A Sparkle in the Darkness

by tom117z

First published

Following the return of the Crystal Empire, Twilight begins some intensive research into the history of the Empire and its late king. What she finds changes everything she knows about herself.

Following the return of the Crystal Empire, Twilight begins some intensive research into the history of the Empire and its late king. Modern historians know next to nothing about the enigmatic dark mage. Who was he? Did he have family? Loved ones?

The answers to those questions changes everything the Element of Magic knows about herself, and in doing so catches the attention of a shadow that yet clings to the frailty of life...

Cover art made by Skijarama!
Reading can be found here.
Edited by RC2101_Copey.
Featured on 20/10/2018.

1 - Prologue

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Once upon a time, there was a magical land called Equestria…

And it was a land at war.

Two massive armies prepared to clash against one another amidst a wasteland of ice and snow. One was an army of darkness, dressed in suits of menacing armour that encompassed much of their bodies. Their helmets were jagged and terrifying, their eyes glowing a sickly green as the ponies within fought with no will of their own. Behind them was a city of dark crystal, shadow and hate seeming to radiate from its very surface as the crystal spread out into the wasteland around it like a malignant tumour attempting to claim all in its path.

And facing them was an army of the Sun and Moon. Two alicorns, one a bright alabaster with shining golden armour and the other a deep blue with ominous black armour, led an army of countless ponies that yet still wielded the greyed dirtied armour of the monarch they once served. Queen Platinum’s reign of Equestria was over, toppled during a prolonged fight against a being of pure chaos. The reigns of Princesses Celestia and Luna had risen from the ashes, and now they had traded one villain for another.

King Sombra. A unicorn who, in the chaos of Discord’s madness, had seized the once beautiful and peaceful Crystal Empire from Queen Amore and reduced its citizens into either slavery or a mind-controlled horde ready to spread the corrupt dark mage’s will into the lands beyond.

And there the King stood; ready to fight in his own armour, covered with a red cloak atop his platform of crystal. Likewise, Celestia and Luna hovered above their own armies with the elder wielding her heavy golden halberd and the younger her swift dual blades.

And with a shout, the armies of Equestria charged.

The pegasi dove in from behind the princesses, the heavily aged but experienced General Hurricane leading his forces with the full ferocity the winged ponies had maintained since the days of the ununified tribes. The earth ponies moved in at a full charged, weapons bared as they readied to defend their home from yet another being that would flatten it beneath them. And then, firing their first spells into the crowds of controlled ponies ahead, were the unicorns. Among them was the famed mage Clover the Clever, fitted in his trademark cloak as he called upon the vast array of spells taught to him by his vanished mentor, Starswirl the Bearded.

But the armies of Sombra weren’t ones to wait around, and they too were commanded to charge forwards to meet their enemies. The damned crystal ponies, most of whom were of the typical earth pony variety, made their own attack against the forces of Equestria as their king watched on with an impartial glare.

The battle for the Crystal Empire had begun.

“Sister, with me!” Celestia shouted at her younger counterpart, getting a nod in return as they prepared to dive.

The two royal sisters flapped their mighty wings and followed their pegasi down to the defending army below. Their horns grew brighter as powerful lances of magic struck forth on their first attack run, and with heavy hearts they trailed their spells through the enemy lines, incinerating all who came into contact.

The initial break in the enemy lines boosted the morale of the Equestrians, and the earth ponies split to funnel into these holes. The first wave of crystal ponies broke as the Equestrian army charged on through, those caught in the crowd being mostly cut down in their attempts to resist while a lucky few were successfully subdued and had the helmets pried from their heads. Those who did were quickly overwhelmed by the confusion and horror of their situation and were subsequently moved back through the Equestrian lines towards unicorn help.

As the earth ponies continued through the collapsed first wave, with them soon crossing blades with the more consolidated second, the pegasus forces continued their attack runs. They dived throughout the crystal pony army, sending some of their soldiers sailing through the air to an uncomfortable landing while others were cut up with hoofblades. Some fell to the spellfire of the few unicorns in the hostile army as well as the arrows of some of their crossbows, but others were able to gracefully avoid such a fate and continue their runs.

Sombra watched in increasing fury as for every Equestrian slain far more of his own army fell to the might of the princesses’ forces. A blue mana bolt streamed in from somewhere in the back and hit the King’s crystal tower, chipping a bit of it away and spraying the unflinching dark mage in its fragments. He saw the princesses land in the middle of one of the stronger of his holdouts against the earth ponies, making use of their weapons as they cut down any who put up a strong fight and incapacitated those who they could for helmet extraction.

He found their continued efforts to save what crystal ponies they could almost… amusing. And perhaps their undoing, as incapacitation was far more difficult than simply slaying all who stood in their way.

But he had sat idly by long enough.

His eyes lit with a dark magic trail as his horn bubbled and spat the unholy energy. Jagged crystals sprung from the ground within the lines of the encroaching earth ponies, eliciting shouts and screams as many were staggered or outright impaled.

He broke his concentration from them, however, having to barely raise a shield in time to intercept a bolt of lightning aimed directly at his position.

Sombra grinned at the boldness of General Hurricane, the lone pegasus having broken from his troops with a storm cloud in hoof. Now he charged Sombra directly, firing bolts of lightning down onto the King with the intent of death. Each bolt was absorbed by his shield, and once Hurricane realised this he kicked off the cloud and sent it hurtling towards the corrupted unicorn.

Sombra’s physical form dispersed and, as the lightning cloud exploded against where he had just been, a living shadow circled around the impromptu missile and streamed towards the pegasus. Hurricane avoided the first few tendrils sent after him, turning to move back to friendly lines. But his age seemed to finally catch up to him, and he wasn’t fast enough to avoid being enveloped by the shadowy mass in full.

Hurricane lost sight of the battle, and the only thing around him was darkness. More tendrils shot out from every direction, and he could do little as they took hold of every limb and held him out for the emerging eyes and giant red, curved horn of King Sombra within the shadow.

“For you to believe you could strike at me, even after failing to protect Platinum from Discord… How amusing,” the King taunted, holding the restrained pegasus out in front of him.

“Kill me or release me, monster. But do not waste my time with talk!” Hurricane shouted back.

“There is much talk. And I have long listened. I would listen yet, what do you fear I wonder…?”

Green and black magic once again began to bubble across Sombra’s horn, but Hurricane was having none of it. A hoofblade sprang forth from his right gauntlet and cut into the dark tendrils, surprising the King and eliciting a shout of rage and pain. He released his right hoof quickly along with one of his wings, immediately moving to spring the rest before going after Sombra directly.

He wouldn’t get the chance.

“So be it.”

The remaining tendrils gave a sharp yank, and the former leader of the pegasus tribe was torn apart.

Gold and blue flashes lit up the shadowy mass, and Sombra yelled in pain as he parted and let the General’s mangled body fall into the battle below.

“Beast! Creature!” Luna shouted in rage as she rounded on the King with more blasts of blue magic striking at the shadow.

Sombra struck out at the Princess of the Moon with a far larger tendril, but it was promptly cut away before reaching its target by a golden halberd. Sombra thrashed around and launched spells from his horn at the princesses, doing everything he could to drive them off. But working in perfect tandem they ducked and weaved through them all as they struck at the shadow again and again. Finally, they two circled around one another as they flew high into the air before levelling out and joining their horns. The blue and gold magics intertwined and formed one ultimate beam of magic that shot down into the evil king and burned away at the shadow almost entirely.

His shadowform spell threatening to collapse, Sombra knew when he was outmatched.

He flung his form backwards, moving out of the spell's area of effect and retreating through his lines. All around him his forces were falling. His army’s overall formation had all but collapsed, entire sections being corralled and surrounded entirely. In these controlled groups, the unicorns started moving in and had a relatively easy time beginning to incapacitate more and more of the controlled crystal ponies. With no avenue of retreat or avoidance, these groups started to fall into unconsciousness where their helmets could then be removed. With lethal force becoming less and less necessary, Sombra could just feel the hope and morale of the Equestrians rising by the second.

Even when the retreating shadow swiped and took out whole swaths of the princesses’ army as he went, freeing some of his forces to continue the fight, he knew it had devolved into a losing battle for him.

He was quickly realising that his failsafe may soon become necessary.

But first, there was one last issue to take care of…

The greatly diminished shadow shot back towards the Crystal Empire faster than the alicorns could keep up, and the sisters too were soon distracted with helping mop up what was left of Sombra’s army that they stopped their pursuit altogether.

He passed into the Crystal Empire’s perimeter, looking down at his slaves as they looked out towards the battle with hopeful expressions that quickly turned to fear as they saw their ruler return. But he paid the crystal ponies little mind as he moved over them, they were already being corralled back to work by the small force he had left to keep an eye on things. No, his eyes remained directly on the palace, at which he landed at the base of while transforming back into his normal unicorn self.

“You,” he commanded at a nearby soldier, who dutifully bowed before his king. “Gather your forces, muster all troops at the edge of the Empire. Fight to the last pony against the oncoming Equestrians.”

“As you wish,” the monotone voice behind the helmet replied without any kind of emotion, before nodding at a few nearby troops and running off to fulfil his command.

Not even watching them go, Sombra entered one of the castle’s four entrances and proceeded up the stairs. He did, however, spare a small glance for the empty spot where the Crystal Heart once sat. And it only reminded him that he could not allow the princesses to take the Crystal Empire, could not allow them to restore that infernal thing, or he was finished.

Sombra didn’t stop his jaunt through the palace until he came across his throne room. On entering the darkened chamber, he lit his horn with its signature dark magic and took aim at the seat of his power. Unleashing a dark beam, a shadow reached out from the throne and burned away a segment of the floor. A stairway was revealed, one Sombra wasted no time in descending down.

The stairway went deeper and deeper down, moving through where other rooms in the palace should have existed. Space meant little in this little dark magically created pocket, a place where Sombra could practice his craft is peace and safety.

At the bottom appeared a door, and he cast the correct spell to remove the trap within and reveal the halls beyond. He stepped into a sparsely lit hallway, this one made out of brick rather than the typical crystal of the Empire. Several wooden doors lined the hallways, but none of them were of interest to him for the moment. He continued all the way down until he reached a doorway that, when opened, revealed a study decorated with bookshelves and busts of the King himself. A writing desk sat against the wall, various books and scrolls scattered upon it. But even his own work was not the object of his interest for the moment.

No, that was a segment of the wall in the room that was far sparser than the rest.

His horn lit again, and the wall faded to reveal yet another doorway. Sombra opened it, and slowly stepped inside while making sure to close it quietly behind him. The inside room was nothing like anything else in the evil King’s kingdom. No, this room was… bright. The floor was carpet, lamps hung on the walls bathing the room in a soft glow while several chests lined the outside alongside bookshelves with, of all things, children’s books.

The reason for this was a secret that Sombra held very close. Something that was known only to two adult ponies in the entire world.

In the corner of the room laid a quaint little cot, inside of which slept a small unicorn foal. A colt, his coat very much matching the greys of his father alongside the black mane. However, if one were to see his eyes, they’d see a gentle blue that matched those of the one who birthed him over the natural bright green, or corrupted red, of the father.

And the one who birthed him was right there alongside the colt.

The unicorn crystal pony mare was cowering by the cot with a look of terror, and also with an air of protection for her young, that only increased at the sight of the stallion who entered. The mare was Sombra’s favourite slave and mistress, taken as such shortly after his rise to power. She had a dark purple coat with pale blue mane, her eyes the gentle blue that her son had inherited. She looked at the King with no love or devotion, sharing much of the fear the rest of the Empire’s populace held. And yet they too held an odd solidarity about them. She feared him due to what he was and what he did, and yet also appeared to realise that she personally had little to fear from the stallion.

“Radiant Hope,” Sombra addressed, moving over to her and his son. Looking at her he held only a modicum of fondness, but when his gaze drifted towards the colt his look became almost… soft. “The battle goes poorly.”

“So…” she muttered. “What happens now?”

“I must confront the alicorns directly,” he said as he sat by the colt, looking down at his resting heir. “Should I defeat them, the morale of the ponies will shatter, and we may yet know victory.”

“And if not?”

“Then this Empire will not fall. I have a failsafe in mind, one to keep it out of their hooves,” he replied, looking up at her sternly. “But that will not be the fate of my son. Or yours.”

“My King?”

“Take him. Leave, while you still can,” he asked, his tone not as commanding. He then had his horn light up with a more natural green and levitated out some large saddlebags from a chest nearby. “I prepared this. Enough bits to set up a comfortable life in Equestria I would think.”

Radiant Hope’s eyes widened in surprise. “You’re sending us away? You’re… letting me go?”

“Should I be victorious, which I intend to be, you shall return,” King Sombra declared warningly. “But should I fail, then the ponies of Equestria aren’t to know of his lineage. Look after him, Radiant. And raise him well.”

Radiant Hope looked down at the saddlebags in front of her in disbelief, before shaking it away and quickly putting the bag on. She equally did a quick round of the room to get some extra supplies for the foal, placing them on top of the bit piles, before finally carefully planting her son onto her back and making for the door.

“Radiant,” Sombra stated, stopping her just short of her departure. “You stood at my side faithfully for the privileges it earned your family, of that I have no delusion. And yet I remember our young days, what we were then, and I ask… It wasn’t all bad, was it?”

Radiant Hope paused but did not answer. She then slipped through the doorway, and she did not look back.

Sombra sat there a moment more before he inwardly cursed his moment of weakness and cast it aside. Whoever that mare had been to him once, that was a long time ago. And a very different pony. A dead pony.

He was King Sombra, and this was his empire to rule. The princesses would not survive this day.

Sombra left the room, making the trip back up through his inner sanctum with no more sign of Radiant Hope. When he reached the exit and emerged into the throne room, he made sure to take the time to turn and seal up the way once more. One way or another, nopony could know about it. He knew Radiant would keep his secrets, for their son’s sake if nothing else. They would remain safe.

And then he waited.

He would not have to wait long.

As he stood in the centre of the throne room, he saw a shadow begin to cover one of the stained-glass windows. The King calmly turned to face what was coming and didn’t even flinch when the window shattered into thousands of fragments to admit the two alicorn sisters charging on through.

Once again, the sisters arose together and united their horns without a word said, their magics combining much as they had before to unleash a devastating beam of pure destruction down onto their foe.

He was ready for it this time, however.

He engaged his shadowform just before impact, simply going around the spell as the magic concluded before he reformed into a pony amidst the dust and debris.

“Is that it…?” Luna asked cautiously, peering into the dust cloud left by their spell.

She would be surprised when a large crystal formation shot forth and slammed into Celestia, knocking the Princess of the Sun aside as Sombra stood atop the construct. Luna attempted to raise one of her blades but, in an instant, Sombra had summoned a weapon of his own, a blackened scythe, and taken a swing at the Lunar Princess. Luna blocked the strike, but the force of the blow unbalanced her flight and sent her sprawling to the throne room’s floor.

He couldn’t follow up on the younger sister, however, as the elder of the two recovered and unleashed a beam of magic at Sombra. The King jumped from the crystal formation to avoid the blast, but the platform was vaporised in an instant.

And so, with his scythe in his magic and a host of dark magical tricks in mind, the King of the Crystal Empire faced off against the Princesses of Equestria as they too brought their weapons and spells to bear.

He wondered what they feared the most…


Outside the Empire…



Radiant Hope had bypassed the borders of the Crystal Empire without effort, Sombra’s army had let her past without question before she had made for a nearby snowy hilltop. It was there she now stood, shivering as she held her still sleeping foal as close as she could to keep him warm. The blanket draped over him, and the cloak she had picked up for herself, did help. But the cold of the Frozen North was most fearsome.

As she looked down on her lifelong home, she couldn’t help but weep as she witnessed the battle ongoing around it. The Equestrians were making progress towards the Crystal Empire, though they had been slowed by the remaining defending army and some crystal-based defences that had been set up to delay their approach. But it was just a delay, there was no more stopping Equestria.

Their victory would mean that Radiant’s people would be free. That the King’s reign of terror would end.

But she also doubted they’d give Sombra the opportunity to save his own soul and be like the colt she’d known once upon a time. And on looking down at the foal she now held in her hooves, she swore to herself that he would never follow in his father’s hoofsteps and that if the child ever asked of him she would tell of the person Sombra was and could have been, rather than the tyrant he ended as.

If only she could have saved him, done more to stop his decline. Maybe then…

Her train of thought was interrupted when a blinding flash of light lit up the landscape around the Crystal Empire. Radiant Hope was forced to raise a hoof to protect her own eyes, and her ears twitched as a rumble echoed across the Frozen North. The sound was enough to wake her foal, and the colt started to cry.

When the light faded, Radiant Hope was struck with a sense of horror as the Crystal Empire was nowhere to be found. Only a large patch of empty dirt remained, and even that was almost instantly beginning to be covered up by the snow.

Sombra’s failsafe had been enacted, and the Crystal Empire was gone.

The foal began to cry, and his mother tried extremely hard to stifle her own tears as she whispered small comforts at him. It was over, everything they’d known was now gone; and with distant but approaching wing beats attracted by the crying of the foal, Radiant realised that their future was incoming.

“Ma’am!” a pegasus in Equestrian armour shouted as he and another pegasus mare landed nearby. Both appeared cautious, slowly approaching. “Are you alright?”

“Y-yes…” she replied. “My foal and I, we’re…”

She paused, her tongue caught for a moment. If they found out about him…

“We were slaves, w-we got out before… before…”

“A survivor,” the mare noted. “An entire city. How could anypony…?”

“It’s done now,” the other soldier stated. “Ma’am, you should come with us. We can help your foal get warm, we’re tending to the other survivors.”

“Other survivors…?”

“The, uh… Sombra’s army. We saved as many as we could, our medics are seeing to them,” the mare responded. “Now please, come on. It’s freezing out here.”

Radiant Hope slowly nodded, giving one final glance back to where the Crystal Empire used to be. Then she followed the two soldiers back to where the other surviving crystal ponies were receiving care, unknowing of what life awaited her in Equestria.

And with her, she carried the heir of King Sombra.

2 - Historical Exuberance

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One Thousand Two Hundred Years Later…



“Spiiiiike!” Twilight Sparkle shouted up the stairs of her home, the Golden Oaks Library. “Have you got it yet?”

“Coming!” Spike shouted back from somewhere upstairs. “Just one… second… or two…”

“Oh, come on…” Twilight muttered to herself, slowly prancing on the spot.

Her friends, the other bearers of the Elements of Harmony, all seemed quite amused by this.

“Come on, Twi. I’ve seen you calmer in life or death situations,” Rainbow Dash remarked from the chair she was lounging on. “What’s the rush?”

“The rush, Rainbow Dash, is that Princess Celestia wants me to join some of the most accomplished historians in the whole of Equestria to research and catalogue Sombra’s sanctum in the Crystal Empire! There’s so much we don’t know about him, not even the princesses, and they were there! The history that place could hold…”

“Is that any reason to prance?”

“…I’m excited, okay!?”

“Yes, leave the poor dear alone. Everypony needs a hobby,” Rarity gently scolded the prismatically maned pegasus. “Still, the thought of you going back into that horrible place… I’m not sure I would.”

“It does sound scary…” Fluttershy noted worriedly. “Not that I think you can’t handle it, though…”

“King Sombra was a really big meanie pants!” Pinkie Pie huffed with a cross of her hooves. “I bet he wouldn’t have even liked one of my parties! And that’s the MEANEST kind of meanie pants!”

“None of you are wrong, but that’s why Princess Celestia wants only the best on this,” Twilight explained proudly. “There are risks, there could be more traps down there we don’t know about. But the things down there could tell us who King Sombra actually was, whether he had a family, why he decided to become a tyrant one day… Even just a general history on the Crystal Empire itself. Most of Queen Amore’s own correspondences and personal items all vanished after her death. He could have kept them down there for all we know.”

“Seems like a mighty big responsibility,” Applejack said. “Just a shame we’re not coming with ya.”

“So am I. But I’ll only be gone for a week or so, and you all have your lives here. Besides, I’m sure some of you would get bored with all the history.”

“Hey!” Rainbow Dash protested. “You had me at the word ‘traps’!”

“Because it sounds like Daring Do?” Applejack teased.

“Yeah. And Daring Do is awesome!”

“Got them!” Spike suddenly announced, appearing at the top of the stairs with some saddlebags in his claws.

The young dragon quickly plodded down the stairs and delivered the bags dutifully to Twilight, who levitated them up and onto her back.

“Thanks, Spike!” the studious unicorn said with a smile at her oldest friend and ward. “Everything’s packed?”

“Everything you’ll need!” Spike confirmed. “And I’ll keep the library nice and tidy until you get back. I AM your number one assistant for a reason!”

“You are indeed,” Twilight agreed, giving Spike a nuzzle on the head. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Heh, I’m sure you’d manage,” he replied, though her puffed with pride anyway. “I wish I was coming along, though. Especially with Princess Celestia’s other task.”

“Wait, hold up a minute ya’ll,” Applejack interrupted. “What ‘other’ task?”

“It’s nothing big, don’t worry. Princess Celestia just has another job for me to do while I’m there,” Twilight quickly explained to her curious friends. “As we’ve said, there could be a lot of dangerous stuff down there. But not just traps and things like that.”

“What could be more dangerous than traps in a creepy dungeon?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“Knowledge,” Twilight said simply.

Rainbow Dash did not exactly look convinced. “…Knowledge. As in the words in a book kind. Seriously?”

“Yes, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight responded sternly. “King Sombra was the most powerful dark magic user in recorded history. The princesses think they only saw the tip of his true range of dark magic abilities, and whatever knowledge he held are probably down there as well. And that’s just his teachings, who knows what magical artefacts could be down there as well?”

“Yes, I think we all do recall that incident with the alicorn amulet,” Rarity noted, and they all shuddered at Trixie Lulamoon’s recent reappearance with the dark magic item around her neck. “If something could be worse than that, I do not want to even consider it getting out into the general public.”

“Exactly,” Twilight confirmed. “Any artefacts and dark magical knowledge we find is to be taken to the princesses for judgement, where they will either be kept in a secure vault or destroyed depending on their danger levels. My job is to collect them and make sure they get to Canterlot safely.”

“What are you doing with any of the other things you find?” Fluttershy asked.

“The rest of the team plans to take things like journals and the less dangerous artefacts back to Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns for study. After that… who knows? Some will probably be stored for later study, while others might go into a museum.”

“Well, I’m just glad the Princess chose you for the job,” Rarity praised. “I wouldn’t trust anypony else in the disposing of those horrible items.”

“Yeah, they’d be real party poopers,” Pinkie Pie agreed. “Imagine what Sombra would have done with them if the Crystal Heart hadn’t made him blow up.”

Twilight hummed in agreement, thinking back on the Crystal Empire’s return only a short while previously. How the city had appeared from being displaced in time, only a second having passed for the occupants. Sombra’s failsafe spell, designed to bring the Crystal Empire into the future where the corrupted unicorn had intended to start his conquest anew. Still, Twilight and her friends, with the help of her brother and newest sister-in-law, had recovered the Crystal Heart and used it against King Sombra to… deadly results.

The thought of having contributed to the demise of a pony was still a little… disturbing to Twilight. But he had been a monster, one who loved nothing but his own power and probably never had. The Crystal Heart had protected itself and the long-enslaved people of the Crystal Empire from his darkness, and now they were once again able to live in peace and safety under the rule of the Equestrian Triumvirate.

