perfect!" she beamed, giving him a warm look, "I'm so glad we're going to have a nice evening together. And to think, I didn't believe you were going to even give a mare like me a chance."

"Speaking of giving others a chance, we need to talk, Senator," interrupted Techorse sternly, making the two turn heads.

Gaveler's smile was instantly replaced with a scowl, "Oh, it's you again..."

"You'd better believe it," threatened Flaming Ivory, shoving a hoof into Sharp's sternum, "we're not going anywhere until you go back to that prison and get Shadow out."

A couple of ponies in the surrounding street area stopped to watch, Flaming Ivory's threats seemed to have carried some distance thanks to how loud he was shouting. Sharp gave the unicorn back a look of discomfort, in hopes of telegraphing his innocence in the situation.

"Well I won't, you can forget about it," she snorted, "and if you keep this up, I'll have the guards sent after you."

"They're on our side, we've already got them telling Princess Cadance about your actions," stated Techorse, smirking, "it's not too late to stop this."

"Come on... honey", said Sharp slowly, the word causing him a bit of trouble, "maybe we should listen to them."

Flaming Ivory's eyes got wide, "Woah, I feel sorry for you, sir."

"Excuse me Sharp, but don't tell me you're taking their side," she snapped.

"It's not about sides, really, it's about avoiding all the trouble this will cause for our date," continued Sharp, thinking quickly, "once that Shade gentlecolt..."

"His name is Shadow Breeze," corrected Techorse.

"Yes, Shadow, ends up in court," Sharp said, "you'll have to present your evidence. It'll be a waste of time."

"And you'll be up against an Equestrian hero!" said Flaming Ivory tauntingly, "wait till the judge finds out you jailed one of Techorse's friends."

Gaveler wanted to snap at them again, she didn't care who they were, they were in her jurisdiction and would not continue to impede her progress with Sharp! But now that her "future husband" had shown a little pity on Shadow Breeze, she needed a way to compromise... without really compromising on her decision at all. There was still a way for her to get plenty out of Shadow Breeze's arrest, look good in front of the other crystal ponies, and still enjoy her day with Sharp!

"I'm still not convinced," she said cutely, waving her hoof at them, "but since Sharp is right and we'll be spending so much time on it, maybe we can work a little something out? How about two hundred hours of community service later on for your friend?"

"Two hundred hours?" gasped Midnight, "Seriously?"

"Well unless you want him to stay in jail," she said.

A loud shattering was heard as glass was broken, and screams rang out through the streets as ponies started to run away from some commotion.

"Now what?" asked Gaveler angrily.

She started to huff off to check out the noise, before realizing no one was following her.

"Well come on, let's go!" she shouted at the ponies behind her, "We'll argue about your friend later, I still have a duty as senator to do!"

The city square was filled with panic and chaos, broken glass from shop windows piled up on the streets, ponies were running away desperately trying not to trample on one another. A circular area with a fountain in the center, the ring of family shops was being abandoned quickly, as the griffon intruder smashed windows and demanded to know where some strange zebra was. Gaveler entered the scene of commotion and halted a fleeing pegasus mare.

"What's going on here?" she asked, shouting over the screams.

"Senator Gaveler, there's a griffon, he's smashing everything looking for some zebra!" she wailed.

"So Techorse was right..." she muttered, "all right, leave here, we'll take care of this!"

The mare fled from the square, pushing past Techorse, Sharp and the others, who saw the griffon across the way, rummaging through a display case, apparently helping himself to some fine jewelry and stuffing it in some pouches on his belt. Across his back and front were a familiar set of bandoliers, and that gave his identity away to Techorse.

"That's Garth," he said to his friends, "one of the griffons we faced back in Stargazer's Peak."

"He must have followed us here to loot the Crystal Empire," figured Midnight.

"You know this guy?" asked Sharp, "I do hope you know how to deal with him then, he's destroying this place!"

Techorse stepped forward and shouted, "Hey, Garth! Over here!"

The griffon ceased stealing the gems in front of him and turned around, a wicked smile coming across his feathered face.

"Oh, it's you! The stallions from Stargazer's Peak. Have you happened to see that zebra around here? That punk still owes me quite a bit of money. He decided our contract was void since you showed up and ran away... so I decided to come and 'negotiate' it with him."

"We're looking for Ross too, but this is not the way to do it," answered Techorse, moving forward to a position just behind the fountain, "but back the jewelry, Garth."

Flaming Ivory turned to Sharp and Gaveler while the two were talking and whispered, "You folks might wanna think about stepping back. This guy's one of those Ironbeak mercenaries."

"This is my city and I have to help protect it," answered Gaveler, shaking her head, "why do you think I jailed your friend in the first place? My job and reputation are at stake here!"

The musician was fine with being unable to convince her, knowing his warning absolved him of any responsibility should harm come to her now. He turned back and watched on as Techorse and Garth continued to argue.

"Well, these fine citizens of the Crystal Empire are some of the easiest ponies to steal from," explained Garth, his talons moving slowly towards the razor-sharp darts loaded into this bandoliers, "it's not my fault Equestrians are pushovers."

"I'm offering a chance to catch Rosseth, Garth," warned the inventor, scraping his hoof on the ground, "but you have to follow the laws here."

"The only law in the world is the mighty golden bit, Techorse," Garth answered, "and since you guys ruined my contract... well, I'm going to have to take the law into my own talons."

Midnight Blaze saw the griffon grab his darts, and load them into his claws, sharpened flechettes three inches long and made of the sharpest tungsten, each plumed with what looked like to be one of his own feathers. Thinking quickly, the unicorn charged up a quick blast and fired off a bolt of magical energy, catching Garth off guard. The projectile exploded on his left side, knocking him backwards into the display window.

"Good shooting Midnight!" cheered Flaming Ivory, grabbing him by the side.

To his shock, Garth had taken the blast fairly well, and jumped out of the window, wings spread. Grabbing his darts again, he threw two handfuls of the armaments at Midnight and Flaming Ivory, who were forced to jump out of the way. Loud noises of crushing stone and flashing sparks happened as the darts stuck into the pavement.

"Techorse, now would be a good time to help!" said Midnight.

Techorse focused on Garth, and opened up his saddle, training his laser cannons on the griffon before opening fire, sending alternating streams of energy at him. The griffon proved to be somewhat hard to hit, as his training allowed him to weave between the shots before throwing a spread of three darts at Techorse, who dove behind the fountain. Small columns of water shot up as the spray hit the surface.

"What's the matter Techorse, scared?" laughed Garth, taking out his next volley and readying it.

The pony popped back up quickly, this time with his missile launcher prepared, and quickly shot off two of the small, red-colored rockets. Garth attempted to flee from the projectiles, but the missiles locked on and chased after him. Unable to escape, the missiles exploded just behind the griffon, burning his tail and sending him careering into the roof of the bakery just next to the jewelry store, blue roof tiles flying everywhere.

"Senator, you have to leave, now!" demanded Flaming Ivory, shoving Gaveler with a hoof, "This is starting to get nasty!"

Garth overheard the words and popped up from the crater on the roof, hardly hurt by the missiles. He prepared his next volley and laughed.

"Senator? Oh this just keeps getting better!"

With a sweep of his talons came a single, precise dart headed straight for Gaveler's face. The mare screamed, and braced for the inevitable stab of the projectile. Without even hesitating, Sharp bravely stepped in front of Gaveler, and the dart buried itself in his back, surprising Garth as to how well he took the blow.

"Gah, there goes my new suit," gasped Sharp, trying to be funny.

Garth tried to throw another dart, but a hail of laser bolts sent him back into cover inside the hole in the roof.

"Keep him pinned down, Tech!" ordered Midnight.

Flaming Ivory moved beside Sharp, the dart buried into his back, and the unicorn's horn glowed orange as he tried to yank it out quickly.

"Leave it in," said Sharp, "I'm fine, I've suffered worse in the mine I run!"

The stallion collapsed to the ground in front of the senator, who reached him and held him in her hooves.

"Sharp, you saved me," said Gaveler softly, looking deep into his eyes, "you really do care."

"Of course, but... I could use a favor," he said, grunting from the pain, "we need to go free these stallions' friend. Look at how hard they're trying to stop this maniac, Gaveler... they must be good ponies even if they do have shadow magic."

"I... I'll do it," she agreed, helping him up to his hooves, "Shadow's in the nearest jail, we'll have him out!"

"Go! We'll keep Garth busy," assured Flaming Ivory.

The two retreated from the square, another pair of darts missing behind them as Garth managed to get out from the foxhole. Techorse had been keeping up his barrage of fire for so long that his saddle had overheated and shutdown, and the laser cannons drooped towards the ground.

Garth landed on top of the fountain, smashing the very top of it and ruining the sculpture. He reached for a large canister on the side of his belt, and detached it, holding it for the three remaining ponies to see. It was a clear plastic squeeze bottle filled with some kind of light blue gel, with a nozzle of a very peculiar diameter.

"Since you guys won't go down with regular darts, I'll have to raise the stakes a bit," he said, taking out another three projectiles.
After giving the bottle a gentle squeeze, bringing the gel up to the top, the griffon reattached it to his belt, and quickly pushed the darts into the nozzle, coating the tips in the substance. Then, with another skillful flick of the wrist, he sent the darts towards Techorse. Thinking they were poisoned, the stallion tried to simply move out of the way of the darts, but the instant they impacted the ground, they all detonated in a ripple of blasts that tossed him and most of the road into the air. He hit the ground hard, the impact crunching his left gun underneath of him.

"Magical blasting gel!" figured Midnight Blaze.

"I see you're very familiar with the tools of the mercenary trade," said Garth, "here, try it for yourself!"

Another three gelled darts flew towards Midnight, who ducked and projected a flat, square field of energy that matched the light blue-green color of his eyes,. Three more explosions threatened to puncture the energy shield, and the final one shattered the panel, blowing back Midnight Blaze who held on desperately to the ground with his hooves.

"All right, that's it!" shouted Flaming Ivory, "You're going down!"

His eyes and horn glowed orange, a large sphere of energy appearing at the tip of his horn. Garth jumped into the air again and spread his wings, gliding over Flaming Ivory to drop more explosives directly onto him. With a shout and quick motion with his neck, the unicorn unleashed a length beam of orange magical energy, particles shaped like musical notes flying off it. The beam struck Garth dead center, shooting him down and crashing him into the upper windows of the building behind Flaming Ivory.

"Come on Techorse, get up!" he said, his eyes returning to normal, "That probably didn't do the job!"

The two of them went over to help Techorse up, while Garth slowly collected himself from the small bedroom he had found himself in. The griffon felt a stinging chain in his ribs from the blast Flaming had struck him with, but he still had plenty of ammo left.

Shadow Breeze carved another tally mark into the walls of the prison cell with his hoof. It was just a small room made of dark brick, and only a small window with a few bars gave him sunshine in the otherwise empty little cell. They hadn't even given him a bed or a commode yet, seemingly going against the hospitality the Crystal Empire usually embraced.

"Oh my gosh, you've been in there for five minutes, stop carving tallies," groaned the police mare nearby.

"It's been a very long, sad five minutes," he answered, ears drooping, "I'm an innocent stallion, ma'am."

"Sure you are kid," she answered, looking back at his amulet being kept under a glass bell-jar, "I'm sure we'll get you to your trail really soon, then you can explain that little trinket over there and how you spooked half the town with it."

"I didn't mean too," assured the graphite colored pegasus, softly.

"That's what they all say."

"Really?" asked Shadow Breeze, "Ponies are caught using shadow magic here a lot?"

"You know that's not what I mean, you brat!"

Gaveler, along with a hurt Sharp, burst into the police station, startling the officer and getting Shadow's attention, who poked his head through the bars.

"Excuse me, officer, we need to talk!" demanded Gaveler.

"Hi Gaveler," said Shadow Breeze, still trying to give her a friendly smile despite his feelings.

The officer took notice of the dart sticking out of Sharp's back, "Oh my, he's hurt!"

"Look it's nothing, really," answered Sharp, "Gaveler, please focus on the task at hand..."

Agreeing with him, she turned to the cop and demanded, "Officer, we need to release Shadow Breeze at once! I've made a terrible mistake."

The other mare looked dumbfounded, "Are... are you sure?"

"Yes!" she answered, "Come on, unlock the cell."

She obeyed, albeit reluctantly, fetching the keys and unlocking the cell, letting Shadow Breeze out into the hallway of the tiny holding station. Soon his amulet was back around his neck where it belonged, and he ruffled his wing feathers, glad to be able to stretch them again.

"I am so sorry I decided to lock you up," Gaveler said, begging for forgiveness, "I only did it because your friends were ruining my moment with Sharp. Now, your friends are in danger, along with the town. Can you help us?"

"What's going on out there?" he asked.

"A griffon followed your friends here to the empire, they're fighting with him right now," Gaveler explained quickly.

"Take me there!"

"Of course! I just hope you're not too shook up from the arrest," she said as they headed for the door.

"Oh don't worry," said Shadow Breeze meekly, "I was only in there for five minutes."

The officer shot him a nasty look of disbelief as they were ushered out the door.

Several more blasts rocked the town square, attracting the attention of many residents, who tried to watch from relative safely. Pegasus ponies with cameras were covering the action in hopes of selling a shot to the local newspaper, and a few crystal guards had started to arrive on the scene in order to help. With a damaged saddle, Techorse was left with only one cannon left, wanting to conserve the remaining three pairs of missiles he had. Midnight and Flaming were attempting to keep Garth from bombing Techorse with more darts using their shield and music spells, but the blasts were knocking them down and making it hard to fight back.

"Who throws darts as a weapon anyways?" taunted a visibly sweating Flaming with some frustration in his voice.

"It works against you doesn't it?" teased Garth, drawing three more darts into his hand before pausing.

The bandolier had finally run dry, the griffon having worked his way down the rows of darts to his belt line.

He realized he'd need to make his next shots count, and thought,"I'm down to my last three... better trick them into bunching up."

Enough attention had been drawn to the fight at this point that even Rosseth had caught on to the battle, and as usual he hid himself carefully behind the crowd on the roofs of the nearby buildings. His previously hired mercenary apparently was trying to finish the contract, and the zebra smiled, glad to pay up if he dealt with the ponies after him. But to his annoyance, the griffon seemed to be giving up the fight, and landed near the stallions, his talons behind his back. Rosseth's attitude quickly changed when he saw the darts clutched in his talons, and wondered how the griffon intended to use them.

"That's enough collateral damage, don't you all think?" said Garth in hopes of confusing his enemies.

"I agree," answered Techorse gruffly, his face covered in dirt from the previous blast, "ready to give up?"

"We're just not getting anywhere with this, kid," explained Garth as he held his other talon outstretched, "maybe we ought to call this one a tie and let the best bird win in terms of finding Rosseth."

The aforementioned zebra recoiled in surprise. Now that his own mercenary seemed to be out to get him too, he wasn't sure who to cheer for in the fight!

As the griffon expected, Techorse and his friends gathered roughly together to try and talk things out with him.

"Just a little bit closer..."

Verbally, he offered to help, "I'll even put back the jewelry..."

"I don't know man, you've already destroyed the place, don't think you're going to get away with all that damage," Flaming Ivory said firmly, "you might still be in for some charges."

"I'm sure they can forgive once we catch Rosseth," the griffon said, watching the three get nearly side by side.

"Something's not right here," whispered Midnight, "why is he suddenly changing his mind on us? Is he out of ammo?"

Garth's sharp hearing picked up on the unicorn's confusion, and he smirked as he prepared to throw his last volley into the group of ponies.

"Wait!" cried out Shadow Breeze, arriving in flight, "Look out guys, he's got more ammo!"

Caught red-handed, Garth turned his head and glared at Shadow Breeze, who landed behind him.

"Ah, I thought there were four of you," said the mercenary delightfully, "I'm a bit displeased you've chosen to ruin my plan though."

"I'm ok with ruining a dirty trick," answered Shadow.

Several of the ponies watching the scene whispered amongst each other as Gaveler and Sharp returned behind Shadow.

"Isn't that the pony the senator locked up? I thought he was a bad guy with dark magic!"

"Why is he here?"

Now, with four ponies around him and closing in, Garth felt the sting of being outnumbered. His skill was not going to be able to cover his lack of ammunition, and he knew Techorse still had a few functioning weapons left. There was only one way out of this situation, and the griffon got on all fours, backpedaling slowly, and making it clear he wasn't going to throw the darts.

"Now let's discuss this in a sane manner," he said, "see, I'm putting my talons on the ground so you can see the darts."

It didn't seem to help his case, as a group of crystal guards entered the city square looking to arrest him. Capture was not an option for Garth, who wasn't interested in spending more time in prison than he already had. But he could still go after his former employer if he could just get away. Noting that the guards were all unicorns or weighed down with armor, he quickly stood up even as they moved in to jump on him, and spread his wings.

"Not good enough for ya? Well, it's been fun, but I must go, I've got a zebra to catch!"

Midnight Blaze attempted to zap him with a short burst of electricity from his horn, but the griffon was already in the air, and climbing fast.

"He's getting away!" cried Gaveler.

"Oh no he's not!" said Shadow Breeze confidently, spreading his wings and taking off after him.

The pegasus caught up quickly with Garth, who looked back at him and the shrinking ground.

"Gah! Just give up already, kid! I already said I'm done here," he shouted back, readying his last three darts, "don't make me do something even worse!"

"I'm not afraid of you!" called back the pegasus, "Well... mostly not afraid of you.'

"You're not afraid of me?" said the escaping Griffon, rolling around and beginning to fly backwards so he could make eye contact with Shadow Breeze from a distance, "Well, are you afraid of what's going to happen when these bomb darts hit those ponies below?"

Garth threw his last three darts in a wide triangle pattern in hopes of making them all impossible to catch, and then laughed as he turned around and headed for the nearest cloud formation. Shadow Breeze looked back at the falling weapons, then back at Garth, before letting his amulet charge up some wisps of shadow energy. A long black tendril shot out through the air, and grabbed Garth's left wing, wrapping around it like a vine, which made him begin to lose altitude.

"Why you stupid..." was all he could get out before falling below Shadow's altitude.

Now that he was taken care of, Shadow Breeze dove down sharply, the wind whipping against his face and drying his eyes out as he dove for the darts. The ponies below could see the falling projectiles begin to glow blue, and screamed, running away for their lives yet again.

"Techorse, shoot them down!" shouted Midnight, pointing at the projectiles with a hoof.

"Right!" he answered, aiming his cannon at the sky and letting loose with the bolts.

A lucky shot exploded the closest dart, but the other two were farther away, still threatening to cause serious harm and injury. Shadow caught up with them, just a few hundred feet from the rapidly approaching ground, and shot two small spheres of shadow from his amulet at them. They formed their usual rounded bombs, and intercepted them perfectly, disappearing in a loud blast of colorful fireworks and black smoke. The citizens below watched on, amazed that shadow magic could actually be used to their benefit.

Garth's act of hatred had been stopped, but the griffon had managed to rip away the tendrils wrapped around his wing, and once again he was gaining height. But now, Shadow Breeze was right on top of him, and was coming in fast.

"Aren't you supposed to be the wimpy one?" he complained, somewhat scared of the pegasus now.

With the pegasus not gracing him with a response and flying right in for the finishing blow, Garth became desperate, and quickly unhooked the rest of the blasting gel from his belt. Reeling back, he threw the container overhanded, knowing the huge blast would take out his foe.

"Catch this, coward!"

The bottle flew straight for him, beginning to glow violently from the shaking and spinning in the air activating the gel. Thinking quickly, Shadow spun around and grabbed the glowing bottle with his wing, before throwing right back at Garth. The mercenary saw rays of light come out of the destabilizing gel, and he put his right arm over his eyes and yelled.

A large, blue and white explosion burst overhead, sparks raining down from the sky, consuming the two figures above.

"Shadow!" cried his friends below.

The blast settled into a cloud of white smoke, seconds later a very badly burnt dart bandolier landed on the ground next to Flaming Ivory.

"Ugh," he said, cringing at the sight, "not gonna be much to arrest after that."

Gaveler stepped up slowly, Sharp behind her, "Is Shadow Breeze going to be ok?"

Techorse's ears sank, "I... I don't know."

"Guys, stop looking up, we're already down here," said Shadow Breeze from a nearby roof.

They all looked over in joy at the pegasus, alive and well, with a long beam of shadow magic holding Garth by the rear paw. The grumbling mercenary, nearly featherless now, was shaved pink and blackened by the explosion, but he had survived. His captor descended from the roof with a glide, wings outstretched, and he dropped the defeated mercenary in front of the guards, the tendril of shadow energy snaking back into the amulet. The griffon was cuffed quickly, and made to stand in front of the senator.

"I guess I used shadow magic again," said Shadow Breeze softly to her, “do I have to go back to jail now?”

“No, of course not,” she answered with shame, “you've saved us! I just hope you can forgive me, after throwing you in prison in the first place!”

Shadow Breeze ran up and gave the senator a big hug, “This is me forgiving you!”

“Heh, so sappy,” teased Garth.

“Hey, shut up, you're lucky to be alive now!” snapped Flaming Ivory.

“Oh I know. I'm just happy knowing that since you guys basted me, you're going to give that jerk Rosseth an even worse butt kicking for me,” he said before bursting into a maniacal laugh, “if you're out there Rosseth, you'd better run!”

Rosseth had indeed seen the battle, and fled the area quickly. He'd have to be a bit sneakier in taking the crystals, now that he knew his enemies were capable of taking on more than just his illusions.

“Clearly Garth has gone mad,” said Shadow, waving his hoof, “take him away, please.”

“We'll send him over to Griffonstone for trial,” said the guard, “I think they'd love to try an Ironbeak mercenary for us.”

“I'll just send for my friends and lawyer, and be out in a month!” warned the now pink bird.

“That gives us thirty days to plan on blowing you up again,” smirked Flaming Ivory.

“Lousy rainbow mules,” grunted Garth as the guards led him away.

Once he was a good distance away, the crystal ponies were eager to praise Shadow Breeze for his accomplishment. While they were getting close to talk to their newest friend, a door in the middle of the Crystal Palace opened, and a ray of light shown from it, bathing Shadow Breeze in its warm glow, and making his coat sparkle brightly.

“I suppose even the Crystal Heart believes you're truly a good stallion,” sighed Gaveler, “I suppose I owe you all a little something to repay you for your troubles.”

“We need to go after Rosseth now, Gaveler,” said Techorse, “we don't have a lot of time left.”

“I was going to offer you all a nice dinner together first, don't you have time for that?” she asked, a pleading look in her eyes.

The crystal ponies were all watching with patient smiles, and the four stallions got the point that they weren't allowed to refuse.

“Well, maybe a meal wouldn't be so bad, just the six of us though,” said Shadow Breeze softly, accepting the offer.

They left the citizens to begin work fixing the destroyed chunk of the city, although they had cheerful looks on their faces as they swept up the broken glass and mended the damaged roofs. Some of them finished a bit early, having heard about the zebra and wanting to help their senator find him.

The team was now a good distance away from the now calm city square, when Midnight spotted the forgotten projectile lodged in Sharp's lower withers. Midnight's aura slowly extended from his horn, and with one quick motion, he plucked the dart out of Sharp's back.

“Ouch!” said the mine owner, jumping from the sting.

“Sorry!” answered Midnight, smiling, “I didn't want to leave that in you forever!”

“I forgot it was even there,” he said, shaking his head and starting a healthy round of laughter in the group of friends.

Chapter 13 - The Crystal Bank

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Chapter 13

"Those ponies are running me out of good options fast," muttered Rosseth to himself as he slunk between the alleyways of the Crystal Empire's buildings, avoiding sight as best as he could.

Now that every citizen of the town within range of that fight had been witness to the destruction his plans had caused, they were likely all out to get him in addition to the guard. Running out of time and ways to succeed, the sorcerer decided to cash in on his one favor before rumor of the fight spread to his only "friend". He found the cafe he had eaten breakfast at, now much calmer now that the lunch rush had ended.

"Lighthearted!" called out the zebra, a bit short on breath.

The yellow mare turned around, and a broad smile came across her face, "Hey Rosseth! I'm almost done here, just have to wipe off the tables."

Unable to wait for that, Rosseth's amulet shot out light blue beams of energy, snatching the washcloth she was using and several others nearby. Rapidly the beams moved around, dragging the cloths and washing all of the tables at once. A shocked Lighthearted watched with surprise as the sudden burst of magic finished her job for her in seconds, and just as soon as it had started, the beams vanished and the cloths dropped to the floor with every tabletop clean.

"Oh..." she said, "I guess I'm done then."

"I probably should have told you about this amulet when we met," he said nervously, the realization of what he had done starting to hit him, "it was a gift from my dad. Helps with the daily chores."

"I can see that," giggled Lighthearted, "so, what is it you wanted to see first? The crystal bank, right?"

"Yes, with you by my side," answered the hybrid smoothly.

She rolled her eyes, "Hey now, I said this wasn't a date!"

"But what else would it be?" teased the zebra.

"A tour!" exclaimed the waitress, throwing off her apron and grabbing his front right leg, "Now come on, I'll show you the biggest bank we've got!"

He found himself being dragged halfway across the Crystal Empire, Lighthearted being as eager as she was. Many of the crystal ponies stopped what they were doing to stare, until she quit pulling him around by his leg to show him something on the way to the bank. Of course, Rosseth intended to ditch her as soon as she showed him the bank... or so he thought. But there was something charming about the way she cutely swished her tail like an excited puppy when she pointed out her favorite ice cream shop or bookstore in each of the town squares.

"...and that over there is the town coin fountain! Ponies come from outside the empire to make wishes here during their anniversaries, it's an ancient tradition!" she said, sighing as she halted her zebra companion in front of the sculpted fountain.

It was a very large public piece, carved from stone found deep in the mountains nearby, and studded with magic crystals around the perimeter of the rounded basin. They served a fancy purpose of turning the jets of water different colors of the rainbow in sequence, and the center carving, a perfectly smooth marble sculpture of the crystal heart, slowly rotated in the center just like the real thing. Sure enough, a pegasus couple approached the fountain, and tossed a single bit into the cold water before embracing

"This is... very nice," he said bluntly, sounding a bit bored.

"Well, what's wrong?" asked Lighthearted sarcastically, turning her head to make eye contact, "don't you think it's romantic?"

"It's not that I don't think it's romantic, it's just..."

Rosseth's eyes tracked a pair of crystal guards who were asking questions of some nearby shopkeepers. They seemed to be eyeballing him and pointing in his direction from across the street, directing the guards to him. A pair of angry, strong soldiers meant trouble if they managed to catch him, and they were approaching slowly in hopes of not causing a panic.

"Say," said the quick-thinking zebra, "how would you like to see another trick from this amulet?"

"That'd be fun," answered Lighthearted, true to her name, "what else can that stone do?"

"See those two guards? Let's pull a prank on them, shall we?" he said, the amulet beginning to vibrate with energy.

First, Rosseth opened up the bag on his belt, and dropped a small potion filled with dark liquid onto the road below. It exploded in a foggy haze, concealing the two of them and making a few nearby ponies cough as they backed off from the blast. This made the guards pick up their pace in hopes of not losing the zebra, knowing he would try to get away using the cover of fog.

Lighthearted was choking on the fumes a bit, only able to see Rosseth and herself.

"Sorry," chuckled her friend, "mind if I smoke?"

"Very funny," she wheezed, "that definitely got their attention. Now what? I hope this prank doesn't end in us getting arrested."

"Relax, Lighthearted, let's move on to part two of the plan," he assured.

A fan of light shone out from the amulet around his neck, scanning over Lighthearted before creating an exact copy of her and Rosseth in a fast motion. Then, the zebra directed her away, swishing his cape and guiding her to the side of the road, where they hid in an alley and watched.

When the smoke cleared away, the guards had caught up to Rosseth and Lighthearted apparently looking at the fountain from its very edge. Both of the guards, the more senior officer clearly a purple unicorn stallion, marched up to the images and demanded their attention.

"You're under arrest for creating a disturbance," shouted the first guard to Rosseth's illusion, "and for conspiring against the Crystal Empire if our sources are right!"

"What are they talking about?" asked the real Lighthearted.

Rosseth explained without missing a step, "Those bad rumors about me must have spread to the guards. We'd better leave while they're busy talking to those illusions I've created of us. Shame we'll miss the punchline of the joke."

"That's ok, I'm more worried about you getting arrested unfairly!" she said, "Let's get out of here."

They left, leaving the guards to talk to the motionless illusions programmed only to blink their eyes and fidget in place.

"Hey, I said you're under arrest!" shouted the guard again, attracting a lot of attention to himself.

The other soldier looked around at the staring ponies and whispered, "Sir... something's wrong here."

"Silence, corporal, I know what I'm doing," he growled as he shoved him out of the way.

The unicorn guard then forcibly grabbed them with his hooves and turned them around, the clones responding to touch as if truly flesh and blood. Now they were facing him, but clearly still not speaking or doing anything else for that matter.

Wanting to make an example out of his enemies, he made sure the townsponies were all looking before smirking at the culprits, "All right you two, final warning. Come with me, or I'm going to have to take both of you down in front of all these nice ponies!"

Still nothing but blinking and a soft, patient smile from Rosseth and Lighthearted.

"Now I get to have some fun," chuckled the guard, before leaping at them with a mighty shout.

No sooner did he touch them did the illusions dispel themselves, turning into bright sparkles of light blue before disappearing into thin air. The officer's eyes widened, there was now nothing in front of him but the fountain, and his momentum was keeping him going.


Far behind them, the real Rosseth and Lighthearted had heard the guard hit the water and burst out laughing, soon accompanied by the more distant laughs of the townsponies mocking their officer for his folly. With a good feeling he'd ditched those two for good, Rosseth slung a hoof around Lighthearted.

"What a great joke," he said, his sides hurting, "shame we didn't get to see it."

"We heard it! That's all we needed!" she giggled, dancing around on her hooves and nearly knocking over Rosseth.

"Now then my friend, can we please see this crystal bank? I've been really dying to see it," he requested, giving her a smile.

"Sure! It's just a few blocks ahead," answered Lighthearted.

They headed up a road lined with more shops, while Rosseth's smile slowly faded away. He was having such a good time with Lighthearted despite the fact he was supposed to hate her merely on the grounds of being a Crystal Pony. These were supposed to be Cadance's followers, his enemies! A mixture of guilt and indecision temporarily plagued his mind, before he dismissed it.

"The Crystal Ponies are just fools to be manipulated. It is just a shame they are the key to bringing down Cadance!" he thought, insecurity in the statement making his heart beat faster.

As promised, Lighthearted brought him to the Imperial Central Bank, the largest storage of the nation's energy crystals. It was a tall, imposing building built like a fortress sitting in an otherwise mundane section of the town. Heavy metal and stone walls built tall in a box, large windows made of clear glass shaped liked hearts on the outside, and a bright blue roof carved from illuminated crystal roof that reflected the sunlight off with a spray of rainbow light as if it was one huge prism. A set of stairs covered in silver led up to the doors of the storage facility, which was being watched by two guards.

"And here we are," Lighthearted said, pointing with a hoof, "the main crystal bank! This is where we all keep our energy crystals on this side of the town, where I live."

"I didn't realize every Crystal Pony got a share," replied Rosseth, "I would have figured she keeps them all for herself."


Rosseth shook his head, "I mean, I thought perhaps the miners kept them all for themselves. Sorry."

"Oh, no, we all usually get some of the crystals that come out of the mines," explained the mare, "they're a good investment to buy. They make great jewelery, home lighting, and building supplies for magic stuff!"

"That last one is quite different from the others, don't you think?" joked the zebra, smiling.

She rolled her eyes, "Well yeah, not that I know much about magic since I'm an earth pony. But I've got a couple of crystals in there just in case something comes up. Some of the unicorns in Canterlot will pay a good amount for them, and I'm going to need that cash if I'm going to stop waiting tables and achieve my dream!"

Rosseth became curious, tilting his head slightly, "...and what is your dream?"

The mare pointed to an empty lot down the street, "I wanna buy that patch of dirt right between those two shops, and open up a daycare. Ever since we came back, we've started having foals again, and there's going to be a huge need for those little ponies to be watched."

"I never thought of you as somepony good with the young ones!" he said, a bit impressed.

"Yup! I've kind of wanted to be a mom, but I figured I wanted to be a successful business owner first," answered his companion happily with a raised hoof and a batting of her eyelashes, "and with my new daycare, those foals will have a wonderful head start on their lives!"

The zebra stared off into space, "Yeah... yeah they will."

"Well come on, let's go inside!" she said, grabbing him again and dragging him down the path towards the bank.

Even the path was spectacular, a wide blue cobblestone road with carved crystal statues lining it. Many of them were of ponies or animals, and they sparkled when the sun shone on them. Multiple ponies with small bags at their sides, likely filled with purchased or dug-up crystals, were heading for the bank as well, and Rosseth hoped he could blend in to get past the guards at the entrance. They had no such luck, and the two stallions lowered their spears to block the entryway, frustrating not only Rosseth, but the other crystal ponies looking to get into the bank as well.

"Halt!" shouted the first guard, "You're not permitted entry."

"Why not?" asked Lighthearted, a scowl on her face.

"Your friend here is untrustworthy," growled the other soldier, glaring at Rosseth.

"It's because I'm a zebra, isn't it?" he answered with a mocking smirk.

"We've been told to look for a zebra plotting on stealing the crystal supplies," confirmed the armored stallion, "and you happen to match the profile."

Lighthearted couldn't believe that Shining Armor would have placed a watch on her nice friend. Even if there was a zebra out to steal the crystals, it certainly wasn't the one who supported her dream, helped her out, and tipped her fifty percent!

"And what if you have the wrong zebra?" she asked, challenging the guards.

"You honestly expect us to believe there's more than one zebra walking around the Crystal Empire?" chuckled the first defender, refusing to move his spear.

Tired of the nonsense the brutes were spouting, Lighthearted decided to strike out with her best excuse.

"Oh? Well, so much for the Crystal Empire being a nation of love," huffed the yellow mare sarcastically as she embraced Rosseth, "I'll just tell Princess Cadance you were rude to my coltfriend!"

"Coltfriend?" gasped Rosseth.

"Play along..." she whispered.

"Coltfriend? Why... you've been my fiancé now for a week, darling!" he said, holding her back and staring deep into her eyes, "Maybe it's time you started calling me that."

He spun her around with the tip of his right hoof, as if they were dancing, and leaned her over on her hind hooves in his front legs, touching his forehead to hers.

"Awww!" came a few heartfelt sighs from the crowd behind them, forgetting their need to enter the bank.

"But... but..." stuttered one of the guards, "there's no way!"

"Hey!" angrily shouted one of the citizens, "Are you gonna let us in? These guys are clearly not trouble."

"Yeah, leave the couple alone!" answered another, "You've got the wrong zebra!"

The guards seemed unphased by the threats, "We're not moving, go ahead and tell the Princess if she'll even see you! I bet you're lying about all of this."

"Is that really a risk you're willing to take?" asked Lighthearted, leaving Rosseth's warm embrace to raise an eyebrow at them, "The Princess of Love would be awfully angry if she learned her guards blocked a loving couple from seeing the bank."

With the tension in the crowd rising, the guards gave one last look of frustration at each other before standing down and returning their spears to their proper places, at their sides facing the sky.

The first guard went back to his stance and stared down at Lighthearted, "Very well, proceed. But do not stall in there, we're watching you."

"Thank you for letting us in for the five minutes we're gonna be here," she snarked as she pulled Rosseth past them into the building.

Each of the ponies stuck waiting made sure they gave the guards a dirty look or a frown before entering the bank behind the "couple".

To Rosseth, the interior of the bank was even more beautiful than the outside. A large, open lobby constructed of marble floor with red carpets leading the way to teller booths carved out of light-colored stone, and a set of beautiful staircases at the back leading up to a fountain display, a wall of polished granite with a waterfall that pulsated rainbow colors as the crystals behind it changed color.

"It's like a castle in here," he marveled.

"I can see why you wanted to come here," Lighthearted giggled, seeing his mouth falling open, "now remember, we gotta pretend to be together while we're here."

"Remember, you're here to case this bank," thought the zebra, glancing over at the tellers, "now where's the main vault?"

"Out of my way!" said a frantic pony pulling a large cart of crystals of various colors behind him.

Given how well-dressed he was, a white coated stallion with a yellow mane wearing a nice business suit and purple silk tie, Rosseth imagined he must have been one of the investors in the mines. The stallion shoved his way past the crowd, breaking the queue several times before getting to the front.

"Ah, hello Mr. Lamplight," said the teller he had rudely pushed in front of.

She leaned over the desk and looked at the cart tied to him, "Well, I can see you're here to make quite the deposit? What's the rush?"

"It's important these go in the vault immediately, and under my family's name of course," he answered with a panicked tone and a pleading look on his mustachioed face, "There's been a battle downtown, a griffon soldier destroyed several shops and there's panic! This needs to be secured, there might be looting, riots... higher taxes to fix it all!"

"A fight? Well, I'm sure that since there's no rioting, and no scary taxes like you always complain about, everything's probably ok Mr. Lamplight," snickered the teller, apparently having experience with his panicking before, "but we'll put those right in your deposit box."

"Oh thank you, thank you Miss Ledger!" he said, grabbing her hoof and kissing it.

The teller rolled her eyes and stepped out from behind her counter, leading the eccentric millionaire to the fountain, where she entered in a combination on a set of nine small crystal buttons at the front. Immediately the flow of water ceased, and the granite backing split apart, moving to the side with a slow grating noise, revealing the massive rounded steel door that marked the vault.

"There we go," said Rosseth with a confident smile, "I knew this bank had to have a vault somewhere."

"Yeah, extra safe!" agreed Lighthearted, "There's nopony that can break into that vault. It's behind a wall of stone, two combinations, and a steel door."

"We'll see about that!" thought the zebra, smirking.

Walking closer to the stairs with Lighthearted close behind, Rosseth watched intently as Ledger opened up the massive vault, barely able to move the hardened steel door which slowly swung open. Inside could be seen rows upon rows of deposit boxes, each likely filled to the brim with energy crystals.

"Ironic that there's no actual money here given the amount of security," he said to Lighthearted.

"This bank's too good for plain old bits," whispered the mare, winking at him.

Lamplight's cart of crystals was quickly emptied into his family's safe deposit box, the bright green, pink, and blue gems being dumped unceremoniously into the metal bin before Ledger locked them up again. Rosseth paid attention to the size and shape of the keys, he'd need them later if he wanted to unlock the boxes quietly. His eyes wandered from the teller over to a couple of flat stones a few inches across with strange symbols carved into them mounted on the walls and ceiling of the bank. The stones carved with magical conduits were definitely being used as wards tied to an alarm of some kind.

"Hmm, security runes, this place must have cost a fortune to build," he said to himself.

"It's worth it!" answered his companion, "never had a robbery here!"

"Anyways," interrupted Rosseth, trying to avoid the inevitable thoughts of guilt, "I appreciate you bringing me here. Is there any place else you'd like to go?"

"Oh. Hadn't planned anything, this place is what you wanted to tour," she answered honestly, fidgeting a bit, "you want to keep going, Rosseth?"

Truthfully he was enjoying her company, and nodded, "I would love that."

The two left the bank, Rosseth having successfully cased it just by being friendly and working together with the waitress. It was really starting to tug on his heart, how he planned on betraying her and everyone else to take what he needed. He tried to ignore it and focus on his plans as they exited the bank to go see the next big attraction Lighthearted had in mind for him.

On the roof of the bank, sitting quietly and observantly, was Limpwing. She had seen the two enter the bank after fooling the guards, and had watched them the whole time from the bank windows, using a rope she had packed since her bad wing made hovering for too long problematic, and staring into the windows while flying would raise suspicion. The resourceful spy took off her flight goggles from her red eyes and returned them to her forehead. After taking some quick notes in her trusty pad of paper she was never without, the mare stashed all her gear away back into her saddlebags and kept watching the zebra and the mare walk away slowly.

"Gotcha," she said softly with a smirk, "looks like we've got our zebra, and the place he's gonna hit tonight. Can't wait to see the look on the boys' faces when the hear a mare with a bad wing beat them to the punch!"

Spreading her wings, she glided away from the bank and landed on the pavement a block away, hitting the ground in a gallop back for the palace.

Chapter 14 - The Battle for the Bank

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Chapter 14

A loud clank of metal on porcelain sounded as a carelessly tossed fork landed on an empty dessert plate, a wide smear of chocolate across it. Flaming Ivory reclined back, having enjoyed the best meal he'd had in ages courtesy of the senator. She had brought them to her favorite restaurant, a pasta place specializing in grilled vegetables on almost any kind of noodle one could imagine.

“I take it you liked the layer cake then?” she asked the unicorn.

“Probably going to regret it,” answered Flaming Ivory, reclining in his chair to alleviate the feeling of being about to explode.

The long table set outside of the establishment was covered in a light blue tablecloth, now ruined by the questionable table manners of Techorse's friends, stacks of dishes from the all-you-can-eat spaghetti and fried mushrooms sat precariously close the edge.

“Thank you again for all your efforts stopping that griffon,” Gaveler said, “if it wasn't for you, he would have gone on to destroy that whole city block!”

“Hopefully once we get done here we can find Rosseth too,” added Techorse, placing his silverware crossways on his plate to signal the waiter, “it's starting to get dark and I'm beginning to get worried he might act.”

“We have guards stationed at the crystal banks now like you requested,” assured Sharp with a smile, “he won't get in to any of them without us knowing.”

While they were talking, Midnight pulled out his small notebook given to him by his father and started writing some more down in the crisp pages using a tiny quill he left inside. Shadow Breeze peered over from his seat at the table.

“What are you doing, Midnight?” he asked curiously.

The sapphire unicorn looked up from his writing and answered, “My father gave me this book and told me to write about our adventures in it. I figure it'll keep him happy until I can settle my new job with Princess Cadance...”

“New job?”

“Cadance promised to find me some kind of a desk job with the guard so that he'll finally shut up about me going into the service,” sighed Midnight, “I really didn't want to become a soldier, so maybe logistics work would be enough.”

Shadow Breeze gave him an understanding look, “I see what you mean, even we tried to get him to stop... he won't budge. Maybe we should find out why he's so insistent on it, instead.”

“Haven't had luck with that either, he's determined to keep it secret,” he replied while returning to his writing, “but maybe he'll tell me once I start helping out the Crystal Guard. Going to miss my mane, though!”

The pegasus next to him sat back down, thinking about Midnight's family issues and what he could do to help him. Ignitus clearly wanted Midnight to be “a hero” and had expressed joy at Techorse being friends with him. Maybe all he had to do was prove himself.

“What your dad thinks doesn't really matter, ya know,” he said, “we're your friends and we think you're a great guy, Midnight.”

Midnight moved his mouth to speak, but he found himself unable to conjugate words as his thoughts were overrun by that voice again.

Listen to your companion. You don't need that worthless stallion judging you, he merely sired you. You'll show him what it really means to be powerful and strong!

“Hey, what's wrong?” asked Shadow Breeze, noticing the pause.

“Nothing,” responded Midnight.

Gaveler finished paying the bill, not too overwhelming despite Flaming Ivory's appetite, and stood up from the table satisfied.

“I hope this meal has been a good apology for my behavior,” the senator told them, “the Crystal Empire is a lot safer thanks to brave ponies like yourselves.”

“Hey, anything involving food makes me pretty quick to forgive, lady,” answered Flaming Ivory, the musician pushing out of his chair, “thanks!”

From around the corner of the eatery, Techorse spotted Arbiter and Ignitus walking towards them, cross expressions on their faces. He wondered if they were upset having caught them goofing off with the senator, or if something else had made them irritated.

“Midnight,” called out Ignitus, reaching the outside tables, other patrons nearby turning to look, “we've been looking for you all evening. There was an attack downtown a few hours ago, where were you during that?”

Senator Gaveler walked up to Ignitus and said to him with her nose turned up, “If you must know, this stallion Midnight worked together with his friends to stop that attack!”

The detective pulled back, his face lighting up as if he was actually happy for once, “Oh... I see. None of the locals mentioned it.”

“It's not important, Ignitus,” said Arbiter, “what matters is that he did the right thing and aided Techorse in stopping that griffon.”

Techorse didn't want Ignitus to go off again on his son, so he intervened quickly, “Any news on our friend Rosseth, Arbiter?”

The captain shook his head, “Sorry lad, haven't seen him. The banks are now adequately defended though, so our job may be finished anyways. Guess we're just going to have to turn in for the night and start again tomorrow. We know nothing.“

“Oh I wouldn't say that!” came a voice from above.

Out of the sun, Limpwing dropped down, landing in front of Gaveler which made the senator leap back in shock.

“Whoops, sorry about that,” the mare said to the official with a hint of nervousness, “I forgot I was still in stealth mode there.”

“And who are you?” she asked, “Friends of Techorse as well I take it?”

“Yeah you could say that,” Limpwing snickered, “so guess what? I figured out where Rosseth's going to strike next, it's the First Imperial Bank.”

There was talk amongst the other ponies eating dinner straight away, having heard Limpwing blurt out where the robbery was going to be. She blushed, having given the secret out so quickly and so loudly without checking her surroundings.

“Oops... guess I shouldn't have turned off stealth mode juuuuust yet.”

“Limpwing, that's fantastic news,” congratulated Techorse, “now we can stop Rosseth from getting the crystals he's after.”

“Exactly,” interrupted Ignitus, “we'll need to go back to the Crystal Palace and inform Princess Cadance immediately. We may be able to prepare for his arrival ahead of time, and that's when we'll stop this zebra.”

Without hurting him,” urged Shadow Breeze with a concerned look.

“I make no promises,” said Ignitus, his gaze at the pegasus making him slink back.

Techorse turned back to Gaveler, “Are you coming with us, senator?”

She looked behind herself at the worried expressions of her citizens, then turned back, “I think I may need to reassure a few more concerned ponies, thanks to your little scout there.”

“Sorry!” Limpwing said meekly.

The inn Rosseth had chosen to stay at was a quiet, small place near the edge of the Crystal Empire, intentionally picked for the purpose of staying out of sight, and out of mind. With his cover so heavily blown, Rosseth hoped the inn keeper hadn't heard about his antics in town. He would need his “items” back from the room if he wanted any hope of completing his plans. Lighthearted was at his side as they approached the building, a flat building with a beautiful tiled roof and several columns holding it up. For a small inn, it looked very fancy and decorated, sparkling in the night as the street lamps reflected on it.

Lighthearted pulled around the zebra to face her, “So, did you enjoy your tour? I hope I showed you everything the Crystal Empire has to offer!”

“It was wonderful, thank you,” answered Rosseth with a twinkle in his eye, “I haven't had so much fun in years.”

“Well...” she said shyly, “can I ask you something?”

He approached her slowly, “Yes?”

“Rosseth, can I... um?” she stuttered, looking at her hooves, “Can I call you Ross? Since we're friends now?”

The nickname burned into him like a heated poker, but Rosseth refused to act offended about it. Lighthearted had clearly blurted that out to avoid saying something else, and she had treated him so kindly. There was something different about her that made her... special.

“You can call me that if you want,” he answered finally after clearing his throat.

She asked him another question, “Would you want to do something again tomorrow?”

With hurt he answered, “I... I may not be here tomorrow. My work may call me back.”

Immediately the light in her face drained, “Oh. I see. Well, if you ever come back in town, let me know Ross. This was fun.”

“Yes, it was,” he said softly, “have a good evening Lighthearted.”

Slowly the waitress turned away to go back home, the zebra behind her radiating the conflict in his mind. Eventually he couldn't take the feeling anymore.

“I'll... I've got a week's vacation from my job soon,” he said, acting as if his job was the truth, “You've shown me how great the Crystal Empire is, so I'll come here.”

The hope returned to the earth pony, and she ran up to him, embracing him, “Yay! I'll see you then, ok?”

She skipped away from him, joy in her step. Now Rosseth felt the tugs of guilt again, after such hospitality and such love... he was going to go forward with his plans.

“This is against Cadance, not you... forgive me friend,” he sighed as he turned back into the inn.

After stashing his artifacts in bags, readying some potions and miscellaneous magic equipment, Rosseth informed the shopkeeper he was departing and left in the darkness for the bank. The building was just as he had left it, only dark on the inside. No guards were standing around, strangely, so it was easy to reach the building. Carefully avoiding sight by the few remaining ponies on the streets, he slunk around to the back of the building, and looked up at the window several stories above. His amulet sparked with energy, shooting out a flailing rope of electricity which snagged the base on the window, rapidly pulling him up towards it. Now he was seated on the stone ledge in front of the giant glass pane, the vault fountain just below in the main lobby of the bank.

This is too easy,” he thought confidently.

Taking out a small piece of metal, the zebra stuffed it into the window, jacking it open quickly. A rope was tied to the window frame, the rest of it thrown into the darkness. The stones mounted on the walls with symbols glowed a purplish color before spreading triangular shaped beams all over the interior of the bank. Once the sweep was complete, the rocks made a strange musical tone once and then returned to silence. As the zebra had suspected, the ward runes only picked up on body heat, and the magic security system had no interest in his rope. He would need to act quickly to disable the alarms once he was inside before they started their next sweep.

Quickly he slid down the rope, slightly burning the fronts of his hooves. He took a braced stance on his legs as soon as he hit the floor, and his amulet launched bright pulses of electrical energy at each of the security runes. They were struck by the energy, sparking brightly before being destroyed in a spray of sparks.

“That takes care of those, now on to the vault!”

He reached the fountain and looked around for the control panel, finding it underneath the stone as Ledger had used it. The numeric keypad had buttons large enough for pony hooves, but Rosseth wasn't keen on entering in all the possible combinations. He fetched out a bottle of greenish liquid, and unscrewed the cap with his mouth. A stream of greenish, glowing goop seeped onto the keys, frying them. With a loud grating noise, the granite leading to the vault slowly opened up.

“Just have to wait for the doors to open,” he said quietly to himself, “I just hope no one can hear...”

Rosseth was suddenly blinded as the lights in the bank turned on all at once. The bright light pierced his corneas, and the loud noise of floodlights activating filled his ears. Once his eyes had adjusted, he found himself looking at a long wall of Crystal Guards armed with spears and shields. In front of them was everyone he hated most, Techorse and his friends accompanied by Shining Armor and Cadance. Above on the ledges of the bank sat Arbiter and Ignitus, glaring down. Aura-covered horns, spears, swords, and the odd pair of laser cannons were all aimed at him.

“Rosseth! You are under arrest for the robbery of the First Imperial Bank!” shouted Shining Armor, “Give up now, you're surrounded!”

The zebra made direct eye contact with the princess next to him, hatred in his eyes and concern in hers.

“Listen to us!” begged Princess Cadance, “We can help you!”

“Princess Cadance,” laughed the zebra, “you want to help me now? Where was that spirit years ago, when you failed to help me out in my time of need?”

“I'm sorry, I was younger and less experienced!” the alicorn pleaded, stepping forward, “Please Rosseth, I don't know what you're trying to do, but it's not worth harming the Crystal Empire. Come with us!”

He took a step backward, spears and other weapons tracking his movements.

Rosseth guffawed, “I'll come with you... if you can find the real me!”

Several dozen illusions spawned from his amulet immediately, flooding the bank with copies of the sorcerer. The real Rosseth dropped a smoke grenade at his hooves, creating a barrier between him and his clones so he could return his attention to the slowly-opening vault.

Bolts of blue energy flew from the illusions' jewelry, smashing into shields and knocking over the guards as they charged forward. Cadance spread her wings and flew up into the inside of the bank to escape the Rosseth clones grabbing at her. She looked over the hordes of illusions charging towards the guards and her close friends.


Thoroughly trained for such an event, the guards lowered their spears and shields and began the slow march towards the line of illusions, a perfect wall of armor and weaponry advances towards the vault. One of the illusions uncapped a small red potion and tossed the bottle high above into a cluster of guards, exploding in a fiery blast of heat that sent them flying and wrecked their armor. Techorse began to return fire with his laser cannons, blasting several of the images and shattering them as they ran. Soon he was joined by his friends, who fired their blue plasma, orange music magic, and shadow bombs at the oncoming horde. But for every clone shattered, dozens more appeared from behind the smoke. There was simply no way they could outpace Rosseth's production rate of the magical holograms.

“Cadance! Tend to them!” yelled her husband, pointing to the pile of injured soldiers, “I'll get Techorse to the vault.”

Braving the withering hail of beams, Shining Armor stepped in front of the four stallions and cast a long wall of purple-colored shielding, which soaked the blasts but prevented him from staging any kind of a counterattack.

“Keep them off me and we'll get to Rosseth!” he commanded.

They slowly marched forward, pushing back on the illusions. A cluster of them flanked left and tried to attack the five of them from the side, but Arbiter and Ignitus jumped down to deal with them. The captain drew his sword, and his cousin took out his crossbow. With a wide swing of the magical blade, Arbiter cleaved through two of the images before being pounced on by a third. Ignitus took careful aim and sent a bolt straight through it, the illusion turning to magical dust instantly.

“You were sure you weren't going to hit me, right Ignitus?” growled Arbiter as he bashed another Rosseth with the hilt of his weapon.

“Of course,” lied Ignitus as he reloaded his next shot.

The real Rosseth at the vault door was waiting with sweat pouring down his face as the granite stopped moving. Now the slow metal circular door was opening, and taking what seemed like an eternity. Blobs of energy left his amulet and continued to roll along the floor behind him, spawning more minions for his enemies to fight... but even he knew it would run out of power and need a cool down soon.

Six bright yellow blasts of energy from Techorse's guns flew through the smoke and impacted the vault door, surprising Rosseth and making him turn around. They were only missed shots, but they were a reminder he was running out of time fast. As soon as the vault door was open wide enough for him to fit his body through, he jumped into the vault and went to rob the safe deposit boxes.

The first one he came too was marked “Lighthearted”.

Rosseth frowned and skipped over that one, heading straight for Mr. Lamplight's box. Surely he could part with what stones he needed for the next evening. Another potion of acid brought the door of the box open without a key, and the rogue quickly stuffed his saddlebags full of the sparkling crystals vibrating with energy.

Outside, a few more images had manged to get behind Shining's shield and were beginning to harass Techorse's friends. One of them shot out a bolt of lightning and electrocuted Flaming Ivory, sending the unicorn over on his side and frizzing his tail and mane even further than what it already was.

“Why you...” he muttered as he stood back up.

He screamed, and a bright blast of orange energy shot from his horn in a ring around him, blasting away the hapless enemies. Nearby, Arbiter continued to hack and slash, helping the push forward. A blast of energy flew his way and he ordered the blade mentally to block, Midnight's mindstone on the hilt obeying and positioning the floating sword to deflect the blast. It bounced away harmlessly, but the force knocked him to the floor, and another three enemies jumped in front of the captain, intent on picking him off. A rain of kunai pierced through the aggressors suddenly, and Limpwing landed next to her friend with a smile on her face.

“I suppose I owe you one,” said Arbiter, getting up on his hooves again.

“I'll cash in on it, trust me,” she answered with a wink, immediately turning and throwing another spread of blades into a random batch of clones, “maybe I'll have you pick up my kunai after this.”

The captain smirked, “We'll see Miss Limpwing.”

Techorse switched over to his missile launcher and fired off another pair of projectiles into the horde, the explosion consuming most of the remaining targets. His saddle vibrated quickly on his back, informing him that the next pair of missiles was his last.

“Oh no, not already,” he whined, “I should have noticed I was running out when I was fixing my cannons earlier.”

“And you were going to just make some more missiles out here in the Empire?” teased Midnight Blaze, “You'd at least need some machine tools to get started, right?”

“Well I could probably just go to the nearest fireworks factory and borrow their rocket press,” he answered with a smile, before laughing with friend over the lame inventing-based jokes.

Shadow Breeze reached the smoke screen and swept away the smoke with his wings quickly, revealing the vault door just as Rosseth stepped out again with his bag full of gems. He grunted when he saw the ring of guards surrounding him, and a very angry group of stallions plus one spy mare.

“All right, drop the gems,” ordered Shining Armor, “and put your hooves behind your back.”

“My friends,” said Rosseth calmly, holding up a hoof, “I appreciate your tenacity in stopping my efforts, but there's simply no way you can prevent me from carrying out my...”

His supply of air was cut off at once, Ignitus's horn glowing a furious red, the aura around his horn duplicated on Rosseth's neck as the zebra was strangled. The detective lifted him off the ground magically by the throat, strangling the caped zebra. Cadance saw what was happening from the back of the room, and let out a terrified scream, dropping the guard she was trying to heal and making a mad gallop for the vault area.

DAD, NO!” yelled Midnight Blaze.

Ignitus throttled his quarry and brought him right next to his face, hatred burning in his eyes, “We told you to surrender already, zebra. This is what happens when you don't obey authority!”

“Ignitus, stop!” ordered Shining Armor.

Rosseth's life was draining from his face, sputtering and grabbing at his neck like a fish without water. Techorse considered subduing Ignitus to get him to let go, but all he could do was stand with his mouth open. The unicorn in front of him was angrily choking out the zebra, but there was nothing they could do about it but yell and hope he'd listen.

“That's enough!” pleaded Midnight, but his father refused to budge.

And then, something motivated him to take action...

Stop him now, Midnight!

A bright blast of light blue colored magic toppled Ignitus, pushing him to the ground suddenly. Midnight stood there panting, his horn smoldering. Rosseth coughed and gasped on the floor, air returning to his lungs. The other ponies in the room looked on in shock, Midnight had actually stood up to his father's rage for the first time, and Cadance rushed over to make sure Rosseth was ok.

Ignitus stood up and growled, knowing his son had been the one to push him over. He stared down at his son, not saying a word to him.

“I said... that's enough!” he said firmly.

“Midnight... you'll never learn,” slowly came the response.

“I think it's you who doesn't learn,” interrupted Shining Armor crossly, “Cadance told me everything about your attitude towards your own son, and this proves it. Why'd you have to start choking that guy?”

“He was attacking us,” countered the massive stallion, thinking it justified his cruel behavior.

“He was holding us off to get the crystals,” sighed Cadance, having trapped Rosseth in a floating pink sphere of healing energy, “what you just did... goes against everything we believe in.”

Ignitus pushed forward, “Princess Cadance, he's a thief and a possible murderer!”

“Take another step towards my wife and you'll be sorry,” threatened Shining.

“Oh like you could do anything to me Shining Armor, the living shield who mistook a bug for his spouse,” Ignitus replied with a mixture of growling and laughter.

“I was talking about Cadance,” smirked the captain.

Ignitus slowly looked back to Cadance, who seemed to burn with anger, mane flowing and her horn sparking. Her eyes glowed white, burning into him. Worse was the fact that all of her friends and supporters stared at him with the same sense of disapproval.

“I want you out of the Crystal Empire tonight,” Princess Cadance boomed pointing for the exit of the bank, “do not come back until you are ready to sit down with me and discuss things with your son. You have no room to tell him how he should behave when all you do is torment him and act brutally towards your enemies!”

“If you say so,” he grunted.

“I do say so, detective,” snapped the alicorn.

His trenchcoat burnt and his red fur ruffled up, Ignitus Enflame snorted a long puff of breath out his nose. Picking up his crossbow and stashing it back in his tattered coat, he tipped his hat and bid his companions goodbye, pushing past the guards and leaving the bank. Once he was gone, Princess Cadance let out a peaceful sigh, and her body returned to normal.

“Oh, poor Rosseth,” she said, turning around slowly to look at the bubble, “I'm so sorry he did that to you...”

She gasped, the bubble was empty, Rosseth had poked his way through using his amulet and was now on the ground in front of her.

“Apology accepted Cadance!” he laughed, “Of course, you still owe me another million for your past, so I'd prepare your subjects for a new age of darkness!”

The zebra threw down another red potion, creating a burning oil slick across the floor as he dashed for the emergency exit nearby. Techorse opened up with a volley of lasers, but his shots missed, poking holes through the door just after it slammed behind Rosseth. A loud ringing filled the bank as the fire sprinklers went off, drenching the war-torn bank.

“After him!” said Arbiter.

“We'll go for Rosseth, you stay here and... try to resolve things,” said Techorse.

“Good plan, go get him Tech!” said Shining, nodding.

The four stallions ran out the same door in chase of the zebra, leaving them alone. A few burned guards, and some property damage, but no serious loss of life or limb was the result of the robbery, but that did little to make Princess Cadance feel any better.

Rosseth was never going to forgive her...

A large, half-frozen river stood at the east border of the Crystal Empire, supplying a lot of its water, the ice melting just as it crossed the thermal barrier provided by the Crystal Heart. It was here that Rosseth ran to escape the city with his crystals in tow, along with his artifacts. Unfortunately, the zebra noticed there was no bridge, and he stopped short of the bank of the deep river, cringing.

Techorse and his team were catching up, the inventor's lasers drawn and ready to go. Rosseth nervously looked back at the water, and stuck his hoof in, the room temperature liquid making him nervous and afraid. Thinking fast, he started to run parallel in hopes of finding a bridge. Just up ahead, a wooden arch could be seen, Rosseth pleaded with himself to reach the crossing point in time.

A number of elongated energy projectiles impacted behind him as Techorse failed to lead his shots, clearly going for his legs. He obviously wished to take him into custody, where who knows what Princess Cadance would do to him.

Rosseth reached the bridge at about the same time the other ponies did, just as a blast of orange magic smacked into his hind legs and tripped him. He stood back up weakly, still recovering from his collapsed trachea, legs shaking.

“Rosseth, stop!” ordered Techorse, the weapons on his back following where he was looking, “We're not letting you leave.”

“Well that's a shame Techorse, because you're about to...”

The zebra took a step backwards, exhausted. If he ran away now, he'd just be pursued outside the thermal barrier, where they'd all suffer from the extreme cold. He had to lose them... somehow. Putting his leg back down between planks on accident, he stumbled, and the bag containing the metal artifact box landed on the bridge, opening up. The metal box sprang open, and the contents rolled into view of the ponies, who either gasped or recoiled in horror.

A large, black and orange curved chunk of unicorn horn, smoking with an impure haze of black lay on the bridge.

King Sombra's Horn.

“No, it can't be!” whimpered Shadow Breeze.

“You sick puppy,” spat Flaming Ivory, “that's a severed horn, isn't it?”

“Not just any horn, my musically inclined friend,” laughed Rosseth, “King Sombra's. I hope my secret's not totally spoiled.”

Midnight Blaze could feel his heart pounding in his chest, the horn seemed to be whispering too him with an all-too familiar voice, one just like his father's.

He pointed at the horn and shook his head in terror, “Your goal can't possibly be to...”

“Bring him back!?” cried Shadow Breeze.

Rosseth snatched the horn quickly and stuffed it into his bag, ignoring the metal case, “And there goes the secret. Perhaps this will teach Cadance what it means to experience pain and loss, just as I did!”

“You're insane, Rosseth,” said Techorse slowly.

“You haven't seen the worst of it yet,” he answered darkly, “I'm sure the king will have things prepared for each of you. Until then, it's been 'real' as you might say.”

The zebra dropped another cloud of heavy smoke from a powder in his bags, trying to make a getaway. Shadow Breeze thought quickly and flew over them in hopes of pouncing on the real zebra, but when he landed on the other side, all he could find was his cape, laying on the ground. Rosseth had evaded them and escaped into the cover of night beyond the thermal barrier. The smoke lifted, and the four ponies stood with incredulous looks on their faces, staring at the energy screen yards away from them.

“We need to warn Cadance at once,” commanded Techorse, “back to the palace, guys!”

“There's no way he's gonna be able to pull it off,” argued Flaming Ivory, “what's he gonna do? My ma always told me growing up that there is no such thing as necromancy! Rosseth is just bluffing and is gonna sell that horn, along with Luna's cup after he makes us freeze out there.”

“I'm with Flaming, Rosseth's just nuts and probably wanted to use the horn to scare the crystal ponies,” agreed Shadow Breeze, “we shouldn't chance, he can't actually bring King Sombra back... right?”

They stood silent for a few moments, Midnight thinking heavily. He had experimented with so many magical devices and lesser artifacts over the years, and he couldn't help but go over what Rosseth had. The Lunar Chalice, some energy crystals, and the horn. He then traced his eye up at the moon, the celestial body shining down on them under Luna's control. It was nearly full this evening, and tomorrow it would be for sure, making that cup in the zebra's possession able to absorb energy and work once more as a means of dark potion brewing.

“There might be a way,” Midnight Breeze said gravely, “we ought to go with Techorse's plan and report back to Princess Cadance.”

“What? Are you serious?” groaned the other unicorn, “Come on, Midnight...”

The dark blue unicorn stamped his hoof on the ground gently, “I am serious, Flaming, and I appreciate you trying to be realistic, but... I think given Rosseth's hatred of Cadance and the magical artifacts and tools he's stolen... he may actually pull it off.”

“We don't know where he's going,” said Shadow Breeze plainly.

“Then we'll have to figure it out,” answered Techorse, “I say we listen to Midnight. He's our friend, and this is what he's good at. Magical tools and artifacts has been his line of work and hobby.”

Flaming Ivory rolled his eyes, “Oh, ok... we'll play it safe and go chat with the princess again.”

“Thank you guys,” Techorse said, smiling at them.

They turned around and left the bridge, Shadow Breeze bringing Rosseth's cape with him as a souvenir. The bank robbery would likely end up upsetting the residents of the Empire, but the news of the horn would send them into a panic if they found out. Tomorrow was the full moon, and Rosseth had everything he needed to carry out his plan. Techorse could only hope in silence that they would stop his plot before he unleashed evil again on the peaceful city.

Chapter 15 - Midnight's Faerie Tail

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Chapter 15

Ignitus' suitcase was rather empty, having taken not much more than his trusty crossbow, his coat, shaving kit, and a few writing materials. With his clothing ruined from his own son's attack, he packed the remains of the tattered trench coat and his hat into the small black case and shut it with a gentle click.


A guard was behind him, trying to get his attention. Ignitus turned his neck slightly to acknowledge the soldier's existence.

He grunted, “What do you want?”

“Techorse and his friends have returned, they have bad news apparently,” reported the armored stallion.

“In case you weren't aware and chickened out of the battle last hour, I've been banished from the Crystal Empire,” the unicorn said softly yet with a hint of frustration.

“Techorse asked the princess to let you hear the news, then you may leave,” instructed the stallion.

Just as quietly as he could wearing heavy armor, the soldier wandered away to go hear the speech prepared by Techorse.

The name made him angry now... what a failure in his mind. Supposedly that green inventor was a hero of Equestria, somepony who was finally going to teach his son how to serve his country in the way envisioned by the detective. Instead, he had taught his son how to rebel against authority and go his own path away from what he needed him to do. Of course, Techorse wasn't there to defend his own point of view and give an explanation as to how he wasn't encouraging “rebellion”, but that didn't concern Ignitus.

Slowly he picked up the suitcase with his magic, and exited his room.

“Might as well hear what he has to say...“

As peaceful of a place as the Crystal Palace was supposed to be, it was still a defensive structure at the end of the day, and had a planning room deep within the spire where tactics and strategy could be discussed. It was a square, darker room, no reflective crystals save for a few light fixtures powered by them, heavier blue stone made up the walls, and magical conduits ran through the floor to a flat marble table in the center of the room, where tactical maps and unit pieces could be set up. A large ring of stiff chairs with the bare minimum of cushioning surrounded this presentation place. The current map of the empire itself had a plastic model of the palace in the center, but no pieces to represent troops at the moment. They had all been removed so that Techorse and his three friends could stand on the table.

Ignitus entered the room to see the guards having filled the chairs, Shining Armor and Cadance having taken a standing position next to the table, and his cousin with Limpwing at the back, lurking. There was a lot of chatter amongst the guards, wondering what had become of the zebra running loose.

Midnight spotted his father entering the ready room and looked away instinctively. Techorse picked up on the cue and knew the detective was watching.

“Shining,” he said, “can you please bring your guys to attention?”

“Right,” nodded the unicorn.

He flashed a bright pulse of red energy from his horn, his agreed-upon signal with his team. Instantly the soldiers all fell silent.

“Tech, go ahead and give your report,” Shining said, confident he wouldn't be interrupted now.

“Thank you,” declared the pony on the table, turning around so that the maximum number of guards could see his face, “after the attack on the bank, my friends and I gave chase to Rosseth. We followed him through the city to this river here on the east...”

His saddle opened up with a whir, and one of the robotic hands pointed down at the freshwater river entering the city on the map, a marking to indicate the bridge Rosseth had crossed.

“Here we intercepted Ross. He wanted to put up a fight, but his bags spilled on the bridge,” explained Techorse, trying to maintain a sturdy tone.

Some of the soldiers laughed at the thought, Techorse was trying to be serious, but the idea of their enemy spilling his stuff on the bridge was hilarious. How could the dangerous robber, a master of illusion and destructive magic they had engaged an hour ago be such a klutz? Techorse frowned at how the troops wouldn't take him seriously, and retracted his mechanical arms back into his saddle.

“Quiet!” shouted Shining Armor angrily.

Again, the troops went quiet.

“Ok, I know it sounds stupid,” sighed Techorse, “but that's what happened out there. We didn't really get into much of a fight... Rosseth dropped some smoke on the bridge and likely escape out the thermal barrier keeping the city warm.”

“Well then he's a zebra-cicle,” giggled Limpwing from the back, “it's dozens of degrees below the freezing point beyond that barrier.”

“I don't know Limpwing,” answered Techorse, losing the military tone, “he had those fireball potions. He could use those as a source of warmth to survive out there.”

A couple of burnt guards in the back of the room near Limpwing gave each other knowing looks about the aforementioned fireball potions. If it wasn't for Cadance their injuries may have been far worse.

“So he got away and left another cape behind,” added in Flaming Ivory, “but what's really gonna blow your minds is what we saw spill out of his bags.”

“And what did he drop?” questioned Princess Cadance, a soft smile on her face.

Techorse's friends looked at him, urging him on to spill the information despite his reluctance.

“Before I say, you have to promise not to panic,” he requested.

“Promise,” continued the alicorn, “what was it, Tech?”

He took a deep breath, “Rosseth was carrying King Sombra's horn...”

Cadance's smile evaporated, and the room erupted into quiet whisper once again, even Shining Armor went a bit pale despite his white coat making the expression difficult to read. Even Ignitus himself felt an unfamiliar feeling of dread in his heart, and his cousin Arbiter was struggling not to curl back in disgust.

“But that's impossible,” Cadance stammered, “he's gone. Totally destroyed by the Crystal Heart.”

“I'm not sure how either, Cadance, but it's what we saw,” Techorse sighed, “that horn of his is pretty unique.”

“Ok, so he has a fragment of... him,” Shining Armor grunted, swallowing back fear, “so what? It's just some creepy keepsake. He's making fun of us!”

Techorse turned his look to his azure friend, “Midnight?”

Midnight Blaze stepped forward, “Rosseth not only has the horn, but he has the Lunar Chalice and a hooful of energy crystals. It's going to sound crazy, but I believe he has everything he needs to bring back King Sombra....”

“Impossible,” muttered Captain Arbiter in the back, swishing his cape audibly, “King Sombra is history. I concur with Shining Armor, as much as it pains me to say that... this is just a scare tactic to throw us off.”

Sounds of agreement came from the guards,

Flaming Ivory looked into the back of the room, “Ok, we get you think Sombra's as dead as disco, but my buddy Midnight here's the best magical item guy I know...”

“Um, Flaming... he's the only magical item expert you know,” whispered Shadow Breeze gently.

“Thanks Shadow,” muttered back the unicorn sarcastically.

With the room talking about the disaster that was the possible return of the evil king, the Princess of Love was left with a terrible decision. If she believed her friends, she would need to tighten security, maybe even send the guard out to look for Rosseth in the cold. Plus, if word of this were to ever escape, the mere idea that Sombra might return would seize up the Crystal Empire until the horn was found and contained. If she chose to ignore it in favor of public peace, there was the chance that Rosseth would be able to cause a true problem. She had seen his anger at her, the hatred and hurt deep in his heart from his ruined life. The alicorn was aware that a lack of love was just as powerful a motivator as an abundance of it.

Princess Cadance took a deep breath to ease her mind, and calmly asked, “Midnight Blaze, if you truly believe that Rosseth has the ability to revive King Sombra in any way, shape, or form... I believe you.“

“We don't even know where he went,” protested Captain Arbiter, walking down towards the table, “how can we do anything at this point?”

“We'll find a way,” answered Cadance calmly, pointing at him with a hoof, “first thing tomorrow morning.”

“The moon will be full tomorrow night, charging the chalice up,” warned Midnight Blaze, flicking his tail in frustration, “if he's going to bring back King Sombra, it'll be then.”

“We can find him before then,” said Shining Armor, “we'll need our heavy gear, but we'll be ok outside the barrier.”

Still concerned about her long lost zebra, Cadance asked, “He's got to be tired after that battle. You'll be able to bring him in safely, right?”

“It may come down to something unpleasant,” answered Midnight Blaze, “he's had his chances to change, and I won't let him bring back Sombra.”

Techorse looked over at Midnight Blaze, his statement having made him take pause. He was considering how he'd likely have to beat down Rosseth too in order to get him to stop, but there was something different about the way Midnight put it that concerned him. It was almost out of character, at least in light of his father's pushing to make him behave in exactly that manner.

Midnight realized what he had just said, and let out a dry cough, “Sorry about that. I mean to say we might have to rough him up a bit if he doesn't come with us this time, after all, he's hurt some of your guards.”

Where did that come from?” thought the shocked unicorn, “Rosseth's not innocent, but...

“Oh they're fine,” Cadance said, breaking his thoughts, “a couple of pieces of armor they're not getting back and some burns, but they're fine! I asked them.”

She pointed out the small group of torched guards behind her, who were laughing about their injuries and odd bandage placement.

Being the more blunt component of the couple, Shining Armor stepped forward, “I think we want Ross back in one piece, guys. We'll get the artifacts away from him next time and then we can sort things out.”

“Please...” pleaded Cadance quietly.

“We'll do our best, starting tomorrow,” said Techorse, smiling, “we won't let you down, Cadance.”

“I know you won't!”

The four stallions descended from the table and left out with most of the guards, Ignitus waited patiently outside with his suitcase. He wanted to bid his son farewell despite his feelings, having heard a little bit of himself still in Midnight's statement about bringing in Rosseth.

Midnight was the last to leave the room, along with Cadance and Shining Armor, Ignitus stepped in front of them.

“Ah, captain Ignitus,” said Cadance, tilting her chin up in rejection of him, “thank you for joining us to hear your son' s statement about the security of the nation. Are you going to talk with us about Midnight's future, or are you leaving?”

Ignitus refused to budge on the issue, “I'm just about to go. I only wanted to tell my son goodbye. We're always going to differ on this issue Princess Cadance.”

Cadance was about to give Ignitus another sound verbal thrashing when she was interrupted by one of her guards. Apparently there was a guest at the ground floor of the palace trying to get in.

“Your Majesty,” he said, “there's a mare here to see Midnight Blaze at the door. Claims to be his mother.”

Midnight lifted his head up, “Mom's here?”

“Oh no, she didn't need to get involved,” groaned Ignitus, slapping a hoof over his face.

“Let her in,” ordered Princess Cadance, “I want to talk to her.”

Her husband gave Ignitus a sarcastic grin, always enjoying a nice shot at the other former captains of the guard. No other pony was as kind or caring of a leader as he was... so far. Ignitus glared back with his bright orange eyes, he knew he could easily whip Shining Armor in a duel, but now was hardly the time for that.

Cadance had them all brought into the tea room where she had shared her previous conversation with Midnight. She sent Shining Armor out to go fetch tea, hoping it would help ease up the tension between her husband and Ignitus. The ponies sat awkwardly around in the chairs, far softer than the ones in the planning room. Eventually, the glass doors opened up once more, and in entered Shining Armor and Midnight's mother with the most maternal look of worry on her face.