Still…

Twilight shook her head, getting the thoughts of that and the other crazy events of her life to transpire over the past year since coming to Ponyville out of her head. She still had a train to catch, after all.

“I need to get going, girls,” Twilight said to the others, lighting up her horn and opening the front door. “Coming to see me off?”

“You couldn’t stop us, Egghead,” Rainbow Dash remarked with a chuckle, before flapping her wings to be the first one out of the door.

Twilight shook her head in amusement, and then followed the pegasus on out of the library.

Ponyville, as with most days, was both sunny and filled with its joyful residents going about their days. Marefriends Lyra and Bon Bon gave the Element Bearers respectful nods as they passed, trotting towards a bench with a small saddlebag full of their lunch in tow. One of the local mailmares, Derpy Hooves, flew clumsily overhead with a letter in her maw and a massive smile on her face that just seemed to ooze joy into even the most stone-faced pony’s heart. And that was only to name a few, for the town was host to a whole manner of ponies whom Twilight had gotten to know to varying degrees over the past few months.

Not that Lyra particularly counted in that regard, seeing as she had been one of Twilight’s few friends as a filly.

She had to wonder how the others were doing…

Still, after leaving the library the seven of them made quick progress through the streets of Ponyville. The market was the busiest to go through, the lunchtime rush fully underway. But after that ducking past the various houses and businesses that made of the town it was relatively easy work. Soon enough the number of buildings started to thin out a little, and they followed a signed dirt road towards the local train station.

“You will tell us all about it when you get back, won’t you?” Rarity said after an unrelated debate between Rainbow Dash and Applejack about pears came to an end. “It sounds like you will be hard pressed to find this trip dull, darling.”

“I know! All of the Crystal Empire’s lost history could be ready for all the cataloguing!” Twilight gushed enthusiastically. “Even if I have to use dark magic again, that part isn’t so great…”

“Huh? Dark magic?” Applejack questioned with concern. “Why in Equestria would you want to use that?”

“I have to get into the sanctum. Another reason I need to be there, I’m the only one Celestia taught that particular spell. It’s a pretty benign spell as far as dark magic is concerned, and it seems to be more a key of sorts than anything. It’s actually quite basic, just a build-up of dark energy released onto a relevant item. That, and making a small crystal formation as an alternative usage.”

“Hm, well… I still don’t like it.”

“Neither do I,” Twilight muttered, rubbing the base of her horn with a hoof. “It honestly felt like somepony was taking a drill to my skull.”

“Yeah, it was… pretty scary,” Spike recalled with a shudder.

“It was, though maybe it’s just because I’m inexperienced. I don’t recall Celestia having that much trouble with it.”

“Is it weird that Princess Celestia is experienced enough with dark magic not to be badly affected by using it?” Pinkie Pie mused thoughtfully.

Twilight opened her mouth to retort, but then closed it again with a frown. She’d… never really thought about it that way. Princess Luna knew dark magic because of her time as Nightmare Moon, but Celestia…

Twilight shook her head. What did it matter anyway? The Princess was hardly a dark mage. Maybe she’d just studied it once to figure out ways to fight Sombra during the war. Or maybe she went through a rebellious stage as a teenage pupil of Starswirl the Bearded.

Rebellious teenage Celestia… Now there was an image that Twilight found oddly even more disturbing that the whole dark magic thing in general.

Honestly, the whole war theory seemed the more likely of the two. Especially since the way she’d used it was in direct relation to Sombra’s return. Perhaps that was she’d ask the Princess about it later, but first…

They had arrived at the train station, and just in the nick of time by the looks of it. The Crystal Express could be seen in the distance, and it was rapidly barrelling down the tracks towards the station. As it got closer the vehicle began to slow at a steady rate, before it pulled up into the station and came to a complete stop almost perfectly next to the platform.

The door opened up, and a variety of passenger, crystal ponies and otherwise, began to disembark and continue on with their days.

“Well, talk about timing,” Pinkie piped up. “I suppose you’d better get a shift on, Twilight!”

“Yeah, though I’ve probably got a minute or two,” she replied. “I’m going to miss you, girls! And Spike, look after yourself, okay?”

“It’s fine, I’ve got Owlowiscious to help me keep everything in check,” he pointed out. “We’ve got this.”

“And you can always ask your friends for help as well, Spikey Wikey,” Rarity said to the dragon, patting him on the head and eliciting a heavy blush from the hopelessly crushing drake. “I’m sure the dear has everything in hoof, Twilight. Now go on, enjoy yourself!”

“Thank you, Rarity. I’ll see you girls in a week!”

The others all waved her on and said their goodbyes as Twilight trotted over to the crystal decorated train and stepped on into the carriage. The conductor was expecting Twilight, seeing how she was going to the city under the invitation of the princesses, and allowed her to pick a compartment and take a comfortable window seat.

She could see the others out of the window, and Twilight gave the one last wave of farewell as the train gave a jolt and started to pull away from the station. Pretty soon her friends all left her vision, the train moving along the tracks to depart Ponyville and continue back towards the Crystal Empire.

Sitting back on her seat, Twilight made sure her saddlebags were safely sat next to her as she readied for the several-hour-long journey. Opening one of them, she smiled to see a book she’d been in the middle of reading was packed right at the top. With a mental word of thanks directed at Spike, she extracted the book and cracked it open right onto the bookmark.

This trip was going to be amazing, she just knew it.

3 - The Shadow

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A jolt caused Twilight’s eyes to shoot open and she suddenly sat bolt upright with blurry vision. She gave a small groan as she placed a hoof to her forehead and tried to blink away the sand that had built up in the corners of her eyes. Her vision began to settle and clear, and with a few final blinks she was able to give heed to her surroundings.

She was still in the compartment aboard the Crystal Express, the door leading out into the rest of the carriage firmly closed with the blinds shut. Looking out the window, Twilight could see a vast landscape of ice and snow leading out in all directions, all fleeting amongst the gentle chugging of the train intermittent with the occasional hard bump like the one that woke her up.

Her book was sat open on the table in front of her, and she figured that at some point during the trip she must have dozed off and slumped up against the window. A theory supported by the condensation gathered around the spot on the glass where she’d been breathing onto it. Twilight couldn’t be certain when it was she’d fallen asleep, only that they definitely hadn’t been in the Frozen North when she had.

Maybe she’d been a little too excited after all, and she had unknowingly worn herself out.

“Final stop!” an announcer came in over the speakers. “Crystal Empire!”

Hearing that, and figuring it was a bit too late to get back into her novel, Twilight packed the book away into her saddlebag and prepared to for the train’s imminent arrival at the station. As she did so, a shine in the corner of her eye caught the unicorn’s attention and caused her to glance back out of the window.

Indeed, there it was. Having passed around a snowy hill, the full majesty of the Crystal Empire appeared before them. The train rumbled around a left-leaning piece of track towards a harsh transition between the snow and perfectly green grass, and passing the threshold was like stepping through a portal into another world entirely. The thankfully gentle snowfall was replaced with a bright and perfectly clear day you’d expect from an ideal summer.

And there was no mistaking the sudden warm feeling that seemed to spread into Twilight’s very soul. A feeling of happiness and, of course, love. Everything in the compartment where she sat almost seemed to brighten immeasurably, and Twilight couldn’t help but smile as she accepted the Crystal Heart’s effects. Even without a full pulse from the magical artefact, just being within its area of effect was enough to explain why property demand was high for the ancient city.

Something that gave Cadance and Shining Armor a headache, of that she had no doubt.

The Crystal Empire had been back for only a matter of months; three in fact. The crystal ponies who chose to remain in their lifelong home in the aftermath of King Sombra’s death, and even those who elected to leave the bad memories behind, all had to acclimatise to a world a thousand years ahead of them. Take the Crystal Express as a prime example, this newest of introductions to the city was a completely baffling piece of technology to them. Engines, electricity…

She wondered how any of them would react to a place like Manehatten.

From medical practices to simple school curriculum, it was all woefully out of date and even… archaic in nature. It was actually quite fascinating to the scholarly unicorn, seeing as the Crystal Empire was truly a slice of a time known only to the royal sisters.

But it was also one that her brother and sister-in-law had been painstakingly trying to modernise. To train the crystal ponies to live and work in this distant future, and to prepare them for anything they might find outside of the Frozen North.

Twilight had to imagine that just the knowledge of their Equestrian annexation, even with Cadance’s ancestry to Queen Amore and recent ascension to be an equal ruler of Equestria alongside Celestia and Luna in light of that fact, was a lot for them to take in. Never mind anything else.

And despite it all, she had to give them credit. They had adapted exceptionally well thus far, embracing new technological innovations to their city and rushing at life with an eagerness to learn all the new skills necessary. Especially those in professional positions, like doctors and guards.

She had to imagine that was a by-product of their prolonged slavery. Being free to live their lives again, well… They truly were all starting again in more ways than one, so why not grab life for all its worth?

Point being, many nobles were being left disgruntled when their applications for building lavish crystal mansions on site were justifiably denied by the local princess.

“Crystal Empire! Prepare to disembark!” came another announcement, and Twilight was knocked from her ruminations to see that the train was slowly pulling into a newly constructed station at the very edge of the city.

The train gave a hiss as its air breaks kicked in and it pulled into a steady stop at the platform. The station was quite small and rudimentary, constructed of wood rather than crystal, all due to the hasty nature of its construction. It would probably be upgraded to crystal later. Still, it served its purpose well enough judging by the ponies already disembarking and, in a scant few cases, boarding. Twilight too levitated up her saddlebags and replaced them onto her back. She opened the blinds before stepping out the doorway and into the corridor, carefully making her way past the other departing ponies towards the nearest exit. When she got there, Twilight hopped down onto the platform and allowed herself to breath a sigh of relief.

As Twilight gave the platform a look over, letting the fresh air wash over her as she stretched out her stiff limbs, she remained unaware of a presence carefully watching her away from prying eyes. It stayed in the corners, the dark places where ponies didn’t take much notice, and it recognised this pony. One of them.

And she was just what it needed.

Twilight took satisfaction as she finished ridding herself of the small aches in her joints, turning to face the train as it finished unloading its passengers before the doors closed up again. This was followed by another hiss as the breaks released and the train began to pull away once more. As it moved, one of the grand highways leading straight up to the crystal palace became visible, filled to the brim with ponies going about their daily lives. The highway was lined with homes and businesses for as far as the eye could see and intersected with smaller streets connecting the whole city together.

It would be a long, if interesting, walk up. However, Twilight wouldn’t have to walk.

Twilight departed the station and crossed over to the Crystal Empire itself, walking towards the lavishly decorated crystalline carriage waiting for her. Two purple stallions in the armour of the Crystal Guard were hitched to the front, and another opened to door to the wagon upon spotting the unicorn and gave her a respectful nod.

“Ms Sparkle,” the guard greeted with a hint of reverence that made Twilight inwardly cringed. It came from being one of the ponies who saved the city when it returned, as well as being Princess Cadance’s sister-in-law as well as Prince-Consort Shining Armor’s biological sister.

Even when she was Princess Celestia’s personal protégé, that in itself being quite a respected position, she never got quite as much recognition as she’d been getting since the Summer Sun Celebration that marked Luna’s own return to the throne.

Neither was it something she was particularly used to. Or ever would be.

“Thank you,” Twilight said to the pony as he helped her up into the carriage. “Is everypony else already here?”

“I believe there are one to two stragglers, but they should arrive soon,” the guard explained as he also stepped up into the carriage and closed the door behind him, signalling the ponies out front to start moving. “Prince Shining Armor has commanded me to bring you straight to the throne room. I believe the others are eager to begin.”

“I know I am!” she replied brightly.

“We’ll be sure that the Crystal Guard will do its part to protect the expedition from whatever foul things the tyrant might have kept hidden,” the stallion spat with barely restrained hatred to his former slaver. “Might I speak freely, ma’am?”

Twilight blinked “I... guess?”

“I cannot thank you and your friends enough for what you and the Princess achieved. Ending that monster, freeing us… Avenging our Queen,” he said, though it caused Twilight to inwardly frown at the word ‘avenged’. Revenge had never been her intent, only to help those who needed it. “And… might I ask… Is not Sir Spike with you?”

The sudden eagerness and hopeful nature of his tone made Twilight smirk. All of them had received a celebratory status among the crystal ponies for what they’d achieved, but Spike most of all for being the one to ultimately deliver the Crystal Heart back to its podium.

“I’m afraid he’s back in Ponyville,” she answered, seeing the pony’s immediate disappointment. “But he wanted to come! Maybe next time?”

He brightened a little. “I will hope that he does. I don’t believe he’s seen the statue yet.”

Twilight stopped. “…Statue?”

He grinned. “Why, yes! The statue to honour his delivering of the heart!”

Spike had a statue. Oh dear, this was never going to be forgotten by the prideful drake.

Well, she’d let Spike discover that for himself.

“Well, I’m sure he’ll be thrilled,” Twilight stated honestly. “I don’t think I ever got your name, Mr…?”

“Crystal Shield. Private Crystal Shield,” he replied. “Or at least that’s the new rank that the Prince has introduced for my level. It was ‘apprentice’ before.”

“You were a guard for Queen Amore?”

“I was in my first week when Sombra did his little coup,” Crystal Shield explain, and Twilight bit her lip at his suddenly haunted expression. “We never saw it coming, and I couldn’t even imagine… Amore was dead before we even knew what was happening. And there I was, on my first week where even my instructors hadn’t a clue what we were supposed to do.”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.”

“It’s fine,” he assured her. “Just… the next thing any of us knew, our armour had been taken from us and replaced with chains. Many of my friends were taken for his army, had those helmets forced onto them. Those green eyes… They didn’t even know who I was.”

“It sounds horrible.”

“It was. But… that’s over now. The bastard is dead, and I got to finally be a guard. Adapting has been… strange, but worth it. It worked out in the end.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Twilight replied. “Are the other crystal ponies okay with everything?”

“Thanks to your brother and Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, I’d say so,” he answered. “It’s a long process, but we’re working through it. But I must admit, I’m not overly keen on going into the tyrant’s little lair.”

“A lot of Queen Amore’s personal items are probably down there,” Twilight pointed out. “I know what you went through was terrible, but I don’t think it should be forgotten and left behind. There’s so much history to be found.”

“I don’t know about any of that, but it will be worth it to free the Queen’s personal items from his clutches,” Crystal Shield mused. “She deserves that much from us. But I was more referring to just being there, so close to his dark magic.”

Twilight nodded in understanding. “Well, I know I’ll feel better with you there to keep an eye on us, Crystal Shield.”

Then young guard smiled. “That’s kind of you to say, ma’am.”

What was left of the journey was spent mostly in silence, Twilight looking out of the window and watching as the crystal buildings all passed them by. A shadow began to creep over the carriage however, and that signalled Twilight that they were pulling up to the entrance of the palace.

The carriage did a small turn, allowing the idly spinning Crystal Heart to be seen from where Twilight was sitting. Her escort then proceeded to get out of the opposite side of the carriage, before he walked around and back to Twilight’s door, opening it and generously offering a hoof to help her out. Twilight accepted the help, climbing down from the carriage before Crystal Shield closed the door behind her and gave a quick shout at the other guards to depart.

“Welcome back to the Crystal Empire, Ms Sparkle,” the stallion said.

“Thank you, Crystal Shield,” Twilight responded. “And it’s just Twilight, please.”

“Very well, Twilight.” The guard gave a quick glance around, taking note of the other silver armoured mares and stallions guarding the various entrances and patrolling around the palace’s perimeter. “As you can see, we have established a twenty-four-hour watch on the heart, seeing as it’s what keeps the Frozen North out of the city.”

“Shining has done a lot to remake the old Crystal Guard, huh?” Twilight noted.

“Your brother is an inspiration,” he complimented. “We’ve learnt a lot from him, and not just Equestria’s latest tactics. Though, the majority of the new Crystal Guard are transfers from Princess Celestia’s Solar Guard and, in a few select cases, from the EUP army.”

Twilight gave him a sad smile. “Right, you said that you had friends forced into Sombra’s army.”

“Too many. And they were all outside the city when we… moved.”

“I… would love to hear about them later. If it’s no trouble to you,” Twilight requested gingerly. “I’m here as a historian first and foremost, and… I think their stories should be told.”

“Yes… I suppose they should,” he agreed, if a little hesitantly. “I’ll stop by your group when my shift ends. Then… well, I guess we’ll see.”

“Thank you, that sounds perfect.”

“Yes… Well… Anyway, I still need to deliver you to the throne room. Please follow me.”

Twilight gave a brisk nod and followed his lead as they were allowed into one of the four entrances and ascended the staircase up to the main body of the palace. Crystal Shield led her through corridor after corridor, all of which looked so different now that Twilight wasn’t in a race against time to defeat a shadow monster from the distant past.

All the while, she remained ignorant of the shadow following her now.

“Here we are,” Crystal Shield announced as they reached a pair of large crystal doors, which he placed a hoof on before swinging them open. “The Princess and the others are all waiting inside, Twilight.”

“I appreciate it, Crystal Shield,” she thanked the stallion, before joining him in heading on inside and beholding all the others within.

Immediately obvious was the tall pink pony sitting on the throne. An alicorn, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. Or Cadance, Twilight’s sister-in-law and former foalsitter. Standing next to the throne was an alabaster stallion in his old guard armour from when he was the Captain of the Solar Guard rather than the Prince of the Crystal Empire. This was Twilight’s brother, Shining Armor.

Around the two royals was a gathered collection of guards, some of them crystal ponies while others were Equestrians who had come to the Crystal Empire with their former captain. They were all around the outside of the room, looking after the other gathered unicorns that were clustered in the centre in various deep conversation. All unicorns from Celestia’s school. Some were alumni like Twilight, some were professors, and one or two were even particularly promising students accompanying their teachers. All of them were selected by Celestia herself to research the history of the Crystal Empire on the Princess of the Sun’s behalf.

Twilight’s earlier excitement was returning fast.

“Twily!” Shining Armor announced on spotting his sister, quickly trotting over to the mare while Cadance arose from her throne and followed on. “There you are, kid! Knew we couldn’t keep you away from something like this.”

“I have the key,” Twilight jokingly pointing out, gesturing towards her horn. She then moved towards the stallion and embraced her sibling lovingly. “I missed you, BBBFF.”

“Same here, LSBFF,” he responded in kind, before breaking off the embrace. “Though I wish it was on more social grounds, rather than going into creepy evil dungeons of doom.”

“Excuse his vocabulary, he and some of his buddies from his guard days have been playing Ogres and Oubliettes,” Cadance said with a chuckle as she walked up to her sister-in-law. “Not that it isn’t apt, mind.”

“Cadance!” Twilight greeted enthusiastically. “Should you start, or shall I?”

“I always lead,” she replied jokingly. “Try to keep up!”

“Sunshine sunshine, ladybugs awake! Clap your hooves and do a little shake!”

“Always with the chant,” Shining said with a mirthful roll of his eyes.

“Because it’s amazing,” Cadance rebuffed, whacking Shining playfully with her wing.

“Yeah, Shiny,” Twilight concurred. “Anyway, we all know you’re just jealous that you didn’t think of it first.”

“Oh, don’t start with that,” Shining replied in bemusement “I’ve had enough of you two teaming up against me when you were a filly, Twilight.”

“And may it never change,” Cadance remarked, sharing a hoof bump with her sister-in-law.

“Alright, Princess. Come on, we still have an evil lair to search.”

“Wait, aren’t we still waiting on a few ponies?” Twilight asked them as they moved back towards the larger group. “Crystal Shield said there were some stragglers.”

“They can join when they arrive. But now that you’re here, I don’t think the rest of these ponies will want to wait,” Cadance noted.

“No we will not!” chirped a stallion who emerged from the group before the two royals and their sister. “Pardon the intrusion, but I think we are all too eager to unlock all the historical value in this sanctum. The mind races at the possible finds!”

The stallion had a dark purple coat and a rather unkempt blue mane. On his muzzle was a pair of black rimmed glasses, and he held a pair of saddlebags on his back that was marked with his cutie mark, that being a dark purple horn that was surrounded by a lighter lavender magic aura not dissimilar from Twilight’s own.

“Twilight Sparkle,” the stallion greeted. “A pleasure to see you again.”

Twilight blinked. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I know you.”

“Understandable, we were but foals,” he responded. “My name is Shadow Flare. We were in a couple of Princess Celestia’s seminars together back during our days at her school.”

“Oh, I see. Sorry, I never really got to know anyone else in my years at Celestia’s school beyond a few,” Twilight explained apologetically.

“Again, understandable. Most of us took classes, but you tended to have private lessons with Princess Celestia as her protégé. It’s only natural that you wouldn’t have interacted overly much with the rest of the student body.”

“And rarely getting her head out of a book,” Shining jabbed.

“Shush,” Twilight scolded lightly, flicking him with a tail. “But thank you, Shadow Flare. It’s nice to make your acquaintance again, anyway. You’re eager to get going?”

“Outlandishly so!” he replied cheerily. “I can scarcely imagine all the secrets locked away in this sanctum of King Sombra’s. I think this will be a very productive day indeed.”

“Well, then I shouldn’t keep you all waiting,” Twilight decided. “But, um… I might need a moment to get this right.”

“Clear the way,” Shining Armor commanded, and the guard immediately moved to clear the area before the throne until only the two royals and Twilight Sparkle remained. “All yours, Twily.”

“Thanks,” she said to her brother as he and Cadance also moved off to the side, standing just by Shadow Flare and Crystal Shield. “Okay… I can do this…”

Twilight planted herself in front of the throne, thinking back on that day three months prior. How she had opened the gateway with a spell of dark magic. Recalling the process, she scrunched her eye shut and focused on all the negative emotions that one would usually keep under lock and key. All the times one of her friends had irritated her, like when Rainbow Dash would keep crashed into her library despite Twilight always telling her to be careful. For added negativity, she also recalled what Sombra had put her through, the vision of her worst fear, Celestia’s abandonment and disappointment…

A spark of pain an anger from the memory lit inside her, and she felt a sick bubbling make its way up her horn as it felt like her eyes were leaking something. There were several gasps around her as a splitting headache also made itself known within Twilight’s skull, and she resisted a scream as she quickly let loose the one dark magic spell she knew towards the throne itself.

She let go of those bad feelings, letting the dark magic fade away and leave her system completely.

The magic reacted with the throne, and a shadow spread out as Twilight took a step back before revealing the entrance to a staircase that, given the design of the palace, simply shouldn’t exist in the same space.

“Fascinating…” Shadow Flare muttered in awe.

“Not the word I’d use,” Crystal Shield noted with a wince. “Is she okay?”

“Twily…?” Shining Armor stepped forward in concern, his sister standing still with a hoof on her head and her features still scrunched in pain.

“Y-yeah… fine,” Twilight replied, shaking her head a little and trying to rid the sudden cobwebs overtaking her brain. “That was worse than I remembered, that’s all.”

“Here,” Cadance said, stepping forward and lighting her horn with cyan magic. Twilight seemed to relax and sigh in relief as the spell washed over her, her eyes becoming less glazed. “To help with the headache.”

“Thanks, Cadance.”

“Alright, ponies!” Shining Armor announced. “Crystal Guard, escort these unicorns down to the bottom. Stay sharp, evacuate on the first sign of trouble. Move it!”

The guard jumped into action, herding the scholars together and beginning to lead them down. Twilight took the rear for the time being, standing near her brother, Crystal Shield and Shadow Flare as they prepared to descend.