She was a beautiful mare with a creamy white coat, flowing azure blue mane hair highlighted with a lighter shade. Cadance took note of the mare's cutie mark, a very obvious and elegant one of an open book with a golden ribbon bookmark, a blue star on the small bit of cover visible on the book.

“Faerie Tail,” Ignitus said in the softest, sweetest voice he'd used since leaving on his trip, “why did you come out here? Things have been mad in this city.”

“I heard you left from your cousin Arbiter,” she answered, entering the room, “and I also heard our son has been out risking himself to stop some insane individual! Oh Ignitus, how could you let this happen?”

Shining Armor wanted to laugh at Ignitus's obvious marital problems, but Midnight caught him and gave him a warning.

“Don't laugh Shining Armor, that might be you and Cadance someday!“

The whole “fourth year of marriage” problem was realized by Shining, and he nervously shifted in his seat, wishing he could take his words back.

“Well first of all our son was in good hooves, he was aiding Techorse in apprehending the criminal,” argued the detective, standing up and lecturing his wife, “I figured an Equestrian hero would be good for our son's education in serving his country as he should.”

“We have had this argument hundreds of times Ignitus,” reminded his wife calmly yet firmly, “our son does not have to go into the military if he doesn't want to! I cannot believe you have been so insistent on that for so long, and now the guards tell me you've gone and gotten yourself banished from here by the princess!”

“Faerie Tail, with all due respect,” interrupted Princess Cadance in her defense, “I am here to help resolve your family's problems. As the Princess of Love it is my duty to Equestria to help settle family matters and struggles in relationships. I only wanted to remove Ignitus from the situation to give him time to cool down, I didn't mean it to come across as a permanent banishment from the Crystal Empire!”

She went silent, and Cadance pointed to a chair next to Midnight with her wing, encouraging her to take a seat.

The mother sat down next to her son and gave him a hug, kissing him on the forehead, “I'm here now, Midnight. I'll do everything I can to finally make peace between you and your father.”

“How did your marriage hold up?” asked Shining Armor carelessly, granting him a look from his wife that equaled getting the couch that evening.

“Probably for the sake of my little brother, Twinken,” answered Midnight Blaze honestly, hurt in his turquoise eyes.

“Oh that's not true, honey,” assured his mother, running a hoof through his slick mane, “your father has high expectations... but we still love each other. I promise.”

“Ignitus, can't you see you're putting insane amounts of stress on your family?” asked Princess Cadance, staring into his eyes, “All you have said so far is that Midnight needs to serve in the military without giving a good reason. In fact, it sounds to me like you haven't given a reason for years.”

“The reason I serve and he should serve is a guarded secret. If he knew it...”

“Captain Arbiter knows it,” interrupted Shining Armor, “so if you don't spill it, he will, Ignitus.”

“Arbiter would never tell,” chuckled the investigator, shaking his head, “you're naive if you think he would, Shining. That secret can never be known.”

“Then can you at least come to peace with it and let Midnight Blaze follow his own dreams?” asked Princess Cadance, “I know deep down you truly love your son. Let him follow his inventing career path like his friend.”

“Please Ignitus. Midnight must be his own stallion, but I want peace,” begged Faerie Tail with tears in her eyes, “we love you too much to keep this up any longer.”

Midnight Blaze couldn't stand to see his mother cry, and remembered his previous offer. He couldn't believe he was going to make such a bad compromise, but it was worth it if it meant making everyone he cared about happy.

“Well, dad, I could go into the military on my own terms. Princess Cadance has offered me a desk job with the Crystal Guard,” he announced, startling everyone in the room.

“But Midnight!” protested Faerie, her ears falling back.

“It's not the heavy duty hero work, but it's service to Equestria's new lands,” he said, unmoving, “I don't like it very much, but it'll make you happy dad... and we can move on.”

There was pure silence for a short while, and Ignitus's eyes softened, “Midnight... I'm sorry. You can't just sit behind a desk to get around your debt.”

Midnight Blaze's eyes filled with tears, the unicorn shoved past his father, “Then I'll never make you happy. Go away!”

“Midnight, wait!” called Princess Cadance, but he was already gone, having slammed open the glass doors magically nearly to the point of shattering them.

Princess Cadance waited a moment, and slowly turned her angry expression on Ignitus, “In my entire career, I've never seen anything like this before, detective. I want you gone first thing in the morning.”

“Princess, please!” whined Faerie Tail, “Let me speak.”

“Later, Faerie Tail,” she snapped back, startling Shining Armor who had never seen his wife act this way.

Ignitus simply turned around with the same dead expression and left the room, his wife starting to cry. Shining Armor and Cadance did their best to comfort the mare, and eventually got her to cease her tears over a nice soothing cup of mint tea.

“Faerie Tail, if I was you... I would consider ending your relationship with Ignitus,” Shining Armor said, “he's an abusive stallion just like his cousin Arbiter.”

“But even Arbiter learned,” protested Cadance, unhappy with her husband's thoughts.

“Yeah, he learned when Twiley beat him to a pulp,” argued Shining Armor, raising his voice, “what, you want me to get my sister to rough up Ignitus, too?”

“What!? No!”

Faerie Tail shrank back, eyes wide as the couple started to quarrel about the situation. A fight between an alicorn and her husband was a terrible place for a timid storyteller like herself.

“Well then what do you plan on doing? He has NO LOVE for his family at all,” Shining yelled.

THERE'S STILL SOMETHING THERE, HE CAN CHANGE!” she screamed, spreading her wings.

“He's not going to change for ANYTHING! He's a lost cause and so's their life together!”

“Shining quit being ridiculous, we can still save their marriage!” shouted Princess Cadance, “I don't care what you think about Arbiter Axechop, Ignitus Enflame, or their family, there's hope!”

“Hope?” he groaned, rolling his eyes, “Oh yeah, suuuuure. Just like there was hope for Rosseth, right?”

Cadance's wings slowly wilted as her anger melted away, she soon looked like she had been hit by a truck, and the princess's eyes started to fill with tears.

Shining Armor knew he'd taken things too far, he discarded his anger as fast as he could, but he had already done the damage.

“Honey... I... didn't mean to say that.”

“I... knoooow,” she bawled, tears streaming down her face as she embraced him, “I just didn't want to fail again! And now with this new threat... it's all too much!”

Faerie Tail watched Shining sit down with his wife and hold her tightly as she let out her emotions about losing Rosseth thanks to her failures. Having not resolved the conflict in Midnight's family had dug back up a rough patch, and Shining had simple wished she would get over it. Despite their pain and anger, the couple held each other tight, and let their emotions out until they had both stopped crying in each other's hooves.

A humble tissue was offered back to Princess Cadance by Faerie, the unicorn mare floating over the helpful thin paper transferred from aura to aura. She daintily blew her nose and discarded the tissue into the trash can. The couple couldn't help but wonder why Faerie tail was sitting there with a broad smile on her face.

“You're smiling...” trailed Cadance, her nose stuffed up still.

“Of course,” answered the storyteller, “you've given me hope.”

“But why?” asked Shining Armor, frowning, “We didn't help much at all.”

Faerie Tail lifted up her nearby cup of tea, still a bit warm, and took a sip to clear her mind, “Yes you did. Your marriage was talked about in all of Equestria for a month. The Princess of Love choosing a spouse... it was simply a moment of glory.”

“Oh please, I tried to not have a big deal made out of it,” Cadance answered, shortly blushing afterwords, “I guess it kind of went that way though, huh?”

The mother smiled, “Maybe. But what I just saw... was a fight between the strongest couple in Equestria, and how even that didn't drive you apart. It gives me hope that some day, Ignitus may finally make peace with my son and we'll be a strong family again.”

Princess Cadance laughed, her clogged nasal passages making her sound strange, “We're not the strongest couple in Equestria. I met a couple who have been married for fifty years... now that's a strong marriage.”

“Even so, you've done your best, and given me hope Your Majesty,” she responded, standing up only to bow gracefully.

“Please, don't treat me like royalty, I'm your friend, Faerie Tail!” requested the princess, moving over and giving her a hug, “I'm glad you came tonight to talk with us. If there's anything else you need, just let us know.”

In the middle of the hug, she sprung her trap, “Can you please let Ignitus stay?”

“Except that,” answered Shining Armor, annoyed.


“I... I'll give him another day,” stated Cadance, releasing her new friend, “I won't give up on Ignitus as easy as I gave up on Rosseth.”

“Who is Rosseth, exactly?” she asked, a bit confused.

“He's the mad individual, you were talking about,” said Shining Armor, waving a hoof in a circle.

Faerie Tail frowned, “Oh dear, and you knew him?”

“I'd be happy to explain it over a late night snack!” offered Cadance, smiling weakly.

“I would like to hear, but... I must go see Midnight again, he was really hurt,” said the concerned mother, declining the invitation, “and my husband...”

“There's always tomorrow, go see them,” assured the princess, wiping away some of her dried tears with her wing, “I'll have another room prepared for you.”

She bowed slightly again, and left the tea room to the royal couple. Shining Armor kissed his wife on the forehead good night to go return to his post for the night watch. Once he was gone as well and Cadance was left alone in the room, she felt a twinge of hope in her heart. It was worth the fight with him to realize that she was not a failure, and that her struggles gave other ponies like Faerie Tail hope that their relationship pains would one day stop. Now there was only one more broken heart left to think about...

I will save you, Rosseth. I promise.

Chapter 16 - Early Departure

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Chapter 16

Stallions aren't supposed to cry,” thought Midnight Blaze, curled up at the side of his bed, a pile of used tissues accumulating on the floor.

Perhaps this was it, he'd never truly be able to bridge the massive divide between him and his father. Military service was not something he could see himself doing, and hunting down crooks, at least the way his father did it, was also not going to fly. Even if the mindstone project pulled through and he became a multimillionaire overnight, it wasn't going to satisfy his father's strange obsession with him paying back his country.

Midnight heard a knock at the door, almost making him wince. There were tears and mucus all over his face, and his slicked back mane was disheveled. A quick swipe over his face with another tissue and a casual hoof through his mane, and Midnight was ready to answer the knock. He jumped off the comforter, swept the used tissues under the bed with his tail, and opened the door with a quick spell.

Surprised at Midnight's failure to walk up to the door first before opening it, Techorse stood in the doorway with an unhappy expression, an unusual mix of pity and shock.

“Hey,” he said gently, “I just thought I'd check on you. I saw you run from Cadance's tea room.”

“I'm fine,” Midnight sniffled through a glob of mucus in his sinuses, “thanks though, Tech. You're a good friend to us.”

“Can I come in?”

“Sure,” answered the unicorn, letting his friend slip past him.

Techorse waited for Midnight to sit back down on the soft bed again before addressing him again, “I'm glad you agreed to come on this mission with us. I'm just sorry I wasn't really able to help you with your dad.”

“Yeah well, forget him,” sighed Midnight, “he hates you too now. Says you're no hero.”

“He's just like Arbiter,” said the inventor, shaking his head, “he's not going to learn until it makes him pay.”

Midnight had never really heard the full story between Techorse and his “uncle” Arbiter. He knew there was some kind of major dispute, with his relative wanting to end Techorse's existence, but the details had been sketchy. His mother claimed Arbiter had gone nuts, claiming he was some sort of king, and regained his sense when he bonked his head falling off a castle he thought he owned. But now that he was friends with his intended victim, maybe it was time to hear the full story.

“Techorse... what happened between you and uncle Arbiter?”

His friend paused, and smiled, “You don't want to know.”

“I do!” pushed Midnight, jumping off the bed, staring into Techorse's eyes, “Please.”

Techorse knew he wouldn't get away with not telling now, so he explained, “All right... when I first came to Equestria, I was seen as a threat by Arbiter. He tried to arrange for me to be beheaded in the courtyard of the Canterlot palace.”

Midnight's mane hair stood on the back of his neck, “Be... beheaded?!

A sad nod confirmed the crime, “Arbiter set up an ancient guillotine from his weapon collection out in the courtyard. But Princess Celestia caught him, destroyed the evil device, fired him from his job as Captain of the Guard, and banished him from Canterlot.”

“But we were told by the Princesses in a letter that he went mad and ran away!” his worried companion protested, “We were lied to?”

“It was to protect Arby,” explained Techorse, frowning, “if Canterlot found out he tried to get rid of me like that, they'd never let him back in again.”

Midnight Blaze couldn't believe what he was hearing, Arbiter was his best friend growing up. Surely there was no way he had done such a horrible thing only to have it covered up.

“If Arbiter did such a terrible thing to you, it would be unforgivable. Who would have wanted that covered up? Who asked for it?”

Techorse looked at the ground.

“I did.”

His anger vanished, “What?”

The other stallion looked back at him, “I asked Princess Celestia to forgive Arbiter. He was only doing what he thought was best to protect Equestria, and I did come from a very bad background. I really hoped to earn his trust when he threatened to do me in, so I went out to serve Equestria by going on a rescue mission. My hope was he'd see how I wanted to help Equestria and he'd change his mind.”

“And he didn't? That's why he wanted your head rolling?” said Midnight, despairing his uncle might not have been so much better than his father.

“I made a good effort, but he didn't buy it,” said Techorse, very much making an understatement.

Midnight sat back down on the bed, downtrodden, “I thought he was such a great stallion growing up. He kinda accepted me when my dad wouldn't. I guess this means dad really will never change.”

“Hang on, it doesn't end there, Midnight Blaze,” continued Techorse, smiling, “Arbiter eventually did change. It wasn't pleasant, but we're friends now.”

“Friends?” gasped Midnight, “How could you be friends with my uncle if he wanted you dead so badly?”

“It's a long story but... eventually Arbiter resurfaced in a distant mining community as their king,” continued the other stallion raising a hoof, “he still wanted to prove himself right about me, so he set me up, and I ended up on the roof of his castle in a showdown!”

“And that's when you made friends with him?” asked Midnight, lightening up.

“Actually, he stabbed me in the lung,” Techorse answered, blushing and avoiding eye contact.

Midnight was almost about to cry again, so Techorse changed the topic, “But I was healed by Twilight Sparkle, and she stopped Arbiter. He lost his memory in the fight, and was taken to Canterlot again to be put on trial for his crimes.”

“And you let him go again?” groaned Midnight, burying his face into the bed, “Techorse, how gullible are you?”

“Very,” he laughed, “Midnight, the point is Arbiter did eventually decide I wasn't so bad.”

“I guess Techorse, it's just... if what you're saying is true, Arbiter went up to the precipice basically before changing,” answered his worried friend slowly, “I guess it's going to be the same way with my dad.”

“I really hope Ignitus doesn't take things as far as what happened with Arby,” answered Techorse.

“I hope not too,” answered Midnight, “I'm glad you told me what really happened with my uncle. He seems a lot happier ever since he came back to us.”

“And Ignitus will be happy too,” assured Techorse.

Midnight let out a loud yawn, having been worn out by his emotions and thinking over everything, “Oh, sorry...”

The contagious effect grabbed Techorse too, forcing him to yawn as well.

“Yikes! Guess we're tired...”

Techorse turned away and opened the door for himself to go back to his own room, “We'll get up and head out tomorrow after gathering some information on Ross.”

“Sounds good Tech, thanks again for coming to check on me,” answered Midnight, finally at peace.

“You're welcome, sleep well!”

Once the door was shut, Midnight turned off the room's electric lighting with another spell, and slipped himself underneath the covers of his bed for a well-deserved rest.

“Midnight,” trailed a sweet voice.

He opened his eyes again, seeing his mother smiling gently above him.

“Mom... hey,” he said softly, lifting his head from the pillow drowsily, “you're still awake?”

“Yes sweetie,” she said, “I want you to get up. I have something to show you.”

Midnight obeyed, dropping out from underneath the covers and rolling onto the cold floor of his room. He closely followed his mother out into the hallway, still very dark except for a couple of candles left burning by the night watch. The cream-coated mare slipped out of sight down the hallway while her son was groggily stumbling along. It was shadowy where he was walking to follow her, but it was the Crystal Palace, a safe place to explore at night.

Once he had pushed into the darkness though, something seemed to be wrong. Midnight couldn't remember having entered a doorway, but now he was in a large room, similar to the planning room he and his friends had been in that evening, but many things had changed. There was no longer a large number of chairs, many of them missing or overturned, and the model of the Crystal Palace in the center of the table was smashed to pieces.

“What's going on?” asked Midnight Blaze, raising an eyebrow at the state of the room, “This place is a mess!”

“That's because you missed your party sleeping,” cooed his mother, “congrats Midnight! You've just entered a contract to make four million bits selling your mindstones to Equestria! Everypony will soon have their own magical tools, with your name on it.”

His face brightened up, and he felt his heart soar at the news, for a moment at least until reality started to sink in. Faerie Tail seemed very off to him, something about the way she held herself and talked was very different from his mom.

Midnight asked his mother, “Wait... I never told you what my project was called. How did you know?”

She closed her eyes, “Well, mothers always know!”

The unicorn turned around and squinted, searching for any others in the dim room, “Yeah, but... where's everypony else? Dad? Twinken? Techorse and the guys?”

As soon as he turned back, he gasped, his mother had vanished into thin air. Now he was surrounded by the shadows of the planning room, the soft glare of the bulb above the table the only light in the room. Midnight felt his pulse start to quicken, and his horn ignited with magical energy as he prepared to defend himself.

“I don't know what's going on, but it's not funny!”

Relax, Midnight.

The voice was back, again.

Midnight shut off his aura and groaned out of frustration, “Oh great, I'm dreaming. Of course I wouldn't be rich all of a sudden. So, why are YOU here again?”

You forgot to bed down next to the Crystal Heart. It can't detect my presence. Again, Midnight Blaze, you must trust that I mean you no harm.

“Robbing me of my sleep counts,” growled Midnight, trying to find the stranger in the darkness, “I've got enough problems as it is! Can't you let me be?”

The voice made an offer, mixed with quite a bit of sarcasm, “You want me to leave? Don't you want to catch... the zebra? Princess Luna needs her cup back for her evening hot milk.

Midnight saw a physical shape of a pony emerge slightly from the darkness, but much like the classroom dream, he couldn't actually see the other pony, who maintained the strong voice so much like that of his father.

“You want to help me?”

I do. You may not like my... methods. But I have the information you need. All you have to do... is follow my instructions.

It was getting very cold in the room, Midnight felt shivers despite it being a dream, “Ok. What do I need to know?”

Rosseth is going to the Valley of Shadows, a place to the east of here where an ancient castle lies dormant,” explained the darkness clearly, “The Valley of Shadows has volcanic activity beneath it, you will notice the snow thin down as you get closer. I will even grant you a map to the castle in your very memory.

His brain instantly felt like it was on fire as information surged through his synapses at lightning speed. Just like that, Midnight understood exactly where the castle was out in the cold beyond the Crystal Empire, and the sudden surge of information to his brain shocked him. A feeling of having been violated in some way came over the unicorn, and he struggled not to vomit.

That will wear off,” said the voice assuredly.

“All right, I've got your map, now what?” asked Midnight, swallowing hard to prevent sickness.

Wake up your friends, and leave the palace unannounced. Go to the Castle of the Valley, and intercept the zebra. Rosseth will be no problem for you, even if he prevails in his plans.

“No problem?” Midnight snarled, “If he wins, he'll bring back King Sombra! That's a big problem!”

There was total quiet, as the voice thought of a response.

King Sombra? That is serious. He took the Crystal Empire for himself... and when he was on the brink of defeat... he brought it down into the darkness for centuries.

Midnight's ears perked up... was the voice agreeing with him?

“So you get that this is horrible?”

It is truly horrible,” it said back, “from certain points of view. That is why I must help you. Will you follow your orders and take your friends to the Valley? We will meet shortly after.”

It was the same old thing he had heard from the disembodied voice since the start of this whole adventure. Go here, do this, do that... listen to me, I know what's best. Midnight had ignored the voice or wished it gone for so long, but now, something made him want to work with it. His father had pushed on him too hard, and had made it clear he would always refuse to accept him. Perhaps listening to the voice would be the best way to spite him back.

“Despite you invading my brain, I guess I'm going to cooperate,” he said slowly, but with confidence, “who knows? Maybe it'll be nice to meet you finally.”

Glad you are finally responding to me positively, young one. I too look forward to our meeting. Now, go to your friends!

“This had better be good, Midnight!” grumbled an exhausted Flaming Ivory, “It's four in the morning. I wouldn't even get up this early for Hearth's Warming Day!”

As requested, Midnight assembled his friends in the now dark and empty tea room downstairs. All of them had dark bags under their eyes, although Shadow Breeze still smiled and radiated patience. The stallions had hastily thrown together a few pots of coffee and some scones to help wake up, but it didn't make Flaming Ivory any happier with having his beauty sleep disturbed.

“I know where Rosseth went,” explained the sapphire unicorn, “he went to the Valley of Shadows.”

“The what now?” mumbled Flaming Ivory, confused.

“It's a place far away from here in the east,” he continued, pacing as he repeated the words the voice had told him, that map still burnt into his memory, “Rosseth is going there to bring back King Sombra. I'm going to guess that's the land where he came from.”

“How did you figure this out?” asked Techorse curiously, grabbing a nearby mug of coffee and taking a deep sip.

“I... just sort of know, intuitively,” stuttered the other inventor, making Techorse take another sip of the hot liquid to avoid having to answer back.

“King Sombra had to have come from somewhere,” agreed Shadow Breeze in an effort to be supportive, “and that sounds like the right name. I'm just not sure how to get there.”

“I can lead us there!” said Midnight eagerly, “Then we'll catch Rosseth at a castle in the valley, and return the chalice to Princess Luna.”

“Midnight, somehow you've just all of a sudden managed to think up this valley and this castle we don't know anything about,” scowled Flaming Ivory, “I'm with Techorse, where did you get this info?”

Knowing he'd be called crazy, Midnight came up with a plausible lie, “Uhhh... a voice told me in my dreams last night. Must be, um... Princess Luna giving us help!”

Techorse answered, “That's weird. Princess Luna put me in charge of this quest. I wonder why she chose to contact you through your dreams instead of me?”

“Aren't you an insomniac, Tech? Maybe she has trouble connecting to you,” nervously responded his friend.

Flaming Ivory drained the entire mug of coffee in front of him effortlessly and stood up, “Ya know what? I don't care whose dreams Princess Luna's jumping into. We're gonna either go looking for Ross ourselves, or keep having the guards get in our way.”

“So you'll go?” asked Midnight hopefully.

“Absolutely,” agreed Techorse, also getting out from his chair, “if we wait too long, Ross will have a huge lead on us. Shining Armor is doing his best with his troops, but they won't be able to go as far as we can traveling together.”

“It's going to be chilly,” sighed Shadow Breeze, “my wings will freeze!”

“I can cast a bubble to lock out the cold,” offered Midnight Blaze.

“And I'll keep it warm,” added Flaming, stretching his back out with the sound of crackling vertebrae, “with that little bit of fire magic I know.”

Once again the tea room was shut closed, and the four stallions exited the palace undetected by the guards. The sun hadn't even risen yet over the Crystal Empire, but as they walked away from the building cloaked in the night, Midnight felt a small bit of light bothering his eyes. His friends walked away from him while he stopped to hold a hoof up over the ray bothering him. From the center of the building, a small beam of light seemed to plunge straight into his retinas alone. The Crystal Heart was active again, seemingly trying to get his attention.

“Are you calling me out for lying?” whispered Midnight Blaze as if the artifact could hear him, “We're trying to help the Crystal Empire by stopping Rosseth! I had to do it.“

The light dimmed, easing the pain in his eyes, and Midnight Blaze galloped to go catch up with his companions. After a long walk to the bridge where they had confronted Rosseth, the ponies approached the glowing thermal barrier separating them from the bitter, brutal winter outside.

“Ok, here goes nothing,” said Midnight, his horn blazing with turquoise energy.

A rounded hemisphere of shield energy surrounded the four ponies, and Flaming Ivory cast his own spell, hovering a small fireball in front of him to heat the inside. Once it was a cozy level of heat inside the bubble, Flaming dispelled his small fire, and the ponies walked in a square formation to the barrier. Midnight's bubble pushed into the barrier, creating a loud electrical grating noise that hurt their ears, but they made it to the other side into the snow unharmed and still warm. Snowflakes hit the bubble of translucent energy and melted instantly, keeping the ponies inside toasty and safe.

“This is so cool!” said Shadow Breeze, “Great spell, Midnight!”

“Thanks Shadow.”

“All right Midnight, lead the way,” commanded Techorse, pointing forward with a hoof, “we've got a chalice to get back!”

The stallions wandered out into the snow and darkness, the sun just barely peaking over the horizon as Celestia's influence reached out from Canterlot. Behind the barrier, just before the bridge, stood Captain Arbiter, his black cape fluttering behind him in the cold breeze filtering through the barrier.

“Ignitus was wrong,” he said, smirking, “Midnight truly is learning from Techorse. It's just not the lesson he wanted.”

Arbiter laughed heartily at his cousin's way of thinking, and disappeared back into the Crystal Empire with a swish of his cape.

Chapter 17 - The Pine Forest

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Chapter 17

Although the snow was somewhat deep, Midnight's shield had done a good job of melting a lot of it as it got to the party's hooves, leaving a slushy feeling on their legs while they trudged forward. Walking behind the determined unicorn, the duration of the spell not bothering him at all, the other three ponies started to get bored. Flaming Ivory was finishing the last few chapters of the book Typesetter had given him, with Shadow Breeze keeping up with his habit of reading over the shoulder. The novel floated in front of him, suspended by his magic, and it was difficult for the pegasus marching next to him to get a good look. They had been discussing it for a while when the next plot twist pleased Flaming Ivory.

“Woah, she marries him!” declared Flaming Ivory, pushing the book with his magic.

Apparently, the snake pony had brought the explorer from earlier in the book to her mother, the queen of the half reptile, half pony civilization hidden deep within the jungles. She could have been cruel, but her daughter explained how treating outsiders so evilly would bring about an end to their people. Tasked with bringing back an artifact from a cave across a perilous swamp to prove his worth and save himself from the queen's coils. The hapless adventurer braved the swamp with the princess's help and retrieved the artifact. Along the way they had become very close, and the princess asked the explorer to marry her, to which he agreed wholeheartedly.

“Awwww!” Shadow said sweetly, his wings fluttering, “That's so cute!”

Flaming Ivory shut the book and stuffed it back into a crude saddlebag at his side, the rectangular volume filling up the pouch and giving it corners.

“Ya know, that has me thinking,” mused the pianist.


“Yeah,” he continued, squinting and smiling at the thought, “I'm thinking that maybe what Ross really needs is a nice lady zebra to get him to chill out and leave us alone.”

“Flaming, are you saying Rosseth's evil because he's single?” moaned Midnight, rolling his eyes.

Techorse, him standing next to Midnight, was able to get a word in, “I don't know Midnight... Cadance did say Rosseth came from a broken home, maybe he's lonely.”

“Well maybe so, but... he's tried to hurt us so many times,” argued Midnight with an unusually hostile tone, barely able to focus on his thermal shield, “we're just here to stop him, then go home.”

Techorse, always being focused on objectives, seemed blissfully unaware of the bad attitude his friend was taking. Shadow Breeze, on the other hoof easily picked up on the anger and cringed.

“Let's get the chalice and horn away from Rosseth and decide what to do with him from there,” said Techorse with some worry in his voice, “I'm hoping we can convince him to give up the items this time, I really don't want to have to hurt him, Princess Cadance would be crushed.”

“We know you worry about taking things too far,” Shadow Breeze said, “but you won't! You're careful Tech.”

Midnight Blaze wasn't happy with the amount of value Techorse was placing on Rosseth's vitality. Brooding was starting to become the norm for him with the sheer amount of stress he was encountering. Between Rosseth trying to harm him, his father's outrageous behavior, and the fact he had a dark voice with clearly ulterior motives drilling information into his brain, Midnight was starting to wear down.

Negative thoughts plagued the toolmaker's mind, “If that zebra hadn't started this mess, I wouldn't have had to confront my dad yet again and get another reminder he doesn't give a plucked horsefeather about me!

The half-zebra's laugh from the skirmish in the duke's estate echoed in his mind, and Midnight ground his teeth, his legs pushing more furiously through the snow. His friends kept up the pace with him, continuing to place their undying trust in Midnight's knowledge of Rosseth's destination. To the side of them, the treeline of pines extending out from the Empire was beginning to thicken. Normally the dark and dreary landscape of the Frozen North was desolate, but the tall and sturdy pine trees proved life could exist almost anywhere.

“Hey, is that smoke?” asked Shadow Breeze, “Look guys!”

Each of the stallions let their eyes wander until the spotted the small trail of black smoke rising into the overcast sky. The snowfall had died down quiet a bit since they had left a few hours ago, and it looked like someone out in the woods had started a campfire.

“Huh, so it is,” said Flaming Ivory, “guess somepony's out here camping.”

“All right, let's keep moving,” urged Midnight Blaze, unhappy his friends had stopped, “we need to reach the valley castle by sundown.”

Techorse was usually oblivious, but Midnight’s crankiness was stronger. The inventor suspected heavy spell fatigue from keeping up the shield for so long to keep them all warm.

“Maybe we should take a break to investigate,” he suggested.

Despite the anger stirring in his heart, Midnight was able to dismiss it, and his shield disintegrated in a scattering of square tiles made of turquoise light that vanished into thin air.

“I'm sorry, we've walked a lot... let's take a rest,” Midnight said with a much softer voice, getting a much happier set of looks from his friends in return.

A more serene atmosphere was provided by the pine grove, the tall trees giving out fresh oxygen with that distinctive holiday smell. It was a pleasing sight with the fresh snowfall accumulating on the ground and on every branch, a welcome change from the hostile environment out in the open near the imperial border.

“Well, that was an interesting read,” commented Flaming Ivory, finishing the last sentence of Typesetter's book and shutting the volume magically, “I wonder if our buddy Typesetter's gonna write another one?”

“I hope so,” agreed Shadow Breeze.

The four ponies stopped in their tracks as a loud creaking noise rang through the forest.

Midnight Blaze twitched his ears, “Does anypony else hear that?”

It was getting louder, and faster too, the air starting to move around them. Shadow Breeze spotted what was going on, and pointed at the cause with his wing.


Each of them jumped out of the way of the falling pine, the huge log over twenty feet long, bristling with green needles smashed into the snow seconds after they had moved, a massive puff of snow was tossed into the air around them like a burst bag of flour. When the snowflakes and swirling loose needles had settled, the ponies were left sitting in the icy snow just feet from the fallen tree.

“We almost ended up squished!” exclaimed Shadow Breeze, observing the size of the pine, “What knocked it over?”

“Hello! Are you folks ok?” called a loud, pompous voice from behind the tree.

The four stallions looked in the direction of the sound, and from behind the tree jumped a very large and burly earth pony stallion, clothed in a plaid shirt and heavy winter pants tucked into big brown leather boots. His dark black mane curled over his neck, and merged with his big, scruffy beard on the front of his head, a good match for his handsome white coat.

“Oh by the grace of the Heart, the one time I don't call 'timber' and there's folks around!” he said, cursing himself and shaking his head, “I'm sorry I almost made flapjacks out of you guys!”

“You chopped down this tree?” asked Techorse, “It must have taken you hours with how large the diameter of the trunk is.”

“Well it isn't that big,” answered the flattered lumberjack, pulling at his beard meekly with a hoof, “I was just down to the last few chops before you got here. So what are you doing out here in the pine forest anyways?”

Techorse explained to him, “We saw the smoke from the outside and decided to investigate. I guess it's your house, then?”

“Yup, it's where me and the missus lives,” he chuckled, “she'd love to see you! I think you boys ought to come back with me for some gingerbread and coffee, least we can do after I nearly smashed you up.”

“Sure, lemme help you carry the tree back,” said Midnight, charging up his horn.

“Ah, no no no!” laughed the woodworker, trotting up to the trunk, “I'm fine!”

Midnight's mouth fell open as he watched the giant stallion wrap his hooves under the trunk and throw the tree with a mighty swing up, over, and onto his back like it was a mere twig. The weight partially buckled his legs, but the tough and jolly woodcutter let out a happy belly laugh and started to walk for his cabin with the tree awkwardly being dragged behind him.

“Here, let's hold the back for him,” said Techorse, running his saddle underneath one of the smaller branches.

His friends also grabbed on to some of the larger pine boughs, and together they kept the tree off the ground for their new acquaintance while he led the way back to his home out in the depths of the woods. Soon they came upon the small clearing, where a big log cabin, two stories in height with equally spaced glass windows and a big brick chimney spewing the smoke into the air. In front of the home, an area was cleared where the cut trees could be processed, a big sawmill had been constructed near a flowing, partially frozen stream, the chunks of ice adding extra force on the mill's paddle wheel.

The lumberjack hauled his tree up to the sawmill's entrance, and catapulted the felled lumber into the entrance. Techorse and his friends quickly let go to avoid being sucked into the saw blades along with the tree, and sawdust flew around like a tornado as the machinery inside cut off the branches and worked the tree down to the trunk. A metal outlet chute on the other side of the sawmill started to dump out chunks of pine tree, cut up perfectly for the fireplace.

Pride came over the scruffy pony's face, “Ahhh, perfect! Probably about two full cords right there!”

His cottage's door opened with a squeak, and out bounded his beloved wife, an earth pony mare just as big as he was, dressed up in a big fluffy white coat and winter cap, with beautiful golden hair that flowed behind her. Not to be totally outdone by her husband, she jumped in front of the sawmill and rapidly dug into the pile of logs with her hooves, chunks of wood flying into a perfectly stacked pile.

“Great work, Honey Bear,” she said, turning around and embracing her husband, “this'll be just enough to sell at the market tomorrow. Then we can spend the week in the empire!”

“Aw well maybe just one more, we gotta get our loan on that vacation house paid off faster,” he answered, kissing her on the forehead.

“Is selling wood really good business?” asked Shadow Breeze.

“Why, sure is!” answered the wife with a smile, “Nothing smells better than pine wood burning, and the Crystal Ponies can't get enough of it. That's why Honey Bear and I moved out here from Trottingham Woods, to cut pine!”

Shadow Breeze suddenly jolted, “Wait, your name is actually Honey Bear?”

“Sure is, but only my wife Cedar gets to call me that, I'm Bear to everyone else,” winked the stallion, “just a good old lumber Jack and Jill living together, living the good life in the woods!”

Awwwwww!” trilled his wife, locking him in a kiss in front of their guests.

After they were done with their public display of affection, Bear pointed to his guests, “I guess I ought to introduce our guests. These fellas were out walking around in the woods, and nearly got caught underneath the tree I downed. I felt just awful about it.”

“Oh my,” Cedar said, “I'm so sorry! Please, come inside with us and relax. I've made some fresh gingerbread this morning I think you'd like.”

“We'd love that!” said Flaming Ivory cheerfully, eager for a snack.

“Ah you guys go on ahead, I gotta get at least three more trees in today,” Bear said, pulling away from his wife, “I'll go get them in.”

“Why don't we help you?” offered Techorse, “it'll make it go faster.”

“I guess if you help, we could all get them in at once,” he answered, “all right, grab some axes and let's go!”

Bear brought them out to where he had last been chopping down trees, evidenced by several snow-covered stumps on the pine forest floor. Flaming Ivory went up to a tree, and knocked on it gently, a nice solid sound came from the mighty plant.

“Good acoustics in this one,” he said, “let's cut it down.”

“Nah, that one's no good,” Bear muttered.

Flaming Ivory felt annoyed, “Why not?”

“Because the trunk is leaking sap at the top. It'll gum up the sawmill. There's nothing worse than getting pine tar in your mane hair.”

“Ok, well, how do we know which trees to cut down?” asked Shadow Breeze curiously, “They all look the same to me, no offense Mr. Bear.”

“Well that's just ok, when you've been logging as long as I have you develop an eye for these kinds of things! Every tree has a story that ends with your axe, so you've got to pick exactly the right ones! Look, see this one here?”

The four other ponies crowded around a medium-sized tree, which looked exactly the same as all the others. It had a healthy layer of bark, a ton of branches leading to the top, and bristled with needles and seed cones.

“Well... I see it, but... what's so special about this one?” snorted Flaming Ivory.

Honey Bear pushed forward and put his hoof on a root exposed at the ground, “There's no holes in the roots, the bark isn't chipped and leaking sap, and the cones haven't fallen off yet. This pine tree has no grubs, little critters living in it, and it's spent all its energy making cones. It'll be easy to cut down, and burn nice and clean once it dries out.”

“Oh... that's cool, I guess,” grumbled the musician, looking away.

“Why don't you take this one, greenie?” laughed Bear, pushing Techorse in front of the tree.

Midnight Blaze realized something, “Wait, Bear, Techorse doesn't know...”

Techorse took a braced stance on his hooves, and his saddle opened up, his laser cannons quickly extending out and charging. He switched to solid beams, and raked the twin rays of yellow light across the base of the tree trunk, slicing through with a loud sound of burning wood. The tree's base buckled under the sudden loss of material, and down came the trunk with a loud crash, the exposed trunk burnt over from the heat. Techorse's weapons slid back inside their housing, the inventor admiring his clean cut across the trunk.

“... how to chop wood.”

He spun around, “That was fun! I never thought about using a laser to cut a tree down..”

The look of shock on Bear and Cedar's faces startled him, as he'd never seen a device quite like Techorse's saddle. A chopping that would take hours had taken just seconds.

The inventor laughed nervously, “Oops... should I have used an axe?”

“That was incredible,” stuttered Bear, before shaking himself back to his senses and taking on a harsher tone of voice, “but don't do that again. You wasted that end piece of the trunk.”


“All right, this one looks good too,” Cedar said in an attempt to move on from the shock, “why don't you chop this one dear?”

Bear stepped up to the next doomed pine and opened up the bag of equipment he had brought with him from his cabin. He took out two sharp blades fitted to the end of some heavy work boots, and began to put them on his back hooves.

“What are those?” asked Midnight Blaze curiously, having never seen such strange hoofwear like that before in his life.

“Ah, well, these are how earth ponies can cut down trees,” answered Bear, turning around, “I buck at the base until the trunk caves in! I mean, I've got some axes, but they're a little hard to use since well... we don't have magic like you.”

“But pine trees are so much harder than fruit trees,” said Shadow Breeze, frowning, “your legs are going to get ruined when you're older.”

“I'll worry about my golden years when I'm in my golden years, thank you.”

Bear moved himself into position and prepared to kick the tree, when Midnight intervened, “Wait!”

The lumberjack stopped, putting his boots down in the snow again, “What? Need to back up a bit, wood chips are gonna be flying!”

“No, it's not that, I have an idea, but you have to trust me!” answered Midnight, smiling.

The unicorn brought out another gemstone and held it in his magical aura, pressing the rock up against Bear's forehead. Unlike the reporter, Bear held still patiently despite finding it really silly. Midnight's mindstone flashed a light purple color, and he smiled brightly thinking about the good deed he was going to do.

Midnight turned around and waved his hoof, “Hey Flaming Ivory, throw me an axe!”

“Okay!” shouted Flaming Ivory in a goofy manner, picking up an axe magically and holding it over his head in preparation to chuck it.

Midnight and Bear yelped and dove for cover, Flaming Ivory burst into laughter and rolled in the snow.

HAHAHAHA! You thought I was gonna do it! You jumped!”

Techorse rolled his eyes and picked up the axe with his robotic arms, handing it gently over to Midnight, “Here you go, Midnight.”

“Thanks, at least you're taking this seriously,” he answered, adhering the mindstone to the handle of the silver-headed axe.

After the stone was in place at the base of the tool, Midnight dropped the tool in front of Bear, “That stone I just put on your axe will let you pick it up just like a unicorn. Try it, Bear.”

Bear was skeptical of the stone now affixed to his favorite axe... but he listened and tried to focus on the tool. A bright purple ring of light formed around the stone, and the axe floated over next to him, making him drop it in surprise.

“Try again, it's safe, I promise!” encouraged Midnight Blaze, his turquoise eyes expressing joy.

Bear nodded, and gave the axe another try, managing to get it up to eye level. With a loud shout, he swung the axe horizontally, and a spray of pine chips flew from the tree. Feeling alive, Bear hacked his way through the trunk in minutes with the magically suspended axe, and kicked over the trunk once he was down to just a sliver of wood. Another mighty crash brought the tree to rest of the ground, and Bear dropped the axe on the ground, grabbing Midnight.

“I don't know what you did... but you've saved my legs, kiddo!” he said, nearly weeping from joy.

Midnight couldn't stand the woodsy sent on Bear's clothes, but there was no hope of him escaping that Bear Hug!

“You're welcome! Just don't crush me!”

Bear was hard to convince to let Midnight Blaze go, but eventually his wife made him. Now with his eventual retirement looking a lot less filled with arthritis, he was an even more jolly of a lumberjack than before.

“We still need one more tree,” Cedar said, smiling gently.

Flaming Ivory's horn radiated an orange aura as he grabbed another axe, it made a metallic sound as he drew it over his head.

“I've got this!”

A shadow tendril grabbed the axe away from him, plucking it from his aura gently. Flaming Ivory looked meekly at his friends' expressions of distrust.

“No,” said Shadow Breeze gently.

Flaming Ivory felt sweat gathering on his forehead, “Come on fellas, that was just a joke! I wasn't really gonna...”

“No,” repeated the pegasus, just a little bit louder.

“You let them leave alone?!” cried Cadance at Captain Arbiter, facing down the eyepatched pegasus.

“Indeed, they're not foals Princess Cadance, they can handle themselves,” he answered, looking down at her with his good eye.

The Princess of Love paced back and forth in front of her rather comfy looking cushioned throne within the palace.

She complained at the swordspony further, “What if Faerie Tail finds out Midnight's out there looking for Rosseth?”

“She'll likely be mad at Ignitus, but that's nothing out of the ordinary,” stated Arbiter, “that is why I decided to inform you about them leaving in private. Midnight's behavior is highly unusual.”

“What do you mean, Arby?” asked Cadance, halting her pacing for a moment, “he seems to be acting like a normal son with a disappointed father to me! He's run off to try and impress him!”

“I do not see it that way,” responded the caped pegasus, “I see Midnight as having faith he can do good for Equestria in his own way. He's going to bring back Rosseth, and you'll be able to finally settle your problems with him.”

“And if he doesn't?”

“Then Techorse will do it and give him credit for it,” smirked Arbiter, “you know the lad, he wants to help.”

Princess Cadance climbed into her throne, and sprawled in it futility trying to relax, “I guess you're right, Arbiter. I'm just concerned. What if Rosseth really does manage... to bring him back?”

“Impossible,” stated the captain, “Rosseth is delusional. Something you can fix.”

A loud crash sounded throughout the room as the doors swung open wildly, a frantic Faerie Tail and her still stone-cold husband stood in the entrance.

WHERE'S MIDNIGHT?!” she wailed loudly.

Cadance gritted her teeth, “Well...”

“Calm down Faerie Tail,” said Arbiter, turning around to face the panicking mother, “they went out on patrol to look for Rosseth. They'll be back by sundown.”

“Oh...” she trailed, “I see. I thought perhaps he'd run away.”

“Techorse, Flaming Ivory, and Shadow Breeze are with him, I saw them,” explained Captain Arbiter with a clever lie, “they're just having another look around the empire's borders to see if Rosseth has hidden out there with the chalice. He has no place to go but the icy cold, or here.”

“I... I just hope he stays safe,” said Faerie Tail with a calm sigh, “Princess Cadance...”


“Ignitus and I talked last night after everypony else went to bed, there's... something we need to discuss,” she said dolefully.

Princess Cadance saw the look in Ignitus' eyes, and Faerie Tail's leading to the floor, and felt a twinge of anxiety built in her chest.

N... no... not again!

Chapter 18 - Cadance Caves In

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Chapter 18

A very sleepy Lighthearted stumbled her way to work in the earlier hours of the morning as usual. She had to be in at six to start mixing pancake batter for the breakfast rush when they opened at seven. The sun had barely graced the horizon, and the darkness wasn't helping how tired she felt.

“Like I'll be any less tired when I open that daycare,” she mumbled to herself in a strange mix of optimism and acceptance.

Her restaurant seemed strangely dark on the inside, usually her boss and the owner of the establishment beat her there to open up shop and start doing paperwork in her office.

“Did I get here before Sodastraw?” asked Lighthearted aloud, spotting a mysterious piece of paper on the glass door.


“You can't do this to me, Sodastraw!” cursed the mare, thinking she was going to lose her shift pay.

The door swung open, her timid manager inside, a teal pegasus mare with a small set of red specs on her nose. Her restaurant was set up like a traditional pancake house, linoleum tile floors lined with red cushioned booths for eating, and an open kitchen with a metal counter. Sodastraw loved her little establishment, set up since the Crystal Empire had returned, but today her soft smile was replaced by a shocking sense of fear.

“Shhhh! Lighthearted, get in here!” she whispered, pulling her employee inside by the hoof.

“Woah, easy,” said Lighthearted, “I didn't mean to yell. I just... really need each shift.”

“Yeah yeah, I know, I'm going to pay you anyways,” Sodastraw assured, “but we can't open today! The empire is bustling with rumors right now.”

“Rumors of what?” demanded Lighthearted, raising an eyebrow.

Lighthearted pointed to the door to her office in the back of the open restaurant room, “Come on, I'll show you.”

She brought her into the manager's office, barely a closet with a chair and a tiny desk stuffed into the corner, a couple of ledgers with profit numbers written down for taxation purposes. Sodastraw picked up a newspaper with her left wing, the long feathers guiding the tabloid underneath Lighthearted's eyes. The headline written across the top of the newspaper in a font so ponderously large made her mouth fall open.


“No!” gasped the earth pony, placing the paper in front of her and beginning to read.

“The first Imperial Bank was robbed last night by a zebra wielding a magic amulet...”

“I can't believe it,” she growled, “and to think I helped that...”

“Hmmm?” hummed Sodastraw.

Lighthearted blushed, “Oh um... I helped out um... that Mr. Lamplight guy, at the bank. He was having trouble getting a heavy gem deposit in. I just can't believe it was robbed a few hours later!”

“Ohhh, Mr. Lamplight, nice fellow,” agreed Sodastraw, humming.

That was close...” thought Lighthearted, “I've got to get out of here and find that moron Rosseth. Nopony uses me!

“Soooo,” she continued aloud, “don't I get the day off?”

“Well yeah, but... it's chaos out there!”

That wasn't going to stop her, “I'll be fine, boss. I need to take care of some stuff.”

“All right,” sighed her manager, “but be careful out there, Lighthearted, you're my best!”

“No problem!” answered the other mare, already out the door of the office.

Once she was a safe distance away from her place of work, she kicked the pavement in anger and broke into a full gallop.

Guards had already barricaded off the bank when Lighthearted reached the building, the smell of smoke still in the area for blocks around. Most of the windows had been shattered from explosions and misplaced magic bolts, even the roof had been perforated in several areas. It had been a small miracle that the bank had not been completed destroyed in the brawl the night before. A large crowd of Crystal Ponies stood in front of the bank gossiping about the horrid event, a grand heist in their city!

Lighthearted ran up to the closest guard in front of the entrance, “Out of the way!”

“Woah, you can't go in there,” answered the armored pegasus as he stuck out a wing, “crime scene.”

Something seemed rather familiar about the mare in front of him though, his memories of the previous day having blurred together from the chaotic battle in the building behind him.

“Wait... were you the mare who was with the suspect?” he asked.

Panicking about being caught, the earth pony mare shoved past him and ran into the entrance of the bank, diving behind a pillar near the front for cover. Getting stopped and brought in for questioning was not something she was interested in wasting her time on. After a good few minutes had passed without pursuit, she was certain the guard had decided to let her go and peeked around the pillar.

She nearly jumped a foot, the guard had stealthily walked up to the pillar, and there was a mean look on his face.

“You shouldn't have done that,” he said, calmly yet with disgust, “you're in big trouble, missy. I know all about you and that zebra who did this!”

“Please don't arrest me, I'm on your side,” begged Lighthearted, “I'm trying to help out so we can get that zebra behind bars, he betrayed me so he could get in the bank!”

The hatred in his eyes drained, “Excuse me?”

“He told me everypony was after him for no reason, and I got duped,” admitted the mare, scraping her hoof on the floor tiles and looking down with shame, “please don't drag me off. I only want to help.”

“Fine,” came the impatient response, “get in, do what you're going to do, then get out... and no pictures!”

He turned around and stomped back to the front of the bank, Lighthearted sticking his tongue out at how brutish he had been. With the adrenaline having finally worn off, she was finally able to head further inside and get a full view of the ruined interior of the bank. A massive crater sat right in front of her, a hole blown down to the foundation of the building by the thrown fireball potion. Tiny blackened pockmarks all over the walls from magic pellets mixed with laser cannons, and chunks missing wherever one of Shadow Breeze's ethereal grenades had gone off. The strange, more dramatic damage was accompanied by spears, arrows, and knives stuck all over into furniture and desks. Even the fountain had stopped operating, one of the pipes having leaked cold water all over the floor of the bank. Destroyed sets of armor, four swords shattered, and a thin layer of sparkling dust from defeated illusions added a disturbing confetti to the scene.

Gaveler, Sharp, Mr. Lamplight, and Miss Ledger, along with an assortment of guards were analyzing the damage. Some construction workers, mares and stallions clad in hard hats and orange vests, were assembling a sizable metal scaffolding to try to prop up the portion of the roof above the fountain which threatened collapse at any moment. Senator Gaveler was trying to issue further orders to the workers, but Mr. Lamplight was too beside himself to let her speak, bawling like a hurt foal.

Oohhh, why?!” he cried bitterly, tears hitting the already drenched floor.

“Don't cry Mr. Lamplight,” soothed Ledger gently, “your gems are insured by the central supply. You'll get everything back, promise!”

“No, it's not that,” the wealthy stallion sniffled, drying his tears with a handkerchief he had pulled from his sports coat, “I decided to put all my crystals in this bank, and made it too tempting of a target! Oh it's all my fault the zebra did all of this and hurt so many!”

Gaveler didn't know whether to try and help comfort him, or slap him for implying that somehow his one wheelbarrow of crystals was “more tempting” than everyone else's, or at least enough to convince Rosseth to rob the place.

“Excuse me,” said Ligthearted, “Senator?”

She looked back at the other mare, “How did you get in here?”

“I was let in,” lied the waitress through a smile, “I'm... a reporter! They're only letting them in one at a time.”

“Ok, well, no comments right now,” grumbled the senator, “we're quite busy, fixing the place and keeping this gentlecolt from crying.”

“I just can't help but feel... responsible!” blubbered Lamplight.

“So, what happened besides Ross, I mean the zebra, getting in here and robbing the place?”

“That's all that happened,” informed a nearby unicorn in a white hard hat, “the zebra broke in, fought the crystal guard, and made this royal mess us saps have to clean up!”

“He also stole a good number of Mr. Lamplight's crystals,” explained Miss Ledger, “which was odd, because there were many other safe deposit boxes near his that would have done for the amount he took.”

Lighthearted tilted her head, “Really? He didn't clean the place out?”

“Not at all,” said Sharp, “all those crystals would have weighed him down and prevented his escape. However, curiously, he skipped over the front most boxes which would have saved him time.”

“Including yours,” added Ledger, “your gems are safe and sound, Lighthearted.”

She paused for a moment, and raised a hoof to her heart, “He didn't take mine?”


Those feelings of being used by Rosseth started to slip away, he could have just as easily have stolen her savings frozen in her few energy crystals. Instead her companion from yesterday had chosen to risk being brought down by the guards to skip over her box!

Lighthearted thought, “He didn't rob me. That's so sweet and messed up at the same time!

Coming back to reality she asked of Gaveler, “Do you know what he plans on doing with the crystals?”

“Oh, um... that's a secret we can't disclose to the press,” answered Gaveler slowly, “rest assured the situation is under control, though!”

“Is the princess aware?”

One of the guards bragged, “Of course, she healed us last night after we took that fireball to the gut.”

“Of course that information was already in the paper this morning,” sighed Gaveler, “too much if you ask me.”

“Oh some poor souls got hit with a terrible fireball spell on my behalf!” wailed Lamplight.

“Shut up!” growled Sharp.

Lighthearted had all the information she needed now to begin her quest to find Rosseth herself, and demand to know what he was doing. She excused herself from the situation, bidding the construction workers luck in repairing the bank, and left through the front exit where she thanked the guard for letting her in. He seemed a bit less hostile this time around, but refused to show her a smile.

After getting a good distance away from the bank again, Lighthearted decided to head for the Crystal Palace and try to get the advice of Princess Cadance.

Even if I can't find you myself, Ross, I'm going to help the princess find you. You owe me an apology!

“You're thinking about separation?” Cadance spat out, her vocal chords nearly refusing to form the word.

“Not immediately, but we've decided that might be for the best,” Ignitus said firmly, “as it is, I have not been home very much at all in recent times already. The only thing that will change is our legal status. Faerie and I just cannot come to an agreement.”

Faerie Tail lowered her head, hurt obvious in her eyes, “I'm sorry Princess Cadance.”

The Princess felt her anxiety ratchet through the ceiling, a throwback to her early failure. She remembered that day back in Canterlot, in the tiny, cozy room Aunt Celestia had furnished for her to use as a counseling center. It had only been a few months out of her education on family sciences, a program Celestia had gotten her into very soon after earning her cutie mark. If healing damaged relationships was truly her special talent, her place in Equestria, she would need nothing more than the lovingly crafted space to get started. Cadance recalled it as if it was her throne room, a humble place with white walls, two soft ocean blue couches with heart-shaped pillows, her fuzzy white chair draped with lace, and a shelf full of books and stress toys.

Dark memories flooded her mind about the room now, all the times she had succeeding in fixing marriages, friendships, and dating couples were discarded in favor of remembering her one failure. The sweet Honeysuckle and the strong Lance, sitting on opposite ends of the first couch, with little Rosseth on the floor in front of them. Each of the little zebra hybrid's tears hitting the ground in front of him made very little sound, but the soft patters felt like daggers on Cadance's heart.

I'm sorry Princess Cadance, but Lance and I just can't come to an agreement. We will be legally separate tomorrow morning.

Eerie words that mirrored what was being said now to her from a very different couple. Within her subconscious, Midnight Blaze and Rosseth had merged together, both innocent beings torn apart because she had failed as the Princess of Love. The two moments in time were almost identical.


There was one key difference between her failure with Rosseth's family and her failure with Midnight's. With Rosseth, she had plenty of time to try and work things out between the couple. Cadance had come to accept that she had truly let down Rosseth, and vowed to become the best she could be from that day forward. But with this case, there was only one factor that truly tore the family apart, and a “fix” was more than within her reach, albeit an unethical one.

A hard decision stood before the thin alicorn, and the temptation to save Midnight's spirit where she had broken Rosseth's became far too much. Cadance locked in her choice, and her head slowly tilted down, her eyes becoming dull.

“Very well. I just wish to speak with Ignitus in private, then... I will let you go,” she said with a total void of emotion.

“Come on, everypony out,” said Captain Arbiter, removing Faerie Tail and the servant staff from the room.

Ignitus slowly walked up to the throne, his fiery eyes failing to find where the princess's were. She looked like she had been crushed and left to rot on her throne in the cold and lonely throne room. Something made him understand that the princess clearly intended to give him a final beat-down before sending him away, but something also forced the unicorn forward.

The alicorn still refused to look at him.

“Princess Cadance, I accept any further verbal punishment you deem necessary,” the detective stated, “I will never return to the Crystal Empire after today.”

Still no words.

Great patience was being given, Ignitus stood still in front of the throne, believing he had simply left the princess speechless with his behavior.

Cadance did not move her eyes, only her mouth finally moved with a soft, “Ignitus... forgive me for this.”

The unicorn found himself consumed in a sudden blast of green light and energy, pushing him backwards across the floor of the throne room. He felt his core catch ablaze, with no time to defend himself as a strange feeling quickly spread through every inch of his body. Had Cadance finally snapped and decided to remove him from the situation altogether? The feeling reached his head he grabbed for it with his hooves in an effort to get it out, the magic tearing at his psychological defenses quickly.

And then it was over. Ignitus's eyes glowed green for a moment, Cadance's horn dispersed its aura and released filthy black smoke into the throne room in an effort to cool off.

“Cadance... what did you do?” muttered Ignitus, “I feel... different.”

Princess Cadance remained motionless on the throne, “Go to your wife.”

“I am not sure that will do anything,” droned Ignitus.


Without another question, Ignitus seemed to reluctantly obey, leaving the throne room. He felt weird on the inside still, but he had full knowledge of the magical blast he was exposed to. Had Cadance just wanted to vent all her magic on him, but felt like it would be wrong to physically hurt him?

Ignitus pushed the door open and entered the hallway, where his wife Faerie Tail stood accompanied by Captain Arbiter. Her beautiful eyes were wide open, pain and suffering clear on her face, as tomorrow they would no longer be a couple. They simply were not able to get things to work, and he hardened his mind on the separation. Yet, Ignitus saw his wife and her beauty, and felt the strange feeling surge again through his body like a pulse of electricity. From his cousin's perspective, Arbiter noticed a quick green twinkling in the bright orange eyes of his relative, and then he shocked them both with an unexpected statement.

“Faerie Tail... perhaps... there is something we could do to save our marriage,” he said slowly, “I am a very serious stallion, but maybe... maybe I could just avoid discussing Midnight. Maybe, I should focus on just us.”

Faerie Tail's eyes flooded with tears, she couldn't believe those words, “Ignitus?! Are you sure? You'll accept Midnight and come back?”

What's going on?” thought Arbiter suspiciously, “What in Equestria did Cadance say?

“Honey, I can only want what's best for our Midnight and his brother. I may not be able to understand why he does not want to fulfill his duty, but I will tolerate it and leave him alone if it means we still love each other,” he said, albeit somewhat monotone.

Ah, he still doesn't totally approve of Midnight, that figures. Yet still, this is quite sudden,” questioned Arbiter in his mind.

“I... that's enough for me,” whispered Faerie Tail, “I'm sure some day you'll fully warm up to him.”

“For now, can we work just on our bond, my sweet wife?” the unicorn responded, pushing his muzzle up against hers, “Let's go out. We can talk about it.”

“Yes, yes!” she cried, overjoyed, throwing herself around him.

The two unicorns, having rekindled their relationship, wrapped their tails around each other and walked down the hallway of the crystal palace. All of Cadance's staff burst into applause with their hooves on the floor, save Arbiter, who remained skeptical. He remained stationary while the staff filed out to return to their duties, and entered the throne room to find Cadance collapsed on the throne still. The air clearly smelled like burned cloth, making Arbiter's nose twitch.

“What did you tell my cousin?” he demanded, “That was quite sudden, and this room smells like smoke!”

“Arbiter,” Cadance replied quietly, “I did what had to be done. That's all. Midnight Blaze's family is going to be whole again.”

Such a creepy answer warranted the captain's angry question, “WHAT DID YOU DO?!

Princess Cadance finally lifted her head, and stepped off of her throne, her legs nearly buckling underneath her from her lack of energy.

“I did the wrong thing,” she answered soullessly, “the selfish thing. But I did it for the right reasons, please understand.”

Captain Arbiter's one good eye twitched, and his mouth fell open, “You... you didn't.”

“I did... I placed a bewitchment on him Arbiter, I had to,” she replied, tears running down her face, “I couldn't stand to fail again, please!”

With a swish of his cape, Arbiter put his back to the alicorn, making soft sputtering noises as he mulled over the situation. It sounded very much like he was brooding and trying not to shout, but Cadance accepted any kind of backlash she was about to get for taking the easy way out.

She was therefore quite confused when Captain Arbiter opened his mouth and let out the heartiest, most inappropriate laugh she had ever heard, a true laugh out of unbridled schadenfreude. The swordspony's heavy laughter echoed through the throne room, lightening the mood and relaxing Cadance's heavy feelings.

“Ignitus has really gone and done it now! He made you so mad you've cursed him into trying to patch his relationship with his wife!” guffawed Arbiter, “Good Celestia that's funny. I haven't laughed this hard in forever.”

“So you're not mad?” asked Princess Cadance.

“Of course I'm mad, he's my cousin and bewitching others is an abuse of your power,” answered the pegasus, turning around quickly, “but... Ignitus has forgotten that his role in defending Equestria means not becoming a force of destruction himself...”

Arbiter's voice lowered a bit, becoming more serious, “Just like I did. I'm merely laughing in consideration of the alternative, Cadance. Now, how long will the spell last?”

“A few days,” she answered honestly, “it's not too predictable, but the Return to Bonding spell will wear off. If he still feels the same way when it does, I will step down and let the divorce continue.”

“Hmm, well, until then... let Ignitus pay for his treatment of Midnight,” chuckled Arbiter, “I just hope you realize that things will be worse once that hex does wear off. All you've done is bought yourself time, and this may very well come back to haunt you.”

“Of course, but by then... Midnight will have returned by Rosseth and satisfy his father's demand he be a hero,” the princess explained.

Captain Arbiter shook his head and exited the throne room with one final insult, “For your sake, Your Highness, I hope you're right. Until then... I will be enjoying every moment of this!”

Once more, Cadance found herself alone in the throne room. Had she really done the right thing to try and bring them back together using magic? It felt unethical, it was a form of cheating she had never really considered. Sure, she had used magic to get ponies to stop arguing and settle their differences, but all it had done was clear their minds for a fresh start. This kind of brute force she had used felt shameful, forcing Ignitus to love, almost as if she was... enslaving him.

A thought occurred to her, a humorous comparison at first, but one that carried strong conviction.

“Midnight, I hope this has helped,” she whispered to herself, “I'm no better than he is, now.”

Chapter 19 - Entering the Valley

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Chapter 19

“Ugh, how much further to go, Midnight?” complained Flaming Ivory, “my guts are killing me here.”

The sickened unicorn's stomach was bothering him, perhaps from having eaten a few too many slices of Cedar's spicy yet sweet gingerbread recipe. She had been happy to get rid of what she considered “leftovers”, an enormous amount of hot sweet bread still remaining after Bear's breakfast. Four very overstuffed ponies ended up leaving the couple's log cabin, although Flaming Ivory suspected his buddy Techorse had been shoving pieces of gingerbread into his saddle's cargo bay given how he wasn't experiencing quite the same level of gastrointestinal distress his friends were.

“I'm as stuffed as you are,” he responded with a painful moan, “we've got a few miles to go before we reach the valley. Maybe six.”

It had been so bad that Midnight Blaze only remembered letting out a gurgled “thanks” when they had left the couple behind. Honey Bear had a hearty laugh over how small their stomachs were, saying how they needed more days of hard work to get used to the meals. Looking behind him, Midnight stared at the least fortunate one, Shadow, who was rather distended.

“I'm gonna puke,” whined Shadow Breeze, looking green around the gills.

As if the amount of food in their bellies wasn't quite enough, Cedar had also insisted that the stallions would simply “starve out there in the cold” if they didn't accept a couple of packed lunches for the road. By a few, she had meant about one dozen double-decker peanut butter, maple, and marshmallow fluff sandwiches on toasted wheat. Again, Techorse had been left in charge of being the team's pack mule, and the inventor had a massive bag of food that smelled of melted peanut butter for about a meter around him.

“I'm not exactly doing my best either,” he admitted, feeling like he was going to fall asleep from the weight inside him, “but I made you guys skip anything remotely resembling a real breakfast to get out here. I made another stupid mistake.”

Shadow Breeze shook his head, “Don't blame yourself, we got piggy.”

“It's not that bad guys,” lied Midnight, “we just need to keep walking it off. Knowing us, we'll be starving by the time we get to the Valley of Shadows.”

Once more, there were no trees or signs of life out in the wilderness, just snowbanks and a cold wind from the north. Midnight was no longer required to use his thermal shield thanks to the cloud cover near the Crystal Empire having dissipated, but now the ponies were putting up with arctic blindness from the rays bouncing off of the pure white snow. Flaming Ivory stopped and put on his pair of sunglasses, shielding his retinas from the blinding light.

“I sure hope with a name like that it's a bit darker!” he joked, “This light's starting to kill me, too!”

“You bet it's darker,” answered the other unicorn, “look up. It's a couple miles out from us.”

Flaming Ivory noticed a darkening of the sky in the distance over a set of mountain ranges void of snow.

“Huh, inviting place,” he said sarcastically, “so that's where King Sombra came from?”

“I guess so,” answered Midnight, sighing, “doesn't look too inviting, does it?”

His friend gave a happy laugh, “Eh well, bet real estate's cheap!”

“Hey, guys,” whimpered Shadow Breeze, “if... Sombra actually did live there, do you think he has neighbors? As in, other evil unicorn ponies who might want us gone?!”

“I'm not sure,” commented Techorse, still barely moving with the bag on his back, “if there were, it would seem like they'd all have tried to take the Crystal Empire back in King Sombra's time. But for some reason, he acted alone. Maybe the other ponies in the Valley of Shadows didn't like him much, either.”

Midnight felt a surge of pain in his lower body, the earlier meal finally proving to be too much. He shuddered on his four legs, feeling his guts squeeze in pain.

“Woah, are you ok?” asked Shadow Breeze, stopping and grabbing his friend to help hold him steady.

Midnight's mind was mocked by the voice for his mistake, “Hmm, quite the appetite you have, Midnight!

“SHUT UP!” snapped the unicorn, scaring off Shadow Breeze, having forgotten he was the only one capable of hearing the voice.

“Midnight, what's wrong with you?” demanded Techorse, turning around and glaring at him.

All these pauses will never do,” sighed the voice lazily, “Turn on your aura, Midnight. I'm going to help you out with your little digestive issue so you can keep moving...

Complying with his ordered, Midnight's horn shined with the familiar turquoise color of his eyes. Instantly, Flaming Ivory felt as if his innards had been coated with a cooling, soothing fluid, like a minty beverage. Shadow Breeze and Techorse too felt the weight of their food vanish via magic within moments, breathing sighs of relief. Finally, Midnight felt his own alimentary canal settle into working order with a soft relaxation of his abdominal walls.

“Oh, I'm sorry!” sighed a happy Shadow Breeze to Midnight, “I didn't realize you were working on a stomachache spell for us, Midnight. That's really nice of you!”

“Yeah, I can walk again!” cheered Flaming Ivory, rearing up on his hind legs and kicking his front ones, “You're prepared for everything, Midnight!”

“Thanks,” he said softly, the aura around his horn vanishing, “sorry I snapped, I'm just really eager to get the valley.”

“Let's go then,” instructed Techorse with a friendly tone and a warm smile, “we're right with you.”

Now they were able to trot at a full pace, but Midnight was curious as to why the voice was able to help him.

Did you just teach me a new spell?” he thought, hoping to get an answer.

Unsurprisingly, he got a prompt response, “Yes, in the same manner you have been given your map. It's an ancient spell the wealthy would use to expunge their eaten food so they could continue to gorge themselves at feasts. I am disgusted by it, but it has its uses as you can see.

And how do you know that spell?questioned the unicorn mentally.

And once more, it refused to inform him about its origin, “You'll know. I promise your questions shall be answered soon enough!

Without their own internals giving them trouble anymore, Midnight was able to lead his team across the remainder of the frozen wasteland to the entrance of the valley. The snow quickly vanished in the transition, replaced by reddish soil and savanna grasses as the climate grew warmer. True to its name, it was a downhill slope from where the ponies were standing, mountains bracing the sides of the deep valley, which brought in water from the melted snow. Perhaps by some combination of ancient magic long lost to pony knowledge and volcanic activity, the sky remained darker overhead with a thin covering of darker clouds that truly failed to choke out the sun. In fact, despite the menacing name, trees and shrubs were happy to grow in the valley where the soil was less rocky, and a few small animals called it home gladly over the icy terrain outside.

“Huh, thought this 'Valley of Shadows' place would be a bit scarier,” said Flaming Ivory as he took his first few steps on the reddish clay, “didn't think King Sombra liked bunny rabbits.”

“Maybe it was originally called that because of the shadows cast by the rock structures,” suggested Techorse, pointing to a pillar nearby, “my guess is that Sombra corrupted this place when he was around... and it's a lot healthier now that he's gone.”

Midnight agreed happily, “All the more reason to make sure it stays that way. The castle should be a few miles ahead past the cliff faces over to the right there.”

“I'm still not sure how you know about this castle,” said Flaming Ivory, “are you sure you know where you're taking us?”

“You just have to trust me,” answered the other unicorn, not in the mood for another argument.

Despite the possible danger associated with walking past a sheer cliff face, there didn't seem to be another way to the supposed location of the castle, at least according to Midnight. It was already midday, and they were all aware the full moon would provide enough arcanic energy to power Luna's chalice. Even if Rosseth was insane and had no actual way of bringing back King Sombra, he would still have an untold amount of potion making power at his disposal. The party walked with their sides to a sheer wall of stone, crossing a narrow path around a ravine in the valley.

Shadow Breeze carelessly kicked a loose stone off of the cliff face, and held his head over the precipice with an ear out to listen for it pinging off the bottom of the pit. A few moments later, the stone shattering down at the base of the ravine sent a loud sound up to the peagsus, making him cringe in fear.

“That’s a long way down, guys,” he said cautiously.

“Yeah, and you’re the one of us saps who can fly, so don’t sweat it,” muttered Flaming Ivory, hugging the wall of the cliff side pathway along with Techorse and Midnight.

“Hey!” Shadow complained, “I’m just trying to help.”

“Flaming, stop,” warned Techorse, “we can’t get divided now. Rosseth will get the upper hoof!”

Despite Flaming Ivory’s grumbling, he was convinced to leave Shadow Breeze alone again, and they reached the other side of the narrow cliff path. The valley’s terrain had shifted to a number of cairns and small mesas scattered on a flat plateau, a few steam vents dotted about as evidence of geothermal activity. Near these vents, multiple jagged clusters of massive crystals of black and red color pointed to the sky. The plants and animals of the entrance of the valley were gone now, and the cloud cover had started to get much darker.

“We must be getting very close,” said Techorse, examining one of the crystal spires carefully.

“Hey Techorse, what are those?” asked Flaming Ivory, knocking on one of the towers with a hoof.

“They’re dark energy crystals,” said Midnight Blaze with a blank expression on his face.

His friends all looked at him as if he were crazy. Even Midnight knew he was talking from a source he didn’t actually know. Yet something compelled him to share the secret of the Valley of Shadows.

“What?” asked Techorse, “Midnight… how do you know that?”

“I can sense the dark magic in them,” he answered, “there’s so very little of it though per cubic inch of matter. Simply put, these energy crystals are not as efficient as those in the empire. That is why...”


The top of the crystal exploded in a shower of black shards as a bolt of energy struck it violently. Midnight snapped out of his trance as his friends dove for cover behind the crystal barricade, more magical shots flying past them.

“Take cover!” shouted Techorse.

Volleys of magical ordinance slammed into the crystal wall, smashing chunk of it off. But as soon as it had started, the attack was over, and the offensive spells fell silent.

“What was that?” whispered Shadow Breeze.

“What else? More of Rosseth’s illusions,” answered Midnight, “he must have left some behind to try and stop us.”

“How many do you think there are?” asked Techorse.

“Not sure,” answered Flaming Ivory, shaking his head, “and I ain’t poking my head out of cover to find out!”

Techorse’s saddle opened slowly, him careful not to have his servos make too much noise, and he picked up a nearby stone gently with his robot arms before casually tossing the reddish pebble away from the group. As soon as the rock hit the ground, it was consumed by a vaporizing blast of energy.

“We’re pinned,” said the inventor, stating the obvious.

“There’s gotta be a way we can see around without giving them a good shot at us,” Flaming Ivory said angrily.

Midnight Blaze concentrated for a moment, his horn pouring out magical energy, until a flat surface of reflective magic formed in front of him. Using it as a mirror, he floated the energy out just overhead the crystal, and then summoned a second surface carefully in front of him. He then connected the two tilted panes of magic with a thin tube of energy.

Shadow Breeze’s eyes grew wide, “What is that?”

“Magic periscope,” explained the unicorn.

“There’s no such spell,” said Flaming Ivory in disbelief.

Weeeeell, ok,” chuckled Midnight, rolling his eyes, “it’s two magic mirrors and a containment field, but it’s going to have to work.”

Techorse peered into the opening of the projected device, seeing in the hazy reflection of the sparkling aura a group of four illusions clustered together a good distance away from them next to one of the steam vents in the ground. The smirking zebra copies had their amulets locked onto the crystal, just waiting for the ponies to step out and be rewarded with a blast to the body.

“Ok, there’s four of them,” Techorse explained tactically, “they’re kind of far away, but they’re standing right next to each other, so a blast will take them all out at once.”

“That’s easy, just launch a pair of missiles and blow ‘em up!” laughed Flaming Ivory, “You’ve got this, Techie!”

His saddle opened up again, the missile racks emerging with one final pair of explosives. Techorse sighed, looking at his remaining ammunition.

“These are my last ones,” he said sadly, “after that I’m down to my laser cannons.”

“Eugh,” groaned Flaming Ivory, “that’s not good.”

“That’s ok, we need to keep moving, and they’ll knock out all those illusions,” the stallion said, “I just thought maybe later Rosseth would have something planned I might need them for.”

“We can’t take the risk of having you expend the last of your ammo on these stupid illusions,” Midnight added, “we’ll have to find some other way to deal with them.”

“Well what do you suggest?” asked Shadow Breeze.

“Chuck one of your shadow bombs at them,” answered the unicorn, “use the periscope here to aim.”

The timid pegasus folded his wings, and blushed, “I… can’t throw that far, Midnight.”

“Welp, we’re stuck behind this crystal then until they nab us,” sighed Flaming Ivory, “nice knowing you guys.”

Techorse drew his laser cannons, and stood up quickly, “Here’s what we’ll do. I’m going to jump out and distract them. You guys run around and use the crystals for cover. Once you are in range, take them down!”

Shadow Breeze gasped, “But Tech, you’ll get creamed!”

“I want to save my last pair of missiles, so I’ve got to be the one to do this,” he said in an overly dramatic fashion while taking off the bag of food on his back, “and if even three of us get to the castle Midnight’s talking about, we’ll be able to stop Rosseth and save the chalice.”

Midnight tried to protest, “Wait, Techorse, let’s think about...”

He had already jumped out from behind cover, laser cannons blazing forth energy bolts, receiving return fire from the enemy as he ducked and dodged. One of the cannons swiveled left and kept firing while Techorse ran in a parallel line to make himself harder to hit. The clones broke formation to spread out abreast, creating a wall of energy shots that started to become harder and harder for him to dodge, while making it much easier for them to avoid the yellow bolts coming towards them.

“Come on, we’ve got to move,” instructed Midnight, pushing Flaming and Shadow out from behind the crystal, “if we hurry we can flank them before Techorse gets himself hurt!”

Tech’s lasers continued to spray wildly at the clones, making them mix their attacks with evasive maneuvers, as a single hit would likely shatter them. One of the illusions stepped forward, and a snaking beam of electric energy shot out, striking Techorse in the side and electrocuting him horribly. Blue strings of ions danced across his coat, and a small explosion blew out the top panel of his saddle from the electrical feedback shorting out something of importance. The earth pony collapsed on the floor of the valley, red dust smearing his belly coat and legs. He stood up slowly on his legs, a spray of sparks flying from his dying robotic saddle. His friends were dashing for the closest crystal, moving behind the group of illusions.

“Come on guys, you can do this,” he said, a beam of magic missing him narrowly to the left of his face.

By moving quickly from formation to formation while the illusions weren’t watching, Midnight managed to move the other two stallions closer to their target without being seen.

“Shadow, get ready to drop a bomb right between them!” he ordered, “Techorse has them distracted now, he’ll...”

The ponies watched in horror as the illusions fired in unison on Techorse, the beams striking him in the chest and flipping him onto his back in a spray of light blue sparks. He lay motionless on the ground, his saddle giving one last pitiful whine as the motors gave out and the reactor inside cooled its fusion core off.

“N… no!” Midnight choked, “TECH!!!