“I’ll see you when you return,” Cadance said, silently wishing she could go with them if only to make sure everything would be fine. But somepony had to run the kingdom while they were tomb raiding. “Be careful.”

“Always,” Shining replied just as they started down the stairs, quickly fading from view.

The trip down the staircase was made carefully, the spiral down being quite narrow in places and without any kind of railing. It made sense of a being who could turn into shadow and fly, but for them any wrong move could mean a long drop and a sudden stop. The guards did their job, though, and all ponies made it to the bottom safely.

This just left one more door for Twilight to open.

Repeating the previous process, which didn’t seem quite so bad the second time now she’d dusted off the old spell, Twilight sent a beam of dark magic towards the door and watched as it melted into the doorframe.

“Careful,” Twilight warned as she cut off the magic spell, letting the dark magic fade along with her approaching migraine. “This door can go to a few places. It could be trapped.”

All ponies watched with bated breath as the dark magic worked along the door’s frame. Breathing all but stopped when the spell finally concluded, and the door swung open. It was quickly followed by a universal sigh of relief when nothing but a simple hallway was revealed on the other side.

“This is new,” Twilight noted. “Last time there was a fear trap and a staircase to the roof.”

“Split into groups. Go with an escort, pick a room to begin searching,” Shining announced. “I’m with Twily, I go where she goes.”

Twilight hummed, peering into the dark hallway with a shiver down her spine. She sent a quick pulse of magic down the hallway as the others started to organise themselves, searching for any obvious traps that might do them harm.

Nothing.

With luck, Sombra thought that nopony would have made it this far. Or if they did, he’d already be dead. Which, of course, was the case.

“I think the bottom right,” Twilight decided. “The end door looks important. Let’s leave that until last.”

“Fine with me,” Shadow Flare remarked. “I’ll be tagging along with your group if that’s no issue.”

“None,” Twilight confirmed with a friendly smile. “Come on, let’s see what Sombra has been hiding.”

Twilight was the first into the hallway, Shining Armor staying close behind as they headed straight for the door in question. On reaching it, Twilight carefully placed her magic around the handle while staying vigilant for a trap. Once again, there was nothing. On swinging it open, her eyes widened as a large space made itself known.

A very large space. One filled with all kinds of things! Art. Statues and… yes, books!

“Well, jackpot,” Shining mused.

“That’s…” Crystal Shield muttered, trotting into the room and staring in sadness up at a large statue of an alicorn mare Twilight didn’t recognise. “Queen Amore. This statue used to sit in a plaza near my home.”

“Huh…” Shining hummed, walking up alongside the young guard as the rest of the group began to spread out into the room. “So that’s her. She looks a lot like Cadance.”

Twilight also noted the family resemblance, glancing between the statue and Crystal Shield sadly. But it wasn’t the only artefact in the room, which seemed to have been something of a treasure room it appeared. Walking past the statue and further in, Twilight examined several more items of interest. A set of armour that looked like it was designed for the Queen, along with several smaller sets that were perhaps for elite members of her guard. One of the paintings held a purple unicorn, one who was posing on a sofa on a balcony in what appeared to be a pre-Sombra Crystal Empire. Peering at the plaque, it was entitled ‘Radiance and Hope’.

If there was any doubt that they’d find the history they were searching for, they could now be laid to rest.

Twilight looked away from the painting towards a book sat atop a cloth cover that obscured something else beneath it. But looking at the book, her eyes widened as she realised it was a dark magical tome!

“Well, what’s this doing here?” Shadow Flare mused, trotting up beside Twilight and also examining the book. “An odd place to keep dark magic spells, don’t you think?”

“Maybe he left it here by accident…” Which, of course, would mean he probably had a study or a library where he kept his magical secrets. Or both.

“I’ll make sure the others know that this is here,” Shadow Flare assured Twilight. “Go look around some more, I think I’m going to see what else can be found right here.”

“Start beneath that sheet,” Twilight suggested. “This is more than I imagined…”

“It is indeed.”

Twilight left Shadow Flare to it, walking back towards the door as she turned to examine the whole room with awe. So much history. So much research. She had such a huge project ahead of her! She felt the huge grin morphing onto her features, the scholarly filly inside her bouncing around in glee. There was an element of sadness, especially seeing ponies like Crystal Shield. But that just made it feel all the more alive.

She couldn’t wait to free it all from the depths of Sombra’s sanctum. Celestia was going to love what Twilight had to report!

Still… When she thought back on the dark magic tome they’d just found, Shadow Flare was right about it being out of place. She had to wonder…

Twilight backed out of the room as the rest of her group were busy cataloguing their findings, moving out into the hallways and towards the door right at the end. She’d wanted to leave it until last, but now she was curious…

She took hold of the handle and swing the door open, taking a step inside and looking around with wide eyes. Just as she’d hoped, the door had led right into Sombra’s personal study!

Doing a lap of the room in giddy awe, she saw the desk had Sombra’s journal just sitting there! All of the King’s thoughts as he waged his coup and campaign of domination... All of it was in those pages! And looking around the room, bookshelves contained more dark magical knowledge which Twilight would have to bring before the Princess for judgement. Busts of Sombra around the room that would most definitely go in a museum when all was said and done, and… and…

A blank wall?

Twilight frowned, staring at the one completely sparse wall in confusion. The rest of the room had something going on with it, whether it be practical or pure decoration. But this section of wall was completely blank, completely unassuming and boring…

Twilight smirked. If there was one thing she’d learnt about Sombra while fighting him, it was that he loved his secret passages.

Loading up that dark magical spell once more, Twilight let loose on the blank wall in the hopes that she was onto something. And when the dark magic and pain had ended, Twilight looked up to see that the wall had completely vanished.

A door sat in its place.

Twilight gave a loud squee, prancing for a moment before catching her enthusiasm and attempting to calm herself down. But she’d found it! Sombra wouldn’t be able to hide anything from her!

This was so exciting!

Once again finding no traps, Twilight opened the door and stepped into the unknown. She was ready for anything. More dark magic knowledge perhaps. Maybe a dangerous artefact in need of disposal. But this…

“What…?”

The room beyond was… nice? More than that… WHY WAS THERE A FOAL’S COT!?

Looking around the room with her jaw hitting the ground and her mind all but flatlining, Twilight had to take several moments of rebooting to process what she was seeing.

“Okay, so… Sombra had a kid. Alright. Fine. That’s… what?” She had to take a moment to do the breathing technique that Cadance had taught her as a filly to calm herself. It was like everything she’d known about the dark mage had been turned upside down! “Okay, so… what can I find…?”

The cot was empty, which begged the question… what happened to the foal? Looking around the rest of the room, there was one open empty chest with several more filled with children’s toys from that era. Basic little things, not like a lot of the fancy tech companies were producing for foals now. A bookshelf also had ancient children's tales that… Actually, Twilight was pretty sure some of those tales had been lost to time.

Exciting!

Twilight coughed, not allowing herself to get distracted. Admittedly she hadn’t thought that she’d find lost children’s stories in an evil sanctum, but hey, she wasn’t going to say no to more research.

But onto more pressing matters…

There was a book on one of the chests. Moving over to it, Twilight picked the book up and read the title aloud.

“The Chronicles of Fatherhood,” she muttered with a frown. “Sombra loved dramatic titles, huh?”

She was still finding it hard to imagine that shadow monster as a father.

Opening it up on the first page, Twilight peered at the firsts words on the first page before proceeding to read the opening paragraphs. Sombra’s own words.

I have a son.

In truth, this journal is quite that impromptu project. I never intended for it, but… I must admit to being at a small loss. With my Mistress’ pregnancy I had long contemplated the coming fatherhood I was to experience. Creating life rather than ending it is a… new prospect. But one I didn’t think too much of at first. After all, the coming war with the royal sisters was far more important.

But now…

He will be heir to all I have built. My legacy, one destined to take hold of this kingdom when the time is right. My progeny will reign for a thousand years and another thousand after that, all through rock and metal and time. My throne. My slaves. It all shall be his.

Once the royal sisters are either dead or enslaved with the rest of our foes.

And yet… what if I fail? Are we destined to become two corpses in one grave?

That cannot be allowed.

A son. Sombra had a son.

And he’d been worried for his future.

Maybe… the son had been sent away alongside his mother. Maybe… Sombra’s family line still continues! Maybe-

A flicker of movement was caught right in the corner of Twilight’s eye, and she turned in alarm to face whatever she’d just seen.

She couldn’t even scream as a mass of shadow leapt from the doorway and latched onto Twilight Sparkle’s face. She fell backwards, thrashing as she lit her horn and tried to pry the creature from her. But no matter how hard she seemed to pull, the thing was determined not to budge! This had to be a trap she missed! She just had to…

The creature wrapped a shadowy tendril around her horn, stopping any further build-up of her magic. To make things worse, Twilight’s heart sank as she felt it probing around her mouth, almost like it was trying to get inside!

‘No no no!’ she screamed internally, falling back onto her rump and resorting to trying to pry it off with her hooves.

But if her magic failed, her hooves weren’t going to do anything. She couldn’t see a thing and was trying so desperately hard to keep her jaw clamped shut. But with her nose covered by the shadow, oxygen wasn’t being introduced into her system. Her head started to feel light, and a whole new darkness overtook Twilight as she collapsed to the ground and into unconsciousness.

Now the shadow could begin its work.

It slacked, simply opening up the mare's mouth and crawling its way inside. Once it had access, the mass began to spread itself upwards and towards her brain, swirling around inside Twilight’s head until it found a comfortable spot.

Then the shadow melted away, seeping into a deep part of Twilight’s mind and into dormancy.

Twilight began to come to, giving a groan as she began to process what happened. She… was on the floor?

“What…?” The mare tried to recall how exactly she found herself in such a position. She’s been examining Sombra’s journal about fatherhood, and then…

Nothing.

Rising up, she saw movement from the doorway as her brother hurriedly entered the room and fixed her with a look of concern.

“Twilight!” Shining shouted, crossing the room and reaching her quickly. “You disappeared, and we didn’t know where you went! And then we heard something coming from in here and… what happened…?”

“I don’t know, I think…” It was still foggy, but a small voice at the back of her mind was saying… Yes, that was it. “I fell, hit my head. I didn’t mean to worry you, BBBFF.”

Shining sighed, looking around the room and only now taking in the sight. “Um, Twily? What is this?”

Twilight took a look back across the room herself, getting back on track. Sombra’s son. He had a son! Maybe…

If she could find out where his family was to that very day, it would be a huge historical breakthrough!

“I’ll explain later,” Twilight said to him, taking the journal and gently placing it into one of her saddlebags. “But I think we just hit upon something incredible!”

4 - The Princess' Passenger

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A Few Months Later…



Twilight gave a loud groan, her face slamming into the desk with an almighty thud. She let herself deflate, releasing one long breath as she tried to calm her overly stressed out mind. It worked, albeit to limited success, and she slowly rose back up to look at the journal sitting on the writing desk alongside all kinds of other related material Twilight had painstakingly collected over the past few months since her visit to the Crystal Empire.

And none of it had been useful!

Since recovering the journal, Twilight had looked from top to bottom in the entirety of Equestria for a single lead as to who Sombra’s son was and if their family line still continued on to that very day. She’d collected every relevant history and genealogy book that she’d thought might give her some kind of clue, but none of them seemed to hold even a trace of Sombra’s descendants. She’s talked to historians, interviewed some of the crystal ponies and even tried to enlist the help of Princess Celestia! Unfortunately, the Princess had been just as clueless about Sombra’s lineage as Twilight herself, even suggesting that the son may have perished in the aftermath of the Crystal Empire’s banishment.

Hay, by this point Twilight had even gone to a couple of random crackpot conspiracy theorists for ideas. But she’d given up on that when a group suggested that Sombra was an alien working with Celestia to mind control the population with microwave dinners.

That had been a weird day.

She had yet to give up, though. But the latest batch of books she’d gotten a hold of, and a few she’d re-read, were about as fruitful as ever. Twilight just stared at the journal, lighting her horn and flicking through a few pages absentmindedly before closing it again. She’d read it back to front more times than she could count, but any information inside it was sadly scarce due to the whole banishment thing that happened. Just thinking about it gave her a migraine, also causing her wings to twitch sporadically in irritation.

Oh, and that really didn’t help. The wings.

Twilight Sparkle was now Princess Twilight Sparkle. She’d gained the position after finishing one of Starswirl’s spells to trigger the ascension and was coronated soon after, thus turning the Equestrian Triumvirate into the Equestrian Tetrarchy. And in the mere days since that point she’d made a visit to the Crystal Empire where she’d been dragged into an alternate universe after Sunset Shimmer stole the Element of Magic, only to then return to Canterlot in the aftermath and have Discord’s long-ago planted plunder vines cause havoc across the country.

Even since then, despite still trying to work as the local librarian in the Golden Oaks Library, Twilight had been bogged down with new royal duties that usually involved copious amounts of paperwork. It was usually something Twilight didn’t mind doing all that much, being the scholarly intellectual that she was, but when it got in the way of her research…

The frays in her mane betrayed just how little sleep she’d been getting for the past few weeks.

She leaned back in her chair, just trying to calm herself down further. She just had to breathe in… and out. Breathe in… and out. Breathe-

A shadow flickered in the corner of her eye.

Twilight turned to face the flicker, but nothing appeared. With a sigh, she rubbed some of the sand from her eye in an attempt to banish some aspect of the sleep deprivation. When she was seeing shadows, there was definitely a problem.

And yet she still continued her research…

She packed the books up into a neat pile, deciding to return to it later. After all, she still had a meeting with the Mayor later on that day. Princess Celestia would even be attending, something about expansion plans and the Princess using it as an excuse to get out of Canterlot Castle and see Twilight for a few hours. She still had a bit of time, though. And looking at the clock she had…

TWENTY MINUTES!?

Stifling her incoming hyperventilation, and inwardly cursing herself for losing track of time, Twilight jumped from her desk and rushed into the bathroom to get herself ready. The mirror showed just how much of a mess she was, but it was nothing her magic couldn’t fix! She would definitely have to thank Rarity for showing her those mane fixing techniques for when a ‘lady’ happened to be in a hurry.

With the random hairs jutting out of her mane batted down into submission, Twilight made sure to wipe the rest of the sleep from her eyes and attempted to make herself look at least somewhat presentable. Soon enough she decided it was good enough and rushed from the bathroom and made for the stairs leading down to the rest of the library.

“Hey, Twilight!” Spike greeted with a coffee in his claw, though he grew concerned as he saw the youngest Princess of Equestria rush down the stairs with a slightly manic expression. “Uh… You okay? I mean, you missed lunch so… Do you want me to make you-”

“No time!” Twilight proclaimed, grabbing her pre-prepared saddlebags and making for the door. “Lots to do and so little time so please look after things bye!”

And with that fast-paced babble, Twilight rushed out of the door and slammed it behind her.

Spike just looked out after her with a deadpan expression. “Oh, so it’s going to be one of those days.”

Unaware of her assistant’s bemusement, Twilight rushed through the streets of Ponyville with only the slightest nods to anypony that decided to greet the Princess as she passed them by.

And even as she went, her sleep-deprived mind kept letting her know just how much she really needed more rest. That same damned shadow kept flickering in every doorway and window, just taunting Twilight as she made a mad rush towards the town hall on hoof.

Wait.

Twilight screeched to a halt. “Ugh, I have wings! Come on, Twilight!”

Unfurling her new wings, Twilight kicked off the ground and took some experimental flaps into the air. She was no longer crashing, but flight was still a relatively new concept for the alicorn. Still, it would get her to her destination much faster than walking, so she took off in the right direction and bypassed the streets entirely. She could see why Rainbow Dash loved to fly so much, flying over rooftops was extremely useful when you were in a rush!

The town hall came into sight, and Twilight began her descent from her short flight down towards the main entrance.

And… Oh, Princess Celestia’s sky carriage was already outside!

Twilight steeled herself, and then gently touched down into the grass outside of the town hall. She let out a breath as she looked up at the building, and then had her gaze trail down towards the golden ornate carriage nearby. Two ponies of the Solar Guard were still hitched to it, waiting for the Princess’ business to be concluded. They both gave Twilight respectful bows when they spotted her, something Twilight still found incredibly uncomfortable.

“Your Highness,” one of the guards greeted the lavender alicorn. “Princess Celestia is meeting with Mayor Mare now, and they are both awaiting your arrival.”

“Uh, yeah. Thanks!” she replied to the guard, stepping up to the main entrance and stepping inside.

Twilight bypassed the main hall and moved towards a doorway near the stage where the Mayor would usually give speeches, proclamation and hold ceremonies. The door led to a corridor that led to the stage, the viewing galleries up top and the various offices tucked away in the back. Twilight ignored the former two and headed straight towards a door marked as the Mayor’s office.

Taking in a breath, Twilight took a hold of the door handle and let herself in. The room beyond was decently sized, containing several bookshelves and filing cabinets that orbited a polished wooden desk sitting in front of a large window that looked out on Ponyville. Mayor Mare was sitting behind the desk, the light brown mare with the greyed mane wiping the lenses of her glasses before replacing them and looking towards the new arrival. So too did the second pony in the room turn to greet Twilight, that second pony being the breathtaking Princess of the Sun herself.

“Twilight,” Celestia greeted in her motherly tone. “I’m so glad to see you.”

“Me too, Princess,” Twilight replied, accepting a nuzzle from the alicorn before she turned to the Mayor. “I’m sorry if I kept you waiting, Mayor Mare.”

“Oh no, if anything you were a couple of minutes early,” the Mayor replied. “You’re as organised as ever, Princess Twilight.”

Twilight gave a nervous laugh. “Yes… totally organised…”

The Mayor didn’t seem to notice Twilight’s mood, but Celestia raised an eyebrow as she regarded Twilight with a knowing look. But for the time being the Princess filed what she’d noticed away for later and turned to look back towards the Mayor.

“Now, I do think we are ready to begin, Mayor Mare.”

“But of course, Princess Celestia. Again, I cannot thank you enough for agreeing to see me today,” the Mayor stated. “I was expecting that I or one of my assistants would have to attend one of your courts.”

“Work in Canterlot is light today, all things considered,” Celestia explained. “So, do not think anything of it. Besides, it’s nice to get out of the castle every now and then. Ponyville is such a beautiful town, after all.”

“We try our best,” the Mayor replied, but then puffed up in some small amount of pride at the compliment towards her town. “But as it is, this town is in need of some new expansion. Ever since the Elements of Harmony chose to call this place their home, and now the newest Princess of Equestria, housing demands are at an all-time high. So is our tourism and general business, so much so that what we currently possess no longer seems adequate to meet all of that demand.”

“It is as I understand it,” Celestia confirmed. “And it is to be expected, recent developments over the past year have certainly placed Ponyville on the map. I expect rapid development to occur.”

“Yes, we might even earn city status in the next couple of decades if this keeps up,” the Mayor said with a half-joking chuckle. “I was going to discuss this with Princess Twilight anyway, but approval from you would certainly expedite things.”

She got no argument from Twilight. As a ruler of Equestria she could certainly provide the land and get the ball rolling so to speak, but she was still no Princess Celestia. Her support would certainly make the process go a lot faster and equally smoother.

“I have some of the necessary documentation ready to go,” Twilight said, levitating a stack of paper out of her saddlebag. “All we need to know is which areas of land you want to use, what will be built there, budgeting… Everything you’d expect.”

“But of course,” the Mayor confirmed, opening up a drawer in her desk and retrieving a map. “Let me outline it for you, I think you will both approve…”


“I’m so glad we could come to an agreement!” the Mayor said cheerfully as she exited her office alongside the two princesses. “I know a great many ponies will be very pleased.”

“Sorry you didn’t get quite as much land as initially proposed,” Twilight apologised. “But Fluttershy would never forgive me if I let you bulldoze over the nesting grounds of such a rare species of bird.”

“But of course, I myself was unaware they even called that little spot home,” the Mayor replied, before giving a contemplative hum. “Hmm, but perhaps we could do something else with the land. A nature preserve perhaps?”

“It’d make Fluttershy happy,” Twilight noted. “And probably boost tourism as well.”

“A discussion for another time,” Celestia stated, turning to face the two as they walked into the vacant hall. “Mayor Mare, it has been a pleasure. But I would like a moment to talk to my fellow Princess of Equestria in private.”

“But of course, say no more!” the Mayor remarked, giving them both a low bow before heading towards the exit.

Celestia watched them go, before allowing herself to visibly relax and little as she turned back to Twilight.

“Well, I have a few minutes before I need to be returning towards Canterlot. A few minutes to talk if you would like.”

Twilight nodded eagerly. “I always like to catch up with you, Princess! How are things in Canterlot?”

“Thankfully quiet. I think the fallout of the plunder vine incident is finally blowing over,” she replied. “I have yet to coerce a full apology out of Discord. But give me some time, I think I can get one.”

“I don’t envy that job,” Twilight joked. “How’s Luna?”

“As she always is, guarding the dreams of our ponies like a mother over her own foal. That and trying not to strangle Prince Blueblood whenever she takes over all royal duties for the night.”

Twilight snorted. “Does that stallion ever sleep?”

“I imagine he pays other ponies to sleep for him,” Celestia remarked with a small smirk before her expression turned serious. “But speaking of sleep, have you been resting alright, Twilight?”

Twilight took an instinctive step back. “Yes! Fine! Why would you even ask?”

“Because I know you, Twilight,” Celestia replied gently. “And I know the signs of when you’re stressed and not sleeping well. Usually, you are calm and collected, organised, in meetings like the one we just had. It is one of your strengths, you always know what to do and say when arranging something. But today you seemed less certain, especially when the Mayor directly addressed your organisational skills.”

“…You know me that much, huh?”

“Twilight, I practically raised you for the latter half of your childhood and your entire teenage life. If I didn’t know these things, there would be something terribly wrong with me.”

“I… guess I have been up a little later than I really should be as of late,” Twilight admitted. “I’ve been looking more into Sombra’s lineage, but no matter where I look I always hit a wall!”

Celestia smiled, wrapping one of her giant wings around Twilight and bringing her into a side hug. “You have always had such a brilliant mind, Twilight. But every now and then even you must let it rest. I am also intrigued by the idea of Sombra’s descendants, but the fact is that the family line might not even exist. And more so, perhaps it would be best if they were never found. I’m not sure I would like to know that I had the blood of such a figure within me.”

“Maybe. But maybe they’d deserve to know, or maybe they already know!” Twilight pointed out. “I just… don’t like leaving such a huge gap in history unfilled.”

“Some things are lost to time, that’s just a fact of life,” Celestia mused. “But let it rest for now. Perhaps you could continue another day, but you need rest. I don’t like it when you run yourself into the ground like this.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Twilight conceded, rubbing one of her eyes. “I’ve been seeing shadows all day. That’s probably a sign to get some actually sleep, right?”

“I’d believe so,” the Princess agreed. “And Twilight, you know you can always speak to me when something is bothering you. Especially now that you’re a princess, I know all too well how that might leave a pony feeling scared and even insecure.”

“Scared and insecure? Who is feeling scared and insecure!?” Twilight suddenly defended with a small twitch of her eye.

Celestia just gave her a level look, and Twilight’s façade very quickly crumbled.

“Okay, so maybe I am feeling stress from more than just old history…”

Celestia chuckled, giving the smaller pony a nuzzle on the head before releasing her from the wing hug. “As I said, I know the feeling. My door is always open to you, and I’m always but a letter away.”

“I really don’t know what I’d do without Spike,” Twilight stated with a small titter. “But yeah, I know. Thanks, Princess.”