Shadow Breeze felt tears build up in his eyes, having just watched his buddy get mowed down in front of him. He wanted to say something, anything, but no words were coming out.


The other two stallions dropped their sorrow for a moment. They could hear a noise like a saw cutting through iron, and slowly looked over their withers to see Flaming Ivory, his eyes glowing bright orange and his horn sparking like flint. It grew in intensity, and Midnight slowly backed off with Shadow, their ears drooping. Rosseth’s illusions felt the rage intensifying behind them, and turned around just in time to catch a glimpse of a massive orange ray of pure music-infused energy incinerating them where they stood, leaving nothing but four burning craters in the ground, flecks of magical energy in the shape of musical notes dancing in the air before vanishing.

Flaming Ivory’s horn powered down, his lungs struggling to keep up with his demand for air. Forgetting about how much energy he had just expended, he galloped over to Techorse, dropping to his knees and propping his friend up with his hooves. His eyes were shut, and the air around him smelled like burnt fur.

“Tech!” he shouted, “Please, answer me!”

Techorse’s eyes slowly opened up, “Did you get them?”

“Yeah...” answered Flaming Ivory tearfully, Midnight and Shadow now standing next to him, “we got them.”

Techorse removed himself from Flaming Ivory’s grasp and stood up, perfectly well. The engine inside his saddle came back to life, a few sparks flying from the doors but very little damage otherwise.

“Man, that hurt. Good thing Rosseth’s just trying to slow us down, huh?”

“Techorse, did you just play dead?” asked Midnight, stumped.

“It was the only thing I really could do,” he answered, “I knew you guys could do it, but with my saddle out from that electricity, I was in trouble.”

Techorse suddenly felt a heavy pain in his chest as Flaming Ivory clocked him right across the front with a hoof, knocking him to the ground. While he regained his footing again, the unicorn angrily pointed a hoof at him, tears streaming down his face.

“Don’t you ever do that again, Techorse! You scared me! I thought you were gone.”

In an almost opposite act, Flaming threw himself around Techorse and hugged him tightly, trying to dry his tears. Shadow Breeze added himself to the group hug, glad his friend was still alive as well, but Midnight hung back, mulling things over in his mind. He felt strange, as if he had always known he was meant to be a part of the team in front of him, like they were all connected in a way.

Midnight,” came the voice, shattering his daydreaming, “you’ve helped win another solid victory. But you must keep moving. Help heal the green stallion, and bring them to the palace.

The unicorn sighed, just wanting the nagging specter to go away, and helped break up the hug to keep them on the path. It was hard to tell from the dark clouds blocking the view of the sun, but it was already beginning to set.

Chapter 20 - Ignitus Rekindled

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Chapter 20

“Oh Ignitus, look over here please!”

Ignitus was beginning to remember just how joyful his wife was, with her pointing out each and every special thing about the world around her. She hadn’t had an actual date with him in a very long time, and now every little detail, object and passerby made her heart sing. Something had made him feel less attached to her before, but now that memory was seemingly gone, replaced by a chalky and uncertain void in his mind that he chose to ignore.

Faerie Tail was standing over a fresh bed of daffodils growing by the side of the road, yellow blooms peeking out from underneath the soil.

“I don’t understand dear, they’re just flowers,” said Ignitus.

“But daffodils are your favorite!” she sighed, “Aren’t they lovely?”

“Is that was these are?” the half-stunned unicorn asked, “Wow, I haven’t seen any in a very long time. How did you know that they’re my favorite flower? I don’t remember ever telling you I had a favorite flower.”

“Well, when we got married… Princess Celestia had a hundred daffodils planted in the garden we wed in. It was the most beautiful sight in the world, my sweet husband and I walking down the isle, surrounded by flowers and loved ones,” beamed the mare, remembering the most important day of her life.

“How… how come I don’t remember that?” he stuttered, bending down to get a closer look at one of the bell-shaped flowers, “I only can remember your beauty, Faerie. Never paid any attention to the flowers.”

“Oh Ignitus!” she sighed, blushing heavily.

The red stallion cleared his throat, “So… what’s next, love?”

“I haven’t a clue! I’m just so happy you’ve chosen to stay,” she answered, embracing him in a warm hug, “I’m interested in whatever you have to offer.”

As if moved by some invisible force, her husband offered, “We should find some foals to tell a story to. I remember how you used to love telling stories, and how raising Midnight and Twinken made it hard to write and read out loud. You always wanted to be a filly’s author, but… I guess never let you chase that dream.”

“I… I chose to be a mother, dear,” Faerie Tail responded, knowing his guilt had really built up over the years, “we chose to have foals, together. I didn’t give up my dream, I made a new one.“

“Still,” said Ignitus, pressing his muzzle against hers and closing his eyes, “you stopped what your cutie mark meant for you to do the year we married. I’ve made this all about my life and my needs, and it’s time to change.”

When he opened his eyes again, Faerie Tail saw another greenish twinkle reflecting in them, a repeat of the strange event she saw in the palace. But emotion replaced deep thought, for years she had hoped her husband would put down his demanding pursuits and focus once more on his loving family. It felt like a fantasy, but Ignitus was really here, telling her how much he loved her and wanted to go back to the days before his terrible discovery.

Faerie Tail found her own troubles interrupted, as a yellowish earth pony was stomping past the couple with a very irritated look on her face.

“Excuse me,” she said, sidestepping Ignitus’ leaning in for a deep kiss, making her husband stumble.

The other mare turned around and snapped, “What is it, lady?”

“Oh, um,” stammered Faerie, “I was wondering if you were okay. You’re quite upset, is all.”

“I’m a bit angry, yeah,” admitted Lighthearted, “kind of just got backstabbed by somepony who tricked me into liking him.”

“That’s horrible,” commented Ignitus with about as much emotion as a stone, “I’d love to talk some sense into a pony like that.”

“Heh, a pony, that’s cute,” Lighthearted chuckled weakly, “you guys wouldn’t believe me, but that guy’s that zebra from the newspaper. I’m trying to find him so I can give him a piece of my mind!”

“The zebra?” grunted Ignitus, “I know...”

Ignitus knew it was Rosseth right away, but got met with his wife’s big puppy dog eyes when he tried to speak up about it.


He felt compelled to say, “I’m sorry ma'am. That zebra you’re describing has given us a lot of trouble lately as well. But, I’ve promised my wife a nice time out tonight, perhaps later I can help you find him.”

“I’m going to go see if the princess is in so I can talk to her about this,” said Lighthearted, “I’ve heard she’s got information. Of course, the chances she’ll let me in to talk to her...”

“Then tell the gatekeeper Ignitus Enflame sent you over, they’ll let you in,” instructed the detective, “they’ll let you in. I’m a detective with Canterlot, it’ll get you to Princess Cadance fast.”

Lighthearted was taken aback, “Woah… thanks! I will. You guys have fun tonight!”

The mare made a swift exit, and once she was out of earshot, Ignitus turned to his wife and started in.

“What a tough cookie. Do you think Midnight would like her?”

His wife wrinkled her nose, “Honeeeey!

“Only kidding. Mostly.”

“She did what?” laughed Limpwing, her eyes bright and wide.

“She bewitched Ignitus into trying to salvage his dying marriage,” chuckled Arbiter, pouring Limpwing another hot cup of mint tea from a nearby bronze kettle.

The two ponies were spending time together in a secluded study room on the east side of the crystal palace, normally used for going over scrolls and books from the palace library. Here Limpwing had set up camp, having declined a regular room to sleep on a basic mattress on the floor and pour over the pages of her training books. Arbiter had brought up the tea, her personal favorite, and couldn’t help but go into detail about his relative’s predicament. Needless to say, the pegasus mare with the bad wing was eating it up. Limpwing had brought out two flat reed mats for them to sit on while they enjoyed their tea and juicy gossip. It wasn’t the comfiest sit for either pony, but it was enough.

“Cadance has gone off the deep end,” Limpwing guffawed heartily before scooping up her teacup with her good wing and chugging down the hot liquid, “if Princess Celestia found out about this, she’d turn pale! Well, pale-r.”

“I know, which is why we need to help keep things a secret until that curse wears off,” said Arbiter a bit more seriously, “I think we ought to find the two of them and make sure they don’t do anything to humiliate themselves.”

“What’s the worst that could happen?” asked Limpwing rhetorically.

“A lot,” grumbled the captain, wondering why she couldn’t engage him for a moment.

She batted her eyelashes, “Are you worried Midnight might end up with another brother?”

Arbiter frowned, “Hilarious, lieutenant.”

Limpwing ignored him and laid down on the mat, “I’m just teasing, Arbiter. Honestly I’m glad this had happened for Faerie Tail’s sake, but something tells me you think it’ll all come crashing down on them.”

“It most certainly will,” he answered, sighing, “I don’t want Faerie Tail to get led on too far before she’s told the truth. We need to get out there and let her know what happened.”

“You really want to take away that hope from her?” Limpwing asked, “I mean, that’s pretty rough.”


“I really think you ought to let it play out,” she said, pushing forward on her hooves and getting close to him, “who knows? I’m always going with the flow, maybe you should, too!”

“I trust your advice,” he answered, scooting back, “but you know me. I am not a kind enough individual. I don’t have faith things will work unless they’re made to by force.”

Limpwing rolled her eyes, how obvious did she need to be with him, anyways?

“Hey now,” she said softly, “you’re a lot nicer than what you think you are. At least, I think you are. I’ve had a lot of fun spending time with you over the past year or so, all those sword lessons were fun!”

Arbiter took a deep breath, “Well Limpwing, I appreciate your kinds words. I guess it would be fine to let this play out and hope that my cousin and his wife find happiness again. They deserve that kind of happiness.”

Limpwing wanted to know how he felt, “...and you believe you don’t deserve that kind of happiness?”

“I don’t deserve anything. I’ve made poor choices.”

“So has he,” countered Limpwing, rolling her eyes “sure he didn’t exactly live the lifestyle you had, or tried to off a certain campy stallion, buuuutI think you’ve done way better. You’re a neat guy.”

Arbiter finally managed to climb out of the self hate and put on a modest smile for her. When they had first met, Arbiter had appreciated Limpwing’s physical appearance, the soft blue of her coat and neon mane, her red eyes... during his days as a younger soldier he’d chased plenty of mares with those kinds of thoughts on his mind. Limpwing had started the same as well, but after a time of getting to know her, there was something a bit different there he couldn’t explain. She of course, could see past his awkward smile and knew he was restraining his feelings on purpose.

The pegasus couldn’t help but laugh, “Hey, there we go, a smile! You starting to see the light, Arby? At least you didn’t have a son only to bug him about becoming a grunt every five minutes. Why does that guy care so much about him serving Equestria, anyways?”

“You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you Limpwing,” said the captain, chuckling in disgust, “it doesn’t excuse either of our behaviors anyways, past or present. Of course, that doesn’t mean what’s happening now isn’t suitable payback for his treatment of his son.”

“Then we agree this whole thing with the princess is hilarious and should totally be abused for our entertainment?” grinned the pegasus, tilting her head.

“Abuse is such a strong word, I prefer ‘enjoyed’ to the fullest,” he answered, “let’s go and find them.”

“Before we do, wanna spar?” asked the pegasus, spreading her wings, “I could go for a little practice, and hey, what if Techie’s right and King Sombra comes back? I wanna be the one to cut him down to size!”

Arbiter stood tall, and nodded in agreement, “Very well Miss Limpwing, I accept your challenge! I’ll see you in the palace armory. Don’t think I’ll go easy on your just because you are a mare, though.”

“Oooh, you’re gonna pay for that,” she hissed teasingly, “see you down there, tough guy. Hope I don’t bruise your ego when you’re on the floor with a training sword lump, like you always do when we train together!”

The gray pegasus left the room with a satisfied grin on his face and a renewed sense of confidence. Once Limpwing was absolutely sure he was gone, the crafty pegasus pony reached for her trusty flight goggles on the floor of the study room, and pulled out a small piece of paper she unraveled. It was a handy list of just a few items:

1. Make cookies for the target.

2. Restore target’s confidence and self-love.


“My mission’s almost complete,” she said confidently to herself, “just one more step… if my target is willing to cooperate!”

Ignitus had taken the love of his life to a wonderful restaurant on the opposite side of the empire, far away from the scene of the bank robbery or anything else that would remind him of work. The establishment was a quiet, outlandishly luxurious restaurant, indoor seating with crystal sculptures throughout the restaurant floor that shifted culture as magical energy flowed through them from the power sources in the wide stone bases they rested upon. Ponies dressed in fine clothing sat at most of the tables, topped with fine white linens held in place with smooth, gently burning candles.

The food was simply eloquent as well, the most popular menu choice being a four course meal, including a house salad with vegetables picked from local gardens, a curious spicy hot soup made from peppers and local artisan cheese, the main course of a finely cooked penne pasta baked with thick cut tomatoes and rare organic mushrooms picked from the forests, all followed by the most sinful and diet-busting piece of strawberry shortcake imaginable. With the purchase of both their meals came a shared bottle of their favorite drink at the table, and they got to enjoy it like they did in their earlier days dating in fine crystal glasses.

“This is wonderful, sweetheart,” said Faerie, putting another tender bite of pasta into her mouth with a magically-controlled fork, “it’s just like how things used to be...”

“Those things are here to stay, Faerie,” he assured, having cleaned his own plate, “I will do anything to make sure you and I stay together now. I love you more than anything else in Equestria, always.”

Something a bit monotone came off about his statement, and Faerie Tail was beginning to think that maybe it was a bit… too nice. She enjoyed this sudden burst of love and softness from her husband, but she also felt that Ignitus’s more hardened side was a bit of his charm.

“Are you sure you’re still satisfied with everything?” she asked, placing her fork down, “It’s so sudden, how you’ve decided to change things around.”

Cadance’s bewitchment, however, was being severely underestimated by Faerie. Ignitus was unable to experience the negative feelings brought on by thinking about his son, or his lack of entry into the military. About the only thing truly free about his thinking was the restaurant he had picked, and the words he was choosing to express his legitimate love for his wife hidden deep behind the stony exterior he had put on for so long. It was as if whatever had hardened him before had suddenly been melted away by the princess’s spell.

It forced him to come up with a compromise to appear normal, “Faerie, I have my disagreements with you, but I didn’t want it to ruin everything. Please trust me.”

From the closest table to them, Arbiter and Limpwing had positioned themselves to get a closer look. They were loosely disguised, Limpwing having put on a fine artificial fur coat and large sunglasses, and Arbiter in a pinstripe suit and hat. Given how engrossed with each other the other couple was, a more convincing concealment of their identities seemed unnecessary.

“What do you think Arby?” she asked, holding her menu in front of her muzzle, “Cadance’s bewitchment sure is strong… Ignitus seems pretty sincere.”

“We will see, Limpwing,” he answered, uncertain, “I’m more concerned about what happens when it wears off. In the meantime, helping keep them out of trouble is all we can do, at least until Techorse and his friends return.”

“I don’t see any trouble here,” chuckled Limpwing, pointing out how the couple was leaning in closer to each other with each passing moment.

“Faerie… I love you,” said Ignitus softly, “and I will prove it to you.”

Without warning, their table was suddenly flipped to the side with a huge crash as Ignitus pushed through the table in a spectacular display of affection, throwing himself onto his wife and locking her into a passionate kiss on the floor of the restaurant. The remains of their dinner spilled everywhere, and not a pair of eyes in the restaurant wasn’t focused on them making out like college freshmen in shameless public view.

OOOOH, looks like Midnight’s getting TWINS!” hooted Limpwing, Arbiter growling at her in response.

Of course, that stunt got the four of them kicked out of the restaurant in short order, with many statements of “Get a room!” and “There are fillies present!” following them. But Faerie Tail had been captivated once more by the stallion who chose to marry her, and their tails were wrapped tightly together while they trotted down the street. Just as important, they were laughing together like they had just fallen in love that week.

“It’s like they’re young again,” commented Arbiter, “perhaps even if for a moment, Cadance’s spell was worth it. I’ve never seen either of them this happy.”

“Yeah, isn’t it gross?” joked Limpwing.

“Maybe just a bit,” he agreed, surprising her.

“Well, at least they’re happy,” she said, “we gonna keep following them?”

“Maybe that’s enough for tonight,” answered Arbiter, “we found out what we needed to. Cadance’s spell is very strong, and Faerie Tail doesn’t need to know for now.”

Limpwing suggested, “So, how’s about we go see a show or something? Suns’ going down, bet the Crystal Empire’s got a ton of stuff to do.”

“That sounds perfect,” he answered, “comedy?”

A smirk came across her face, “Do we really need one after that display?”

Arbiter met her eyes with his one remaining one, and shook his head in disbelief while still smiling at the bad joke. Looking down the street, he could see his cousin and spouse disappearing into the distance, the sunset in front of them, burning the sky with bright oranges and reds.

“Maybe you’re right,” he said, “let’s enjoy our own night out on the town. We’ve already had a good hour of swordplay, so what else can we do?”

“Ice cream sodas?” she suggested, grinning, “I like those!”

“Sure,” Arbiter laughed, “we deserve a treat after putting up with that scene.”

As they walked away, Limpwing said to him, “Hey, do you suppose that Ross guy actually thinks he’s going to bring back…”

Noticing several crystal ponies around her still staring thanks to the incident inside the restaurant, the pegasus carefully held her tongue lest she start a riot.

“You know… that guy?”

“I’m not sure what he’s thinking,” answered the captain, “but even if he could, he’s got the most dogged stallion we know on his case. He’ll be stopped.”

“That’s for sure,” snickered Limpwing, “so that means Rosseth’s going to be Techorse’s best friend after this, just like you?”

“We are not…” he blushed, “Limpwing, sometimes I really find myself frustrated with you!”

“Guess that means I like you,” she teased, running her tail across his front leg as she trotted past him, “come on, Arby! Let’s go get that ice cream soda, I need my sugar!”

He cleared his throat, embarrassed, and let out a subtle groan while following her to the nearest ice cream shop.

“What am I going to do with that mare?”

Chapter 21 - The Moonlight Ritual

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Chapter 21

The valley had filled with darkness with night having set in, the temperature dropping rapidly. Despite everything, the four ponies had made it through the mountain pass, Techorse having recovered fairly well from his injuries suffered in the plains. A cold wind chill swept through the narrow stone walls, sapping heat away from their bodies.

“Brrr, it’s getting cold out here, how much farther?” asked Flaming Ivory.

“Just ahead,” answered Midnight Blaze, “once we round this corner, the castle will be right in front of us.”

“I hope we’re not too late,” said Shadow Breeze with a worried expression on his face, “what if Rosseth really does bring King Sombra back? The Crystal Empire will have a real nightmare on its hooves!”

Techorse could see the moon slowly rising on the horizon on the other side of the pass. Though the rocky cliffs obscured most of his view, he could tell it was coming up slowly. Perhaps Luna was being a little reluctant this evening, knowing the full moon would power up her ancient cursed chalice. He hadn’t told his friends, but the stallion understood he might have to use his remaining missiles on the chalice itself if need be to prevent Rosseth from using it. Sure, the princess would be disappointed, but Techorse knew she would likely forgive them for having avoided the resurrection of the cruelest tyrant the world had ever seen.

“Ross is just nuts,” assured Flaming Ivory, mirroring what has been said earlier, “again, there’s no way he’s gonna be able to do such a thing. It’s like our moms said, there’s no such thing as monsters under the bed or necromancy.”

They turned the final corner of the pass and came out into another flat area of terrain, this time filled with lush green grass and several forests surrounding the area for miles. It was as if the entire landscape had suddenly decided to change tune from volcanic and dreary to fertile and inviting. There was only one small problem with the beautiful countryside.

“Where’s the castle?” asked Techorse bluntly.

Midnight Blaze felt his heart skip a beat, there was no castle like the voice had told him about at the geographic spot it had burnt into his cortex. The unicorn struggled to not panic or throw himself about as his friends all stared at him with questions burning in their eyes.

“There’s nothing here!” protested Flaming Ivory, “Come on Midnight, did you take us down the wrong path or something?”

“NO!” returned Midnight quickly, “It’s supposed to be here! This is where I was told to...”

With those words, Techorse knew something was wrong with his friend, “Midnight, who told you to take us here?”

“I… um...”

By fortune and good thinking, he noticed something very peculiar behind his friends in the dark background. A small ripple, like that of a stone thrown into a body of water, stretched momentarily through the star-filled dark purple and black sky over the plains in front of them. Knowing what to do immediately, Midnight pushed past his friends, his aura building up over his horn.

“There is a castle, I know it,” he said, “I think maybe it’s just hidden, by some kind of magical field. I can still sense it.”

From his horn shot a beam of turquoise energy that struck an invisible wall about a hundred meters out from where they stood. Energy raced over the outside, creating a grid over the sphere of whatever kind of magic was keeping them from seeing the castle.

“Aha!” he said, his horn billowing smoke, “See, there’s some kind of stealth field surrounding it. I bet Ross did that to get us to give up and turn around.”

“I wouldn’t put it past that zebra,” muttered Flaming Ivory, “so, is that bubble safe to touch or will we be fried when we touch it?”

“There’s only one way to know for sure,” answered the other unicorn, “we try to go through.”

“Is there another way?” asked Shadow Breeze, clearly concerned.

The moon, bright like a flare in the night sky, was already completely over the horizon, and bathing the area in its lunar glow. Time was beginning to run out.

“We need to try,” said Midnight, “I’ll go first.”

Each of them approached the place where Midnight had spotted the ripple, a point where the optical illusion began. He stuck out a hoof carefully, and slowly pushed it through the barrier, the field forming more ripples around his hoof. Then, with a deep breath and a pulse of bravery, Midnight Blaze stepped through the barrier entirely, disappearing from view with only the distortions in the field giving any indication he had ever been there.

“Come on!” he said from the other said, “You guys have to see this!”

Techorse ushered the others through the magical wall, stopping on the other side alongside Midnight. Their mouths hung open at the sight of the massive structure before them. It was an ancient, awe-inspiring castle carved from the darkest stone imaginable, a large square and perfectly designed fortress with multiple towering spires reaching for the sky, parts of them crumbled from age. Two large stone chimneys made from a dark red material sat in the center of the twisting towers, and a massive rusted wheel of some kind pierced the entire assembly, arcing from behind the smokestacks. Ancient banners bearing King Sombra’s insignia hung from the tattered walls of the castle, a few broken cannons drooped over the side, and gargoyles stood at every corner with ferocious fangs. Like everything else about the structure, the iron gate that stood guard to the castle’s front courtyard and entrance had been tarnished over perhaps centuries of disuse. Despite the ominous castle’s appearance, several forests still grew nearby, and dark, twisting, yet perfectly healthy and strong oaks surrounded the land.

“So this is the castle,” marveled Flaming Ivory, letting out an impressed whistle, “neat stuff. Could use a coat of paint or two, but eh, whatever.”

“Rosseth is probably at the top,” figured Techorse, “he’d get the best exposure to moonlight up there to power the chalice.”

“I’m not going in there,” stated Shadow Breeze, swallowing hard, “castles are full of tr… traps!”

“You bet it’s full of traps, that’s what makes it fun!” laughed Flaming, nudging him with the back of his hoof, “Let’s charge in!”

“We should just teleport to the top,” said Midnight, blocking his friend with a hoof, “Rosseth doesn’t know we’re here, and if we surprise him, we’ll have a better chance of stopping him.”

Shadow Breeze looked up, and could see a dome-like room near the top of the castle. The windows were opened, perhaps there was a better option that would save them time and energy.

“But teleporting will leave you drained,” he said, “Techorse and I can fly, let’s just carry you guys to the top.”

Midnight shook his head, “Just trust me Shadow, I can handle it!”

His horn began to charge up for the transit, and Shadow Breeze braced for teleportation, wondering why he even bothered trying.

Usually an ancient stargazing room was not the center stage for a diabolical evening of potion crafting, but Rosseth had managed to make to. The circular room, walls crumbling from age, provided hardly enough space to begin the process, but modern day laboratory equipment made potion brewing easy enough. Glass beakers and tubes connected with plastic piping sprawled out, draining into a titanic cauldron constructed entirely from molded silver, a normally prohibitively expensive piece that Rosseth had “liberated” from some diamond dogs he’d found robbing an antique store in a distant town. Its legs were formed in a Victorian style that propped it up over a sinister fire of hot coals that glowed white from the raw heat. The perimeter of the vessel was lined with carved dragon’s heads, and the sides of the cauldron bore symbols of earth ponies clad in bladed armor running around the outside.

Inside it boiled a thick, sludgy liquid black as night, giving off a muddy and rather unhealthy scent that poisoned the air and made it difficult to respire near it. Rosseth, now assured he had evaded his pursuers, held over the pot a vial of liquid in a band of electrical energy radiating from his amulet. The gray liquid of questionable origin filled the small test tube, Rosseth’s brown eyes stared deep into it with a mixture of joy and hatred.

“The carbon-based potion is complete,” he cackled, “only the final ingredient is required, the catalyst!”

He uncorked the bizarre substance, and moved over to a table where the Lunar Chalice sat surrounded by other potion ingredients. It was soon filled with the grayish material, and Rosseth swirled the cup around carefully to make sure the sides were completely coated as well. Then, he reached down and pressed a wooden panel with his hoof, a metallic clamp grabbed the chalice and raised it into the air, far above the table and out of reach.

There was only one thing left to do before the full moon rose overhead and activated the final ingredient. King Sombra’s horn fragment, even without the containment unit, had been placed back inside a small glass box on an ironically cute purple ring pillow. Rosseth retrieved the chunk of unicorn and brought it over the cauldron, slowly and carefully placing it on the surface of the thick liquid. A hole opened up in the goop, and the horn sank out of sight into the viscous brew. Green and red rings of mysterious energy radiated from the cauldron and across the floor, wisps of shadow radiated from the pot.

“Just a few more moments, and I’ll be ready to serve at your side,” Rosseth said, addressing the horn, “you’ll bring her down for me in return, I’m sure.”

Flurries of glass spontaneously flew from the other side of the large observation platform, Midnight’s teleportation had accidentally been dropped right on top of one of the glass distilling sets, shattering it instantly and flinging the pieces everywhere. Rosseth winced as broken glass pricked his skin and chipped at the cauldron in front of him. Not a single piece of the annihilated chemistry set remained that wasn’t now flung into the walls of the room, and in its place stood the four stallions that had been hounding the zebra since the beginning.

“Don’t you fools ever give up?!” snapped Rosseth, stepping back, “I did everything to lose you, even cloaking this entire castle. That wasn’t easy, you know!”

“That’s enough Ross,” urged Techorse, stepping forward, “you’ve got to stop running and come back with us. We can help you!”

Rosseth stepped on a nearby floor panel, which sunk in quickly to activate a mechanism, “Techorse, while I appreciate your persistence in trying to ‘save me’, by now you should know I have no intention of changing. Princess Cadance will soon understand just how much of a failure she is once King Sombra’s back! I’ve already placed his horn in this concoction, now all we need...”

The zebra heard a loud click from beneath his hooves and grinned.

“… is a little moonlight!”

The floor panel activated a set of ancient iron gears on the walls, which ground in an ear-shattering cacophony of squeals and groans. A mechanical iris on the roof of the room opened up slowly, moonlight flooded the pitch black room, illuminating everything in the reflected light. The chalice, held aloft by the hoist, was struck by the moonbeams, and the gems around its neck sparkled as the energy flowed into the cup. Princess Luna's ancient artifact had begun to effect its contents, transforming the catalyst within it with pulses of light that flashed into the sky, just as its owner had done centuries ago to complete her own ritual with her servants.

“Rosseth, listen to me,” begged Techorse, “King Sombra won’t reward you for bringing him back! He’ll destroy you for fun once he’s done with the Crystal Empire!”

“You’re so sure your black and white philosophy’s correct, Tech?” he jeered in response.

Flaming Ivory’s eyes sparked with orange, “You bet your black and white flank he does! If you think this crazy little science fair project’s gonna make Cadance pay, you’re crazy!”

“We’ll see about that,” answered Rosseth, running a hoof through his well-groomed mane, “and look at that, we’re almost ready to start! I can see Princess Luna’s cup has started to activate the special ingredient!”

Midnight Blaze was struggling to catch his breath, having stood in the back to recuperate from the difficult task of teleporting four fully grown stallions. His normal breathing returned to him shortly, but he wasn’t able to say what he wanted to. Again his mind was plagued with the voice of his unwanted guest.

“Easy, Midnight… we’re almost there.”

Techorse and Flaming Ivory moved forward, with Shadow Breeze cautiously bringing up the rear. Rosseth laughed as his amulet started to fill the room with his illusions again, identical copies of the potions expert cackling and blocking the path to the chalice, now shining bright white with energy. Techorse drew his laser cannons and moved to engage the crowd, but Midnight had other plans.

“I am so sick of this voice in my head,” he muttered, standing up.

There were enough Rosseths in the room that his annoying, childish laugh could be heard at the volume of a sports stadium crowd.

“I’ve had enough from my father...”

Techorse soon found himself being grabbed, and his guns being pulled down towards the ground to keep them from firing into the cauldron or at the chalice. Midnight waded through the illusions, his horn sparking with flickers of both red and his eyes turquoise hue.

“But I’ve really gotten tired of this stupid zebra and his stupid tricks!”

Flaming Ivory felt his tail get pulled, and he gasped in pain, gritting his teeth while kicking at the horde of artificial soldiers. Shadow got overwhelmed immediately, and was dragged under, the insane laughter continuing all around them. But Midnight had managed to reach the middle of the room, and the point of his horn bore a pure ball of energy, barely maintaining containment. The real Rosseth hadn’t noticed the unicorn’s approach until it was too late, and his eyes widened in horror in time for Midnight to scream and let loose.


A massive explosion rocked the laboratory, Midnight’s horn sending out a ring of energy, blasting each and every one of the illusions and vaporizing them. His friends were tossed in the air like leaves caught in the wind, and Rosseth’s amulet was ripped from his body, the gold chain snapping and flying away. It smacked into the wall, and a massive crack ruptured across the gemstone. Only the cauldron being made of a solid precious metal saved it from being overturned by the force of the blast. Midnight’s eyes were a solid, eerie glowing white.

Rosseth managed to peel himself off of the back wall of the laboratory, and glanced quickly up at the chalice. Without support from the Storm Amulet, he wasn’t going to get very far against the four ponies, even if the other three were still stunned from Midnight’s blast. All he could do was make one last desperate try for his goal since the beginning of his plan.

Techorse rubbed his head with his front hoof, “Midnight, that was amazing! How’d you do that?”

His friend’s eyes finally returned to normal, bringing him back into the moment, “I… I don’t know.”

“Techorse!” shouted Shadow Breeze, interrupting him and making a gesture with his wing, “He’s got the chalice!”

The inventor saw his opponent having grabbed Luna’s precious artifact, and was trying to move to the cauldron to complete the dark ritual. Without much time to come up with another plan, Techorse took aim with his laser cannons and let off a short burst. Yellow bolts struck the zebra’s barrel and neck several times, making his eyes dilate in surprise and forcing a yelp of pain. Several lines of smoke poured from the freshly burnt areas on his body while he stumbled around, the chalice barely staying in the fold of his front leg.

“Ack!” he croaked, “You… you got me, Techorse.”

Techorse felt guilty, having acted out of panic and lack of time to ponder a course of action. Rosseth was growing increasingly weak, his life clearly leaving him slowly while he crept forward towards the four ponies. Too injured to continue, he threw himself next to the cauldron, holding the hoof with the chalice over the mouth of the bubbling cauldron while sitting on his back hooves and looking at the ground. A smokey, damaged cough came from his lungs. Flaming Ivory couldn’t help but a feel a little sorry as well, he didn’t actually want Rosseth to come to an end, and it looked like Shadow Breeze was about to cry at the thought that the hybrid zebra was mortally injured. Only Midnight Blaze seemed to have questions about the dying zebra.

“Tech… please, I… I’m sorry,” Rosseth wheezed, “I’m not going to last much longer. Come here… please.”

“Rosseth, I didn’t mean to!” he cried, galloping up to him, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it!”

The zebra weakly looked up at the stallion, who was clearly in shock at the consequences of his hasty actions.

“It’s ok… we’ve been shooting at each other all week, right?” he chuckled, sputtering with blood in his throat, “I guess this was going to happen eventually, huh?”

“That was a full burst, I shouldn’t have pushed it,” stuttered Techorse, “what’s Cadance going to think!?”

“Don’t worry about her,” Rosseth said, tears running down his cheeks, “there’s… there’s something I want you to know before… well, you know...”

The green stallion’s own eyes began to flood, “What is it, Rosseth?!”

With a healthy smile and a swing of his hoof, the chalice dropped into the mixture inside the cauldron with a delightful splash. Rosseth sighed in blissful relief and addressed him with a truly happy and clearly not dying tone of voice.

“You really are the most gullible hero I’ve ever met.”

Flaming Ivory’s eyes half shut, “Ross, you little scheming...”

Columns of white energy launched from the cauldron, followed by a tremendous blinding fireball of white energy that destroyed the cauldron and the floor beneath them. The laboratory collapsed in a crashing of stone and steel, a ray of light shot into the night sky that could be seen for miles, and the four ponies went blind as they plummeted into the depths of the castle. Techorse felt a mixture of relief, betrayal, and anger as he fell, the last thing stuck in his mind that disgusting smile on Rosseth’s face before he and his friends fell to the floor stories below.

I’m sorry, Princess Luna,” he thought, “I… I failed you.

His misery lasted for a few short seconds before he and his friends reached the cold stone beneath them and were smashed into unconsciousness.

Chapter 22 - The Nightmare Begins

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Chapter 22

Luna’s aura dissipated from her horn as the full moon locked into place overhead against the starry background of the Canterlot night sky. An uneasy look plastered on her face, the alicorn couldn’t help but feel that something had gone horribly wrong. This was the night that her ancient chalice was to activate once more after centuries of being lost, and she had heard no information about its location from the Crystal Empire since she sent Captain Arbiter to investigate. Midnight Blaze’s dream link was still severed, a black void in her magical powers that disturbed her to no end.

A sudden shock of terror and pain ran up from the nerves in her legs to the primal section of her brain, and the princess broke out into a sweat instantly, feeling short of breath. Thoughts that she might be blamed for anything wrought by the chalice’s power filled her mind and invaded her personal peace, making her gasp loudly for air like a fish without water.

“Sister!” cried a voice behind her.

She attempted to turn to address Celestia, who stood behind her on the balcony overlooking Canterlot as well. But her legs refused to obey her central nervous system’s orders, the muscles were locked into place in a bizarre cramp.

LUNA!!” wailed Celestia, sensing the danger and activating her magic quickly.

A field of white and yellow energy surrounded the other princess in swirls of sparks and energy, Celestia felt a dark curse within her sister attempting to corrode her mind. Working quickly, the counterspell’s force tried to destroy the evil one attempting to rob the Princess of the Night of her very sanity. The castle tower behind them was illuminated brightly, and a high-pitched wailing sound echoed against the stone of the building as Princess Luna’s invader was vanquished… for now. Celestia released her protective magic, and her sibling dropped to the ground, her hair ceasing its magical movement.

Multiple guards arrived on the scene, having heard the yelling and loud casting from downstairs. It took just one look seeing Luna collapsed on the ground and out cold to know that something had horribly gone wrong.

MEDIC TO THE EAST TOWER!” bellowed the leader of the response party down into the depths of the castle.

This is rather… comfortable...

Luna jolted awake suddenly, shouting in surprise. The castle medical staff nearly jumped out of their skins from the sudden burst of activity from their patient, but Celestia remained calm. She was laying on top of a large, soft cot in the castle’s infirmary, a well-furnished medical facility made from visually pleasing walls of white stone and rows of rarely-used pieces of medical machinery. This is where the guards were usually treated for injuries or the castle staff could get medicine if they got sick, although thankfully the worst the doctors usually saw was an occasional fall injury down the many, many staircases in the castle’s interiors.

Still groggy and feeling like she had been personally ripped apart by whatever intruder had dared to attack her mental health, Luna’s vision tried to focus on the white blob in front of her. When her retinas finally manged to get their bearings, a clear image of her sister finally formed, and Luna sighed a breath of relief.

“Luna! Oh, you’re awake,” she said, clearly relieved, “you had a sudden panic attack from sort of… outside power. I couldn’t tell what it was, but it’s gone, you don’t have to worry.”

“Celestia,” Luna said softly, “I don’t know what that was, but… I’m sorry. I was thinking about the chalice, and how much evil might come of it, and then suddenly I felt a… presence.”

“I know,” Celestia said, her mind seemed to be going at a fast pace, “Something took advantage of your fears and worries tonight. Perhaps this is why you were so reluctant to raise the moon this evening.”

“Indeed. The chalice’s powers will be at full strength now, though I could not hold up the order of nature for it I suppose.”

The princess felt her eyes start to water a bit, “Oh, Celestia, I’m sorry! I don’t know what to do, this is all my fault! I should have located the chalice myself much earlier, now it’s in the wrong hooves and our poor friends are out trying to get it back!”

“Your majesty, please,” begged a nearby unicorn nurse, giving her a tissue using her magic, “you are still weak, this is no time to beat yourself up!”

Luna accepted the tissue gratefully and dried her eyes, tossing the used tissue in the wastebasket next to her cot. She then picked herself up, and carefully stood on all fours. With a flick of her head, and a bright flash of blue light, her hair began to wave as if in the wind once again.

“I am not weak,” she said, a bit annoyed, “but in the interest of Equestria’s security, we must find out what has happened immediately.”

“Perhaps you should consider visiting Techorse or one of the others in their dreams,” suggested the Princess of the Sun, “if you’re still having trouble reaching Midnight Blaze. What is it about him you find so special, Luna?”

“I’m... not certain,” answered Luna, taken aback by the question, “I simply sensed a connection of some kind. I have faith he’ll bring back the chalice with the help of Techorse. But… something has most certainly gone wrong tonight.”

Celestia wanted her sister be able to relax, knowing she felt responsible for the chalice and its potential abuse. She came up with a plan to help ease her siblings’ worries while at the same time acknowledging the seriousness of the situation.

“If you feel so strongly that something has gone wrong, tomorrow morning we should leave for the Crystal Empire at once,” Celestia declared, “we will find out quickly what’s happened to our friends, and maybe if we’re lucky, the chalice will already be in safe hooves.”

One of the doctors clad in a surgery gown tried to protest, “Princess Luna is no condition to be going anywhere after such an episode!”

“I will be fine,” assured the princess, “it would do me more good to ensure the safety of the Crystal Empire by leaving first thing tomorrow.”

“As you wish,” answered the medical staff member respectfully, bowing and leaving the room.

Once the hospital room was cleared out save for the two royals, Celestia assured her sister things would be ok, and left to make plans with the guards as to who would keep watch while they were gone. Princess Luna returned to her bedchamber upstairs to make preparations for her attempt to contact Techorse, provided he was actually asleep. Climbing onto her soft canopy bed dressed in blue comforters and fancy pillows, she shut her eyes gently, and began her search.

But before she could, she heard a soft, yet goading masculine voice that had not been heard in quite a long time.

I’m back...

Cadance had to explain for yet another time Rosseth’s background and history with her, which was starting to get a bit frustrating. Lighthearted, definitely one of her more feisty subjects, had shown up late at night demanding to be seen, with Captain Arbiter’s blessing. But feeling like it was her duty to fix what she had done to the zebra, she was more than happy to tell the story again. The two mares were enjoying a hot cup of tea together, neither of them intended to get much sleep anyways with the various disasters going on in the Crystal Empire.

“So that striped jerk tricks me into showing him the bank, and he robs the place!” whined the earth pony, holding her teacup firmly in her front hooves, “So you sent the guys who shot down that griffon after him?”

“That’s right, Lighthearted, Techorse and his friends have gone to catch Rosseth,” she answered, nodding, “if they come back with him, you’re welcome to visit him… in prison.”

Lighthearted saw Cadance’s expression go sullen for a second, “Hey… what’s wrong your Highness? You told me he was some kind of an early failure of yours, but… he’s making his own choices even if they’re really dumb. You can’t blame yourself.”

“I… I suppose not,” she answered, looking up, “I’m just sorry he hurt you like this.”

“Well when we catch him, the judge will be the least of his problems,” muttered the disgruntled mare, “he owes me a big apology! Just wish I could help those stallions you sent out.”

“We have no idea where they went,” admitted the princess honestly, making Lighthearted tilt her head in confusion, “they kinda went off on their own really early in the morning and haven’t come back since.”

Cadance watched her set down her teacup and roll her eyes, “I can’t imagine why. Look, would you like me to help you?”

“We appreciate any helping hooves we can get,” said Cadance slowly, surprised at her subject’s gall, “but how are you going to help?”

After taking a deep sigh, Lighthearted reached behind her mane with a hoof and removed the traditional hair ribbon from it. Her mane fell down over her eyes before she pushed it out of the way again.

“Let’s just say I’m kind of used to dealing with stallions like this,” she said, “I’ll bring back Ross and the others.”

“But they went outside the thermal barrier,” explained Cadance, frowning, “it’s way below zero out there right now.”

“It’ll probably have to wait until tomorrow, sure,” she agreed, “but in the meantime, I wanna know why he robbed the bank, anyways. Myself, and the rest of the Crystal Empire deserve to know.”

The alicorn felt her heart jump at the idea, surely her land would fall into chaos again if they heard what Rosseth was going to do. But Lighthearted had let her hair down out of her ribbons, a sign that she was probably ready to hear just about anything.

She frowned, “Lighthearted… if you must know why Rosseth robbed the bank, we believe he might...”

“he might be trying to bring back King Sombra. Even as early as tonight.”

The earth pony fidgeted for a moment, then burst into a healthy laugh, “Princess Cadance, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! He’s been blown to pieces.”

“Rosseth has one of the pieces, his horn,” countered Cadance, “and you’re not the first pony to laugh at the idea… but I really think he might do it, magic responds to the emotions of all living things, Lighthearted. If his hatred for me is really strong enough, it could be done.”

“Then I guess I’m going to have to help with that, too,” she answered, shaking her head sarcastically, “Princess Cadance, there are just some things magic cannot do, right? I wouldn’t know, but… putting back together a pony who was blasted apart?”

“If you don’t believe me, that’s fine,” she answered gently, “but don’t underestimate Rosseth. He’s hurting on the inside, and many evildoers are individuals who got badly hurt.”

Lighthearted took the teacup back in her hooves and drained the contents, “I understand.”

After a long silence followed by the return of the teacup to the tray brought out to the familiar, cozy tea room, Princess Cadance’s subject ended up changing the topic suddenly.

“So what’s it like being married anyways?”

It caught her off guard, “What?”

“Oh, sorry,” sighed Lighthearted, “I was trying to change the subject. Now that I’ve gotten all the information I need about Ross, I find it weird I’m talking to my leader like we’re old school friends. Guess this is what we really wanted in the Empire anyways… a good leader who will listen to us, right?”

Cadance tried to answer the original question, “I try to be a servant to my subjects. But, what was that about being married?”

“Nothing, nothing, you just seem to have everything handled is all between that marriage and running the roost around here,” she said, chuckling and shaking her front hoof, “I’m just being silly like usual.”

Awkward silences and looks brought Cadance to saying, “Oh, well, um… It’s great. A lot of hard work and making it work, but, it’s great.”

“Yeah, I can tell.”

“There’s something wrong, isn’t there?” asked Cadance, raising an eyebrow, “What is it, Lighthearted?”

“Again, it’s nothing!” denied the mare, turning a little red, “I’m just blabbing on because I’m trying to keep my mind off of how that stupid zebra tricked me with his stupid charms, and his stupid tricks! I spent the whole day with that idiot and he goes and robs the bank! Am I right being mad about that?”

Ohhhh, that!” giggled Cadance, playing along, “Well of course. Being tricked by someone you trusted isn’t healthy at all. Do you need me to help you relax? You can spend the night here in the palace if you’re too stressed to go home.”

With the hole already having been dug deep enough, Lighthearted stood up to refuse the offer politely.

“Thank you, but no thank you! I’m fine going home,” she said, “I’ll see myself out. Need to get ready for tomorrow so I can have enough energy to go zebra hunting!”

“Okay, best of luck to you!”

She left the princess sitting by herself on the tea room couch, the door shutting quietly. Once she was absolutely sure she was gone, Cadance’s magic sparked to life, and a small yellow ball of light hovered in front of her face, next to one made of black and white light. Awkwardness, stuttering, denial, redness in the face… all these little factors added up in the Princess’s head to something much, much more than what the earth pony waitress wanted to admit! She moved her horn in a special pattern, and a pink heart surrounded the two spheres of energy.

Hmmmm… could it be that Lighthearted...?

Princess Cadance shook her head, and the energy all vanished into puffs of smoke that dispersed in the air of the tea room.

“No, I’m just overthinking things again!”

Chapter 23 - A King Returns

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Chapter 23

A massive pile of fallen rocks and ceiling tile buried the torn and faded red carpet on the floor of the darkened castle. Dust and debris floated around, the usual leftovers from a collapsed floor in an ancient ruined palace. From the impromptu collection of stone, Flaming Ivory pushed his way out of the pile, dirt and bruises all over his neck and face.

“All right,” he muttered as loudly as he could, “if you’re alive, groan in pain.”

His friends answered with their aching voices, the ponies moving the rubble away so that they could get out. Miraculously they had all survived the fall, the ceiling of the castle’s main hallway was nearly sixty feet tall from the hard, unforgiving floor to the makeshift sunroof created by the magical accident in the laboratory. Pillars of stone supported the side walls for several meters until hitting pitch darkness, but Flaming Ivory could tell the room was quite long.

“Well, guess that’s that then,” sighed the unicorn, shrugging off the fall, “Ross’s science project failed, and the chalice is somewhere in this rock pile.”

Techorse walked out of the stone fragments, battered as well, and peered down the hallway, “Where’s Ross?”

“He’s probably still under the rock,” answered Shadow Breeze, flapping his wings rapidly to get all the dust out, “we’re going to have to dig him out.”

“Well if we’re going to drag him back to Cadance kicking and screaming, let’s start digging,” Midnight Blaze agreed, activating his magic to grab the first rock.

Please, allow me! It is my own abode after all.

The ponies froze, having heard the curious voice in the darkness. It didn’t belong to Rosseth, nor any of them, and they were struck with curiosity, except for Midnight. He recognized the voice immediately, and his blood ran cold with fear.

It was the voice that had been with him the entire journey.

Red magical energy surrounded the stones, Techorse and company jumping out of the way to avoid getting picked up with the destroyed floor as it magically lifted to the high ceiling. Each piece fitted in like a puzzle, and within seconds the entire ceiling had been rebuilt magically. Bright flashes of flame and fire shot from the long hallway, igniting torches and illuminating the room, the stallions covered their eyes quickly as their pupils shrunk from the sudden burst of light.

Now with the hallway well lit, Techorse slowly lowered his hoof from his face and got a good look at what was in front of him.


Rosseth lay on the floor, grumbling about his injuries, but the zebra’s survival so close to the magical blast was hardly the surprise that had Techorse shocked. Just behind him, stood a tall, imposing unicorn stallion with a dark gray coat, a thick and handsome black mane slicked back behind a circlet crown, and heavy armor plating underneath a long red and white royal cloak. Against the depictions of him in books and propaganda, King Sombra bore a handsome face and softer green eyes, although his horn remained curved and tipped with a magma color, and he was still breathing out a purplish haze with each exhale… but even that was growing fainter with each breath.

It smiled at him, his small fangs pushing forward, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Techorse.”

“King Sombra,” growled the inventor, bracing and drawing his laser cannons, “I can’t believe it but, I guess Ross’s plan actually worked.”

“Absolutely,” answered the king, shutting his eyes and nodding gracefully, “Rosseth is a very smart, talented zebra who understands what it means to be seen as an outsider. Your underestimation of his skill was foolish at best, Techorse.”

Rosseth managed to stand up on his hooves and laugh happily at his own accomplishment, “Ah! Your Majesty! I… I did it!”

Sombra dismissed him, “Yes, you did… and I will be happy to reward you handsomely, after I’ve taken care of a few things….”

Shadow Breeze started to shake like a leaf, hiding behind Flaming Ivory even as the musician rolled his eyes in disbelief. King Sombra stepped forward, his size and presence being made known with his armor clanking with each motion of his legs, the cape swishing behind him without aid of air flow.

“Now, each of you has something I want,” he said, his manly voice calm yet ominous, “and I will be a far more gracious stallion if you give it to me without resistance. Of course, I can already see one of you has his weapons drawn. Do you really think you stand a chance?”

“Ha ha, Tech’s lasers go right through armor like a knife through hot butter,” teased Flaming Ivory, “all your smack talk is gonna get you burnt, Sombra!”

The unicorn’s haughtiness stopped, and he felt his mane hair stand up a little when the king reacted with delight rather than anger, “Oh, lasers? That sounds a bit ahead of my time, but… that’s exploding light, correct? What a… wise choice of weapon against the shadows. I’m going to enjoy this, but since my armor won’t help me...”

A loud blast sounded, and most of Sombra’s plating, save for the guards around his hooves blew off, each disappearing in a puff of sinister dark smoke as it hit the walls of the room. More of the king’s gray coat was visible, and his cape appeared to be clasped around his neck similar to another pony Techorse knew….

“Ah, it feels so good to be corporeal again,” chuckled the shadowy royal, “being a phantom can really taint one’s beauty.”

His green eyes moved over Midnight, a twinkle shining in the king’s eye as if to send a message.

“Enjoy it while it lasts,” taunted Flaming Ivory, his eyes glowing orange, “you’re about to face the music!”

“Seriously Flaming?” complained Shadow Breeze, “That was awful.”

“Well, shall we get on with it then?” asked the king, “I’m going to enjoy your efforts to vanquish me!”

The four stallions stood near each other, facing Sombra, with Rosseth looking on from the back with a wicked grin on his face, eager to watch his new ally take down the pesky ponies who had dogged him the whole way to the castle.

“And once you’re out of the way, Cadance will be next!”

Techorse’s guns opened up, spraying bolts of energy into Sombra, who vanished in a vast mist of darkness. The blasts of light dissipated into the fog, failing to explode. It moved around like a whirlwind, absorbing the shots harmlessly, traveling for the center of the hallway lined with tan stone. Sombra then broke the shadowy cover, dropping out and opening up with his own blasts from his horn. Magic energy spat forward in the form of fragmented blasts that resembled hot coals, peppering Techorse with fire and flame. With the excessive heat burning around him, along with the waste heat from firing his weapons, the saddle gave out a sad cry before shutting down to cool, the cannons pointing to the floor helplessly.

“Don’t worry Tech, I’ve got this!” shouted Flaming Ivory, jumping forward, eyes ablaze.

A long string of orange musical notes flowed from his horn at Sombra, striking the ground just before him with a massive chord of noise. He backed off, ceasing the attack on Techorse to turn his attention to Flaming Ivory.

“Ah, musical magic! What kind of musician are you, anyways, having figured out how to weaponize it?” he laughed, another bar of energy just narrowly missing him by inches.

Sombra’s horn accumulated a strong black mist, shortly thereafter launching his own ghostly staff of music at Flaming Ivory’s neon orange magic. The two bars of music collided and dissipated in a blinding flash of light, yet not a single audible effect was heard from the collision.

Flaming Ivory bared his bottom teeth, “My biggest enemy… noise cancellation.”

“Perhaps my love of the classics has taught me how to fight back against an explosive F Sharp, huh?” mocked Sombra, only to be smashed in the barrel by a long blob of cyan plasma.

The burning energy knocked him to the ground, startling Rosseth, who was certain the monarch wouldn’t take even a single hit in the entire battle. Instead, Midnight Blaze, horn still smoldering while he panted heavily, had managed to land a powerful energy blast right into his side. Sombra got back up quickly, and glared over at the sapphire unicorn with a sickening look of joy on his face.

“Very good, Midnight Blaze, but I am not interested in fighting you. We will talk later,” he said, his horn glowing red.

Without thinking to move out of the way, a long beam of red energy struck out, zig-zagging back and forth. Midnight Blaze’s eyes tracked the magical attack, and he attempted to leap out of the way just a bit too late, the energy striking him dead center. The unicorn’s mortal cries were heard for a split second as he vanished in a rapidly shrinking ball of red light.

“NO!!!” screamed Shadow Breeze along with his friends, his eyes widening in horror, “Midnight!”

His legs shook with heavy anxiety, but something inside the timid pegasus snapped wide open at the sight of Midnight being taken so suddenly. Tears streamed across his face, and his voice creaked in terror, but a long tendril of shadow energy came forth from his amulet and started to swirl in a ball of shadow magic growing rapidly in front of him. Techorse and Flaming Ivory looked at each other and backed up a bit as the lightning in the room changed from half of it being blocked out.

Even King Sombra began to get a little hot under the collar as he watched the amulet use his own preferred magic type to do something terrifying. Yelling like a lunatic, Shadow Breeze was standing on his hind hooves, his front ones bent in weakness as he struggled to carry a gigantic shadow bomb eight times the size of the tiny stallion underneath. The long, dark fuse ignited, Shadow Breeze’s brown eyes burning with a hint of yellow.

“AAAAAHH!” shrieked the pegasus like a schoolmare, flying up into the air and throwing the massive sphere of explosives at King Sombra.

The giant bomb planted into the floor in front of him, ruining the floor as it burrowed into the stone with a loud crunch. Its fuse hissed as the summoned object burned close towards detonation, leaving Sombra and Rosseth flabbergasted at the size.

“I’ve… I’ve honestly never seen a Shadow Grenade cast this large before,” marveled Sombra, who found himself being mocked by Shadow, hovering above him with his wings spread out and his left eye twitching.

“HA HA!” laughed Shadow Breeze maniacally, smiling like a lunatic, “Guys, I did it! When that goes off it’ll get rid of Sombra and everything else in the room!”

“And where are we, Shadow Breeze?” asked Flaming Ivory sternly, the concept making the pegasus land on the floor and think about his actions.

The graphite peagsus folded his wings in embarrassment as the realization struck him, “Oh… yeah. The same room.”

Rosseth stepped up to the magical bomb, and licked the frog of his hoof sloppily, ramming it into the burning rope. It defused with a sad crackle, then disintegrated into a fine mist of shadow across the floor.

“I’m sorry,” said Shadow meekly, “I was really scared.”

Techorse felt his saddle come back to life, the laser cannons perking back up, “It’s ok Shadow. I’m a bit scared too, honestly.”

Sombra pushed Rosseth away with a wall of green magical energy, the zebra backed off reluctantly but understood his place. The king had no desire to be rudely interrupted while fighting. He returned to the three remaining ponies, a more cold expression.

“You’re all wasting time,” he said, “I’ve enjoyed seeing the kinds of strategies you have to offer, but you cannot hope to win against the power of the shadows. This is your last chance to give up, before each of you are dispatched.”

Techorse felt the laser cannons slide back into his saddle, and recalled something quite important given the situation. He hadn’t used his last pair of missiles to destroy the chalice, and now that Sombra was unarmored he’d be fairly weak to them. All he had to do was make sure his enemy didn’t see the launch coming. The battle saddle’s doors remained open, and Techorse made sure his last reloads clicked into place on the launchers.

“It doesn’t have to end this way, King Sombra,” he said, “you can come peacefully.”

“Come peacefully? And have that sun-moving nag turn me into a fine powder later? Techorse, I am enjoying being alive far too much,” scoffed the ruler.

“Princess Celestia has been a much better leader since you last saw her,” assured Techorse, “I would know. I met her during a really bad time for Equestria… and she was good to me!”

“I know that,” he answered, “I know everything about you and your friends, Techorse. Midnight told me.”

“Wait… what?” coughed Flaming Ivory.

“I could explain, but it would not do you much good,” said Sombra, maintaining a smirk and shutting his eyes, “unless of course you intend to...”

The loud WOOSH of rocket motors igniting followed by an angry pair of missiles came from Techorse’s saddle, the king having been distracted enough to give him time to launch without being seen. His eyes opened to the pair of rockets headed straight for him with intent to destroy, their owner staring into him with a taste for justice radiating from him. Sombra put all four hooves firmly on the ground, and curled his lips into a patient smile.

“Well played, Techorse.”

A column of fire erupted from where Sombra stood, the explosion turning out to be way larger than Techorse had anticipated, pushing him back and making his mane and tail flap in the sudden air movement. He mashed his eyes shut, the hot and burning wall of fire blinding him, soon replaced with a cool silence as the missiles’ warheads died out.

With the fight being over, he slowly opened his eyes… to the beautiful streets of Canterlot, which startled him. Sure, there was a smoldering crater a few meters away where the evil king had once stood, but now he was clearly back in the city instead of in the castle.

“I guess we won?” he thought aloud, the empty missile launchers retreating into the saddle with the sound of motors.

That didn’t seem right to him, and he sighed, “Or more likely he teleported me to Canterlot… maybe I really am just gullible.”


Techorse turned around and saw a mare, a cyan earth pony with freckles pointing at the burning hole with tears in her eyes.

“You just… blew that guy up! He’s gone!”

“That was King Sombra,” said Techorse calmly, “I didn’t think...”

“King Sombra?! You really ARE a mad scientist,” screamed the mare, “that was just a pickpocket! A thief, but harmless!”

Techorse glanced over the smoldering crater, and saw a small purse resting at the edge of the smoking hole in the ground, along with a soft brown cap that certainly could belong to a petty thief. Had he really just taken things too far?

A squad of royal guards showed up, quickly surrounding the inventor and moving the accusing+ mare away. Techorse watched around him, the citizens of Canterlot angrily pointing at him and shouting terrible things.

“Your machines are too dangerous!”

“All you can do is use weapons to win!”

“You’re just violent! A threat to us all!”

The stallions clad in dark red armor, much different from the usual guards he was used to seeing at the palace, towered over him. Techorse looked around, panicking.

“N.. no! Wait! I didn’t mean to, I was attacking Sombra to save my friends!” he wailed, his greatest horror coming true, “I’m… not a violent colt, I promise!”

“Take him to the back alley,” ordered one of the guards, a dark haze around his eyes, “put him against the wall. You know what to do.”

The brutes snapped the straps off of Tech’s saddle, discarding the machinery in a nearby waste bin, and dragged the green stallion away by force, him protesting with terror in his voice.

“I didn’t mean to hurt anypony!” he wailed, seeming to believe he really had taken innocent life, “I’ll give up making weapons, I promise!”

He was dragged into a dark, dreary alleyway lined with miserable faded bricks, gloomy for Canterlot at least. The faceless, armored stallions threw him into the back, three stone walls surrounding him with no way out. With no place to run, Techorse’s ears sunk back and his eyes ran with tears. All there was around him were the unforgiving bricks, and the equally unforgiving stallions who stood in front of him, their eyes and expressions obscured by their dark helmets.

“No… please!”

Mechanical sounds of armor moving reached his ears, as loaded crossbows emerged from the sides of the guards, aimed right for him.


A hail of crossbow bolts flew into the back of the alleyway.

Techorse’s painful and terrified scream rang out through Canterlot, followed by the tragic, much softer noise of an earth pony hitting the cold concrete.

Just a few meters away, Sombra, Rosseth, and Midnight Blaze sat in a thin bubble of red energy, watching the gruesome events unfold. Midnight yelled, banging his hooves against the force field, but his legs were chained with magical energy to the floor of the bubble.

“Sombra, you’ll pay for this!” he shouted, turning and growling at the king like a rabid dog, “I’ll do a hundred times what the Heart did to you!”

“Easy, Midnight Blaze,” said the ruler teasingly, “I’m only acting out of self defense. You all attacked me, and while I can forgive you, I cannot say the same for your friends. They must pay the price.”

“And what a fitting price Techorse paid,” snickered Rosseth, “that is not gonna be an open casket service!”

“You’re starting to bother even myself, Rosseth,” sighed Sombra.

“Please stop this,” begged Midnight, shedding his own tears, “take me instead, Sombra!”

“I already have you, Midnight, and I’m not going to hurt you, I promise,” he answered, “now, let’s finish punishing your insubordinate companions.”

The scenery around them swirled away into a dark void, quickly replaced with the setting of a dense jungle, Flaming Ivory pushing through the heavy trees of the dense forest, a trusty machete clutched in his orange aura as he hacked through the vines stopping him.

“Lousy Sombra, we hit him with one spell and he banishes me to this jungle,” he groaned, continuing to cut through, “this is probably the same one we saw in the valley too, lazy moron.”

He chopped through another set of plants effortlessly and entered a serene lake area with a few cattails poking out from the surface, frogs and insects abound. Flaming felt a little bit thirsty, and lowered his neck to the waterline, taking a nice refreshing sip of cold lake water.

“Much better,” he said, wiping his mouth of the extra water.

A rather large green insect, something of a hybrid between a beetle and a flying ant, hovered nearby, spooking the musician.

“Hey!” he shouted, jumping back and swatting at the bug with his hoof, “Get outta here! I hate bugs!”

It left him alone as requested, dodging his hoof and flying off with the loud buzz of wings beating. The sounds of the lake had gone quiet otherwise, a warning he should have heeded.

“Ugh...” he groaned, “bugs...”

The bushes near the lake vibrated suddenly, Flaming Ivory looked around at the plants rustling. Out of the bushes flew dozens of the same giant insect, forming a cloud over him.

“OH CELESTIA WHY?!?” he screamed as the beetles all dove on top of him.

Flaming Ivory got out a very short lived cry as the bugs covered every last square inch of his body, cut out with a soft gurgle.

“That’s horrible...” whispered a defeated Midnight Blaze, “Flaming… I’m sorry.”

“Flaming Ivory was scared of bugs? What a wimp,” scoffed King Sombra, “Perhaps Shadow Breeze will have something more interesting for us.”

Again, the jungle zoomed out of view of the red energy sphere, this time replaced by the inside of what appeared to be another grand castle. Shadow Breeze was sitting at a very long boardroom table in the stone confines of the fortress, but this castle had many pleasant marble statues carved in the shape of great warriors. He had been training to be a diplomat for a long time, and was being given the opportunity to establish peace with a foreign nation. These strange people looked like somewhat hunched over wolves, albeit with somewhat friendly faces and reasonably sized teeth. The Queen of the land, a white-furred she-wolf with pleasant blue eyes, sat on the other side of the table.

“Shadow Breeze of Equestria,” she said, filing her nails, “why are you here today, bothering me, Accalia the queen of the Lightfang Clan?”

“Well, your Highness,” the happy pegasus said as he pushed forward a scroll, “I’d like to propose a trade route. We’d like to have some of your blue granite supplies in exchange for something else you might need.”

The queen’s guards, four of the strongest black-furred soldiers Shadow had ever seen, held mighty iron great swords in their front paws, bronze armor on their chests, and wore sandals on their digitigrade feet. Yet for some reason their size and muscular might just didn’t bother the pegasus one bit.

“What could I possibly need from Equestria?” the queen sighed, “You don’t export a single thing we could possible use.”

“I… I can think of something, I’m sure,” Shadow Breeze answered, a little saddened.

She lost her patience, setting the file down and addressing him directly, “Look, we’re just not interested in an alliance, and frankly… I believe you being here is trespassing and a violation of our sacred reverence to this castle.”

“But we have...”

“What?” she growled, baring her fangs, “There is nothing you have we want! You ponies make shovels while we make swords. You make jewelry while we make steel. You eat plants while we eat… meat.”

The queen’s sinister growls frightened Shadow Breeze, “Tell me, Shadow Breeze… does Equestria have any meat?”

“N… No m’am,” he whimpered.

Her red-painted nails dug into the table while she smiled wickedly, “Oh but I think you do… I’d love to see it. Guards, show him what I mean. Then send their precious princess a declaration of WAR!

“Wait! NO!” cried Shadow Breeze, standing up from the table, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to insult you!”

The four guards were already on top of him, and the screaming pegasus was dragged over to a nearby stage constructed out of stone, where he was shackled. A massive piece of granite hovered above, tied to the ceiling by a rope.

“Goodbye Mr. Breeze,” said the queen teasingly, waving with her fingers, “your nation will soon provide plenty of meat for the Lightfang Clan!”


Shadow Breeze screamed in terror as the guard slashed the rope holding the stone above him. His yells were suddenly cut short, the same as his friends and the laughter of the wolf people echoed throughout the castle.

“Why?” he cried softly, “They’re all dead because of you! What did they do to deserve all this?!”

King Sombra lifted up Midnight Blaze’s head with a hoof, “Dead?”

Stepping aside, the bubble faded out of existence, restoring the surrounding area. To Midnight’s surprise, they were all now back in the castle, and his three friends were alive. However, each of them lay on the floor, foaming at the mouth, with a green haze over their eyes and red rings of energy coursing over their corneas.

“They’re okay?!” shouted Midnight and Rosseth, one disappointed and the other very happy.

The king sighed, “Yes, of course they’re alive and well. My strategy for victory for the past millennium, thank you, has been to exploit the greatest fear of every pony. What good is a dead slave, Midnight Blaze? They have paid for their arrogance against me now, and will be on their hooves again shortly.”

“You… you made them all experience the feeling of dying in the worst possible ways, just to yank them back out again,” said Midnight, terrified, “I… that’s the worst thing I can imagine you could do to somepony. No wonder the princesses wanted to eradicate you.”

Techorse felt himself snap back to reality, sensing his own body again and feeling relieved at the fact he still had a blood supply that stayed in him where it belonged! Likewise Flaming Ivory was glad to have flesh, and Shadow Breeze was more than eager to learn that he hadn’t been turned into a breakfast sausage from a negotiation gone wrong. Despite the relief and happiness to be alive, when the three stallions stood up, they were still feeling heavy dread in their hearts and could barely stumble over near Sombra.

“Sombra… we surrender,” said Shadow Breeze, crying again, “please go easy on us!”

“I am finished with you three,” he said, “but now, I must address Midnight.”

The king turned to the blue unicorn slowly, his friends helpless to do anything. Midnight Blaze stood up strong, straight and tall, accepting any punishment Sombra had for him. The scenarios all ran through his mind, though his worst fear was something he had accepted a while ago, Sombra would find some way to spin it into a lethal nightmare… he just knew it.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to say to you since this all began,” he said sternly.

Midnight refused to move, having just been forced to witness his friends meeting horrible fates in a magical simulation, he was ready for anything. The king’s eyes burned into his own, seemingly scanning his very soul.

Sombra stood there, cape fluttering for a few moments, before his eyes softened and he… hugged him in the warmest embrace he’d felt in a while.

“Welcome home, my son!”

Chapter 24 - Grains of the Past

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Chapter 24

1,000 Years Prior…

What a miracle the Crystal Empire had been. For over two centuries, the residents of the realm had worked hard to bring the beauty of the outside world to the frozen north of the world. No ponies had ever even bothered before with the permafrost… and there were rumors windigos would devour any who even managed to start a settlement. Yet here, against all odds, a humble farming community had managed to take root around the massive crystal spire that pointed towards the break in the cloud cover over the tundra wasteland. Fields were being tilled in the ancient town by skilled earth ponies, pegasus blacksmiths and craftsmen created all the tools and armors they could ever need, and the unicorns managed their generous supply of the almighty energy crystal. Perhaps soon, their wealth and success would even make Equestria jealous!

One of the largest farms in the country, perhaps its oldest, was built over almost the entire eastern section of the empire, so far that the gates ended just a mile from the palace grounds. The fertile soil and bright southern exposure made the land perfect for farming grain, just as its owner, the wise old farmer Fall Barley predicted. A gentle and compassionate earth pony stallion, the elderly laborer with a mane of gray and coat of blue smiled as he looked at the tall blades of wheat that covered his property. The golden sea of grain was getting close to being ready to cut down with his vast collection of sickles passed down to him by his own father. Yet, neither the delectable grain nor his collection of the best tools bits could buy was his true prize in life.

His old eyes moved over to what really mattered to him, his own daughter, Autumn Wheat. His last remaining family member, and his only foal… the lovely mare who would carry on the legacy and tradition of the oldest farm in the Crystal Empire. Her coat was as white as the finest alabaster, and her wild mane of Amethyst with layers of royal purple flowed behind her… as much as her hair ribbons allowed that was. It made Barley’s heart swell with pride to see his daughter so interested in agriculture as himself, and he couldn’t help but smile as he watched her sharp robin’s egg blue eyes dart back and forth towards the ground, searching for any weeds that might be sapping off the crop.

“I think we’ve gotten them all, honey bunch,” he laughed coarsely, his age starting to damage his voice, “there ain’t much left for us to do until after we’ve cut it all down.”

“I know daddy, I’m just… well, I want this to be the best harvest we’ve ever had,” she said, a bit morosely, “it’ll be the first one… without mom.”

Fall Barely walked up to his daughter, careful to crush as little of the tall grain as possible, “Aw, Autumn, I know you miss her so much… so do I. But you know, love is what’s kept this Empire and our crop alive. We should be happy remembering her.”

“I guess,” answered his daughter, shedding a few tears, “I just feel so alone!”

“Well, you’re getting older,” answered the kind farmer, smiling, “do you think maybe it’s time you started making eyes at the stallions?”

“Oh dad!” she laughed, pushing him away and choking on her previous tears, “Come on. I’m not putting anything off.”

“When you feel ready, kiddo,” he answered, a twinkle in his eye, “but hey, since we are all done here with the crop for today, you should go have fun with your friends anyways. I’ll have supper on by the time you get back.”

“All right,” Autumn Wheat responded, smiling, “I’ll bring something home for ya.”

Barley smiled, his wrinkled face still showing the joy he held instead, “I’d love that. Have a good time, sweetie.”

After carefully leaving the field of grain belonging to her family, Autumn trotted happily down the country path towards the still-growing village near the Crystal Palace. She had planned on bringing her father home some nice flowers cut from a friend’s garden. They had all been very supportive of her recovery since the loss of her mother, and would likely be willing to part with some extra roses or lilies to keep their house fresh.

The dirt path was lined with tall bushes growing fresh raspberries, which of course attracted some of the sweetest songbirds on the planet. High above, the thermal barrier projected by the Crystal Heart made the existence of everything below possible, and sometimes Autumn Wheat couldn’t help but stare at it in wonder.

A rustling came from one of the bushes ahead, making her stop and stare at the shaking plant. Being cautious about ambushes on the way to the market as her dad had warned her since foalhood, the earth pony prepared herself just in case she needed to attack.

Lowering her head and scraping her hoof, she shouted, “Come on out of there, you!”

“Easy, I don’t mean any trouble,” came a gentle, masculine voice.

The bush parted, and out stepped a graphite-coated unicorn pony, with slicked back hair as black as the night sky. His jade green eyes met hers while he exited the bush, but what struck Autumn Wheat the most about her new “guest” was his cutie mark, a cluster of red crystals in a dark black rock.

“Hey!” she said, “You’re one of those Shadow Ponies!”

For a year now, the Crystal Empire had been receiving visits from bands of ponies outside the thermal barrier. Not Equestrians, for they were odd in that they all had the same exact style of cutie mark, clusters of crystals of a different color. In addition, the majority of their kind had coats of various shades of gray and black, which ironically was contrasted starkly by their social and outgoing behavior when they visited the empire.

Every few weeks, a large group of the foreigners would arrive outside the barrier, asking for entry so that they could trade with the locals. Some of the wealthier residents were not too thrilled with the idea given their dark appearance and lack of totally unique cutie marks, but the Shadow Ponies always seemed to have cartloads of magical tools and vanity items that the Crystal Empire sorely desired. As a result, these humble outsiders were permitted entry just to trade with the locals, although they strangely never sent a single political representative to establish anything permanent.

“What are you doing here?” Autumn Wheat demanded to know, “You’re trespassing on private land!”

“I know, and I’m sorry,” he answered, “I wanted to know what life is like inside the Crystal Empire! It’s so beautiful here!”

A bit stunned, she raised her head and asked curiously, “What about your home? Isn’t it pretty there, too?”

“It’s nothing like here,” answered the stallion honestly, his eyes scanning over every inch of her body, “we’ve got farmland like this, and thick forests, but… mostly just huge crystals. I find it rather boring outside our city.”

Autumn Wheat could see his embarrassment over having been caught going through the bushes, and the fact that his graphite colored coat was turning a bit red.

“You liar,” she scoffed, smirking at him, “I think you find something else pretty here!”

He cleared his throat and answered meekly, “Well, I suppose I do, Autumn Wheat. You Crystal Ponies are so beautiful, with your colorful coats and unique flank markings. All we have are different colored eyes, crystals, and hair… if we’re lucky.”

“Hey, how’d you know my name!?” she asked, startled that she might be getting stalked.

“Oh!” he gasped, “I may have spent some time with your friends before I, um… came here. I have something for you.“

She raised an eyebrow, “Ya do?”

Reaching into a bag tied around his waist with his aura of magic, the unicorn nodded, “Yes, here you are...”

Out of the bag came a small silver box with a drum on the top, small bumps covering it. A large key stuck out of the side, and a comb of sorts sat at the base right where the bumps would meet the tongs. Winding the key, the mysterious stallion set the box down on the road in front of the mare, and slowly the drum turned. As the bumps hit the tongs, a peaceful, relaxing tune played for the mare, who recognized it instantly. It was Goodnight My Joyful Foal, an ancient lullaby passed on from bard to bard from Equestria to within the Empire.

But for Autumn Wheat, the history of the song meant so much more, “My stars… this is the song… my mother used to sing for me at night, when I was a filly,” she said slowly, tears coming to her eyes, “how did… how did you know?”

“As I said, your friend, Pearl Bow, told me everything,” he answered gently, “you have such wonderful friends, Autumn Wheat.”

“I know,” she answered, “I… I can’t thank you enough for this gift, stranger.”

“Sombra...” he answered, smiling, “my name is Sombra. I must be honest, with you, Autumn. When I first came here to the Crystal Empire, I saw you in the town square, and I knew I had to meet with you.”

“That’s a bit strange,” she answered, blushing a bit.

“Perhaps, but of all the mares I’ve, um, gotten to know,” he continued, starting to sweat a bit, “you are perhaps the most beautiful, and the most hard working!”

“So all of this just to win my heart, huh?” she asked, standing firm and cold.

Sombra took a deep breath and answered, “Yes. I have developed feelings for you.”

To his surprise, she loosened up and batted her eyelashes at him, “You sure do talk funny. But ya know something? If my friends like you, and you went to all this trouble just to give me something that reminds me of mom… well, you’re worth something!”

Autumn Wheat tucked the music box into her own saddlebag, eager to show it to her father later. She then moved in close to the Shadow Pony, her eyes half shut, and Sombra moved in himself, expecting the most sweet of affections. Unfortunately, she stopped short and brushed off something from his coat.

“You had a raspberry thorn stuck in ya,” she laughed.

Sombra gave her a look of disgust, but Autumn Wheat winked at him, non-verbally asking him to follow her into town. Rolling his eyes, and wondering why he’d decided to fall for such a silly mare, he gave a disgusted snort and trotted to catch up with her.

Daddy’s gonna have my hide for this,” she thought, “I’ve got something for a foreigner!

She brought him to the center of town, then just a sprawling village of stone walls and thatch roofs, the marketplace near the palace bustling with activity as the local farmers sold their wares to each other and prepared what they couldn’t sell for shipping outside the empire. Sombra made sure to smile at his kin whenever he saw another Shadow Pony, some his closest friends gave him a nod of approval seeing him with such a beautiful local mare.

“Your kind are so unique,” she said to him, “I never even knew there’d be ponies out there with the same cutie mark! Don’t you all have different talents?”

“We do,” he answered smoothly, “but there are many more things about us you have yet to learn. I’m sure I could tell you, if you’d be willing to tell me a little more about… this land.”

Autumn didn’t follow, “Huh?”

“The story of The Crystal Empire? How this magnificent palace was built?” Sombra asked, smiling as he lifted his head, getting a fantastic view of the Crystal Palace, light radiating from the massive tower’s center.