“I am always happy to help you, Twilight. But I’m afraid I must depart back to Canterlot. Perhaps next time we meet we can talk more, but I still have duties later today.”

“Yeah, I should probably get some paperwork done as well. Just a few bits for the town, really. Nothing much.”

“Mayor Mare must be glad to have you around.”

“You have no idea. Will I see you soon?”

“I would hope,” Celestia concluded, giving Twilight one last hug before walking with her out of the building.

On seeing the two alicorns, the guards both stood to attention and saluted. Celestia gave them a nod and stepped up onto the carriage.

“Get some rest, Twilight,” Celestia said to the mare as she stood off to the side. “Until we next speak.”

With that, the two armoured ponies began to turn down the street as ponies parted way for the coming Princess of the Sun. They then began to gallop forwards, kicking off and flaring out their wings as they took to the sky, he enchanted carriage following behind them as the turned back towards Canterlot.

Twilight watched them go, desperately wishing she had more time to spend with Celestia. But she knew she was a busy mare, now more than ever…

“And yet she fancies herself a mother… It is but a delusion.”

Twilight’s ear twitched. Did somepony just speak? But… no, she was alone.

Shaking her head, putting it down to her sleep deprivation, Twilight began to head back towards the library. She chose to walk this time, clearing her head as she just took in the always pleasant sights and sounds of Ponyville. When she got back, she’d get some food and do some work while eating and, after that, she’d go to bed quite early and have a very long sleep. Her research could wait.

“A mind as rich as yours, stifled by the fools you admire. You could take what you need, and yet you stumble in confusion.”

There it was again… Ugh, forget the work. Twilight was going straight to bed.

Twilight continued back to the library, picking up her pace as she saw more of those shadowy flickers in her vision. She had to be far more tired than she’d initially realised, this was getting ridiculous. She just had to get back to her bedroom and banish the cobwebs from her exhausted mind.

One day she’d learn her lesson, she was sure of it.

The library came into sight, Twilight trotting over to it and quickly sliding into the doorway.

“Spike?” Twilight called out, getting no reply. The library appeared to be empty, Spike must have gone out to see their friends or to perhaps pick up some groceries.

Twilight sighed, rubbing her eyes again before giving the library a small glance over. Something… wasn’t right. Now that she was alone within the safety of her own home, and really considered herself, something was definitely wrong. There was an odd pressure at the back of her mind… She knew being sleep deprived, she’d been victim to it more times than she’d care to admit. But this…

“And so, the cogs finally turn,” a deep, dark voice said from behind Twilight, and she gave a shout of alarm as she turned around with her horn alight.

And yet her horn blinked out alongside a sharp gasp of shock and fear at the shadow that awaited her. It was a pulsating mass that twisted and formed until it was made into the vaguest shape of a pony, a curved red horn forming out of the shadow’s forehead before two eyes of pure dark magic opened up and glared at Twilight in both spite and glee.

And then the form solidified, if still slightly transparent, into the armoured form of King Sombra that stood before her.

“Twilight Sparkle,” Sombra spoke with a fang-filled grin. “At last.”

5 - Possession

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Twilight was frozen to the spot, and she was having a tough time even just comprehending the ghostly stallion standing in front of her. So much of her being wanted to believe this was just another really weird effect of sleep deprivation, and yet… she knew it wasn’t. The smirking dark mage in front of her was real.

How could he be real!?

Now Twilight was feeling an increase in panic, her mind racing for an explanation. After all, Sombra was dead! He was destroyed by the Crystal Heart! There hadn’t even been a body, he’d been fully disintegrated by the magical pulse!

And yet, here he was. Whispering into her ear, a bulging mass of shadow that now formed into the pony who’d enslaved thousands. Standing inside her home with how knows what in mind for her.

There was only one thing that the Bearer of the Element of Magic could do…

Twilight screamed.

Backpaddling fast from the shade, she grabbed onto a few nearby books with her magic and propelled them at King Sombra like impromptu missiles. The stallion, on his part, just took on a deadpan expression as the projectiles passed right through him without causing the spectre any form of harm.

On seeing the books pass through him without issue, and realising she might accidentally damage one of them, Twilight quickly stopped and switched her spell output for something more… destructive.

“Don’t,” Sombra simply commanded, and Twilight’s magical aura blinked out uselessly.

“Wh- what…” Twilight muttered in disbelief, but then had a whole new emotion roll over her.

Indignation.

“Hey! Give me back my magic!” she shouted at the King. “How did you even do that? Actually, how… anything!? You’re dead! You can’t be here! Go away!”

“Dead? How terribly short-sighted,” Sombra responded. “I am not as easy to vanquish as a normal pony, Twilight Sparkle. Truly, a mind of your calibre should have realised as such. How disappointing.”

“Well, maybe I should take you back to the Crystal Heart and finish the job!” Twilight shot back.

“Really now? I thought someone such as yourself believed in friendship above all? I find it hard to believe you would directly commit murder.”

“W-well, I…” Twilight stuttered. “It happened before!”

“I know the discomfort you felt on seeing my ‘demise’, you did not know what the Crystal Heart would do to me,” Sombra noted, beginning to circle Twilight in a predatory manner. “But now you do. Would you willingly deliver a pony’s demise without searching for another way first?”

“I… guess not…” Twilight admitted, before shaking her head sharply. “Wait a minute! What’s your game here, Sombra? Actually, let’s backtrack a moment… how are you alive exactly?”

“Questions and confusion, I can feel it within you like an insatiable hunger,” Sombra mused, stopping his prowling and standing before the alicorn once more. “And that is joined by fear, doubt, insecurity… You are not convinced you are fit for the wings you wear, are you?”

“I didn’t realise you were a psychologist too,” Twilight growled.

“I am inside your mind,” Sombra informed her. “It is impressive and bright, just what I need. A library of knowledge and power, and so much untapped potential. And it is mine to read as I see fit.”

“But, how…?” And then Twilight remembered… That day, that shadow. It had… had… “It was you. The shadow, it… I forgot. How did I forget!?”

“Because I commanded it,” Sombra answered. “I was still weak, I couldn’t have your brother knowing of my presence.”

“But… You…”

“Your attempt on my life destroyed my form, it is true,” he continued. “But my will survived within my magic, a darkness that remained even without a physical body. But I was still dying, barely able to interact with the world around me. My hatred of all you wrought kept my spirit from passing, waiting for a mind powerful enough to sustain my consciousness.”

Sombra then snorted dismissively, turning and glancing out of the window.

“Your brother was too dim-witted, as were my slaves. Even the alicorn descendant of Amore lacked the certain level intelligence and force of will to be a suitable host. I needed a being as ancient and powerful as the Royal Sisters, or an individual as bright as Starswirl the Bearded himself, in order to sustain my soul.”

“I… guess I should take that as a compliment,” Twilight muttered, not really sure if she should be accepting such compliments from a tyrant like him. Especially since it meant she was now in this whole situation.

“You should. Take it from one such as myself, your mind is brilliant. I see why Celestia considered you worthy of alicorn ascension,” the King admitted. “You were the perfect host. A mind for me to sit and regain my strength, to set my roots and begin infecting your mind with my own.”

“Infecting?” Twilight asked, suddenly feeling that panic creep up again. “So, you’re living inside my head… What are you going to do to me?”

“Kill you,” he answered without any hesitation, and Twilight’s heart sank. “I’m going to kill you, Twilight Sparkle. I will spread my essence into the rest of your form and force you out. Your spirit won’t last without a body, and you will be forced to move on to whatever afterlife may or may not exist.”

“And then what?”

“I will be you,” he replied with a smirk. “None of your ‘friends’ will know the difference… at first. Your alicorn body will be mine to cultivate to my needs, so much more power for me to work my dark magic than I ever could have dreamed! And then, when the time is right, the other princesses will know of my return.”

“…Right. Okay…” Twilight muttered, letting out a breath as she let that information all sink in.

He was going to kill her, take her body and use her alicorn magic to take over Equestria… Right. A good plan.

But a bit of that severe panic bled away, preventing any hyperventilation that had been threatening to overtake the mare, as she realised something brilliant.

Twilight formed a smirk of her own as she realised the usual villainous need to gloat had already destroyed the King’s plans.

“Well, I think there’s one thing you’ve forgotten!”

“And that would be?” Sombra asked, looking entirely unconcerned.

“My friends!” Twilight declared. “When I tell them about you and everything you’ve told me, they won’t stop until you’ve been stopped! The princesses too! And I’m sure the Elements of Harmony would not like you being inside one of their bearers… You shouldn’t have shown yourself, because now I can stop you!”

“…No. You cannot.”

Twilight blinked. “Huh?

Why wasn’t Sombra worried? Shouldn’t he be worried!?

“I have already waited all the time I needed,” Sombra explained. “Before I could make you forget small details, but now I can do so much more.”

“What do you mean? What… what have you done?”

“You wish to tell your friends about me? Good luck. I think you will find that any attempt to communicate my presence to them will be met with failure. Speaking. Writing. Screaming. Any action with the intent of revealing my presence will be henceforth blocked.”

“Blocked? How can you block something like that?”

“Simple. The impulse in your brain will never translate over to your body. You may try to speak, but you will be silent. You may try to write, but the pen will not move. You may try to run, but your legs will remain rooted. You will go about your daily life for the time you have left, I will not interfere. Nor can I, I am not yet strong enough to attain full control. But what influence I do have will ensure you never reveal me and will strip you of any hope that remains.”

“Y-you’re… you’re lying!” Twilight accused, trying to prevent that hyperventilation that was returning quite rapidly. “You must be trying to trick me, or… or… Maybe this is a bad dream? L-Luna… can you hear me? Oh, please say this is a bad dream!”

“Princess Luna cannot help you, for this is very much your reality,” Sombra stated with a small measure of satisfaction. “You are mine, Twilight Sparkle.”

“You won’t take me!” she shouted in defiance.

Sombra chuckled. “I already have.”

“Hey, Twilight!” Spike greeted as he walked through the door, and Twilight looked between Sombra and him with wide eyes when the young dragon gave no reaction to his presence. “Who are you talking to?”

Twilight instantly went to warn Spike, he clearly couldn’t see Sombra! And who knew what the dark mage would do to him! But…

Nothing.

Nothing came out of Twilight’s mouth. She had tried to say:

“Spike! Sombra’s still alive and here, get the girls!”

But those words never reached her lips. She felt herself go to try and say it, could physically feel the impulse to do so within her brain.

But just like Sombra had said, nothing came of it.

“No deceptions,” the King stated, unheard by Spike. “There is no need. Know that your time is short, accept. Accept it so you can enjoy what is left of it.”

Then, in a puff of shadow, the apparition vanished.

“Twilight?” Spike called out in confusion. “You okay? You are kind of spacing out a bit on me.”

“Y-yeah… I guess I am…” Twilight responded, the mare wracking her brain in some vain attempt to figure out a way to circumvent Sombra’s influence. But every single rebellious thought was caught by Sombra and shot down before anything could come of it.

She was now a prisoner in her own body. And there was nothing she could do about it.

“I’m fine, Spike,” Twilight lied with an all too fake smile. “Where did you go out to?”

Spike offloaded a backpack he’d been lugging around on his back and opened it up to show Twilight the contents.

“Eh, just some odds and ends. We needed some milk and we were also low on apples, so I hopped on by to see Applejack. How did things with Princess Celestia and Mayor Mare go?”

“Oh! Yes, that was today wasn’t it…” Twilight had completely forgotten everything else that had transpired before Sombra’s arrival. Even with Sombra’s magic blocking her attempts at resistance, nothing could hide the levels of stress her body was displaying. “It went well. The Mayor got most of the land she wanted, and Fluttershy might get to help with a new sanctuary near the town.”

“Oh, really? I’m sure she’ll like that,” Spike said as he hefted the backpack up onto a nearby table. “Anything else? I know that the Princess wouldn’t have gone back to Canterlot without saying a few words to you first.”

On the word ‘Princess’, Twilight got the idea of having Spike send a letter to Celestia for an ‘unrelated’ matter to Sombra. And when they met up, and Twilight had nothing to say, Celestia might figure out that something was wrong and do a magical scan on her!

But even that was caught and stopped instantly. It may not have directly revealed Sombra’s presence, but the intent was what mattered.

The intent to receive help from others.

Hm, maybe…

“Spike, I might be gone for a few days.”

Spike blinked. “Huh? Why?”

“I’m going to be heading to Canterlot, I need to do some research in the Royal Archives.” Yes! She said it! “I’m not sure when I’ll be done.”

“Research? You don’t want me to come and help?”

“The library needs to remain open,” Twilight replied, bopping the drake on the nose. “Besides… this is a project I need to see to alone.”

“Why?”

She felt Sombra’s influence kick in again the moment that specific intent to reveal him came back to mind. But that was alright, she wouldn’t need anypony’s help for this.

“I’ll explain later,” she decided to say. “I’ll put the groceries away, could you go and pack all my things? Make sure to include Sombra’s journal.”

“Uh, sure…” Spike said, scratching the back of his head in confusion. “I’ll be right back.”

The dragon proceeded to hop up the stairs towards Twilight bedroom. On reaching the top he glanced back down at Twilight as if trying to figure something out, but then vanished from view.

Twilight sighed, picking up Spike’s backpack and heading into the kitchen in order to put everything in its correct place. As she levitated out the milk and put it into the fridge, a flicker in the corner of her eye signalled Sombra’s reappearance.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Twilight smiled smugly. “You are using your magic to block a specific intent, that being to communicate about you and get help. But you’re not blocking the intent to help myself without ever doing the former, and I imagine you can’t do both quite yet.”

Sombra narrowed his eyes. “Ah.”

Twilight finished packing away the products Spike had brought home, and then she turned to glare at the evil tyrant.

“I’m not accepting anything, Sombra. I will find a way to beat you, I promise that.”

“Every second my power grows, now more than ever before. Do you believe you can find that solution before I can snuff out any and all intent to find it?”

“I will try.”

“And you will fail.”

“Maybe,” she admitted. “But I think I know where to start looking for a way around your magic.”

The King raised an eyebrow. “And what might that be?”

“The tomes we recovered from your sanctum,” Twilight declared. “If I’m going to beat you, then I’m going to need to learn all your secrets.”

6 - A Chat with the Dark

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Twilight slipped through Ponyville, doing her best just to get to the train station and on her way to Canterlot as quickly as possible.

The town itself was as cheery as ever, ponies going about their days and waving to the Princess as she passed. But for once, Twilight didn’t wave back. Not a nod, or even a smile, was sent their ways as those who saw her were left to wonder about the alicorn’s mood in momentary confusion and even insult before shaking it off and moving on with their day.

Twilight couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt for every unrequited gesture, but she wasn’t in much of a mood for pleasantries, and neither did she have the time. She was now all too aware of the shadow hanging over her, and the Princess could not think about anything else.

She had almost made it to the train station when she made a momentary stop, standing in the middle of the street as she adjusted her saddlebags and took a moment to breathe. She had her notes, a good number of bits… everything she would need. Despite her abrupt departure, Spike had been as prompt as always in assistance her.

He’d been even more concerned when Twilight specifically told him not to tell the other princesses about her coming arrival in the capital. But he had nevertheless agreed to her request, he was reliable like that.

Too bad he wasn’t reliable enough not to tell a certain other group of ponies.

“Twilight!” was all the purple mare heard before two blue hooves slammed into her amidst a prismatic blur, a weird sense of Deja Vu running through the alicorn’s head as she hit the ground with an ‘oomph’.

“By Celestia, Rainbow Dash. Get yourself off of her!” Applejack scolded as she gently bit onto the pegasus’ mane and pulled her off of the Princess. She leant down, offering Twilight a helping hoof up off the floor. “You okay, Sugarcube?”

“Uh… yes?” Twilight said with little metaphorical alicorns circling her head as she tried to shake the daze. “Ugh, why was I rammed? Again?”

Now that Twilight was on her hooves and able to regain her bearings, she now realised that all of her friends were surrounding her with a shared look of concern between them. And annoyance towards Rainbow Dash’s brashness, but mostly concern.

“Well, you’re the one running off to Canterlot for no reason and going all Daring Do about it!” Rainbow Dash retorted defensively. “What gives, Egghead?”

“As blunt as she’s putting it…” Rarity began. “It is most peculiar for you to run off like this, darling. Spike seemed to be really worried about you.”

Twilight frowned. “Wait, Spike told you that I was going?”

“Something about you has him spooked, Twi,” Applejack explained.

“He said that you seemed really worried about something when he came home,” Fluttershy noted worriedly. “And that you didn’t want him to come with you but wouldn’t tell him why. I mean, I’m sure you have your reasons, but…”

“You didn’t want us to come either!” Pinkie Pie moaned. “And a road trip is no fun without your friends to go with you!”

“What gives with that?” Rainbow Dash asked. “If there’s something up, we wanna come with! The Elements of Harmony stick together, right?”

“I mean, you have your own lives going on…” Twilight refuted half-heartedly.

“Don’t worry none about that, Twilight,” Applejack stated. “Spike also said you didn’t want Princess Celestia and Princess Luna to know ya’ll were coming. Now, it’s clear that something has you wound up tighter than a stack of hay during a harvest. So, what’s the deal, Twi? What’s going on?”

“I…” Once again, she had the desire to tell her friends everything, and once again she inwardly screamed in frustration as the desire never manifested into her action. “I don’t see why you’re all making a big deal out of this! It’s just research, girls! Like when I went to the Crystal Empire those months back!”

“But then it was Princess Celestia wanting you to go,” Rarity aptly pointed out. “This secretive aspect isn’t usually a part of your nature, and it has us a little worried.”

“You do trust us, don’t you?” Pinkie Pie asked sadly.

“I… Of course I trust you!” Twilight desperately assured. “B-but… I can’t. I just can’t. My… research needs to be independent. I need to do this by myself. There’s no other way.”

“Horseapples,” Applejack growled. “This ain’t like you at all. When friends are in trouble, we tell each other. Let us help, Twi. That’s all we want.”

“Who even says I’m in trouble!?”

“Shucks, Twilight! Look at you!” the cowpony retorted, her voice raising. “You look like a wreck right now! Spike was right on the money when he came to us, and yet he was worried he was just being paranoid!”

Twilight gritted her teeth, tempers rising all around her. And not helping matters was that dark chuckle in her ear, clearly enjoying the show of negativity.

“Applejack,” Rarity addressed more softly, trying to calm the earth pony before turning back to Twilight. “Can’t you at least explain why we can’t help? What is this research of yours?”

“I… can’t tell you that either. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, come on!” Rainbow Dash shouted. “This is ridiculous! I’m with Applejack on this, I don’t get why you’re just… shutting us out!”

“It’s personal, alright!?” the Princess exploded, her wings flaring outwards. “I appreciate that you’re worried but, just… butt out, okay!? I need to do this by myself. Maybe I can tell you when it’s done, but until then, just… STOP!”

“Girls!” Fluttershy half-shouted. “Please, stop fighting! T-this isn’t what friends do either! We… maybe we should just trust Twilight…?”

There was silence for several moments, but it was soon followed by a sigh from the apple farmer in the group.

“Alright… alright…” she relented. “I didn’t mean to get all worked up, just… I don’t get what’s happening here, Twi. You’re not yourself.”

Twilight turned away, unable to look any of her friends in the eye. “I know.”

And then, to their shock, she just started to walk. Not another word was said as the alicorn made her way to the train station and away from her friends, leaving them all lost and confused as to why their friend was being so secretive. And what exactly had gotten her so worried and even... scared.

All the while, Sombra just took great satisfaction in the despair growing in Twilight’s heart.


The Friendship Express rolled along the tracks, the countryside passing by the window as Twilight lazily stared out of it. Ponyville was long gone from view, but her thoughts remained on the little town and the ponies she’d left behind in it.

Ponies she’d just pushed away.

She could just see their faces. How worried and upset they’d been, the hurt on Applejack’s face when she’d refused to let them help or even to give up any information as to what was happening.

And she’d wanted to. Oh, she had so wanted to.

She should have known they’d intercept her, and that they’d pick up on all the warning signs. They knew her too well to not know when something was wrong. Her heart ached knowing how she’d just left things with them, how Sombra’s spell had inadvertently caused them to argue and shout…

Just one more thing to fix when he was gone.

“Decaying corpses dragging you into the abyss,” that dark voice whispered into her ear. “Friends are those who would do nought but slow your ascent, stifling the greatness one could hold.”

“Shut up,” Twilight spat, looking over to the seat next to her as the stallion in question materialised before her eyes. “If I could tell my friends about you, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. It’s your fault we just had that falling out! But it won’t work!”

“If you cannot fight your own battles, are you truly capable of the crown you wear?”

“I can. And I will,” Twilight retorted. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have friends to back you up. You’re always stronger together than apart.”

“Naïve sentiment, and ultimately foolish,” Sombra dismissed. “There is no room for such things for those who sit upon a throne.”

“Then tell me about your son.”

Sombra’s eyes widened, even if it was for just a moment, before he turned to glare at the alicorn. “Tread lightly, Princess.”

“Why? You’re already planning on killing me, right?”

“…You are bold. It compliments you.”

“You sound almost impressed.”

“There are many things that impress me about you, it’s why you’re the perfect host,” Sombra stated. “I could foresee greatness for one such as yourself. But like Starswirl and the others like you, you are infected with the weakness of lesser beings.”

“If I remember correctly, we beat you,” Twilight pointed out smugly. “Twice.”

“Temporary setbacks, once you are no longer an obstacle.”

Twilight bit her lip, leaning back into her seat as she decided to try and move the topic away from the fact that she could die in the near future. That fact was still more than a little petrifying to ruminate on. “Okay, so back to your son… What happened to him?”

“Why do you care so much for the long passed?” Sombra asked, narrowing his eyes in concentration. “Ah, simple scholarly curiosity. And perhaps some pride and ego, you cannot leave a project unfinished.”

“What did you… Stop looking through my head!” Twilight protested.

“Now why would I ever listen to that request?” he asked with a dreadful smirk. “But as it is, my son will be long dead. The passage of time waits for no single being, not even the shadows.”

Twilight huffed, looking back out of the window. “Don’t you even want to know if your family lives?”

Sombra was silent. For a moment, Twilight thought she’d actually gotten the King of Shadows to feel some level of emotion. But then…

“Queen Chrysalis… there’s a foe to vanquish after Equestria is mine. Your combat skills were impressive against her swarm, but not impressive enough.”

“I said stop!” Twilight shouted. “My memories are for me! Get out of them!”

“Hm, how you turned on your sister-in-law so easily when you noticed her unnatural behaviour,” Sombra continued, ignoring the mare. “You were not afraid to do what needed to be done in that moment, if only the others had listened…”

A bit of long-buried hurt reared its ugly head as Twilight thought back to the night that her friends, brother and mentor had all rejected her.

“Is that bitterness I feel?”

“It… hurt when they did that,” Twilight admitted. “But I wasn’t completely right either. I know Cadance, I couldn’t ask for a better sister… I should have known it wasn’t her, but an imposter. I shouldn’t have tried to stop the wedding…”

“And there it is. The weakness,” Sombra taunted. “She was a threat, whether she was Cadenza or not.”

Sombra was silent for another moment, and then he gave another hum. “Celestia’s betrayal hurt the most, you do care for her, don’t you? You should have realised in that moment that your bond is but a fantasy.”

“Shut. Up!”

“And your brother too,” he said, unrelenting. “Easily manipulated, a muscled fool the likes of whom I would have placed into my army to die in the front lines.”