“I’d love to tell ya the legend of how we came here!” she laughed, “It’ll be the perfect thing to talk about at the little tea house we’re goin’ to.”

When they arrived at the cozy shop, just a simple place with a few wooden tables set outside, Miss Wheat was greeted by the local tea farmer. She looked a little concerned about the presence of the foreigner at her shop, but Autumn had been a long-time consumer of her teas, and was reassured quite thoroughly that Sombra was harmless. Soon the two of them were sitting down comfortably at the wooden table, sipping on a nice minty brew with the town life moving around them. A few of Autumn’s friends passed by, and the other mares, dressed in their traditional bows and gowns, giggled as they knew their plan to get the two ponies together had worked.

Sombra couldn’t help but wave in thanks, and returned his attention to the cup of tea in front of him. Using his magic, he took a long sip from the chipped clay cup.

“So how’d you meet my friends anyways?” she asked curiously.

He responded, “Well, when I spotted you in the marketplace first, you were brushing your hair by the public well. I was told to kindly keep my tongue from hanging out of my mouth by your best friend, Sashes Bright.”

“Yup, that’s Sashes all right. Any stallion who’s ever had something for me has had to talk to her first,” she sighed, shaking her head.

“I’m sure she only meant well,” he answered, “but a lot like the music box I crafted for you, I made her a gift as well. A set of fine combs carved from the crystal of my homeland. As you can imagine, she was very grateful for it.”

You made those for her? She was bragging yesterday about a strong, handsome gentlecolt who gave ‘em to her,” added Autumn, feeling a warm sensation in her heart, “she said she’d… introduce us.”

“Perhaps hiding in the bushes was the least polite way to do it, but your other closest companion, Thistle Whims suggested that,” he chuckled, taking another swig, “you have the most endearing friends, truly, Autumn Wheat. I hope she enjoys that light rune I made for her, she did complain about her inability to find her way around at night, after all.”

His complex language, his smooth voice, his great hair and kindness to her friends… Autumn felt as if there really was quite a lot to this stallion. Maybe her daddy wouldn’t want to bury him in the fields after all!

Sombra caught her staring into his green eyes and smirked, “Is something wrong?”

“So um, the story of the Crystal Empire!” she said slowly, blushing brightly, “Sorry, I was trying to think of it.”

She began her story after clearing her throat, “Well it’s kind of a legend, but… long ago… there was a beautiful unicorn princess named Agape Crystalline, a pony who loved everyone unconditionally no matter what they looked liked or who they were...”

The princess led a small kingdom of faithful ponies who dug for their magical crystals in the mountains. Every day, they left their home in the south and braved the horrible cold to mine in the north. It was sometimes very dangerous, and princess Agape spent a lot of her time healing the frostbitten.

Sombra leaned in, staring into the deep allure of her eyes while she went on with the lore of her homeland.

...and one day, the princess found a shy, but dutiful stallion who fought with the same love and passion she did to ease the pains of her ponies. They married, and had a single daughter and son. The son’s name was a royal name, quite hard to understand, but it meant Brotherly Love.

One day… a very evil sorcerer with the head of a goat came, and challenged the Crystal Ponies. They fought back bravely and won, but Brotherly Love was struck by the sorcerer, turned forever into a pillar of crystal. The prince and princess, along with their surviving daughter, were left in grief.

Sombra wasn’t sure a lot of it was true necessarily, but the passion with which Autumn spoke made him feel even stronger about his love for her.

The pillar lasted for a few days, buried in flowers for the lost prince. But one day, when they returned, the pillar had vanished, replaced by a large cut crystal in the shape of a heart. Filled with magical power, perhaps the spirit of the lost Prince itself… the Heart began to act on its own, cutting a path of warmth through the frozen north. The Crystal Ponies followed the magical heart, until it came to rest near the mountains, where in a blaze of light and magic it formed the land you see here!

Autumn noticed her “date” was dozing off a bit, “SOMBRA!

“AHHH!” he shouted, jumping up a bit, “I’m terribly sorry, Autumn… I was, staring at the palace. Where the Heart is now.”

“Oh!” she answered, looking back over her own shoulder, “Yeah, forgot about that. The Palace was built as a place to protect the Heart and let its power be shared across the entire Empire! Course, I dunno if there ever really was a Prince Brotherly Love or anything like that. But we came here in the cold with that magic Heart, and it made it a great place to live!”

“Indeed,” agreed Sombra, aiming to butter her up, “and it has helped to raise some of the most loving, understanding ponies I have ever met. Including you, Autumn Wheat. Such beauty and love comes from you, such passion into your grain. Will you...”

He felt her hoof pushed against his lips, silencing him. Sombra’s heart burst with joy, knowing she would agree to what he was going to say next, but not wanting to make a big deal out of it.

“Woah, um, Sombra… I think I need you to at least meet my daddy first before it gets all serious,” she answered, cheeks turning red, “I’ll… I’ll definitely want to see you again though, tomorrow! Please wait for me!”

She got up from the table and left, feeling happy and very much in love on the inside. But despite the time she lived in, there were still a few formalities and customs to go through, at least concerning her dad.

Sombra, on the other hand, reclined back in his seat and whispered, “I… I’ve finally found a mare I can call my own.”

Across from him, walking down the street, moving the commoners out of the way, was a powerful aristocrat by the name of Lattice. Her curled, bouncy hairdo of white and light blue held up with bright orange head ribbons stopped moving as she did, having heard what that disgusting stallion had just said about one of her citizens. The mare’s bright pink coat seemed to clash with her mane and long tail held in place with yet another ribbon, but her purple eyes really completed the mess of colors she was. Although the Crystal Empire lacked a princess at the moment, she considered herself to be the de facto one given her wealth and influence in the city council.

And unfortunately, she wasn’t nearly as loving or understanding as her predecessors.

That foreigner just tried to court Miss Autumn Wheat?!?!” she thought to herself, “Those Shadow Ponies are trouble, I just know it! They must be dealt with before they start mingling with the Crystal Pony bloodline!

With hate in her heart, she felt the warmth of a ray aimed at her from inside the spire. Ignoring it with the assumption it was just the hot afternoon sun, her wicked mind began concocting a plan to deal with her hated enemy, and she refused to look at the “ugly” Sombra any longer as she trotted back for the Palace.

Sombra took notice of the rich mare, and felt a twinge of anger, having picked up on her disgust from even that distance. Perhaps the majority of the Crystal Ponies would never accept his kind, but he was determined to succeed no matter what the odds were.

“I will wait for you, Autumn Wheat,” he resolved, standing up from the table, “tomorrow we will meet again. I don’t care what others think of us, we will make this work, together! It is what your Empire stands for...”


Chapter 25 - Adopted by Darkness

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Chapter 25

Flaming Ivory grunted and struggled against Rosseth, but the zebra was able to succeed at his task of disabling the unicorn. A magical ring made of platinum and engraved with various cursed symbols had been clamped around the base of his horn, one of the most powerful and expensive inhibitors available on only the most illegal of markets. The poor musician couldn’t even get a single spark to fly from himself whenever he tried to cast a spell. Midnight looked at his three friends from Sombra’s side, all of them stripped of their gear. Shadow’s amulet had been confiscated, and Techorse’s battle saddle had been gutted, the laser cannons, helicopter blades, and empty missile racks left on the floor along with the nuts and bolts that held them in place normally in the machine. Rosseth seemed to have enjoyed every moment of taking away their weapons and equipment, humming a song he didn’t recognize as he disarmed them.

“And now with their weapons and magic gone, Midnight, they belong to you my son,” Sombra said, a pleased expression on his face.

“How come you see me as your son?” asked the unicorn, still unsure why the thousand year old King of Shadows was claiming him as his own, “I… I don’t think we’re really related, Sombra. We don’t even look much alike.”

“Oh but we very much are,” chuckled the ruler, his green eyes flashing red momentarily, “long ago, I fell in love with a beautiful crystal mare named Autumn Wheat. Before the Crystal Empire was concealed by my final act against Equestria, I suppose she managed to escape… with my son or daughter firmly in her tummy.”

Shadow Breeze wretched as if about to vomit, making the zebra hybrid near him hiss, “Show a little respect, Shadow Breeze! King Sombra holds your fate in his hooves.”

“Rosseth, please,” Sombra answered softly, throwing his flowing red cape over his other shoulder, “Shadow Breeze may not be aware of it, but Autumn was very much willing to choose me… and although I never met our foal, they were quite successful carrying on my line! The line of the Shadow Ponies.”

“And you’re saying I’m somehow… one of your descendants from that line?!” gasped Midnight.

“Never,” growled Techorse, “Midnight’s nothing like you Sombra. He’s self-controlled, nonviolent, and wouldn’t take advantage of others!”

The king seemed to enjoy Techorse’s bold rebuking, “Ahhh, but Techorse, don’t you remember just who is related to your loyal friend Midnight?”

He walked closer, his black mane following him, and his armor gently rattling,

“A certain detective with a penchant for brutality?”

“A one-eyed swordspony with a taste for young mares?”

The larger pony put his face right in front of the inventor’s, mocking him openly, “I know you remember both of them. You’ve had your conflicts with each of them, because they exhibit the traits of true Shadow Ponies. Strength! Power! The ability to take what you want merely because you desire it.”

“What is it you want with me, Sombra?” Midnight asked, scraping his hoof angrily on the ground, “To pretend you’re my parent?”

Great patience seemed to come from the ancient dictator, as Sombra turned around. Yet Techorse could feel the air around him get mysteriously colder, as if the anger was being forced to go someplace else.

“Honestly my child, I am not looking to satisfy a hole in my life, I’ve done more than most ponies get to do across their lifetime already,” answered the king with a pretentious shake of his head, “I just know that eventually, this will all come to an end… and I need a successor to carry on my legacy. At the very least, being a specter shattered by the Crystal Heart has taught me that perhaps I am not as permanent as I thought I was.”

“Why not pick my uncle or dad then?” complained Midnight, raising a hoof in defiance, “They’re both way better at… taking control.”

“Ah, but Arbiter Axechop was redeemed by your best buddy Techorse,” explained Sombra, continuing with his intelligent, mocking tone, “and your father has already chosen a nice wife and had you, and your brother! I was looking for the freshest blood in the family line… and a stallion whose personality and capabilities most closely matched my own. Now is the time to take back what belongs to our clan.”

Midnight snapped back, “I am NOTHING like you, and I will never help you conquer the Crystal Empire!”

The ruler’s cape stopped flowing, and sank to the floor magically, Sombra’s smile disappearing.

“You… won’t join me?”

Rosseth turned to the other three ponies in the back of the room watching on, and drew a striped hoof across his neck while making a harsh, grisly noise with his tongue and saliva. Now the king was going to become furious, and turn them all into magically-irradiated piles of ash!

“That’s right, your Majesty!” shouted Rosseth, laughing “you four morons can’t just...”

King Sombra’s horn flashed red, and Rosseth vanished in a puff of smoke, Flaming Ivory and Shadow Breeze gasping loudly in horror.

“Oh relax, I’ve magically sent him to his quarters, where he’ll be kept quiet,” muttered the king, turning around “he’s an idiot… but he’s useful. As for the three of you, I already have what I want from you, and Midnight has no intention of cooperating right now.... so you will no longer be necessary.”

The curved, lava-colored horn started to glow bright red, charging up a spell that was perhaps best left unspoken of in nature. Maybe Rosseth was going to get his wish after all...

Shadow Breeze’s eyes started to water, “P… Please have mercy on us!”

Midnight Blaze could only watch as his friends were about to be put down, conflict tore at his heart.

He finally burst out in defeat, “Wait! Sombra, please… I’ll be your son, if you don’t hurt my friends.”

“That’s all I wanted to hear,” he answered, chuckling as the magic dissipated, “we’ll find good places for them, I promise.”

Midnight knew he was going to say that, having had a long history of owning other ponies for labor. But clearly, the king required him for some kind of a plan for retaking the Crystal Empire, and he therefore had a good bargaining chip to prevent abuse of his friends or the destruction of the city.

“Hang on, Sombra, that doesn’t mean there won’t be any conditions to this,” growled Midnight, stepping forward, “I’ll be your adopted son and I’ll help you with whatever it is you’re up to… but my friends can’t be slaves, and you’re not allowed to attack the Crystal Empire yourself!”

He felt his heart sink in fear when he saw Sombra nod in agreement, as if the conditions were nothing but minor annoyances, “Well of course. There’s room for willing servants in this world too, Midnight, and conditioning you to be the ruler of the Crystal Empire is exactly why I want to be your father.”

Midnight’s friends seemed relieved they weren’t being disposed of, but still felt a bit of terror when Sombra turned around and made eye contact with them.

“Therefore, Techorse will be your head scientist, Shadow Breeze your diplomat, and Flaming Ivory your court composer,” he said, giving them each a role, “and I have assignments for each of you to make sure Prince Midnight’s needs are seen to. Now then, we will need some help, since this massive palace is quite hard to run on just three servants.”

“No slaves, Sombra!” warned Midnight.

“You know me too well,” he laughed, “Midnight, I have other means of creating help, follow me once I have dismissed your friends, and I will explain there. Shadow and Flaming Ivory should go their quarters immediately.”

“Where are they?” asked Shadow Breeze, hoping to get out of the room as soon as possible.

He felt a sharp, burning feeling in his mind as Sombra implanted the knowledge in his head forcibly, almost making Shadow cry out in pain. Now there was a map of a castle where his memory of his last weekend should have been…

“Ouch...” said Flaming Ivory, rubbing his forehead with his hoof, “Could have just told us, you know...”

Get going.”

“Yes sir!” cried Shadow Breeze, grabbing Flaming Ivory by the barrel with his wing and hauling them both out of there as fast as he could.

“Techorse, I want to speak with you in private,” said Sombra, “there’s a laboratory at the back of the main castle floor, should be quite easy to find… unless you’d also like a map?”

“No thanks,” laughed Techorse nervously, “I can find it myself. Do you want me to start setting up the lab equipment?”

“Whatever you feel is best, you’re the mechanically inclined one here,” Sombra answered in a bored tone.

Techorse walked up to Midnight, trading him a casual glance that indicated he had done the right thing. They were stuck for a while, but all four of them were alive and not slaves under mind control by the king. Midnight just hoped that he had truly done the right thing by agreeing to work with Sombra. He still wasn’t sure why he was wanted as a son and successor, but he knew he’d have to play along. Princess Cadance had tried so hard to help him with his family problem, that he felt obligated to help her in return… by stalling King Sombra.

“Midnight, please, follow me,” said his new father, smiling, “I really want to show you this, my son.”

Still feeling a twinge of regret for choosing him, Midnight sighed, and followed the king into the lit depths of the castle.

It was dark, gloomy, and damp inside the bowels of the castle, cobwebs flung in every corner from age and water running down a portion of the basement stairs.

“You’ll have to excuse the… untidiness of my home,” Sombra joked, his horn glowing to provide some light during their decent, “a castle unused for a thousand years often needs a few renovations to feel like home again.”

When they reached the bottom of the stone staircase, they were cloaked in complete darkness, but Midnight could sense the room they were occupying had to be large and crowded. There was an eerie silence and a feeling of a high ceiling that gave away the massiveness of the area underneath the castle.

“Welcome to the forge, Midnight!”

A ball of light shot from Sombra’s horn, and bounced from location to location on the walls, lighting torches and activating aging arcane light fixtures that illuminated the area. It was a titanic square room with a high-vaulted ceiling, made of the same tan bricks clad with banners of Sombra’s logo tattered from age, Midnight and Sombra stood on a balcony over the area and looked down into the depths of the workshop.

A massive furnace made of rusted steel was pressed up against the back of the room, its chimney extending to the ceiling, and the giant gear that crossed the entire length of the castle intersected the back of it. Mazes of heavy tubes and pipes ran across the walls and through the ceiling tiles, color-coded though the paint had chipped. Swinging his magical energy around the room, Sombra’s banners started to repair themselves, the stitches rapidly changing color from black tot blue as his logo was quickly replaced by one of Midnight’s cutie mark.

The furnace was quickly cleansed of rust with what Midnight figured was an easy spell for Sombra, and red aura covered almost every object in the room as the king cleaned it up, just as he had done for the hallways upstairs. Every spiderweb and speck of dust was removed, every rust stain had been scoured off of the steel. Midnight saw below him series of tables littered with hundreds of magical components and parts needed to make tools, from energy crystals to conduits!

“What is this?!” he marveled, a bright, happy look coming over his face.

“I knew you’d like it,” Sombra said, his green eyes lighting up, “this was my workshop, Midnight… I want you to have it.”

“Why would you have this workshop in the first place?” he asked curiously, “I thought you were a king too busy ruling over the Crystal Empire.”

“Well where did you think you got your talent for making magical tools from?” the large graphite stallion said, winking casually, “You don’t think you got it from your biological father, did you?”

Sombra brought Midnight down a nearby staircase onto the factory floor, guiding him to one of the tables. It was covered in spent energy crystals, likely looted from the empire centuries ago. Midnight casually picked up one of the stones with his aura, and inspected the gem closely.

“Think about it, Midnight. Once you are my Prince, you’ll have all the time in the world to invent things,” Sombra proposed, throwing his hoof around his side, “there’ll be no more hostile questions about your choice of career, no more struggling to pay bills or debts, and no pony to tell you your inventions aren’t worthwhile. I look forward to seeing the completion of your Mindstones project.”

Midnight imagined himself buried in his work, among the parts and dust of the workbenches, enchanting items, placing runes on everything. The bliss of doing his favorite thing without pressure from his dad! Of course, if this came at the price of enslaving the Crystal Empire again, it wouldn’t be worth it. But the thought of getting away from his father and finally living out his dream made Midnight feel good about himself, and there was something perversely satisfying about King Sombra, one of Equestria’s greatest monsters, having an interest in his work.

Midnight turned to look at Sombra, “You want me to finish the Mindstones project? But I’d think you wouldn’t care since they’re for earth and pegasus ponies.”

“Productivity is good, Midnight,” he answered, understanding Midnight’s doubts about him, “the Mindstones project is revolutionary, as much so as that curious device your friend has.”

“Tech’s probably the better inventor,” Midnight humbly admitted, hoping to draw attention away from himself.

“Well, a better engineer perhaps, but that’s why I believe he’ll be of use to us,” agreed Sombra, “but I see more potential in you by far. You’re welcome to spend as much time as you want in the forge area, my son, but we need to begin production of our new ‘staff’ immediately.”

He raised an eyebrow at the statement, “What do you mean by that?”

Sombra ushered Midnight over to the massive blast furnace, and approached an ornate control console of sorts made from stone, and covered in carved runes over the surface. He placed his curved horn gently on the controls, activating the runes which shone with blue energy that raced down the sides of the platform and into the ground. From there, the blue lines of energy ran through the conduits on the floor, making Midnight jump out of the way as the magical force traveled to the various components of the factory. Pipes started to rumble to life, bellows pumped with gusts of air, and a heavy, thumping sound like a rocket igniting sputtered within the furnace, before dying out.

The shadow king rolled his eyes and tapped another rune, “Oh, come on...”

This time, the furnace successfully ignited, a bright flame roaring within a glass window on the front. The giant gear behind it made a loud, horrid groaning sound as the rusted axis started to turn again for the first time in a millennium. Magma began to be pumped up from deep within the crust of the Plain of Shadows, and it filled the central area of the machine, providing hot material with which to smelt metal and begin the manufacturing process. Outside, the gear rotated slowly, and the smokestacks in the center of the castle fired up, dark smoke rising into the already pitch-black sky.

“Good girl,” Sombra smirked.

Hitting several runes with his hooves like keys on a keyboard, a nearby stone wall lit up in several places, which Midnight supposed was a menu of sorts that let the king pick what he wanted his arcanic forge to produce. Materials came flowing in through the pipes and pneumatic tubes, tumbling into the melting pot inside the furnace.

“It’ll just be a few moments, and the material will be melted and ready.”

Sure enough, another set of pumps on the side of the furnace activated, and a bright hot slag of molten rock flowed out of the belly of the machine and into a set of molds, another magical pipe feeding purple colored energy crystals into the top. Steam and smoke poured forth from the heavy stone casting equipment, and runes on the molds danced with purple and yellow energy, which Midnight knew to mean that magical instructions were being encoded onto whatever the molds were making.

After ten minutes or so, a nearby spire of green crystal lit up suddenly, “Our first batch is done.”

The hot rock stopped flowing from the furnace, and the molds hissed as a massive burst of skin-peeling steam shot from the sides in a violent cooling process. Then, the halves of the production chambers started to grate open, Midnight’s mouth fell open as soon as he saw what Sombra’s machine had produced.

They were six and a half feet tall, four feet across, and had legs with a reverse joint with heavy, thick foot pads. Two jointed arms as thick as those of the strongest minotaur warrior were attached to a heavy, flat and bulky torso coated in thick armor plating that better suited a knight. Its head was an ornate cylindrical shape with the appearance of a dragoon helmet. But within the headpiece, only a single glowing purple eye made from a re-purposed sentry rune could be seen. Golems, made of stone and steel stepped forth from the molds that cast them, their eyes tracking Midnight, who backed up slowly. He could clearly see the menacing red crystals jutting out of their right-side wrists, an obvious beam weapon of some kind.

The golems meant no harm to him, as they instantly knew who their master was, and the machines bowed on one knee in front of the two ponies, pledging their loyalty as magical automatons of the Shadow Pony nation.

“These are your stone golems, clad in the thickest Shadowsteel, a very durable material we can mine only on this side of the mountains,” Sombra explained, “these warriors will serve you on every field of combat and obey without a second thought. They aided me in my first takeover of the Crystal Empire, and they will do it again.”

Shadowsteel...” Midnight thought, figuring the corporeal Sombra could no longer enter his mind, “I wonder if that’s what Sombra’s armor is made out of. That stuff must be extremely hard to destroy if the Crystal Ponies couldn’t stop him or his army!

“Speechless?” the king asked jokingly, stepping in front of him, “I can’t blame you, they’re rather impressive for thousand year old designs. I made them very easy to produce, to replace our inevitable losses and to serve our cause.”

Midnight watched the four golems stand back up and salute with their left arms, their hands and fingers thick with Shadowsteel, giving the impression of thick gauntlets. They marched out of the factory, and Sombra set the furnace to produce another set of eight.

“I’ll make a few more, but then I need to address your friends,” he said, “in the meantime, please, enjoy the workshop and forge. Tomorrow morning begins your training on the path to becoming royalty!”

“Thank you… dad,” Midnight said in an effort to appease him.

The bigger stallion left him alone in front of the furnace, Midnight watching as the golems rolled out of the molds. After a few moments of staring, and dreading what those machines were likely going to be used for, he turned his attention to the benches, and decided to spend some time working on his hobby. There was nothing he could do tonight to free his friends or stop Sombra… he would just have to keep pretending he was interested in being his son until he could get help.

Outside the castle, in the dark of night, the twelve golems marched into the fresh grass surrounding the palace, pressing it down underneath their heavy feet. Sombra assembled his troops, wishing his forges were capable of making them faster, and stood firm on all hooves.


They stopped, every purple eye on their king.

With his magic, Sombra brought out a large scroll sealed with his own insignia on blue wax, and stepped forward in a dignified manner for the golem closest to him. The king cast a long, snaking beam of energy from his horn into the construct’s head, and when the spell dissipated, the golem’s eye had turned green.

“You are now the captain,” he said to it, “I have a list of ponies I need your detachment to bring me from the Crystal Empire by morning. You do not need to bring them all, but… make sure the types of mares I put on the list are what you prioritize. Midnight will… need them.”

The captain unrolled the scroll, his eleven buddies huddling around him and peering over his shoulder. A dozen glowing eyes moved back and forth as they read the information quickly, seemingly gaining a personality and sense of teamwork. Then, the captain gave a metal thumbs up to Sombra, and the machines formed a perfect square formation, marching along with no objective in mind other than to serve their leader.

Sombra’s horn flashed red, teleporting himself to the top of his castle, where he observed his machines walk for the pass back to the Crystal Empire. The glow of the moon at his back, and the wind swishing his cape and long black mane, the self-declared member of royalty felt a sense of pride and success.

“It’s good to be back!”

Chapter 26 - The Raid

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Chapter 26

At the edge of the thermal barrier just outside of the empire, the golems rolled up with a large wooden cart with a prison cell built of Shadowsteel bars laced with a curse that prevented magic users from teleporting out. Twelve magical troopers with their minds set on their mission to serve the king, a mission to capture back some of his old “employees”.

Of course, getting inside the Crystal Empire was a monumental task for them. Being made out of dark magical components, the Crystal Heart would detect their presence the moment they tried to enter the shield, alerting the guard and foiling their covert operation at once. But they had come prepared, and one of the golems brought forward a huge plate of sheet metal taken from the scrapyard back home.

It walked up to the glowing bubble, and pushed its arms together, bending the giant plate of aluminum into an arc as big as it was. Getting the assistance of another golem, they set the arc into the bubble, sparks flying as it tried to cut through the impromptu breaching tunnel. Now the shield was wrapped around the outside of the metal, leaving a way through. The city lay before them, most of their organic targets would be asleep at such a late hour, and any patrolling guards could easily be seen to. With clanking footsteps and arms locked to their sides, the noisy machines split up and began to fan out in hunt of their pony quarry.

Of the many quiet stone houses in the city with a bright tile roof, one was home to a family of Crystal Ponies who had just recently adjusted to life in the modern day. Warm Brass, the local fudge shop owner, lived here with her husband Wisker, a mustachioed stallion with a bright smile and warm heart. Together, their family’s recipes from centuries ago still satisfied the sweet teeth of the present. They loved the happiness their treats brought to the Empire, but there was still one more void in their lives Wisker hoped to fill.

Promising his wife a big surprise after their late supper, he brought her upstairs, the earth pony covering his wife’s eyes with his hoof. When Warm Brass’s eyes were opened, she let out a joyful squeal. The upstairs room had been renovated into a nursery, with a crib in the center, carpeted floors, and a mobile with plush figures dangling from each rod… including a certain young dragon.

Warm hugged her husband, not expecting her pregnancy announcement would have led him to work so hard. She was yet to swell with life even, but the sight of the nursery made her think about the newborn inside of her, and the lovely future the family would have together.

“Oh… sweetie, you didn’t have to do all this yet,” she said softly, rubbing her head against his, “It hasn’t even been two weeks yet!”

“Aw you know me, if I didn’t do it now, it’d never get done!” he answered, blushing deeply.


An unexpected visitor bashed through the window, taking half the wall out with it suddenly. Warm Brass screamed at the top of her lungs, Wisker quickly shielding her with his body without another thought. The crib was reduced to splinters instantly, with the mobile only lasting a moment more when a giant metal foot came down on it.

Wisker was taken aback, his eyes widening, “It’s… THEM!!!

The golem, having succeeded in breaching the wall ‘undetected’, scanned over the two ponies. Warm Brass matched the description of one of the kinds of ponies Sombra was interested in, and the hulking construct stepped forward, having to crouch to avoid scraping its helmet on the ceiling clearly meant for pony height.

“Stay away from my wife!” shouted Wisker, stepping forward, “It’s me you want, isn’t it!?”

Ignoring him, the golem simply raised the crystal on its right wrist and fired a solid beam of pink energy into Wisker’s body, sending him flying across the room into the wall.

NOOOO!” wailed Warm Brass, tears flying from her eyes, “SOMEPONY HELP US!”

Her barrel was snatched by the tight grasp of the machine, the interlocking limbs preventing the mare’s escape. A metal hand came across her muzzle and held it shut, her muffled screams being ignored by her captor. All she could do was cry as she watched the destroyed nursery and motionless husband disappear from sight.

Against the dark background of the night sky, Warm Brass felt terror strike her even deeper upon seeing that her neighbors had fared no better. The familiar machines had smashed into each of their houses, and each of the twelve intruders held in their grasp a screaming mare or stallion, dragging them away as trophies. Loud zapping echoed through the streets as the unicorns tried to fight back with what little offensive magic they knew about, but the Shadowsteel plating on the beasts manged to soak anything they were capable of dishing out.

Just like the first time.

With the screams and panicking attracting attention, three of the night guard entered the dark streets of the neighborhood, spears tucked under their armored wings. Their leader, a mare with a keen eye for detail, spotted the glowing eyes of the monsters and let out a startled choking noise.

“What!?” she shouted, “It can’t be! These guys don’t exist anymore!”

The green-eyed golem pointed at the three guards, three of his soldiers nodded and raised their wrists while stomping towards the pegasus ponies.

“They exist, Captain!” whimpered the stallion to her left, his legs shaking.

“Yeah well, we can take them!” resolved the mare, rushing forward and shouting while thrusting her spear.

The shaft of the weapon shattered the instant the tip impacted the breastplate of the first golem. Looking back and forth with its eye at its comrades, it gave a clunky shrug before all three of them let loose a hail of pink colored pulses from its wrist cannon. Each of the guards felt their armor get blasted away as they were tossed around like leaves in the wind from the force of the energy. When they finally got back up on their legs, the golems had vanished, taking all the innocent mares and stallions they had ponynapped with them into the cloak of night.

“We… we need to warn the princess,” said the captain through gritted teeth, nursing a nasty burn wound with her wing, “the king’s troops are back!”

“Oooh, Ignitus, honey, please!” giggled Faerie Tail as her husband showered her in warm kisses on her neck and ears.

The couple walked down the hallway of the Crystal Palace together, eager to get back to their room, and Limpwing even more eager to make witty commentary on the whole situation. Following around his cousin and his wife in hopes of keeping them out of trouble from Cadance’s “Casanova Curse” had been a tiring evening, and Arbiter hoped the spell would wear off soon.

“Arby, I think you’re being a little too rigid, just look how happy they are!” Limpwing said, “I’ll stop making jokes about Midnight getting new siblings if it’ll help ya feel better!”

“I’m only considering the backlash that will occur once the spell wears off,” he answered, “other than that, I’m fine with how things are turning out.”

They stopped in front of Arbiter’s assigned room in the palace, where Limpwing scooted herself just in front of the doorway to make sure he couldn’t duck in so quickly.

“So… um, thanks for the sugar, Arby!” the peagsus said nervously, “always fun spending time together. Can’t really think of another pegasus I’d rather stomp around the Empire with, actually.”

“Very kind words, Lieutenant.”

The mare groaned and rolled her eyes, “Seriously? Come on, Arbiter, I’m trying to...”

“SIR! SIR!!!”

A winded guard came galloping up to them, Ignitus and his wife turned around from down the hallway to talk to the frantic stallion.

“What’s wrong, soldier?”

“Golems!” he wheezed, “King Sombra’s golems have invaded the Empire again! We need to warn the royal couple and lock down the perimeter!”

Arbiter made eye contact with Limpwing, who grinned and drew one of her knives from underneath her wing. He smirked back in response, turning his attention back to the guard.

“You warn Cadance and Shining Armor, we’ll go take on the enemy,” he said, “just tell us where they are.”

“They were spotted in the southeastern sector,” he reported between breaths, “they’re taking ponies away! I’m not sure our reinforcements are going to hold them back with their thick armor.”

“Oooh, armor!” giggled Limpwing like a schoolgirl, “that’s a challenge right there!”

Ignitus overheard the conversation, and galloped into his room, returning with his trenchcoat and hat on again, crossbow locked and ready to go. Perhaps the spell was wearing off a bit?

“Ignitus, wait!” Faerie Tail protested, embracing him, “Don’t leave me!”

He stared into her eyes for a few long moments, before opening his mouth and saying something outrageous.

“Then come with me. We’ll do this together.”

Faerie Tail released her grasp and stepped back, “But you’d… never let me on your adventures before, and I’m not sure I can fight!”

“You can. You’ve got the spirit,” he answered, stepping closer, “we can do this together, my love.”

She wasn’t much of a type for combat, but Faerie’s heart sang in joy at just how inclusive her husband was being. It was just like the day they had met….

“Okay, I’ll come with you,” she answered, “but I guess I need a...”

“Weapon?!” interrupted Limpwing, sliding down the hallway with a devious look on her face, “I think I can help you there, Faerie Tail. Trust me, you’re going to have a lot of fun with your hubby tonight!”

Arbiter slapped his face with his hoof and groaned at her horrible joke, “Limpwing, let’s not waste any time, ok?!”

“Heh, sorry Arbiter,” she answered, winking at the storyteller, “I’ll see ya out there!”

Ignitus watched his cousin gallop off with the mare, and gave his wife another tender kiss on the cheek.

“I know you don’t like any violence, honey.”

“There are mares like myself being stolen from their homes and their foals,” she answered bravely, “I want to do what I can.”

“I know I married you for a reason,” he laughed, the bright green flash appearing in his eyes again.

This time, Faerie Tail noticed the sparkle of energy in his eyes, and titled her head curiously. Was that some kind of new spell he had learned and she didn’t know about? And why were his most romantic comments coming just before each flash? Feeling his strong hooves again around her, she knew she didn’t have time to question it… she just had to trust her heart that her husband had truly changed, and whatever was wrong with his magic could wait!


“I’m not lying your Highness!” cried the guard in front of Princess Cadance, “the Centurion Golems are back, and they’re taking away ponies! King Sombra has returned for revenge on the Empire!“

The alicorn princess felt her heart race, her nightmare starting to come true, “Sound the alarm.”

Bells rang throughout the palace as the doors to the Crystal Heart’s chamber started to open, bright light from the artifact flooding the outside world like searchlights seeking out danger. A loud siren echoed throughout the land, waking up the Crystal Ponies and making them scramble to lock their doors and take out whatever few pitiful weapons they had. Bright colored lines of energy descended from the Heart’s chamber, running down the legs of the spire and into the base, creating an intricate pattern around the palace of protected land.

“All defenses are engaged,” signaled the watchers from the Heart’s chamber, “Princess Cadance, what are our next orders?”

The voice came up from a narrow speaking tube system that connected the chamber to her own throne room, in case of emergencies like the one currently in progress.

The Princess stood up from her throne, and spread her wings before speaking back into the pipe on the wall,

“Get Shining. We’re going after those stolen ponies.”

Arbiter had expected a war-zone downtown, and was somewhat disappointed in the fact that the golems were ignoring dealing out property damage and physical pain in exchange for kidnapping more Crystal Ponies, often beautiful young mares or stallion professionals from the shops in the streets. Four of the magical constructs were attempting to kick down the door to a carpenter’s house in hopes of stealing the woodworking mare inside, and the gray colored unicorn screamed and pleaded for mercy while firing off her horn at the monsters. The weak, ineffective magical pellets were bouncing off of the dark plating on the golems, leaving them free to continue their brutal kicks against the wooden barricade in front of the house.

“There’s four of them now,” said Arbiter, pointing with his wing which swished his cape out of the way, “they’re trying to smash that house.”

“So how do we take them down?” asked Limpwing, readying some of her kunai, “I’ve got an idea, but you need to provide a distraction.”

Arbiter grumbled, “Me, a distraction? I’m going to scrap all four of them at once.”

“Tell you what, Arbiter, let’s keep score,” Limpwing offered, an idea forming in her head, “and whoever destroys the most golems wins and gets to take a prize from the loser.”

“Is now really the time to make things interesting, Miss Limpwing?” he urged, motioning at the rapidly failing barricade.

“I guess you’re scared, huh?” she teased.

Unable to watch the golems terrorize the carpenter any more, Arbiter shouted, “FINE! I accept! Now let’s deal with these piles of junk, got it?!“

He drew his sword, the mindstone glowing bright purple to levitate it in front of him, and then with a loud shout, Arbiter spread his wings and jumped valiantly into the middle of the four golems.

“Gotcha,” chuckled Limpwing.

Each of the enemies stopped smashing the barricade and glared at Arbiter with their purple, glowing eye spot. Following their arcane coding, they raised their weapons at the pony and his floating blade. Diving out of the way, the large pegasus swung his sword in a heavy, horizontal motion at the legs of the first golem. A massive flash of sparks flew through the night air, a pair of legs were severed spectacularly with the hiss of dying metal and magical conduits.

Not quite destroyed despite lack of locomotion, another one of the golems grabbed his disabled comrade and started to drag him off the battlefield, laying down some suppressing fire against Arbiter with his crystal bolt weapon. The sword danced back and forth as the pegasus led it with his mind, deflecting the shots thanks to the blade’s weave of metals and arcane properties granted to it in previous times.

Limpwing saw an opening with two of the other golems, who were attempting to attack Arbiter from behind thanks to his concentration on deflecting the shots incoming. Spreading her wings, she tossed a spray of knives at the closest golem’s back, only to watch them bounce away harmlessly.

“Huh, guess it won’t be that easy,” she muttered as the angry war machine turned around and took aim at her.

Meanwhile, Ignitus and Faerie Tail had flanked around back to try and rescue the mares and stallions being stolen away. They found the cart topped with the cage, some of the golems were loading their protesting “guests” into the back and sealing them in. The green eye of the captain spotted Ignitus just in time to see the captain’s crossbow fire a heavy arrow at him. Not even flinching, it stood defiant and allowed the piece of ammo to hit him center mass. Ignitus winced as the true-flying arrow smashed to pieces against the armor as if it were nothing, splinters danced around the captain golem for a sad moment.

“They’re… very tough,” said Faerie Tail, swallowing fear and anxiety, “what can we do?”

The golem leader saw a bright flash of light in the sky, and put a metal hand over his helmet to get a better look. He could sense the siren going off as well in the distance, gaining the understanding that their cover had finally been blown and that the rest of the Crystal Guard were on their way. Silently, and with no way of the ponies nearby knowing, he signaled via a magical communication device inside his body for the other golems to retreat. Although they were finished loading the ponies into the cart, the golems on the other side of the thermal barrier did not come back through to aid their captain despite sensing the order, standing by the cage. There were only six golems left in total within the boundary, including the captain, who let off a wild burst of energy at Ignitus and Faerie.

Each of the unicorns dodged out of the way behind nearby barrels in the shopping district, the shots blasting chunks off the barrel. Faerie felt like she was going to cry, but seeing her husband’s tough face, yet gentle eyes helped her to stay calm.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said, whimpering, “I shouldn’t have come!”

Ignitus looked at her, then back at the two golems trying to lay waste to their cover, “Yes, you should have. I know what to do. We’ll hit them with a ray spell, but I’m going to need your magic as well, honey.”

She stood there behind the barrel, just gazing into his eyes.

“Please… trust me!”

Faerie felt her soft eyes water, and nodded, “Ok!”

The two ponies walked out of cover, ignoring the bolts whizzing around them. Ignitus felt his wife’s love, and although he wasn’t himself, his real mind could feel it. It felt like how they walked up to each other to say their wedding vows, although there were far fewer military golems firing projectiles at them that day. Even so, the two machines stopped firing when they say the ponies had come out of cover quietly, and the captain looked at his companion quickly as if to ask why the unicorn couple was acting so bizarrely.

Closing their eyes, the two met and touched their horns together, an arc of power streaking across them. Then, they turned together, tails tightly wrapped together as they stared at the two machines.

Arbiter and Limpwing caught up, having driven back their adversaries. The two attacking Limpwing ran away, their armor scratched up from the repeated knockdowns the mare had delivered by landing on top of them repeatedly. Her weak wing made it very easy to fly erratically and strike during the most unexpected moments. Arbiter was determined to finish off the damaged golem being dragged by the other one, it running at a full pace with the legless enemy making sparks on the ground.

“Come back here!” demanded the captain, leaping up into the air one more time.

While in mid-jump, the golem turned around suddenly, having dropped his friend, and took aim in hopes of bringing down Arbiter. That’s when the captain realized that he had been going after the wrong target the whole time, and with a spread of his wings and an inversion of the sword he carried, the pony glided down into the other golem, narrowly dodging the blast of magic from its wrist. Arbiter’s sword entered the golem’s neck area and down into its breastplate, a bright flash of sparks and smoke sprayed from within.

Pulling out his weapon and jumping down, the impaled golem clutched its chest as a blast of fire and electricity consumed its torso. It dropped to the ground, smoke pouring out from underneath its head, and the single glowing eye faded out.

“Good,” Arbiter snarled, sheathing his blade.

The legless golem behind him propped himself up and prepared to smash Arbiter’s spine with its fist, having crawled into range. Just before it could, three kunai stuck into its neck area, and it crashed down face-first into the pavement, destroyed just as quickly as its friend.

Arbiter turned around and stared at it, knowing his flank had been saved by a certain pesky mare.

“That’s one apiece, Arby,” she said, walking forward, “looks like we’ll have to break the...”

Limpwing stopped, amazed at what she was seeing. Arbiter turned to see what she was staring at, and his mouth fell open slightly.

“Ignitus? Faerie Tail?”

The couple were aglow with magical energy, their eyes closed and their bodies side by side. Their enemies stood defiant, and shot away with their crystals, but the energy seemed to be absorbed by the field of light-blue colored magic around the couple. Shortly thereafter, without words, a calling out of their attack, or even a blink of their eyes, the two unicorns lowered their heads and unleashed two rays of energy that wrapped around each other to form one solid white beam.

Without a second to lose, the follower golem stepped in front of its leader and took the entire ray to the chest, being torn in half immediately by the powerful spell. The two ponies closed their eyes, and fell to the ground exhausted of all energy. With the ponies down for the count, the appointed leader of the golems could have attacked, but it took one good look at the torn pile of scrap metal in front of it and fled for the breaching tunnel.

Arbiter and Limpwing tried to chase, but as soon as the golem made it through the barrier, it kicked the sheet metal out of the way, sealing the barrier up again. While this wouldn’t normally stop the pegasus ponies, the other golems all pointed their weapons at where the tunnel was, making it a mistake to cross. They gritted their teeth in anger at the automatons as they backpedaled with their cart, the sad eyes of the imprisoned ponies begging for help they could not get.

“They’re going to get away,” said Arbiter angrily, “if Sombra really is back, I’ll be the one to take him down, I swear...”

“I’ve got a feeling Techorse and his buddies might be in even more trouble,” Limpwing sighed, “but we’ll get them all back, don’t worry!”

Arbiter didn't’ believe her, but he agreed to drop the topic and do what was necessary. The rest of the guard arrived too late, and over three dozen ponies had been kidnapped at the price of three easily-replaced golems. Ignitus and Faerie Tail woke up shortly after their massive strike, but joined in the sorry of Cadance and Shining Armor when they heard the report the rest of the enemy force had gotten away.

And the worst part of it all was that the Crystal Ponies were beginning to cry and panic about the possibility of King Sombra being back. Cadance and Shining Armor heard their conversations around them, and took a look at the still-sparking corpses of the golems. They each looked at each other, worry in their eyes, and hoped that the stallions who had left the previous day were alive and well. The golems and the kidnappings were proof Sombra was truly back… and they’d need all the help they could get.

With the loss of a fourth of their attacking force, the golems thought they had finally gotten safely away from the ponies who had engaged them within the city limits. The cart, full of ponies shivering in the cold outside their home and with eyes filled with fear, went ignored by them as they pushed it home for the castle. At the back of the formation was a golem walking slightly slower, making sure the rear of the pack was watched after. It suddenly heard a loud shout behind it.


The golem spun around with its comrades, preparing to attack, only to find a freezing cold Lighthearted. Having seen the fight from a nearby street, she figured the attackers being magical constructs could only mean her dumb zebra acquaintance was behind them.

“You guys aren’t going anywhere without me!” she demanded of the golem, stomping her hoof in the deep snow, “Take me to your boss!”

Startled by the demand to be captured, which seemed against the will of the other organic creatures in the cell, the golem simply stood there, motionless. Its commander walked up to it, and put his metallic left hand on his shoulder, making him look back. The green-eyed captain nodded, and started to turn around to help the other troops drag the cart back. With his order having been given, the golem knelt down on its reverse jointed legs and offered an empty hand up.

“All right, that’s better,” said Lighthearted with a grouchy tone, climbing into the golem’s waiting arm.

It picked her up underneath its limb like it was carrying a small dog, her legs hanging over the front of the arm holding her. The golem couldn’t help himself but run his other hand gently through the pony’s mane as it carried her along.

“Hands off the merchandise, buddy!” she warned, getting a head shake of disbelief in response.

Lighthearted casually placed her attention on the other ponies inside the cage, and gave a concerned Warm Brass a wink. She was going to help settle that score one way or the other!

Once I get there, you’re dead meat, Ross!

Chapter 27 - Sombra's Secret Weapons

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Chapter 27

Whatever new place Sombra had left him in, it eerily reminded Techorse of his lab back home, only much darker and far less clean. An abandoned observatory located at the back of the castle, the massive, rounded room had a featureless tile floor, and an iron balcony that spiraled up to the top of the ceiling, where a massive brass iris shutter lay closed. On the ground, rusted into place from years of disuse, sat the base of what was previously some kind of telescope, the actual device having been removed, likely by scrap thieves over the years. Dusty slate chalkboards covered in cobwebs had been wiped clean by the king’s magic, and fresh rolls of blueprint paper were now on a handful of wooden tables borrowed from some of the unused castle dining rooms. The king had turned his former stargazing post into a secondary development facility for his new servant, and Techorse watched as his intense magical energy finished installing a smaller version of the forges located in the basement, a pipe from the floor connecting into the back to supply raw materials.

“Ah, finally, your new arcane forge is ready,” he said eagerly, “you may request any part you can imagine, and it will build it. I’m sure you’ll be able to instruct this forge to create those amazing electronics, Techorse. Just place your hoof on it and think of what you want.”

Techorse stared at him for a few seconds, knowing he had no choice but to test the weird device constructed of stone slabs and runes. Stepping up to the machine, he placed his hoof gently on the panel in front of the machine, which sparked to life with light blue energy. Raw materials flowed up through the pipe into the device, and a loud hiss of steam escaped from its halves. When the forge opened up, a single bundle of red wire sat in the middle, which Techorse claimed and placed on the table.

“Amazing,” he said with a bit of surprise, “I’m still going to have to convert these parts into electronics I can use, but… looks like your forges really can make everything I need.”

King Sombra smiled, Techorse noticing for the first time the king’s small sharpened canines, “Perfect. Now then, I have an assignment for you fitting of your talents.”

His aura wrapped around the end of one of the blueprints, unrolling it and clipping it to one of the chalkboards. On it was a massive diagram of what appeared to be some kind of rocket, detailed in description, with component clearly labeled. Techorse scanned over the document, bracing himself for something that really was rocket science!

“What’s this schematic for?” he demanded to know, glaring at the king.

“I’m glad you asked,” he answered, turning to the ruined base of what used to be the telescope.

Techorse grit his teeth when his ears filled with a sharp, grating noise from the base being ripped away by Sombra’s magic. He tossed the wreckage carelessly into the wall, setting off a nearby lever that opened up the aperture at the top of the lab.

“I wish to ascend to the stars,” he declared proudly, pointing up at the hole in the ceiling through which bright moonlight shone, “ever since I was a little colt, I looked up at the sky at night and dreamed about what it might be like beyond our own atmosphere. I couldn’t imagine that technology would ever progress to a point where one could visit the realm outside our planet, but that dream is finally about to come to be. But, I cannot do this without a rocket built by you, Techorse.”

The inventor wrinkled his nose and folded his ears back, “Sombra, this is clearly a design for a ballistic missile. I’m not stupid you know.“

Immediately the king’s face hardened into a scowl, and he gently put his hoof back on the floor, “Ah… so you’re not as gullible as I’ve been told. Very well, Techorse, yes… it’s actually a ballistic missile. You will be helping me convert this observatory into a launching pad for my newest weapon, a weapon only you can build for me.”

“I’m not going to build a missile for you,” Techorse argued.

“Are you in any position to tell me that?” he said teasingly with a turn of his head, “Please do not make this any harder for either of us. You’re in no condition to fight, and I’m in no mood to stain the walls with you.”

“Midnight won’t be your son if you lay a hoof on me,” warned Techorse, “I’m not scared of you Sombra!”

“Midnight is well on his way to joining me at his rightful place by my side,” snapped the king, pushing his hoof into Techorse’s sternum, “and I no longer expect you to fear me, I expect you to serve my son’s new kingdom since you’re his friend. Now, pick up that box behind you and open it… you’ve got work to do!”

Techorse looked behind himself at the ominous box made of carved ivory in the shape of an alicorn, with brass handles at the sides for easy opening. Having been spared his robotic arms, likely to allow him to complete the king’s evil task, Techorse picked up the ornamental container and set it down on the table, a chill running down his spine when Sombra walked up next to him and patted him gently on the shoulder.

“I think you’ll enjoy this project if you cooperate, Techorse.”

He pulled open the handles, exposing a weird red glow from inside the sculpture. When it was fully opened up, a rod of a strange metallic red metal dropped out of the body of the alicorn statue and onto the table. Techorse picked up the curious material with his right robot hand, and inspected it carefully under his muzzle.

“What… is this?”

“That is a special material refined from the dark crystals of the valley,” explained the king, “when it is broken open, it releases a tasteless, odorless dust into the air that sends any pony hapless enough to breathe it into the deepest bouts of fear and terror imaginable. This compound was one of the many ways I was able to conquer the Crystal Ponies before, and by keeping a steady supply of it in the air, I was able to maintain control with it as well.”

“It feels like some kind of isotope,” muttered Techorse, “Based on what it does, I think I’ll call it ‘Afraidium’.”

King Sombra rolled his eyes, “You truly are a nerd, aren’t you? Well, as you might have figured out by now, that material is what you will place in the missile. Previously I had to spend so much energy using magic to distribute its dust over the empire, but with your technology, I’ll have a weapon capable of doing it in one blast!”

Having always feared one of his devices might terrorize Equestria, Techorse choked, “I can’t build it!”

“Yes you can,” growled Sombra, “you have everything you need. Don’t fail me, Techorse, or you know what will happen.”

“If you get rid of me, you won’t get your missile either!” Techorse reminded him, “So you can’t make me! I won’t build a missile you plan on hitting the Crystal Empire with!”

For a couple of moments, they both stood still as stones, until Sombra worried Techorse with a fit of laughter at his expense.

“Oh ho ho! That’s so funny, Tech,” laughed the dark king heartily, “you thought I was actually going to use the missile on the Crystal Empire?”

Techorse frowned, “Yeah… isn’t that why you want me to build it?”

He shook his head and dried a tear from his eye, “No, no… my silly pony, have you not learned anything about me? I do not rule through force, but through fear. When the Crystal Empire learns that I have a weapon capable of hitting them from this range and with no way to prevent it… they’ll surrender. We’re merely using this missile as a threat… a means of forcing them to bow.”

The green stallion walked back over to the designs with a look of disgust on his face. The missile would be easy for him to build within a few days, and stalling for time until he and his friends could be rescued was just what they needed. If he played along and built the weapon, there was a chance they’d survive their ordeal.

“All right, Sombra, I’ll build your Afraidium missile,” Techorse answered, sighing, “but your design uses a lot of fuel… and that stuff is pretty explosive if it leaks.”

“I’m aware of the risks,” he said, “and I appreciate your trust, as do your friends. Will we be seeing you tonight at dinner? Midnight demanded you be treated as friends, so you are welcome at our table tonight.”

“It’s three in the morning.”

He ignored him and headed for the main staircase, “Just be there, and wash off any oil you get on yourself from your labor.”

Techorse shook his head, and turned to the forge to begin producing the parts necessary to build the missile, the beast was at least three stories high, and Sombra had left a ton of holes in his rough design on the blueprint.

With him beginning work on the weapon, Sombra congratulated himself on another successful deception while he trotted down the spiraling staircase.

You really are so gullible, Techorse,” he thought with pity for the inventor, “all I had to do was promise not to use the weapon, and you agreed to build it without considering I might be lying. How naive. Now I’ll be able to make your fears come true! But first, to win over the support of your buddies as well...

“We’re never going to see our families again!” cried Shadow Breeze, burying his face in his hooves.

Flaming Ivory and Shadow had been shoved into a guest room in a corner of Sombra’s castle. It wasn’t very elaborate, but it was still somewhat well decorated after his restorative magic had covered the place, with bright red wallpaper and golden floorboards. The two ponies staying inside were sitting on one of the two queen-sized beds draped in yellow comforters, and Flaming Ivory was doing his best to console Shadow.

“Come on man, keep it together!” he urged, “Sombra hasn’t done us in yet. We just have to play along until Techorse figures out a way to get us out of here.”

“I… I guess, but in the meantime we’re going to be helping him hurt the Crystal Ponies,” he said, still sniffing in some mucus, “I can’t live with that!”

“Don’t worry, they won’t blame you,” answered the musician, “it’s not like we have any choice, right?”

The big whitewashed doors to the room suddenly slammed open, King Sombra standing in the doorway with a cross expression on his face.

DON’T HURT MEEEE!” begged Shadow, diving over the side of the bed and hiding.

King Sombra’s black, flowing mane settled into place, and his armor gently clinked while he entered the room, slowly transitioning from an angry expression to a subtle smirk.

“Please try to relax Shadow Breeze, I have things for both of you,” he said calmly, “and I absolutely have no intention of causing you any more harm… Midnight has forbidden it!”

Shadow Breeze popped up his head from behind the bed, “Really?”

“Yes, now please, come on out to the tea room, I have your gifts!”

“Gifts?” asked Flaming Ivory angrily, “Wait just a minute, pal, if you think you’re gonna butter us up with bribes after making us experience our own worst nightmares, you’ve got another think coming!”

“Easy Flaming Ivory, I understand your anger with me, but now that I’ve had time to talk with my new son… I see such great potential in both of you,” Sombra said with a defusing tone, “I’ll explain if you’ll come with me.”

“Yes sir,” said Shadow Breeze, carefully following him out of the room.

Flaming Ivory, ever the skeptic, grumbled something to himself and caught up with them in the castle’s tea room. Much like the hallways in Canterlot castle, there were multiple stained glass windows, but none of them were very well illuminated thanks to it being night. The unicorn looked at the art carefully, noticing that they seemed to tell some kind of a story. A group of castles that looked remarkably similar to the one they were in now were clustered near what was obviously a depiction of the crystal empire. In the next pane, an arc of white extended from the Crystal Palace to the group of castles, and from the triangular shards of glass colored in, Flaming could tell something was blasting them to pieces. In the last panel, a single pony made from black glass stood on top of his ruined home, facing the empire.

“This can’t possibly mean what I think it does...”

“Means what, Flaming?” asked Shadow Breeze, sitting at the massive black marble table in the center of the room.

A golem had served the three of them a fresh tray of fine pastries with a blend of tea only Sombra seemed to recognize (or like for that matter, as it was extremely bitter and had a weird citrus aftertaste that almost was like shampoo).

“I don’t get it, now all of a sudden you’re being nice to us,” said Flaming, pushing around his teacup in hopes of not having to drink anymore of the liquid, “what did Midnight say, anyways?”

“That’s not important,” answered Sombra sternly, slamming his hoof on the table.

Shadow Breeze jumped in his skin, becoming timid again, which made Sombra reconsider his actions. Putting his hoof down on his chair again, he cleared his throat in embarrassment.

“Oh um, what I meant to say was… that’s not important right now. We’ve already agreed that you will be treated as servants and not slaves, but without proper equipment… you cannot do your jobs well. So no expense was spared in acquiring these gifts for you!”

A wisp of green energy shot from Sombra’s horn, making a sound like fingers snapping. The golem returned, with two boxes wrapped in gift paper like birthday presents. One was very long and tall with polka dot paper on it, and the other was more modest with a plain blue wrapping. Flaming Ivory was presented with the larger box, which took up way more than his fair share of the table.

Concerned but not wanting to offend Sombra for very good reasons, Flaming unwrapped the first corner of the gift with his hoof, only for his eyes to grow wide. He eagerly tore away at the rest of the wrapping paper, bits flying off everywheres while Sombra watched with a sinister grin.

“Oh… my… gosh! IT’S AN OMNICHORD 30-Z!

Sure enough, the massive keyboard, still in its box from the factory, was now in front of Flaming Ivory. The knobs and pedals from his magazine were depicted on the art of the white cardboard box, and in a red bubble was a promise that it was the biggest and best electric keyboard in Equestria!

“It’s all yours, Flaming Ivory,” Sombra said in a fatherly tone of voice, “I know how very much you wanted this keyboard based on that simply… charming magazine you had in your belongings… and since you are my son’s composer now, you are going to need it!”

Shadow Breeze took his turn and opened his box, gasping happily at the contents. He jumped off of the table, and just like many pegasus ponies liked to do, he flew around quickly in a circle, creating a small tornado while he put on the present. When he exited the whirlwind, the stallion was clad in a brand new silk suit, black with a subtle blue weave in it, a fancy white dress shirt underneath, and cuff links made from actual platinum. Around his neck was a brand new piece of replacement jewelry, a necklace made from gold and rubies that rivaled his old amulet for beauty.

“Now you look like a real diplomat,” the king said, sighing happily, “please try to understand that I couldn’t give you back my Shadow Amulet. I made it so many years ago, and it has meaning to me.”

“That’s ok,” Shadow Breeze said, all smiles and no tears now from the feeling of fresh silk against his body, “these are so comfy! Thank you!!”

Sombra shook his head at how the two stallions looked like little foals at Hearth’s Warming, opening up their gifts. Now they’d be eager to serve him and Midnight!

“You two are very welcome,” he said, nodding his head, “they were very easy items to obtain from the Crystal Empire, and if you are both loyal subjects to me, there will be a lot more presents coming in the near future!”

The childlike, eager glow burnt away quickly as Flaming Ivory felt the truth sink in. The keyboard cost over 6 thousand bits… and Sombra didn’t exactly have a store nearby. Or any modern money for that matter unless he was hawking his castle’s artifacts without him knowing it.

“You… you stole this didn’t you?” accused Flaming Ivory, glaring at Sombra.

“Well, let me put it this way,” Sombra cackled, “a very lucky music store owner will be collecting triple its price in insurance money now… and, well, given the choice between hoofing over that suit or her only daughter, that tailor made the right choice!”

Shadow Breeze felt a lump form in his throat, and felt like he was now just as guilty as if he had stolen it himself!

“It was this or lose her daughter? How awful!” he cried, trying to shed the fancy threads, “Take it back!”

Yeeeeah, I really can’t accept stolen goods either,” said Flaming Ivory, pushing the box back towards Sombra, “I mean, you gotta have a grand piano in this castle, right? I’ll just use that.”

The king grumbled and turned his back on them, “Such thanklessness! Here I decided to have my troops spare those shop owners and their families, something I’d never do unless I was trying to take your side, and you two are telling me what I did was wrong?”

“You basically just told me that because you stole from some ponies instead of kidnapping them, you did the right thing,” explained Flaming Ivory, his face showing heavy disbelief.

SILENCE!” roared Sombra, spinning around and magically doubling his size.

Shadow Breeze grabbed Flaming Ivory again and shook like a leaf, “He.. he didn’t mean it!”

“You two will be thankful I merely took their goods for your benefit, and use them to do your jobs for Midnight!” he continued, slowly shrinking back to his normal size, “When you are called for dinner in a few hours, you are to show appreciation for your new gifts, UNDERSTAND?!

“Y… yes!” screamed Shadow Breeze, “I understand!”

“Good,” answered Sombra, standing up from the table, “I’ve got one more thing to do this evening before then. I’d recommend you take a look at the instructions for that new piano, Flaming Ivory, and Shadow Breeze… please try not to soil those new clothes, you coward.”

“H.. hey!” he said, feeling bullied.

But the king ignored him and left with a swish of his royal red cape. Flaming Ivory turned to Shadow Breeze, and shook his head with a loud groan.

“Come on Shadow, you can’t be afraid of him. Midnight would let him have it if he even plucked one feather from ya! Think about how you almost got him with that giant shadow bomb!”

“Yeah… I guess I did,” he answered, “but I would have gotten us too… guess for now we’re just going to have to play along until we get a chance to escape, huh?”

“Yup, and trust me, I’ve got a plan, but we’re gonna need Techie like I said,” he answered confidently, “we just need to time it right.”

Shadow Breeze nodded, gaining a little hope that they might be free from Sombra if they played their cards right.

The cold, unforgiving courtyard of the castle, not yet repaired by Sombra’s magic, sat in silence with weeds growing between the broken-up stone that used to form the floor of the space. Here, the ponies rounded up by the golems sat tied together like cattle, many of them crying their eyes out under the cold gaze of the war machines, who kept their weapons pointed at them. Warm Brass sat next to Lighthearted, who refused to cry with the other young adults. This wasn’t the first time they had been kept by Sombra, and she was already familiar with what he might want with her… as disgusting as that might be. What bothered her though, was that a red tarp sat covering some kind of a tall structure next to them, gently fluttering in the icy air around them.

“Whatever’s under that tarp is for us,” she whispered to Warm, “And I don’t think we’re going to like it.”

“I don’t care,” cried the confectioner, “I… I just want to make sure my foal makes it. I’m expecting!”

“Congratulations,” said Lighthearted, winking, “and don’t worry. We’re going to get everypony here to safety, I’m not scared of Sombra.”

“Wh.. why not?” she asked, eyes large.

“Well, because… eh maybe you don’t want to know,” she answered, rolling her eyes, “let’s just say that there’s a guy I hate way more than him right now.”

IT’S HIM!” screamed one of the mares, the bound up ponies starting to yell and cry in terror.

King Sombra entered the courtyard, accompanied by two more golems, one of them being the green-eyed captain. Lighthearted took note of the fact that he looked like how he did when he first invaded, very corporeal and awkwardly handsome for a tyrant, with his flowing black mane, smooth graphite coat, and green eyes. His horn still looked rather sinister though, and that’s all she needed to know it was her old enemy.

“Hello again, my former… help,” he said, grasping for words, “I’m so glad I could have you at my old home for once. It’s good to get out of one’s country for a while, is it not?”

“P… please don’t make us go back,” whimpered a stallion, “I can’t take being scared all the time again!”

“In the best interests of my current plans, thankfully there will be no more constant terror curses… I’ve learned it was that very magic that turned me into a specter, and I plan on staying flesh and blood,” Sombra explained clearly.

“Oh thank goodness...”

Sombra shoved his hoof down hard into the stallion’s neck, pinning him to the ground. The mares around him begged for the king’s mercy, but he refused to move his hoof from his windpipe and enjoyed his sounds of choking for air.

“But don’t think this means you aren’t still all my property,” he said, his eyes glowing red, “all of you are very much my slaves again, and you will work for me and my adopted son Midnight Blaze day in and out. The cooks among you will begin preparing our supper immediately, and I expect all the rest of you to do your jobs as well.”

“I won’t be a slave again!” defied Lighthearted, standing up, pulling Warm Brass up too by the rope between them, “None of us have to listen to him, with him being afraid he’ll become a ghost again from his fear magic, he has nothing he can use to stop us!”

The golems raised their guns at her, but their king dismissed them with a wave of his hoof. He released his leg from the neck of the earth pony he was standing on, and walked up to Lighthearted, almost amused that she had bothered to stand up to him.

“Ahh, and you are… Lighthearted, aren’t you?” he asked.

She was embarrassed he knew her name, “Yeah… that’s me, you demon.”

“For such a name you’re rather catty, aren’t you?” Sombra said, teasing her by running his hoof across her cheek, “I remember all the trouble you used to cause me back in the old days. But you always had such wonderful beauty… I would gladly have traded a good sum of wealth to make you my mistress, to have you serve me cakes at night.”

“You couldn’t afford me,” she grumbled, “now where’s Ross?”

“Ross?” asked Sombra, tilting his head and nearly losing his small crown in the process, “Oh! Yes, my trusted ‘general’ Rosseth. I suppose you’ve met him?”

“I’m looking for him, yes,” Lighthearted answered with a crabby tone of voice.

“Well, since you won’t work,” Sombra chuckled, knowing she had probably been offended by him, “I guess I’ll just have to make you his newest prize. Oh that lucky, lucky zebra!”

Lighthearted felt like swinging her hoof into Sombra’s face, but knowing how much of a danger that would be to her fellow Crystal Ponies, she resisted. At least his disgusting transference of her as property to Rosseth would let her get close to him and exact her revenge.

“Fine,” she said, “Ross will be thrilled to… have me.”

“Indeed he will,” teased the king, looking forward to seeing the look on Rosseth’s face when he was awarded a ‘pet’, “as for the others...”

“We won’t work either!” declared another stallion, “Slavery isn’t an option for us!”

King Sombra was enjoying the newfound resistance, perhaps a little bit too much, as his calm voice spooked the Crystal Ponies more than his anger now.

“I understand,” he said, moving for the tarp.

“You… you do?” asked the stallion, worried about why Sombra hadn’t already attacked him.

“Of course,” the unicorn responded, putting his hoof on one corner of the red cloth, “and I came prepared for that answer. I have another way out of my castle besides service...”

He yanked away the tarp suddenly, and the screams of terror resumed as a freshly-built guillotine was revealed from underneath the cover. Lighthearted felt her rage boil from the sight of the vile angled blade, suspended by a thread in the deadly machine’s frame. She remembered how he had left another one of these devices on the balcony of the Crystal Palace that millennium ago, how the dangling, threatening blade kept them from lifting their shackled heads as they broken energy crystals. But it had only been a symbol of fear… would he really use it today?

“Now do you all understand?” Sombra said loudly, “Any who defy me will be destroyed, by magic or another means! Serve me, or give up your head!”

“Please, no!” came cries from the crowd, and, “Mercy!”

“Then get to your work,” ordered Sombra, “my soldiers will help you get started. Take them away!”

The machines led the crying, terrified ponies to their posts, but a select group of young mares were left behind, including Lighthearted, who had Warm Brass torn away from her.

“I have a very special place for you, ladies,” he said with a very knowing look on his face, “you’ll be getting special treatment and instructions later. My son will be needing your services soon.”

Lighthearted felt herself get picked up by the golem from earlier, and she growled one more time at Sombra,

“You know something? You’re being given another chance at life, and you’re throwing it away.”

“As did you for coming here,” he answered, shaking his head, “my golems told me you demanded to see Rosseth, and that’s what you’ll get, Lighthearted. Enjoy being his personal servant.”

The machine took her away as well, Sombra looking all proud of himself. Lighthearted made sure he was out of view before smirking. If Rosseth had brought him back, there was definitely a way he could get rid of him again!

Chapter 28 - Conditioning for Coronation

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Chapter 28

Midnight awoke with the happiest feeling in his heart, although the toasty warmth of the heavy sheets wrapped around him certainly helped too. He was laying prone in a bed big enough for at least four unicorns, with comforters of red piled on the top so that the cold day outside couldn't reach his body. Sombra had prepared only the finest chamber for him, with walls washed white and gold patterns running along the floorboards. Formations of crystal jutted from the walls, glowing a soft red, which further heated the room and provided a soft light like a fireplace. Needless to say, Midnight was going to have trouble prying himself out of the warm cocoon of blankets and the softness of the down pillow. It seemed like his stomach had other plans for him, though.

“Ugh, starving...” he muttered as he finally started wiggling out of the ball of sheets, “what time is it?”

Rolling himself over on the bed, he glanced at the pocket watch he had left on the oak nightstand next to the massive canopy bed. It was ten in the morning, probably far too late to expect breakfast, even if he was a 'prince' now. Yet, there seemed to be the unmistakeable scent of freshly flipped pancakes on the griddle coming from the hallway outside.

“I guess I can hold out,” sighed Midnight as he stretched his body out along the edge of the bed, “we ate that huge dinner at four in the morning, anyways. I swear I can smell food though.”

He remembered the awkward dinner last night, with Techorse covered in industrial grease from whatever work he had been assigned, and how Shadow Breeze constantly looked like he was about to faint in fear. The four friends had been seated around the table, with Sombra at the head, refusing to make eye contact with anypony except Midnight while dining with a levitated fork and knife. Somehow, he had come up with a tremendously caloric dinner of roasted potatoes and mushrooms native to the valley, with grilled sugarcane for dessert. Where had the king come up with such delicacies on such short notice, and how was the meal cooked so quickly? Midnight knew that the golems had gone out last night to kidnap ponies from the Crystal Empire. Maybe they had cooked the meal.

“No, that has to be food”, he said aloud, placing a hoof to his lip, “I wonder what the slaves have prepared for breakfast?”

A few moments of time hung in the air. Then, Midnight bolted up from the bed, and yet out a surprised, terrified yelp.


Jumping out of the bed, Midnight felt his heart rate spike for a brief period. He did not consciously choose to say what he had just said... did he?

“M... maybe I really do need breakfast,” he muttered, “I'll see if there's anything left downstairs.”

He slowly walked to the giant set of carved wooden doors as white as the walls, and exited his chamber slowly, trying not to make any noise. The door shut with a soft thud, Midnight sighed deeply when he was sure nopony had heard him.

“Good morning, son.”

Midnight nearly jumped out of his coat, recoiling at Sombra's deep voice.

“Relax,” the king smirked, adjusting his black mane with a hoof, “I understand your new role in life is stressful, but you have a lot to learn in order to claim your rightful title as the Shadow Prince. One of your responsibilities will be remaining calm under stress, even the fiercest battle or strongest monster cannot break your spirit.”

“Title? I thought I was just supposed to be your son.”

Sombra rolled his eyes and chortled, exposing his tiny fangs again, “Midnight you silly foal, I'm the king of this land. That makes you the prince. Did spending your time with Techorse make your common sense fall out of your skull?”

“Hey, Techorse has plenty of common sense,” grumbled the smaller unicorn, “he just... can be a little too trusting sometimes.”

“Indeed,” agreed the king, his green aura clutching something underneath his cape, “in any case, I have a list of things you will be learning today and tomorrow so that you will be prepared for your coronation tomorrow night.”

Midnight appeared surprised, “Coronation?!”

“That is correct,” Sombra declared triumphantly, “tomorrow night, you will be crowned as the rightful heir to my throne! We will conduct the ceremony as my forefathers did centuries before me, and you will become a true prince. Prepare to leave your old life behind, at the stroke of...”

“Midnight,” they both said, before laughing at the cheesy setup.

“Really, dad?” laughed the unicorn, “you had to pick midnight, didn't you?”

“It's all just a coincidence my child,” he answered, “that's been the tradition forever. Nonetheless, I've already begun the forging of a proper crown for you in my private workshop. I am sure you will enjoy it. But for now, let us begin your training as my successor. We have a lot to cover in such a minute amount of time.”

“Oh wow, where to even start,” Midnight said, playing along, “I guess I have to learn how to tax peasants, huh?”

“Charming,” Sombra sighed, “no, I actually am referring to the serious duties of royalty and the mannerisms of being a king. I am glad you are so highly pleased with the forges and arcane workbenches I have given you, but there are things you need to learn. How to act, how to use the magic passed down to me by my ancestors, and how to engage in the timeless art of combat.”

“I can hold my own there,” assured the soon-to-be prince, “I'm not the best at dueling, but I've seen my own share of danger.”

“I'm not talking about the skill of solo duels with monsters or other unicorns,” Sombra said sternly, “I'm talking about the responsibility of leading an army into battle! A prince must know how to command his troops as well as how to survive instances of combat. Come with me.”

Sombra turned suddenly, marching down the hallway of his castle with his red cape following behind him. Midnight, figuring he had no choice, shadowed his new father through the hallway, when they came to a large balcony sealed off by a glass door, the morning sunlight flooding the atrium behind them. The door opened automatically when a sensor rune above the doorway was triggered by their approach, sliding open for the two, who stepped out into the sunlight.

It took a few seconds for Midnight's eyes to adjust to the light, but when he was able to see clearly, he looked down and saw below him his new army. A thousand golems, all identical except for the green-eyed captain at the front, were lined up in a perfect set of four squares in the lawn behind the castle. Two massive banners seven meters high sat between the legions of troops, one on the left blue with Midnight's cutie mark as a logo in the center, and the same for Sombra on the right.

Midnight couldn't believe how many troops there were, “What's all this?”

“I've had the forges running throughout the night,” explained Sombra, “with each passing hour, more and more troops are built for you, ready to serve your cause, Midnight Blaze.”

Turning to the troops stories below them, Sombra approached the edge of the balcony with Midnight. Immediately and simultaneously, every last golem locked its legs together and raised its right fist with a bent arm, saluting Midnight.

GOLEMS, MY SOLDIERS OF THE DARK!” bellowed Sombra to them, “This is your new prince, Midnight Blaze! As with myself and the zebra, he is also your leader! Serve him with all your might, as you were built for!”

All of them took a knee, the shift in movements of the troops audible to Midnight above, who looked down upon his new army. If this didn't count as being important in the military to his father, he thought, then nothing would! A smile he felt bad about having crept across his face.

“Tomorrow morning, you will lay waste to the Crystal Empire,” Sombra ordered, “storm the Crystal Palace! Put the Crystal Guard swine in their places, then bring the Princess and her weakling husband before me bound in chains!”

Again, Midnight felt at odds with himself with that order. The thought of seeing the Crystal Palace burn, and Princess Cadance tied up to be carted off as a slave made Midnight remember he was supposed to be secretly plotting against Sombra. Yet he was being offered incredible wealth, power, and there was still the promise of being able to complete the mindstones project, which he had made tremendous progress on thanks to the advanced arcane tools provided.

“Midnight, you look bored,” said Sombra, interrupting his thoughts, “are you having trouble coming up with further orders for your troops?”

He snapped out of his thoughts, and droned, “Uhhh.”

Needing to come up with something to say fast, he pointed with his hoof to the square of golems furthest on the left.

“Um, battalion A!” he ad-libbed, having no idea what the regiment wanted to be called, “Go to the mountains and use your magic cannons to mine for more energy crystals for my projects!”

Getting into the swing of it, he pointed to the next group, “Battalions B and C, you patrol the castle in a counterclockwise fashion so that any ponies trying to enter the grounds have to answer to you first!”

Lastly, he turned to the last regiment, “And you in team D... um... wash the outside of the castle if you get time.”

The golems of group D all looked at each other, breaking their stony gaze. Such a weird order to be getting at a serious moment like this, but they collectively shrugged and went to get the buckets and mops. The remainder of the troops moved in formation to carry out the tasks ordered by Midnight Blaze.

“You'll get used to the concept of commanding with time,” said Sombra, pleased with Midnight's start, “for now, head back inside and start in on a late breakfast. You'll need the energy.”

“Are you joining me?” he asked.

“No, I have things to attend to around the castle,” said Sombra, waving his hoof, “I will find you again within the hour to begin your training, Midnight. Be ready.”

And just like that, Sombra walked back into the depths of his fortress to check up on the progress of his “helpers”. Midnight waited a while to make sure he was gone before going back inside himself, and followed the delicious smell of breakfast that had woken him up. For some odd reason, he couldn't seem to feel any pity for the Crystal Empire, which was about to be attacked savagely by the golems patrolling outside.

Maybe it was just the growling in his belly.

Much like how Midnight had started his day, Rosseth had enjoyed his own private bed wrapped with warm blankets. A finished bottle of his favorite drink sat tipped over on his dresser, and piles of gold bits were bagged up in the corner, a huge bounty awarded to him by Sombra for his help in escaping his ghostly form. All of this, plus an offer to remain in command of the castle's affairs as a secondary officer, and it felt like everything was coming up Rosseth! The real icing on the cake, however, was tomorrow's planned invasion, where he would finally defeat Princess Cadance for his horrible life so far. So what if the Storm Amulet belonging to his father had been damaged beyond use at the moment? He would find other ways to defend himself.

“Rosseth, get up,” said a voice in the room.

The zebra hybrid shot up, seeing Sombra right next to him as if he had phased through the walls!

“Sombra, my lord!” he gasped a little groggily, “I'm sorry, I was just recovering from all these recent events.”

“I understand your need for rest, but I also need you to be awake to accept an additional gift from me,” the king of shadows continued, “surely a zebra must get lonely from time to time, hmmm?”

Rosseth saw a very crude look in Sombra's eyes, and played dumb, “I... I have no idea what you are talking about, Your Highness.”

“Oh enough of that nonsense,” Sombra said, cutting through the guise, “a zebra of your age and disposition has very particular needs, I'm sure.”

He waved his hoof nervously, “Well no, I mean, I just need water, shelter, and food like any other zebra...”