Anger started to bubble inside Twilight as he continued to insult her family. “I’m warning you!”

“A father in astronomy, a mother craving adventure which she then translates to a page. Hm, you saw so little of them after gaining your cutie mark.”

“Sombra!”

“But she too has something of a gift in magic I feel, one never explored and yet… it’s almost passed down. A genetic gift, a gift going back… back…”

Suddenly, the King uncharacteristically froze. He blinked, turning to look at Twilight Sparkle with a look of pure bewilderment on his face that caught the mare completely by surprise. He seemed to study her, almost like he was actually seeing the alicorn for the first time. And then, slowly, his features relaxed into neutrality.

“I see.”

Then the shadows dispersed, and Sombra was gone.

Twilight, once again left to her own devices, was left to ponder the sudden end to their conversation. How he had so casually ripped through her memories was deeply disturbing to think about, as was his taunts as to the Canterlot Wedding and his complete disregard for friendship. But right there, for that moment, he had seemed…

Twilight wasn’t really sure what he had seemed.

But that was another worry for later. For now, she had to focus on the issues at hoof. Sombra would not stop until he had gotten what he’d come for. Her, Equestria… all of it. She could not let him win, and she just knew the answers had to be somewhere in his own collection of dark magical tomes. His spells, his art. A clue as to how his magic operated, and a way to counter it.

Twilight sighed, rubbing her eyes as she calmed herself and got her thoughts into order. Looking out the window, she was certain as to what she had to do.

No matter what, Sombra would not win.

She wouldn’t let him.

7 - Heist

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There was a chug and a bump as the Friendship Express started to pull into Canterlot’s train station, readying to allow the departure of passengers and the embarkment of their replacements. Sombra hadn’t said another word since his disappearance, much to Twilight’s pleasure. The rest of the journey had been made in blissful silence, allowing Twilight to think through her plans quite thoroughly. Plans she had no doubt the dark mage was listening in on inside her own head, but there wasn’t much she could do about that, was there?

No, she just had to find the solution before he gained any more of his power back. Then she could be rid of his influence and tell her friends everything, fix what he’d broken…

Resolute, and with the train coming to a full stop, she stepped out of her compartment with her saddlebags firmly on her back before making her way off of the train.

Hopping down onto the platform, Twilight got a few surprised glances and even one or two bows after the ponies in question had a moment to even register the fact that a Princess of Equestria had just stepped off the train. Facts that Twilight, as consumed in her own thoughts and task as she was, failed to really register as she trotted past them all and into the city itself.

The city was bustling, ponies going about their days in a seemingly more rigid manner than one might expect in Ponyville. Ponyville, being such a small town, was a place where everypony knew everypony. Naturally, as big as a full city was, it was impossible to get the same sense of community and fellowship. A couple of ponies could be seen stopping in the streets to greet a friend they’d bumped into quite by accident, but the vast majority went about their business without so much as a glance towards the pony walking right beside them. It was something that, as a Canterlot-born pony herself, Twilight had never thought much about once upon a time. But having lived in Ponyville for over a year now, the contrast was startling.

But it was also of no matter. She was hardly here to conduct a survey on cultural differences based on the size of a settlement (though that was definitely now on her to-do list), her destination lay right at the very top of the mountain-based city. Canterlot Castle, and more specifically, the royal archive where books deemed too important or sensitive for the vast library most ponies frequented in the city were kept.

Quickly the Princess had left the lower sections of the city behind, moving into the sector where the nobility were more inclined to spend their days. Actually, the street she walked through wasn’t that far from her parents’ house. Perhaps she would visit them… when she didn’t have a dark magical undead parasite inside her head.

That still sent shivers down her spine no matter how many times she thought it to herself.

Said parasite was also still being unusually quiet, and Twilight kept expecting him to pop up at any moment to make some derivative comment on Canterlot or another. But as the front gates of the castle finally approached, he had still yet to make a single peep.

Maybe he was just saving his strength and barbs for later?

Twilight shook her head, casting Sombra from her mind for the moment. The guards at the front gate were clearly surprised by the Princess’ unexpected arrival, but they nevertheless gave a curious nod to the alicorn as she passed, not hindering her entrance in any way. From there, Twilight veered away from the giant ornate doors leading into the main structure and instead veered off into the grounds, aiming for the smaller building sitting just off to the side.

Its architecture was seamless with the rest of the castle, surrounded by painstakingly decorated bushes and other foliage. There was also a small artificial stream between Twilight and the building, a small bridge crossing over it that was flanked by two statues; one being of two ponies dancing with one another while the second was of a unicorn pulling a dramatic pose.

Like the rest of the castle, the Royal Archives had guards posted at every entrance, another patrolling the pathways around the building. The latter didn’t appear to visibly react to Twilight as she walked through the area, though the two ponies of the Solar Guard at the front entrance looked towards the Princess as she approached.

“Your Highness,” the guard greeted, one who’d been assigned to the posting for as long as Twilight could remember. And one she could just see the inward smirk for all the times she, before her coronation, unnecessarily broke into the library even though she had full access as Celestia’s pupil… In hindsight, the guards probably just left her to it each time. “Conducting a research project?”

“Uh, sort of,” she replied cautiously. “Just… checking up on a few things, heh.”

“I see,” he replied. “Well, I wish you all the best, Princess. I do know your fondness for our little archive.”

She just felt that unseen smirk get a little wider.

Puffing up her cheeks indignantly, unable to stop a light blush gracing them, Twilight trotted past the guards and into the main reception area of the archive itself. The room was decorated with ornate wood panelling, three doors leading out of the room excluding the one Twilight had just walked through. Two would lead to staircases leading to an upper floor, the third led straight on into the base level of the archive. To the right, tucked into a corner, was a desk were the elderly keeper of the archive was sitting with golden rimmed reading glasses on her muzzle, said muzzle being deeply buried in a sheet of paper that Twilight couldn’t quite identify. Twilight quietly approached the mare, waiting for a moment before coughing into a hoof to get her attention.

“Huh, what…?” the mare stuttered, placing the paper down and adjusting her glasses before looking towards the alicorn. “Oh, Princess! I wasn’t informed of your arrival, but I suppose that’s to be expected as far as you’re concerned. What can I help you with? Papers on international economics? A history of the noble houses’ butlers…?”

“Nothing quite like that…” Twilight replied. “I’m just here to… check up on a few things among that collection we confiscated from the Crystal Empire.”

The mare hummed in curiosity. “That dark old thing? Why, nopony has bothered to disturb them since they arrived here. Probably because it’s only accessible to you princesses, but even Princess Celestia has seen fit to leave them be.”

“Well, not anymore. So, can I have a look?”

“You have more authority on the matter than me, your highness,” she pointed out. “I don’t see why not. I’m sure you remember where they were kept? Top floor, in the restricted section?”

“I remember,” Twilight confirmed with a bright smile. “Thanks.”

“You take care now,” the mare said to the Princess as she trotted to one of the side doors and started to make her way up the stairs.

On reaching the top floor, Twilight found herself in a small section with two bookcases and a couple of tables for ponies to read on. These bookcases were bypassed quickly, however, as it was the doorway beyond them that she was interested in. The door was large and black; the head of a gargoyle carved into it as part of an intricate lock designed only react to certain magical signatures. As it was, four magical signatures were currently allowed access. Of course, it was the magic of the four alicorn princesses.

Twilight lit her horn, her magic gently interacting with the lock as it took note of the caster. There was then a loud ‘click’, and the lock turned into place before the doors parted and opened up for the alicorn. The open entrance to the restricted section, where much of Equestria's forbidden knowledge was kept from causing harm until such a time as it may be of careful use or in need of destruction.

As Twilight passed through, she was all too aware of unseen wards scanning her further, their purpose being to ‘uncomfortably’ repel would-be thieves and intruders who somehow managed to breach everything else. They’d never had to be used even after a millennia of service, but they served nevertheless.

With the doorway closing up behind her, Twilight lit her horn to light the unlit candles lining the walls. No electricity was spared for this place, everything inside was low-tech and old school. It certainly fits the creepy aesthetic of being in a place filled with such horrible dark magic, all of it sealed away from the populace to protect them while being kept intact for situations such as the one Twilight herself now found herself in.

Twilight glanced through the dusty bookshelves, devoid of any webs you’d expect to see in an area so disused, not even spiders were allowed through the wards surrounding the section.

She walked past several shelves, many of the books they contained looking much like any other at first glance, though others eerily seemed to be made up of materials such as patched together skin… Twilight really hoped it wasn’t pony skin at that.

Fortunately, Sombra hadn’t been quite so macabre in his own collection.

“Using skin is but an unnecessary fetish on the part of a deranged user,” Sombra spoke, electing a yelp from Twilight as his apparition appeared directly in front of her. “Entirely unnecessary and a waste of a good slave. I am far more practical and efficient in my designs, something we may yet have in common.”

Twilight would hate to admit having anything in common with the stallion. But when it came to using skin versus simple paper binding, the latter would win every time.

“You’ve been quiet,” Twilight deadpanned, pulling herself together and continuing on to where Sombra’s collection was stored.

“You have been aware of my presence but a few hours, you would not miss my presence for a short while.”

“I guess I was getting hopeful,” she replied, reaching the first bookshelf to contain some of the King’s work.

“A mistake you keep repeating,” he noted. “It is but a fickle thing, a lifeline for fools while the strong prosper through certainty.”

“I’m certain,” Twilight shot back as she collected a tome from the shelf, glancing at the title before depositing it into her saddlebag. “We’re here, aren’t we? All your work, and all the clues I need to beat you.”

“And yet you fail to realise what I have,” Sombra announced, trotting up beside the mare and giving her a strange and yet knowing look. “And that is that it is not in my collection you must look for answers, but perhaps books of a far more mundane nature may provide answers for what you seek.”

“All the dark magic knowledge is here. Everything you ever wrote is here,” Twilight pointed out. “I know this place like the back of my hoof, there is nothing else that will help me.”

“Would you assume I speak of my presence?” Sombra asked mockingly. “No, I speak of something else that continues to eat at your bright little mind. My son.”

Twilight paused, turning to look at Sombra suspiciously. “You refused to say a word on him earlier, and now you want to shed some light on the whole thing? What’s the catch?”

“The catch is that I too seek the answers of which I desire. Knowledge that must be mine… and so too must be yours. For it may yet be our duty to know which she would have us forget.”

She frowned. “She? What are you talking about?”

“The answers you seek may lie in a mere book of bloodlines. Genealogy, as you would call it.”

“I’ve looked in every relevant book across Equestria and back again,” Twilight dismissed, resuming her work in collecting any of the King’s work that might be of use. He was clearly trying to distract her, playing those mind games he loves so much. “Nopony knows what happened to him, though I wish I did. There’s nothing to find.”

“Not in the places the Sun would have you look.”

“Celestia?” Twilight questioned, turning back towards the dark mage. “What about her?”

“You believe me deceitful? I am but one player on the vast board, your apparent mentor is another. And she is most practised at moving her pawns,” Sombra said factually. “I believe she has positioned us both to an extent, but I am on to her move. Her personal collection is where we must seek our answers, and her deception shall become clear.”

“Celestia’s personal collection?” Twilight muttered in disbelief. Each princess had their own personal collection near to the Starswirl the Bearded section, each accessible to only their assigned ruling alicorn. Twilight’s was bone empty, as was Cadance’s as far as she was aware. But Celestia and Luna’s…

Especially Celestia, a mare who had ruled alone for a thousand years. All of the personal items she must have that would never see the light of day…

“I can’!” Twilight protested. “Not there! It’s her… her… everything! Personal things! You don’t do that to somepony, and especially not her!”

“Then she has you positioned well, unless you judge your own move with care,” Sombra chided. “Answers to my son and his fate will be found, of that I am certain. She wouldn’t have failed to notice what I too have come to suspect, and if what I feel without the very blood you wield is simple truth… Then, perhaps, your other problem too may become but a moot point.”

“You’re saying that finding out about your son would save me from you?” the Princess scoffed. “No, there’s no way you’d help me do that.”

“It is my move, and the pieces are looking increasingly favourable… for the both of us. If I am wrong, then nothing has changed, and you will be but a corpse in time. But either way, could you truly afford not to know?”

Twilight bit her lip, glancing between the King’s collection and the unicorn himself.

Ah, curse her own innate scholarly curiosity!

Feeling quite like the cat from that one saying, Twilight sighed. “Fine, but I’m finishing up here first.”

“Collect what you must, none of it will be of use. I shall wait.”

“Fine. I’ll just get what I need and then… then… Oh dear, am I really breaking into Celestia’s personal collection? Gah, how are we even going to do that!? It’s more warded than this place!”

Sombra her gave a fang-filled smirk. “That is an area of which I may be of assistance.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “How?”


“Digging… seriously?”

Twilight was standing along the outer wall of the archive building, looking nervously over her shoulder as a patrolling guard passed her by with a small look of curiosity. The room containing the personal items of the princesses were actually underground, the doors in the archive leading to a set of stairs. Twilight was pretty confident she was currently standing above where Celestia’s private collection was, and her nerves were quite thoroughly being dragged through a shredder.

Sombra’s bright plan of how to commit this blatant heist didn’t fill her with much for confidence either.

“Unless you wish to force your way through a door warded with the full might of the sun,” Sombra suggested with more than a little sarcasm. “I can deal with what protection I imagine she will have placed on the walls below the surface.”

“I hope you’re right…” She still couldn’t believe she was going along with this at all! “Alright, let me just… There!”

With a flash of her horn, Twilight cast a simple perception filter around herself and where they’d be digging. Any guard or servant walking past would be compelled to ignore the location through simply manipulating their senses to believe the place is of no note whatsoever.

The ultimate ‘nothing to see here’ spell… assuming Celestia or Luna didn’t walk by and see through it, which Twilight had to believe they were capable of. It was a pretty low-level perception filter after all.

But she had to save her magic as much as possible. Who knew what Sombra could do to her if she got worn out?”

“Prudent,” Sombra complimented.

“Well, this isn’t exactly going to be subtle,” she replied, her horn lighting up again. “I’ve also added a bubble of silence; the noise would probably break the effect. But now…”

Now, she had to dig.

She was actually using her magic to dig a hole in the ground of the castle to break into a private and heavily warded collection of Princess Celestia herself all while under the direction of an undead tyrant who was probably going to try and kill her later. It was in that moment of realisation that Twilight had to ask one simple question… When exactly did her life go so amazingly off the rails?

Still, with a mix of magical apparitions of drills and simple scooping and blasting away at the dirt, Twilight was making progress. True, the dirt was also getting into every tuft of fur she had to her name, enough that Rarity would have an aneurysm, but it was working.

With the hole large enough that Twilight could hover in it under the power of her wings, she soon hit the jackpot. And that jackpot came with a very painful sting as her magic hit something that didn’t agree with it, the feedback travelling back up into her horn and throughout her whole body!

Luckily, before she fell onto the patch and potentially had something worse happen to her, Twilight instinctively teleported out to the side of the hole and hit the dirt, panting for air.

Then, slowly looking back inside and using her magic to carefully clear away the dirt at the bottom, the top of a previously hidden stone structure emerged.

“That would be it,” Sombra noted, reappearing beside the alicorn. “Our prize lays within.”

Twilight hummed, lighting up her horn and scanning the wall very carefully. The moment she started to feel feedback, she cut the connection to avoid a harmful shock. But she’d seen enough.

“Yeah, there’s no way I’m getting through that,” she deadpanned. “I might be an alicorn, but Princess Celestia is still far more powerful than I am by virtue of having lived for over a thousand years. I’d need either a big boost to even begin trying to find a way through all of that, or I’d need a really convenient spell…”

Sombra gave her that infuriating smirk again.

“…I guess I should have figured that. Okay, what do I need to do?”

“And therein lies our problem,” he started. “The spell required would take significant time to teach, and that’s after you become affluent in the dark magical arts.”

“Not happening.”

“So, one way or another, you cannot cast this spell.”

“Great,” Twilight huffed, sitting up and fighting off an incoming migraine. “So, all this was a waste of time?”

“No, I said you cannot cast the spell, Twilight Sparkle,” Sombra stated. “But it is one of my own design.”

“Can you even cast something like that?” Twilight questioned. “You don’t even have a real body.”

“But don’t you see, young alicorn?” he asked. “The answer is simple.”

He vanished, and Twilight convulsed. She dropped to the ground, silently screaming as a terrible bubbling pain rippled throughout her body. Dark magic started to pour from her horn and eyes, and she could do nothing but try and bear what was happening to her.

And then she stopped, her breaths steadying as the dark magic from her horn ceased.

But not from her eyes.

Slowly, one hoof at a time, the alicorn got to her feet with steady breaths. And then, victoriously, she grinned.

“I just need yours for a while.”

8 - Living Legacy

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It felt so good to have a body again. And it was a powerful form indeed, Sombra could just feel the pure mana flowing through the alicorn’s body, so much untapped potential that he doubted Twilight Sparkle knew the full extent of. Yes, it only confirmed that his choice of host was a good one… even if said form was missing certain gender features he was used to.

But it would have been a good body, nevertheless.

Would have. Those two words being key, at least if he was proven right about his own conclusions…

And yet already he could feel his grip on Twilight’s form slipping away, the alicorn soul inside it wriggling and struggling instinctively against the intrusion. He would have a minute, two at most. If they were to discover Celestia’s little secret, then he would have to act fast.

Stretching his new wings out experimentally, Sombra looked down at the uncovered roof of the buried chamber. The Sun Princess was no slouch when it came to protecting what she wished to hide, but that was to be expected. Also expected, unfortunately for her, was the decay the wards had suffered over a thousand years.

All the better.

He lit Twilight’s horn, the dark magic spilling from his stolen eyes increasing in intensity as a dark energy bubbled along the bony appendage. He flapped his wings, taking slowly to the air before gently lowering Twilight’s body down to the barrier lying between them and their prize.

The dark magic crackled, and then it was released.

A beam of putrid unholy energy struck the barrier, sparks of golden light crackling back in defiance. But not one to be dissuaded, Sombra pressed the attack as he felt for any weaknesses in Celestia’s defences that he could exploit. Any tiny little hole that had either been overlooked or created by the passage of time.

Ah, there it is.

A small crack in the spell structure. A mere hairline fracture really, a break in the spell where time had taken its slow toll.

But it was enough.

The dark magic invaded and butchered its way through the opposing spell, spilling into that crack and quickly widening it further. The golden array started to flicker and spark more violently, a mixture of its imminent collapse and a desperation to fulfil its purpose in warding off the intruder.

The crack burst, Celestia’s magic faded as the roof suddenly collapsed under the strain. Dust and rubble were kicked up, obscuring Sombra’s sight as his magic was cut off with a sharp grunt.

Then he was no longer flying.

Through the cloud he fell, landing roughly on a hard surface within. He gritted his teeth as he started to lose all physical feeling, his control over the form fading…

Twilight gave a sharp intake of breath, the last of the dark magic in her eyes being vanished as she shot up, panting heavily as her mind started to process the everything that had just happened.

“Wha…?” she quietly questioned to herself, before gasping as she felt a twinge of pain in her barrel. “Owwwww…”

Her side was stinging ever so slightly, and she lit her horn to try and administer some relief upon herself. The pain faded a little, and she was able to give her new surroundings a general look over.

Above her head, the sun shone in from a large hole in the roof that led all the way up to the surface. Rubble was strewn all around her, making a mess of the room in which she had found herself. The room in question was lit by several candles holding golden arcane fire, illuminating several bookshelves and tables containing a whole manner of artefacts that made Twilight feel guilty on remembering who they belonged to.

This was Celestia’s private collection.

“Sombra…” Twilight muttered angrily. “What did you do!?”

The stallion materialised into view next to her. But what caught Twilight off guard was how… sickly he was looking.

“Your form was required. And now we have entrance to this place,” he replied coldly.

“You can do that?” she asked in no small amount of alarm. “Then… why haven’t you just kept it?”

“I am not yet strong enough,” he reminded her. “Any control was fleeting. And I would not fret, it shall not occur again for some time.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at me,” he said with a gesture. “It took much of my regained strength to do what I had to do. It is a significant setback, and one I will have to overcome with time.”

“I see…” Twilight said in comprehension. But, then, a thought occurred to her. “Then does that mean-”

“I wouldn’t worry,” he immediately shot her down. “I retained just enough to maintain the block on your mind. It may be more difficult to maintain, but I still cannot have you revealing my presence.”

Well, that was unfortunate. At least, Twilight had to admit, he also wouldn’t be able to further increase his influence and block her attempts to remove him herself. Not anytime soon, at least.

So, she had more time. But first…

“Alright, so we’re in,” she stated, getting up and trying not to think on the personal violation she had just suffered. “Now what?”

“First…” Sombra paused, visibly wincing as his projection flickered with instability. “Ugh, first… You must find that book. I am convinced one will exist within this space somewhere.”

“Right…” Twilight muttered, biting her lip as she moved over to one of the display tables.

A small statue lay atop of it, a carving depicting two young alicorn fillies taking what appeared to be a peaceful nap together. The base of the statue read: ‘Luna and I, how things were. How things should be’.

That guilt Twilight was feeling intensified by quite a bit.

Twilight had no idea that Celestia such a proficient artist… and she could only imagine the emotion that fuelled its creation. There were other items around it on the table, small preserved artefacts that Twilight imagined had belonged to the sisters when they had been young.

There were more tables. And likewise, there were more carvings. Paintings too. All little glimpses into the mind of her beloved mentor. Twilight tried to ignore them as best she could, much to the dismay of her inner scholar. But she didn’t belong here, not in such a personal place she was defiling with her mere presence. The young alicorn just made her way towards the bookshelves at the back of the room, keeping her vision focused on them.

An ancient portrait of an alabaster alicorn with a red mane, two familiar fillies at her hooves, briefly caught her eye. But she once again tore herself away from the sight, intent on leaving the Princess’ privacy as intact as she could.

Reaching the bookshelves, Twilight traced a hoof along the edge of one as she read the titles of the books it contained. Her eyes widened once more as she did so.

“These… they’re all her diaries,” she muttered in shock. “Everything she’s ever thought since the day her sister was banished…”

“A life as long as hers, no wonder it fills as many books as it has,” Sombra noted. “Such knowledge must be contained within. The private thoughts of a hated foe, and weapons of potential use in dismantling all they have built.”

“Well, it’s a good thing I’m not reading them then,” Twilight retorted, much to Sombra’s displeasure. “It’s not what we came here for, anyway.”

“On that, I must concede the point,” he responded. “But it lies within these shelves, you must keep searching.”

“I am.”

The Princess moved on, following the shelves and looking for something out of place among the collection. The vast majority were more journals that the Princess of the Sun had kept at some point in her long life. There were even a few actual novels it looked like the Princess had written, and yet had never sought to have published.

Twilight regarded those books with reverence, knowing they must have been too dazzling for mortal eyes.

Sombra, on the other hoof, knew that they were probably created during times of intense boredom and were, in fact, actually not very good.

And then she reached the shelves lodged into the far corner of the room.

Twilight gave it a look over, bypassing some of the oldest diaries of the lot. Her gaze shifted to the bottom shelf and studying it. And there, tucked between another diary and what actually appeared to be a first edition copy of an ancient classic, was exactly what they’d been searching for.

‘Sombra’s Lineage’.

“I don’t believe it…” Twilight whispered, dumbstruck as she gingerly took the book in her magic and pulled it out.