Sombra's horn glowed brightly, and Lighthearted appeared in a flash of magical energy, wearing a very lacy saddle with pink frill, and a combination of purple eyeshadow and lipstick. She made eye contact with him straight away, and Rosseth's face went pale with terror.

“Ohhhh, maaaaster,” she said softly to the zebra, stepping up to him with a faint tone of hostility in her voice, “I'm ready to serve you in any way possible. King Sombra made me see just how much of a handsome stallion you are!”

She climbed up onto the bed next to the zebra, who inaudibly seemed to be begging the king not to leave him alone with the crazy mare. But Sombra was already angry with him about his running of his mouth, and was likely already onto his plan of using him to attack the Crystal Empire. He'd have to accept this “gift”, and pray it wasn't going to be the end of him!

Sombra, ever the gentlecolt, bowed his head slightly, “She's your personal servant Rosseth. I think you'll know what to do next.”

With a stomp of his hoof on the ground, Sombra teleported himself out of the room in a puff of black shadow energy, leaving the two alone. Rosseth slowly looked back at Lighthearted, who was now sitting right in front of him on the bed.

She permitted one second of silence before saying quietly, “You're dead, zebra boy.”

Outside of the room, the king started to walk away when he heard a high pitched scream come from the zebra's personal quarters, along with what sounded like furniture being knocked over. As to be expected, he had no idea it was violence.

“Goodness, Rosseth,” he whispered, looking back slyly, “I had no idea.”

Pleased that he had done Rosseth a very special favor for helping him, Sombra proceeded on to his next subject. He needed to make sure that his superweapon was going to be ready in time for the “mane event” tomorrow.

Feeling overworked and drained from building a weapon, Techorse stepped back from the missile for a second to see his progress so far. With the magical forge, he had managed to build the outer hull of the missile in only a few hours, and had welded it together tightly. The engines were under construction right now, and the fuel supply could be generated in an hour if need be. Clearly a testament to Techorse's engineering skills, yet also most likely a great source of shame for him at the moment.

“I hate building doomsday devices,” he said sadly, as if that was something normal to say at all.

“I know you do,” mocked Sombra as he appeared from the staircase behind him, “but your participation is mandatory, Techorse, and I must say, for being forced to develop such a terrible contraption, you've worked very hard.”

“I don't want you to hurt my friends,” he answered as he turned around to face the thing, “I love them enough to build you your weapon, even if I get blamed for it. But there is one problem though.”

“What is that?” asked the king, suspicious.

Techorse moved over to a nearby chalkboard and grabbed a piece of the talk chalk with his robotic arms, “See this equation here? Getting the Afradium to work as a fissile material is easy enough, but I need to build a reacting chamber inside the warhead of the missile. The way I intend to set off the material is by imploding a ball of the substance in a rounded metal chamber...”

“On with it.”

Techorse dropped the chalk bitterly, “In short, Your 'Majesty', I can't finish building the missile because I need to weld the bomb together, and the weld won't be strong enough without a plasma welder.”

“That will be easy enough for me to accomplish personally with a spell to superheat some air,” Sombra suggested, “show me the device, Techorse.”

“It isn't that simple,” he said, “an arcane weld won't hold... Midnight taught me that magic plasma welding won't keep components together when exposed to other magical reactions. When the weapon detonates, the reaction will just pop the chamber open and ruin everything.”

“What is it that you propose, Techorse?” growled Sombra, giving him a nasty look.

“I need to do this on the physics level, so I need my laser cannons back to weld together the implosion chamber,” Techorse answered honestly, “I can use a solid beam to create a usable weld.”

Sombra could sense that Tech was telling the truth about the weld, and knew his pitiful popguns would be no match for his shadow magic should he decide to use those weapons against him.

“Very well Techorse, I will permit you to reinstall your laser weaponry,” he answered, his horn glowing red, “I assume this means the missile will be ready by tonight?”

The guns appeared out of the memorized location Sombra had placed them in, phasing into existence next to Techorse.

“Yes, it'll be ready,” he said, “it's untested though, I'm going off of theory here entirely.”

“Remember, it's the existence of such a weapon that will win me the Crystal Empire,” answered the king, trying to get his worker to relax, “not the use of it. I am still promising that we will never launch this missile unless necessary to win. The golem army should be sufficient!”

He headed for the stairwell again, listening to the clicking sounds of Techorse placing his weapons back in the saddle's sockets using the robotic arms.

“One more thing, Sombra,” Techorse said, getting the king to stop.

He finished installing his weapons, and addressed him dramatically, “You know that this is my greatest fear, building an invention that ends up causing a lot of violence and hurting a lot of ponies. That's why you simulated me... being dealt with for it.”

“You are beginning to sound like a damaged record, Techorse,” he warned, “don't become a pest to me.”

“I'm not sure what you are doing to Midnight Blaze,” continued the inventor without fear, “maybe you're really trying to make an heir for yourself, maybe you're just using him to split me and the guys up. Truth is, I don't know what you're up to, you're not the angry, out of control tyrant the Princesses told me you were. You're a master manipulator and a crazy stallion.”

He mocked him for it, “So I exceeded your expectations? That's very touching.”

“Listen to me,” Techorse continued, curling his eyebrows, “I don't trust you not to use this missile I've built. This weapon is going to be your downfall if it motivates the Crystal Ponies enough to stand up to you.”

“The Crystal Ponies send liquid down their legs at the very mention of my name, you preachy little gelding,” Sombra chuckled, “that's enough Techorse. I really appreciate your effort to warn me, but it's useless. There will be no successful overthrow of myself or my allies. But that's not to say I intend to dispose of you or your kind. Someday you will learn to appreciate the power of shadow magic and willingly serve my son Midnight.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” he grunted, turning back to the missile.

Idiot,” Sombra thought, shaking his head and heading downstairs.

As soon as he was long gone, Techorse brought up a nearby control panel and pressed on one of the magic runes present. A long rubber tube connected to the middle of the missile, a transportation for fuel. Having gone over Sombra's design multiple times before starting, Techorse was able to skimp and save on space and weight using circuitry and digital equipment, resulting in a large amount of empty space inside the missile. With that, he had created a fuel tank twice the size that it needed to be, which he believed Sombra hadn't noticed. Even if he had, it could be explained by wanting to give the rocket the longest range possible to avoid missing the mark. A peristaltic motion waved through the tube as liquid fuel was pumped into the tank inside, prepping the missile for launch.

“All right,” Techorse said, stepping away and glancing at the Afraidium sphere on the workbench in front of him, “while that fills up, time to build the centerpiece. I just hope Princess Celestia can forgive me for this...”

Chapter 29 - Rosseth Reconciled

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Chapter 29

The dark, quiet room that served as King Sombra's workshop was kept a secret from everypony in the castle, even Midnight. Tucked away in a hallway that no one ever used, and kept silent with a constant sound barrier charm that had been long forgotten by most magic users, no noise came in, and none came out. Tables of ancient petrified wood, carved deeply with runes and conduits, were bolted up against the walls made from the darkest stone. No natural light was permitted existence in the lair, only the soft blue glow from the magical wires burnt into the floor centuries ago. Along the back wall stood the main workbench, with ornate pillars along its sides carved to look like the horns of rams, and bright glowing orange lights at the tip of each one. A sinister set of brass pipes extended from behind the curved table, a pipe organ styled arrangement of tubes meant to draw arcane energy into the item being constructed. Here, King Sombra stood, his horn glowing furiously with sparks and flame while he completed another one of his many magical tools.

“Now to test this...”

With the new creations kept snugly under his cape, Sombra exited his secret arcane laboratory, and shut the brass doors behind himself. Then, with a flick of his horn, a line of green energy sprayed over it, causing it to disguise itself as part of the castle wall. Pleased that his private workspace had been kept hidden from his slaves and new “allies” alike, the king turned away and walked for his new location. It was nice to have remembered the layout of his ancient home despite his stint as the phantom that haunted the Crystal Empire.

Shadow Breeze was nearly knocked off his hooves when Sombra burst into the room he had been left in nearly an hour ago. The king had promised him a “special assignment” that would make use of his diplomacy education. Of course, this meant the ever-suffering pegasus had been left locked in one of the castle's many chambers with just a cushion to sit on and two small tables in the otherwise empty room. A single circular window sat at the other end of the room, but the glass was heavy and thick, and there was no way to open it for his freedom.

“Hello Shadow Breeze,” said the royal, smirking, “are you ready to give your time in service to my son?”

“I guess,” he answered, feigning a smile for the master of shadows, “Midnight's my friend, I'll help how I can!”

“Very well. I need you to deliver a message to the Crystal Empire for me,” Sombra continued, his green aura reaching into his cape.

Out came two silver neck braces, each crowned with a large green stone with subtle streaks of lime green running throughout. Horizontal-cut rubies lined the sides of the main gemstone, and the back of the necklace remained open to accept the wearer. Sombra levitated one of the braces onto the first of the two little coffee tables in the room, and a narrow bolt of his magic shot from his horn into the main gem stone, causing it to glow. The other necklace was left untouched on the other table.

Sombra made sure to step a little bit further away from the activated collar, “Shadow... ironic isn't it? That you bear that name but are not one of my kind. I should be insulted, but... I can sense that you go by a pet name.”

“How did you know that?” asked the timid stallion, his striped mane soaked in sweat.

“I did not probe your mind, or anything so taxing,” Sombra teased in order to toy with his slave, “it was a matter of considering your talent with my amulet. The Shadow Amulet I created so long ago as a part of an arcane crafting championship... that I won. I'm surprised it ended up in the hooves of such a coward as yourself!”

“Hey, you were the one who lost it,” retorted Shadow Breeze, seeming to overcome his fear slightly, “I just found it and used it for good, instead of whatever horrible things you were doing with it!”

“Ah, then perhaps I should be thanking you for bringing back my lost treasure,” continued the unicorn, “but, I suppose neither case matters. Are you prepared to deliver my message for me?“

Shadow Breeze knew the message was not going to be anything remotely pleasant for the Crystal Empire, but getting out of the valley meant being able to help his friends. So he quickly agreed to the king's task again.

“I'm ready.”

“Good. Now, if you could, please tell me where we are right now?”

Shadow Breeze blinked, “I'm sorry... what?”

The king's eyes glowed orange, “Where we are. Say it. Now.”

“We're in your castle!” came a terrified response.

“No... broader.”

The pegasus got the message, “Oh... we're in the Valley of Shadows someplace northeast of the Crystal Empire.”

As soon as the words escaped his lips, the collar nearby let out a loud chirp, and proceeded to detonate spectacularly, filling the room with heat from the fiery explosion and blasting out the glass window with the loudest shattering noise imaginable. Shadow Breeze screamed and covered himself with his wings, but the blast was enough to knock him over while Sombra remained standing from the weight of his armor. He laughed, and grabbed the other collar with his magic, approaching Shadow Breeze, who cried as he tried to back away from the shadow pony. But with the room being so small, he found himself in a corner, and the other collar was placed around his neck. He felt the evil device click shut around him, an interlocking set of pegs in the magical device prevented it from being removed.

Sombra cast the same activation spell upon the cursed necklace, and the primary gemstone glowed to indicate it was armed.

“There, now my insurance you will not tell Princess Cadance of our location is in place,” he said in a calm, diabolical manner, “do not worry Shadow Breeze, as long as you do not reveal our location, you will not be harmed. Fail to return by sundown or reveal this place, and you'll be nothing but dust in the wind. I promise it.”

Shadow burst into tears and pulled at the bomb with his wings, “If... if I get blown up, Midnight will never forgive you!”

“You're wasting your precious time, Shadow,” hummed Sombra jokingly, “go find Cadance and let the collar deliver its message. I wouldn't want the Crystal Empire to have to find an urn for you on such short notice.”

Stifling further tears, Shadow spread his wings, and jumped through the now-open window, soaring away for the Crystal Empire. Sombra relaxed his grin, well aware that he was in actuality taking a massive gamble by choosing to strap such a cruel device on the pegasus. Fear had always been his weapon and strongest tool, but there was a chance Princess Cadance would figure out what the collar was and disarm it. If she did...

“Well, I suppose we're prepared for the worst anyways,” he said, considering the missile, “but I suppose it is a shame I may end up backstabbing two of my son's friends.”

The ridiculous notion of him being sorry for that made him burst into deep laughter.

“Once you have finished your training and see things my way, Midnight, you won't even need your so-called friends!”

Lighthearted, stop!” cried Rosseth, moving his neck to avoid getting his skull caved in by a stomping hoof.

The furious earth pony mare was still trying to pummel the zebra, “This... is what you get... for using me! And to think I was starting to like you!”

“Wait... what?” the zebra said, before her hoof finally connected with the side of his face, craning his neck, “OOF!”

Rosseth lay still on the floor of the bedroom, the blow having knocked him into submission. The mare over him breathed heavily, the lipstick and makeup on her face starting to run from sweat.

“Ha. Got you,” she said, gratified.

She pulled him up from the floor, still dazed from the heavy hit to his skull, “Come on, get up you idiot. You're nothing without that stupid amulet of yours, are you?”

“Uuuuggh,” gurgled the zebra, with a bit of blood likely in his throat.

Lighthearted grabbed him with her hoof and propped him against the wall. Somehow, despite being smaller than the hybrid, her earth pony strength and Sombra's lack of knowledge about their previous affairs had granted her proper revenge upon Rosseth's face. Now he had an ugly bruise on his head as a reminder of his treachery.

Rosseth started to come to, the image of Lighthearted and her beautiful purple eyes swirling around in front of him. She was still rather angry, and if he could collect his thoughts, he would probably have believed himself a dead stallion.

“Now are you going to help me or what?” she demanded.

He finally managed to pull his thoughts back together, “Help you? With what?”

“You brought back King Sombra, and now you're going to help me send him back to wherever he came from!”

“Oh, like it's that simple,” he answered, annoyed, “I used Princess Luna's prized chalice to bring him back from formlessness. The process cannot be reversed!”

“You're lucky I got to you first, Rosseth,” she said, huffing about and growling, “you're a necromancer now, and you know what the laws say about that.”

“Necromancy? There was clear evidence King Sombra still existed despite what you'd think,” countered the Zebra, rubbing the side of his head with a hoof, “His half-physical form was simply turned into a pure ethereal one. But I was offered his help when I found the horn...”

“Where did you get his horn? What happened?”

Rosseth decided to finish telling the story, “When King Sombra was reported destroyed, I knew that seemed highly unlikely. Your Crystal Heart has enough intelligence to question the ethics of erasing somepony from existence. It left just one piece of him, his horn, and his spirit remained in it, capable of transmission over long distances.”

Lighthearted climbed back up onto the bed, and motioned for him to sit next to her.

“Oh no way,” he answered, grumbling, “you're just going to hit me again.”

“Promise I won't if you finish telling me why you decided to be a jerk,” she offered, returning to her usual self with a smirk.

She ditched the embarrassing paper-thin saddle strapped to her back while waiting for him to climb up onto the soft comforter. Seeing the welt she had left on his striped face made her proud of herself.

“When I was little, Princess Cadance ruined my life by splitting up my parents,” he said plainly, getting tired of telling others over and over again, “which wouldn't have been so awful, it weren't for the fact that I'm a... half breed.”

Lighthearted placed her hoof under his chin, “That would explain the adorable brown patch here. So you're half zebra, half pony?”

“Are you listening to me?” he grumbled, pushing away her hoof, “And yes, my father was a zebra and my mother was a pony. They ended up not getting along, and I was stuck having to choose who to go with. I chose boarding school, visiting maybe once a year.“

His companion raised and eyebrow at the statement, “So Princess Cadance failed to save your parents' marriage and you've brought back King Sombra to deal with her?”

“Yes, and with the second fall of the Crystal Empire, her failure as a princess will be finished,” continued the zebra, brooding, “she does not deserve the love she gets and the power she has with how she made my life miserable.”

For the first time, Ligthearted could see that behind the charm and wit, Rosseth was broken and felt cheated. Surely the foals at his school made fun of him for being “half a pony”, or worse. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat just thinking about it.

“Ross... I'm sorry that the princess couldn't keep your parents together. You have every right to hate her for it,” she said warmly, “But I can tell you aren't happy with the money and power King Sombra gave you. You weren't even happy getting... me.”

The zebra looked into her eyes, still frowning, “What are you saying, Lighthearted?”

“I'm saying revenge on Princess Cadance will not make you any happier either,” the earth pony sighed, “destroying Cadance's life, and everypony else's is not going to make things right for you. Now King Sombra is loose, and he's going to terrorize everypony, including you.”

He questioned her, “And how come you're not afraid of him? The other Crystal Ponies nearly faint at the mention of his name!”

“When King Sombra first took over the Crystal Empire, I took to sabotaging his work whenever I could,” she said, justice in her voice, “I broke his magic toys every chance I got, and stayed hidden from the golem patrol. But since everypony else was chained up and under a curse, I wasn't a known freedom fighter.”

“So you never got caught despite his insane power? It seems he knows things ahead of time,” Rosseth commented, surprised at the waitress's hidden past.

“My guess was, he found my 'attitude'... hot. He, took a lot of us as... prizes.”


Lighthearted nodded sadly, “He even had a favorite, which I helped escape his castle just the day before we all vanished. She never told me her name, but boy was she scared. And pregnant.”

“Can we please not discuss King Sombra's bodily habits?” winced Rosseth, “Why do you think I declined you as a gift? He's an animal and I know it.”

She rubbed the makeup and lipstick off her face, leaving a big purple stain on her hoof, “Then why work for him? Change your mind and let's stop him together!”

His eyes and ears sank, “It... it's too late. He will destroy us if we try. I need to carry through with this and defeat Princess Cadance. Once I have my revenge, we can stop Sombra. But you must understand why I feel the way I do.”

“I do,” Lighthearted said, scooting next to him, their sides coming into contact, “Rosseth, you've never been properly loved. That's why you hate the Princess of Love so much. But really, there is so much to love here. You're smart, you're clever, you can brew potions... you... make me laugh.”

They made eye contact, bodies already touching, and Rosseth felt the warmth from the mare. She had attacked him out of frustration, not hatred. There was something about her that he never felt before, a feeling of acceptance and comfort...

...and the feeling of warm, passionate lips on his.

Without really thinking, the two had kissed, and as soon as it was over, they were left speechless and in shock. Lighthearted had leaned in and gone for it almost as if by instinct.

“I... I shouldn't have done that,” she said, short of breath and jumping from the bed, “come on, we've got to get out of here.”

“Wait!” he said, standing up as well, “Ligthearted, stop!”

She listened, slowly turning around, “Ross I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking.”

“No, Light,” he said, a new pet name for her, “I feel the same way about you. I promised myself I would never grow attached to anypony I met during this mission. But... you're the only individual I've met who ever cared about me. To get angry at me enough to brave King Sombra just to get back at me. I've never felt this way about anyone before”

She was still conflicted, “I... I know, but... we can think about it once we get out of here.”

“Yes, and I'll help you,” he answered, smiling, “but first, let's get you clean.”

Together, they left the messy bedroom to get Lighthearted cleaned up, heading for a known master bathroom where she could wash the makeup and lipstick away. The door to the hot bath was gilded in silver on a white door, and many expensive looking paintings of various ponies and scenery hung in the hallway outside. Two ponies stood near the doorway, a pegasus mare and her almost identical twin sister, both of them with teal coats and light blue manes. Rosseth noticed that their eyes looked almost soulless, quite similar to the description of their earlier captivity under the specter form of Sombra.

The sight of a familiar face cheered them up and put the light of the Crystal Empire back in their eyes, “Aren't you the mare from the courtyard who got grabbed by the king?”

“Yes, it's me, Lighthearted,” she answered, “I'm trying to get a nice hot bath before we come up with plans to stop Sombra..”

“He told us to wait here to see if Prince Midnight wanted a bath this morning,” one of the twins said, “guess he's not coming. Let's go quickly and get that purple color out.”

“I'll wait here then,” said Rosseth jokingly, “as much fun as a communal bubble bath would be.”

Lighthearted took a swat at him again, tapping his tender head bump.

“Ouch! Joking, Light! Enjoy your bath.”

The mare disappeared inside the tiled room, leaving the zebra alone outside. He heard footsteps coming from the down the hallway of the castle, along with the noise of armor moving.

It's Sombra... and he's going to wonder where his two mares went,” thought the zebroid quickly.

Sure enough, the king turned the corner and found Rosseth having closed the door to the bathroom, acting as if he had just exited. Sombra noticed the welt on his head, and snickered at what he believed to be the cause of the sore.

“What's the matter Rosseth?” he joked, “Looks like things got somewhat rough between you and Lighthearted. Did you send her in to get cleaned up?”

“Indeed my lord,” answered Rosseth, rubbing the spot, “she's quite the firecracker I must admit. I hope you don't mind me borrowing your bath mares to help her get rid of that extra makeup.”

“Not at all, in fact, you should get a bath yourself,” the king suggested, “you'll need all the relaxation you can get, given that you'll be leading the invasion of the Crystal Empire tomorrow.”

“Excuse me?” he asked, surprised.

“Well, I didn't make you commander of my forces to have you sit around,” Sombra explained as if Rosseth were a child, “tomorrow you will march out with the golem army and lead them on an attack to strike at the Crystal Palace. There will be details tonight in the barracks. Don't miss them.”

The king's magic had already probed Rosseth's mind, and he was very aware of Rosseth's desire to betray him for his feelings towards Lighthearted. He could have gone into a rage and ended the zebra right there, but that would likely ruin the bathroom door. Sombra simply refused to see the zebra that resurrected him as anything other than a pawn, one he could order into battle with Cadance's land an expect obedience. He could still sense the deep hatred for the princess inside his heart, and felt it necessary to exploit those feelings for his own gain.

“It is clear you're having second thoughts,” Sombra said dryly, making Rosseth's mane hair curl on end, “do you not wish to see Princess Cadance vanquished for failing you? I thought I was granting you the ultimate honor of taking her and the Crystal Empire down personally.”

“I... I do still hate Cadance,” he muttered, “I just need time to brew more potions for battle.”

“Please, help yourself to Midnight's laboratory in the basement,” answered the king, bowing his head gently, “he will not mind, as he will be in training all day.”

He then raised his head again, revealing his irises to have changed to a blood red, “Just be warned, zebra... I know your every thought, and every move. You belonged to me the moment you poured out Luna's prized chalice, and I will not accept a betrayal.”

Instantly, the zebra felt a tormented voice and pain emerge from his cortex, spreading through his brain like wildfire. Sombra was magically torturing him with a Ghost Voice, faking out the hair cells in his ears with artificial screaming and phantom pain. He felt like dropping to the floor to writhe in agony, but the spell had also locked up the muscles in his legs, leaving him straining for breath while standing up..

“Get out of my head, Sombra!” cried Rosseth, hearing the shrieks of the banshees in his mind.

The shrieking intensified, and Rosseth yelled in pain, GAAAAH!

Then, silence. The voice was gone, and Rosseth could move his legs again. First he drew in heavy breaths to replenish his spent supply of air, and cursed Sombra under his breath.

“Want me gone again all you'd like, Rosseth,” Sombra said, “but I am here now, and the only way you'll ever be rid of me is if you bring down the princess. Fulfill your destiny, take your revenge, and you will be a free, happy stallion.”

The red color in his eyes was eerily was replaced with green again, and Sombra walked off without saying another word, leaving Rosseth feeling as if his blood had been turned to red ice. The torment he had just gone through was even worse than the throttling he had suffered from Ignitus. There was no turning back now.

I'm sorry Lighthearted, but... defeating Cadance is the only way to satisfy him. To satisfy both of us.

Chapter 30 - Cadance's Hope

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Chapter 30

Heavy metal footpads left a small divot in the pavement just inside the thermal barrier as a tall, humanoid character landed from flight, the small tag-along on his shoulder bracing from the shock. Yet no one seemed to be around to chastise this visitor for damaging the streets so carelessly.

“Oh dear, I believe I’ve damaged the road,” said the tall, metallic guest.

Spike, still hanging on for dear life, climbed back on board the six-foot machine’s shoulder, “What, did you run out of fuel at the last second there, PAL?”

Techorse, of course, had a robot to assist him in his laboratory work and over the years the machine had developed something of a personality from absorbing Equestria’s magic. Towering over ponies and having a body form that resembled an ancient servant golem built to assist wealthy Minotaurs, it was hard to believe the giant was indeed gentle, and being one of the other non-ponies around, Spike and the six-foot tall metal machine made fast friends.

PAL shook his right leg and spoke in a warm synthesized voice, “I think that’s correct, Spike, I used the last of the fuel for my rocket boots just as we crossed the Empire’s borders. If I cannot find master Techorse, we’re going to have to take the train back I’m afraid.”

“Don’t worry about it, the Crystal Ponies love me! It’ll be easy to bum a train ticket off of them,” chuckled the young dragon, sliding down the leg and landing on the ground, “so why do you think Princess Celestia wrote and asked us to come, anyways? All it said was that Tech needed help.”

“If my analysis was correct, that note was written quite hastily... for the princess anyways,” he answered, his metallic jawline articulating his speech while his orange glowing eyes followed Spike, “there’s probably been some trouble.”

Looking into the distance, Spike could see the Crystal Palace’s midsection opening up, the Crystal Heart beginning to emit light to brighten the late morning. An overcast day was unusual inside the thermal barrier, and that was cause enough for concern. But even worse was the strange lack of activity even on the outskirts of the empire.

“I guess we’ll find out once we talk to Cadance, huh?” the dragon asked rhetorically, “usually by now the crystal ponies are mobbing me, but there’s nopony around!”

“It is highly unusual,” the machine agreed, “let’s get to the palace. Perhaps Princess Cadance will have an answer for us.”

Sleepless, anxious, and feeling as if everything was crumbling around her, Cadance couldn’t move from on top of her bedsheets, completely destroyed from her tossing and turning. Since the first raid, two more teams of a dozen golems had entered the Crystal Empire, easily defeating her guards and carting off more of her citizens. She recalled the panicked look in their eyes, the looks of betrayal and horror as their worst nightmare had come back to claim them. Some of them were beginning to start families now, the first foals after their release from stasis and already they would be thrust into another standoff with the King of Shadows.

And it was all her fault.

She had been the one to cast the curse on Ignitus when he refused to cooperate. She ruined Rosseth’s life all those years ago with her incompetence. She had failed to secure the border, and had allowed the Crystal Empire to remain complacent, certain that the Heart had destroyed Sombra once and for all.

“Ma’am!” called out one of the crystal guards from just outside her chambers, “You may want to see this.”

Slowly, she got up from her position, and without giving a second thought to her fraying mane or the bags under her eyes, she followed her armor-clad soldier out to the balcony. When she looked down out over her empire, her worst fears had been confirmed. Most every resident of the land was standing down in a massive crowd beneath the palace, their cries and panic audible from several stories up.

What do we doooo?!

Sombra’s back, he’s going to destroy us!

They took my sister away!

“They need their leader,” the guard said flatly, “your Highness… please.”

Cadance observed her subjects below, the terror and chaos that was in their eyes as they screamed. Some of them even carried cardboard signs saying that Sombra's return would spell doom for the Crystal Empire once more. For the moment, she forgot about her own problems, and decided to aid her citizens in their time of need.

“I’m not going to shout from up here,” she answered slowly, “they deserve better from me.”

Spreading her wings, the princess jumped from the ledge, gliding down into the crowd below. She found herself surrounded by screaming, terrified ponies asking questions she couldn't understand over each other. Looking around over the shoving and screaming, she saw her husband, casting a large barrier to prevent the crystal ponies from rushing inside the palace for protection. Captain Arbiter and Limpwing were also working on crowd control, trying to keep back anyone who managed to get around the large fuchsia shield. Ignitus and Faerie Tail seemed to be absent, fortunately for them.

“Easy, we're doing all we can!” Arbiter shouted, pushing back an earth pony stallion with a hoof, “Calm down!”

The riot was getting worse, as the ponies pounded on the shield cracks began to form at the edges. Shining Armor became worried that he wouldn't be able to hold on and he'd be trampled underhoof by the swarm.

“Think Cadance... what kind of a spell can I use to calm the crowd,” muttered the slender mare.

Limpwing felt her eyes squint, some kind of bright light source was slowly lowering itself down to the ground, threatening to blind anyone staring at it. The Crystal Heart had descended to the ground floor, and was rotating at several thousand revolutions per second, forming a perfect ball of light. Without warning, it emitted a loud blast and a shockwave of glowing energy, deafening every last pony in the square and forcing them to shut their eyes. Shining Armor's shield shattered, but the noise was canceled out by the Heart's magic. It was silent and peaceful now, and when vision had returned to every last mare and stallion, their coats and manes glowed and sparkled with radiant energy.

“The Crystal Heart...” whispered one of the nearby pegasus mares.

“Is it trying to say it will protect us again?” asked another.

A voice of confidence spoke, “As long as we have the heart, Sombra cannot attack us!”

Feeling as if the horrible PR situation was coming to an end, Princess Cadance let out a much-deserved sigh of relief. Her subjects panicking was the last thing she needed during this crisis where four of her friends had gone missing overnight.

Hey, something's coming!

Cadance looked around, her tired eyes moving up to catch her relatives descending from the sky, as if things couldn't get any more complicated. The imperial natives moved quickly out of the way to make room as Princess Celestia and Luna landed gracefully in the courtyard outside the palace, their long wingspans folding at their sides.

“Aunt Celestia!” said the younger princess, pushing her way past the still-sparkling residents, “Oh thank you, thank you for being here!”

She embraced her mother figure tightly, Celestia wrapping her front leg around her niece, “We came as soon as we could, Cadance. Luna sensed that Midnight Blaze was in danger, and from the looks of things, I'd say there's indeed a situation on our hooves.”

“Yup, looks like King Sombra's back,” said Limpwing bluntly, backing off sheepishly when everypony else's eyes drilled into her skull.

“What?” Princes Luna gasped, “King Sombra?! But... that's impossible, your Crystal Heart made short work of him! Please do not say my chalice was involved with any of this.“

Princess Cadance felt her mane hair stand up on the back of her neck, and the pressure of guilt building up in her barrel. All of her deeds to cover up her horrid shame over the past few days were coming to a boil. She could feel the disappointment and hatred from her subjects, and she wondered why the Crystal Heart deemed her worthy of her stewardship. It was time to confess.

She stepped back from the hug, “Auntie... do you remember little Rosseth?”

“Oh, that darling zebra child?” cooed the alicorn, her smile giving away her love for the young one, “I do, it was your first challenging assignment as the Princess of Love.”

Loudly enough that every pony around could hear her, “I failed that challenge, you know. His parents split up because I wasn't good enough, and now... he's used his potion making skills to bring Sombra back from a fragment of his horn.”

Turning around with eyes blurring, she looked over her subjects and the startled expression of her loving husband. Her subjects refused to talk, their ears and eyes down as they thought over what she was saying to them.

“That's right, everypony!” continued Cadance, a tear rolling down her cheek, “I failed. I wasn't able to save a marriage so that a young colt didn't have to jump between his parents. Now you all have to suffer because of my incompetence!”

The suffering princess faced the Sisters again, “I've lost the chalice, Techorse, and his friends, too! So many others have been kidnapped, and so many have lost their homes or loved ones to these horrible golems running around. This is all my fault.”

It seemed like there weren't many ideas to console the princess, but a young unicorn stallion with an amber colored coat finally stepped up from the crowd and approached the downtrodden alicorn. He had a look in his orange eyes that could best be described as a mixture of anger and hope.

But maybe he was just tired of the emotional energy sailing around, “Princess Cadance, you have to stop this. You didn't do any of this, it was that zebra you mentioned! So what if you couldn't fix his life, he's the one taking revenge on us! Blame him, not yourself!”


Princess Celestia agreed with him, “Cadance, this stallion is right. Rosseth made the poor decision to bring back Sombra out of anger towards you. Please do not blame yourself for this.”

“But I've put everypony in danger!”

“And together, we can all get out of it,” Shining Armor announced, approaching his wife, “sweetheart, we can fix this... we've always found a way.”

“I say we praise our Princess Cadance for her loyalty to us, despite the attacks she's stayed here to help!” shouted the brave stallion, attempting to raise morale, “She's healed the injured and has done her best to maintain order! Who agrees with me?”

Thunderous applause erupted from the crystal ponies, leading the unicorn to smirk at his princess and her husband. The Crystal Ponies cheered for their leader, settling down into a nice set of fractured conversations and beginning to scatter once they were done. This gave Cadance's husband an opportunity to question the cocky stallion in front of him who had cheered up his wife.

“Who are you, anyways?” Shining Armor asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The unicorn you said couldn't join the Crystal Guard last week,” he answered, flipping his long, brown mane, “the name's Refiner. Remember me?”

“I remember the attitude that made you scare off the recruiter, yeah,” Shining Armor answered, rolling his eyes, “all right, I'll think about getting your application through. But you're still going to have to pass the physical test.”

“Fair enough.”

The crowd started to coagulate again,


Another healthy round of cheering from the seemingly mob-minded ponies sounded throughout the square.

“Spike? Spike's here?!” asked Cadance, drying her tears.

“I sent him a letter requesting he come here to help,” Princess Celestia said, winking, “I thought maybe the crystal ponies might be cheered up by him.”

PAL stepped into the crowd of ponies, Spike riding safely on his shoulders so that the lovey-dovey fan mares couldn't grab onto him and lay their affections. The robot also enjoyed the tickling sensation of gems bouncing off of his hull as the ponies tried to give Spike gifts. Several cameras were being set up to take photos of the young celebrity, and Shining Armor had to motion for the guards to stop them so that there'd be no more blinding flashes of light.

“Hey, stop throwing the gems!” Spike teased, shaking his hands at them, “you're gonna dent my friend's armor!”

“Actually this is quite pleasant,” giggled the machine, an emerald ricocheting off his right arm as he turned to address the fans, “if you're looking to give gifts, can you please leave them in an orderly pile?”

As the Crystal Ponies complied and started to pile up things for Spike in front of the two, Princess Celestia approached the robot and dragon duo.

“Thank you for coming on short notice,” she said.

“No problem,” said Spike casually, “so why did you need us here?”

“Well if you must know,” Princess Luna answered for her sister, still feeling bad about it all, “my chalice was taken by a zebra named Rosseth, and it was used to resurrect King Sombra.”

Spike bit his right claw in shock, but PAL simply narrowed his eyes and demanded answers, “What's the status of master Techorse and his friends?”

“We don't know, but we can assume they've been captured, or worse,” Captain Arbiter interrupted, his good eye looking up at the machine, “now they have shadowsteel golems running around with magic cannons, kidnapping ponies in raids and destroying homes. My sword can barely cut through the kind of armor they're coated in, and magic just bounces off.”

“Don't suppose you happened to bring any of Techie's big guns with you, did you?” Limpwing asked the servant.

“No, I didn't think to bring any laser weaponry, too heavy for the flight,” PAL answered, placing a hand on the side of his head, “surely there must be an easier way to defeat that armor, though. Do you have any salvage I could analyze for the data?”

“We're keeping one of the destroyed golems in the palace basement,” Shining Armor nodded, “you can take a look over it, Bud.”

“PAL, it's PAL,” corrected the machine.

The captain cleared his throat, “Right, sorry.”

“Oh Spike, The Brave and Glorious, what are you going to do to help us defeat Sombra!” beamed a mare who happened to get past the Crystal Guards.

The dragon, feeling sure of himself, looked at the back of his fingernails haughtily, “Well, I'll do the work, of course, but I'm going to need plenty of help from my friends here to get the job done. King Sombra won't stand a chance as long as we've got the Crystal Heart.”

“Don't get overconfident, Spike,” spat Captain Arbiter, nearly growling like a dog, “the Crystal Ponies might see you as a hero, but these golems will make short work out of you if you're not careful.”

“Easy on the threats please, Arbiter,” warned Princess Celestia sternly.

The pegasus stood down, “Very well. I've made my point.”

“We should probably get to work on analyzing the armor scheme of the golem, then,” PAL suggested, “at least until we can figure out how to rescue the others.”

While they were making plans, a purple pegasus mare clad in light armor descended, hovering just in front of Shining Armor, short of breath.

“Captain Shining, there's something you need to know,” she said, panting, her wings also fluttering to keep her in the air.

“What is it corporal?” he asked.

She kept hyperventilating, “There's a pony... just crossed the barrier, wearing a necklace of some kind... think he's one of ours. Collapsed on the ground, couldn't carry him.”

“That's Shadow Breeze!” Cadance said, her eyes growing wide when she thought about the amulet he wore, “We need to go help him!”

“But what about figuring out how to stop these crazy machines?” Limpwing asked.

PAL agreed, “We should assist Shadow first before anything else.”

The corporal pointed the way ahead, and the princesses followed along with their robot and the two captains. Of course, because Spike was on top of his friend's shoulder, the rest of the Crystal Empire went with them, and essentially all of the city followed the three princesses and their dragon hero. Princess Cadance maintained hope in her heart that perhaps Shadow Breeze would have information that could lead to the rescue of the other three stallions who went out after Rosseth.

Faerie Tail gently opened her soft eyes, having slept like a foal the night before. The other slot in the bed lay empty, with the sheet removed.

Her rekindled husband was suspiciously absent.

“Ignitus?” she asked, moving her head up, “Honey?”

Getting up, the storyteller tried to figure out where the love of her life could have possibly gone. Something was wrong, with how close he had held her the night before, how they had worked so closely together to defend the border. She had never felt more alive than her attack against the golems, and was beginning to wonder if perhaps there was a way they could compromise all that much better. Thankfully, Ignitus seemed to be close by, standing by a huge glass window that faced the east side of the kingdom. The light shining through made the crystal interior of the palace sparkle in the morning, helping to show off the handsomeness of the detectives muscular figure and well kept mane.

“Good morning, Faerie,” he said without looking back, “did you sleep well?”

“Better than ever before,” she answered, walking up to stand at his side, “I'm so glad to have you back. Everything's been perfect.”

“I believe Midnight is in danger, sugar. The entire city just moved with the royal family to investigate the border,” Ignitus answered gravely, “I'm guessing this has something to do with the boys.”

His wife felt her heart drop, “You don't mean...”

He looked back, eyes filled with the fire of concern, “I do. We need to go investigate, and I want you with me.”

Nodding, Faerie Tail went to get her warm coat while struggling not to dread the situation.

Please be alive, Midnight!” she thought desperately, her mother's instinct unleashed.

Chapter 31 - Dreams of Darkness

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Chapter 31

My mindstones project is nearly completed. Sombra's generous lab equipment and manufacturing practices has helped me push my dream forward. I hope if you read this, dad, you'll have started to appreciate what I like to do.

Midnight finished making his entry into the notebook bearing his mark, enjoying the use of the fountain pen and paper over quill and parchment. Page after page was filled with a log of his journey so far, how they had boarded the train, met and fought against Rosseth, all up until this very point where Sombra wanted to crown him as his own son. It was a huge contrast to his life just a few days ago where he was struggling to maintain a magic shop on his own. Now instead of taking a break to work on his hobbies and dreams, he was taking a break from his hobbies and dreams to work on how to be an effective leader. Surrounded by parts and pieces, he had spent all of last night and today working on the project and was just about to achieve the most effective way to energize and activate the mindstones. While he worked, he remained in ignorance of the golem forge continuing to mass-produce soldiers for his army.

The unicorn heard the door open behind him, but without the telltale sound of armor jingling, he didn't know for sure who it was.

“Midnight, it's time for your training,” Sombra announced, approaching him from the back of the workshop, “this is perhaps the most important piece of your journey to becoming the next King of Shadows.”

“I'm close to a breakthrough,” he declared.

“Bring some of your work with you then in the event that we can incorporate it into your exercises,” Sombra insisted, “but this is not something we can put off any longer, Midnight. I know you appreciate being able to work on your dreams more often, but you still have your responsibilities, my son.”

“All right father, I can drop it for now,” Midnight answered, turning around with a few of the amethyst stones tucked neatly into a saddlebag.

Am I really getting used to referring to him as my father? How long do I have to keep this up?

Sombra seemingly appreciated the respect and willingness to compromise, “Good. Follow me, Midnight. You're about to learn what it really means to be a Shadow Pony.”

As they exited the room, Midnight felt a slight twitch of surprise when the laboratory doors failed to open to the musty staircase he had been used to descending. Instead, a long hallway had replaced it, with a blue carpet in the middle of the stone floor seemingly going off into infinity. He wondered if Sombra somehow possessed the ability to re-arrange the structure of his castle to see fit, so that he didn't have to walk. A true show of force and ability over mere teleportation, which was draining enough for a unicorn.

“This is the way to the inner sanctum,” his elder told him, standing at his side, “keep your eyes forward as we enter.”

Midnight obeyed the command, keeping himself focused onto the darkness ahead. The floor beneath him felt solid to the touch, but the hallway got even more dim the further they went. Eventually it was pitch black, rendering sight impossible and depriving their eyes of any information whatsoever. It was a little cooler in the room than the hallway before, and a very muffled sound of flowing water was audible.

“We are here,” the king declared, “pause for a moment.”

His son had no answer for him, just the cessation of his movement and patience.

Sombra asked through the darkness, “What do you see, Midnight?”

“Absolutely nothing. It's darker than any place I've ever been in.”

“And yet it doesn't scare you,” the king asked, his voice seeming to move despite the lack of hoofstep noises on the stone below, “why is that, Midnight Blaze? A pony ought to be terrified in these conditions, we rely on sight for so many things after all.”

Midnight gave a complex, deep answer, figuring since it was training he needed to show wisdom and depth to make his master happy, “The dark isn't scary just like how a blind pony isn't scared all the time. They can sense the warmth of the sun, the cool of the breeze, they can hear voices... things like that. I still have all my other senses to use, so the dark doesn't make me afraid.”

“Midnight, the answer is far simpler. You are not afraid because you know I'm here in the room with you, and I would alert you to any hazards in this room,” Sombra groaned, “please do not overthink what I am trying to teach you.”

“Oh... sorry.”

“No matter,” he answered, “you understand the point I'm trying to make. Ponies are afraid of the dark because they do not know what is lurking in the darkness. If they are aware that there was nothing but a friendly cotton rabbit in this room, there would be no panic.”

“What does this have to do with my training?” questioned Midnight.

A loud snapping noise came from behind his tail, making him jump in surprise and notching up his heart rate slightly.

“You jumped out of fear,” Sombra said, “a small fear that I might take advantage of this darkness to smack you for your immature question. Would you have jumped if I had declared my intent to stomp my hoof behind you?”

“No, I'd see it coming!”

This seemed to be where the king was going with the lecture, “Exactly. You see Midnight, no matter how great, realistic, or emotionally terrifying a pony's fear is... the cure for it is information. Or, in reverse the only real fear that exists... is the fear of the unknown. Flaming Ivory, for example, doesn't know if the intent of every bug he meets is to leave him be or devour him alive. So he's afraid of them, and avoids all bugs just in case. The same logic applies to every fear.”

“And you're going to teach me how to manipulate fears,” Midnight said dully, knowing he was supposed to eventually succeed him.

Sombra took a moment to ponder a response before answering, “Only if that is how you choose to manifest your abilities. Your training will largely be about the use of Dark Magic, and how you as a Shadow Pony can manipulate it in far greater measures than the other pony bloodlines.”

“Dark Magic corrupts its user,” Midnight responded with concern, “I feel like you're going to teach me how to play with fire, considering you burnt yourself up to maintain control over the Crystal Empire.”

“Where did you get this idea that Dark Magic corrupts?” questioned the king, “Princess Celestia? Your biological parents? That's why I need to train you, Midnight... you do not understand the truth.”

The room illuminated all of a sudden, shrinking Midnight's pupils from the struggle to adjust to the sudden amount of light. When they had adjusted again, he saw that the sanctum was a plain, but large room ornately decorated with lines of gold running up marble columns and a beautiful tile floor covering every square inch. There were no windows, but the walls were built out of equally pretty bricks of carved marble, and a giant rounded blue carpet featuring Sombra's cutie mark spread all across the floor. Strangely, the room seemed to have no entrance or exit, and Midnight realized that Sombra was indeed capable of summoning a way into and out of the room, likely as his means of keeping it secret. Six silver fire pits circled the room, providing even more light with a set of blue flames likely powered by an unknown source burned with a soft crackle, providing further light. Sombra was standing across from him, on the opposite side of the carpet, half of the room stood between them.

“Welcome to the inner sanctum, Midnight Blaze. Here is where I practice spells and other skills in the art of Dark Magic. As you can see, it is not a very twisted room, given its purpose.”

“This is beautiful!” Midnight exclaimed, “I've never seen a magic practice room as nice as this before.”

“Kept clean, any space is great for practice,” Sombra smiled, “but when you're a king, well... you can afford the best! Everything about this sanctum is designed to facilitate casting. It is quiet, lit only by arcane light, and is kept cool with running water in pipes behind the walls.”

Instinctively Midnight babbled, “Will this be mine too?”

“Absolutely. I will teach you the pathway to access this room. But first, we train you,” he answered, “it is time you learn your first Dark Magic spell.”

“What do I need to do?” Midnight asked, starting to feel nervous.

“I want you to focus your mind just like you would with any other kind of magic,” Sombra declared, taking a deep breath, “you are aware just like any unicorn, that magic comes from within. While the other ponies express their magic in different ways, you are capable of emitting it from your horn, your point of focus, and changing the world around you actively. But how do you cast a spell, Midnight?”

“It's... it's second nature,” the other unicorn answered, confused, “you just told me not to overthink this, Sombra. So I'm not sure what....”

“You tap into your physical, mental, and emotional energy when you cast spells,” Sombra interrupted, “surely they taught you this in school, correct?”

“R... right,” Midnight stuttered.

“Now, I want you to cast any kind of Dark Magic at me,” he said.

Midnight blinked, “Excuse me?”

“I want you to attempt to cast a spell using Dark Magic. Whatever you believe it to be,” the king explained, “tap deep into your magical abilities and aim them in my direction. I am perfectly capable of stopping anything you can come up with, Midnight Blaze.”

Not wanting to back down from the challenge, Midnight charged up his horn, energy spraying from it in every direction. Yelling out of anger and concentration, a snaking beam of light blue energy crackling with electricity and plasma raced from his horn towards King Sombra. Smiling, the ruler phased into a cloud of dark smoke, the energy attack disappearing into the void of the new form. Loud shrieks of electrical dissipation sounded out, before the beam was completely absorbed and its target dismissed the dense shadow fog. Midnight looked Sombra in the eyes, breathing heavily from the exertion of energy.

“A very powerful plasma bolt, but that was not Dark Magic in any way,” King Sombra said, “I know you have incredible potential with your magical energy, Midnight Blaze. Perhaps that is why your birth father wanted you to become a soldier.”

“I put everything into trying to hit you,” Midnight said, growling, “I got angry for that.”

“The basis of Dark Magic is not anger, I'm afraid,” Sombra informed him gruffly, “that is a common misconception among those fools in Canterlot. 'Oh, if you get angry, you will begin to use Dark Magic', they'll tell you.”

“Then where does it come from?!” Midnight demanded to know, stomping his hoof out of impatience, “Why drag me through all of this training if you're just going to keep asking me questions?”

Sombra rolled his green eyes, and then gave Midnight what he was looking for, “Dark Magic, my son... is all about taking, rather than creating.”

Total silence from Midnight meant to Sombra that he was a bit lost on the subject.

“Allow me to explain,” he chuckled, “when you launched that plasma arc attack against me, you created that wave of energy using your horn. Something new came from you, and was used as a weapon against me. Dark Magic requires you to control something that already exists, is already in the real world, and use it for yourself.”

Midnight pondered the meaning of the statement for a minute, and then the light dawned on him, “So, when you went to control the ponies of the Crystal Empire, you weren't casting something onto them, you were directly taking control of their thoughts?”

“Exactly that. I reached into their minds, and forced them to experience their fears again and again, bringing back the doubts they had about the future, sending them into depression and anxiety,” he answered, “Did you notice that Ignitus's stranglehold on Rosseth was Dark Magic? His aura may have been visible, but he did not hold his aura around the zebra's throat. He was instead seizing control of the cells in his airways and forcing them to shut the tube.”

Midnight stood there, thinking about the implications of what he was hearing from Sombra. He had seen Rosseth get choked, flopping about in the air, desperate to draw breath again before he asphyxiated. Dark Magic seemed incredibly cruel, and yet, Midnight did not feel bothered by the thought of it. Rather than add to the world around him using regular magic, he could take away things he didn't like using Dark Magic, if Sombra was correct and the power was truly available to him.

“Now, if you think you can, Midnight... try to hit me again using your own spell,” the king suggested, “we will see if your power can truly be unleashed.”

The sapphire stallion took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. He thought carefully, focusing on what he could take control of instead of what he could emit. A stream of dark, sinister smoke started to form on the very tip of his horn.

“Yes...” trailed Sombra, smiling to let his canines show, “you're almost there, Midnight. Now concentrate, seek out control for yourself! Exert your power over your chosen target, and dominate...”


King Sombra felt his own hoof strike across his cheek, leaving a soft red mark across his face. Smoke puffed from the end of his hoof, and he regained his composure without another word, waiting for Midnight to open his eyes.

“Motor control curse,” Sombra said, shaking his head, “well... I did say try to hit me again, didn't I?”

“You're the only thing in this room to control. Anything else would be me creating a bubble from my aura and levitating it,” Midnight answered, smirking, “I figured you'd sense me doing anything to your mind right away, so I went for your hoof.”

Sombra nodded, “I see. Do keep in mind you can cast a regular attack, and then immediately control it as well. Shadow attacks have quite devastating results, if you recall the bombs my amulet generated for Shadow Breeze.“

The unicorn realized that he wasn't supposed to actually land a hit on the king, but he didn't care. He felt a glowing sense of pride and accomplishment by forcing him to slap himself like he was delirious, nothing quite like the joy he got from learning any other spell. Of course, the king was aware as to what that feeling was, and he continued to bear a smile despite the humiliation.

“I know that look anywhere. The sense of power and fulfillment knowing anything can be under your control and in your hooves,” he said, clicking his tongue against his teeth, “it feels very good, does it not? And think of it like this: if you were able to overpower my own muscles, imagine what you could do to anypony else.”

“I... I could make them do anything I want them to!” he answered, starting to laugh.

Midnight's horn wrapped itself in shadows, sending out a curving path of dark energy into the nearest pillar, punching a hole clean through it and causing it to crumble from the inside-out as if it were rapidly eroding from water exposure. All that remained was a pile of marble dust and an ornate cage of gold left over from the column crumbling within it.

“Excellent!” Sombra laughed, “You manipulated your own plasma spell to corrode the column! Now you understand Dark Magic, Midnight.”

“This is more power than I could have ever imagined,” Midnight said, his voice sounding somewhat deeper and more masculine like Sombra's, “it feels great!”

Sombra had him right where he wanted him, “I think there's just one final test in order, then, and your first lesson will be complete.”

With a flash of red energy, Sombra brought in a random earth pony slave from among his captives, and a wicker basket with a blue cushion visible from the outside. The earth pony, a stallion with a light brown coat and terrified gray colored eyes, shrieked and looked around the room rapidly. The four walls of the sanctum seemed to close in around him tightly, and his blood ran cold as ice.

“There's no way out!” he panicked loudly, sweat pouring down his face, “Sombra, I'm sorry! Don't send me to the blade outside, please!”

Blade?” thought Midnight curiously.

“Oh no, you little worm,” roared Sombra, shoving the stallion down, “your fate was sealed the moment you tried to help the mares assigned for their 'special purpose' escape!”

Special purpose?

“But,” continued the king, getting in the stallion's face and forcing him to scoot back on the cold floor, “the blade is way too good for you. No... I have an even worse fate in mind!”

Sombra looked at the basket to the right of the stallion, and whistled loudly. The other two ponies in the room waited in suspense as the basket started to shake, and then...

A small wolf pup, not even more than a few months old, wiggled his way out of the basket and pattered along the floor on his paws, large enough to indicate that he would grow to be quite strong someday. He had jet black fur, and bright green eyes, looking very much more like a husky than a wolf. When he walked over to the formerly terrified stallion, he rolled over and exposed his belly, showing a patch of fur that looked like a white star. The little one's pink tongue flopped out of his mouth, and he looked more in the mood for a belly rub than a fight.

“A puppy?” the condemned slave asked, hoping he wasn't going insane.

“Aww, what a cute little wolf!” said Midnight, walking up to the youngster, “I remember reading about the cold-weather black wolves when I was in school, but I never thought I'd ever get to see one.”

“Midnight, this wolf pup was abandoned by his mother because he was the runt of his litter,” Sombra explained, “but look at the hope for a future in his eyes, despite having been left for dead! I want you to understand that even the runt can become the strongest of his kind if given strength. He is your pet to command now, Midnight.”

Midnight responded while rubbing the puppy's tummy with his hoof, “He has hope for a future huh? Like a dream? I'll call him Dreamer then.”

The belly rubs were met with a wagging tail and bliss from the wolf, who kicked his little hind leg joyfully.

“You must use Dark Magic to turn Dreamer into a beast to serve your needs,” Sombra commanded, “a diet of insubordinate ponies should be plenty to keep him sustained.”

“WHAT?!” shrieked the captive, “You don't mean he has to turn that poor dog into a monster do you?!”

“He does... and he will,” Sombra insisted darkly, “perhaps you ending up as dog meat will teach the others not to rebel.”

Midnight glanced again at the puppy beneath him, rolling around as cute as a button.

“Turn him into a monster?” he said, bowing his head and keeping his face out of view, “No. Not going to happen. I won't turn a small puppy into a terrifying monster.”

“Midnight, show your power over this stallion and this dog,” Sombra said, “don't you love the feeling of being in control of your lives and others? Think about how everypony else wouldn't let you be in control of your destiny, like your previous father!”

The unicorn thought about Sombra's words. He had everything he wanted now, the ability to work on his projects, the secrets of Dark Magic at his disposal, wealth, and the ability to seize control of anything he desired. He thought deeply about how his father had treated him, what his friends thought about him, and how... little they had actually been able to do about his situation. Now he had something way better than that stupid military career his father had in store for him. The pain of his mother and brother from their father's antics came back to him, and how Cadance wasn't able to do a thing about it in her terrible weakness. Maybe Rosseth was right...

“Hmmm?” Sombra mused, his lip curling, “Midnight, what's wrong?”

Midnight was lost in his own thoughts, but slowly felt a feeling creep through his mind that he had never experienced before in his life. It was a bizarre mix of anger and happiness, knowing he could finally surpass Ignitus and do everything his own way. In fact, no other ponies were ever going to bother him again. The little wolf beneath him was likely the only innocence left in the room.

When Midnight Blaze raised his head again, his irises had turned a red color, “Ohhh, pardon me father. I was trying to say that turning this wolf into a monster and having it snack on this loser over here's a waste of my talents! I can do way more than that!”

“Oh thank goodness,” whimpered the enslaved earth pony, “I'm not gonna be wolf food.”

“Get out of my sight you coward,” midnight growled, shooting a red ray of energy into the stallion.

He vanished in a flash of light, finding himself chained back to his post in the castle's storage room.

“Amazing,” King Sombra said, proud as any father could be, “you've brought forward the Shadow Pony blood deep within you already.”

Midnight nodded and with a flick of his head, threw a blast of shadowy smoke onto the wall, creating a hallway the size of a pet door. He then petted the pooch on the ground one more time, and dismissed Dreamer with a smile. The dog seemed a little concerned, but gave a happy woof and ran down the hallway, which vanished behind him.

“There's something I have to try with my mindstones project,” Midnight said, his eyes returning to their original color, “let me just get Flaming Ivory here.”

With a loud report and flash of light, Midnight ripped Flaming Ivory out of his current location and dragged him into the room, shocking the musician who dropped the instruction manual to the Omnichord electric piano. The teleportation had come so fast and without warning, that he had been caught in the middle of his work.

“Hey! I wasn't done!” he shouted, darting looks between the two stallions, “Where the hay am I?”

“So, Flaming, welcome to my inner sanctum,” Midnight Blaze laughed, “I've been wanting to do something like this to you ever since we met.”

The unicorn's eyes widened, “Woah, Midnight... what's wrong with you? You've got this crazy grin and your eyes keep flashing red... thought only my eyes changed color when using magic.”

“Your eyes are a defect, mine are from my own skill and talent,” Midnight answered, putting a hoof to his chest haughtily, “you know, you've been a real jerk this whole trip, making fun of ponies and raging at the stupidest stuff. That's why I'm going to test out my newest creation on you.”

King Sombra watched Flaming Ivory turn pale and smiled, “Such passion, Midnight. I love what you are doing!”

Midnight levitated a mindstone out of his saddlebags discarded on the floor nearby, and brought the purple gem in front of his face. Zapping it with a nasty beam of black colored light, the stone vibrated and sparked as it was changed by the exposure to the spell Midnight was casting. Then, he screwed it into place on a bright silver ring he had also saved from the workshop, and held the finished product in front of him using his ordinary turquoise colored aura.

“It's finished!” he said, “I knew it would work! Now Flaming, come here please.”

Flaming Ivory knew that the Midnight Blaze he had befriended was not who was in charge of the similar pony in front of him, and tried to turn around to run only to see the fact that the room had no escape. He cursed his lack of knowledge of teleportation spells, and could only watch in horror as his legs started to feel warm. Midnight was casting a curse on him to force him to walk towards him, one slow step at a time.

“Don't make this hard, Flaming. I only need to finish my experiment!”

Screaming, the piano player tried everything he could to get himself to stop, to the point of trying to use his own magic to halt his legs. But he took step after step with his muscles no longer under the control of his own nervous system, and soon he found the ring Midnight had created being jammed over his horn.

“Not another inhibitor!” he shouted, “Come on, man, snap out of it!”

“Shut up, Flaming,” Midnight growled, “Sombra made it clear you're my servant now, and that's just what you'll be!”

The formerly purple mindstone was now a sickly red and green color, and Midnight manipulated it with his mind with Flaming helpless to stop it. He found himself doing a backflip, performing a spectacular feat of acrobatics that he wasn't capable of before, and landed facing King Sombra, who was quite surprised.

“what did you do to him, my son?” he asked.

“I reverse engineered the mindstones to be able to control ponies,” he said, “they now act as a channel to seize control of the victim's mind and body by making them want to obey orders rather than forcing them. Honestly I don't plan on shoving one of these on every pony in the castle, just Flaming Ivory since he's such a jerk. Since he can't seem to be nice on his own, I'll help him learn!”

And just like that, Flaming Ivory felt his brain turn into a mass of chewed gum, thoughts being scrambled and rewired. When his mind solidified again, he looked over King Sombra and spotted his bright red cape first thing. Previously he would have taken a stab at his enemy's appearance, but now all he could think about was how neat his clothes were.

“Hey, never noticed this, but your cape's pretty sweet Sombra, did you make it yourself?”

“Well thank you Flaming Ivory,” Sombra snickered, having not had this much fun in years, “but it's a family treasure. Older than myself.”

“Yeah but you don't look any older than me,” Flaming Ivory said.

It was amazing how the unicorn's speech pattern did not give away what had happened to him. He didn't drone on or force words out of his mouth as was typical with true mind control. Instead, Midnight's version seemed to be geared towards rewiring the brain to the desired effect. The mindstone on the top of the ring mounted to Flaming's horn was now colored brown and orange, and it sparked and flashed as if something was banging on the inside of the gem.

“Ah well thank you, I try to keep my appearance up as a king,” Sombra said courteously.

“Hey can I get back to the piano now?” Flaming Ivory asked, picking up the instruction manual with his magic, “I was a bit busy, and I want to be able to play it for you guys later.”

“Sure! See you around Flaming,” Midnight answered, smiling.

He teleported his friend back out of the room, satisfied with what the mindstone had done. King Sombra felt nothing but pride for his adopted son, and threw his hoof around his side.

“Your talents perhaps surpass even mine,” he said, “in just a moment you figured out another magical tool that serves the purposes I've taught you about today. Keep practicing your art, and you will become the greatest stallion Equestria has ever known.”

“I only wanted to show up my former dad,” Midnight answered, “and anypony else who hurt me.”

“And that is exactly what Dark Magic is for,” Sombra agreed, “to make things right again, not to destroy. You, like Rosseth, just wanted justice for your treatment. And I have reached out to both of you through that chunk of horn material to help you learn how to do that!”

Midnight hugged him unexpectedly tightly, “Thank you, father.”

Sombra was not expecting an actual warm hug, but he returned it with his own strong hooves. When the parental embrace ended, the king felt that perhaps Midnight was a little more than an adopted child now. A subtle beeping noise interrupted their moment, and Sombra noticed that there was a glow coming from a small band of silver he was keeping in his cape.

“It looks like Shadow Breeze has reached the Crystal Empire. We should go give our little speech for our future servants,” he said, cracking a terrible joke, “After that, there’s a few more lessons planned for today. Shall we?”

“Yes,” answered the new prince, “I want to learn!”

Forming a new hallway out of the room, Sombra and Midnight left side-by-side, with the same vengeful happiness in their hearts. Once they were out, the flames surrounding the enclosed room flickered, and then extinguished to shroud the room in darkness once more.

Chapter 32 - Shadow's Message

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Chapter 32

Barely able to move and hardly in any condition to deliver his message for King Sombra, Shadow Breeze somehow was able to keep his eyes open. A line of dirt behind him showed how he had crawled past the thermal barrier on his belly, the harsh winter and his haste out of fear of his still-flashing collar left him drained. But he could already see ponies rushing to make sure that he was fine, and he worked up the strength to stand on his own four hooves to greet them.

“Shadow!”, cried Princess Cadance, leading the pack of Crystal Ponies, “Oh my goodness, you're okay!”

He could see that all of his friends, including the three princesses were about to surround him and shower him in love.

“STOP!” he shouted, holding up a wing, “Don't come any closer!”

Just like that, all the ponies present stopped charging and stared at him, confused as to why he wanted to be left alone.

“What's wrong?!” Cadance asked worriedly, “Where were you this whole time?!”

“I... I can't tell you!” choked the pegasus in response, his eyes betraying his terror, “You just have to trust me that it's too dangerous.”

“What's the lad going on about now?” Arbiter asked, pushing in front of the other ponies, “Mr. Breeze, you'd better have a good explanation as to why you can't inform us as to where have you been.”

A bead of sweat ran down his face, “I really can't say!”

Princess Celestia squinted at the necklace around her friend's neck, curiously examining it from the back of the horde of Crystal Ponies. Her sister seemed to not notice, focusing on what Cadance and Arbiter were saying to him.

“Shadow, any information you can give us about the location of King Sombra is important,” Shining Armor urged of him, also stepping forward, “we might be able to save the others too!”

“No, you don't understand!”

The gemstone central to his necklace shimmered and let out a loud wailing sound, sparks flying and flashing while sending up a triangular ray of red light high above the ponies. A wide screen of visible magic sprawled out from the end of the pyramidal ray, and all those present looked up at the rectangle being hovered above them. A perfect image formed on the magical projection, King Sombra's image appearing clearing in the enchanted display screen created by the arcane creation firmly around Shadow Breeze's neck. Ponies gasped at the reality that King Sombra truly had returned to conquer them, and their enemy's face and neck took up the entirety of the image. He began to address his former subjects with a voice that sounded crystal clear, being filtered enough that it did not sound like it was being transmitted through an old radio. It was quite loud, but the sound coming out from collar at a projected angle that fortunately spared Shadow's hearing.

“Greetings, ponies of the Crystal Empire,” he said, looking down with a sinister grin on his face, “as you can clearly see, I am not at all the ghost you thought me to be. I've come to discuss the terms of the return of your empire to my control. All are welcome back peacefully... I hope.”

“King Sombra,” Princess Cadance declared, the 'giant' King's eyes focusing on her as she craned her neck up to talk to him, “I am Princess Cadance, the new Crystal Princess and the leader of this land. You'll never have my ponies as slaves again, understood?”

“But I already have roughly three dozen of you back as my workers,” the king commented mockingly, “my golems are more than capable of punching through any sort of defenses you have prepared. Let's not make things any nastier than they have to be, your Highness.”

Cadance turned a shade of unhappy red, and her aunt moved forward with a harsh tone, “King Sombra, my sister and I vanquished you once, we'll be happy to do it again if you do not end this immediately!”

“Ah Princess Celestia,” Sombra answered, chuckling and peering over her, “and little looney Luna, the Princess who backstabbed you all.”

“Enough, Sombra,” said Luna, answering for herself, “what have you done with Techorse and his friends?”

“Why, they're right here with me,” he said slyly, stepping back from the runic recording device he had constructed.

Sombra backed away from the device, showing the ponies a clear view of the room he was broadcasting from. It was a wide and tall room on the east side of his castle, with glass windows on the sides that brightly lit it, and a large raised platform in the center surrounded by a sunken pit in a half-moon shape, creating the effect of a podium surrounded by a deep chasm. A red carpet led out of the room towards the “camera”, and dark crystal hung from the ceiling. Gold and silver ran along columns in the walls, and a big red stained glass window bearing Sombra's cutie mark hung above what looked to be an ornate throne. It was constructed from the softest velvet and the finest ivory carved from the tusks of long-extinct monsters native to the region, and dark obsidian stone that was polished to perfection. But what made Ignitus and Faerie Tail collectively miss a few beats of their hearts, was the fact that their own son was sitting upon this cursed throne, smiling at them as if nothing was wrong. Techorse and Flaming Ivory stood at each side of the throne, looks of defeat upon their faces.

“Midnight...” whispered Faerie Tail, “oh thank goodness he's okay.”

“No, he isn't,” Ignitus commented, hugging his wife tightly, “he's far too happy to be okay. Something's wrong. Look at his eyes, honey, they're red.”

“What have you done to my son, Sombra?!” wailed Faerie Tail when it registered in her brain that her husband was right.

Ahhh, lady Faerie Tail, I've only given Midnight Blaze his rightful place in my world,” answered the king, raising a hoof and explaining cheerfully, “you see, I've decided to take Midnight Blaze in as my own son. Your husband's arrogance in ignoring his talents as an artisan of magical gear has led him to choose me over you.

“I'll kill you, Sombra,” growled Ignitus, putting a divot in the ground with his hoof.

“Such bravado. But it's far too late as you can see, please tell them, Midnight,” he said in response.

Midnight rose from the throne, and walked towards the camera, “Ignitus, you've never supported me as your son, even when I did my best to impress you.”

Ignitus made Faerie's heart melt again when he turned to begging, “Midnight, I know, but... fight whatever mind control Sombra's got on you... PLEASE!

“What mind control?” asked the unicorn plainly, before understanding what he meant, “Oh, you mean the red eyes? Here...”

Midnight closed his eyes, then opened them again, showing the turquoise irises his parents knew, “See, I'm doing this. King Sombra showed me Dark Magic, and what I'm truly capable of accomplishing. He didn't demand I start going into the military and take orders like you. Thanks to being a part of his lineage, he has become my father and has given me the ability to do what I want with my life, something you never cared about.”

“That's a lie,” shouted Faerie Tail, “King Sombra is not your father, Midnight Blaze!”

Ignitus interrupted her, “Your Majesty...”

Faerie focused her attention on the detective. He had that peculiar look in his eyes that she knew all too well from his time serving as her captain of the guard. The unicorn felt a twinge of anxiety, knowing what would follow.

“Ignitus.. it's not true... is it?”

He turned and looked at Faerie Tail, kissing her gently on the forehead before turning back to the projection.

“Midnight, the reason why I insisted you serve Equestria is because King Sombra is correct. He is our distant ancestor through a mare that escaped his rule over a thousand years ago. Generations of ponies from her gave their lives in service to Equestria to make up for the horrors Sombra caused. I only insisted you join the military so that you could take up that necessary tradition. I should have told you the family secret ages ago... I'm sorry!”

“Oh you have GOT to be kidding me,” hissed Limpwing, “That's what you were thinking this whole time, Ignitus!?”

“You don't understand, Limpwing,” he answered, bowing his head in shame, “the first son born to that mare, Autumn Wheat, was treated with harsh judgment. He couldn't find work, he couldn't make any friends... they all feared he'd become the next Sombra. And he might have, if it wasn't for Princess Celestia and Luna taking him in and turning him into a fine soldier. As a hero for Equestria, he was accepted. When the Crystal Empire reappeared, I was worried they would discover my family's past and hunt us down.”

“Aunt Celestia, when were you going to tell me about this?” sighed Princess Cadance.

Celestia frowned, “It... it never occurred to me that an incident with the Shadow Pony bloodline would ever happen again. By the third generation of Sombra's children, Equestria had become completely accepting. But the fathers of the household continued to join the Equestrian defense forces for centuries, until Midnight's refusal. He's the first to decline.”

Midnight was listening to the conversation, on his end the view of the Crystal Empire was being broadly displayed by projections from two casting towers at the sides of his new throne room, twin columns of sandstone carved with red gems in segments that rotated around each other. Now he understood why his father had kept the secret of his harshness locked away.

Midnight visibly shuddered, “You... you shouldn't have kept that from me. It would have explained so much.”

“It is far too late now,” King Sombra grunted, entering the scene again from the left and standing next to Midnight, “your failure will haunt you for the rest of your life, Ignitus. Midnight and I will rule together as a family without your secrets and insecurities.”

“Enough, just tell us what you want,” the defeated stallion replied.

“Very well. Let's move on to what will happen over the next twenty four hours,” agreed Sombra, smiling.

The view the Crystal Ponies had shifted to rows upon rows of golems outside the castle, brandishing their magic cannons and marching forward. Sombra's voice could still be heard over the scene of the advancing troops.

“Tomorrow at about ten in the morning, my golems will be positioned outside the Crystal Empire. If you drop your defenses and allow them to claim the realm for me, I will not bring any harm, and my reign will not be nearly as horrible as my first.“

“Like we can believe that,” Limpwing sarcastically said, “so why are you spilling your plans like this anyways, Sombra? Not too good of a strategy.”

“Ah, well, you see... I have something that will ensure my victory even if my plan is well known in advance,” answered the king, shifting the scene to the silo deep within the castle.

“What is that thing?” asked Princess Cadance, squinting at the display.

It was the ballistic missile Techorse had constructed, liquid nitrogen creating puffs of icy air around the machine to keep it cool as it fueled up for launch. The superweapon's tip occasionally sent out a red wave of energy around it from the afradium core being eager to go off.

“This is a missile weapon developed by your very own Techorse,” King Sombra explained, “how kind of him to develop such a beautiful piece for me. I hope you won't be viewing him as a traitor for it, Princess Celestia.”

“You forced Techorse to build a missile?” she gasped.

“Indeed, when this missile strikes the Crystal Empire, it'll blow apart the shields, detonate over the palace, and shroud the Crystal Empire in a cloud of pure fear and agony. Your ponies may recognize from the red glow of this rocket what materials lay inside... I doubt they'll let you believe this is a dry threat, Celestia.”

The Crystal Ponies were indeed trying not to scream, but panic and fear was definitely the key theme of the crowd's demeanor. The magical screen changed again into a black chalkboard background, and the castle was drawn as a 3D diagram, with the Crystal empire miles away.

“The missile is capable of hitting your palace within ten minutes of launch, and is impervious to magic and anything else you can muster,” he said, “but, if you surrender to my general, Rosseth, I'll spare you the fate of being permanently scarred by the poison this weapon carries.”

“Rosseth...” Cadance said softly, hoping to see him again.

Again, the view changed, back to the throne with the four ponies, Techorse's eyes firmly on the ground and beginning to water a bit. The guilt was endless and on display for everyone.

“Oh... poor Techorse,” Princess Celestia whispered, trying not to cry herself, “I know you didn't mean it.”

“Princess Cadance... it is all your decision now,” King Sombra said, “your friends have failed you. Even alicorn magic cannot stop us, and Midnight will be crowned my son tomorrow night at the last second of the day. The Crystal Empire must return to its rightful owner, it does not belong to cowards and weaklings like you and the Crystal Ponies. Why do you think I sent this messenger back to you? Shadow Breeze was the biggest coward of the ponies you sent to stop me!”

Shadow Breeze looked up, and grit his teeth, grumbling about something under his breath. He felt the fear in his heart start to slip away.

“And without my location, you'll never be able to stop both the missile and the army,” Sombra assured them, “your best option is surrender and return to my fold as slaves to the crown. Prince Midnight will see you are given fair treatment!”

“Hey Princess Celestia,” said Shadow Breeze angrily, “I want him to shut up, and I know a way I can save the Crystal Empire. It's just... can you please tell my mom, dad, and marefriend that I loved them a lot?“

“Shadow Breeze, what are you talking about?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

Shadow then bucked up on his hind legs, took a deep breath, and shouted at the top of his lungs,


Sombra's expression turned to raw frustration and hatred, “Shadow... how unfortunate for you.”

In the throne room, Techorse and Flaming Ivory raised their heads, seeing Shadow Breeze directly below them. His collar emitted a bright yellow light of some kind, curiously.

“Goodbye everypony,” he said, with a happy smile on his face.

Princess Celestia's eyes widened as her hears filled with a very loud chirp. Then, with extreme force and heat, a massive explosion consumed the pegasus along with the collar, terminating the transmission above and causing panic and commotion. Tears ran from Princess Luna and Cadance's eyes, and Faerie Tail buried her face in her husband's neck, crying like an infant.

Techorse and Flaming Ivory took a second to realize what had happened, and even Midnight felt a bit of shock despite the Dark Magic's effects. Flaming Ivory wanted to rage, but the ring on his horn prevented him from doing so, and darkness took its place.

“Shadow,” said Flaming Ivory, eyes wide, “what... no! NO!”

“The transmitter was a bomb,” Techorse stated, his voice stuttering, “Sombra... you... you really are a monster.”

“Poor Shadow,” Flaming Ivory blubbered, before wailing, “he's dead. Oh sweet Celestia he's dead.”

Midnight Blaze simply said, “A shame. I liked him. Perhaps he should have listened.”

Techorse felt something twist in his guts, and a lump in his throat, “Midnight... how could you? He was your friend. You... you were just supposed to pretend to go along with Sombra's plan. You've really joined him, haven't you? Why, Midnight!?

“Techorse, don't make me put a control stone on your head too to keep you from preaching,” he groaned, “father, it seems that they are aware of our location now. What's the plan?”

King Sombra cleared his throat and turned around, “We will leave a small number of golems behind to defend. But I do not think they will attack us directly, as they'll be too busy gearing up to defend themselves. Chance are they will now resist, so we will finish preparing the missile for launch.”

“Techorse is in no condition to prepare the missile with his sadness,” Midnight said, taking a little pity on his friend, “and it will likely require mathematics to calculate the trajectory.”

“He will finish the sequence if he wants to survive this,” Sombra growled, “back to your posts you two.”

Techorse worked up the courage to challenge him, drying his tears with his hoof, “Sombra, I've given you every chance I could...”

“Oh not this again,” the king grumbled, “Midnight, if you please. You and Flaming can do what you wish now.”

Midnight nodded, and his horn sparked to life, causing the two of them to vanish out of the throne room.

“Techorse, you've lost. It's really not that hard to understand if your brain is really as big as it seems to be,” Sombra said, walking up to the green stallion with contempt on his face, “now it's quite unfortunate that Shadow Breeze perished, but it was his choice to betray me. I... I did not think he would actually do it, but I understand his reasoning.”

Techorse sat in silence and thought about his next move, looking around on the floor. Sombra knew what he wanted to say, but he wondered if the sudden loss of Shadow Breeze had finally broken the inventor's heart and left him speechless.

Before the troubled pony could open his mouth to say something, Sombra continued over the top of him, “I've been reading your mind since you started, Techorse. I know you also intend to betray me.”

“Then why haven't you killed me, too?” he asked, “Will you do it once I launch the missile?”

“No,” Sombra answered, “I don't intend to end you. I intend to end your idea.”

Techorse didn't seem to understand, so he sighed and explained, “Techorse, it is very easy to dislike you, but it's very hard to hate you. The way your mind works, you find the good in others and use that to change them. Sometimes you even have to beat them down to get them to see that, but ultimately you cannot bring yourself to destroy anything that has even a tiny bit of good in it. That is beautiful, but it must be taken away from you. There are just some things, like myself, that do not have any good left in them.“

“I know,” Techorse said, looking up, “there's no good left in you at all.”

“Then you will never truly defeat me,” Sombra answered, eyes turning red, “I hope you will accept this truth, and be content with your new place in this world.”

“You don't understand,” he continued, “there's no good left in you, but you're obviously in pain. You keep trying to apologize to me in a way. That's why I'm saying you still have one more chance left.”

“If I did, it was gone along with your friend. The Shadow Kingdom will return and claim the Crystal Empire tomorrow, and perhaps Equestria as well in the future. I hope you'll understand and join me, Techorse. I think you could be great.”

“I'm serious,” Techorse responded blankly, “you're going to regret all of this.”

King Sombra felt disgusted at Techorse's lack of fear and anger, there was this gross sense of caring about the earth pony he didn't want to feel. If he wasn't implying that he would destroy him somehow, then what would?

“Techorse, return to your laboratory. Your threats are empty.”

“There's nothing to do there now,” he said in return, “leave me alone.”

The unicorn allowed it, “Very well, Techorse. Take some time to mourn Shadow. You understand now.”

Leaving him, Techorse waited until he heard the throne room doors slam behind him to sit down on the floor. He took off his battle saddle, and threw it into the deep well surrounding the throne, then sat down in front of the giant chair, and let his feelings take over, tears falling.

Chapter 33 - The Crystal Militia

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Chapter 33

The Crystal Ponies were still staring at the smoldering crater in the ground where Shadow Breeze had once stood, silent. They were silent, holding back the sadness in their hearts as best as they could while watching the smoke billow from the hole. A bright light shined behind them, perhaps the Crystal Heart trying to offer them some comfort from this horrid act. But there was clearly the sound of unicorn aura in use around them, and the ponies in the square slowly turned to see an equally terrifying sight.

Princess Celestia was hunched over, sweat running down her face and neck, the glorious striped mane of hers growing stickier and starting to lose its ability to maintain its regal waving. The light pouring forth from her horn exceeded anything the others had seen before, and even Luna was highly shocked. From within the smoke behind them another bright flash was poking through, prompting the crowd to turn around again. The smoke was being pushed away by a large pony-shaped chunk of yellow light was being maintained just above the location of the blast, slowly moving away from the crater and descending to the floor. Everyone else backed away, blinded by the force and heat of whatever spell she had prepared. When the form hit the ground, it slowly grew cyan cracks and fissures over the surface, exploding into a spray of shards. Celestia's horn disengaged, and she dropped to the ground, drawing deep and choking breaths.

But the Princess's efforts had worked, on the ground in front of her was a living Shadow Breeze, although with injuries so severe it made a few of the other pegasus ponies around retched in horror. His face and body was badly scorched by the explosion, many of his feathers were missing or melted into a waxy gunk, and bits of the necklace seemed to have been pushed through him. But his lungs still filled with fresh air, and Princess Celestia smiled through her stress and strain.

“Oh thank goodness,” said Spike and PAL at the same time, relaxing their shoulders.

“He's alive!” Shining Armor marveled, “We need to get him to a hospital, NOW!

Whatever medical experts were there amongst the crowd rushed forward and got Shadow Breeze onto a stretcher, carrying him off to be treated. Faerie Tail continued to cry, this time out of joy, and pushed past the Crystal Guard to hug the Princess of the Sun, now lying on the ground.

“Thank you, thank you!” she choked through the tears, “You saved him.”

Celestia gave her one eye, “Faerie Tail, please... it's my duty.”

Faerie Tail acknowledged her and stood up, permitting the princess's sister to come forward. Cadance remained in awe, but accompanied her to learn what had happened.

“Celestia...” whispered Luna, “how did you know? What did you do?”

“I knew King Sombra would never permit a captive to go free,” she huffed, “that artifact had to have been a trap. But as soon as I heard it begin its explosion hex, there was no time to pick Shadow out of the necklace to teleport him away. I wrapped a shield around his body from behind the necklace as best as I could... but so much got through, it's hard to wrap a force field to a shape.”

Celestia felt her pulse return to normal and deemed it necessary to stand up again in front of the subjects of the Crystal Empire.

“We'll need to check in with him later in the hospital,” Princess Celestia said, “I am glad I was fast enough to save... most of him.”

“You've kept him alive, that's all we could ask for,” Captain Arbiter grunted, “Your Highness... I ought to give you a medal for that.”

“I'll put it with the others,” she said, smiling weakly.

“Well, glad Shadow didn't get vaporized,” Limpwing interrupted, “but we still have a crisis on our hooves and wingtips. King Sombra has a huge army coming this way, and if we don't surrender he's going to drop a rocket on our heads!“

Ignitus cleared his throat and addressed Princess Cadance, “May I have permission to speak?”

“Go ahead, Ignitus.”

Ignitus turned around and walked for the crater in front of everyone. While he was on his way, Arbiter slipped next to Cadance and warned her with a quiet whisper,

“You may not have wanted to do that, Cadance.”

As soon as the unicorn reached the hole, he looked back and projected his voice out to the citizens,


“Here we go,” Arbiter sighed, rolling his good eye.

“Are we really going to stand here tomorrow morning and allow King Sombra to take over this land once again? Will you really go back into slavery? Now's not the time to show fear, now's the time to fight back and keep your freedom! Don't let him put that same collar on all of you that he used to burn our beloved friend Shadow so badly! Let us form the first Crystal Militia, and defend our home from the darkness!”

Agreeing, the Crystal Ponies maintained focus, angry eyebrows and scowls forming on their faces as the courage to fight built up.

Feeling the intuition to speak, Cadance spread her wings and flew next to Ignitus, landing near him, “Ignitus is right, my subjects! For two years you've enjoyed your freedom, and now a threat to it has appeared in the form of a resurrected Sombra. But since he's a pony again, he has all the same weaknesses we have! He has to eat, he has to sleep, and he can only use your fear so much! He wasn't able to defeat my aunts, the Princesses of Equestria, and he won't be able to stop you either with our help!”

Celestia and Luna teleported themselves to the front, sending rays of moon and sun beams everywhere that illuminated the area.

“We will stand with you against the tyrant once more,” Luna boomed, making good usage of her royal voice, “in the darkest nights...”

“And the brightest days,” Celestia added, still a little hoarse.

Next came Shining Armor and the rest of the Crystal Guard, proud looks on their faces, “You'll always have my shield to fight behind, and the mares and stallions with me will support you to the end!”

Lastly, Limpwing managed to drag Arbiter with her, along with a much more willing Spike and PAL to the group. She looked around for a few moments, then sarcastically said,

“Well I totally forgot what I was gonna say, but hey, you've also got your powerful dragon, a robot, a ninja, and a sword nerd.”

SWORD NERD!?” roared Arbiter.

She gave him a silly, teasing look and batted her eyelashes 'innocently'.

“I mean... I will assist as well,” Arbiter mumbled, looking around.

“I do not ask for you all to fight,” Princess Cadance pleaded, “but I ask that everypony do their part, so that we may finally be free from the rule of King Sombra! Will you STAND WITH US?!

Her ears started to sink back when she did not get the normally obligatory standing ovation and whooping from the residents, just quiet chatter and perhaps doubt that they could win against the coming army. Cadance looked at her husband nervously, knowing that was the best she could have done. She couldn't make them fight if they don't want to.

But one grizzled stallion with a square jaw and a fatherly face stepped forward and raised in his hooves his mighty hammer. The blacksmith of the town was ready to show his support for his princess.

“I've got a forge, and you know something? I've always wanted to make Sombra experience some of my arms and armor for himself!”

“My shovel and I are ready to dig some trenches,” added a miner standing nearby, contributing her voice.

“Kitchen's open to make some rations!” added a cook amongst them.

The royals and their friends listened to the citizens of the Crystal Empire all start to increase in volume as they went on about how they were going to contribute and win their rights. Sharp and Gaveler manged to get through them to talk to Cadance.

“We're all behind you, your Majesty,” the mayor said, “just let us know what we need to do!”

“Organize the citizens as best as you can,” she answered, “we're going to head back to the palace to make our plans to stop the army. Hopefully we'll give our tall friend here enough time to analyze that destroyed golem too so we know what we're up against.”

PAL waved his robotic fingers at the mayor gently, drawing her attention.

“Well, you always attract the best help,” said Gaveler, unable to come up with another thing to say, “we'll make sure we've put together all the weapons, armor, and supplies we need by tonight.”

“And I'll supply all the energy crystals needed,” Sharp added, “anything I can do to help my sweetheart Gaveler.”

“Awww,” Cadance cooed, finding their mutual interest adorable.

“Cadance, we need to get going, you can do your other job later,” insisted Arbiter.

“All right,” she agreed, “best of luck you two!”

While the royalty and the non-pony company present left the citizens to their preparations, Limpwing pulled Arbiter over aside and threw her good wing around him.

“Ya know, we still have a contest going to see who destroys the most golems,” she reminded him gently, “we're tied right now, but tomorrow is gonna decide it for sure. I'm going to win that prize you know.”

“Not on your life, Lieutenant,” Arbiter smirked.

Back to the palace's ready room they returned, and Shining Armor waited for everyone to gather around and sit in the chairs of the cold, dark room before turning on the magical projector and hologram system. A map of the surrounding area appeared, along with a dark path that lead away to the northeast where Sombra's location had been revealed by Shadow Breeze. A relatively small structure stood on the map to the immediate west, which Shining Armor pointed out.

“This is Steamcastle, a fortification we built to the western side of the city. Since Sombra's specter came from that direction when the empire reappeared a few years ago, we thought it would be best to create another castle as a means of defense in case of his return. So much for that...”

“A large number of the Crystal Guard are stationed there, and it'll still take them the day to get here,” Cadance added, “I've sent them orders to move right away, leaving behind only essential staff to run the place and keep the cannons ready.”

“Excellent, we have a place to retreat to just in case,” Ignitus said, “but I hope we won't have to. What's our strategy for defeating the army?”

“As far as we know, Sombra is expecting that we will just lay down our weapons and surrender,” Cadance answered, “knowing that he has that missile to threaten us. He will be looking to do no harm so that we'll still make good workers for him.”

“So how are we going to fight knowing that thing could come down on us any second?” Limpwing asked curiously, “Or are we just going out in a blaze of glory? I'm fine with that.”

“I'm trusting that there's no way Techorse didn't sabotage that weapon somehow,” Cadance answered.

“Chances are that thing can work, but he has a way to stop it,” Celestia added, “Techorse is very careful about innocent ponies getting hurt from his machines. We will just have to trust that there's something he's done.”

“And if Sombra finds that defect?” Arbiter asked, “Not that I don't trust Techorse, but this is Equestria's greatest monster we are discussing here.”

“My blaze of glory plan?” Limpwing hummed.

“If it comes down to it, we can use the Crystal Heart to try and stop the weapon,” Cadance answered.

One of the Crystal Guards raised her hoof, “Question, your Highness. What are we going to do about the three dozen ponies he already has captive?”

“Well... I think we'll need some sort of team to go in after them,” she answered, “while Sombra's army is away attacking the city, I am expecting he will be running thin on golems to protect his castle. I will need some volunteers though, it's an extremely dangerous mission.”

Faerie Tail knew what was going to be said, and braced for it, Ignitus standing up from his chair.

“I'll do it. Alone,” he said boldly.

“Honey, you can't!” Faerie Tail said.

He turned to her, and wrapped his hooves around her, making sure she was looking into her eyes, “Faerie, I love you more than anything else in this world, and I've made a mistake trying to force our son into service. Now I need to fix this so we can be a family again.”

Princess Cadance felt the guilt rise in her barrel again, to the point where she could no longer take it.

“Ignitus, there's something I have to say, for you too Faerie,” she said, her voice turning into a whine.

All eyes moved to the Princess of Love.

“I... I cursed you Ignitus. You've been under a spell this whole time, and I don't know when it will wear off! Your love and affection for your wife is because I've forced you to think past your wishes for your son. I'm sorry!”

Ignitus saw the look of horror and betrayal from his wife, who bit her lower lip and started to cry. He embraced her tightly, only to feel her try to push away. The past few moments felt like nothing but lies to Faerie Tail.

“Cadance... you cursed Ignitus?!” gasped Princess Luna, her sister equally mortified.

“I... I did,” she admitted, almost breaking down, “Ignitus refused to let go of his stupid demands on his son, and I couldn't just stand there and let him win! He was going to destroy his family!”

Ignitus stood up and walked towards her, Shining Armor readying a spell just in case the detective's anger decided to get the best of him. Once he got within reach of her, he stared down and scowled. Cadance bowed her head in apology.

But what Ignitus said next shocked nearly everyone, “Don't be ridiculous Cadance. Your spell wore off ages ago when Faerie and I fought together. That combined blast against the golem drained your curse out of me.”

“What?” she asked, looking back up at him.

“I'm not lying. Your spell was weaker than what you expected,” he continued, “once we emptied our magic into that enemy together, I remembered everything and knew right away what you had done. I could have been angry, but...”

He looked back at his wife knowingly, “... I knew after that it was over. My wife and my two foals are everything to me. I'm still a little disappointed in how things have turned out, but that should have never given me a reason to think the way I did.”

“Oh... IGNITUS!” yelled Faerie, rushing up and forcing herself into a deep kiss with him.

Please get a room,” moaned Spike.

“That's going to be you someday, you know,” PAL reminded him, a mechanical chortle coming from his throat.

Cadance felt a little happy, and a little down at the same time for having committed such and act yet have it turn out so well. Limpwing understood these feelings, and got Cadance's attention with a wave of her hoof.

“Just so you know, Arby and I knew too,” she said, “we were going to see how bad stuff got, but I guess it turned out for the better! You're still in deep trouble for cursing someone though, Cadance. We're going to have to hold it over your head for a free vacation here in the palace once in a while.”

“Oh, well... I'll have a room set aside then,” Cadance countered, surprising her, “I hear you and Arbiter have some very interesting discussions. I might like to help out with that, you know.”

“And as soon as the lunk over there knows, you can!” whispered the spy mare with her usual wink and wit.

“Any chance we can return to planning our victory?” Arbiter said, sighing deeply, “I am very happy my cousin and his wife are going to stay together, but we need to have a city still at the end of tomorrow.”

“See what I mean?” giggled Limpwing, earning a nice smile and equally happy giggle from Cadance.

“Right, a plan of action,” Princess Luna announced, “perhaps we should divide our forces into three groups on the east side of the city. The group in the center can push forward against the attackers, while those at the sides can close in on the flanks!”

“Outside of the thermal barrier in the cold?” Shining Armor grunted, “Sorry Luna, but I don't think giving them the advantage of having us get frostbite is going to help.”

“But if we fight within the city, the damage will be heavy,” warned the Princess of the Moon, “I propose we wear the warmest fur coats and fight back outside the barrier!”

“Our other option is to use the Crystal Heart to expand the barrier a few more kilometers outside of the normal range,” Cadance suggested, “that will melt the snow and give us a lot more space, but that comes at the cost of it being a weaker shield. It may be harder to counter the missile.”

“I can find alternate ways of shooting down my master's own technology,” PAL proposed, raising a hand, “you will need that warmth to succeed, coats are very heavy and hard to fight in.”

“And I'm cold blooded,” added Spike cautiously, “I get all sleepy outside in the snow, and I gotta be there to support my fan.. I mean, my friends!”

“Very well, we'll expand the barrier,” Cadance nodded, “and then use Luna's strategy. The Crystal Guard will take the middle to support the citizens at the sides. We'll be fighting alongside them.”

“I don't know if I want you out front,” Shining Armor said sternly.

“I want to help heal the injured, and besides... If I'm helping you, I might just forgot that somepony forgot to organize the library like he was asked! Would hate it if they fell behind on their half of the chores.”teased his wife.

Ooooooooh!” came the calls from his troops.

“Getting the couch tonight!” catcalled somepony who was getting demoted later.

Shining Armor groaned, “All right... sorry I even thought about it.”

“PAL, can we go now?” asked Spike, desperate to get away from the 'tense' situation.

“Fine, fine... let's go find that golem and see what we can learn,” he agreed, heading for the door in the back.

“So it's settled then? Three groups to push back against the column of golems?” Captain Arbiter said, “we will likely need to adjust strategy as we go, of course.”

“Right. But for now we have a plan,” she answered.

“Then it's settled. We'll begin organizing and running basic exercises today,” the one-eyed pegasus nodded, “I'll head into town and see who's picked up a sword. They'll need it.”

“I'm going with you,” Limpwing said.

Groups of ponies stood up to leave with the basic plan in mind. Cadance looked at her husband, who was still getting over his embarrassment, and then back to Ignitus and Faerie Tail, who were still enjoying their embrace and the on and off kissing.

“Ignitus, you don't have to go it alone,” Cadance said, “I can enlist some guards to accompany you.”

“I need to do this,” he assured her, “the more ponies you send in, the more are at risk.”

“Faerie Tail, are you okay with this?”

Faerie Tail looked into her husband's eyes, and knew everything would be ok, “I'm sure, Cadance. I'll stay with you.”

Still unsure, but willing to let them do as they wished, she answered, “We'll make an opening for you and get you to the pass then. Be safe, Ignitus.”

He looked at her again, this time with a pair of the softest eyes she had ever seen, the angry fires extinguished, “I will. Thank you for everything you've done. You've earned your title in my heart, your Majesty.”

And with that, they left the room, keeping their sides tightly together and tails firmly wrapped around each other. Cadance felt the door shut, leaving her in darkness, and she permitted herself a short rest to feel happy about what she had done for them.

Chapter 34 - The Shadow Legacy

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Chapter 34

“And just how long do I have to wear this stupid thing, Ross?” complained Lighthearted loudly while tugging at the leather choke collar tightly gripped around her neck, “Of all the stuff you've made me do today, this is the worst.”

He was taking her to the top floor of the castle, having spent the day pampering her in front of King Sombra to make it quite obvious that the mare was 'his'. The king had sneered and taken a perverse joy in embarrassing the little waitress, asking Rosseth to slather unneeded makeup on her face and force her to throw her hooves around him whenever he asked her to do so. Lighthearted had put up with the whole 'mistress' disguise for this payoff, to learn what his plan was.

“Only until we can get you back to the Crystal Empire tomorrow morning,” the zebra answered firmly, “I saw what Midnight Blaze did to Flaming Ivory. He put a mind control device just to get him to stop trash talking others. Who knows what he'd do to you if I can't convince him you're mine...”

“All right,” she answered reluctantly, letting the slaving collar go, “honestly though, I think you have it worse. Sombra's about to make you fight against the Crystal Guard! They might be a bit slow sometimes, but they could really hurt you.”

“I have a plan,” he assured, “and I'll tell you it once we get to the chemistry lab. There's something I need to do with the potion brewery.”

Lighthearted marveled at the thought, “Woah, so you weren't lying about being a potion-maker?”

“Of course I wasn't lying,” he said, “it's a skill that runs in my family tree. My zebra half of the family tree that is.”

Returning to the stargazing room turned laboratory felt weird to him, climbing up all those stairs again with the difference being that the staircase had been cleaned and inviting instead of dark and aged as he had first found them. They climbed up to the top of the seemingly endless well, and stepped into the candle-lit atmosphere of the refurbished rounded chamber. The floor had been completely repaired, showing that it was made of a more sturdy tile than what Rosseth had remembered, and all his potion making equipment was back in working order, including the giant cauldron he had mixed the revival brew from. Magical lights dotted the walls, the glowing runs providing an inviting yellow glow. Much like the other lab that had been converted into a missile silo, this other observatory still had a rusted spot on the floor where the telescope had been at some point in history.

But once he had entered, he heard a muffled cry, giving him reason to pause. Rosseth thought the voice was familiar, and ushered Lighthearted into the room carefully. There in the back of the room sat Techorse, curled up into a ball and keeping his face hidden in his front hooves.

Lighthearted frowned and walked over to the stallion, sitting down next to him, “Are you okay?”

Techorse refused to lift his face up, although it was obvious he was stained with tears, “I'll be fine. I just needed some time to myself.”

“Techorse, what happened?” Rosseth asked.

The stallion refused to look at him, but kept his enemy in the corner of his eyes, “King Sombra... murdered Shadow with an explosive device.”

Lighthearted gasped at the news, and Rosseth felt his legs turn to gelatin, only able to word, “What?!”

Techorse could barely talk, tears and the lump in his throat blocking him, “Sombra put a cursed collar on Shadow Breeze that must have been primed to explode if he told the Crystal Ponies where we were. When he did... he was gone. Just like that.”

“Techorse... I'm so sorry.”

“I hope you're happy, Rosseth,” the inventor said, finally making eye contact and revealing his bloodshot, angry expression, “do you think everypony's suffered enough yet for your stupid problems?”

“If you'd let me speak...”

“What do you have to say that could change anything?” he shouted, deafening Lighthearted, “You helped TAKE MY FRIEND FROM ME!!

Rosseth watched his saddle open up and the laser cannons inside point right at his sternum. This time he wasn't going to be able to fake his way out of it if Techorse decided to fire. The guns tracked the zebra while he took off a pair of saddlebags he was wearing, and put them gently on the floor. He then relaxed his muscles, stretching out his legs one at a time while noticing the unmoving beam weapons rattling with Techorse's shaking.

“If you really believe that shooting me will help, do it,” Rosseth suggested, “I can see that you believe I deserve it.”

Techorse wanted nothing more than to put a burning set of puncture wounds in the zebra, but there was a blatant look of regret slapped on his brown and white muzzle. A pause came, followed by a pair of weapons retracting into a saddle.

“You really didn't mean for any of this to happen, did you?” Techorse asked, swallowing a lump of phlegm, “You're sorry now?”

“You have no idea. Sombra called out to me through his horn in a dream before I even found it for sale,” he explained, eyes on the ground, “He convinced me that I could have my revenge on Cadance without violence, just chaos for the Crystal Empire. He offered me a chance to feel vindicated.”

“But now he sees how much of a huge idiot he was,” Lighthearted said, empathizing with Techorse, “and he's on your side.”

“I don't think I can actually apologize for what happened to Shadow Breeze,” Rosseth said, ears down and eyes closed, “I can't be forgiven for his death, or getting us into this. But I will get you out of it before I take my revenge on Cadance myself and end this.”

“You still want to get back at Cadance?” Techorse sniffed, “That's what started all of this!”

“Rosseth, you're scaring me,” agreed Lighthearted, “what are you talking about?”
He started to dig into the saddlebags dropped on the floor with a hoof, “I haven't decided what that means yet, but it doesn't mean what you think it means, I swear! Just trust me, and let me explain what I'm trying to do here.”

Out of the bags came the Lunar Chalice, the bright silver cup reflecting the light in the room.

“You're going to try to make a potion?” Techorse asked, “But the chalice won't be powered up for another month.”

“Don't be so sure”, he said, stepping to the left and kicking the gear train to open the roof, “I wouldn't be wasting your time if I couldn't make the necessary potion, and I'm going to need the Lunar Chalice to do it!”

The lights in the room extinguished, and Techorse expected the usual darkness of night. But instead, the room was now bathed in a lighter, more clear glow. Looking up with Lighthearted, both of them felt their breath taken away by the sight of a perfectly full and glowing lunar body shining down on the room.

“A blue moon!” Techorse awed.

Rosseth held the cup aloft, watching it come to life in the moonlight, “It's a bit of coincidence that tonight would be a blue moon. Do you believe maybe Princess Luna is giving me one more chance?”'

Drying his tears, Techorse answered with confidence, “I can ask her when I get back.”

With their assistance, Rosseth was able to ignite a fire under the cauldron and get a potion brew going again underneath the moonlight. Green caustic chemicals swirled into blue base ingredients, coming to a rolling boil in the heat of the pot. Whereas the potion to resurrect Sombra used a carbon base to create a corporeal form for him, this new potion seemed to stray as far away from organics as possible, and each new ingredient made the mixture lighter and lighter, reflecting the moonlight perfectly.

“We're ready for the final ingredient,” Rosseth proclaimed, standing over the cauldron, “Techorse, I need you to hold the Lunar Chalice as high up as possible after I've added the catalyst to it.”

Nodding, Techorse took the magic cup from the sorcerer, his robotic arms grabbing it and keeping it level. Rosseth reached with his hoof, and brushed over his cape, bringing up a single lengthy black hair.

“A mane hair from King Sombra, to provide an imprint of his kind... the Shadow Pony.”

Adding it to the cup, Rosseth poured a solution made from milk and enzymes to draw the genetic coding out of the hair. The follicle at the base of the strand did indeed split apart into its base components, the organic compounds and bases separating out and permeating the solution. It turned a sickly black color, its viscosity changing from milk into motor oil, giving him the sign that the process was finished.

“Techorse, activate the chalice!” he ordered.

The stallion stood on his hind legs and held the chalice up as high as possible, the servos in the thin, jointed arms carrying it over his head. Moonlight entered the chalice, the gemstones around its neck glowed and flashed, beginning to purify the liquid within it. Soon the mixture was glowing and pure white again, and Rosseth could see the chalice had done its job.

“It's ready!”

Techorse returned the chalice to Rosseth, who chanted a strange incantation in the old zebra language, before pouring the mixture in a clockwise circle into the cauldron. The near radioactive mixture reacted surprisingly subtly to the enchanted liquid containing Sombra's hereditary information, at least as opposed to the violent explosion that had summoned him. It burned a furious white for only a moment, and then became a creamy, luminescent potion that felt warm from several feet away. Rosseth brought out a large potion bottle made of glass and gold wavy lining, and filled it completely with the substance in the cauldron, draining the rest into a smaller bottle he kept for himself.

“This needs to go into the fuel tank of the missile,” Rosseth told Techorse, giving him the large bottle to hold.

“What will it do?” he asked, needing to know.

“The potion is an ancient recipe passed down by my ancestors,” Rosseth warned, “it is a powerful curse removal meant to be poured directly on the perpetrator of the curses, robbing them of their power. I believe if this were to be spread over an area, Sombra would be burnt trying to touch it.”

Rosseth smiled as he watched Techorse figure it out verbally, “So if this hits the Crystal Empire, it'll overtake the afradium and make the Crystal Empire immune to King Sombra's magic!”

“I'm sure you have a scientifically sound reason for believing that,” Rosseth said jokingly.

Becoming more serious, he warned Techorse, “I do have to mention, Techorse. This potion's cleansing magic is so strong, it may severely harm a Shadow Pony just because of their innate connection to dark magic. Make sure not to spill it on Midnight Blaze.”

“I understand,” Techorse acknowledged, “what I don't understand is why you are helping me now after trying to get rid of me this whole time. Or at least, this was about Cadance.”

The zebra stepped away from his cauldron, and approached Lighthearted, her beautiful face basking in the moonlight's glow.

“It's not just about Cadance, or you... or even getting back at Sombra,” he said, the mare making deep eye contact with him, “somepony taught me over these past few days that there's more to life than just settling scores and achieving things.”

“Rosseth, stop... you're embarrassing me,” she said, blushing at what was coming, “besides, we were just caught up in the moment and well, look at you parents... you probably think a zebra and pony relationship wouldn't really work... right?”

“Lighthearted, forget my parents, forget everything. I'm setting things right... because I love you,” he said, eyes soft and head titled to her.

She stared into his deep eyes, and feeling the passion, locked lips tightly with her new-found love, this time meaning it with every ounce of her body. Techorse couldn't help but stare, his expression relaxing and his smile coming back to him. Once they were finished with their romantic moment, the zebra and the mare were in each other's embrace, Lighthearted resting her head on his back.

“I... I love you too, Ross,” she said softly, “we're going to make it through this! We're gonna kick Sombra's sorry flank together!”

He kissed her neck, and guided her into standing at his side, their warm barrels pressed together.

“I guess you've defeated me after all,” Rosseth said, bowing slightly, “congratulations, Techorse. You outlasted my hatred for Cadance... and I finally feel happy for once in my life.”

“I never consider this defeating someone,” Techorse answered, shaking his head, “this is way better than winning some fight.”

“I agree,” said the zebra, “can you make sure this gets into the rocket tonight? Tomorrow I will warn the Crystal Empire about it once I slip away from the golem army. Sombra expects me to lead them, and I need to 'accidentally' get captured, if you catch my drift.”

Techorse picked up the bottle again, mechanical noises coming from the arms and manipulators, “Right. I'll make sure this gets in so we can end this for good.”

He walked over to the stairwell and vanished down it with the bottle carefully held to him, his hoofsteps fading as he descended. This left Rosseth and Lighthearted alone in the bright light of the lunar reflection.

“So how about that daycare you'd like to open?” joked the zebra, giving her a smirk.

“Oh, we'll get to that,” she teased, “but you know something? I think I'm starting to like this stupid collar.”

The mare brought him in tight in her embrace, rubbing her cheek against his, “What do you think?”

He closed his eyes, “Nope, it's just as dumb as this cape I walk around in, and you know it.”

Laughing to themselves, they shed the unwanted articles of clothing, leaving their true selves cuddling in the light of the full moon.

Midnight enjoyed the fine taste of an ancient Shadow Pony hay steak recipe Sombra had the cooks prepare for that evening. The soft-cutting grass felt chewy and moist to his teeth, gravy exploring each of his taste buds. Beside him on the floor of the long dining hall, his new puppy was hastily scarfing a bowl of kibble out of a dish Midnight had carved for him out of ivory, no doubt helping to spoil the pooch. Dreamer's tail wagged all over while he chowed down in contrast to the careful bites Midnight took with a hovered fork and knife. But while masticating the latest bite of food, he felt a sharp poke on the corner of his tongue.

Probably a bit of bone in this steak,” he thought.

But then he reconsidered, pausing his chewing, “Wait a minute... hay doesn't have bones.

He swallowed his food, and summoned with a flash of light blue energy a small hand-held mirror. Opening his mouth, Midnight took notice of two brand new sharpened canines occupying the place his forward teeth used to have in his maw.

“Weird,” he said aloud.

Dreamer let out a guttural noise from the rest of the food going down his gullet a bit too fast.

“Try chewing next time,” warned the future prince sarcastically.

His puppy sat down and looked up at him with his big green eyes, whimpering at his master. Midnight ran a hoof over the wolf's head, trying to soothe his pet's worry.

“I guess you're sensing some sadness in me,” he mused, dark magic still clearly at the helm, “it's true, I am going to miss Shadow Breeze. Maybe I should find a way to honor him tomorrow before my coronation.”

The feral dog licked the hoof rubbing his head in approval, earning some more pets and attention for it.

Midnight Blaze.

He looked up and saw Sombra enter. Dreamer growled at the king before Midnight pushed him behind his chair.

Sombra seemed to ignore the pet's defiance, “Tomorrow is your coronation, but there is still one more thing you need to learn in order to truly become my son.”

“And what is that?” he asked, pushing his plate away.

“Our origin,” he said, raising his head and letting his mane flow, “the heritage of our kind and why we are worthy to rule alone.”

Another walk down a long hallway, and another magical re-arranging of the castle elements around them brought Midnight and Sombra to an atrium on the east facing wall of the stronghold. Here, multiple stained glass windows similar in design to the ones of Canterlot bore images of what Sombra intended to show to Midnight. They stopped in front of the first pane of glass, the moonlight filtering through the colored opaque window. Jagged edges and subtle shapes showed an image of many castles similar to Sombra's in the Valley of Shadows, with many of his kind at the bottom happy and carefree.

“Many years ago”, began the king, “the Shadow Ponies settled this valley in hopes of claiming a piece of the continent for themselves when all of ponykind migrated to escape the Great Freeze. We were always different from the others being only unicorns and in touch with Dark Magic, and we needed a home to call our own. Just past the volcanic region of the Valley of Shadows we found this fertile grassland and settled it. Through our developments in magical equipment, we made great things, and we all lived in castles of our own. But... we were alone.”

Moving his son over to the next window in the narrative, Midnight looked at the image, this time it was less panoramic and more figurative, with a beautiful white crystal palace on the left side, and the dark stone of the shadow palace on the right. In the middle, a pink mare on the left extended a hoof of friendship to the shadow pony on the right.

“We decided to brave the cold in the southwest of the valley to see if there were others to establish connections with,” he continued in his deep, masculine tones, “and soon we came across the original Crystal Empire, a beautiful city in the middle of the frozen wasteland, a beacon of warmth even more beautiful than the warm, fertile volcanic valley. Since we had limited land to grow food, we decided a simple trade route of our trinkets for some of their produce and farming tools would be fair, and at first, they accepted our offer.”

“The Crystal Ponies must have hated your dark magic, I'd take it?” Midnight questioned, raising an eyebrow curiously.

“We were less than trusted the entire time,” Sombra confirmed, pushing his hoof into the floor with a subtle level of anger, “many of the citizens of the Crystal Empire were happy to have neighbors to trade with. But the aristocracy of the Crystal Empire despised us as outsiders, evil, and plotting to eliminate their wealth and power. For you see, Midnight Blaze, the Crystal Empire lacked a princess at the time. The prior Crystal Princess had... eloped with a certain stallion.”


“He's not important to us,” Sombra admitted, grunting, “all that we knew was that the princess had shirked her duties, leading the Crystal Empire to grow rancid with the corruption of the wealthy. The de-facto leader, Lattice, wanted to see us wiped off the map so that the Crystal Ponies wouldn't develop independence from their leadership through economic success trading with us. To make sure we never returned, they committed an evil unforgivable by any standards, even the Two Sisters would have found them revolting had they been told the truth.”

Midnight wrinkled his muzzle, “What are you talking about?”

Sombra moved him to the next picture in the sequence, which was darkened and harder to see than the other panes of glass. Seeing his adopted son squint, Sombra fired a small pulse of light into the base of the image, the magical energy traveled up the pane of glass and revealed the image. Midnight felt his heart sink, and he could hear in his mind the screams and terror of the innocent. The image showed the Crystal Palace in the distance, a single pane of stained glass in white in the shape of a heart was in the center of the tower, and a long beam of white energy was aimed down at several dark castles, destroying them. Images of ponies fleeing and being turned to dust in the wake of the beam of light overwhelmed his mind, the Dark Magic present in the glass carving a perfect image of terror and destruction into his memories.

“They... they weaponized the Crystal Heart,” Midnight gasped, a distressed gargle coming from his throat, “they turned the Shadow Ponies to dust.”

“I was out spending time with Autumn Wheat when it happened,” Sombra said, the memories of his kind bringing tears even to his hardened eyes, “we saw the beam of light arc into the Valley, and when I brought her there... our castles were leveled. Those who had survived decided to leave, and I never heard from them again.”

Drying his eyes with his cape, Sombra regained his composure and bore his fangs, “But I stayed, and I vowed that the Crystal Empire's leaders would pay for their treachery. It seemed that their evil had powered my will, activating something deep within me, and I became the strongest Dark Magic user the world had ever seen. I rebuilt my castle, Autumn Wheat at my side, and developed the golem army within just days. With fire in my heart, we marched on the Empire in the dead of night.”

The final pane of glass in the room lit up, showing a picture of Sombra standing victorious over the ruins of the Crystal Empire, the ponies beneath him piled in a defeated heap. His cape and other wear detailed to the finest point that stained glass could provide, Midnight felt a sense of pride in being a descendant of the leader. Perhaps this pane was the least accurate of them all, but Sombra revered it the most, given that it was the largest and most complex work of art in the private hallway. Notably, another image of the Crystal Palace appeared, this time with flames coming from the sides, and a broken heart of light blue glass in the center.

“When we attacked I expected fierce resistance, but when I arrived even the thermal barrier surrounding the empire had vanished, and snow was falling,” Sombra explained, “I would later learn that Lattice and the aristocrats had tormented it with their magic to get it to heed their commands and wipe out my nation, and once it was finished... it had broken into pieces.”

“They were defenseless,” Midnight said.

“Correct, and no sooner did my army show, even with it only being a fraction of what we have now, did those worms come out of the city and start to grovel,” answered King Sombra, irises red as blood, “They saw how my mane flowed and eyes glowed with the power of the Dark Magic I had gained through their hatred for me and my lost kind. The aristocracy approached me, begging for peace with the entirety of the Crystal Empire behind them.”

He then narrowed his eyes in remembrance, “And then, with a single stroke of magic I fittingly turned them all into dust, freeing the Crystal Empire from their tyranny.”

Midnight looked confused, his emotions ignoring Sombra's horrible deeds, “But then, why did you enslave the rest of the Crystal Ponies if they were better off?”

“You see Midnight Blaze, this is the portion of my history that Princess Celestia and Luna will not tell you. I pitied the citizens of the Crystal Empire because they were slaves already to their leaders,” Sombra answered turning away from Midnight and staring at his stained glass masterpiece, “I would have given them their freedom in a heartbeat. However, once I had eradicated the aristocrats, their followers turned on me right away, yelling that I was a murderer and that I had no right to destroy them... despite the vast number of Shadow Ponies those monsters had wiped out! Those spineless fools chose to support their aristocracy, their ruthless masters, despite being presented with clear evidence that they were vile!”

He then lowered his head in sadness, “Even Autumn Wheat and her father told me it was vile to pay evil back with force. I decided that if she wasn't with me, she was going to turn on me too, and I dealt with her father before seizing her as my own as my prize.”

Finishing his monologue, he faced Midnight again and smiled darkly, “The Crystal Empire surrendered the moment my golems raised their weapons. They forfeited their right to their freedom the moment they failed to see the greatness of what I had done for them. I used the rest of my power to keep them afraid, under my control, and the rest is the history you already know.”

“You were treated more than unfairly,” Midnight Blaze responded, irises also red, and horn glowing a sickly purple, “I understand now why those lazy, incompetent Crystal Ponies deserve their place beneath us. After such a horrible thing was done to the Shadow Ponies, even Equestria would be appalled!”

“If only Celestia and Luna could have seen that,” King Sombra said slowly, his eyes showing a hint of disappointment, “I hope you understand now why a new generation of Shadow Pony must carry on for me.”

“Tomorrow at midnight, your legacy will be carried on,” assured the unicorn, bowing, “the Crystal Empire will be brought to justice again.”

“Very good,” Sombra answered, showing deference, “it's late now, and tomorrow will be quite eventful. Take a rest, and have a bath in the morning. I have one more gift for you before you are crowned, something that will keep you in touch with your physical side.”

Midnight Blaze momentarily felt a lapse in the connection to his Dark Magic, blinking as if sand was in his eyes, “Okay... thanks.”

“What's wrong?” the king asked, looking him over.

“Nothing, I'm just... going to go to bed,” answered Midnight, turning around and making a dash for the exit.

Sombra hummed deeply, “Strange. It's as if he knows what I have planned for him. No matter, he'll enjoy it no less.”

“Techorse this is crazy,” Flaming Ivory told his friend, “you're going to get us bumped off, too if you trust that...”

His control ring sparked to life, and the unicorn sighed, changing his tune immediately, “smart and handsome Rosseth!”

Shaking his head, Flaming Ivory screamed, “GET OUT OF MY SKULL, MIDNIGHT!

Techorse refused to listen as he poured the potion bottle into the open fuel port on the missile, the white liquid sloshing into the liquid fuel tank loudly.

“Just stay quiet and avoid throwing out insults for now,” he said, “when Sombra tries to launch this rocket, it'll immunize the Crystal Empire from his magic, and Midnight's... if it comes to that. It's a more peaceful solution... something that Shadow would have wanted.”

“Well if Ross said that potion can mop up the Dark Magic, maybe we can cure him with it by getting him to drink it,” the musician suggested, raising a hoof, “not a lot, but just a little bit so it fixes that grip King Sombra's got on his brain!”

“I thought about that on the way here,” Techorse answered, “but Ross made it clear this could really hurt him if it even touches his body. It's that powerful of a cleaner.”

“Yeah but,” Flaming grunted, “if we don't try, Midnight's lost anyways. He just isn't himself anymore, Techorse. Don't you think we should try?”

Techorse stood still for a few seconds, then finally said, “What should we do?”

“It'll be like how you're only supposed to use a tiny bit of that concentrated dish soap,” Flaming said, making a mild analogy, “give me just a tiny bit.”

Having been convinced, Techorse finished pouring the majority of the potion into the tank, but kept a swallow of it left in the bottle. He got down from the ladder propped up against the brass siding of the rocket, and transferred the remainder of the potion into a small test tube barely the size of a thumb, corking it off.

“Now gimme that,” demanded the unicorn, “I'm gonna be the one to make sure he drinks it.”

“This is really dangerous, Flaming,” Techorse said.

He hovered the tube in front of him with his orange colored aura, “I know, but I'm doing it for Shadow. I don't want to lose two friends, Tech, and I know he's in there somewhere. Plus, I really want this awf...”

He seized up again, “well designed ring removed from my horn!”

The unicorn snapped back to himself, “See?! I'm going to go crazy, man!”

Techorse threw a hug around Flaming, “We'll do this together. Midnight's my friend too.”

“Yeah, yeah, ok. We can work together,” Flaming said, smirking, “can the awkward hug end now?”

“Sorry,” Techorse chuckled, letting him go.

Chapter 35 - Final Preparations

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Chapter 35

“There, I believe I've found the answer,” PAL stated, adjusting the fine tuning knob on the clunky brass microscope Cadance had provided him.

The machine was looking at a filed fragment of the dead golem's armor underneath the medical device, analyzing its structure for a potential weakness. Shadowsteel had been known to be highly resistant to any form of damage, and both the magic-powered robots and Sombra himself were protected by the substance. At first, the other military resources in Cadance's cabinet had doubted that a microscope would do very much good as a testing tool, but PAL had known better serving under a scientist like Tech. A few researchers stood nearby, having watched the curious machine strip a piece of metal out from the golem and examine it closely using their lab equipment.

PAL stepped back from the microscope, and looked at the “corpse” of the Shadow Golem resting on an examination table in front of him, feeling slightly uncomfortable. Sure he was digital and it was magic, but he couldn't help but feel a slight connection to the fallen beast. The magical conduits sticking out of its chest cavity were its wires, and its motors were powered by magic energy... but what was the real difference between the two of them?

His inner processing was interrupted by Spike, who tapped on his right arm. The little dragon was standing on the crystal-topped lab table, and was asking for a turn with the microscope.

“Oh, sorry. You want to see, Spike?” the machine said, stepping back, “here, I'll show you.”

Spike put his eyes over the creaking device's eyepiece and looked at the slide at the maximum power setting. The details of the mysterious metal were clearly visible, the material was composed of a large number of 'threads' of metal woven tightly with a faint dark aura surrounding them.

“Woah, what is this stuff, PAL?” he asked, pulling back from the microscope, “It's like the armor is alive or something.”

“I believe Shadowsteel is a carbon-woven fibrous material with an additional level of energy protection by arcanic means,” the robot explained, confusing everyone present.

He blinked for a cycle before giving the mechanical equipment of a sigh, “It's a high density armor with an anti-damage enchantment of some kind.”

“Oh! So, how can we beat it?” he asked.

“I'm not very familiar with the rules of magic,” answered his tall friend, “but perhaps something that can counter whatever energy is powering the armor would give us the ability to punch through it a little easier.”

“We should probably tell Cadance about this,” Spike reasoned, “I bet she'd know what we could do.”

“I hope so, I'd say that Captain Arbiter and Miss Limpwing were lucky they were able to destroy this golem at all,” PAL said gravely, looking back at the wreckage, “we're going to need any edge we can get if we want to win this fight.”

“Speaking of that, you really ought to check in with the blacksmith and get yourself some armor and a weapon,” the scientist closest to them suggested before she blushed meekly, “although I'm sure Spike doesn't need anything like that to win!”

“Well, humility's super important,” Spike said, clearly bragging as he looked at his fingernails, “but I'm gonna be nice to the blacksmith and...”

PAL bumped the dragon's back with his shoulder, grunting electronically.

“Oh, heh...” the young dragon chuckled, “I mean, I've got my best buddy PAL. Why would I need anything else?”

He crossed his metal arms, “That is not what I meant.”

The machine shook his head as Spike filled a small canvas bag with scraps of Shadowsteel. Then the impudent dragon climbed up his crossed arms and back onto his shoulder where he belonged.

“I know,” he said, “come on, let's go check on the other Crystal Ponies. I'm gonna take some of this Shadowsteel stuff with me in case we need it. There's gotta be some way to break this stuff, right?”

PAL thanked the laboratory mares for their help analyzing the golem armor, and exited the laboratory up a flight of marble stairs with a soft blue carpet that kept his metal footpads from slipping. Once Spike was certain that his loving audience couldn't hear him again, he whispered into his friend's audio sensors.

“The only reason I'm showing off is because the Crystal Ponies really like me. I'm scared of fighting those golems! What if we can't find something that can break this stuff?”

“I'm scared too,” he answered, “do you know our statistical chance of us winning without Twilight Sparkle and the other girls? Let's just say I wish she were here.”

Spike rested his head glumly on the metal shoulder, “Yeah... me too”

When they got outside, the courtyard had been lit up with torches and three rapidly assembled furnaces churning away at scrap metal to produce weapons and armor for the crystal ponies. PAL was impressed with the speed at which the empire had set up the crude yet practical pieces of manufacturing equipment, and molten steel bubbled from the top of each of the vase-shaped cauldrons, red hot coal fires underneath heating them up. A couple of blacksmith ponies eagerly tightened their aprons, ready to go to work with their hammers and tongs.

Princess Cadance and Shining Armor were making their rounds through the courtyard, checking up on the activities of the other Crystal Ponies who had volunteered for the militia. Some had put together care packages of bandages and salves, while others had prepared large portions of soup, sandwiches and apple pies for the long day ahead. Away from the dangerous forges, Arbiter and Limpwing were helping some of the mares and stallions learn how to swing staffs made from broomsticks to teach them basic combat techniques.

“Cadance!” shouted Spike while waving his arm in the air, trying to get the princess's attention.

She heard his distinct voice over the bustle and brought her husband with her, “Spike! What did you and PAL find out about the golems?”

The dragon smiled, “Tell 'em PAL.”

“It looks like Shadowsteel is a rather complex enchanted woven material,” PAL relayed to them as simply as he could, “or in other words, it's a cursed super-dense metal. We'll need some sort of counter-magic to punch through it.”

“The Crystal Heart,” Cadance answered, looking up at the center of her palace's tower, “if Sombra was destroyed by it before, perhaps the golems would have the same weakness.”

“We're already relying a lot on the Heart to extend the barrier tomorrow,” Shining warned, “we don't want to overwork it trying to use it as a weapon too.”

“There's got to be a way,” Cadance countered, giving herself time to think, “We could...”

She looked around the courtyard, and spotted the three furnaces bubbling furiously, “we could have the Heart enchant the metal in the furnaces!”

They turned their heads and looked at the tall smoking pots of metal were sitting just within range of the central window of the palace. It would be simple enough to convince the artifact to bestow its blessing upon the slag if asked nicely.

“It could work,” PAL mused, holding a metal hand to his chin, “if there's enough magic for all the smelted materials, all the weapons and armor you forge from it could contain the counter-magic necessary.”

“What if it doesn't work?” Spike questioned.

“Then we're no worse off,“ PAL answered, crossing his arms and rolling his orange eyes, “but you've all seen the Crystal Heart work wonders before, I have no reason to doubt it'll pull through again.”

“Well yeah, the Heart is pretty strong, but it needs time to recover between feats of magic,” Shining Armor said, continuing to remind them, “if we use it to enchant the metal we've got, it might not be at full strength tomorrow.”

Cadance weighed her options silently, and then huffed to herself for a few moments.

“It's your call, honey,” her husband said, frowning, “I'm just thinking about what's best for the empire. We don't want the heat shield falling.”

A thin beam of light started to pour forth from the palace, the doors to the Heart's chamber were opening to the night sky. Usually it was far too bright and woke up everyone who lived within the vicinity of the palace, but the crystalline blast panels were drawing back on their own. The event soon had everyone's attention.

“I guess you've decided?” PAL asked the princess.

“I'm... not doing this,” Cadance replied slowly, eyes wide.

The autonomous decision of the ancient artifact had been made, the bright light illuminating the Crystal Ponies attending to the forges and furnaces. Even Celestia shielded her eyes with her wings from the intensity of the pure light. A column of energy shot from the core into the tops of each of the furnaces, transforming the orange steel into a silver color that glistened rather than bubbled angrily. When the process was complete, the rays of light shot back into the Heart's room and the doors slammed shut with a loud report that nearly deafened the spectators and sent a sharp breeze through the courtyard.

An earth pony stallion standing near the princesses of Equestria stammered, “What in sweet Cel...”

Celestia lowered her wing and glared at him with a pouting expression, pretending to be offended. The color drained from his face from the royal gaze as well as two of the crystal guards giving him a filthy look.

“I mean... that was weird!” he finished dryly, pulling at his work shirt's collar with a hoof, “S... sorry.”

“Now what would your mother say if she heard you talk like that?” Celestia teased, swapping out her faked annoyance for her warm smile

“Nothing good,” he answered, laughing nervously and shuffling on his hooves, “I need to watch my mouth.”

“Oh never mind. Let's go see what happened, shall we?” Princess Celestia ordered teasingly.

“Y... Yes ma'am!”

He galloped over to a wooden ladder propped up against the closest furnace and ascended to the mouth of the machine, getting a closer look. He remembered being unable to get this close from the heat radiating from the ore, but now it felt like the metal was a lot cooler.

“This is getting cold, we need to pour now!” he said, shouting down at the other blacksmiths, “Let's go!”

Agreeing, a strong team of mares and stallions worked together on a set of heavy ropes they grabbed in their mouths. The ends were tied to the tops of the elongated cauldrons, and together with the forces of their back legs they tipped the smelting machines over, melted enchanted metal pouring in a stream of liquid silver like mercury. It glowed with reflected moonlight and was nearly as thick as the molten steel it was made from when the blacksmiths put their hammers to it. Sparks did not fly from the material, but it was very easy to shape into spearheads and armor and felt cool to the touch, just like a soft clay.

“Whatever the Heart did, this isn't really steel anymore,” the stallion said, “it's cool and hammers out easily, but it keeps its shape!”

Shining Armor had him finish a spear and bring the weapon over to him, which he grabbed with his magic and inspected closely. The tip fresh off the anvil rapidly cooled in the air and became harder than any steel with a color and reflectiveness like sterling silver.

“Woah! PAL, get a look at this,” he said, his aura tossing the spear to the machine.

PAL extended a hand and caught the wooden shaft, stopping the flat end of the tip just in front of Spike's nose.

HEY!” he gasped, “Watch it!”

A metal finger tapped on the tip of the weapon, creating a tiny scratch.

“Is this what we need, PAL?” Shining asked, “What even is this stuff?”

He looked up at the stallion from his fingers and responded, “I believe it is a completely new material altogether. No known metal is liquid at room temperature, hardens instantly when it's done being worked with, and can cut titanium effortlessly. As for the golems...”

PAL raised his hand and opened it up, prompting Spike to give him a piece of the Shadowsteel armor from the little bag. The robot brought down the dark gray piece of metal and held the spear in his other hand before thrusting it. With a surprising spray of arcane yellow sparks, the tip went right through the material as if the 'invincible' shadow metal was made of foam!

“It works!” Spike cheered, pumping his fist, “We're gonna clobber those golems!”

“I think we can beat them with this... Heartium,” PAL mused.

“Is that what we're going to call it?” Shining Armor chuckled, “Heartium?”

“I kinda like it, it's simple,” Cadance said, “and since PAL did all that hard work researching the Shadowsteel, I think he should get to name the new material the Crystal Heart made for us.”

“I appreciate that very much,” he answered, his metal jawline grinning, “but let's not forget that we have a very limited supply of this alloy. We should use it on things that will help the Crystal Ponies the most.”

Celestia and Luna had seen the flash of sparks, and had walked over to investigate, their manes flowing behind them.

“It looks like the new metal the Heart has given us is extremely strong!” Luna marveled, “Have we decided how to use it all yet?”

“Armor and spears,” Shining said quickly, “I don't want anypony getting hurt, and spears don't take much material.”

“That sounds reasonable,” PAL added.

“It looks like spears for the militia and armor then,” Cadance answered confidently.

“You guys ought to get suits of armor too,” Spike suggested, “I bet it'll look cool!”

“It probably would!” chuckled Cadance, “But I don't think I want a suit of armor.”

“What? You are definitely using a suit of armor,” Shining protested.

“If it means one more Crystal Pony gets it instead, then I don't want a suit,” she insisted, holding a wing over her heart, “this is still all my fault for letting Rosseth get out of control.”

“Then I shall not use a suit either!” Luna agreed, gesturing with her hoof, “The citizens of the Crystal Empire will need all the protection they can get!”

Shining Armor was finding himself increasingly outvoted, and looked to Spike and PAL for support in hopes they'd help him make the princesses see that they were crazy.

“Come on guys, we all need armor, right?”

“Scales,” answered Spike plainly.

PAL pounded on his machined chest-plate with his mighty fist, “Carbon-titanium hull. Best armor there is.”

“Right,” the captain answered, looking at the ground, “nevermind.”

It didn't take long for the skilled blacksmiths to churn out a few hundred sparkling spears and suits of armor for the front liners of the militia. But a lot of the Crystal Ponies also chose to go armorless, especially the pegasus ponies who preferred to have their wings unhindered by plating. Once all of the materials had been created and the furnaces were empty, the weapons were stored in the palace for safekeeping. Only a bucket of Heartium was left behind on orders of Shining Armor, who had plans for the material.

Now that the preparations were complete, Princess Luna gathered the attention of the crowd, “Ponies of the Crystal Empire! You may believe you are finished preparing for tomorrow, but you have not! You all need a good night's rest to have the energy for the battle ahead.“

While Luna gave her speech about the importance of sleep hygiene, Princess Cadance felt a tap on her barrel from one of her advisers.

“Your Highness, if you please,” the light blue unicorn mare requested, “follow me.”

Cadance was led away from the crowd by the secretary until they were a good distance away from everyone else.

“What is it Looseleaf?” asked the princess of love, curious as to why she needed to be dragged away.

Looseleaf activated her horn and brought out a pink sheathe made from painted wood, a gold handle and crossguard visibly sticking out. The rain guard and rounded pommel of the blade was encrusted on both sides with a pink and a blue energy gem, which glowed brighter the closer they got to Cadance's body. Fascinated, Cadance pulled the sword out with her magic aura and watched as a blade the length of her own body slid out with a crisp sound. She held the weapon in front of her and moved it around, getting a good look at the fine craftsmanship. It was clearly made from gold, some of the Heartium, and her favorite energy crystal colors.

“A sword?”

“This is for you,” she answered, “the blacksmiths were ordered to not make you anything like you asked, but they wouldn't take no for an answer. So they dragged your husband over and told him he was designing something for you. He picked the sword because... and I quote.. 'I want her beside me the whole time'.”

Cadance smiled lovingly, “Aww, that is just like him.”

“It's true, I'm a big nerd and need my wife,” Shining Armor said, entering the previously private conversation.

The princess re-sheathed the sword and placed it back under Looseleaf's control, turning around to meet him with a swish of her long multicolored mane.

“I thought you didn't want me out there with you,” she said, looking into his eyes, “something about me getting hurt?”

“I married you so we can be together,” he answered, holding out his hoof, “I was letting my worries come first before the way you felt about this. How you want to help save the empire. But hey, now if something happens, we'll get hurt together.”

She felt her lip quiver, and flung herself into his embrace, “You're such a dummy and I love you for it.”

“I know...”

“Ma'am, will you take this sword?” Looseleaf asked, “Or was it just for making up?”

Cadance kissed her partner on the cheek and let him go in order to get the sword back from her assistant, “I'll use it tomorrow. I've never actually swung a sword before in my life, but... how hard could it be?”

“Oh boy,” Shining said, “maybe Arbiter could help you a little before we go out tomorrow, okay?”

“He'll be thrilled!” teased the slender princess, winking at him.

“Good luck tomorrow my lady,” Looseleaf said, bowing.

Cadance fastened the hilt to her side, Shining helping her out by providing a smooth black belt that fit snugly around her middle. Then, she thanked her secretary and left with her husband to see if their one-eyed friend was willing to give her a few lessons!

Within the confines of the valley castle, Sombra had assembled the vast swarm of golems in preparation for his sweeping victory against the Crystal Empire. Ten thousand units, all lined up shoulder to shoulder, with purple eyes glowing within their helmets all looked up at the balcony Midnight commanded them from. The soon-to-be prince of the shadows stood at Sombra's right, while Rosseth stood at his left with a rather troubled look on his face.

GOLEMS!” Sombra bellowed down to this troops, “Tomorrow morning is the dawn of a new age for the Shadow Pony. The Crystal Empire has made a fatal mistake out of their lack of foresight. They have constructed a mighty fortress to the west of their city, merely because my specter took refuge there! But we will be striking from the east, rendering the entire palace and its firepower useless.”

Rosseth was trying to avoid listening to Sombra go on about how deficient the Crystal Ponies were militarily and leaned over to glance at Midnight. The smuggest, most rotten look was on his face, and his horn poured out a weird smoke. But the thing that upset the zebra the most was his sclera, which were starting to turn a sickly yellow color like he was suffering from acute jaundice.

“That dark magic is going to end up destroying him,” the zebra muttered, counting on Sombra's shouting to drown him out, “I'd feel sorry for him if it wasn't for the way he turned on his friends. I'm almost looking forward to watching him explode.”

“And so, my ARMY,” the king declared, slamming his hoof down on the hard stone surface of the ledge, “we are going to split our forces into a main group, and a strike team to flank around to the west! Those fools have moved too many of their guards out of the castle, and have left it weak! If we are able to push the Crystal Ponies back into the city and destroy that steam-powered fortress, they'll have no place to run!”

Then, Techorse's missile will do the rest! So I'd shut up about how we're going to lose, smartflank,” Rosseth heard in his mind, an intrusive thought coming to him in Midnight's voice.

Nearly choking, he looked back at Midnight, who was now staring at him with his horribly discolored eyes, yellow and red.

Rosseth felt a chill run right through his spinal chord, he could hear Midnight speak, but his lips were not moving, “What's the matter Rosseth? Didn't you know that I'd gain my father's power to intrude on thoughts? Oh, and by the way, why are you so gelded that you can't tell me what you think of me to my face?

Stop, Midnight,” he answered with his thoughts, clenching his teeth tightly, “you have my loyalty against the Crystal Empire, and that's all you need to know!

Just don't bother coming back if you mess it up,” Midnight warned, letting a cruel laugh loose in the Zebra's mind.

Soon after Midnight's voice left his head, Rosseth felt his brain pound with anxiety and the worst migraine he'd had in years. Now he couldn't even think about standing against the shadow ponies safely.

Sombra finished his speech, “Tomorrow... WE STRIKE FOR THE KINGDOM!

The golems raised their fists in allegiance, and were then dismissed for the evening so that they could power down to conserve energy. Sombra brought back in his two most trusted allies into the atrium where a tray of hot tea had been brought in by the slaves. The last one of them, just a little pegasus mare wearing her maid outfit, whimpered and scurried off like a kicked puppy when she saw Midnight's twisted eyes.

“We will conduct operations from here using the arcane viewing screen in the war room,” King Sombra informed Midnight.

“This will be over in a matter of hours,” Midnight mused, smiling to reveal his newly gained fangs, “I'm looking forward to winning back that city.”

“As am I,” replied his adoptive father, mane flowing in the breeze from the open balcony door, “but there is still one thing you lack as a successor to my throne. I will have it prepared for you tomorrow morning, make sure that you are bathed and well-groomed for it.”

“As you wish, father,” answered the sapphire stallion, bowing at the knee before leaving.

“Rosseth,” the king said as soon as Midnight had departed the hallway, “I haven't forgotten about you. I have something special you will need. A surprise, you might say.”

The zebra was not eager to learn what the “surprise” was, but knowing he had no choice, followed him anyways. Sombra brought him back to the stained glass windows that he had lectured Midnight in front of, and as soon as they stood in the moonlight in front of the largest piece, Sombra turned his back to him ominously.

“Rosseth... answer me honestly,” the ancient king said dryly, “do you honestly intend to serve me? Or are you starting to have regrets about your decision to bring me back? Did you honestly believe you could control me like some sort of a weapon against Princess Cadance?”

The hybrid felt his stomach start to turn knots, until he realized that was exactly the reaction the king wanted, and relaxed his muscles, “I thought you might pay back what was done to me all those years ago.”

“And I am about to, in full, with interest!” the dark unicorn answered with an honest statement, “yet I can feel that there's rebellion in your heart, Rosseth. A desire to turn on me out of the massive amounts of 'goodness' in your heart. Not moral goodness, mind you, but the knowledge that it's not quite fair that the Crystal Ponies should all suffer just so you can make Cadance's life a horror.”

He had a rather unhealthy tone of joy with his other thought, “Or perhaps Shadow Breeze's demise is what's set you off.”

The potion maker felt the coldness return to his spine, sweat was starting to accumulate under his mane and his heart was pounding away in his ribcage anxiously.

Sombra instantly knew what his zebra servant was thinking, having probed Rosseth's mind from the beginning,

“Oh... neither of those are true.”

With his curved horn glowing red, the ruler turned, tendrils of shadow energy snaking out from underneath his hooves and approaching Rosseth, who tried to back away. Two red eyes were piercing right into the depths of his soul, trying to tear it apart.

“Someone has changed you, Rosseth! But even if you've changed, I demand loyalty you worthless hybrid, and I will show you what happens to traitorous scum like you!”

Sombra did not open with any attacks, but Rosseth felt a strange sensation of water accumulating near the bottoms of his hooves. Looking down he could see that a rising level of cold, icy water the color of the sea was starting to fill the hallway. Panicking, he lifted up his head and screamed, only to find out that King Sombra had vanished!

The level of the frigid ocean rose quickly up to his neck, and the poor zebra feared for his life as it began to rapidly thrash around him. His head was dunked under the surface multiple times and fluid threatened to get into his trachea with each violent wave of the newly formed sea.

“I can't swim!” Rosseth cried, short of breath, “Sombra's going to drown me! Techorse, Flaming, ANYPONY, HEEEEEELP!


A beam of light shone from above, he looked at it quickly, to see Princess Cadance reaching out from him from the safety of a beautiful ivory colored lighthouse. She was high up on the ledge of the building, whose spotlight was blinding him and making paddling while avoiding blindness harder. All he could do was squint and make out the princess's desperate eyes and pleading hoof. The waves were coming up and over his head, and it looked like he was doomed to a watery grave.

Cadaaaaaaaance!” screamed the zebra finally in hopes she could hear him, “Why?! Why did you let this happen to me?!

The figure of Cadance shouted to him, “Ross! I'm coming! I'm coming to help you!”

In that moment, “Cadance” evaporated in a puff of pink colored smoke and dust, from her figure came a rapidly plunging Lighthearted with love and fear both consuming her eyes. The mare crashed into the zebra, and they both rolled over onto the carpet of the stained glass hallway. There was no more ocean, no more lighthouse, and no more raging tempest around them.

It had all been another poisonous fear curse by King Sombra, who stood before them laughing like a demon at their pain and suffering.

“Ross, oh are you all right?” she cried, ignoring the king's laughter, “you were just standing there, your mouth was foaming!”

“I... you... you saved me, love,” Rosseth said, almost speechless.

“How pathetic, your greatest fear is that you can't swim,” Sombra cackled, “now I know why you wouldn't cross the river!”

Seizing Lighthearted with his aura, he turned her around to face him, “Oh, and what's this, did I hear you call Lighthearted your love? I guess I was wrong in thinking you only lusted after her, I suppose you are capable of romance. Knowing how much you care about her, it's a shame I'm going to have to dispatch this rebellious mare.”

With a yellow flash of energy from his horn, the guillotine from the courtyard appeared in the room around Lighthearted, locking her into it instantly. Rosseth felt his pulse jump into his throat and blood pressure drop as Sombra reached with his hoof for the activation lever. Lighthearted had just enough time to shut her eyes and grit her teeth in hopes it would mean she didn't have to feel anything...

“Wait, don't!” cried Rosseth dryly, putting out his hoof desperately, “Don't do this, take me instead!”

This was exactly what he had wanted to hear, and smiled maliciously, “I don't want your head, Rosseth, I want your undying loyalty. You'll go tomorrow and face Cadance for me to save Lighthearted, won't you?”

“I'll do it,” Rosseth said quickly, “I had planned on confronting her anyways, but...”

“...but now you'll either put an end to the Princess of Love's reign, or meet your own end,” Sombra finished for him, stomping his hoof on the ground, “I suppose this means I can finally count on your loyalty.”

With the same flash of yellow light, the cruel machine was gone, leaving Lighthearted on the ground with a paler look on her face. She ran over to Rosseth and hugged him tightly, tears running down her cheeks.

“I'm so sorry!” she sobbed.

“You saved me, Light. I'm going to save you,” he said assuredly, holding her tight.

The mare vanished from another teleportation spell cast by Sombra, frightening Rosseth again.

“She'll be in the slave quarters for now,” he answered smugly, “as for what you'll do to Cadance...”

Reaching underneath the red flowing cape affixed to his armor, Sombra drew out a sheathe made of obsidian stone. A handle made of a silver metal with jet lining and crossguards was sticking out of it, and Sombra drew the weapon with his red aura before producing a blue gemstone.

“Midnight promised me this would work,” he said as he levitated the stone to Rosseth's forehead and pressed tightly.

The stone flashed, and Sombra took it back, placing it in an indent on the sword's crossguard. Intuitively, Rosseth attempted to move the sword to him with his mind, and the blade floated in front of him, suspended by a blue magical field. Taking a few shallow swings, the hybrid collected the sheathe and tied it to his belt.

“Cut down any who stand in your way,” Sombra reminded him, “and remember to change into the robe I have provided for you in your room. You cannot go charging in without the enemy knowing who you serve.”

“Will you spare Lighthearted if I face Cadance and her friends?” Rosseth demanded, repressing the need to cry.

“I have nothing to gain by ending her now,” he answered, closing his eyes and shaking his head, “so whether you come back alive or dead, she'll be safe so long as your 'meeting' with Cadance occurs.”

Opening his cruel red eyes, he gave him that fake, psychopathic smile one more time, “Now, go get some sleep my general. You'll need to be up early.”

A whirlwind of shadow energy consumed the king, whisking him out of the room, and leaving Rosseth to think. He activated the mindstone again and drew out the sword, looking over the nature of the blade. The material seemed to be reflective, and sharp, but not the same kind of material the golems were made out of. Rosseth thought about what Sombra had asked him to do. He thought over the horrid deal he had been given.

Whether you come back alive or dead, she'll be safe.

Thinking over his options, he decided his exact course of action, and sheathed the sword with the sharp sound of metal.

“I'm coming for you, Cadance. This hatred for you ends tomorrow.”

Chapter 36 - Dreams of the Past

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Chapter 36


The Princess of the Sun opened her soft eyes sleepily, surrounded by the pitch blackness of the night. Only she wasn't in her bed, rather, she was surrounded by a dark void that she floated in without use of her powerful wings. Around her, were many mysterious gray colored doors that drifted in arcing patterns, the voices of many of her subjects coming from behind them. She couldn't possibly pick them all out by name, but the voice that had woken her up was all too familiar.

Flipping over in the swirling, ghostly void, Celestia came face to face with her sister, albeit upside down in the aether between dreams.

“What's going on, Luna? Why have you brought us here?” she asked curiously, righting herself in the colorful abyss.

“It's urgent, I promise,” Luna declared, her horn glowing as she prepared her magic, “there is a dream that we need to enter together.”

Celestia felt more than concerned, which was justified given the current circumstances. It had been a long time since Luna had last invited her to show her the realm of dreams and anything that lay inside of it.

“Have you finally gotten through to Midnight Blaze or Techorse?” she demanded to know, “They've been cut off from you ever since all of this started.”

Luna shook her head, “Something even more unusual. Allow me to show you.”

With that, the Princess of the Moon cast a wave of energy that filled the area, changing the scenery from the nothingness to a comfortable room that matched one of the hallways in Canterlot's castle. Rows of doors lined the walls, each one representing the entrance to one of dreams of the ponies living throughout Equestria. Or at the very least, this was Luna's current chosen metaphor for the portals to the realm of sleep for the sake of getting Celestia out of the void.

“I do not remember this hallway,” she admitted, following her sister closely, “wasn't your dream selection spell a library before, with books to open for each of our subject's dreams?”

“I decided to make a change for my own amusement,” Luna sarcastically responded, rolling her eyes, “now if you observe, you will notice the door ahead with a red mist coming from beneath its frame.”

The door to their right was indeed spilling out some kind of crimson fog, making it eerily stick out from the rest of the doorways.

“I like the emphasis,” Celestia said, giggling, “very dramatic.”

“I'm not making the haze.”

That changed her sister's attitude right away, and a frown swept over the sun raiser's face, “Oh... well, that red smoke can't possibly be good. Who's dream is that?”

Luna stopped them in front of the door, hesitant to push it open with her hoof. She looked up into her sister's big eyes, and answered,



Luna took a deep breath and let it out slowly, “It would seem that Sombra has been, as Techorse might put it... 'jamming' my dreamwalking so that I cannot enter his or any of our friends' dreams to offer them help. I have good reason to believe he has picked up magical abilities quite like my own somehow. Perhaps it is how he was able to manipulate Midnight Blaze in the first place!”

“If Sombra can dreamwalk... he could gain enough power to haunt every pony in Equestria!” Celestia gasped, her wings unfolding.

“Yes,” Princess Luna nodded mournfully, “it isn't enough for that monster to control ponies during the day. He must also terrorize them at night as well, which is why he's learned the skill. But that still does not answer why his door is open this evening. My only thought is... he is expecting us.”

“It's clearly a trap,” her sister warned, returning her broad wingspan to her barrel, “Sombra is trying to ruin our ability to help the Crystal Empire survive his army's attack.”

“That would be the simplest explanation, but when have we known Sombra to take the simplest option in any circumstance?” Luna questioned, looking back at the wooden door, “He intends to manipulate us into giving him information he can use to win. If anything were to go wrong, I would be able to get us both to safety... his dreamwalking powers are still too underdeveloped to fight us.”

“So why should we even enter and face him?” asked Celestia, raising an eyebrow, “Can't we just go back to resting?”

“I need to know how he knew about my chalice, and was able to return,” she answered, a very serious tone in her voice, “he had influence over others despite having been eradicated by the Crystal Heart. As soon as I know how he was able to control Rosseth from beyond the grave, we will leave. I only ask that you help me keep him busy, Celestia. This information could help answer a few questions about the recent happenings in Equestria.”

Knowing what she meant, Celestia said nothing further and agreed with a reluctant smile. Luna understood her sister's reluctance and turned to face the doorway entirely. It swung open by her command, and the two alicorns entered, unsure what they were going to face on the other side.

They stepped out into a garden bathed in a golden sunset, the late afternoon reds and oranges pouring over every inch of the surrounding terrain. Celestia looked back, and felt startled when she saw that the doorway had vanished without a sound or puff of smoke. She returned her focus back to the interior of Sombra's dream, and felt a sense of peace that was rather odd for the king's personality. Beautiful tile lay all over the ground in a rectangular mosaic to stand on while enjoying the plants. There were also imposing columns of marble that stretched to the sky, and running water from an open fountain poured out into a river that ran around the left flank of the display. The botanic choices Sombra had made for his dream were rather nice, with many exotic flowers and small trees that completed the peaceful atmosphere. Behind it lay a copy of the castle the king of shadows was currently residing in, only made out of the purest white alabaster stone, which reflected the evening sunlight against it in a way that impressed the princesses, although they would never admit it if asked.

“For Sombra, this is rather... serene,” Celestia sighed, “I would have expected something much scarier.”

“Do not let your guard down,” warned her sister, “this is part of his plan.”

“You lack trust, Luna,” Sombra responded, walking to meet them in the garden, coming up a marble pathway that led to the mosaic, “do you not like what I've done with my own dream?”

Celestia noticed that Sombra had taken on a form of a more harmless stallion, his original look far before he became involved with dark magic. Gray coat, handsome and strong build, a normal horn, and black mane hair that flowed behind him. Even his cape was a more modest red fabric that waved behind him. But most noticeably of all, his emerald green eyes lacked the hatred and anguish both of the princesses had come to know, and he had increased his physical size to match their own statures.

“During this entire ordeal, you've kept your dreams blocked off,” Luna growled, refusing to buy into his “act” of looking normal, “not to mention your threats against the Crystal Empire, and your unspeakablecruelty to Shadow Breeze!”


Sombra drew his eyes off of Luna's raging expression and made contact with Celestia's, reading her expression and feelings. He felt it weird that despite the apparent death of Shadow in front of the Crystal Empire, Celestia wasn't quite upset enough. Even one of her subjects suffering was enough to make the princess fly into a defensive mode fitting a protective mother. Yet the ivory mare stood without so much as a disapproving frown. That was all the info Sombra needed to draw his next conclusion.

“Shadow Breeze lives,” he chuckled, making Celestia hold her breath out of surprise, “Techorse and Flaming Ivory will be happy to know their friend is still around for them to enjoy. But I'll be keeping that important piece of knowledge to myself, they're weak with that loss in their hearts.”

Celestia gritted her teeth, her face twitching in anger, “You... you monster. You tell them he's alive at once!”

“If I do that, I can't control them,” Sombra answered, tilting his head, “you're just as stupid as your subjects, expecting me to comply with that request.”

Princess Celestia lost her temper, and screamed at Sombra while swinging her head down to engage him. Her horn emitted a lethal ray of solar magic into the king's chest, piercing through him immediately and frying a perfectly round hole through his body. Smoke drifted from the top of Celestia's horn, who was quite winded from her attack.

“Please keep in mind we're in a dream,” Sombra grunted, looking down at the fresh gap where his ribs ought to be, “there's no point in trying to use violence here.”

The hole healed up rapidly without scar tissue or pain, regenerating from the laser.

Luna felt far more intimidated by the display, “That severe of an attack should have woken him up!

Sombra continued to lay into Celestia, stepping up to the angry princess and placing a hoof on her cheek. Luna watched on, and felt that her legs had been locked into place like she was glued to the floor. She realized in horror that Sombra had been in control of the situation the moment they had entered the dream, and Celestia letting him touch her face was very much scripted by the king.

How could he be so powerful here?!” Luna questioned mentally, struggling to do anything but watch Sombra play with them.

She had thought at first that Sombra had started to touch Celestia out of disrespect and teasing. But in a gross moment of misguided affection, Luna watched Sombra's expression turn starry and subdued. His green eyes were staring deep into Celestia's, and the princess was mesmerized by how intently he was looking at her.

“Oh Celestia,” he said softly, continuing to rub her face gently, “despite your shortcomings, I find it hard to be angry with you. Such beauty and grace behind all that power and might.”

“Flattering others will not get you far,” returned the princess, wishing she could rip his hoof off.

“Oh but I mean it,” Sombra answered, shaking his head, “That flowing mane, your eyes and slender form? I would have been happy to have called you my lover back in the day. But you chose to see me as a monster.”

Celestia felt her face go hot, “Us? A couple? You're making me sick.”

Sombra finally pulled his hoof away, “It didn't have to be like this at all. You could have taken my side all those years ago.”

“You... you murdered their leadership,” Luna managed to say, her magic finally letting her pierce through the paralysis while Sombra was distracted, “we had every reason to fight back, and so did the Crystal Ponies!”

“Their 'leadership' destroyed my home, and who knows how many Shadow Ponies!” Sombra snapped, turning to Luna quickly and spitting in her face, “If you want to count transgressions, let's start with that! It was a fair trade of blood, and the right thing to do!”

“Your concept of what's fair and the right thing to do is flawed beyond belief,” Celestia countered, trying to break free as well from the passive curse inside the dream.

Sombra stopped, going silent and losing his aura of rage. He walked away from the princesses for a second, hanging his head to give himself a little time to think.