It was old. Very old. The cover a simple brown with the title written out in golden lettering.

She had this the whole time… and never told her? Even after all of her persistent research and questions? Why… Why had Celestia lied to her?

Not missing a beat, Twilight flipped the book open and examined the first page.

A drawing of the King himself was revealed, notes jotted below it alongside the image of a mare Twilight didn’t recognise. Off to her side, however, she saw Sombra’s eyes very briefly light up with some kind of recognition.

And then both their gazes turned to the third drawing. A little baby colt.

“That’s him,” Twilight noted.

“It is,” Sombra conformed. “So… she knew. When I had Radiant Hope take our child to Equestria, the Princess must have quickly caught onto their identity. Strange, such a scenario wasn’t unthought of, but I had expected she’d react quickly and decisively…”

“Princess Celestia would never hurt a child,” Twilight retorted defensively. “Even if their father was an evil tyrant.”

Twilight continued, the next page containing an image of the same colt. Albeit he was a colt no longer, but a grown stallion that was situated next to further drawings of another mare and child.

“You had a granddaughter,” Twilight said, her tone softening a little.

“So I did. The legacy of my blood did continue on after all, stretching unseen through the ages while the only one who could have prevented it sat contently on her golden throne.”

And she’d never told a soul, despite the fact that she was clearly keeping a close eye on the family.

And there was more. Far more.

There was information on how Sombra’s son died. Simple old age, apparently. And from there it showed his daughter’s children. She’d had a filly and a colt, the filly tragically passing away during a brief plague while the son had eventually gone on to have a family of his own as well.

And so it went on. Through the centuries it continued, family after family. Child after child. Most appeared to be content with but a single child, keeping the family line rather straightforward. There were branch families, mind you. Some second or third-born children here and there would produce their own offspring, but every branch family almost seemed cursed to die out in a generation or two. Sometimes it would be under unfortunate circumstances, others would simply end when the latest of the line never had children of their own.

But the main family would persist, Sombra’s most direct descendant surviving the test of time.

They started to get close to modern day, Twilight’s excitement rising as she realised that there had to be a descendant still alive! This was history unveiling itself! All of her research, all of that effort to find the truth, it was about to pay off!

…Wait, why did that stallion look familiar?

She narrowed her eyes, studying the pony before her. She swore she’d seen him somewhere before… perhaps in an old photograph? It would have to be old at that, maybe one of the first… Maybe it was in an old research project of hers? No, that didn’t sound right.

She just couldn’t place it.

And why was Sombra suddenly giving her that knowing look?

Shaking her head, Twilight moved to-

No.

It couldn’t be.

She definitely knew that mare. But it was… it was…

The next page, and so appeared the image of Twilight Velvet.

Like that, you could almost hear Twilight’s universe shattering like a mirror.

“That’s… that’s not…” What was she supposed to say? This had to be a bad dream. Another one of Sombra’s tricks! She wasn’t… they couldn’t be… Celestia would tell her if she was!

But there was her image, right next to Twilight Velvet and Night Light. She and Shining Armor both, their images jostled down into the book alongside extensive notes.

‘Inherited his power’, that was one of the lines written for her.

“Now you see,” Sombra announced. “The extent of which the Sun Princess would deceive you. She would willingly hide your heritage and your potential, moulding you into a tool she could so easily use. Perhaps that is why she spared us, she wished to humiliate our family and turn us into her slaves.”

“No… that’s not…” Twilight shook her head, trying desperately to process this new information. “That’s not right. But would she…? I can’t be… I’m not related to you!”

“I saw it in your very blood, given to you by your mother,” he continued. “As the second-born child, you would be destined to create a branch family rather than continue my main line. And yet you inherit all I give while your brother becomes a simple-minded lackey of the Princess. How curious.”

“No!” Twilight shouted, throwing the book at Sombra’s apparition as hyperventilation started to set in. She couldn’t be his descendant! She was NOTHING like him!

“But you are, don’t you see? Your mind, your brilliance! Your potential. Perhaps, even, you could be greater than I ever was,” Sombra declared, rematerializing directly in front of the mare and staring right into her tear-filled eyes. “You are the heir to all I built. The Crystal Empire, my slaves. And with your title, you are even the rightful ruler of Equestria itself!”

“I-I’m… I’m not…”

“You need not fear me, Twilight,” Sombra said with an odd degree of fondness. “I shall not harm my own heir. You are the gift my son left in his wake, a second chance for the both of us. Equestria needs only one Princess… or perhaps even a Queen.”

“I’m not like that!” Twilight bellowed in anguish. “I’m not like you! I can’t… I don’t understand.”

“You will. If you let me help you, granddaughter,” he stated.

“I…” So much was running through Twilight’s head. Sombra. Celestia. All the lies and deception. Everything she ever thought she knew about herself…

Celestia always knew who she was. When she sent her to fight Sombra… When she was trying to discover his own legacy and, unknowingly, her own past…

“I’m so confused…” she whispered, sitting down onto the ground hard, her entire body shaking from the emotional tidal wave she was suffering.

“Understandable, Celestia’s poison will not be undone in a single moment,” Sombra noted with a nod. “I shall depart and allow you time to gather your thoughts. But then, my heir, one way or another… You will take back what is ours.”

And then, in a wave of darkness, Sombra was gone.

And Twilight had never felt more alone.

9 - Stirrings in the Shadows

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How beautiful the day looked. Leaves swayed in their gentle breeze, while birds sang from the branches in their wonderous melodies that would see Fluttershy swoon. Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns was abuzz with activity that was just as joyful as their surroundings, trotting to and from their classes as they chatted the day away in their own individual friendship groups, stacks of books held in their magic with even more stuffed into their saddlebags. An air of academics and an eternal cycle of studying permeated the air, the kind of environment that Twilight Sparkle lived and breathed for.

A place she now visited, slowly trotting down the pathway as she regarded the various buildings that made up the campus.

A place she seemed to be unable to find even a modicum of joy in. While the world was as pastel as ever, all of it just held a rather dim grey film to the alicorn’s shell-shocked eyes.

Sombra’s descendant.

She, Twilight Sparkle, Element of Magic and Princess of Equestria… was the heir to an ancient tyrant she herself had opposed. And to top it all off, Princess Celestia, someone she had admired and cared so deeply for, had hidden this knowledge from Twilight since… forever, really.

Had she been afraid? Trying to protect her? Trying to protect ponies from her? Or is it as Sombra said, a perverse form of punishment on the dark king?

Did… did Celestia ever really care for Twilight? Or was their interaction a necessity due to both her heritage and her sheer magical power?

Twilight didn’t want to think that. She didn’t even want to consider the possibility that there would be even an inch of truth to any of the dark mage’s words. But, ironically enough, the truth is all that she had heard from his mouth since the day he turned up inside her head.

Her supposedly hated enemy being so open and transparent, while her beloved mentor held deep secrets that she should have known all along.

Was it too late for all of this to turn out to be a bad dream? A mental manipulation from Sombra? Perhaps Princess Luna would yet turn up and cast it all aside, allowing Twilight to continue the rest of her rest in peace.

No. It was not to be. All of this was real, and it was just a fact that Twilight would have to accept.

But how in all of Equestria was she meant to even begin?

Twilight stopped in the middle of the path, taking a look around herself. Ponies were not blind towards the Princess’ foul mood, all passing by with looks of nervous worry on their faces. Though if any of them had entertained the thought of asking her what was wrong and if they could help in any way, something stayed their hooves.

Perhaps it was the fact that she was a Princess, and the sight of the alicorn made them trot as if on eggshells. Or maybe it was something else. A sense. A feeling. Like something wasn’t all as it was meant to be. Something dark. Something terrible.

They just let her be, too afraid to approach the Princess of Equestria for the time being.

And that only made Twilight feel all the worse.

There was a bench nearby, one sitting between two smartly cultivated bushes in front of one of the buildings that made up the campus. Twilight, with a depressed sigh, started to move off towards the bench to attempt to simply sit among the peacefulness of the scene and try to get her thoughts in order.

There were a lot of them.

Hopping up onto the bench and laying down on it, Twilight rested her head on top of her forelegs and gave off a small huff.

She still had a swirl of mixed emotions regarding Celestia, Twilight trying to examine every moment of her life in an attempt to find any point where the Princess might have slipped up even a little in regard to Twilight’s ancestry. Anything that might have betrayed ulterior motives to their relationship through the years.

But there was also the matter of Sombra himself, and what the unicorn now intended for Twilight with their familial connection revealed.

His heir. A Queen. He actually wanted her to learn from him and use his dark magical secrets to usurp the throne from the other princesses.

Which was the most utterly ridiculous thing of all.

Never mind how Twilight was currently feeling about her secretive mentor, she still didn’t want to depose her! That’s not even taking Luna and Cadance into account. Those two had nothing to do with Celestia’s actions, nothing had changed between them!

Not to mention usurping the throne with dark magic and declaring yourself a tyrant was just plain immoral to begin with. She couldn’t believe Sombra would even ask that of her, how did he think he was even going to start in trying to persuade her to follow such a terrible path?

Twilight groaned, rubbing her temples to try and stave off her headache. It was all too much, and it had all been dropped on her so suddenly! And she STILL COULDN’T EVEN TALK ABOUT IT!

There was a thump as Twilight faceplanted the wooden seat.

“Are… you okay?”

Twilight waited a moment, just registering the voice that had just addressed. Then, slowly, she started to look up and regard the unicorn who had just tried to talk to her.

Well, at least it was a familiar face.

“Shadow Flare,” Twilight greeted the pony half-heartedly. “I’m sorry, it’s just… Forget it. It’s been a while, right?”

“Right. We last saw each other when we recovered those artefacts in the Crystal Empire…” the unicorn recalled, though frowned at Twilight’s attempt at changing the subject. “Are you sure you’re alright? Smashing your face into a bench doesn’t exactly seem like something a ‘fine’ pony would do.”

Twilight just hummed in response, sitting up straight and properly looking over Shadow Flare. He was much as she remembered him, a couple of saddlebags on his back that were stuffed full of all the academic equipment you would expect from an alumni of Celestia’s school. He adjusted his glasses as he studied the alicorn in turn, not losing his frown.

“You look terrible,” he stated. “No offence.”

“None taken. At least you’re talking to me,” Twilight replied. “Everypony else is treating me like I’m infected with the plague.”

“It’s unfortunate. But natural, given your status,” Shadow noted, slowly moving to sit next to the Princess on the bench, not getting any argument from her. “But seeing as we met before all of that business, I know you’d prefer a friend right about now.”

A genuine, if small, smile appeared on her face. “Thank you. Things are just… confusing right now. Family drama, I guess.”

At least ‘family’ wasn’t on Sombra’s censorship list.

“Ah,” Shadow simply said in turn. “Right. I guess that can be messy.”

“Oh, you have no idea.”

“I don’t suppose you’re willing to tell me what it is.”

“I… No, I don’t think I can.”

“I understand,” he replied with a nod. “Well, whatever it is, I hope it all turns out for the best. You do have friends to rely on in the meantime. I know about the other bearers.”

“Ughhhhh.”

Shadow Flare blinked. “Now what?”

“I… sorta also made a mess of things there as well,” Twilight muttered, leaning back against the backrest of the bench. “I might have snapped at them before coming here. They were just trying to help, and I got angry.”

“Well, that’s… unfortunate,” Shadow remarked, rubbing his chin. “Do they know it’s about your family?”

“I didn’t tell them.” Of course, she didn’t really even know at the time. But that didn’t make her feel any less terrible about it. “I just… don’t know what to do, Shadow. Things are a mess here, they’re a mess in Ponyville… I feel like my life is about to collapse at any moment. If it hasn’t already.”

“It’s really that bad, huh?” he asked, getting a small nod in return. “Well… I can’t say I’m an expert on family troubles and friendship lessons, I’m a bit of a shut-in really, but… well, I think if you explain to the girls why you snapped at them, they’ll understand. If they’re really your friends, once they know it’s about family that should be all the explanation they’d need. At least, unless you were willing to share more.”

“I really can’t…”

“Then that’s where you should start. If I were you, it’s what I’d do.”

“I suppose…” Maybe they could still support her, even if they didn’t know what exactly they were supporting her for. Maybe… she needed her friends after all.

She couldn’t solve this by herself. She thought she could. She thought she had to. But she couldn’t, not now…

Ponyville. It was time to head home, there was nothing more to be done in Canterlot. Twilight didn’t want to face Celestia yet. It was inevitable, but right now… She didn’t want to think what would happen, especially with Sombra here to escalate things.

Twilight had to know why she did what she did. But she wasn’t ready…

No, she still had to solve the Sombra situation first. She needed her friends, especially with how things had changed.

They were family, after all. And if Sombra saw his son in Twilight, if this revelation had caused him to, on the off chance, develop some feelings of paternal affection towards her…

She could save him.

She had to save King Sombra. That was the only way out of this. She had to teach him the Magic of Friendship, to show him how wrong he was about the world. Perhaps she was now the only person in Equestria who could, but if there was a chance then she had to take it.

And she would need her friends for this. Their kindness. Their generosity. Their honesty. Their loyalty. Their laughter.

Even with the weight of the revelation still crushing down on her, she was already feeling a little better as she imagined them jumping in to share that load.

“Thank you, Shadow,” Twilight thanked the stallion. “I think I needed that. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I can’t do it alone. I was wrong about that.”

“Well… you’re welcome, I guess,” he responded. “So, you’re going to be okay?”

“No,” she admitted. “Maybe not for a while. But… well, I have to hope.”

“Right, well… I wish you the best all the same.”

“And where are you going, might I ask?” Twilight said, glancing at his saddlebags. “You look prepared for a major project.”

“I suppose I am,” he confirmed. “I’m returning to the Crystal Empire later today, actually. I’m doing some follow-up research into the city’s history. You know, making sure we left no stone unturned the last time we were there.”

“Sounds fun. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

“So do I,” he stated, hopping off of the bench and giving her one final glance. “See you around, Twilight Sparkle.”

And, with that, he departed.

Twilight didn’t stick around too long after that either. If Sombra intended to try and warp Twilight towards his dark way of thinking, to prod and poke at the negative emotions swirling around inside her in the wake of finding out the truth… Well, then she would just have to turn him first.

Time to see which one of them was the most stubborn.


That Night



The royal archive within the ground of Canterlot Castle was dark, the Lunar Guard patrolling around it much as their day counterparts had when the sun had graced the sky. But now the moon was up, and Equestria had become Luna’s domain.

Those who worked within the archive had gone home for the day, and the building was closed off towards all but those who had special clearance. And since Celestia had yet to select a new student, that was only the Princesses of Equestria and the Royal Guard.

But the figure in the shadows didn’t care. That archive had knowledge that they needed, his knowledge. Knowledge they just had to claim as their own.

With the darkness as their ally, the figure moved towards the building unseen by the patrols around him. The figure had waited a long time for this, studied their patterns and routes until he was sure he could make it to the archive undetected.

Those within the building were a different story, but the figure would deal with that when the time came.

After avoiding the outside patrols, the figure slyly made his way into the archive building. A unicorn in the blue armour of the Lunar Guard was passing through reception, his horn alight and searching for any intruders.

It caught sight of one just as the figure launched a small and practised bolt of magic at him, the guard falling into unconsciousness before he even hit the floor.

Months of preparation had led to this moment, and they were not about to be denied.

The figure traversed through the building, using their extensive knowledge of both the archive and their own magical abilities to either avoid any further guards or to otherwise incapacitate them.

And then they’d made it to their destination.

The restricted section. The door of which would open only for the alicorns, of course.

Fortunately, they were intending on making their own door.

Dark magic started to bubble up the surface of the figure’s horn, a spell not all that dissimilar from the one Sombra had used earlier that very day to gain entry to Celestia’s private collection. It was, perhaps, less powerful. But then again, so were the wards on the wall he targeted.

The wall gave after some resistance, though the noise meant that they would not have long.

The figure rushed into the restricted section, breezing past many tomes and heading directly for Sombra’s. Their eyes scanned the shelves, locating exactly what was needed for the task ahead. The books were swiped away and placed into a waiting saddlebag, the figure then moving to make their escape.

“Halt!” a thestral shouted as he and two others burst through the door leading to the staircase and confronted the figure with their swords drawn. One of the outside patrols, the first responding to the break-in. “You are trespassing on the property of the princesses, surrender!”

No. They would not surrender. They had spent too long planning, too long needing what was contained within the ancient dark mage’s works. The very thought that these fools would think to halt their climb to greatness was… infuriating. They dared? They dared!?

The anger bubbled inside the figure, coalescing in the charge of dark magic remaining in their horn. And then, in one quick and uncontrolled burst fuelled entirely by emotions without much actual thought, the spell was unleashed at the three guards in its way.

Crackles of dark energy struck the guards, bypassing their armour and hitting the vulnerable flesh within. Without even the ability to moan in pain, the ponies within started to wither like a flower in winter.

Then they were dead.

Without a moment to lose, feeling rather proud of their crude display of dark magic, the figure proceeded to slip away before the rest of the regiment arrived.

This, after all, was only the beginning.

10 - Return

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Ponyville.

By Celestia, it was definitely good to be home.

Twilight had ended up spending the night in Canterlot, dropping by the old tower Princess Celestia had given her above her school. Twilight still owned the old place, though it had fallen somewhat into a dusty mess in her absence. But she had bigger fish to fry than a little bit a spring cleaning, and so she had departed again once the sun had risen.

From there, she’d caught the first train back to Ponyville. The journey had been made in almost complete silence, the spectre inside her head keeping to himself the entire time. Twilight was thankful for that at least, she didn’t feel much like making conversation with the unicorn.

But now, hopefully, she could find the mares she did very much want to talk with.

First, she just had to figure out what exactly it was she was going to say.

She walked through town with bated breath, keeping her eyes peeled for any of her friends amongst the crowd. She had yet to spot any of them within the colourful ocean and she started to slowly make her way towards the market.

If none of them were there, then she’d have to try a house call. She could hit up Rarity’s boutique or maybe pop into Sugarcube Corner. She could always fly over to Sweet Apple Acres, knock on Fluttershy’s door, crash through Rainbow’s window…

Why was it suddenly so hard just choosing who to go to first?

As the alicorn stepped into the market, none of her friends were immediately visible among the swath of shoppers going about their day. The stand for the Apple family was sadly vacant for the time being, and instead Twilight felt her eyes being drawn to the nearby rooftop of Sugarcube Corner in all its fake delicious-looking dessert glory.

If she was going to go grovelling to one of their homes, she might as well make it the closest.

Carving a path slowly through the market, Twilight soon found herself free from the sea of bodies and making her way towards the colourful restaurant. Approaching the front entrance, she saw a young couple exit the building with their foal, the child’s mouth smothered in recently demolished treats. They gave Twilight little respectful nods as she passed them by, watching as the Princess of Equestria seemed to hesitate by the door before taking in a deep breath and pushing her way inside.

The inside of Sugarcube Corner was decently busy, with ponies eating their meals at the various tables while a few others ogled at their food options at the counter; Mrs Cake patiently waiting to take their orders.

There was no sign of Pinkie Pie, though.

“Oh, Princess!” Mrs Cake greeted on sighting the alicorn. “Why, Pinkie Pie was awfully worried about you. I do hope you’re okay?”

“I’m fine, Mrs Cake,” Twilight assured the plump mare. “Is Pinkie here? I… kinda need to talk with her.”

“She’s in the kitchen,” she confirmed. “Give me a second, and then I can-”

“TWILIGHT!” came a shout from the pink blur that shot through the kitchen door and barrelled into Twilight at Mach 4. “I knew you’d be okay! From whatever it is you needed to be okay from! But I was worried but then I had this itchy knee and ruffly tail and I knew you were back and looking for me and YAY!”

“Hi, Pinkie,” Twilight patted the mare on the back, though was very self-conscious at being pinned to the floor beneath her friend’s glomp. “It’s okay, so… can I please get up?”

“Two seconds,” Pinkie replied, tightening her hug for precisely that amount of time before hopping up onto her hooves and offering to help Twilight up. “There we go!”

Twilight accepted the helping hoof, brushing herself down and glancing at the ponies around them. They’d all only spared the odd amused look at the sight, all quite accustomed to the antics of the party pony. That was fortunate.

“Soooo, how’d it go?” Pinkie asked.

“How’d what go?”

“The super-secret research project, of course!”

Twilight rubbed the back of her head. “That’s, uh…”

Pinkie deflated a little. “Still secret, huh?”

“Sorry, Pinkie.”

She scuffed the ground. “Yeah, well…”

“Pinkie,” Twilight addressed. “Could you get the rest of the girls together and meet me back here. Or maybe upstairs would be better. We… we need to talk.”

She brightened, giving a salute. “Okie dokie lokie! Sergeant Diane Pie is on the case! And then we can have a big party to celebrate whatever it is you did!”

“No party,” Twilight rebuffed.

“Awww, but why not?”

Twilight sighed. “I don’t feel like it. It’s not like I did anything worthy of a party. Not yet, anyway.”

She huffed. “Well… okay. But it’s only postponed, got it!”

“Got it.”

With that, Pinkie gave a determined nod before rushing out from the restaurant to gather the others. Twilight, meanwhile, just let out another sigh before catching a glance from Mrs Cake.

“I do hope you won’t be keeping my best chef from work for long?” she asked with a chuckle.

“I’ll try to make it brief,” she promised. “Can I wait upstairs?”

“Of course, dear.”

With Mrs Cake’s permission, Twilight offered her a quick word of thanks before making her way up to the next floor. From there, she ducked into Pinkie Pie’s room and started her waiting. She just stood right in the middle, giving the room a look over as the time ticked by. She caught Gummy’s eye at one point, just watching the small alligator lick its own eyeball while otherwise remaining stagnant.

“What a curious reptile,” Sombra suddenly stated, appearing before the creature who reacted in no way whatsoever, humming as he studied it. “I can almost sense an unusual intelligence behind those vacant eyes.”

“I didn’t know you had a sense of humour,” Twilight deadpanned.

“Who said I was joking?” he asked, turning from Gummy and giving Twilight his focus. “But let us discuss you. Coming back here to grovel before your lessers? Why?”

“Because they’re my friends,” Twilight retorted. “And they deserve an apology.”

“They got in your way, and you cast them aside accordingly. You really should only surround yourself with followers at most, friends are always such a waste.”

“So, what was Radiant Hope to you?” she shot, the King’s expression darkening at her words. “I saw her in the book, remember? Who was it that captured the tyrant’s heart?”

“I was the only one capturing hearts in that city, my granddaughter.”

“Of course you were,” Twilight replied doubtfully, turning from the apparition and starting to pace back and forth.

“You are still resisting the very inclination of your inner ambition,” Sombra noted. “Rebelling against your birthright.”

“What ambition?” Twilight scoffed.

He rolled his eyes. “Do not deny it. You were proud to be considered the most gifted unicorn in Equestria. Just as I can sense your pride at your newfound wings. You are a seeker of the magical arts, and always strive to improve upon yourself. How is this any different?”

“Taking over Equestria never really equated into my studies,” she shot back.

“Then let us put it aside for the moment, the day is still young,” Sombra decided. “Instead, let us turn to what does currently interest you. My spells.”

Twilight didn’t meet his gaze. “What are you talking about?”

“Magic. Pure and simple. The darkness is just one aspect of many, and one you have yet to even pierce beyond that simple burst taught to you by Celestia.”

“I recall it hurting. A lot.”

“Only because you are not used to containing such raw strength,” he rebutted. “It is no different to learning anything else, it gets easier with practice.”

“It’s evil!” Twilight shouted. “I would never use it if I didn’t have to!”

“You used it when provided with that potion to see things that were,” Sombra noted, smirking triumphantly as Twilight flinched. “The zebra explained it would work only for alicorn magic, any alicorn magic. You chose to default to the darkness. Why was that?”

“I… don’t really know,” Twilight admitted. “I guess I thought it would give the strongest reaction.”

“And you were right. You succeeded in your goal, and dark magic helped achieve it,” the King pointed out, stopping Twilight in her tracks by stepping out in front of her. “It may happen again. A puzzle the light cannot solve. A creature it cannot touch. One day, our knowledge may save the lives of those ‘friends’ you hold so dear.”

“I… I guess I can see the logic in that,” Twilight conceded, biting her lip in conflict. “At the end of the day, I suppose it’s the how it’s used rather than the magic itself that can be good and bad. And… I am a little curious about how it all works. I tried asking the Princess once, just after the Crystal Empire returned, but she wouldn’t say anything else on the subject.”

“And now you know the reason, yet another branch of her lie,” Sombra sneered. “Don’t you see? Your potential is so much greater than any of those other alicorns. But Celestia would not allow anypony to surpass her own raw ability. But you must break her chains, discover what you are truly capable of!”

“Just the spells,” Twilight decided, looking Sombra directly in the eyes. “Start from the bottom up. The theory, the practice. Everything I can study and learn.”

He grinned. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Good. Because then we can also get to know each other a little better as well.”

He frowned. “Can we now…?”

“Yes,” she replied brightly. “And I can show you all the friendship lessons you’ve been missing! I teach you while you’re teaching me! It’s perfect!”

He looked less than enthused. “I see. I think you would find me a poor student on that topic, Twilight. But do as you must, so long as you learn between those wasted breaths.”

“They won’t be wasted. You’ll see!”

“No. You are the one that shall see, as it must always be.”

There was a click as the door opened, Sombra vanishing as his visage was replaced with that of five mares who all seemed, to some degree, to hole a sense of nervousness about them.

“Hey, girls,” Twilight gingerly greeted as the door was closed behind them. “I’m back.”

“Are you okay?” Fluttershy was the first to ask. “Oh dear. You seem… pale.”

“It’s… been a trying time,” Twilight admitted, sitting down by the bed. “It’s not exactly been fun.”

“I can tell,” Rainbow Dash remarked, getting a frown from some of the others. “You look horrible, Twilight.”

“Pinkie said you wanted to talk to us all?” Applejack asked, adjusting her hat downwards a little. “You were mighty agitated when we last talked, Sugarcube. What’s all this about?”

“I just wanted to say…” Twilight sighed, fighting back a stray tear or two. “I’m sorry. Girls, I’m so sorry for how I acted.”

They all glanced between one another.

“Darling, none of us are really holding it against you. We’re just concerned for your wellbeing,” Rarity pointed out. “And I trust things in Canterlot went at least somewhat smoothly?”

“Not exactly,” Twilight admitted.

“She still doesn’t want to tell us the big secret,” Pinkie recalled sadly.

“I figured,” Applejack muttered.

“Girls, please…” Twilight quietly replied. “It’s… personal. Family related, you know?”

The apple farmer’s eyes widened, and a little bit of guilt of her own crept onto her features. “Well… shucks, Twilight Why’d you now just say so? An Apple always knows how family can be.”

“I’m sorry…” Twilight repeated. “But, well… Things aren’t exactly better. I can’t say why, but… I just need to know you girls are here, you know? It helps… But I just… just…”

They all looked between one another again, though seemed more resolute as they suddenly approached Twilight and surrounded her closely.

“Don’t sweat it, of course we’ve got your back!” Rainbow Dash said. “So don’t tell us, whatever! We’ll still be behind the whole way! Right, girls?”

“Definitely,” Rarity agreed. “Just let me take care of that coat and mane, they do look to be in dire need of some care and attention.”

“I haven’t had time to manage my appearance,” Twilight sheepishly admitted. “It’s, uh… been a bit hectic since I left.”

“Well, you’re home now,” Fluttershy said with a small smile. “And if you need some peace and quiet, you can always come around for some tea. I have a new mix in from Saddle Arabia.”

“Naw, what she needs is a home cooked meal!” Applejack suggested. “That’s how an Apple lifts spirits! Apple pie, apple crumble, applesauce… You name it!”

“And a party!” Pinkie Pie stressed her point once again.

“Later, Pinkie,” Twilight again rebuffed, getting a small whine from the pink mare. “But right now, I think I want to get back… after taking Rarity up on her offer. Maybe the spa? I could use some relaxation about now.”

“What a wonderful idea!” Rarity agreed. “Why, I have the perfect treatment in mind! I shall pay, don’t you worry or even think about protesting! Why, the very idea of a princess being in such a state demands my contribution to rectify the issue!”

“You can go ahead. I need to get back and feed Tank,” Rainbow stated. “But enjoy all that frilly stuff anyway. It’ll probably help.”

“Sure you really don’t wanna join us, Rainbow?” Applejack asked with a jab at the pegasus.

She blushed. “N-no! Why would I ever want to be in a place like that! Stupid relaxing spas…”

“I can go. The animals are already taken care of for the next few hours,” Fluttershy said.

“I need to get back to work, treats won’t make themselves!” Pinkie noted. “Unless they’re self-making treats. But it’s faaaar better if I’m the one making them!”

“Well, that just leaves me then,” Applejack stated. “Eh, guess I’ll tag along. I suppose a steam bath might take a load off the ol’ shoulders.”

“Then it’s decided. We must not delay!” Rarity declared, lighting up her horn and proceeding to drag the others along and out the door.

Twilight happily went along with her friends, feeling untold relief at their quick reconciliation. And with what was on the horizon, she would cherish every single moment of the spa day Rarity was now physically dragging them to. Every moment spent with them would be a treasure, and yet also added to the weight of what Sombra had said about protecting them…

And he knew this, watching on from within her subconsciousness. As much as he felt dismay at her lax attitude towards those other ponies, he knew this was not to be a quick process. But he had started to bring her into his form of sense already, whether she realised it or not. The first step had already been taken. Her willingness to learn, and with his guidance, well…

It was a victory.

His distant granddaughter was, from that point onwards, his student. One he would teach all he had, morphing that deliciously brilliant mind into one worthy of both itself and their bloodline!

Piece by piece, spell by spell, he would surely start to unleash the Midnight within.

11 - To Teach a Princess

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The Next Day



“So, what’s first?”

To say that Twilight Sparkle was ‘excited’ would be a gross understatement.

It was approaching midday, the sun rising high into the sky as Twilight put the finishing touches onto her brand-new study space.

Which, of course, was just the Golden Oaks Library.

The library had been closed to the public for the day, the interior space redecorated with tables containing various books and arcane artefacts that the alicorn had dug out from her basement lab. Anything and everything she thought that she might need for a day of intense studying and magical training, it was all there. It was an all too familiar sight for Spike, the drake peaking in from the kitchen before giving a bemused sigh and retreating back to his plate of gems, though it had been some time since Twilight had found a spell so exciting that she’d spread her laboratory into the entire tree.

And he didn’t even know what it was she was studying.

Twilight, on her part, pranced over from table to table as she conducted final checks on her equipment, ensuring everything was working at its peak efficiency! Some of the more rudimentary systems had been tied into the town’s electrical grid; it’s amazing what you’re allowed to do as a Princess of Equestria, while others were being powered by magical crystals that you should never use in a coffee machine.

No, she was never making that mistake again.

Still, everything was set up and waiting for the fun to begin. Fun consisting of equal amounts of darkness and friendship!

“Still you naively cling to that folly of a concept,” Sombra dismissed the latter as he poofed into existence next to her, giving a bemused glance around the library. “None of this is necessary, it is but your magical skill I require.”

“Oh, you never know what will come in handy,” Twilight retorted. “Besides, most of it is monitoring equipment. I intend to record and catalogue every single spark I make today, there has never been a more in-depth study into the dark magical arts!”

Sombra gave the equipment another look, not… entirely sure how any of it was meant to work. Something he would have to search through his distant granddaughter’s brain for at some point, there was still much about the modern age he had yet to learn.

But that knowledge could be gained at a later date, for now, he had a lesson to teach.

“Very well, do as you will,” he conceded. “But I require your utmost dedication to the darkness from this point forth. The forces with which you play, they are not to be trifled with. It is a power of which you must always control, for it will otherwise seek to control you.”

“That… sounds bad.”

“It invites an early grave… and the graves of whoever would be unfortunate enough to be caught in the path of the nearly mindless abomination you become.”

It was true that there was a risk, even if you were using normal magic, that gaining copious amounts of new power all at once could drive an unprepared and untrained mind to insanity. It could drive a pony to do terrible things without being fully in control of their actions…

But Twilight was anything but untrained and unprepared.

“The confidence you feel is good, it provides you strength,” Sombra stated. “But we must also know your current limitation, so that is where we shall begin.”

“Alright, so what does all of this entail?”

“We shall start with a simple spell on this day,” he explained. “Then, tomorrow, we will move on to something more challenging. The day after that, something truly difficult shall be your task.”

“I see, to know where my magic is at and how well I can control my own dark magic,” she noted in turn. “So, if I have trouble with one stage in particular, we can stop and work up to it.”

“Indeed. I am glad we have an understanding,” he responded. “But I would hope that today’s spell would be easy to master for one such as yourself. If not… then we have a problem.”

“I’m more than up for the challenge,” Twilight shot back pridefully. “And I’m sure you will be there to give me pointers and support. After all, that is just one of the many advantages to having friends!”

His look became far more deadpan. “I’m sure it is, but that is not the nature of our relationship.”

“I’m just noting something I’ve observed many times, Sombra.”

“But moving on to the spell you are to learn…” he eagerly changed the subject away from his descendant’s infuriating obsession with friends. “We are going to require you dragon servant.”

“Spike’s not my ‘servant’,” Twilight chided the King. “And what do we need him for? Aren’t we meant to be keeping all of this quiet for now?”

“And we shall continue to do so,” Sombra confirmed. “But we require him nevertheless, I’m sure you can safely appease his curiosity with some conjured explanation.”

Twilight frowned. She didn’t like the idea of including Spike in all of this, but she might as well hear him out first…

“Alright. But again, why do we need him?”

“The first spell is but one of the easiest I have ever designed,” he started to explain. “A spell I based off of a dragon fire spell, capable of moving an object from one location to the next across vast distances.”

“A dragon fire spell?” Twilight questioned with a frown. “Princess Celestia can do something similar, and she doesn’t use dark magic for it!”

“Are you so certain?” he taunted. “But yes, I am aware of Celestia’s ability. But her spell is tied directly into the dragon’s own natural fire, she can only use the spell to send messages to him, while his version is far more versatile. My magic emulates that, and while we shall practice intertwining it with the drake much as Celestia has, it is not restricted to that single transfer.”

“So, you could theoretically send items anywhere in Equestria?” Twilight questioned, already taking down a few notes.

“Alas, as with a dragon’s fire, spontaneously sending an item is limited to both knowledge of the recipient and range. Long distances require a direct connection like Celestia has formed, and like you are to form.”

“But I could still use it to send items without that connection?” Twilight enquired. “Like Spike can, but the Princess is unable?”

“Indeed.”

Her eyes sparkled suitably. “That sounds amazing! Where do we start?”

“As I said, call the drake.”

“Spike!” Twilight called out towards the kitchen. “I need your help with something, are you busy?”

“Hold on a moment, Twilight!” she heard him call back, hearing some rummaging from inside the other room before the door opened and the young dragon strolled out with stray remnants of various gems around his mouth. “What’s up?”

“I need some help with this new spell I’ve been working on,” she explained to him, scooching him over and planting him in the centre of the room. “Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe!”

“When you feel the need to reassure that right off the bat, then I get worried,” Spike deadpanned, crossing his arms. “But alright, what have you got for me this time?”

“Remember how Princess Celestia figured out a way to tie her magic into your dragon fire spell?”

“Yeah. I’ve had the stomach aches to prove it,” he replied before the dragon then realised exactly where she was going with it. “You haven’t found a way to replicate it, have you?”

“Eh, not exactly,” she dismissed with a wave of her hoof. “This is… uh, my own spin on it. It’s more of an accurate recreation of the dragon fire spell rather than piggybacking off of it. I think I should be able to tie it into your stream, but I should be able to send things to other locations the way you can as well.”

“Huh, I can see why you’d find that useful,” he noted. “And it would give me a break every once in a while.”

“Or we can double our output when we have all that paperwork to send!” Twilight gushed.

He shrugged. “Hey, if it cuts my work in half, I’m all in. Where do we start?”

“Right, well…”

Actually… where was she meant to start?

“Build up the darkness inside…” Sombra started from within her head. “Let it grow and boil…”

She gave a small gulp, hoping to Cele- Equestria that Spike would continue to buy her lies about the spell.

Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Twilight thought back on everything in her life that had ever made her angry and/or sad. The feeling of not being told about Shining Armor and Cadance’s engagement. The fury over not being able to figure out Pinkie Pie’s abilities. The humiliation she suffered within Sombra’s trap in the Crystal Empire…

Celestia.

She had lied to her. Betrayed her. She had trusted her, thought of her as a second mother, loved her! She was more than a Princess and a mentor, and she thought that the elder alicorn had felt the same way! But, no, it was all a lie and a game to her. From that first day she had ALWAYS known! Always! Every moment they had spent must have been such a joke to her! Knowing something that Twilight didn’t, lying to her face on numerous occasions, manipulating her! She… she…!

“Um, Twilight…?” Spike muttered fearfully.

“WHAT!?”

Reality seemed to hit her all at once.

Her horn was alight with pulsating and bubbling black and green energies, the same energy pouring sickeningly from her eyes. And the fear on Spike’s face as he took a step back…

She didn’t cut the stream, but she did immediately rein her feelings in. Those feelings she had used, they’d been powerful…

Maybe she should avoid thinking about Celestia when using dark magic for the time being.

“I’m sorry, Spike,” Twilight apologised. “I got caught in the moment, that’s all.”

“B-but, t-that’s dark m-magic…” he stuttered, pointing at her horn.

“What? Psh, no…” she denied swiftly with a fake roll of her eyes. “Sure, it kinda looks like it. A curious by-product I really need to research some more, but it’s totally safe!”

“You’re sure…?” he asked doubtfully, tapping his claws together gingerly. “Because you were really scary just then…”

Twilight sighed, wrapping a wing around the dragon and pulling him into a tender embrace.

“I’m sorry I scared you, Spike,” she said regretfully. “I’ll make it up to you after we’re done. How about I take you for ice cream, extra gem shards included.”

His eyes brightened, the young dragon stepping away and wiping a stray tear from his eye. “Really?”

“Really,” she confirmed with a nod.

“Awesome!” he proclaimed, his good mood returning. “Alright, just. try to keep a handle on it, yeah? I don’t want to put out another fire.”

“Oh please, how often does that happen?”

“Do you want me to answer?” he deadpanned.

She gave a sheepish laugh, selecting not to dignify that with a response as she used her corrupted magic to pick up an empty nearby scroll. She held it before her, preparing for the first test.

“Alright, I’m going to start off by trying to send this at you. Is that okay?”

“Whenever you are ready, Twilight!”

Now, she just had to wait on Sombra to explain the next step.

The disembodied unicorn, on his part, couldn’t help but curiously note the strange dynamic between the pair. One moment they were like researcher and assistant, and the next it was almost… paternal.

Something else he would have to examine in her memories.

But he complied, carefully and in detail going through each step towards the spell. As simple as it was compared to his wide arsenal, it was still dark magical and quite dangerous should it be improperly performed.

As was proven by the first attempt, rendering the scroll to ash.

But Twilight wasn’t to be dissuaded by one failed attempt. So, supported by Spike in her efforts, she simply retrieved another scroll and focused on improving upon her previous failures. Clearly, she’d used too much power and overloaded the spell, destroying the object before transit could occur. She just needed to use a finite amount, get the correct balance…

The next scroll vanished amidst black flames, Twilight giving a victorious shout!

Only for the scroll to spontaneously appear above Spike and almost hit him on the head.

The drake next picked it back up and passed it back to the alicorn, the mare trying to focus in on where she had failed. Clearly, she had found the right amount of power to achieve the spell. However, she had sent it at Spike rather than through his dragon fire spell. A significant achievement, but not yet intertwined with his magic successfully…

So, she had him transport the scroll back to her via his dragon fire.

Now it was her turn to almost be hit on the head, but the exercise allowed Twilight to scan the magical readings from the spell.

Just what she needed.

She started up the experiment again, this time trying to send the scroll while connecting it up to that exact signature while doing so. The scroll sparked, remaining still as Twilight encountered some resistance. She saw Spike’s eyes widen as he felt something, and after a small twitch of his head, she felt the connection establish as the scroll burned up within her black flames only to emerge from inside his green!

“Yes!” Twilight proclaimed in victory. “It works! Ha!”

“Nice one, Twilight!” Spike complimented. “I just had to accept the connection. We should be able to send things between us whenever we want now.”

“This is amazing!” she stated excitedly, letting the dark magic die off as she marvelled at her achievement. It hadn’t even hurt all that much to use…

“I suppose now you’ll just need to set up a direct line to Princess Celestia and wherever else you wanna send stuff,” he noted.

Ah, Celestia again.

“I’ll… figure that out another time,” she dismissed quickly. “But I think you’ve earned that ice cream.”

“Pfft, it was no biggie,” he replied. “But it’s nice to see you in a good mood. You were in a bad way when you ran out of here the other day.”

“Well, I have more to be happy about,” she replied. “A lot more.”

“You should be proud of this first accomplishment,” Sombra agreed. “The first step of a long journey…”

And the intensity of her anger towards Celestia had been most intriguing. She’d almost lost control, that is true. But she had also reined it in. Still, that anger was something he would most assuredly exploit.

So, he let her go with the young dragon to enjoy themselves in town. He would remain silent, planning out their next lesson and how to further her descent. Piece by piece he would show his descendant the true nature of the world, she would come to understand why it is the strong would rule and the weak lived only to serve that rule. Already she was marvelling in her new power, and that would only increase as time progressed.

Oh, he had a great many plans to fulfil.

12 - Among Shadow

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The day Twilight Sparkle had been taught her first dark magical spell by King Sombra had quickly come and gone; caused by a mix of euphoria onset by her usual studious bliss and an added joy of spending the rest of the day with her ever so faithful assistant Spike. Her joy was captivating, a far cry from her formerly dour mood. Something Spike, and her friends, weren’t remiss in noticing.

So, when the next day had come, Twilight’s eagerness only increased in anticipation for the next lesson ahead of her. That, and the thought of continuing the reformation of one of the worst tyrants in Equestrian history.

If you were to ask her, she was ‘in the zone’.

There was one thing that bothered her, however.

“Why are we going into the Everfree Forest?”

Indeed, Twilight was now approaching the dark patch on the face of Equestria. The forest was considered, perhaps aside from the Frozen North, the last true wild land in the entire country. Even the Appleoosian Desert existed as more-or-less a pony-controlled environment. However, like the Frozen North, the Everfree Forest was a place that operated entirely under the feral forces of nature. Beyond that, it was also a haven for dangerous wild animals both mundane and magical in nature.

Not to mention that rampant magics that attract or even create such creatures, some of it dark in nature.

Considering that detail, she could understand why Sombra might take interest in a forest that was still blighted by the conflict of the two alicorn sisters.

And yet she was more than a little perplexed at why it’d be a good place for any kind of practice by, for all intents and purposes, a dark magical novice.

“The embers of dark magic that infest these trees isn’t why we walk the path on this day,” Sombra said as he appeared next to Twilight, physically accompanying her as they fully entered the forest. “It is the isolation. Away from any who might… interfere.”

“I was able to convince Spike that the last lesson was benign,” Twilight pointed out.

“I would not be so sure about your next lesson, Granddaughter.”

So, clearly the next lesson as going to lack in any kind of subtlety. That explained it.

“Well, the forest’s dangers rarely come close to the path,” Twilight noted, glancing up the trail leading to Zecora’s hut. “I guess pony-made structures make them nervous. Recent ones, anyway.”

“We shall need to depart it before reaching the zebra’s abode,” Sombra informed her. “And from there, locate a clearing where we can undergo our lesson in relative peace.”

“Oh…” Well, she did recall certain spots that would be suited from her previous experiences with the Everfree Forest. The Castle of the Two Sisters would be another option, but that was a little but too deep in, perhaps. “Well, I might know a place. Let’s just hope we don’t run into anything on the way.”

“I am certain you can handle annoyances.”

“I’ll remind you of that if we run into a hydra,” she deadpanned in turn. “Been there. Done that. It’s not fun.”

“For all its many heads, even a hydra is a simple being in comparison to ones such as ourselves,” he dismissed. “And simple beings respect power. If they recognise it, they will not approach.”

“And if they don’t?”

He smirked. “Make them.”

Twilight felt a shiver run down her spine at his sinister tone. It would probably be better for everything involved that she simply didn’t encounter anything, the alicorn feeling no desire to be feared by anything.

The disapproval that appeared on Sombra’s face the moment she thought that was evident, but he otherwise didn’t appear all that concerned. That did worry Twilight, however, the mare remembering just how manipulative the dark mage could be.

Her mood fell a bit, the mare now a bit more alert in regard to the stallion. They might be teaching one another, but she couldn’t forget that he hadn’t exactly accepted friendship as of yet.

Speaking of…

“Have you through about what I said?” Twilight asked him.

He raised an eyebrow. “About what?

“About having other ponies at your side, you know?” she responded. “Friends, even just acquaintances. Ponies who are more than just ‘servants’.”

“Only that there is little point in further discussing the matter. It is a fool’s errand, Twilight Sparkle.”

“Then I guess there’s a little bit of that fool inside of you that I inherited,” Twilight claimed brightly, much to the King’s annoyance. “You could build a life in Equestria, you know. Even Ponyville, I’m pretty sure the town is used to weird occurrences by now.”

“I’m sure they are.”

“I’m serious!” Twilight retorted. “If everypony knew that you’d changed, and who you are to my family, then they would accept you. It might take some work, but it could happen.”

“I am considered a monster, do not be so foolish in your sentiments.”

“Oh, our legal system is quite forgiving if the reformation is genuine,” she informed him. “And I’m a Princess of Equestria, I have some say in these things.”

“So, you would have me live a quiet life?” he asked mockingly. “It is not our destiny to live in obscurity, Twilight. Our power places us over the common masses, and the need to support from any other being. I shall return to your society, but only to see our family’s rightful dominion over it.”

Twilight sighed. “Haven’t you ever wondered what it would be like to lead a normal life?”

“I do not require ‘wonder’, I have already lived it,” Sombra rebuffed, stopping Twilight in her tracks. He looked back at her, nothing but disdain in his eyes. “I shall not return to such a pitiful state, and neither shall you.”

And with that, he vanished. Twilight was left with his words, again wondering just what led the King to his current state. What exactly his relationship with Radiant Hope was, and who he was before the dark magic.

It would be a long road for those answers. For now, she would just have to leave it be and move on.

Twilight didn’t need to walk for long, eventually locating a spot that, if her memory was hopefully serving her, would put her on track for a sizable clearing in the canopy. All she would need to do was get through the forest safe and sound, not to mention getting back again afterwards.

Maybe a teleportation spell would be safer for the latter.