“Is it?” he asked sincerely without turning around again, “I deserve better than this.”

“It's arrogant to ask that even if it's rhetorical,” Luna said, “your belief that you are entitled to the Crystal Ponies as slaves because of what happened to the Shadow Pony nation is cruel. You do not deserve anything!”

Sombra thought for a moment and then sighed, “There is something I need to show you. Perhaps then you will understand.”

A heavy gale started to surge through the garden, tearing up tiles and uprooting the plants in a maelstrom generated by King Sombra's twisted mind. The scenery was disappearing, but the setting sun remained in place. Celestia and Luna felt themselves move as the castle shrank away from sight, they still could not move, but Sombra was free to walk up to them and stand between them as a third observer to the event. Soon the Crystal Empire came into view, but something was very wrong. Fires had broken out all along the city, the palace was a dark shade of red and black, with chunks missing from it due to some kind of explosive damage. Flying above the scene and looking down, the princesses remembered all too well what Sombra was showing them.

The king looked at their startled expressions blankly, “I see you recall this moment. The moment you decided to destroy me.”

With no say in the matter, the sisters were dragged downward at a steep angle as if crashing, flying through the smoke and haze that drifted from the destroyed kingdom and phasing through the wall of the Crystal Palace's remains. When they landed on the floor, they noticed that they were ghostly and spectral, mere observers to the events unfolding.

The inside of the Crystal Palace was a sickly ruby red in color, with dark iron torches hanging from the walls and ceilings, a stark contrast from the more beautiful castle he called home in the Valley of Shadows. Celestia recognized the area as the castle's throne room where Cadance would sit, a long red carpet led up to the giant silver chair, now twisted from the influence of dark magic. Huge glass pipes filled with magma had been installed throughout the room, another one of the king's twisted inventions having changed the architecture.

“Look at the monster on the throne,” Celestia said, beating him to the first word, “that is what you became, and what we had to destroy. Even your current form is tolerable over that... soulless void.”

Listening to her “opinion”, Sombra had to admit that he hardly recognized himself on the throne. His past self was nearly pitch black in coat color, with purple and green eyes glowing from inside his heavy imperial armor. Two sharp fangs poked from the top of his jaw, and purple arcs of energy arced from his curved horn pulsing with demonic power. Explosions rocked the building, forcing the dark lord to stand up and growl at his misfortune.

“Such is the life of a true ruler,” past Sombra said, dark and deep words echoing throughout the empty hallways as dust fluttered down from the ceiling, “a kingdom taken from him by those who want justice... but do not understand it. The mission statement of Equestria.”

Another blast rocked the palace as an Equestria cannonball struck a gun emplacement on the outside, vaporizing the automated turret and smashing in the wall. Sombra shook his head, of course the Equestrians weren't going to charge the weapons and risk themselves. They'd much prefer to sit outside the range of his defenses and slowly bomb his hexthrowers and cannons into powder. It was easy for the cowardly royal guard to be at the edges of his Empire and beat down any of his golems that left the cover of the buildings. But this meant that none of the Crystal Ponies were being rescued, and he still had his slaves.

“All they know to do is destroy things they do not understand,” the king sighed, thinking of his enemy as mere children, “those two alicorns have much to learn about the real world, and uncle Starswirl is no longer around to protect them. No matter what happens today, even if I should fall... they will pay for their arrogance in thinking I'm a monster.”

Into the hallway ran a swarm of golems, the older model Sombra had built many years ago. Barely a walking suit of knight armor with a cannon for a left arm, the prototypes still dedicated their loyalty to their king, and methodically entered the room in such a way that they formed a perfect line from wall to wall, blocking Sombra off. The massive iron doors that led to the throne room shuddered.


“Every issue, every question of morality is all or nothing for those two. They think in terms of night and day....”

Each machine raised his weapon at the doorway, preparing to fire. Sombra stood up from his throne, and threw away the red robe on his back to prepare himself for the attack. A wicked smile crept across his face, displaying his fangs for all to see.

“...and that's exactly how I need them to think.”

Another heavy blast rocked the castle, and the great iron doors came down with a loud clang, prompting the golems to open fire into the doorway. Beams of energy shot forth from their guns, penetrating the dust and debris scattered by the multi-ton entrance coming down suddenly. A lightning fast streak of white entered the room, Celestia clad in gold armor unknown to her modern day subjects. The suit covered the first half of her legs and her hooves, ornate panels of body armor protected her barrel, and a gold tiara that covered the top half of her face kept her mane, now bound in a long ponytail on her head to prevent its waving from getting in the way.

“Did my armor really look that silly?” Celestia whispered to herself.

The golems tried to focus their fire on the sun princess, shots bouncing off the armor and a magical barrier she had placed between herself and the machines. Luna entered above her sibling, wings spread through her own silver copy of the “silly” royal armor, and she cast a bright blue beam of piercing energy down at the war golems below. It cut through them lengthwise in one sweeping motion, severing their insides and spilling them all over the floor in a heap of melting scrap metal. She landed next to her sister, proud of herself for eliminating the squad in one shot.

“Impressive!” past King Sombra said, stepping forward off his throne, “Very impressive indeed, Celestia. You and your sister have been trained well!”


“I see. Have you come to kill me?” asked the king.

“It is within our royal duties to end the reigns of tyrants such as you,” Celestia said in a voice much more calm than Luna's, “you were warned to release the citizens of this realm. Being deaf to their horror and pain has warranted your demise.”

The king's eyes narrowed, “We will see who falls today, princesses...”

“Did we really talk like this?” Luna said, cringing on the inside.

“I must admit, it is a little... off-putting,” modern Sombra agreed.

They were interrupted by their former beings starting their duel. King Sombra initiated the battle by summoning a burning sword of shadow and flame, the conjured object swung just inches from Celestia's neck. She managed to dodge the blow, and returned fire with a scalding ball of solar plasma shot from her horn. Blocking with the edge of his blade, the projectile was bounced into a nearby lava tube, which ruptured it and began to fill the throne room with the boiling rock. Spreading their wings and taking off, the two princesses ascended, leaving Sombra to contend with his own flooding room. But Sombra dropped his blade down into the floor beneath him, and rapidly cut a hole through the floor to escape the glowing rock.

Giving chase, Luna and Celestia flew into the hole after him, entering the inner sanctum of the palace. It was a dark room, with a massive column in the center that stretched up into the ceiling, a glowing red dark energy crystal rotating to provide energy for the palace. Carved stone lined the walls of this “engine room”, and an occasional beam of light exited the power core and struck the carvings to send energy to where it was needed in the castle.

“We need to knock out his power source!” Celestia said, “But let's stop Sombra's attacks first!”

Sombra had dismissed his sword, and launched bolts of shadow energy at Celestia, hoping to knock her out of the air. She skillfully rolled to avoid the attacks before countering with a magical whip made of white energy, the chain snaking from her horn in an attempt to grab Sombra's leg. To her shock, the king allowed it to wrap around his front hoof before he pulled on it hard. The force was so sudden from his movement, that Celestia failed to fly backwards enough to stop the chain from dragging her down instead. Sombra's dark magic had given him great strength, and Celestia found herself being pulled into the walls of the spire, her armor crunching and shattering against the red stone, which crumbled from Celestia's body being rammed into it. Her chain disappeared, and the injured alicorn peeled off of the wall and fell to the floor, flopping on her side.

“Celestia!” Luna cried, diving down to help, “No!”

Sombra waited patiently for Luna to check on her sister's health, smiling without even a hint of hatred on his face. The princess was permitted to examine her sister as long as she needed to by the king's “grace”.

“You liar,” modern Luna grumbled as she watched the show, “you shot at me the entire time.”


Past Luna shook past Celestia with her hooves, hoping to get her up, when she turned around and saw a thousand floating shadow daggers pointed right at them. Gasping, she charged her horn quickly and teleported them both out of the way just as the dark knives sunk deep into the floor and walls. Luna fired off another solid ray at Sombra, the same one used to destroy his golems. Turning into a black mist, the king easily absorbed the attack, but it had rendered him unable to attack.

“Celestia, you MUST awaken!” Luna cried, continuing to shake her sister, “I need you!”

She heard a whistling noise behind herself, finding a ball of shadow coming right at her. Too tired to teleport again, she could only brace for impact as Sombra's next spell hit her. It didn't seem to do much, bouncing rather gently off of the front of her silver armor plating. Opening her eyes, the Princess of the Moon had a closer look at the sphere of shadow magic. To her horror, there was a lit, burning fuse sticking out of the top.


The shadow bomb detonated, tossing the alicorn up and away from from her sister and ruining her armor plating. She hit the floor hard, and rolled a few feet before coming to a rest right in front of Sombra, horn smoking from his clever attack. The bloody red of his glowing eyes and sinister expression led the princess to believe that she would soon be finished off, and she hung her head in preparation for the end. A bright red laser shot from the core behind them and over their heads, entering the carved stone closest to them with a loud hum of deadly energy.

But Sombra had other plans for her, “Rise, Princess Luna. Your willingness to save your sister has satisfied my wrath. Let's talk like true ponies, and stop this foolish duel.“

Luna couldn't believe what she was hearing, but she stood up on her own four legs and allowed the king to continue.

“What meanest you by this?”

“I find it... curious that you would risk your life to save Celestia,” he said slowly, “after all she does to make sure your name never sees the light of day.”

“What?” muttered Luna, avoiding eye contact.

“Oh... but I know so much about you,” Sombra continued, smiling, “the little sister. The princess Equestria lets rot in her tower while her older sibling gets all the glory for Equestria's success. Equestria's farms produce the most food this world has ever seen, and yet they thank only the day for the growth of their crops. Not the night. But I know better, those farmers would not be able to conduct their duties without their rest. Something only you provide.”

Luna held her tongue, but her face clearly twitched with pent up anger and jealousy.

“If you had killed me with that magic of yours, Luna, do you really think that Equestria would celebrate you as a hero?” past Sombra asked, stepping up to the disgruntled princess, “Or do you think the royal guard would credit Celestia with all your bravery and hard work?”

“I would prefer to avoid discussion of this,” the silver-clad princess grumbled.

“It's not a discussion. I am telling you the truth,” Sombra responded, “even your birthday is forgotten at times. I know what it's like... for others to fail to acknowledge one's being. It hurts, deeply.”

“Are you finished yet!?” Luna cried, trying to ignore what she felt was true.

“Luna, I am only trying to...” Sombra tried to continue, before a beam of hot white plasma surged into his chest and carved a deep hole into him.

A rasping breath of air came from his punctured lungs, and purple liquid poured from his mouth. The king gurgled, stumbling backwards. Celestia had come to, and took his moment of conversation with Luna to mean a free shot at his heart. Sombra thought he was feeling his life force slip away from the hit, but when he looked back at the core of the Crystal Palace, the wicked crystal he had replaced the Heart with... he knew things weren't over quite yet. In fact, he could feel the Dark Magic in his body start to take over where his physical body was failing, the power more than making up for his lack of a working physical heart. He began to slowly walk backwards, the hole patching itself up slowly.

“Sombra, it's over,” Celestia said, grunting from a damaged rib as she shakily stood up, “the Crystal Ponies will be free, and you will be forgotten.”

Sombra felt magic course through his remaining veins, filling him with energy. His flesh began to feel as if it wasn't there, and black mist seeped from his body. Powerful energy was taking over his very mind and spirit, slowly turning him spectral. But he continued to back up towards the crystal core, the sisters giving pursuit. It brought him joy to see that Luna was looking away from Celestia, her sister's eyes locked firmly on him instead. Her horn started to accumulate magic energy for another shot, this one to finish him off for good.

Sombra focused only on floating backwards, his hooves having turned to shadow. From the look on Luna's face and the feelings he could sense in her heart.

“I will finish you,” Celestia boomed, “the Crystal Empire will be liberated, and glory will be brought to my land!”

YOUR land?!” Luna yelled, having snapped.

She stepped in front of her sister and blocked her shot at the wounded king, “Celestia, I grow tired of this! I am an equal partner in your endeavors!”

Celestia knew she had made a mistake, but tried to push past her, “Luna, this is not a time to be arguing, we must stop him!”

“And now you say WE? Only when you need me for some task?!” she answered, trying not to scream.

Sombra, still backing up, felt his body touch the base of the stony column that held the core up while the sisters continued to bicker. The seed had been planted. Now, to take away their victory.

There was a dark flash, and the two sisters stopped arguing, only to see the king rising up into the air by the force of his Dark Magic. A loud, demonic voice came from his throat,

You've failed! Although you end my rule today, the Crystal Ponies will NEVER BE FREE! I bring a curse upon this Empire, to remain hidden for a thousand years!

Turning fully into a spectral form of shadow energy, Sombra cackled and rammed himself into the giant crystal. It roared to life as it combined with its master, expanding in size and spinning rapidly, firing off beams of energy everywhere.

“What... what's happening!?” Luna cried, dodging a beam narrowly.

A ball of darkness started to grow from the center of the crystal, consuming everything in its path like a black hole. Celestia's eyes grew wide, and she began to gallop for the hole in the ceiling of the room.

“Run Luna!” she said, “Don't let it touch you!”

The two alicorns took flight and escaped the Crystal Palace, which was consumed by the rapidly expanding ball of nothingness. With horror and anxiety, they could only watch as the ball overtook the buildings of the empire. Flying back to their troops, they escaped the event horizon of the curse and landed outside the limits.

“What happened?” demanded their general of that day and age.

“Sombra has cursed the Crystal Empire by unleashing all of his Dark Magic,” Celestia announced gravely.

The army could do nothing but watch as the sphere stopped growing. But then, as if by a miracle, the dark color of the sphere lightened enough so that they could see inside. Miraculously, the dark magic repaired all the damage they had done, fixing every building in the Empire and restoring the Crystal Palace to its original structure and shape.

“Time magic,” Luna gasped, “Sombra... you couldn't...”

Then, with a sharp report that echoed eerily throughout the frozen land, the bubble glowed white with pure energy, and vanished without a trace. The entirety of the Crystal Empire had vanished, a victim of Sombra's wrath and hatred.

“By the ancestors,” the general said in awe, taking off his helmet, “how...”

Celestia and Luna could only stare at the massive ring in the snow that marked the borders of the former Crystal Empire. It was as if the city had never been there in the first place.

“Why was Sombra able to complete his curse?” the general demanded to know.

Looking at the two princesses, the stallion saw the conflict between them, and shook his head, “Oh no. Princess Luna, what did you do? Was this your fault?!”

Luna felt her mouth fall open, hurt and guilt spreading over her expression. She felt tears come to her eyes, but she couldn't express in words how she felt about the verbal daggers the general had just thrown at her.

“General Strongbarrel, that's enough,” Celestia warned, “we need to get your stallions and mares home now. What has been done, has been done.”

“And we're supposed to just go home knowing the Crystal Ponies all perished?” the general shouted, spit flying from his mouth.

“The Crystal Ponies are not dead. They have been sent back in time to the beginning of Sombra's takeover, when their homes were intact, but they were in chains,” Celestia explained, “in a thousand years, they will return. I know it.”

Celestia looked out over the snow and frost, “Come Luna, it's time to go home.”

But when she looked back, her sister was gone, having likely flown away. She could hear whispers between the soldiers, who had agreed with their general's opinion as to who had caused the Crystal Empire to be lost. Celestia thought carefully about what she had chosen to say to her sister, and felt a growing gap between the two of them. But being a princess and having a duty to her ponies, she elected to ignore the feeling once more as she had always done.

Sombra in the present day chose to end his presentation at this point, and the image of the snowy scene faded away to nothing, leaving the three ponies floating in the dream void. Celestia and Luna were free to move again, but did not immediately attack Sombra.

“I fail to see how this proves you deserve the Crystal Empire,” Luna responded, “it is very true that you succeeded at seducing me to the path of evil, Sombra. But Celestia and I are sisters once more, united in the protection of Equestria.”

Celestia gave her sister a well-deserved warm hug, “I love you so much, Luna.”

“I love you too, my sister,” she responded, “family forever.”

“If anything, King Sombra, I want to thank you for reminding me of how far we've come,” Celestia continued through her embrace, “you've lifted our spirits and shown us just how important it is to not let pride and hatred get in the way of what's important.”

“And that is exactly why I'm right,” Sombra answered proudly.

The princesses craned their necks and leaned in on him, “What?”

Sombra took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and then explained with a calm voice, “You understand how important family is. My family was destroyed by the Crystal Ponies. I did everything I did in the past out of vengeance for that cruel act against me... against the ones I loved. Perhaps in the past I was selfish, taking the Crystal Empire for myself out of greed more than hatred...”

Celestia and Luna listened carefully, feeling his pain.

“But now I have a true son, Midnight Blaze, who will one day succeed me on the throne,” he continued proudly, “he is the future of the Shadow Ponies. Now all I do is for family, not myself.”

“Sombra, your logic is full of holes,” Celestia explained, “it's still unjust to enslave the Crystal Ponies. Just because you are doing it for the family you love doesn't make it right.”

“Nor is Midnight Blaze actually your son!” Luna added.

He turned away from them, “Then I suppose you will never understand. You must not see the hurt I’ve suffered. You must not feel pain for your own doings.”

“We see your hurt,” Princess Luna said, “but you will not let go of the past. We have let go, and because of that, we are able to move on. Here you are a thousand years later, and still desiring rule over the Crystal Ponies.”

“And there is still pain in my heart from what I had to do to Luna,” said the other princess, tears in her eyes, “but... that pain is a good thing. It reminds me that my actions have consequences, and that I must make each decision carefully. As a princess...”

She looked over to Luna, “And as a sister.”

King Sombra turned around again, and plants and tile flew back into view as they returned to the garden.

“I suppose you can lead princesses to water...” he said rather cheerfully.

“We do not want to repeat the past,” Luna cautioned him, holding out a hoof, “please, King Sombra. Even Discord found peace. Come with us, and be free from this!”

Sombra responded with a laugh, “There will be no repeat of the past. We will never see each other in this battle. There will be no curse that plunges the Crystal Empire into hiding again. No more foolish displays of grandeur. Only a fast and painless military coup, and a new, more caring warden over the Crystal Ponies while they serve out their sentence to the Shadow Pony nation. I wlll bring peace with this victory!”

“A victory on Techorse's back,” Celestia said sternly, “he will feel responsible for the rest of his life for all the ponies who suffer.”

He looked into Celestia's eyes, “I promise, Princess of the Sun, that not one Crystal Pony will die tomorrow. Things have changed.”

“But much has stayed the same,” she answered softly, frowning at him, “it is a shame, Sombra. Perhaps there would have been a way for the Crystal Ponies to forgive you.”

Sombra gave back a weak smile, “You truly are beautiful, Celestia. Do not forget that.”

The atmosphere around the princesses faded away into nothing, and they woke up suddenly in their adjacent beds. Celestia's horn was vibrating with sparks of magic, bringing up the sun at the proper time as always whether she wanted to or not.

After a few moments of staring at each other, Luna smiled triumphantly, “Thank you for sitting through that again, sister. I've figured out exactly how Sombra was able to communicate with Midnight.”

“What was his secret?”

“Sombra's Dark Magic is so strong, that he is, you might say... 'preserved' in the realm of dreams,” Princess Luna explained, “when he was destroyed, he saved himself by becoming a being of dream magic, and that was enough to travel in the minds of Rosseth and Midnight.”

“Sombra became a being made of pure dream magic?” Celestia asked curiously, “But Luna, I asked you about the possibility of that just a few months ago. You told me it was impossible.”

Princess Luna realized what she had hinted, and looked around the room in a guilty manner, her ears dropping, “Well I... did say that I suppose. But maybe Sombra is craftier than I thought.”

Celestia felt her sister, the expert in dream magic, actually did know and had lied earlier. But it didn't matter why she might have wanted to keep the truth about Sombra, or dream magic, a secret. They had a battle to win, and an Empire to save.

“He is very crafty, but we're still going to stop him, right?” she winked, “As family.”

Luna perked up again, “Yes, Celestia! As family!”

Getting out of their beds, they started their day with another warm hug, thankful to be together.

Chapter 37 - Breakthrough

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Chapter 37

Being a dead stallion felt extremely weird to Shadow Breeze. He felt warm and safe despite his eyes having gone dark, as if wrapped up in a favorite blanket or the warm embrace of his mother’s hooves. An intoxicating, but strange aroma of sanitized tile and ocean breeze fabric scent tickled his olfactory senses which were no longer connected to a living nose. Death felt like a re visitation of foalhood, a trip back to the safety and good memories of his past. It felt like…

It felt like there was a straw in his throat.

Choking on his breathing tube and feeling piercing light enter his rods and cones again, Shadow Breeze sprung back to life in his hospital bed, the rubber pipe in his larynx going after his gag reflex. His hooves reached up for the plastic air hose down his throat, and tugged at it until it came out covered in pegasus mucus. Gasping and choking up the remainder of the garbage down his windpipe, the explosion survivor cleared his airway and resumed normal breathing.

“I… I’m alive,” he said slowly, the gratitude in his heart making his eyes water, “m-my, my parents don’t have to bury me!”

Shadow checked his surroundings with his teary brown eyes, “This… this must be a hospital.”

The accommodations were quite nice for how quickly he had been admitted. His bed was equipped with a brand new electric reclining system, and fitted with a memory foam mattress with thick and cozy green sheets and blankets. A window that spanned the length of the wall closest to him let the sunlight in, which his eyes were still adjusting to, and the peaceful tune of a morning songbird welcomed his hearing back to the realm of the living as well. The small things in life were so much more sweeter now that he had faced doom from Sombra’s wicked bomb collar.

Of course, not everything was so pleasant now that he was back considering that his pain nerves were still firing at full force. His wings felt broken and constricted from their heavy bandaging, he could tell that his coat had been shaved and cleaned in multiple places, and of course his insides had partially turned to bruised mush from the blast. There was a long, snaking intravenous tube stuck in his left front leg at the knee, and that leg’s fetlock definitely felt loose and broken. Whatever was inside the IV bag felt like a warm bubble bath going into his bloodstream at a steady trickle.

“My body hurts,” he whined, curling up into a ball beneath the blanket, “I guess I barely made it.”

His room’s door swung open, and the doctor assigned to watch over him entered with a clipboard floating next to him. The yellow-coated stallion glared at the badly wounded pegasus with a scornful look from his brown eyes, square and thin glasses hanging at the end of his snout.

“Are you my doctor?” asked Shadow faintly.

“No, just the surgeon who put you back together,” answered the unicorn gruffly, moving his clipboard in front of him, “welcome back to reality, son.”

Shadow cried out, really hating surgery, “Wait, put me back together? Did you have to cut me open?!

Walking to his IV bag to check it, the surgeon ignored him and took the conversation where he wanted it to go, “You’re very welcome for the medical intervention that saved your life. My name’s Doctor Steady Hoof, by the way.”

“You saved my life?”

“I save anypony’s life who makes it to my table alive,” he continued in a monotone voice while inspecting the emptying bag with a hoof, “but I’m assuming you’re asking me if I was the sole contributor. In that case, the answer’s no, Princess Celestia shielded you from the blast, which is why you are seeing me… and not your ancestors.”

The patient watched his doctor use his magic to detach the bag from the metal IV rig and replace it with a fresh one from a nearby cabinet, filling his veins up again with more painkillers. Shadow Breeze felt like his eyes were going to roll back into his head from the help it was giving him.

“I wish I still found that face funny,” the doctor said, noticing the pleasure.

“Thanks for… for saving me… too. You helped, a lot, you big.. smart, smart guy,” Shadow Breeze giggled, reaching out with his wing for a hug.

“All right, I was wrong. This is way too many drips per second,” answered Steady Hoof, moving a dial on the IV tube.

A few moments passed and Shadow Breeze was able to think coherent thoughts again, “Sorry. My front legs really, really hurt. And my ears won’t stop ringing.”

“That’s probably never going to go away,” Steady responded pessimistically, scratching his brown and graying mane with his left hoof, “tinnitus is the worst, kid, but that’s what an explosion will do to you.”

“I hope it wasn’t too much trouble,” Shadow said.

“It took me about three hours to pick all the shrapnel out of you,” he answered while maintaining a scowl and not much else emotionally, “of course, the neck was the most dangerous place to operate on, with all those vital arteries...”

Shadow interrupted him, “Are you ok? Are you a Crystal Pony?”

His surgeon raised an eyebrow, “Yeah, I’m fine, and no, I’m not a Crystal Pony, I’m a legendary surgeon from Canterlot that you’ve never heard of... why do you ask?”

The bedridden stallion frowned at him, “You’re not very happy.”

“Could you please push past the painkillers for a few seconds while I’m talking to you?” he snorted.

“But, you did save my life, and it sounds like it wasn’t easy,” Shadow continued, “it must have been a really hard surgery.”

“Yeah well, that’s why I’m a medical expert and you’re a friend to the Princess,” sighed Steady Hoof, shaking his head, “look, if you’re concerned about my affairs, there’s a lot of ponies who are going to get hurt today. I intend not to lose a single one of them, and I need to finish things with you if you don’t mind.”

Shadow remembered his duty and rapidly pushed himself up onto his hind legs, “Oh my goodness! The golems! Sombra! I have to get back to my friends!”

“You’re in no condition to leave the medical facility,” Steady Hoof grunted, “your legs are more or less broken, you still have stitches in two places, and I’m probably not wrong to guess you’re still a bit giddy from the medicine.”

“I need to get out of here!” begged the pegasus, leaning over the side of the hospital bed, “There are ponies out there who still think I’m dead!”

“If you can walk, then by all means, go,” shrugged the surgeon, “I’m just telling you that you’re in bad shape, but I’m a surgeon, not general practice. Not my job to stop you.”

Shadow Breeze thanked the surgeon again for saving his life, and yanked the IV tube out of his leg with his teeth. Once the needle was fully away, he rolled out of the bed onto all fours on the tile. Already he could feel the pain start to shoot back up his appendages, but that wasn’t going to stop him from trying to find his friends. They had to know he was alive! Steady Hoof located a crutch in the room, floating it over to the pegasus and used his magic to slip the tool under Shadow’s right wing. Despite being completely bandaged up on both wings, he was able to limp out of the room under the power of his own limbs.

Steady Hoof watched the determined pegasus turn the corner and had but one comment…


Morning for the Valley of Shadows brought its own brand of unusual circumstances, at least as far as Midnight was concerned. The unicorn slowly marched down the hallways of what was to soon be his castle, but bore a crabby expression on his face.

“This is weird,”he commented with an annoyed tone, scratching at the red bathrobe tied tightly around his middle, “a bathrobe, this early in the morning. I have other things to take care of during an attack.”

The soft silk robe trapped the heat from his luxurious hot shower he had taken just minutes before, keeping him warm. His mane hair was just beginning to dry and set in place, and the scent of expensive shampoo surrounded him. Midnight thought about what Sombra requested of him shortly after waking up, still ruminating about how mysterious it was.

You still need one more thing before your coronation. Bathe in as hot of water as you can possibly bear, and clean yourself with the shampoo I have left for you in the washroom. When you are done, don your robe and go to the fourth room on the sixth floor. The red doors.

“I wonder what that bath had to do with claiming my Empire,” he continued aloud and irritated, “It’s probably to be fitted for my armor. Sombra doesn’t understand how stupid I think those clunky suits look.”

Passing by an intersection in the castle hallways, he trotted right past Tech and Flaming Ivory, who managed to avoid his attention solely because he was too busy brooding and complaining about the bubble bath. The two stallions threw themselves against the wall into the shadows of the hall crossing, and twisted their necks over to peer around the corner. Flaming Ivory took notice that Midnight’s mane and tail were beginning to move on their own, waving as if a draft was flowing through the halls of the castle.

“So, have you noticed yet that Midnight’s, um... changing?”

“You mean besides the razor sharp fangs, sickly green eyes, and waving mane?” Techorse asked sarcastically.

“Yeah, those things,” grunted Flaming, rolling his eyes, “my point’s that I thiiiink Midnight is slowly turning into Sombra.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me if the dark magic is beginning to take over his body, too,” Techorse agreed, holding up the potion bottle with his saddle’s right arm, “but this potion is supposed to purge him of it. We just have to make sure he drinks it.”

“Right, but we can’t just walk up and ask him to,” Flaming nodded, “because he’s gonna tell it’s poison and then throw us out the nearest window. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to end up splattered… like Shadow.”

“We won’t,” assured his buddy, “he still thinks of us as his friends.”

“I hope you’re right...”

Midnight found the red door his adoptive parent had described to him, and was rather impressed. While it was just an oversized plain door with a brass handle, there was a large triangular stone carved with a blue pattern on mounted on the right side of the door that kept it shut tightly. With his experience with magical devices, Midnight recognized immediately what it was.

“An aura signature lock? Whatever’s behind this door must be something important,” he chuckled, “it’s probably even enchanted to prevent teleportation in or out of the room. I’m going to guess this is where he keeps all his money and treasure.”

A sparkling ball of light appeared at the tip of Midnight’s horn, which was pushed into the magical lock. The response was a moving flash of light that traversed the carvings on the stone, confirming that Midnight’s aura matched the pattern inside to open the door. The tumblers could be heard turning, and then the lock slid away, permitting the heavy door to slide open. While the scuffling noise of the moving entryway ground in his ears, he thought carefully about what he might find on the other side.

What is left for me to learn?

Techorse and Flaming crept up behind Midnight, hiding behind a marble statue. They could see past their friend, even though his ridiculous bathrobe was a bit distracting. A loud clang sent them behind their cover again, the door slamming into place clumsily. Midnight himself winced, but when he opened his eyes again, a curious smile crept over his face.

Behind the door was a wide, well-lit chamber that was floored with fine blue granite polished and cleaned to the point where someone could eat off of it. The back of the room provided the light through a series of angled windows shuttered with tall, imposing curtains that could be shut at any time with a long silver rope tied to them. A water fountain built into the right side wall provided a bubbling, soothing noise from water cascading down the marble wall into a basin below, and there was a currently unused fireplace on the opposite wall that could provide a good source of heat in the colder months. A beautiful bed set in the corner opposite the fireplace near the fountain, big enough to hold four and covered in sapphire sheets that matched Midnight’s coat color, his cutie mark etched onto it. To round out the beautiful décor of the room, white columns with flowering vines held up a tall ceiling that had its own skylight as well.

But none of the amazing interior decoration meant anything to Midnight. The occupants of the room were what had gotten his attention. Six beautiful mares, two of each type of pony, were sitting around in this room on top of a spread out pile of plush pillows with gemstones sewn into their seams. Each of the ponies were dressed in thin veils over their faces, and a shade of colorful eyeshadow complemented their eyelashes. Legs were draped over pillows in the pony pile placed in the center of this… very private room. Perfume made from fresh roses could be smelled from where Techorse and Flaming Ivory were standing. Their beautiful figures and welcoming eyes enticed Midnight to enter the room slowly, but the dark magic poisoning his brain made it impossible for him to see what Techorse and Flaming Ivory saw: eight terrified mares chained to a stack of pillows who were struggling not to burst into tears.

“King Sombra must want Midnight to… uuugh,” Flaming cringed, trying not to grind his teeth, “look, we gotta get in there and stop Midnight before he does something stupid, Tech.”

After coming up with his plan, he answered, “I’ve got an idea! Play along and we’ll stop this.“

Midnight didn’t quite feel compelled to lose the bathrobe yet, but he was getting there judging by the awkward steps he was taking and the strange growling he was making in his throat. The first mare in the huddled group, a pegasus pony with pleading orange eyes and a pink coat, had remembered Sombra’s instructions to her and her friends clearly. If she refused even a single request from Midnight, she would no longer be the proud owner of an attached head. She was to be polite, and… a prize.

“H… hello Prince Midnight,” she stuttered, “w… welcome to your… private room.”

The unicorn made his way into the stack of pillows and sat down in the middle of the ring of mares, looking the pink pegasus in the eyes first, “Ahhh, thank you. You know how to treat royalty well, sweetheart.”

She felt like she was going to throw up violently, legs wiggling in fear, “S… so, my lovely friends and I are here to… comfort you when you need it!”

Her friend on the other side of Midnight, an earth pony with a light blue coat and tears running from her yellow eyes, finally broke down, “I can’t take it! I can’t do this!”

In response to her rebellion, Sombra’s curse sent her a dark vision. Time froze, and the guillotine from the courtyard teleported over the mare, pinning her down and holding its lethal blade over her head. The mare screamed, believing the illusion to be very real, and could only writhe in terror as the knife was released from its hold. She fell over in the real world, eyes glazed over and mouth running with foam.

“Are you rebelling against my father’s orders?” Midnight asked coldly, her seizure continuing, “Or will you obey?”

Not getting an answer from her, Midnight touched his horn to her forehead and sent over a pulse of energy, restoring her mental health. The mare picked herself up, but had an empty, crushed look.

“Yes master… I will serve your needs.”

Midnight, what are you doing?

The prince thought he heard his own voice in his head, a desperate cry to stop immediately. It was as if his old personality had found refuge in his mind and was starting to rebel. Midnight Blaze was more than aware of what Sombra intended for him to do with the Crystal Ponies left for him in this room, and he knew that it was what he wanted to do to finish his experiences as a prince. But, Midnight had his own plans, and they didn’t involve being distracted by the mares around him. So, with a smirk on his face, he challenged his conscious with a thought of his own,

What am I doing? Not what Sombra wants. I’m doing things MY way.

His horn glowed, and the fetters around the legs of his mares sparked and crumbled away, leaving them free to move about. The unicorns watched their inhibitor rings break away too, and all were very confused about the situation.

Midnight said to them calmly, “That’s better. My father believes that I should be just like him, including his... tastes. But I’ve already won what I want from all of you… your loyalty. Your support in my goals.”

“Oh, thank you,” whimpered the closest earth pony, “thank you, thank you!”

Flaming Ivory looked at Techorse and breathed a sigh of relief, “Yup, Midnight’s still in there. He’s really a great guy when you get to know him.”

“That inhibitor has to go,” Techorse commented.

“Oh shut up Tech, that one was me!”

“Come on out from behind the statue, Techorse, Flaming,” Midnight called to them, “I can see your tails poking out.”

Caught, and still worried about the spells Midnight could throw at them, the two stallions scooted out from behind the statue and walked up to their friends’ pillow pile.

“You two are nosy.”

“We heard screaming,” Flaming Ivory lied, swinging his hoof wide, “thought somepony was in trouble. This is a tad, um… compromising, don’t you think?”

“After what I heard about the Shadow Pony bloodline from my father, I simply couldn’t repeat his mistakes,” Midnight chuckled, leaning back and throwing a hoof around the unicorn mare next to him, “the Crystal Mares are sweet as sugar, my friends, but after Ignitus’s treatment of me for being the son of a king… well, I don’t want to have that happen to a descendant of mine. When the time comes, I’ll be a bit smarter about my choice of queen.”

Flaming Ivory grunted, knowing his friend had only spared them because of his feelings about Sombra’s actions. But, getting a plan in his head, he cleared his throat quickly,

“Heh, couldn’t agree more Midnight. Mares, am I right?”

“Exactly, it’s wise to not make things a habit,” Midnight agreed.

“I’ll drink to that,” joked the pianist, laughing.

Techorse turned his head and gave him a look of disbelief about the loaded language, “Flaming, what are...”

“Let’s pour Midnight a drink, how about it? Go get him one, Tech… champagne’s right there!” he interrupted, winking, “don’t make him wait.”

After a brief moment of obliviousness, Techorse got the message and let Flaming continue to distract Midnight while he walked over to the bucket and the bottle. His saddle opened, and he picked up the bottle with the robotic arms, holding the bottle in one hand… and Rosseth’s potion in the other. After uncorking it with a satisfying pop, he poured half a glass into the closest flute, and topped it off with the contents of the brew. It foamed a little bit more than usual from the addition of the potion, but left no indication that it was tainted.

Tapping the unaware Midnight on the shoulder, he said, “Here you go, Midnight. One glass of champagne.”

The unicorn nodded and took control of the flute using a new, sickly purple aura his friends hadn’t seen yet. He brought the drink under his muzzle, and gave it a quick sniff, swirling the glass a bit to swish the contents.

“Hmmm, you’d better taste this first,” Midnight said, holding it up to Flaming.

He froze in place, “What?”

“I didn’t see Techorse pour the glass,” he answered smugly, “I’m not this dumb, Flaming. If Techorse has done something to my drink, he’ll pay with your life.”

“Give me that you… brilliant tactician,” grunted Flaming Ivory from his inhibitor short circuiting his brain again.

Orange magic particles seized the glass and brought it to him, “You really think your own friends are gonna poison you? Fine, watch.”

He swallowed a sizable first sip out of the cup, feeling the cold liquor travel down his throat. A good amount of time passed with no clear ill effects.

“See? Perfectly fine,” answered Flaming Ivory, secretly thanking his lucky stars he didn’t convulse from the potion in the cup, “you really ought to trust us a bit more.”

Midnight took the glass back, and stood up, raising it above him, “To my friends… whom I can now trust.”

Chugging the rest of the champagne, the prince felt a very different experience from Flaming Ivory. It felt like burning napalm going down his throat, and expanding outwards inside of him, scorching his insides. Somehow, his friends had poisoned him after all.

"AAAARGH!" he wailed, making the mares scream when he dropped to the floor, "HOOOW?! FLAMING DIDN’T GET POISONED!"

“That’s right, because the poison only affects Shadow Ponies!” Techorse said, grabbing Midnight by his barrel and pinning him on his back, facing him upside-down, “Whatever you are, you’re about to be destroyed! We’re getting the old Midnight back, and he’s going home to his real father!”

Midnight Blaze’s mouth foamed red and purple, bubbles and slime gushing out. His eyes were turning back to a cyan color, and the movement of his mane and tail stopped, returning it to their normal form. But the fangs in his jaws were not retracting, and there were still red, lava-like veins running through his horn.

“I… I’ll end you,” growled the suffering unicorn, “you weak Earth Pony! You can’t even use spells, let alone comprehend how powerful dark magic is! I am more than what my idiotic birth father thought I could be.”

Techorse felt like he was watching him die, and could only let out a pitiful sigh, “Midnight… you already were more than what Ignitus thought you could be, we told you that. You just couldn’t accept it without him seeing it first.”

Tears ran down Midnight’s face, but he smiled through the pain as the potion tore him apart internally, “Ha… hahaha. Techorse. Always preaching, always seeking justice for the weak…”

Midnight’s eyes glazed over, and his body stopped convulsing as it dropped to the ground, limp. Techorse felt his heart skip a beat in panic.

“Oh… oh no!” Flaming gasped, “the potion was too strong!”

“N… no!” cried Tech, moving around to Midnight’s side and placing his ear on his chest, “Midnight, no! Stay with me!”

Right in front of him, the “corpse” dissolved into a puddle of sapphire blue, like a big wax crayon melting on the floor.

Realizing it was all a trick, Techorse looked up just in time to see Midnight at the doorway to the room, firing a wave of cyan energy. It smacked into him and Flaming, tossing them backwards.

Just as Flaming predicted, they were flung backwards and sent out the solid glass of the window at the back of the room, shattering it. But as his friends fell out of view, Midnight felt something break through the influence of the shadows, and acted as quickly as he could.

When Techorse and Flaming Ivory reached the ground a comfortable mattress, clearly the one that had been on the bed in the private chamber was placed for them to land on. The two stallions bounced up again into the air, and landed on their sides, prompting them to look up. They caught sight of Midnight sticking his head out the window, his eyes, horn, and mane having fully returned to normal. He gave them both a conflicted stare from six stories up, and then disappeared back into the tower.

Glad to not be a pancake, Flaming Ivory turned to Techorse, “What just happened? I thought were were goners.”

“I think the potion partially worked,” the green stallion answered thoughtfully, “Rosseth’s potion removed most of Sombra’s influence over Midnight just in time for him to think to save us. But… I don’t think he’s completely cured yet.”

“Because I had to drink some of it,” Flaming frowned, his ears sinking back, “that explains why it took so long to work too, he only got so much of it in him. I shouldn’t have taken such a big sip.”

“He wouldn’t have drank it at all if you hadn’t,” his friend assured him, smiling, “but now it’s up to Midnight. He’s got to decide to give up on King Sombra’s magic.”

“So what do we do now?” Flaming asked, sighing.

“We go back in the castle and try to stall for time again,” Techorse answered, “I’ve got to stall my own missile from being launched, and you need to keep your eye on Midnight to make sure he doesn’t talk about this! If Sombra undoes what that potion did, or he launches that weapon… we’ve lost.”

Agreeing to the plan, Flaming and his friend found the closest door back into the Shadow Pony fortress, and went their separate ways again. The race to save their friend and the Crystal Empire was just beginning.

Chapter 38 - Lines Drawn

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Chapter 38

With the Crystal Empire awake, and with only a few hours remaining before King Sombra’s troops were upon them, the ponies scrambled to finish preparations to defend their home. The spears forged from the enchanted metal provided by the Crystal Heart were brought out along with the suits of armor, and the front line mares and stallions prepared to clash with the golems were suiting up in the courtyard outside of the palace. All of the ponies too young or old to fight had been hidden away in a secret chamber beneath the building, which would be defended to the last breath if necessary. Homes and stores had been boarded up in hopes that they wouldn’t be looted while the battle was in progress, although it was unlikely that the golems would take anything… other than their loved ones.

Looking down at her city below from the balcony, Princess Cadance gave one final check of the sheathe fastened on her belt, which was concealed by a white robe having been provided to her by her servants as a means of offering some protection since she had refused armor multiples times. She slid the weapon in and out, checking it almost compulsively.

“Honey, I’m really not happy about this,” said her husband in all of his gear but his helmet, “I’m ready to fight, but I just don’t want us to get hurt.”

“We’ll have each other’s backs, as we’ve always had,” she answered lovingly.

The princess leaned in and kissed her partner on the lips, before trotting inside to begin the process of adjusting the city’s thermal barrier. Without the frigid tundra to keep the Crystal Ponies out, the flat and featureless terrain around the city would leave the golem army without cover and at a severe disadvantage. They’d have to charge right into the spears and other defenses the townsponies had prepared for their former master’s robotic troops.

Wasting no time with her out of earshot, Shining Armor put on his helmet addressed his two closest friends Spearhead and Fencer sternly, “I want you to capture that zebra Rosseth alive, and bring him to me. I feel as if Cadance will never lighten up about what happened to him until he’s forced to forgive her, and I’m more than happy to make him do it.”

“And if he won’t come willingly?” Fencer asked.

“Subdue and restrain him then,” Shining answered, “just don’t break his legs or hurt him badly like that. I don’t want things to be made worse. Now go help the Crystal Ponies set up, and keep your eyes peeled for that zebra.”

“Yes sir,” they answered, nodding and heading back into the palace.

Cadance entered the Heart’s room and with a pink spark of energy shooting from her horn, she opened the wide shutter doors at the center of the palace, sunlight bathing the rotating Crystal Heart. Walking up to the artifact with a blank look on her face, she closed her eyes and gently placed her horn inside the energy field around it. Immediately it responded to the request, and the energy emitting from the point of the citadel outside widened from a tight beam to a cone shape, forcing the perimeter of the thermal bubble outwards at a slow but steady pace. Acres of snow-covered land were swallowed up by the advancing warm zone, melting it rather quickly and beginning to expose the dead, rocky terrain underneath.

“We’re ready,” Cadance said, observing her Empire’s boundaries grow temporarily, “I just hope somehow… Techorse can keep that missile from coming. The barrier won’t work as a shield anymore stretched this thin.”

Leaving the Heart’s chamber behind, the alicorn trotted down the hallway for the stairway down. Along the way, she came across a mirror and stopped to check out her reflection. It was a remarkable change from her normal regal wear, a white robe like a kimono wrapped around her, and her crown absent for safekeeping. The long, flowing striped mane she cared for daily was held back in a ponytail with strong hair ties provided by her fashion adviser. Cadance liked her new appearance and gave it an approving smile, wondering if she should use it more often.

“Your majesty, we need to get to the front lines,” urged a nearby unicorn guard, “granted, your new look is rather intimidating. I bet you ‘ll wipe out dozens of those monsters with that sword you’ve got there!”

“I’m here to make sure nopony gets hurt not get a high score,” Cadance answered, giving him a stern look, “my ponies will need my healing and support, not this sword Shining gave me.”

“Y… yes ma’am,” he replied, backing down.

Near the makeshift supply area set up in the courtyard below, the Princesses, Arbiter, Limpwing, Spike and PAL were trying to talk some sense into Ignitus, who was insistent on leaving them to save Midnight.

“You don’t have to do this, Ignitus,” Princess Celestia told her former captain of the guard, “let us come with you, defeating Sombra will not be an easy task.”

“I appreciate it, but the Crystal Empire needs the power of two more alicorns to defeat that army,” answered the detective, “and this isn’t about defeating Sombra. This is about getting my son back.”

“At the very least, don’t go without this,” Arbiter said, taking something from underneath his dark cape and tossing it to his cousin.

Ignitus caught the object in his aura and held it in front of him. It was a wooden magazine for his

crossbow, loaded with 30 quarrels tipped with the silvery material the Crystal Heart had created.

“These are arrows we made from the leftover metal,” Arbiter said to him, “they should cut right through any of Sombra’s minions… or the tyrant himself if you’re able to get a clear shot.”

The detective pulled out his weapon from underneath the brown trenchcoat occupying his barrel, and ejected the plain iron bolts in exchange for the new silver ones. Drawing back the tension bar, the crossbow was cocked and placed carefully back into concealment with an approving nod from its owner. Then, turning to his beautiful wife, the mare who had captivated him for decades, Ignitus approached her with a look in his eyes that she hadn’t seen in years.

“You have that look on your face,” Faerie said, eyes twinkling, “the one you had when you asked me to marry you.”

“I will be getting Midnight back, Faerie. I promise,” he said, throwing his hooves around her, “I don’t always see eye to eye with him, but he’s my son.”

“Please be careful… I love you.”

“I love you too.”

One last kiss brought the couple closer than ever before, but Ignitus knew he’d need to get a head start before the battle and that the moment couldn’t last forever. Pulling away, he turned to face the mountain pass that led to the Valley of Shadows.

“We’ll distract the golem army so that you can sneak into the pass,” assured Limpwing, smirking, “of course, there might not be an army left to distract once Arbiter and I get to them.”

“Become their worst nightmare, my friends,” Ignitus encouraged them with one final nod, “you’ll see me again soon.”


Just before the detective could gallop off to begin his perilous rescue attempt, Shadow Breeze limped into the area short of breath and finally feeling the full extent of his wounds thanks to his pain medication wearing off. His eyes had a glazed over look, and his bandages were in need of changing.

“Shadow Breeze, you need to go back to bed! No battle for you!” said Faerie Tail while pointing at him.

Not paying attention to anyone else in sight, Shadow fought back, “I’m going with Ignitus. I have to go help save my friends.”

“She’s right, Shadow. You’ve already done enough for the Crystal Empire, my faithful servant.”

Celestia had placed her wing around the pegasus stallion, holding him close in a motherly way. Shadow Breeze hugged her front leg tightly, tears coming to his eyes from the passionate feeling of gratitude in his heart towards his princess.

“You saved me, so please...” he sniffled and pleaded, “I want to go back out there to save my friends! P... please let me!”

“Shadow Breeze, have some common sense, lad!” urged Captain Arbiter, “Your injuries are still far too severe. You cannot even fly right now until your feathers grow back in!”

Ignitus finally gave his own opinion, “No, he’s right, Arbiter. Shadow needs to come with me.”

All eyes were on the red unicorn, “What?”

“Techorse and Flaming Ivory need to see that Shadow Breeze is alive and well,” he explained, making sure he made eye contact with each and every pony present, “they’re likely demoralized beyond any desire to fight back against King Sombra. Worse, I fear that Midnight’s sudden decision to betray Equestria and join the king wasn’t just because I wanted him to join the military. I have a strong feeling there’s been some dark magic involved as well.”

“...and the magic of Friendship can counter it?” Shadow Breeze asked, trying to be helpful.

“Well, I don’t know if it’ll work without Twilight Sparkle around, but… I’ve seen how well you four work together, Shadow, and reuniting you all may be just what we need to rescue Midnight,” Ignitus answered, looking at the ground for a moment.

Shadow Breeze dragged himself over to Ignitus, who helped prop him up a little with his magic, “Of course, I wish you could walk a little better.”

Having followed his patient out of careful concern, Steady Hoof strolled past the princesses without a second thought to their existence and pulled out a syringe filled with more medication. Unquestioned by his peers, the unicorn jammed the needle into Shadow’s barrel and pushed the plunger, filling his bloodstream with the painkillers and making him wiggle from mane to tail in delight.

“There you go,” he grunted, “one for the road, you stubborn mule.”

“Who are you?” asked Arbiter.

“Steady Hoof, your field medic for today,” answered the doctor with his usual monotone voice, “Shadow Breeze can walk now thanks to that batch of drugs. Just don’t let him get hooked on the stuff, okay? He can’t have another until later tonight, if there’s enough left over after this fine mess we’re all about to get into.”

“You speak as if this will be a disaster,” Princess Luna said, raising an eyebrow, “we’re sure to beat these golems now that we have our new arms and armor!”

“The Crystal Ponies have no formal military training,” the doctor said, facing Luna and showing her no respect, “they get hurt tripping over their own hooves. We’ve going to need the medicine, so you do your job as leader, and I’ll do mine as surgeon, understood?”

“You have a lot of nerve, doctor,” Arbiter growled at him, “just make sure you stay behind us where your surgery won’t be disturbed.”

The two stallions locked eyes, making the tension palpable.

“I can’t spend any more time here,” Ignitus interrupted, “we’re leaving now. I promise you, by night we’ll be back with Midnight and the others!”

Just before going, he gave his wife one final peck on the forehead, “I love you honey. We’ll be together again soon.”

“Be careful, dear!”

With Shadow all wound up on medicine, it was much easier for the pegasus to follow Ignitus towards the mountain path leading the Valley of Shadows. This left the others behind to prepare for the battle ahead.

“Well, what are we standing around here for?” Limpwing complained, “Let’s get the lead out and help the Crystal Ponies finish getting ready!”

Rosseth could now see the Crystal Empire ahead, a much larger than normal dome of light inside the cold fog and ice. Marching alongside his troops in the snow would have chilled him to the core, so the golems carried him along in a heated cart that left a trail of smoke in the air from the wood it burned to keep the cabin habitable. From the window, he could see the approaching city, and ordered the golems to stop. Jumping out from the cart, the zebra hybrid felt the sting of the sharp drop in temperature when his hooves hit the snow. But it didn’t really seem to bother him one bit as he walked ahead and took a quick gaze at the Empire’s barrier.

“They’ve stretched out their thermal shielding way too thin,” he said, holding a hoof over his eyes, “it’ll be possible to walk right through it.”

Turning around, he addressed the green-eyed leader of the golems, “Give the order to split our forces as Sombra commanded. Send one thousand troops around the northern perimeter and attack Steamcastle from the west. By the time they’re done, they won’t have anyplace to flee and will be trapped by a pincer on both sides of the Crystal Empire. Then, we’ll cage them all up and deliver them to his Highness.”

The green eyed golem began making hand motions to the other golems, and one thousand of the magical automatons split off in a perfect formation and began a full fun to flank the Crystal Empire under the cover of the winter storms. Since the pony occupants were all facing east in anticipation of the main attack, it was unlikely that they would see it coming.

“The rest of us are going to march to the city’s boundary and begin our assault,” Rosseth ordered, “do not harm any of the Crystal Ponies… or it’s very likely King Sombra will have you melted down for scrap metal! His slaves must be kept alive.”

Turning around and pushing forward without the warmth of his cart, Rosseth knew he was putting up a great facade of being cold and vicious, but it was just to keep Lighthearted safe. The zebra could feel King Sombra’s presence in the air, the link between him and the shadow lord still remained from when his chunk of severed horn had started communicating with him. Now he had a choice, come home a champion over the Crystal Empire, or don’t come back at all.

“I’m coming for you, Princess Cadance,” he growled with a personal hatred in his voice.

With only a few hours remaining for his plan to fully bring the Crystal Empire under his control again, King Sombra has dressed up in his finest robe, having shook off his Shadowsteel plate armor for a more regal outfit, a blue cape frilled with white around his neck, and a thin silver crown on his head that fit over his horn… which felt rather unusual to the king. In addition to the regal attire, there was something else different about the day that made him feel a sense of accomplishment he hadn’t felt in a long time. All of his cards had been played properly, but his luck had been superior as well.

Not only had he successfully manipulated a former enemy of Princess Cadance into completing the Lunar Ritual required to summon him, he had also had the insane fortune of discovering his closest heir. On top of all of that glorious luck, his heir’s best friend was just the engineer he had hoped for to make his ultimate weapon a grim reality. It was time to check on his new missile, and have Techorse prep it for its test mission.

Opening the door to the laboratory room, however, Sombra found himself in a completely different area than he had expected, startling him. The large room was built out of dark stone that stretched along the floor, a recessed area in the center occupying a hole that spanned half the room. Blue flamed torches lined the walls, along with banners bearing his and Midnight’s cutie marks. Four tall dark crystals stood at the corners of the square pit, and magical conduits carved into the floor lead into the back of the room. The wall in that direction was made of pure clear ballistic-proof glass, which Sombra galloped to in order to take a look at what was on the other side.

The glass overlooked the missile silo, which had also been radically changed. The very bottom of the room was about the same, with the machinery and equipment at the bottom of the missile. Sombra noticed that the fueling line had been left attached by Techorse, a clear violation of orders to have the missile well-fueled and ready to launch ahead of time. Working his eyes back up to the talk of his room, many bridges made of stone hung over the sides of the tube-shaped room, the same torches and banners seeming to stretch forever from the top of the open silo to the floor. Magical motors had been left attached to the bridges, allowing them to swing when the missile was to be launched. Something had come through and remodeled both rooms, shifting the floors of the castle and providing a deep shaft over the terror weapon.

“Do you like it, father?”

King Sombra slowly turned around, Midnight’s eyes glowing purple in the front of the chamber. The unicorn stepped into the main area, his face becoming illuminated by the hanging torches. A smug look occupied his face, and his transformation into a full Shadow Pony looked to be complete.

“You’ve remodeled my castle,” Sombra said, rather impressed with the changes, “all in this time?”

After thinking about why, his eyes relaxed, “Ahhh, you must have enjoyed your ‘gift’ from me. I hope the crystal mares have taught you everything you need to know about being a king.”

Midnight shook his head, “Your mares were a nice token, but ultimately not the point of me being your son. They are a distraction from my main goal.”

Sombra felt challenged by the statement, but cleared his throat and answered, “Ah. You’re the marrying type, then. My apologies, Midnight. I should have considered that perhaps as my successor, you would have had different worldly desires.”

His son bared his fangs in a toothy grin, “Heh, I forgive you. You’ve been more of a father to me than my previous one, after all. That’s why I wanted to build this new golem command center, to offer you a little present in the form of an upgrade to your castle. The magical devices I’ve built into this room run your commands through the conduits into the floor, out into the radar antennae Techorse has built into the missile launch silo. Now I can command your golem army through this very room! And that’s not all...”

Midnight walked forward towards the deep pit in the center of the room, Sombra watching him carefully. When he went to take his first hoofstep off the apparent precipice, a magical lattice of blue energy shot out from the four dark crystals in the center of the room, creating a forcefield that held Midnight up. Sombra, amazed by the work of arcane craftsmanship, stepped onto the holographic surface. Each of the dark crystals began to project images of the golems he had created, rows upon rows of units approaching a rapidly growing 3 dimensional model of the Crystal Empire. The details were very fine, even Rosseth was well-represented with a moping zebra image walking along the floor.

“This… this is your greatest masterpiece yet,” King Sombra marveled, “with this, we can give commands to the troops without expending our energy on spells necessary to communicate?”

“Indeed,” Midnight said, “watch this!”

His horn glowed, and a square of light shot out from the closest crystal, which rapidly grew to the size of a billboard in front of the two stallions. An image of Rosseth and his legion of golems approaching the city appeared, gaining their attention as the same portal formed in the air near them, bridging the connection between the two groups.

“Rosseth!” Midnight addressed him, “are you prepared to attack the city?”

The zebra was a bit startled by the sudden appearance of a floating screen containing the images of Midnight and Sombra, but answered back affirmatively.

“Yes, Midnight! We are just outside of the city. Should we begin the push for the Crystal Palace?”

Midnight waved his hoof sideways dramatically, “Move your troops into position, then begin the assault on the Crystal Empire!”

“Are we to destroy the palace?”

“No!” snapped Sombra, taking over, “Listen to me, zebra. You need to force the Crystal Ponies to cower within the city limits! After your troops have crushed their western fortress on all the Crystal Ponies have entered the city, retreat, and Techorse will launch the missile. I want them to suffer for their arrogance, but I want them alive as my slaves.”

Midnight gave him a side-eye, and then fought for control over the conversation, “Rosseth, you do what you must. If some of the Crystal Ponies get hurt for standing in your way, you do it in order to win! I don’t need Techorse’s filthy technology to win a fight.”

The golems in the background of the hybrid gave each other looks of mechanical regret, but straightened up when they caught Midnight’s gaze. Sombra was unhappy with his son’s impudence, but could not disagree with the need for a victory.

“Midnight, you are not king yet,” Sombra said before looking back to his general, “for now Rosseth, win this battle. But we will be using the missile, so obey my orders! Remember your oath… to protect her.”

Rosseth gritted his teeth, “Y... yes sir. My apologies lord Midnight, I must follow the king.”

The screen dismissed itself by shattering into a vanishing spray of polygons. Midnight turned to Sombra, the same cheeky smirk on his face.

“Speaking of being the king, I have a request.”

Sombra sighed, “Go on.”

“I’d like to move up my coronation to… now,” he answered, “I think I’ve learned all I must about Dark Magic, and how to be a true Shadow Pony. Why wait until midnight, when we’ll be easily able to conquer the Crystal Empire within just two or three hours?”

King Sombra stood firm, still a good foot over his chosen son, “You are being impatient. I sense great power in you, Midnight, and this device is proof of your skills. I want the Crystal Empire safely within our control before I choose to officially make you my Prince of Shadows.”

Midnight stomped his hoof, the holographic floor sparking to life, “WHY?! I’ve built you this room, superior to your observation deck in every way! I’ve taken your side, and agreed to help you take over the Crystal Empire. By stalling my coronation, you’re running the risk of Techorse and Flaming Ivory figuring out a way to stop you!”

“What?!” Sombra barked back, “Techorse and Flaming Ivory?”

“Yes! Those two are up to no good,” Midnight grumbled, “they’re going to...”


The unicorn heard his own voice, and the purple tendrils of dark magic’s grasp faded from his eyes. King Sombra observed the effect curiously, tilting his head slightly.

“Go on, Midnight Blaze.”

He heard his own voice again in his head pleading for sanity,

Midnight, listen! Your friends love you! Do not rat them out about the potion, they’re the reason you can hear ME... yourself! What you used to be before this Dark Magic consumed you!

The sapphire stallion sputtered for a moment, “They… uh… well… they’re too smart, father. I fear they have a plan to stop us.”

“And what will speeding up the coronation process do to stop that?” Sombra argued.

Midnight ignored his inner voice again, and came up with the perfect way to manipulate Sombra into getting what he wanted, “If I’m crowned, they will no longer be able to use the power of Equestrian Friendship to weaken us. As a prince instead of their friend, I’ll be able to use the full extent of my Dark Magic to stop them.”

“Equestrian Friendship…” Sombra muttered.

“Yes, the power that enabled Spike the Dragon to retrieve the Crystal Heart and defeat you,” Midnight answered, “grant me coronation soon… and I’ll be able to counter even that threat.”

“Very well,” Sombra answered after a moment of deep thought, “we will crown you in two hours. Anything to maximize our chances of victory.”

Midnight closed his eyes and smiled, “Good… Techorse, Midnight, get in here!”

Having sensed them spying again from the doorway, the unicorn’s aura ripped the two stallions from the doorway and dragged them screaming onto the holographic battle grid. Flaming Ivory looked up at the surly King Sombra and smiled out of embarrassment if not fear.

“Oh… hey guys!” he chuckled, “What’s up?”

“I see you are right,” Sombra said to Midnight, “as I have decreed, two hours, and you will be my Prince.”

“Sombra, even if you do crown Midnight, you’ll never stop those who want to be free!” Techorse warned him from his pinned position on the floor.

“Techorse, I’ve never been afraid of cowards claiming they want freedom,” Sombra answered, “and I’m certainly not afraid of you or any of your plans involving friendship. There’s no bond that could be formed today that can defeat me now.”

“So what are you gonna do to us?” Flaming Ivory asked, “We heard you accuse us, unfairly I gotta say, of trying to ruin your plans!”

“We’re going to keep you right here,” King Sombra cackled, his horn glowing red.

A cage of magical energy formed around the two stallions, suspending them in the middle as if they were in zero gravity. Sombra electrified the interior, shocking the poor stallions with several volts and temporarily disabling Techorse’s battle saddle. Midnight felt a twinge of pity for his friends… but the side that craved power forced him to enjoy the spectacle.

“Now you can’t do anything to challenge my rule,” Sombra said, “this is how I should have done it from the start, but now that I’m sure Midnight no longer views you as his friends, you’re the same as the other slaves.”

Midnight Blaze’s eyes shot wide open. King Sombra had promised to spare Techorse and Flaming Ivory since he had called them his friends before, demoting them only to the status of servants. Asking for coronation to end the power of friendship had ruined that.

Oh no… I just traded them for a crown!

Chapter 39 - Battle of the Crystal Empire

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Chapter 39

The golem horde was visible on the horizon now, dark metal soldiers slowly plodding forward through the snow that came up to their knees, if their joints could even be called knees. Shining Armor gazed at the line of troops through a pair of antique binoculars he had been given as a gift by one of his closest companions in basic training. For its age, they were extremely well built, and the purple glowing eyes of each monster were visible clearly even through the gray haze of the harsh weather conditions outside the now extended thermal shielding.

“Where's the zebra?” he muttered to himself, still eager to take down his wife's 'nemesis'.

Many of the Crystal Guards around him did not have his current obsession with nabbing the zebra, and were instead busy making final preparations. The ground had just started to thaw from its former state of permafrost, and earth ponies were furiously digging a large trench, as only a few exposed rocks provided cover in the wasteland. The energy cannons of their foes would beat them down quickly without a way for them to stay hidden until they could get within range of their new spears. Shining put down his binoculars to participate in the conversation with the other occupants of his segment of the trench, namely Spike upon PAL's shoulders, Limpwing, and Arbiter.

“I'm not sure how comfortable I am with a young guy like Spike being out here in battle,” Limpwing said, “the kid might get himself hurt.”

“How dare you!” criticized a nearby guard mare with her spear slung over her back, “Spike the Brave and Glorious will lead us to victory, he's invincible!

Limpwing had a snappy response for the zealot prepared, but the robot carrying the mare's idol on his shoulder interrupted her.

“I assure you Miss Limpwing, I have enough armor plating for the both of us,” PAL retorted.

“Neither of you guys have a weapon,” she answered, raising an eyebrow.

“Not to brag or anything, but I am a dragon,” Spike teased, looking at the back of his fingernails in a haughty manner, “I do have some pretty strong fire breath. Plus, PAL's got fists of steel... literally.”

“Your friend PAL is soooo noble and strong!” fawned the crystal pony, eyes twinkling, “I hope I can do even half as well as you in this battle. I mean, I've only ever been in a boxing match before, so I can't even compare!”

PAL blinked and addressed Shining Armor, “The point is, we're capable of taking care of ourselves.”

“I hope so, Twiley is going to kill me when she gets back for letting Spike get into a fight,” Shining said back.

“We'll be fine,” insisted Spike.

“Sure,” Limpwing added, rolling her eyes, “when you two guys get chopped up into teeny tiny bits, I'll make sure to gather em all up, ok?”

“Ch..chopped up?” Spike gulped.

“Hey, all I'm saying is, Sombra's looking for pony slaves,” smirked the crafty pegasus, “he doesn't have a use for you two, so if we lose, you're both going on his fireplace mantle. Just saying.“

Arbiter couldn't help but chuckle at Limpwing's joke, “You're so tasteless, Limpwing! I like that.”

“Laugh while you can, Arby, before you lose to a mare in a golem wrecking contest,” she winked, “I can taste that prize already!”

“Would you two cut it out?” Shining Armor growled, his armor rattling from his movements, “This is a battlefield, and ponies are going to get hurt today. I expect you to take it seriously.”

Arbiter's good eye met his gaze with equal power, “Take it seriously? I'm going to destroy each and every one of those golems by my sword, make no mistake. An enemy of the Crystal Empire is an enemy of Equestria.”

“And we all very well know how you feel about enemies of Equestria,” PAL said rather heatedly with crossed metal arms and glowing orange eyes.

The stallion answered flatly, “I have no business with you, robot.”

Despite the fact that they were all on the same side, the tension between most of the team present was palpable. Adding to this was the simple fact that they were going to be weathering a brutal attack within just a few minutes, as Shining Armor looked through his binoculars again and estimated that they were all outnumbered ten to one.

The rest of the Crystal Empire's militia entered the trench on both sides of the Crystal Guard, clad in armor and stocked with the spears given to them by the Crystal Heart. They lined up as trained, keeping their weapons pointed forward at the slowly advancing line of dark armor. Talking loudly and perhaps regretting their decision to try and stand against King Sombra, the ponies fell into a hushed tone when Princess Cadance descended from the sky in her white kimono, flanked by Celestia and Luna.

“We are ready for the assault!” Princess Luna declared, loud enough for all to hear, but not quite with the strength of the Royal Voice expected of her. The rest of the Crystal Guard raised their spears and

“Your Majesty, you know how I feel about you entering combat, especially unarmored,” Arbiter said, the mindstone on his sword beginning to spark to life, “it's highly dangerous, especially unarmored.”

“I appreciate your concern for my well-being, but I love all my little ponies, even the Crystal Empire's. They need my help, and I will be taking a stand with you,” she answered, looking down upon him, “can I have your trust, Arbiter?”

“I will protect you as always no matter what your decision is, your Highness,” he answered, bowing.

While they were settling matters, Cadance squinted out into the distance, “Wait... something's going on. The golems have stopped.”

“What?” Shining Armor blurted, raising his binoculars back to his vigilant eyes, “Why?”

The horde of enchanted constructs had indeed halted in their march just at the edge of the thermal barrier, their cannon arms raised up as if ready to attack, but their heads and legs unmoving like statues.

“This is just to freak us out,” Limpwing said, shaking her head and rolling her eyes, “they're trying to scare us by making us stare at their numbers. Just wait for them to charge like we were going to. Stick to the plan.”

“I hope you're right about that,” PAL said, analyzing the tactic and running the numbers through his processors, “if they are planning something, we need to act.”

“We wait until they attack,” Shining Armor insisted, “then we'll fight them from cover, like we planned. Once they're within charging range, we get out and push them back. They won't have their range advantage with their magic cannons anymore.”

“Yes sir,” agreed the Crystal Guard members around him.

From the other side of the battlefield, Rosseth had halted his troops just outside of the heat shield, snow whipping around at high speeds.

“They're planning on sitting in that trench until the range on your guns doesn't matter anymore, captain,” he told the green-eyed golem, “but that doesn't matter. There's at least four golems here for every pony trying to defend that city. Cycle your damaged troops to the back of your squads to minimize casualties while advancing. Once you reach the trench, force them into the city so that Techorse's missile can enslave them all in one strike.”

The elite golem nodded its helmeted head at the hybrid and raised its right hand forward, starting the slow march of the troops into the walls of the barrier. Whereas before the automatons had been afraid of being vaporized by the strength of the energy, now they walked right through the field without fear. The field yielded to their bodies like a soap bubble, and heavy metal footpads stomped on rocky ground before the Crystal Empire. Rosseth watched them push towards their destiny with a bit of pride, but a lot more guilt. Undoing the top part of his black robe, he let the Storm Amulet dangle out from around his neck.

“One more clone,” he said to himself, a blue ray from the jewelry building another doppelganger in front of him.

Rosseth poked his copy in the chest with his hoof sternly, “Go with the golems and convince those idiots that you are me. Do not get hit and ruin my cover.”

Nodding, it chased after the golems at a full gallop. The real Rosseth moved his brown eyes over the Crystal Palace, staring at the light the Heart was producing at its core.

“Lighthearted, this is for you...”

Here they come!” shouted Shining Armor, securing his helmet and pulling up his loaded crossbow.

A subtle rumble could be heard in the distance as the golem army picked up into a full sprint through the thermal barrier. Thousands of units charged forward through the wasteland standing between them and the Crystal Empire's city limits, eyes glowing and weapons raised to fire.

Arbiter drew his blade, hovering it in front of him with the arcane force of his nephew's mindstone. Limpwing pulled her set of kunai out from under her good wing, and fastened the flight goggles she was fond of over her eyes just in case a stray projectile decided to try and blind her. The Princesses all charged up their horns with the most powerful magic energies they could muster, and took careful aim across the wasteland.

Lastly, PAL raised his metal fists up to chest level, and put them together, cracking his metallic knuckles loudly enough for everyone else in the trench to hear. From his vision, he scanned over the advancing army and made note of the soft points he had memorized form his time spent performing the autopsy on the downed example of their kind. The robot could hear Spike's little heart beating in his left audio sensor, clearly a bit more nervous than what the Crystal Ponies would like to believe.

“The Crystal Ponies are counting on us,” he said to ease his fears, “they adore you for this. Let's give them a good show!“

The young dragon nodded and clenched his fist tightly, “Right. I've got your back, PAL!”

Now within firing range, a deadly and unanticipated hail of purple energy shells flew through the sky at head level, whizzing past the trench and slamming into the ground, sending plumes of dust into the air on impact. This unfortunate flaw in the battle plan kept the Crystal Ponies' heads in the trenches, which meant they would not be able to time their counter assault properly. None of the royalty had expected that the golems would be able to coordinate their fire this well, but Midnight's new system was something they wouldn't have anticipated. Either way, the confusion of battle and the heavy magic attacks directed at the ponies were going to make things ugly.

“We're pinned down!” cried a nearby Crystal Guard, “We won't be able to do the spear charge!”

“This is way more firepower than expected,” grunted Arbiter when the dirt in front of him exploded in his face, forcing him to wipe it clean with his cape, “I suppose we're in for a short, brutal melee instead.”

Knowing that they needed to charge out of the trench to have any hope of smashing the initial assault, Shining Armor knew he had to buy some time for the golems to get closer while allowing his troops to see where the enemy was. The unicorn's horn sparked to life, and he shoved his friends out of the way quickly.

To the amazement of his peers and the horror of his wife, he pushed up out of the safety of cover and sent up a massive wall of magenta colored shielding nearly half a kilometer wide. It was one of the largest and most impressive force field spells he had ever attempted, and it provided temporary cover for every last pony in his army. Each shot from the enemy impacted the defensive barrier, exploding and making the surface ripple like stones hitting a pond. Clearly from the cracks rapidly forming in the wall of magic the defense wasn't going to last very long, but Shining Armor's intent was to buy more time to get the enemy that much closer.

Once my shield drops, charge them!” he shouted over the sharp sounds of magic exploding and energy cannons firing.

Noticing that their shots weren't penetrating the barrier, the green eyed commander of the enemy army stopped and pointed with his left hand at the unicorn projecting the barrier. Understanding the nonverbal command, a platoon of golems stopped their mindless charge and converged their shots on the point just in front of Shining Armor, hoping that as soon as the shield was destroyed their projectiles would claim him. But Princess Luna picked up on their plan just as the shield began to fail, and pointed her horn at Shining Armor, sending out a narrow ray of black colored energy towards his body. The captain cried out and went limp, his shield exploding loudly into a million fragments of fuchsia magic like a glass window. Luna's spell reached him in time, teleporting him back into the safety of the trench with a burst of light as a dozen magical bolts hit his position and turned the area into a smoldering crater.

“Good job, Shining,” the Princess of the Moon said to the exhausted unicorn now below her hooves, “now rest! We shall handle them from here!”

Cadance dashed over to attend to her husband, “Shining! Are you ok?!”

A pattern of magenta veins was strewn across his smoking horn, and his eyes were nearly rolled back into his head. All of his magic had been emptied out to buy his ponies time.

“I'm... fine,” he panted, barely able to move, “I need to help... fight back.”

Shining passed out cold in his wife's hooves, scaring her half to death, “SHINING!

Looking back at the Crystal Palace, she got Celestia's attention, “Auntie, I've... I've got to get him to safety! I'm sorry.”

“Go!” Celestia answered sharply, “Take care of Shining Armor, we will handle the invaders!”

Cadance enlisted the aid of a medic to help her carry Shining's unconscious self out of the area. As soon as she left the trench, dodging the stray shots, the Crystal Ponies began to lose morale,

The Princess is retreating?!"

Shining Armor is out like a light!"

What do we do?!

Spike could see the panic and fear in their eyes. If they didn't calm down and participate in the charge, they'd be doomed. They needed a hero to inspire them again, and Spike remembered that there was still one more hero left standing!

The young dragon swallowed and whispered dryly, “Heh heh, yup... I'm gonna lose my scales for this.”

Standing up tall on PAL's shoulders, he bellowed in his strongest dragon voice, “I SAY WE KICK THEIR BUTTS FOR HURTING SHINING ARMOR! OVER THE TOOOOOP!

Hearing Spike the Brave and Glorious bellow and point over the trench motivated a war cry from the Crystal Ponies, and PAL rolled his eyeballs before standing up tall and jumping out of cover. The golems watched as the entirety of the Crystal Empire left the safety of their trench and were now rushing at them full force armed with silver colored spears and clad in reflective suits of powerful armor. At the lead of the charge was a robot armored to the core with the strongest materials available, and on his shoulders... an impudent little dragon with a desire to serve the ponies who loved him to pieces.

Magic cannon fire traded with crossbow bolts and magic shots from the unicorns in their ranks as the two lines closed for a tough fight. The armored ponies felt their suits absorb the tremendous shots, but some were knocked away from well-placed hits. Their own ranged weapons were not doing very well against the strength of the Shadowsteel armor protecting the golems, but some of them found their marks and destroyed the machines in a brutal spray of sparks. Now the two lines of troops were just feet away from each other.

Here we go!” PAL laughed while at a full sprint, pulling his left fist back.

The two armies clashed with the enchanted spears pierced the golems up front and destroying them in the dozens. Battle fists struck Crystal Ponies in the head and sides, breaking their helmets and barrel coverings. But as King Sombra promised, they were left alive for capture. Spears flew, random energy bolts buzzed around, and the confusion of battle led to the two armies spreading and engaging in a spectacular fracas.

Jumping over the battle line and spreading her wings, Limpwing opened up with a wide spray of kunai, seven of the knives streaking with perfect accuracy at her enemies. They burrowed into the golem's necks, destroying the connections and ending them. Likewise, Arbiter ran up and slashed brutally at the golem's cannon arms, destroying them with his sword before doing a leap and cutting backwards to remove their heads.

“That's six to four, Arbiter,” teased Limpwing with a reminder of the score, “try to keep up!”

PAL sent his right fist straight into the cannon arm of a nearby golem, blowing it out of its socket and leaving it limp on the ground. Spike finished off the monster with a quick burst of green fire to the chest, melting a hole right into its power plant and shutting it down. PAL stared at the removed limb, and getting an idea, stomped over to the weapon and bent down.

“What are you doing?” Spike asked as his metallic friend looked over the arcane wiring. PAL already had several holes in his armor from weapon strikes, though nothing had quite yet breached his internal components.

The quirky robot had picked up a blue and yellow colored conduit gently and crossed the fray ends with his metal fingers, “I've looked at these earlier, I think it may be possible for me to...”

As expected, the cannon misfired, shooting out a purple bolt that decapitated a nearby golem. The foe comically searched for its head with its arms before giving up and falling over. Spike looked at PAL and chuckled, the robot stripping the rest of the armor and components away from the cannon until he was left with a makeshift rifle.

“They're vulnerable to their own weapons,” PAL said, smirking mechanically.

Hearing him shout that, Limpwing got herself an idea and jumped onto the nearest golem, sticking her tongue out at another. The stupid machine raised its cannon to shoot her, only for the pegasus to leap off in time for it to blow off its friends' head. She repeated her trick again before the enemies caught on and started trying to beat her down with their fists and armored legs.

Arbiter bisected another armored enemy with Wraithbane and turned to the mare, “ThoseDON'T COUNT!

One of the Crystal Ponies, having earned himself a black eye and bruised leg, found himself surrounded by four of the constructs out in the middle of the fight. His armor had been stripped away by the shots, and now they raised their cannons to finish him off. Two different magical beams of energy, one white and one black, struck forth and penetrated the torsos of the golems. Each of them exploded in a spectacular fashion, spraying metal around the area.

“Take that!” whooped Princess Luna, “For being resistant to magic, they're no match for our power, Celestia!”

“Let's not get overconfident,” warned Celestia, stepping forward to address the wounded stallion.

“You need a doctor,” she told him, “go see Steady Hoof in town.”

The stallion slowly nodded, and limped away under the covering fire of the two alicorns. In front of the, the golems were dragging away several Crystal Ponies whose spears and armor they had shattered or removed. Some of them were bleeding, some of them were unconscious, and some of them were in perfect condition and kicking away at their captors. Luna spotted a cart filled with cages that the rear guard had brought in, and the captured ponies were being loaded up.

“They're dragging them away for King Sombra,” she shouted, a stray bolt of energy striking her and making her grunt, “we need to push forward!”

“Did you just get hit?!” Celestia gasped, concerned for her sister.

“What of it?!” she answered, “I got us all into this situation with my careless management of my chalice, and I intend to fight until we're out of it!”

Celestia wanted to reassure her sister about her innocence again, but this was hardly the time. Looking up, the Princesses could see that several dozen troops were about to overrun their position, only a few Crystal Ponies remaining with their spears keeping them back. PAL and Spike seemed to be holding their own, but only because their salvaged cannon and Spike's fireballs were keeping them at range. Arbiter and Limpwing were completely surrounded, but anyone who knew those two well enough would be more concerned for the golems...

“We're losing,” Celestia whispered, heart racing in her chest.

A good shot penetrated PAL's left shoulder, the purple energy burning into the actuator and damaging the motor underneath. Globs of molten armor dripped from the wound, but he was glad it had hit their instead of Spike.

“Ack! That did a lot of damage,” he said, returning fire with a bolt of his own and striking the golem dead center, “we need to fall back!”

Arbiter blocked a wild kick from one of them in front of him, stabbing back and sending his blade straight through the bipedal warrior. Another tried firing its cannon, but the sword deflected the shot easily with a skillful block.

“PAL is right,” he said, “there's too many of them for this kind of open warfare. We need to fall into the city where we have more cover and can conduct ambushes!”

RETREAT!” called Princess Luna, “FALL BACK!

Of the initial force, half of the Crystal Ponies had been beaten up and captured by the golems. But they had paid with a third of their own army, and piles of the destroyed machines littered the battlefield. The green eyed commander raised his cannon and took another shot at PAL, striking him in the back and burning through his defenses to reach a minor power supply. His orange eyes flickered for a moment and he shouted in surprise as his damage sensors went off. In retaliation Spike puckered up and spat out a bouncing green fireball that skipped over to the commander and forced him to block it with his arm, buying the time they needed. PAL's rocket boots fired, and blue jets of flame from his feet carried him and the dragon up and over to the city limits.

Likewise, Celestia and Luna helped gather the remaining troops while firing back energy beams to keep the enemies off of them. The remaining Crystal Ponies managed to escape thanks to their efforts, but the city was certain to take horrible damage now that the enemy army was beginning to advance into it.

From Sombra and Midnight's point of view, the battle was already over. Sombra smiled proudly, seeing the number of ponies on the display below them stuffed into the cages. The force intended to sneak around behind the Crystal Empire had already done so, Steamcastle coming into range. The holographic model of the castle began to move, the twin cannon turrets at the four corners of the fortress moving to start shelling his troops. Not that it would matter, as the defenders there would be overwhelmed in seconds.

“We've almost shut the trap,” Sombra said, baring his fangs, “once that fortification has fallen, the Crystal Ponies will have no place to run.”

He turned to the nearby energy cage, “Techorse, initiate the missile's standby mode. Prepare for launch.”

“We're not ready for that yet,” Midnight insisted with a sharp hiss, “we still need to take out the Crystal Heart.”

“Techorse's missile is designed to take out the Crystal Heart,” Sombra countered, “it will shatter it in a single blast, and place the Crystal Ponies in a state of perpetual fear. The Sisters are also present at this battle, and I do not want their powers interfering.”

“Princess Celestia wasn't even able to stop Queen Chrysalis,” Midnight Blaze complained, “she and Luna are strong, but aren't great combatants. They've gotten soft!”

King Sombra accepted the answer, “Very well. We will wait until Steamcastle has fallen. In the meantime, only one hour remains until your coronation.”

“And once the crown is on my head, I will have Techorse launch the missile,” he chuckled, “there really isn't a better way to celebrate a new Prince than with some fireworks, right?”

Techorse called out to his friend again from the energy cage, “Midnight, you know I'm not going to launch the missile, right? I can't do that to the Crystal Ponies!”

“I knew you'd resist,” Sombra answered, “which is why I inspected the missile myself and made a few... changes. I can launch it at any time I desire.”

Flaming Ivory ignored Techorse and Sombra's usual back and forth yelling, and started looking for a way to dispel the magical cage. He tried a few spells he knew of to unlock doors, but nothing seemed to be working so far.

“Hey Midnight,” he called out curiously, “do we really have to be in this cage? It's not like we can do anything to stop you now. Let us out! Or at least put us in the dungeon with the rest of the Crystal Ponies.”

Midnight's original mind seemed to come through again as the unicorn dropped his train of thought to let out a stuttered yell at the musician.

“What are you going on about? If you don't want to be here, FINE. GO! Now that I know I don't need Techorse to launch the missile, you're just... just... in our way!”

The unicorn's horn flashed, and the two ponies inside the cage found themselves ripped through space, teleporting them to the dungeon where several of the Crystal Ponies were being kept. They were in the main holding cell, where Lighthearted and Brass were being detained. They were a bit spooked by the sudden appearance of the two stallions in their barred cage, but they calmed down once they recognized them.

“Wow, can't believe that worked,” Flaming Ivory chuckled, “Midnight's definitely in there all right.”

“I agree. He chose to put us here like you asked him to...” Techorse said, “when he could have just as easily chosen to hurt us!”

“You're both friends of Midnight's?” Lighthearted asked.

The two stallion turned to her and the other dozen ponies in the cell block.

“That's right, and we're going to save him from King Sombra,” Techorse nodded, “who are you?”

“I'm Lighthearted,” she answered, “I've been trying to sabotage King Sombra's operations since the original Crystal Empire. But now... now he has a fiercer way of controlling us. I'm afraid to talk about it.”

“What's that?” asked Flaming Ivory.

“King Sombra has a guillotine outside,” another Crystal Pony cried with tears in her eyes, “he... he's threatening us with it! And I think it has an enchantment that can sense when we rebel, because it can poof in and lock us into it!”

Techorse grew angry, “Arbiter tried that once on me years ago. I guess chopping heads off runs in the family.”

“We gotta take that guillotine out, Techorse! Cut the cell bars with your laser cannons and let's go!” Flaming Ivory said, eyes turning orange.

Techorse braced his legs, and his saddle opened, the twin guns emerged and fired several blasts at the bars, knocking them out of the cell frame and freeing the Crystal Ponies.

“You guys need to get back to the Crystal Empire!” Flaming said to them, “is this everypony?”

“There's still more scattered around the castle. We'll go gather them while you deal with the blade.”

“Have a safe trip back to the Crystal Empire,” Techorse said, retracting the laser cannons back into his saddle with the sound of moving servos, “and good luck.”

The Crystal Ponies left first, heading up the stairs from the dungeon floor. Techorse and Flaming Ivory looked at each other for a brief moment to collect their thoughts and discuss their strategy.

“We knock out the enchanted guillotine, and then we go back to Midnight and Sombra,” Techorse said, “I've got to get back to the missile and sabotage it.”

The unicorn tilted his head, “You over-fueled it, right?”

He nodded, “It's got way too much liquid fuel, and that potion has mixed with it. If I can force the rocket to burn fuel at a faster rate than what it should, the tank will rupture and explode. Hopefully that will be enough to wipe out Sombra's magic.”

“But Midnight's a Shadow Pony too! We gotta get him out of that room near the silo first, or he's history!” Flaming Ivory said.

“First things first,” Techorse answered, “we need to make sure the Crystal Ponies' heads are safe from Sombra!”

Chapter 40 - Broken Promises

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Chapter 40

“I really, really dislike urban combat!” shouted Princess Luna over the din of magic bolts and metal clashing in the streets of the Crystal Empire.

Small fires burned throughout the city already as the golems clumsily knocked over gas lanterns and exploded their fuel lines, costing them individual units but creating chaos for their enemies. Ponies who had chosen not to attempt to go to battle soon found themselves trying to avoid being kidnapped while also putting out fires, sorrow on their faces from the damage to their formerly beautiful homes. A local bakery was completely ablaze from their own supply line bursting, and Luna moved in to help. The golem responsible for the damage stood nearby, smoke wafting from its cannon. In an attempt to get the mare in charge of the bread house to go with it, the machine had resorted to arson.

“What are we going to do?” cried the baker, tears and sweat running down her face, “Sombra's going to get me for sure now!”

Luna's magic cored out the trooper with a piercing blow from her horn, leaving it flayed open on the ground just meters away from the terrified owner.

“You're not safe here!” the alicorn told the earth pony, “You need to evacuate at once with the others to Steamcastle!”

“I... I can't leave, this bakery is all I have!” she cried out, “I've got to put out the fires!”

Her heart moved, the alicorn nodded and projected a rounded containing barrier with a surface pattern like the night sky over the entire building. The seal was perfect to the ground, and the fire soon died from oxygen starvation.

Luna dispelled the bubble and ordered the mare to leave, “Your home is safe now, but you must go to the palace!”

“Thank you!” she whispered, already running away from the battle.

“This is the least I can do to repay your city,” her savior mumbled, “all this... for my chalice.”

Spike and PAL found themselves on a street flanked on both sides by shops and buildings that hindered their movement. Even with PAL's ability to jump long distances, his rockets needed time to recharge, and every where they ran there was another golem waiting for them with a clenched fist or a loaded weapon. PAL's salvaged cannon tore through the leg of another soldier taking potshots at them from across the road in front of a mattress store, its scrapped body falling backward into the doorway. Unfortunately, that last shot seemed to short out the wiring and prevented it from triggering again, so PAL discarded it over his shoulder and shook his head in disbelief.

“These buildings have to be slowing these guys down,” Spike said, throat dry from his constant fire breathing, “we're fighting them one at a time!”

“There's at least four other targets around,” his mount responded, head swiveling to try and get a visual, “I can hear their footsteps.”

The young dragon suggested, “We can get away from them, right?”

PAL's back armor exploded with a sickening screech of ablative metal doing its job, magic ordinance rippling across him and knocking Spike clean off of his back. Horror overwhelmed his magic-influenced processor as PAL watched his buddy bounce across the cobblestone roads and let out a painful cry while coming to rest.

Spike got himself off the ground in time to watch PAL turn around to face the enemies, smoke rising from the set of fresh craters. His hearing had mislead him to believe the golems were not tracking them, instead three of them had flanked the robot and shot him in the back. The dragon's tail hurt like crazy, unlikely to be broken, but he could see a few purple scales lying around on the ground which had been broken to protect his body... just like the armor on his companion.

PAL didn't get to see him recover from the hit, and his orange lit eyes narrowed with mechanical irises until they turned a deep red, “You monsters.”

Maybe the golems standing in a line had realized their mistake, or maybe they were just attempting to finish the job. Either way, they panic fired their magic bolters again in hopes of bringing down the robot and dragon duo.

PAL, WAIT!” shouted Spike, holding out a claw, “Don't do anything nuts!”

Far too late for that to stop him, PAL ignited his rockets again and jumped high into the air in a perfect arc, thirty feet above the center golem of the platoon.


PAL unleashed a horrifying electronic yell which disturbed Spike deeply.

The projectiles shot at him were ignored like flies by the machine, executing a perfect jump on top of the middle golem in the line. His footpads smashed through its shoulders and crushed it flat in a fountain of sparks. Then he grabbed the other two standing next to it by their helmet-like heads and smashed them together with a force that would make a minotaur insanely jealous. With nothing left to control them, the two dropped to the ground.

Spike felt a bit traumatized... but knew he'd seen worse.

Also of importance to him was that he felt his throat itch like it never had before, “I wish I had something to drink.”

Pal had finally cooled off, eyes going orange again and wondering why his legs were stuck in Shadowsteel debris.

“There should be a pump around here for a drink of water, I could use the coolant too,” he said factually while turning around, as if he hadn't just gone berserk, “shall we find one, Spike?”

“PAL, forget the drink... whatever that was that you just did, don't do that again please,” Spike asked him nervously, “it's just not you.”

“I... I know that was rather harsh,” answered the biped, stepping off of the golem, “but don't worry, I'm sure it was just a defense routine I came up with in my sleep. I'll just take it out of memory, all right?”

As soon as he took his first step towards the public water fountain, Spike heard a scary creaking noise similar to a rusty gate. PAL's silver colored knee joints were buckling and leaking a thin black smoke, and he wasn't moving as fast as normal.

“Oh no... you broke your legs in that crazy jump!” he groaned.

“Nonsense,” PAL dismissed, waving his hand sideways, “it's just low on oil.”

The creaking became splintering, and PAL tottered for a bit until he came crashing down on his side, running the already damaged left shoulder and forcing him to shift onto his back. Spike ran to him and placed his hands on his torso.

“Ah, I stand corrected. Or, more accurately, lie here helplessly corrected.”

“I'm sorry PAL,” Spike said, burying his face in his arms, “I should have told you I was okay sooner!”

“This is my fault,” the butler groaned, pulling himself up to a seated position and forcing Spike to stop weeping on him, “I chose to follow my gut instead of thinking. Ironic, isn't it?”

“You were trying to protect me. You were being a good friend,” Spike answered, drying his eyes and smiling back, “and hey, we know all about friendship around here!”

PAL's eyes scanned over the crushed ruins of his foes, “I wish they knew the things we did. Chances are King Sombra will repair them and they'll never think about it again.”

Spike stood still, and then his green eyes lit up suddenly, “Hey... wait a minute. That's it! That's how we're going to stop the rest of the army!”

“I'm not following, Spike.”

“Just trust me on this,” he answered, grabbing him by the pointer finger, “but we gotta get going.”

The robot smiled and picked up his reclaimed magic cannon, this time using it as a cane to walk in a hunched over manner. Spike patiently stayed at his side instead of on his shoulder, eager to put his plan into action, but wanting to make sure they avoided another scrape. Between them, one was missing armor, one was missing scales, but they both had smiles on their faces.

“Man, we're not really cut out for this battle stuff,” joked the dragon, “it's so much more fun in the comic books.”

“Selling yourself short again, Spike?” came the laughing reply, “Typical!”

Kilometers away on the other side of the Empire, the elite fifth of Midnight's golems had positioned themselves in front of Steamcastle, ready to bring the fortress down and cut off the escape of the Crystal Ponies. The castle's four main turrets on the corners of the square buildings were each topped with two enclosed emplacements sporting twin barrels for unicorns to launch spells from. Tall walls connected the towers together, and the interior of the castle was dome-like with a handful of chimneys releasing water vapor from the steam engines inside that kept the defensive structure powered and warm.

Leading the force about to invade the impressive strongpoint was a singular golem with a red eye and a different setup. Perhaps the opposite of the green-eyed commander, this one was less built for leadership by Sombra, and more for firepower. The left arm was completely replaced with a six-barrel magical cannon tipped with golden patterns that ran down each one. Its armor was a shade darker than the other purple-eyed automatons surrounding it, and it stood in front of its team, carefully scanning over Steamcastle with hatred. The two turrets closer to them were locked on their team of a few hundred.

Midnight and Sombra's magical hologram opened a screen in the air right in front of this golem, which stood tall at the appearance of its masters, but failed to take its red eye off of its intended target.

“Red Commander,” Sombra said, “commence your attack on Steamcastle immediately. There are no more than forty defenders, hardly enough to even operate the four main cannons facing you. Destroy their pitiful artillery then disable steam engines! Leave the ponies inside alive for me.”

It seemed to obey by walking straight through the viewport, disrupting the long range projection magic. Following his lead, the rest of the troops charged for the castle, opening fire right away at the turrets. Purple energy burned into the tops of the towers, inside the unicorns manning the arcane equipment struggled to fight back.

“Take them down!” shouted Raider, the mare commanding Steamcastle, “aim for the center of their group and open fire!”

The two unicorns sitting in front of the cannons responded by casting a strong beam of magic into a nearby crystal connected to the magic projectors at the base of the cannons by a series of tubes. The entire room was mounted on a turntable to provide full coverage of the castle's territory. Outside, the short brass barrels heated to a blue, releasing four beams of light that lashed out into the center of the horde. No amount of magic resistance was able to prevent a hundred of them from instantly being blown apart into elementary particles, and anything else nearby was thrown dozens of feet into the air.

“Recharge! Fire again!”, Raider ordered while a shower of yellow sparks filled the room from the golem's shots damaging their setup, “We've got to keep these guys from coming through!”

Red Commander stepped forward, ignoring the fact that half his force had been eradicated in the blink of an eye, and braced on his knees, raising his left arm. The gatling styled weapon launched a long volley of pellets right at the barrels of the left castle turret, filling it with horrible levels of energy. Both guns were smashed apart, throwing their unicorn operates backwards and on top of their leader. A magical tube frayed off of the gun and thrashed about like a wounded snake.

“Get off of me you two!” the lead mare screeched, “Can't you hornless idiots do anything right?!”

Metal hands emerged from where the twisted, broken guns poked out of the castle. The golems had climbed up the walls and were clawing their way into the castle. Infuriated, the general pushed her unconscious stallions off herself and cast a narrow ray of lightning into the mess, knocking several golems off the widening hole and down to the ground below. But even that wouldn't stop the advancing horde, most of the enemy army was within the minimum range of the castle's weapons. Once the hole was as wide as the golems were, the Red Commander pushed his way up and ignored the gunnery officer's screaming and lightning magic, letting it bounce off its armor like a tennis ball on a brick wall.

Refusing to panic, Raider clenched her jaw tightly as the rounded room filled with golems. The red-eyed one walked up to her, and stared deep into her soul with stony silence.

“You're the leader, aren't you?” she said, backed up against a wall, “Are you here to take me to King Sombra to be his horseshoe polisher? Well go ahead, you worthless pile of scrap metal! You're just a pawn of his like all your friends.”

Red Commander raised his left arm and unleashed a short burst of energy, silencing Steamcastle's leader. Moving on into the depths of the castle coldly in order to knock out the steam engines within, the other golems stood in shock, unable to process the cruelty. One of the soldiers moved forward and cradled Raider's unconscious body, sensing the fading life force within. With his commander off doing who knew what, it took charge and led the others to safety with the ponies as captives.

From the command room, King Sombra felt the disturbance, and wondered if he had failed to keep his promise to Princess Celestia.

“Commander Red has strayed way too far from his orders,” he muttered to Midnight, “he may have just done something horrible to one of the Crystal Ponies that will leave them... less than capable of service to us..”

“You built Red Commander with stronger armor and weapons to be able to defeat the heavier weapons at Steamcastle,” reminded the unicorn, “did you cast his aggression routines to be too strong?”

Suddenly, the hologram of Steamcastle shattered into a thousand pieces, a virtual plume of smoke and fire rising into the air.

“Way too strong,” Midnight growled.

WHAT?!” Sombra yelled with a demonic twist in his voice, “BRING UP THE COMMAND SCREEN AGAIN, MIDNIGHT!”

When the viewing screen opened up again, they saw nothing but a burning Steamcastle, the dome roof blown open and the towers collapsed in. The surviving few dozen golems had placed the occupants in a few cages, most of them in very bad condition. Raider was being held stable by a few of her friends and even two of the golems, but the fear in their eyes made it clear that she wouldn't last much longer without medical help.

COOMAAAANDER!” boomed Sombra, “I said DISABLE the castle. NOT DESTROY IT!”

The machine stood silent, pointing to the ponies in the cages as if it had followed orders simply by leaving them physically in one piece.

“Yes I can see that the Crystal Guards are all accounted for,” the king of shadows grumbled, “but you've given the Crystal Ponies reason to fight harder by nearly killing Major Raider. I told you to leave her and the others alive you...”

Red Commander, having already tasted blood, started walking for the Crystal Empire, raising his gun to continue the fight. The rectangular screen chased him down, stopping in front of him again.

“Are you listening to us?! Do not move on to the Crystal Empire! Stay here and cut off any ponies trying to escape from the city,” Midnight ordered, “I can tell you want to keep fighting, but you're under our command, you need to...”

Ignoring the stallions, the machine raised its gun and fired into the hologram, tearing it to shreds and rendering static on the other side.

Midnight shook with anger, “For the love of... we've created a psychopath with a gatling magic bolter.”

“I cannot deactivate the golem either,” Sombra said as his horn glowed red, “he's removed his control rune.”

The two shadow ponies stared blankly at the figure of Red Commander marching straight for the Crystal Empire. The other golems were happy to obey their orders and stood around patiently, some moving to try and help make up for the injuries dealt out by their ruthless general. But King Sombra could sense Raider's life force flickering like a candle about to snuff out.

I'm sorry, Celestia,” he thought with bitter disappointment.

“Come on Arbiter, you're falling behind!” Limpwing prodded, throwing her last kunai into a golem trying to take aim at the stallion.

“I'm still close!” he answered back with an angry horizontal swipe that bisected one of his opponents, the sound of metal tearing through metal grating in his ears, “only behind by one!”

A nearby militia pony was seized suddenly by the closing adversaries, removing yet another combatant. Arbiter and Limpwing could feel the golems closing in around them in the city streets, with little room for escape. Behind them, the Crystal Palace loomed with its spire putting out energy to maintain the thermal barrier. A projectile

“We're surrounded!” Arbiter declared, smirking, “That's a shame for them.”

Limpwing pulled some of her knives from her previous targets and kept them spread out in her wings, standing right next the caped stallion, “So I guess we're going to go down fighting then? Don't mind if it's next to you.”

“We cannot let them get past us to the Crystal Palace,” Arbiter said as he deflected a projectile with the edge of his blade, “they're likely trying to destroy the Crystal Heart!”

“There's too many of them for just the two of us to handle,” Limpwing answered after throwing a blade into a golem's breastplate, “not unless you've got some kind of an idea for taking them all down at once.”

A flying shadow passed overhead, getting the two to look up. Celestia had six bright orbs of yellow magic near her, eyes glowing white and tracking several of the golems below. Each of the spheres locked onto a separate target and streaked down, pummeling the victim it struck into the pavement. Luna strafed the group to her sister's left with powerful pulses of dark colored energy, a flashing beam that shredded the golems where they stood. Not wanting to lose any further numbers to the alicorns, the golems turned their weapons skyward and began blasting away, which gave Arbiter and Limpwing the time they needed to charge forward and chop at them while they were distracted.

Unfortunately, the machines were better shots than anticipated, and Celestia felt her left wing get clipped in the joint, forcing her to crash land on a nearby roof. Luna felt her own wings get hit, but glided to safety on the same rooftop with only a few burns on her appendages.

“Your Highness!” shouted Arbiter, growing angry.

He performed his usual trick of leaping over the top of the golems and slashing backwards, leaving the three responsible for hurting the princesses headless. The two alicorns gracefully stepped down from the roof and onto the street below, wings now too tender to fly.

“Are you injured?” Arbiter asked of them.

“It's only bruising, we'll be fine,” Princess Luna answered, “we'll be able to fly again with a bit of rest.”

More troops poured into the city square, running buildings with their firepower and forcing the ponies to fight back to back against them. It felt like they were cutting down enemies by the dozen, but more of them were starting to ignore the royalty and their servants, making a straight path for the Crystal Palace. Celestia's horn flashed white, and a bubble of energy surrounded the four, purple bolts splashing harmlessly against it.

“We need to stop mindlessly fighting and think carefully,” the ruler of Equestria said, “this barrier will give us enough time to come up with a plan. Have you noticed that these golems are mostly ignoring us now?”

“Yes, and I'm worried they're making a push for the Crystal Heart,” Limpwing answered, “or, well... that's what Arby here thinks.”

“Arbiter, what makes you suspect that's their intended target?” Luna asked.

The one-eyed stallion sheathed his sword momentarily and laid out his thoughts, “It's simple, ma'am. King Sombra wants the Crystal Heart destroyed so that he may launch the missile he forced Techorse to build likely at the point of a sword. He's probably built the missile to plunge the Crystal Empire into darkness forever, and the Crystal Heart is the only shield capable of stopping it.”

“...and with the thermal shield being expanded like this, I bet the Heart's vulnerable!” Limpwing said, disgusted, “any chance you can poof us back into the Palace?”

“We can do that,” answered Princess Luna, “but there are simply too many of them. As much as I am afraid to say it... the fate of the Crystal Empire may be in Ignitus's hooves.”

Together, Celestia and Luna combined their magical abilities and whisked the four of them away to the Crystal Heart's chamber. The golems in the square watched the ponies vanish from underneath their shield, and pointlessly pounded away at the protective barrier until it collapsed in a flash of yellow light.

Chapter 41 - Broken Hearts

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With the streets having flooded with golems and the citizens who had chosen not to fight as members of the militia within grabbing range of the advancing horde, Steady Hoof had retreated his operations back into the basement of the Crystal Palace, which was filling up with more injured by the minute. Working with the diligence and tirelessness of a machine, the unicorn doctor scalpel'd, stitched, and bandaged his way through case after case, emptying thousands of bits worth of healing salves and non-magical supplies to close holes, suppress bruises, and in general defend that glorious record of having never lost a patient on the table.

He began to curse silently the existence of the Heart-created armor, because when it finally did manage to shatter from physical damage it tended to poke into the skin and go soft where it was hard to retrieve. The mare below him, groaning from the pain of her helmet being crunched around her head, would likely need some fractures treated after one of the machines picked her up hard and squeezed her like a dog toy. Faerie Tail held the back of the mare's neck gently, aiding the doctor while his nurses ran around and took care of the patients that had already received healing.

“These golems are toying with us,” he grumbled through his surgical mask, flipping a magnification lens over his right eyeball, “you're all alive, but barely.”

Arbiter had rescued this one with Limpwing's help, but removing the mashed helmet without causing further harm would be tricky. Thinking for a moment about how he'd handle the procedure, the doctor selected a marker from a stained cup on the surgical tool table, and started to make markings on the helmet where he'd need to make cuts... if he could make cuts into the super-material.


Princess Cadance had burst into his surgery room, a still knocked out Shining Armor hovering above her head magically. Her look stunk of desperation to the surly emergency doctor, who only gave her a courtesy glance in order to keep working on his current patient.

“Patience, your Highness,” he muttered without moving.

“Steady Hoof, Shining Armor still hasn't woken up!” Faerie Tail said to him, “don't you remember his brave act shielding us all when we were still at the front lines?”

“Yes, and Princess Cadance should have brought him here immediately instead of stalling,” answered Steady sarcastically, finishing his lines, “what, did you try to wake him up yourself for the past hour?”

“I haven't had time to try,” begged the alicorn, placing her husband on the closest empty cot available, “you've got to understand, there were lots of hurt ponies I encountered on the way here... I've been using my healing magic on them first before trying to help my husband. He's breathing, but I just want to know if he'll be okay!”

Steady Hoof finally felt a speck of warmth in his normally icy soul and motioned to Faerie Tail to let the Crystal Pony rest her stuck head on the hospital bed. He lowered his surgeon's mask and got next to Shining Armor, making eye contact with Cadance.

“So, you healed other ponies first before helping Shining, huh? That was probably the most medically professional thing I’ve seen anypony do in a long time,” he said stiffly, yet proudly.

“Can you help him?” the princess asked, “When you have time?”

Steady Hoof inspected Shining Armor's slumped over form by eye and carefully checked his pulse and breathing. He spoke to himself in some kind of unintelligible doctor speak, and then, to the horror of the mares present, slapped Shining Armor comically across the cheek with his right hoof!


Shining gasped and shot up to attention, cheek red with a fresh hoof imprint, “Gaaaah!

Faerie Tail's mouth hung open in shock from the doctor's crude method of waking up the stallion, although she guessed it meant the unicorn hadn't really been hurt at all.

Shining Armor felt his sore face with his scuffed hoof and demanded to know,


“For taking a nap and wasting valuable time I could be spending performing necessary surgery,” Steady Hoof explained with a roll of his eyes, “and on top of that, making your little wifey worried sick!”

“Next time just use an ice cube, you crackpot,” Shining snapped in response, rubbing the red mark.

The surgeon wouldn't hear it, “Don't drain all your magical reserves in one go next time. Now shut up and let me get back to my other patients, and don't even try making another shield for a good week, you'll get inflammation of the horn nerve and require draining... and I'm not going to have time to perform a safe horn tap with all of this war garbage you royalty keep getting Equestria and her allies into.”

Shining wanted to lunge from his bed and pay back the doctor for his slap and fresh lip, but Cadance threw her hooves around him.

“Ignore the doctor,” she said softly after kissing him where he'd been hit, “I'm just glad you're healthy.”

“What's going on in the Empire?” he asked.

“We're... losing,” groaned a nearby stallion from the Crystal Guard, armor smashed up and one eye black, “we've probably destroyed thousands of them sir, but I just got here and they're pushing on the palace now.”

“Would have loved to have heard that earlier,” Steady Hoof said as he cut the helmet loose from the suffering mare, “I sure hope those golems are well aware that interfering with field surgery is a terrible war crime they could be melted down into scrap for!”

“Not sure they care,” Shining Armor responded, “should we evacuate?”

“The Crystal Heart is retracting the thermal barrier already,” Cadance said to them, “it'll defend us and stop them from getting in. Sombra couldn't survive being exposed to the Heart, I doubt they'll do much better.”

“I'll be ready to move the rest of the Crystal Ponies and their kids when we must,” Faerie Tail said, “but we must have a plan if we're going to leave.”

“We'll head for Steamcastle and bunker down there if we have to,” Shining Armor replied, “but as long as we've got the Heart, we're fine.”

Green Commander's day had gone from bad enough to downright horrible. Not only were three fourths of his troops destroyed in exchange for the capture of only a good half of the populace, but now even the buildings were starting to become a hazard. Some of the Crystal Ponies had booby trapped their own homes or shops with heavy piles of boulders or exploding energy crystals, making finding the cowering civilians dangerous. Of course, if they weren't cowering, they were coming after him with those spears crafted by the Crystal Heart, although the golem suspected the majority of those had been broken or lost over the past hour of fighting. Most of the Crystal Militia had been tackled and safely caged outside of the city limits, but there were hundreds more hiding in the palace and behind it. Now, with a remaining force of only a thousand or so units left backing him up, they needed to subdue the Heart itself or risk failure.

A good hundred of the machines made a line in front of the tall palace and elevated their guns at the central area of the tower, opening fire with a volley of bolts that chipped away at the outer surface of the crystalline castle. Some of the Crystal Guard took shots at the troops from behind the legs of the tower, but their spears and magic beams went mostly ignored, the golems determined to break through the door that protected the Crystal Heart.

Inside the Heart's chamber, Princess Celestia and the others felt the rippling of explosions on the outside of the room, dust and debris fell from the ceiling on the ponies' heads.

“They're trying to break through and destroy the Crystal Heart!” she said loudly over the blasts, “I'm not sure how long the walls of the palace can withstand this kind of firepower!”

The armored doors to the room started to open up, blasts from the golems leaking in and causing chaos inside.

“Hey! Why's the door opening?” Limpwing yelled, “We're going to get exposed to that firepower!”

Princess Luna looked at the Crystal Heart, its rotation increasing in speed and white flecks of arcane power sparking up from inside of it. With a bit of intuition, she quickly figured out what was about to happen.

“I will support the Heart! It shall not fall!” Luna yelled over the top of her sibling, casting a ray of energy into the Heart's core.

Hoping that his princess knew what she was doing, Arbiter stepped back with Limpwing as the Heart's energy changed from a blue glue to a dark one.

Midnight watched as the hologram of the Crystal Palace started to open up to expose the Crystal Heart, the images of his golems below pounding away at the opening doors.

“Not much longer now,” he said, his enthusiasm clearly beginning to fade as the potion worked on him further.

King Sombra was not convinced, “I'm afraid this is far from over, Midnight Blaze. Even though we’ve captured most of their fighters, we’ve lost half our forces and the sisters have yet to be defeated. Have we made contact with Rosseth as of late? What's his current status?”

The prince spotted something that clearly looked like the zebra hybrid standing behind the lines of golems, and opened up a pathway to him with the usual spell. A viewport in front of the startled Rosseth opened, showing him his king and prince again.

“Rosseth,” King Sombra ordered, “the golems are quite single-minded despite their strength and are playing right into the Crystal Heart's typical defense mechanism. You must infiltrate the Crystal Palace and disable it so that we can guarantee the missile will have nothing to stop it.”

Rosseth remained silent, looking up at the two, and nodded gently. He took off in a sprint for the Crystal Palace without even acknowledging the order properly.

You had better obey my orders,” King Sombra spoke telepathically through his dark aura.

For some peculiar reason, it felt as if his message had been received without any indication that Rosseth was afraid of it. Had he forgotten so easily that Lighthearted would pay with her head if he deserted?

“I'm not sure why Rosseth didn't say anything to us, but he's obeying his orders. I just saw his hologram enter the palace,” Midnight said, ending his doubts.

“Perhaps our dear zebra is just tired of the golems' ineptitude,” the king joked, hoping there was nothing funny going on.

The door had finished opening, exposing the Crystal Heart to the outside world again, this time infused with some of Princess Luna's magical energies. As expected by the princesses and their two friends the hail of fire entered the room and began wreaking havoc inside. Chunks of stone and crystal were blown apart from the ceiling and walls. Determined to help the intelligent artifact survive the bombardment, Princess Luna concentrated on contributing as much of her power as possible. The Heart distributed the energy as a rapidly-expanding panel of purple energy across the front of the opening in front of it. It acted as an impromptu shield, absorbing each hit with a rippling like stones hitting a pond.

“If you're going to fight back, do so!” Luna pleaded of it.

Outside, the golems watched as the Heart's outline glowed bright white, which went ignored in favor of continuing to fire away mindlessly. Then, in a spectacular counterattack, a wide and sweeping ray of white light brighter than a magnesium flare shot to the far left of the group, burrowing into the ground with a horrifying screeching sound. The ray of light tore to the right, burning through the group of golems and blasting each of them apart as if they were made of nothing more than paper. In the blink of an eye, Green Commander found himself down to only half of his original force, a pile of burnt parts remained of his bombardment team.

Luna released her aid to the artifact, gasping for breath and nearly collapsing to the floor. An entire day of fighting followed up with a powerful cast had drained her completely.

“Luna!” shouted her sister, rushing over and grabbing her barrel with her left wing.

“I need to keep fighting,” she answered, “the Crystal Empire needs me.”

“You've done enough for now,” Celestia answered.

Princess Cadance had of course felt the blast from the foundation of the building, and entered the room with her husband behind her. The doors to the room were starting to shut again, and the Crystal heart's rotation slowed down as it took time to recharge. Outside, the thermal barrier had started to flicker from the energy drain.

“Is everypony okay?” Cadance asked, “What's going on?”

“Princess Luna managed to repel most of the remaining invaders with the help of the Crystal Heart,” Limpwing answered, “We'll be safe for a while until the golems manage to regroup and push again.”

Arbiter chuckled and added, “I would have loved to have seen the looks on their faces, if they had them that is...”

“It doesn't matter,” Shining Armor said, “we've stopped them here, but King Sombra's castle is going to keep making those golems and sending them here until we get overrun. Most of the spears the Heart gave us have been used up or lost. Ignitus needs to take out those factories or we won't be able to stop them all. There's nothing else we can do but hang on.“

“Actually, Shining Armor, there's something we can do,” Spike said confidently, riding into the room on PAL's shoulders.

The ponies in the room looked at the mangled state of the robot, who managed to give his usual mechanical smile despite his wrecked knee motors and ruined torso plating. Princess Cadance gave the machine a look of pity, but PAL just laughed it off and held his best “thumbs up” to her.

“I see those looks,” he said, “save your worries for later. Spike and I have a plan.”

“All right, we're listening,” Captain Arbiter said.

“Yes, please Spike, go on!” Celestia encouraged with a nod.

The young dragon hopped off of his friend and landed on the floor with his fist into the tile, cracking it. After looking at the damage in disbelief, he shrugged his shoulders and laughed nervously.

“Well, I got to thinking... maybe the golems are being forced to obey Sombra.”

Shining Armor scowled, “Are you nuts? Those things don't think...”

“Hear me out, Shining,” insisted the dragon, “there's not much difference between PAL and those golems out there besides the stuff they're made of. It's all just parts and some magic, right?”

“Golems are indeed magical constructs made from base materials and magical instructions carefully encoded with enchantments,” Cadance said in a monotone voice before explaining, “or at least, that's what Twilight told me when she read a book on them and couldn't put it down.”

“Right, well, I think the magic all around us influences those guys so they can think on their own, too,” the dragon explained, “while we were out fighting them, they seemed to act more alive if they were distracted... but then something would make them freak out and attack. I bet there's something making them act that way.”

None of the ponies seemed to be following Spike's logic, perhaps the adrenaline of being fired at had removed their attention to detail.

PAL limped forward at this point and tried to explain further, “What Spike is trying to say is, the golems may have some sort of magic component that makes them aggressive. If we were to remove it somehow, they would stop fighting and become peaceful.”

“If that is the case, what should we do to remove those?” Princess Celestia asked.

“Simple, we write our own spell to fry the piece controlling them!” Spike answered, putting his fists at his side triumphantly.

“Writing your own spell and 'simple' can't be used in the same sentence,” Shining Armor answered rudely, “even the greatest wizards such as Starswirl the Bearded would take years to come up with anything new, and that's not even including time for testing or safety.”

“Now wait a minute,” Limpwing interrupted, shoving Shining Armor out of the way with a swift slap of her wing, “writing something new would take forever, but nothing's stopping us from just doing the opposite of whatever Sombra did to create the aggression enchantment.”

“And how am I supposed to know what the counterspell is for that?” argued the stallion, shoving back against her, “it's not like I can just...”

He stopped with a blank expression on his face, only able to stare coldly. Cadance turned to look at what her husband was fixated on, and her own expression lit up with surprise. Rosseth was standing in the doorway, having clearly trespassed and gotten past the rest of their defenses.

“Rosseth,” Shining Armor called out, “you’d better be here to surrender.”

Something’s wrong,” Celestia thought, noticing how dead the zebra’s expression looked.

He walked into the room and looked around without saying a word, amulet dangling from his neck and making a jingling sound while he walked. Shining Armor did not take too kindly to being ignored, especially to someone he personally believed was a huge threat to the safety of his wife.

“You’d better stop whatever this is you’re doing and get on the ground,” he snapped at him, “you’re going to be sorry if you don’t listen to me!”

“Shining, please!” Cadance begged, “Ross, come here! We can talk about this!”

Rosseth turned and started moving towards the royal couple, still refusing to say anything, or even blink his eyes. Princess Celestia felt a nervous twitch go up her spine from how uncanny the zebra was behaving.

“There’s something peculiar about Rosseth,” Arbiter said to the princess, confirming she wasn’t the only one curious, “he’s not showing off with his usual bravado.”

Shining was really beginning to lose his patience, “Don’t you have anything to say?”

His enemy’s eyes were locked firmly on the Crystal Heart, rotating in place in the center of the room. It was like he was in a trance state, unable to move his focus from the beauty of the object. He squeezed between the crystal royals and stood directly in front of it, looking up like a mesmerized child.

“I take it you’ve never seen the Crystal Heart before?” asked Spike, “Well I don’t mean to brag but, I’m kind of proud of how I rescued it. So take it in, Ross!”

Spike’s eyes suddenly filled with painful blue light as “Rosseth” transformed into a bolt of electricity and shot in the very core of the Crystal Heart before anyone in the room could react. The attack happened so quickly that all Cadance could do was scream in horror while her nation’s source of power cracked down the middle. Then, an explosion filled the room, nearly turning everyone’s insides into the consistency of gelatin from the shockwave and the force of them being thrown hard against the walls. The princesses all lost their crowns at once, anything left of Shining’s remaining armor plating was blown away, and Spike considered himself lucky he wasn’t stripped bare of scales.

“What just happened?” Limpwing demanded, embedded in the wall upside down but no worse for wear otherwise.

Recovering from the impact, Cadance sat up against the wall of the room and rubbed her head. She saw the state of the Crystal Heart now, cut neatly in two on the floor of the power room. Dread surged through her mind, and her vocal chords failed to produce words. There was devastation and anger in the minds and looks of each pony in the room, it just registering then that they had more or less lost the battle with that one act.

“That was one of Rosseth’s copies,” Arbiter grunted, flipping his eyepatch back down over his bad eye, “and it would seem it sacrificed itself to destroy the Crystal Heart.”

“How could I have been so careless,” Shining Armor moaned, “I let my guard down!”

“Well wait, the Crystal Heart will regenerate itself, right?” panicked Spike, running up to the two broken halves on the floor, each one dull and gray, “We can just fix it, right?!”

Princess Cadance felt a lump in her throat, “It will but… by the time it does… Sombra will have already won. We’ve got nothing to protect ourselves against that weapon he made Techorse build. It’s… it’s over.”

“Then we need to move the rest of the Crystal Ponies to Steamcastle, away from the Empire!” Shining said, not giving up, “we’ll hold out until after the missile hits, and maybe figure out Spike’s way of converting the golems to our side. Then we can come back and everything will be back to normal.”

“I agree with Shining Armor’s plan,” Celestia said, “we must save the Crystal Ponies by escaping to the west.”

“We’re with you!” said Spike and PAL.

The others started to leave the chamber, only Cadance remained kneeled in front of the broken Heart. Shining looked back into the doorway at his beautiful spouse, ears drooping from guilt.

“Cadance, come on, dear… we have to go.”

She managed to peel herself away and approach him, but quickly kissed her husband on the forehead. Shining knew that meant she wasn’t going to be listening to him.

“I need to lock the Crystal Heart up and protect it while it heals,” she answered, smiling, “I’m the Crystal Princess, it’s caretaker. The golems won’t come here now that it’s been disabled. I’ll be okay.”

“But what about the missile?” Shining begged her to be reasonable, “If it hits, you’ll be under Sombra’s control!”

“If I can fix the Crystal Heart he’ll never succeed,” she answered, kissing him again, “I love you but… you have to trust me!”

Without giving him a choice, Cadance pushed him back with her magic and shut the door. Then, she returned to the Crystal Heart and placed the pieces together with her hooves. An arc of white lightning pushed the two halves apart again. The alicorn looked at the halves glumly and sobbed quietly in the silence of the room.

With the Crystal Heart destroyed, King Sombra breathed a sigh of heavy relief, “The Crystal Heart has been vanquished. Rosseth was more clever than I had thought.”

Midnight Blaze agreed, “That’s true. Now we should deal the finishing blow. Let’s prepare the missile for launch.”

King Sombra’s eyes flashed red, “Let’s. But first, we must address something important.”

His horn sent a pulse into the nearest corner of the hologram system, deactivating it. The floor closed up over the pit containing the magical projectors, creating a carpeted and solid place to stand. Midnight made eye contact with the king, his ancestor, his mentor, and his new father. So much had happened over the past few days so quickly, and power beyond belief was being offered to him. But in the ever-increasing back of his mind, Midnight felt horrible and wanted nothing to do with dark magic.

Sombra’s statement left him with little choice in the matter however,

“It’s time. The moment of your coronation has arrived, Midnight Blaze.”

Chapter 42 - Cadance Confronted

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Chapter 42

“So we take out that murder engine, and then the Crystal Ponies in the castle will all go free?” Flaming Ivory panted, running down the hallway by Techorse's side, “Sounds easy enough. It's just an enchanted piece of metal and wood, right?”

“I'm not sure it's even that,” Techorse answered honestly, “it might be an intelligent arcane device, like a magic-born object that can think and follow orders. If it is, it's not going to respond well to being shot at!”

“So if it's not really a thing, but some kind of magically conjurated machine, it's gonna fight back?”

Techorse smirked, “Conjurated isn't a word. Conjured.”

Flaming Ivory grumbled at him, “That's your worry, Tech?! If it can fight us like it's alive, it might take our heads off!”

“So we outsmart it and find a way to beat it,” Techorse said, “if we think like Sombra, we can figure out its weakness and destroy it.”

“How'd you know all this stuff anyways?”

His friend turned red, “Twilight Sparkle told me.”


King Sombra's courtyard was still as silent and covered in lichen as ever, the guillotine of interest sitting in the middle ominously with four golems guarding it at each corner. A few tall marble vases filled with the king's favorite choices in flowers mirrored the dream that he had created to invite Celestia and Luna in, even the archways and columns reflected the exact Shadow Pony architecture. Techorse and Flaming Ivory didn't stop to take in any of the scenery, instead charging in with laser blasts and orange rays of magic flying at the golems trying to protect the symbol of evil within the formerly serene garden.

The first defender was riddled with laser bolts and dropped the floor with smoldering craters blown out of its armor. Each of the remaining golems brought their cannons to bear against the two stallions charging at them, but their shots missed wildly from the ponies ducking and weaving. Ivory's eyes burned their cinder glow as a bright beam with eight note particles flying off of it burrowed into the seams where the second golem's parts were assembled together. It detonated from within after heating up, pieces flying everywhere with smoke trailing behind.

At last, a purple shot of energy managed to find Flaming Ivory's hoof at the joint, toppling him. He bounced on the floor a few times, collecting dirt on his light gray coat.

“Lucky... shot,” he muttered, “can you get the rest, Techorse?”

“I'm on it!” answered his buddy, jumping up and pointing his laser cannons downwards as the enemy's barrels tracked him in the air.

Skillfully, the gray focusing tubes swiveled to the side as Techorse aimed at the two golems standing abreast of each other. Twin beams of solid yellow light swept from right to left, cutting right through their guns with precision. By the time Techorse landed on his hooves, his enemy's weapons were rolling on the floor, dripping molten shadowsteel from where they'd been severed. Deciding their fists would not be nearly as useful against an earth pony with technology on par with themselves and an extremely angry musician, the golems turned and fled back into the castle, stomping loudly along the way.

Techorse stowed his laser cannons momentarily and switched to the robotic arms in order to lend Flaming Ivory a helping hand off of the dirty floor. Silently, they took a good look at the morbid guillotine set up in front of them, the breeze of the afternoon waving through their manes and chilling them.

“This is it, Flaming,” Techorse said, ice creeping in his veins, “are you ready?”

“Hey, before we blow it up... do you feel that weird feeling going up your spine, too?” Flaming Ivory asked as if by instinct.

“I do...” answered the inventor, blue eyes narrowing, “this represents everything King Sombra is, and what ponies like him do to others. Coldness and cruelty in an obsolete machine...”

The unicorn didn't want to wait any longer and interrupted him, “Tech, buddy... I know you can get preachy sometimes so... let's destroy this thing before I lose you.”

“Y... you're right,” the stallion said, shaking his head, “I guess we're going to find out if it's got the ability to protect itself.”

His saddle's side panels opened up with a mechanical whir of servos and motors, the familiar weapons emerging again and training on the guillotine. Techorse squinted and opened up with a burst of individual laser bolts, which impacted the machine with seemingly no effect. The shots were exploding as they normally did when they impacted a target, but no damage was being done.

“Gah! This isn't working,” he complained, “it's like it's shielded!”

Suddenly, the guillotine vanished in a flash of light, and appeared again next to Techorse... with Flaming Ivory trapped within its locks! The unicorn let out a horrified wail and emitted a powerful explosion from the tip of his horn, pushing back Techorse but failing to do any damage.

“Oh no, NO!” he screamed, setting off blast after blast and straining his mind, “NOT LIKE THIS!

Techorse felt the sweat accumulating and turned his focus to the cursed machine's blade, firing at it as if it would do any better. The sounds of many magical weapons charging up gained the attention of his ears, and looking around, he could see that the golems who had escaped had returned with reinforcements. Now a dozen of them had surrounded the courtyard, and the guillotine moved itself through the air back to the center of the courtyard, Flaming Ivory still locked in tight.

“Please, let me go!” Flaming Ivory begged, orange eyes returning to brown.

The golems shot at Techorse, knocking him down with a few well placed hits and making it clear that they would increase the power of their blows if he dared to stand up again. All he could do was watch while laying on the side of his barrel as the guillotine prepared to act.

“Flaming, I'm sorry!” he said to his terrified friend through the pain.

The unicorn turned his soon to be missing head up at the blade, and then back to Techorse whom he gave a weak laugh, “At least this way Shadow doesn't have to be alone, right?”

Techorse wheezed out a subtle laugh, “How'd we ever become friends?”

The guillotine dropped its blade, and Flaming Ivory thought to tell his companion to close his eyes so that Techorse wouldn't have to see what would happen with his head.

“Have you two learned nothing about King Sombra?” came a familiar voice to both of the ponies, “Nothing he does to scare us is ever real! You're keeping your heads!”

A split second later, the blade hit Flaming Ivory... with surprisingly no results whatsoever. Techorse inspected the fallen blade carefully, and realized that the blade had indeed dropped all the way, but the musician's neck was phasing through it like a hologram.

Crossbow bolts struck each of the golems surrounding the stallions, silver piercing right through their vital components and dropping them like flies before they could even figure out what was shooting them. A final round impacted the guillotine itself, which shimmered brightly and was wrapped in a checkerboard pattern of black and red arcane energy. Sensing it was becoming unstable, Techorse grabbed Flaming Ivory with his hooves and dragged him out of the device. It collapsed in on itself, the illusion magic placed by King Sombra failing until all that remained was the truth. The “guillotine” was nothing more than a common set of enchanted stocks you would lock a misbehaving pony's head and front hooves into when they misbehaved.

“What just happened?” Techorse asked blankly, still trying to process the turn of events.

“It was all an illusion spell,” Flaming Ivory whistled, “and a wicked one too! I bet King Sombra combined that intelligence spell you were talking about with some concealment stuff.“

“That's exactly what it is, boys,” said Ignitus, stepping forward with his crossbow rewound and ready for another shot, “Shadow Pony object trickery. Conceal an object in an energy shield shaped like another to mask its identity and make it harder to destroy.”

Techorse lit up and stood to attention, “Ignitus?! You came for us?”

“Of course,” he answered, nodding and stowing his weapon away, “I'm here to save Midnight and his friends. Which reminds me, there's the matter of the pony who let you know you weren't about to become headless. I think you'll be glad to see him.”

Techorse and Flaming Ivory watched Shadow Breeze slowly step out from behind the red stallion, weakness and hope in equal measure in his big eyes and kind smile. He was still covered in bandages, and his feathers had been turned to wax, there was even a bit of scarring behind his left ear... but it was Shadow Breeze, alive and well!

“Shadow... you... you're still alive,” Flaming Ivory blubbered, tears coming to his eyes.

“But... you exploded. We watched it,” Techorse said in a montone voice, a shaky hoof pointing at the stallion, “we thought we were never going to see you again.”

The pegasus hopped up to him as best as he could while injured, and threw himself around his friends with a big warm embrace. He could feel the shock, confusion, and the maelstrom of emotions they were going through just by seeing him alive and mostly in a single piece. The three of them were trying to not cry like children, but that kind of joy was hard to repress, and the tears flowed naturally.

“I know it's really weird, but I'm alive and so are you,” Shadow sniffled, closing his eyes and accepting their hug back, “that's all that matters. Love you guys...”

Ignitus accepted the three friends softly crying as a reasonable way of expressing their relief at being together again, but smiled when they were able to dry up and refocus after their short hug.

“We... we need to save Midnight,” Techorse said, breaking away, “I'm so happy you're safe Shadow, but we've got to get back in and stop Sombra!”

“Look at him, he can't fight right now, Tech!” Flaming Ivory complained, getting his phlegm back in his body with a snort.

“But I can,” Ignitus declared, “and I intend to get my son back from that monster. Where can we find him?”

Techorse answered with new confidence in his voice, “Follow me. We've got a coronation to stop.”

“This... this is hopeless.”

Princess Cadance tried to push back together the Crystal Heart with her hooves, but the artifact was gray and useless, a lifeless collection of smashed rock on the floor of her palace. She could already hear the thunder of the approaching rainstorms thanks to the collapse of the thermal shielding provided. Sombra's missile was also very much likely on its way, and even if it wasn't... those storms would condense into terrible winter weather that would destroy her nation forever. Despite the fact she was the Princess of Love, heir to the artifact that had been destroyed, and the hope of the city, she was unable to fix the damage.

“Now do you understand?” came Rosseth's voice from behind her.

The pink mare dried her accumulating tears with her wings, and quickly stood up, “ROSSETH!

Her smile disappeared when he saw his eyes and the outfit he was wearing. Each of Rosseth's clones had been naked save for the amulet and cape, but this zebra was wearing a black kimono with a white undershirt, the opposite of her own. The sword at his side in an imposing sheathe made it clear to the alicorn that this was the real Rosseth, even though his magical jewelry was clearly visible around his neck.

“It's really you, isn't, Ross?” she asked, the desire to help him still in her heart, “Not a clone?”

“No more clones,” Rosseth said in a worn out voice, echoing what had been yelled at him just nights before, “I'm finished using illusions, tricks, and Dark Magic to get my way, Cadance. It's just you and me now.”

“I'm sorry,” Cadance said softly, barely able to look him in the eyes, “I'm sorry about your parents, about... everything.”

“Quiet, Cadance,” Rosseth huffed, “let's get the formalities out of the way, shall we?”

The zebra reached into his robe, and pulled out Luna's chalice from within, setting it down on the floor gently next to him.

“You're returning the Lunar Chalice?” she asked, her ears perking up to attention.

“All of this chaos over this,” he said, almost laughing from the absurdity, “it's just a cup twenty nine nights out of thirty, you know. I should have never taken it in the first place, and done this instead.”

Cadance felt her heart rate pick up a bit in her slender chest, “What do you mean by 'this', Rosseth?”

Rosseth's amulet let a tendril of cyan energy grab the sword by the handle, and the well-crafted blade slid out with the terrifying sound of sharp metal sliding along blunt sheathe. He dropped his robe and belt after, holding the sword in front of him and pointing it at the Princess's heart from across the room. The energy from the artifact traveled up the sword and wrapped it in aura magic, giving it extra electric power.

“We're going to settle our debts today Cadance, with a fight until only one of us is left,” declared the potion maker, giving his ultimatum, “you'll either have to strike me down, or pay for what you did to me.”

“R... Rosseth. No!” she blurted, a lump clogging her throat, “It doesn't have to be this way! Sombra's just using you to take the Crystal Empire, you don't have to do this!”

“Sombra doesn't matter anymore,” Rosseth answered, walking forward with the deadly blade following him, “and neither do you. Your Crystal Heart can't help you any more.”

She hollered at him, “I won't fight you!

His hoofsteps stopped, and he let out a deep breath that sounded exactly like what someone with years of unresolved pain and torment would let out.

“Selfishness and cowardice. Typical of you,” he goaded, “you'd rather leave Shining Armor to mourn over you than stand up to me... and you wonder why I hate you. Just as well, seeing you've hated me so much!”

Princess Cadance turned her back to him, her mane flowing behind her just like her relatives, magic starting to pour fourth from her horn. She began to speak back to the zebra, this time with a motherly voice that disturbed his dark inner thoughts.

“I don't hate you Rosseth... I never did,” she said, her eyes focusing on the Crystal Heart's pieces and her own heart focusing on saving the stallion behind her, “I wronged you years ago because I wasn't experienced enough to save your family, and tried anyways instead of getting the help I should have. I don't expect you to ever forgive me, and I will absolutely forgive you for everything you've done, including coming here with a sword to hurt me.”

Her aura reached her own sword, the prized gift created by her dear husband, and she drew it out with a loud slashing noise that echoed throughout the halls of the empty palace, her own magic creating a rose colored field around the blade that hovered it in front of her muzzle. The Princess looked at her own reflection in the steel of the weapon, sorrow yet acceptance in one pony mug.

“Rosseth... I know you don't believe me at all, but I love you very much,” continued the princess, “and if I have to defeat you to prove it... I will.”

Dramatically, she did a backflip, unable to use her wings because of the robe on her, but agile enough to land facing him, and brought her sword down clumsily. Rosseth made a slow, awkward blocking motion, catching her blade. Sparks of blue and pink flew from the weapons, eager to inflict some harm.

Unfortunately, neither of them actually had any training with a sword. Rosseth had only just gotten his blade yesterday from King Sombra, and Cadance hadn't even taken a few practice swings since Shining equipped her with his. Despite the flurry of emotions between the two ponies, the swordplay between them was shameful, featuring wide and painful to watch swings, poking and jabbing that would have left them wide open for attacks against a skilled warrior, and dozens upon dozens of motions that simply had them cross blades with an impressive blast of magic energy every time they touched.

However, the two of them believed this was exactly how swordfighting was supposed to work. They yelled and screamed at each other loudly like fierce soldiers, doing spins and flips while wailing away with their gifted blades, blocking and parrying each other cartoonishly while they took the fight outside of the Crystal Heart's chamber. Rosseth's anger and Cadance's love still burned in their eyes during this groaner of a fight, and their hearts dueled just as much as their bodies as they slashed and hacked their way down the hall of the palace.

The evacuation of the Crystal Empire had begun in full earnest, Shining Armor directing the remaining few hundred ponies and their families for the western exit. Faerie Tail had gathered the few fillies and colts between the families, and Gaveler was leading the rest of the townsfolk away, protected by the handful of Crystal Guards and Militia remaining in their forces. Between them, there were but four spears left to use against the golems hot on their heels.

“We've got to reach Steamcastle before they overtake us!” ordered Shining Armor, directing traffic with his hoof, “Hurry up! Leave everything behind but yourselves!”

Even with the promise of safety, he could tell that every last one of his fellow ponies were miserable about having to leave their beloved home. Mothers and fathers of the few children were having to explain what was going on in words the little ones could understand, and the brokenness in their hearts was apparent. It didn't help that he could hear the thunder and rain approaching as a consequence of the Crystal Heart being destroyed.

Princess Celestia was trying to comfort her sister, the alicorn nibbling at her left wing to deal with the swelling. She had stopped caring about being a princess long enough to face the reality of her situation.

“Luna, I sent away for Twilight Sparkle and her friends to return as soon as possible,” she said, “even if we have lost today, perhaps tomorrow the Elements will let us take back the Crystal Empire.”

“I suppose, so long as...”

The crowd of ponies stopped suddenly near where the thermal barrier should have been, screams of terror and yelling rippling through the escapees as the western flank was cut off by the arrival of Red Commander and his troops. Shining Armor stopped dead in his tracks, shocked that he had been cutoff so close to the border! But a team of a little under 80 golems had appeared, led by the larger, stronger machine with the solid red eye. Behind them, their captives were being pulled along in cages mounted on top of sleds.

“How did they...” gasped Shining Armor, “forgot it! We need to head north instead! Steamcastle must have been taken!”

“Too late!” shouted Limpwing, we're surrounded on all sides, Shining!

As the captain looked behind him, he saw the other golem commander with his green eye closing in with his own troops, only short of two hundred remained. The fighting had been brutal and the losses they had taken were severe, but they had the rest of the Crystal Empire surrounded now. The ponies found themselves with cannons pointed at them on all angles, and the few hundred left moved to shield the younger ones from harm.

With a perfect circle of golems around them, Princess Celestia and Luna charged up their horns.

“With one more powerful blast, we can take them all out,” Princess Celestia said, “but we must spend the rest of our energy to do it.”

“But without us, Sombra's missile will be able to strike for sure,” Luna argued, “we must conserve our strength, my sister!”

While they were talking amongst themselves, Green and Red Commanders walked in front of the group of ponies, stopping in front of Shining Armor. They seemed to know he was in charge of the operation based on his purple and gold armor plus physical stature. The red-eyed golem was particularly interested in Shining Armor, and being slightly taller than his green-visioned counterpart, tried to push forward to “talk”. But the other general pushed him back slightly with his left arm, triggering something he shouldn't have within the war machine.

“I presume you two are the leaders of King Sombra's army,” Shining Armor said to them, getting a nod back in response from Green Commander.

Spike tugged Shining Armor's saddle straps, getting him to look him in the eyes with a pitiful stare. While he wasn't sure that Spike's idea would work, he knew it would at least buy them time.

“I'm the Captain of the Crystal Guard, but... if you want to hear our terms, you'll have to talk to Spike... the Brave and Glorious.”

Spike heard the Crystal Ponies cheer for him, plunging him into a state of guilt since he knew they weren't going to like what he had to say next. Stepping forward, he tried not to panic from the two glowing eyes staring at him that felt like they were burning into his skull. It didn't help that he felt unprotected by his lack of a full suit of scales, or that the enemies he intended to talk too had fully charged weapons.

“Hi...” he said gently to them, waving a claw.

Green Commander waved back in a friendly manner, while the red one offered nothing in response.

“As Shining said, I'm Spike... the Crystal Empire's hero,” continued the little reptile, poking his fingers together timidly, “so I have to call the shots.”

Spike watched Green Commander kneel down and place a hand to the side of his head, indicating he couldn't hear the dragon. The crystal ponies perceived this as mocking their invincible hero, and began booing, hushing when Red Commander raised his weapon and spun the barrels at them.

“Hey, tell the red guy to stop that!” Spike shouted bravely, “He's scaring them!”

Green Commander stood up and forced the other's barrel down, a mechanical groaning sound coming from within Red Commander. The tension between the two leaders was obvious to everyone present.

Spike thanked the other golem and then continued, “So now that you know who I am, I'd like to declare...”

The ponies and golems sat in silence until Spike said the worst possible thing.

“We surrender.”

Collective cries of shock and panic filled the air. Spike knew they wouldn't have taken it well, but he waited patiently for the initial horror to die down. Green Commander knelt down again and went to shake Spike's hand in agreement that the war was over.

But the little dragon refused at first, “Look, green eyed dude.. before we give in, you need to think about something. Was winning this fight really worth all the golems that got crushed like soda cans? What do you guys get out of it?”

The other golems in the ring around the remaining ponies looked at each other, scratched their heads, and in general had never considered that before. Some of them had actually enjoyed the fight, some of them had competed to see who could 'collect' the most ponies, and others still had wanted to pet them... but none of them had really thought what they were going to get out of it. Their programming held them loyal to the Shadow Pony empire regardless of outcome.

“Now I know, Sombra made you guys, so you probably think you have to do what he says,” Spike answered while pointing behind him, “but do you see this metal guy standing behind me? He was made by somepony too, and he gets to make his own choices.”

PAL managed a weak hand wave and smile, letting Spike keep control of the conversation.

“If you guys turn us over to Sombra,” Spike explained with legitimate concern, “you'll just be his slaves too! Do you think he'll fix any of your friends who got broken today? He'll just make more, replace you, and keep going! You'll be forgotten. Gone forever.”

It was here the golems really started to hate the fact that they couldn't talk, lacking an arcane speech apparatus. But their processors had already been given a new kind of input no intelligent construct could ignore. If their creator didn't care about their survival, was it worth carrying out their orders?

“We're done fighting,” Spike said, “but you still have to make a choice. Please do the right thing!”

Red Commander was tired of hearing the foolishness of making peace with the targets he was eager to splatter, and stepped up, spinning up his gatling weapon and pushing it near to Spike. Ponies screamed in terror, and Spike recoiled in horror as the red glowing cannon tried to move over him for a quick incineration. Green Commander didn't waste time, bashing into the other golem and trying to hold down his gun. The red one resisted the attack and sent a punch across his chestplate, denting it in and throwing him backwards behind Spike and into the waiting arms of PAL. Red Commander grabbed Spike rapidly and held him clutched in his chest, holding his gun to his head and spinning the motor just inches from his face.

“Do something!” urged Gaveler of the princesses.

“I might hit Spike!” Princess Luna cried.

Red Commander finally let out what seemed to be a motorized laugh, more of a grisly combination between a chainsaw and a cackle. Soon the 'hero' of the Crystal Empire would be a charred husk in his arms!

The golem tried to shoot, but the motor on his gun had failed, and when he looked down at it, a kunai had lodged itself into the seam where his gun met his arm, leaving the barrels unable to turn. Limpwing had skillfully thrown her last shot into the mechanics, disabling the weapon. Red Commander didn't think too much of it, knowing eventually the knife would break...

But that was the last thing he ever thought, because as soon as he looked up from the knife, he caught just a glance of Green Commander's fist as it traveled into his eye, through his helmet head, and out the back. In one motion, the other golem had gotten up and delivered a fatal punch to his former brother, ending the murderous machine's assault. His arms went limp, dropping Spike to the ground, and the cored head of the golem rolled on the ground as his body crashed into a heap that shook the ground.

Green Commander withdrew his fist, and discarded the Shadowsteel scraps left over. Then, he approached Spike, who was picking himself off the ground with a smile on his face.

“Thanks!” he said.

The ponies cheered as Green Commander shook hands with Spike, ending the battle not in King Sombra's favor... but in the golems'. Each of the purple eyed ones released their captives at the orders of Green Commander, letting the prisoners of Steamcastle go. Right away, Steady Hoof claimed the near corpse of Raider and began to take out his field tools to get to work healing what the now thankfully terminated Red Commander had done to her.

“Spike, you DID IT!” Princess Celestia cheered, grabbing him away from the golem commander with her magic and holding him close, “Oh I'm so proud of you!”

“It wasn't me your Highness... it was the green-eyed commander,” he said, “like PAL, these guys can think for themselves if they have to, and they chose to take their win without taking us!”

“Then let it be known from this day forward, that the battle of the Crystal Empire was won not by King Sombra, but by the brave Green Commander and his golem heroes!” Princess Luna cheered, the troops around them in a ring jumping up and down and high-fiving each other.

Likewise, the Crystal Ponies were more than willing to cheer now that they weren't going to be taken away to serve King Sombra. Many of them hugged the machines they were fighting against just moments ago, and some of the constructs were doing their best to dance alongside the Crystal Ponies.

Limpwing turned to Arbiter amongst the cheering and said teasingly, “Well, I'm still counting my kunai doing its job as a kill.”

“Please. It's a half,” Arbiter groaned without thinking.

“A half it is then!” Limpwing smiled, having caught him, “and that brings my score up to one half point more than yours! I win!”

Arbiter choked, “What... f.. fine. You win, Miss Limpwing.”

“And that means I get to pick my prize,” she answered, batting her eyelashes.

“What would you like?” sighed the captain.

Taking off her goggles and throwing them to the ground with her good wing, Limpwing then pulled him into a sudden kiss that caught him off guard. Arbiter managed to get the mare away from him, but she held him as tight as she could anyways.

“You wanted a kiss?” he growled, “Limpwing, you're not a schoolfoal you know!”

She relaxed her snarky look for a moment, just to give him her big fire ruby eyes, “I want you, Arbiter. We work so well together.”

“You... you don't want all of me. There's things I just can't have anymore,” he countered, turning red at the cheeks.

But Limpwing moved her longest wing feathers in, and gently, without Arbiter moving, peeled his eyepatch off of his head. His wounded eye was now fully visible, still structurally intact but whited out with a clear line of damage that matched perfectly with the angle of his scar normally only visible from outside the eyepatch. It followed wherever the good eye looked, and the owner's soul could still be felt within.

“I want all of you,” Limpwing whispered with a wink and a smile, “now, don't be a jerk. Keep your promise to a lady, Captain.”

Having never felt so vulnerable, Captain Arbiter gave in to his emotions and brought Limpwing in again, locking lips with her in an act out of the kind of love he hadn't felt in years.
“If only Cadance were here to see this,” Shining Armor sighed, watching the new couple and the impromptu party around him.

“We should probably head back to free the ponies on the east side of the city,” mentioned PAL, “as great as this moment is...”

“A few more minutes, and then we'll break it up,” Shining Armor laughed, “let's let them rest awhile.”

He payed close attention to Green Commander shaking Spike's hand again,

“Let's let them rest...”

Chapter 43 - Midnight's Dawn

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Chapter 43

It was beginning to be hard for Midnight to tell at this point what was real and what was not. The voices in his head had gotten louder, one clearly what he used to be, and one urging him to continue on the path of power and greatness. King Sombra had transformed the observation room with another conversion charm that turned it into an elegant throne room complete with two golden seats, one noticeably bigger than the other. They were both studded with dark crystals, and a bright orange glowing chandelier occupied the ceiling of the high-vaulted room. Glass tubes carried molten metal through the walls, providing warmth, light, and a sense of power. In contrast, purple and blue tapestries lined the walls between these lava transporters, their cutie marks woven into them. Midnight did not recognize the design himself, but it was clearly an identical copy of Sombra's old throne room just before the Two Sisters had defeated him spectacularly.

His master entered the room with a loud slamming of the iron doors at the back of it, carrying in front of him with his magic a small but ornate circlet that was much like his own, only with a blue sapphire instead of a red ruby. The unicorn could sense the dark energy radiating from the piece meant to adorn his head, and the half of him begging for attention seemed to scream in agony from the mere presence of the crown.

I would have preferred something more ceremonious,” King Sombra thought with a proper protective spell to prevent Midnight from picking up on it, “but the Crystal Ponies have escaped the castle... and that disturbance I felt was... the golems removing their control systems. No one but myself will get to observe the Shadow Pony Coronation Ritual. As soon as this circlet of Shadowsteel and dark crystal is on his head, Midnight Blaze will fully be my son, and any semblance of his past self will be dead.

Midnight stood in front of his throne, but dropped to his knees when his king approached him, closing his eyes in reverence.

“Rise Midnight Blaze,” King Sombra ordered, a smile on his face.

His soon to be prince looked at him and stood at attention. King Sombra, formerly a shadowy specter of the Crystal Empire, was now a handsome stallion with a normal appearance save his fangs and curved horn. The purple eyed freak and symbol of rage had become a new father to Midnight, offering him untold power and pursuit of his interests. Staring into the stone mounted on the circlet reignited his lust for power, and the stallion felt the satisfaction of power running through his veins again as he silenced the voice begging him to stop.

“Midnight Blaze,” the king said his name again, “you alone are worthy of being the Prince of the Shadow Ponies. You have passed all tests given to you, have demonstrated tremendous growth in your skills in Dark Magic, and have helped defeat our enemies swiftly and decisively. Do you agree that you have done these things?”

“I agree,” Midnight answered, something within his mind giving him the instructions for the ritual.

Sombra continued the required speech, “Do you desire the mantle passed down from Shadow King to Shadow King? To represent the ponies who occupied this land ages before? To become the next page in our history of success and plenty?”

“I desire.”

“Do you accept this burden, knowing that the path of power and greatness is marked with acceptance of darkness? That anything lesser is dust before the Shadow King or his Prince?”

“I accept.”

The aura of magic moved, bringing the circlet over the top of his slick black mane. Purple sparks of lightning danced around the crown, flickering on his mane and horn as it attempted to bind to him.

“With your acceptance, I CROWN THEE...

Sombra reared up, and prepared to complete the ritual, sealing his son's fate. He let out a bellow that shook the walls of the castle.


Yellow energy streaked through the air, burning through the oxygen atoms effortlessly and slipping right past Sombra's right cheek, so close that he could feel the heat of the pulse. Unable to stop it, the King watched the projectile slice through the crown with its antimaterial properties and then detonated as the packet of particles lost containment. His highly enchanted crown meant to turn Midnight to his side forever was blasted into a spray of shrapnel that bounced all over the floor in front of him, all of these things taking place within a split second.

He turned around, and saw Techorse standing with laser cannons drawn, Ignitus, Flaming Ivory, and Shadow Breeze flanking him with equally stern expressions on their faces. Midnight felt something flip in him like a switch when he saw his dad, who was clearly staring at him with his usual cross expression.

TECHORSE!” Sombra snapped, “Do you have ANY IDEA how much effort it takes to build a circlet like the one you just destroyed senselessly?!”

“King Sombra,” Ignitus said, stepping in front of the inventor to protect him, “Techorse was fairly certain crowning MY son Midnight would have caused him harm. As a Shadow Pony, I demand you perform your duty to our kind and release my child at once to the care of his parents. No Shadow King has ever had rights to another's foals under our tribe's laws.”

“Hmm,” Sombra smirked, pretending to be a gentlecolt once again, “I see you are very familiar with your Shadow Pony law. But, Ignitus Enflame... Midnight has surrendered his belonging to your family and has chosen to join mine willingly.”

Ignitus noticed Midnight's physiological changes, including the red eyes and purple aura around his horn. The older unicorn felt his anger begin to build up within his heart, and he loosened his trench coat to be able to whip out his crossbow quickly.

“You... you exposed him to Dark Magic without warning him about the consequences, didn't you?!” the father stuttered, grinding his teeth together, “you corrupted him!”

Hmmm?!” Sombra mocked him, stepping back and holding a hoof over his heart, “I corrupted him? Surely you jest! Midnight Blaze willingly chose to partake in Dark Magic training once he had a sample small enough to avoid corrupting him in the slightest, Ignitus! The moment power and autonomy was offered to him, he took it like a starving dog taking a table scrap! All along he's wanted to aid me in the takeover of the Crystal Empire!”

Ignitus decided to ignore the king momentarily to address his son with a harsh tone. The stallion towered over his son and gave him a verbal thrashing, “You chose this, Midnight? You deliberately converted your magic to darkness?!”

The other three stallions in the room wanted to help, but Shadow Breeze put up a bubble of energy from his amulet and made it clear to his friends that they were going to stay out of this.

“Sorry guys,” the pegasus whispered, “we need to let them settle things.”

“Are you nuts, Shadow?” Flaming Ivory protested, “they're gonna rip each other to shreds!”

“He's right, Flaming,” Techorse agreed with a sad nod, “Midnight is still in there, but unfortunately, so's Ignitus. He's going to have to learn his lesson, and Midnight's going to have to teach it to him.”

“So what do we do?” the piano loving stallion complained.

Techorse sighed and gave him a shake of his head, “Enjoy the show.”

Ignitus stood just inches from Midnight's muzzle, and gave him the last of his fatherly lecture like a cruel drill sergeant,

“I was coming here to forgive you for not joining the military, Midnight. But now I'm hearing you disgraced your family and all of Equestria by helping Sombra win?! What kind of a son are you?!”

Midnight screamed like a banshee and fired a particle beam into Ignitus's chest, knocking him back and burning his trench coat away with purple flames, destroying it, his crossbow, and his hat in just one shot. His own son having turned on him, Ignitus stood still in shock, having never expected such strength to come from a stallion he believed rarely practiced with his abilities. Midnight was approaching rapidly one heavy hoofstep at a time, horn still ignited and ready to strike.

“You just DON'T GET IT,” he yelled at him, “I'm not the problem! You HATE ME! You've always HATED ME!”

He swung his head with each phrase, an arc of cyan plasma shooting at Ignitus with each wild attack, knocking him back a few more feet each time. His own ability to put up a magical shield was helping to soak the damage, but each casting of the barrier was getting weaker and weaker. He was running out of space to back up, and energy to block the blows bolstered with shadow energy.

“You kept our relation to Sombra a DIRTY SECRET! You made my mom and brother SUFFER! You never respected MY WISHES or MY DREAMS!

Ignitus fell backwards with