Either way, Twilight let out a deep breath before stepping off of the relative safety of the trail and headed deep into the treeline. Almost immediately, most of the sun’s rays were blocked out by the thick layer of leaves and branches high above her head, only small patches managing to break through that much of the smaller plant life seemed to be locked in eternal combat over the possession of. All of it just served to illustrate the kill or be killed nature of the forest, the creatures inside fighting and killing one another in far more frequency than even normal predator-prey relationships. All forged by over a millennia of magical corruption and the formation of a habitat that seem to bleed chaos wherever it spread. A world affected by ponies in the worst possible ways, leaving nature warped and twisted into a parody of itself.

Hard to imagine that it was in this place that the Tree of Harmony resided.

Still, if any of the forest's denizens had their eyes on her, they didn’t show themselves. Twilight could occasionally hear the scuttering of some of the more benign inhabitant, small herbivores that somehow managed to call the place home despite all the odds. Though it was likely in part due to them hiding from anything that came remotely close to their dens, just like they were doing to Twilight now.

But the lack of any visible wildlife only served as a relief for Twilight, even more so when the treeline opened up and the sun returned upon her entering the desired clearing.

“Here we are,” Twilight announced, glancing around the space they’d be practising in. “Right where I thought it was.”

The clearing was an imperfect circle in shape, filled with soft blades of grass and a few thankfully normal flowers that were taking advantage of the open skies. Where it was filled with flora, it lacked in any fauna, likely because such open spots would open animals up to aerial attacks by the forest’s flight-able population. Still, there wasn’t any indication that a Roc was nearby, so Twilight felt a large degree more comfortable here than she had beneath the trees.

Now, she just had to see what Sombra had up his metaphorical sleeves.

“So, we’re here,” she said to the apparition as he appeared once again before her. “So maybe you could explain just why I need to be in the middle of a dangerous forest for this to work?”

“Your quick mastery of a basic spell was telling,” Sombra began. “So now we move onto the intermediate. A spell far beyond the reach of any talentless fool with delusions of grandeur, and even challenging for those who hold a modicum of gift. And yet, contrary to what it might seem, it is not among the most volatile of spells I designed.”

“Okay, so what is the spell?”

“One I believe you yourself have witnessed me perform to great effect. Twilight Sparkle, to understand shadow, you must embrace it fully. To that effect, you must learn the ability of shadowform.”

Twilight blinked. “Shadowform? You mean that spell turning you into that big… cloud thing with eyes? Sombra, that seems… extreme for our second lesson.”

“It is as I said it to be,” he denied. “It is a difficult spell, that is not to be denied. But any being with a firm grasp on magic both light and dark, and with significant ability in using that magic, should be able to master it with time and practice.”

“And you want me to do it in a few hours?” Twilight asked in a deadpan.

“Not at all,” he replied with a shake of his head. “I simply want you to maintain a form of shadow for a mere few moments, before letting the spell collapse. To further prove your ability to learn it at all, and to take the first step towards mastery.”

Well, he wasn’t asking much then…

Twilight inwardly groaned, mulling over what she knew of the spell from her previous observation. It would turn the user into a nearly indestructible mass of shadow, though certain bodily features could be formed at will, such as the eyes and horn. Though doing so didn’t come without risk, as those features were always vulnerable to attack.

Not that the shadow was completely impervious itself. Like all dark magic, it was severely weak against magic powered through love. Cadance would certainly have the advantage if they were to hypothetically spar with it, but other types of magic would certainly have a tough time dispelling the effects of shadowform. Not to mention the fact that physical entities were all but useless against the spell, except against the aforementioned bodily features the user to manifest.

Still, it’s complexity was of interest, that was not to be denied. Neither could the spell’s usefulness, despite its few weaknesses. Not to mention the versatility of the spell, Twilight could think of many more uses than an offensive weapon. Squeezing in through small spaces, travelling long distances in a short space of time…

Actually, she was also pretty certain that Luna knew the spell. Or at least was capable of something similar to it, forming into a cloud of shadow and slipping around unseen… She had done it the first time they had met, escaping from the town hall and towards the very forest she now stood in.

Yes, the more Twilight thought about it, her interest was increasing by the moment. Not as a weapon as Sombra would use it, but as a tool for a whole variety of situations. Already she was thinking of a whole manner of tests to perform in order to find out just how versatile it truly was…

Of course, she had to be able to do it first.

“Shadowform. Alright then,” Twilight stated, repeating the previous day’s process and replacing her usual magical aura with the corrupted energies of dark magic. Was it her, or was it getting even easier? “How do we begin?”

Sombra just smiled.

And then they got to work.

“Feel the magic in your horn, focus on it,” Sombra began. “Feel the flow, the power, the hatred. Embrace it, understand it, let it grow.”

He waited for a few moments, letting Twilight release a breath as she closed her eyes, the dark magic trails still visible from their lids. She waited for her to do as he asked, listening in through her mind until she had reached a point where he thought her ready to begin.

“Now, do not prepare to unleash the magic as you would any other spell, but spread inwards,” Sombra instructed, sensing confusion within her mind. “Spread the energy throughout your body. Every bone. Every inch of blood. It is not to be cast from your horn unto others, but to change your entire form.”

Twilight inwardly frowned, trying to reverse the flow of the dark magic from her horn and back into her own body. It wasn’t like casting a normal spell on yourself, where it would erupt from her horn and spread around her body outwardly. This was trying to spread the magic into her own system from the inside, something usually quite dangerous due to the potential for magical feedback. Neither did it normally serve a purpose, aside from simply flooding your body with raw mana for one reason or another. Still, Twilight has certainly never encountered a reason to do it, so she was heading into unfamiliar territory…

As evidenced when the spell collapsed, and her horn blinked out.

“That’s ridiculous,” Twilight growled. “No spell works that way! Everything I’ve ever studied screams just how bad an idea it is to even try!”

“Is it now?” Sombra rhetorically asked, clearly unamused.

“Yes!” she answered anyway. “Hay, I think the only time I can recall it ever being remotely useful to invert your horn’s spell flow was one time where Starswirl the Bearded was infected by a type of parasite while with the Pillars of Equestria. He flooded his body with magic to force the parasite out, but… Well, that was a very unique event. Otherwise, there’s no point to it!”

“Everything you’ve learned until now was using ‘normal’ magic,” Sombra pointed out. “You are attempting to turn your entire body into shadow itself, and this is how it is to unfold. Put aside what you have learned, embrace what I am to teach.”

Twilight groaned, but he did have a point. He was the expert on the mechanics of dark magic, not her.

If she was going to change that, she would just have to trust him for the time being.

She calmed herself down, taking some deep breaths until she was ready to try again. And when that time came, she once again lit her horn and attempted to spread the dark magic inwards. It was certainly an alien sensation, and the fact that it flew in the face of all her studies was painfully apparent. But she did it anyway, trying to reach every inch of herself from the inside. Her instincts stood in protest, and it took every inch of her will to not cut off the spell entirely.

“Do you feel it? The darkness? Let shadow become a part of you, let your physical mass bleed into it. Let it burn away at your flesh, dissolved your physical until, finally, it is ready to be unleashed!”

There was a burst of shadow.

And then Twilight hit the dirt.

Her whole body felt like fire, her eyes wide and unblinking as she panted heavily from her spot in the grass. She could hardly think, breathing felt like it was taking her whole being just to maintain! Little tufts of shadow radiated from her body, slowing fading away as normality began to return. But still, the pain had been unbelievable!

“W-ha…”

“Again,” Sombra declared.

“What?” Twilight asked, weakly looking up.

“Again,” Sombra repeated. “The moment you give up, the lesson shall end. And that would not be an ideal outcome, Twilight.”

“But what was that?” Twilight asked, shakily getting up to her hooves. “It was like… like…”

“Being torn asunder?” he finished for her. “You reached the transition between the two states, but the spell collapsed there. For a brief moment, you were left in a reality neither fully physical or fully shadow. Being in between two worlds, both a hoof in the grave. You returned to your normal state before the corpse could be realised, but the pain is only a natural effect of your failure.”

“Does it always hurt like that to change?” she asked through her pained breaths.

“Only if incorrectly realised,” he replied. “A true shadowform spell creates a seamless transition, you are merely embracing the better half of yourself. But to trap yourself between the two creates conflict, and that creates the pain.”

“Right, no stopping halfway. Good to know that now,” Twilight stated, calming herself once again for another try.

This was quickly going to become her worst spell-learning experience, she could tell.

And that’s coming from a mare who had inadvertently placed herself in a time loop one time.

Still, Twilight wasn’t one to give up on a spell after one bad screw up. Not if the spell had a real chance at success, and she knew for a fact that this spell worked when applied correctly. She just had to try. She just had to do what she knew she could.

Magic.

Her next attempt sadly ended up almost identical to her last, the magic building to that final point before failing during the transition. The pain had not lessened from the first time, and it left Twilight in quite the sorry state.

So, she tried it again.

This time she almost reached the end point, but then felt a creeping instability in the magic itself. She cut it off, letting it harmlessly bleed away before any harm could be done.

Her head started to ache, but she was not done yet.

Once again, she started to channel the spell, letting the darkness spread through her own body and reaching that critical stage. And then… it happened again.

The darkness exploded out, Twilight inwardly swearing that she saw a single manifested tendril this time, but the spell nevertheless collapsed part way through the transformation and left Twilight tumbling to the ground.

And then she heard the almighty screech of the Roc.

She only could see the giant shadow covering her body before her inert form was scooped up in a giant set of talons and dragged high into the air! In but a moment, the clearing had been left behind and the alicorn was being taken for a feast!

“Twilight!” Sombra shouted in alarm from inside her head.

She didn’t need to be told twice.

Despite the severe pain and nausea she was feeling, a part of her brain was aware enough of the current situation that her horn started to glow with lavender magic before a ‘POP’ indicated her teleportation.

And then she was falling.

Sense starting to return to her, Twilight opened her wings in an attempt to stop her rapid descent and control her spin. She fought against the forces of gravity and her own disorientation to try and bring about a soft landing. And yet the tops of the trees and then the ground each came up quickly, Twilight forcing herself to prepared for the incoming impact.

She hit the ground hard, kicking up a large chunk of dirt as she rolled to a halt. Her pain was now a more permanent fixture, every inch of her body aching as she coughed and started to get her bearings. Despite the bumps and bruises, she appeared to have been fortunate enough not to break anything in the crash landing. Her feathers were in disarray, but the wings themselves seemed to be set as they were meant to be.

But the Roc wasn’t finished.

With a caw, it turned around and started to dive back towards the young alicorn. She lit her horn, firing a beam of destruction magic at the oversized bird as it approached. The beam went wide, her focus diminished from all she had just put her body through, leaving her only with the option of jumping aside as the creature tried to grab at her.

She succeeded, the talons only grabbing dirt as the creature banked and rose back into the air, intent on making another pass.

Twilight, meanwhile, was not doing so hot. Her vision as still swimming, so any attack she made would be grossly inaccurate. She could keep dodging, but it would only be a temporary measure. And in her state, moving back into the forest wasn’t a wise idea either.

She watched the Roc as it turned to dive. Ready to claim its next meal, one which would mean the demise of both herself AND Sombra. She would never see her friends again. Never find out why Celestia did what she did. Never save her distant grandfather’s soul.

All because she’d been stupid.

Stupid.

STUPID!

Her horn bubbled, the Roc reaching down and enveloping the alicorn once again in its talons.

And then it could only screech in fear as a formless mass of shadow erupted from within its grasp, spreading out from its claw and expanding quickly around the beast. It flapped its wings in a surprised panic, regaining height as the mass battered against its body. Feathers were dislodged as a tendril emerged and grasped at its wings, others clawing at its head as it struggled to break free. Fear reeked from the animal, its attempts to free itself futile as the shadowy mass enveloped it entirely, plunging its surroundings into a realm blacker than night itself.

And then it was let go.

The mass started to fall away, the Roc making good on it retreat and soaring away as fast as its wings would carry it.

Meanwhile, the mass started to get smaller. It fell away from the clearing, heading directly to the edge of the forest. By the time it reached the border and crashed into the field between it and Ponyville, the shadow had burned away to be the same size as a pony.

And then it started to reform, darkness giving way to lavender fur as Twilight Sparkle came back into view.

“Well done, Twilight,” Sombra complimented calmly, showing no sign of ever having been fazed by the Roc’s attack. “You held the spell longer than I would have expected, and under such dire circumstances. But it held, for a time.”

Twilight sat up silently, looking around herself in disbelief. She felt sick. Disconcerted. She had been acting in self-defence, but… For a moment, and just a moment, she had wanted to hurt the Roc for what it had tried to do. And this time she couldn’t even blame it on the magic, she had been in perfect control the entire time. Those feelings had come entirely from within herself, born out of a desperation to live.

She was just glad that the spell had collapsed when it did.

“Would you have let yourself die?” he asked.

Clearly not, since she had chosen to live in such a manner herself.

“I know,” she just replied, shivering uncomfortably at her own display of power. “But I could have just scared it off. I… don’t think I will ever tell Fluttershy about this, I know that much.”

“But you are capable of doing what must be done, dark magic or no,” Sombra said victoriously. “You have that part of me, it seems. And it is something you must embrace. It is that which allowed you to live past this day, not a naïve reliance on friends.”

“There needs to be restraint,” Twilight retorted.

“Perhaps,” he conceded. “But you show too much.”

“Or maybe you don’t show enough.”

Still, despite their disagreement and the… unfortunate circumstances, the lesson had been a success. Twilight, if ever so briefly, used the shadowform spell.

She just wished she could feel good about it this time around.

13 - Summons

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“And I thought going into the Everfree Forest was crazy!” Twilight stressed, letting her horn blink out as she stamped an indignant hoof into the basement’s floor.

“Surely you do not mean to say that you, my own descendant, mean to abandon this pursuit?” Sombra asked with a mocking smirk.

“No, just… there is a lot wrong with the very foundation of this spell. Just… what!?”

The alicorn huffed, trotting irritably past her equipment and settling down next to a nearby table with a huff. She lit her magic and picked up a sheet of notes she’d jotted down during the course of Sombra’s third and final lesson to determine Twilight’s natural aptitude with dark magic. A lesson that, among all the others she’d had, was the one that sent the largest shiver down her spine. Sombra was not blind to her apprehension either, and her been persistently egging his heir onwards for the entire duration.

It didn’t help that Twilight was still very sore after her close encounter with the Roc.

After her brush with death the previous day, Twilight had limped back home with a body full of bruises and a mind of pure anxiety. Sombra had been little help in the latter regard, seemingly content to let Twilight work it out by herself. The question of her own strength and willingness to do harm, demonstrated by her particularly ‘spirited’ assault against the giant avian.

In the end, Twilight just had to remind herself that she was justified. And that she would do better to control her own emotions next time, to keep herself in line.

She could just feel Sombra’s smugness from inside her own mind, and it was coming off as something like ‘I wouldn’t bet on it’.

She would show that crazy unicorn.

Still, when she’d arrived home, Spike had a near panic attack when he’d seen her state. The young dragon had been just about ready to cart Twilight off to the hospital by the tail before she calmed him down to the point that he could breathe properly.

And then, once more, out came the half-truths and deception.

She’s told him that she had been on her way to see Zecora in regard to some research she had been doing. However, she’d been attacked by a particularly brave Roc on the way there, one which gave her a rough time but was eventually able to scare away with her magical prowess.

He didn’t try to dig into the exact details of that ‘magical prowess’.

The rest of the day after that had been made up of copious amounts of bed rest and self-casted healing spells. Considering what it could have been, her injuries were incredibly minor and well within the realms of standard magical healing. She was just glad that there wasn’t so much as a fractured bone, the last thing she needed was a prolonged visit to Red Heart over at the Ponyville General Hospital.

She wasn’t sure that the mare had entirely recovered from the migraine that was discovering the Princess’ new alicorn physiology in her last medical exam.

Still, she was practically good as new by the time the morning came. Almost, at least. There was still an irritating ache in most of her joints. But that wasn’t going to get in the way of her studies, she’d just decided that she would have to work them off! Her anxieties and uncertainty were all pushed to the side as the prospect of yet another new spell came to mind!

And they all promptly came rushing back when she found out which highly advanced spell Sombra had in mind.

It was the exact same fear spell that Twilight had suffered in the Crystal Empire.

The same fear spell that, if Sombra was to be believed, even helped bring about the existence of Nightmare Moon.

Of course, Twilight had initially and highly vehemently refused to even consider the possibility of learning such a terrible spell. It was a weapon! An abomination! She wasn’t planning on making ponies live out their fears, the very idea was ridiculous!

But, as usual, Sombra had gotten to know his protégé all too well…

He’d again pried into her desire to protect. He pointed out that by learning the mechanics of the spell that she could do something that he himself had never done. Create a counterspell. A shield. Something that, if cast on a pony before their encounter with the fear spell, could protect them from its effects. As of yet, such a method of protection simply did not exist. Not even Sombra himself apparently could resist his own spell if it was cast, not that he had ever conducted that particular experiment.

But if Twilight could find a way to counter the spell, then maybe its dangers could be mitigated for the future.

After all, as Sombra had also seen fit to point out, it was highly likely that sometime, someplace, such a spell could be replicated by another mage with dark intent.

Of course, learning said mechanics was easier said than done. When Sombra had said that this was one of his most complex spells ever devised, he was not kidding. For many hours had Twilight been confined to the recesses of the Golden Oaks’ basement. And in those hours, she had barely even started to get her dark magic to work the way she wanted it to!

And that time had given her more than a few occasions of returning to her doubts that they should even be playing around with the sinister spell at all.

“The reason you fail is because the intent is not there,” Sombra chided. “You need to want to make your target feel their fear. You need to feel that power and direct it in full force, not recess into yourself and your own doubts. Truly, such follies might even allow the spell to backfire.”

“I’m well aware and being very careful,” Twilight shot back. “But I can get the mechanics with a bit more time, but I just don’t even want to have that intent! I’m doing this to try and figure out a counter, that’s the complete opposite of intent!”

“Unless you embrace the spell’s capabilities, you will never find that counter,” he pointed out. “And as it is, we are not using a live subject.”

No, thankfully, they were not. Instead, Twilight had been trying to cast the spell on a simple scroll. To create a trap akin to the door which had caught out both Spike and herself in the Crystal Empire. Twilight wasn’t all that certain she could get the enchantment to last for more than a few minutes even if she could succeed, but it would at least prove to her distant grandfather that she was capable of it.

“Well, it’s not like I have any reason to hate a piece of paper enough to make me want it to see its worst fears,” Twilight quipped.

“Then perhaps we require a new tactic,” Sombra noted, his ethereal form walking over to the scroll and giving it a thoughtful glance. “If you cannot muster the intent to harm a simple object, then the power of imagination may be of use.”

“Imagination?” Twilight said questioningly as her eyebrow cocked up. “How so?”

“Let’s say you imagine this scroll to be of a pony you truly despise,” he began, giving her a predatory grin. “How about that roving stage magician?”

“Trixie? Please, I don’t hate-”

“Twilight,” Sombra deadpanned. “I can see all within you, do not forget that.”

Twilight flinched. “Alright… Okay, sure, I think she’s an arrogant egotistical dropout who really needs a reality check! And yes, I do probably hate her at least almost as much as she hates me. But that doesn’t mean that I’d want her to experience her worst fears!”

“But it isn’t really her… Imagination, Twilight. Tap into your deepest and darkest fantasies. Because that’s all this will be, a fantasy. There shall be no consequence, I am sure that mare is far from here. But imagine the… hypothetical nature I propose. How powerful you would be over your rival, and how she would assuredly never seek to challenge you or endanger your friends again.”

Twilight bit her lip. “…A fantasy?”

“Just a fantasy.”

For the moment.

But Twilight could not see Sombra’s sinister inner thoughts, not like the way he could see hers. And a large part of her was repulsed by the idea of ever doing such a thing to anypony, even Trixie Lulamoon. And yet, a small spiteful part of her was almost amused by the idea of the high and mighty showpony brought down to such an unrepairable low…

No, she shouldn’t. It was wrong.

And yet, what was the harm in a simple fantasy?

“I… I think…”

“Twilight!”

Spike’s call broke Twilight out of her deep moral crisis and caught both her attention and that of King Sombra. His apparition remained visible only to Twilight as the dragon burst into the basement alongside the other Elements of Harmony, all looking quite out of breath.

“Spike? Girls?” Twilight spoke out in worry at seeing their frazzled state. “What’s wrong? Did something happen? Is there a monster attacking?”

“So, that’s not it. Not this time,” Applejack was the first to say.

“I got a message from Princess Celestia!” Spike claimed, holding out a scroll in one claw. “I got the girls, but I think we need to get moving to Canterlot!”

“And fast, something pretty big is going on down there!” Rainbow Dash added in. “like, crazy big!”

“The Princess does seem quite concerned,” Rarity noted.

“Downright rattled is more like it,” Applejack remarked.

“I get the picture, I guess my studies can wait,” Twilight stated.

Fluttershy gasped. “Oh, we weren’t interrupting anything important, were we?”

“It’s fine. Nothing that cannot wait. I’m more interested in what has the Princess so worried.”

“It’s all right here,” Spike said, opening the scroll and reading it once again. “She says there’s been a break-in at the Canterlot Royal Archives!”

And just like that, Twilight’s heart sank.

The alicorn shared a glance with a frowning Sombra, though to the others it just looked like she glanced off to one side. Both were clearly considering the possibility that it was their break-in that had been discovered. And if it was, there was going to be a lot of manoeuvring to do to cover it up.

“Whatever the case may be,” Sombra began. “We shall rectify the situation. Fear not, Granddaughter, for I shall consider a course of action. Celestia must not suspect my existence, or all will be at stake.”

Of that Twilight could not agree more.

“Did she say what was taken?” Twilight asked Spike, doing her best to keep herself relatively calm.

“Not really,” he replied with a shake of his head. “Only that it was super important, and that Equestria might be in grave danger.”

“You know, the usual big quest stuff we’re called in for,” Rainbow Dash remarked with a smirk. “I say we get the first train over and see if there’s a thing we need to shoot with rainbow lasers.”

“And yet the Elements of Harmony are in the tree where we left them,” Rarity pointed out.

That caused the pegasus to deflate a little. “Oh, right. I forgot we did that.”

“Come on girls, we don’t need sparkly little gems of Super Saiyan power to defeat any meanies,” Pinkie Pie chirped with a bounce. “We got each other. That’s waaaay better than anything else!”

“Did she at least say which section of the archive was hit?” Twilight continued.

Spike shrugged. “No. Like I said, just that it’s bad and that we need to be up there ASAP.”

“Does it matter?” Applejack asked.

Twilight nodded. “The archive holds a great deal of information. Some of it far more dangerous than others. Depending on what was taken, well, some if it could be greater trouble than others.”

“It must have been one of the really bad things then,” Fluttershy said with a great amount of worry. “Oh dear, this is already sounding super dangerous.”

“Now hold on, let’s get our ‘what ifs’ in check,” Applejack interrupted. “We don’t know a thing about this whole situation yet. We just know that it was important, not that it was dangerous. We should hear what the Princess has to say first.”

“I would endeavour to say that Applejack is correct,” Rarity agreed. “It could simply be a case of the wretched thieves selling a valuable antique for a sum of bits. We simply cannot know for sure.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” Rainbow asked. “Let’s go!”

Twilight sighed. She’d only been back for three days and already they were heading back to Canterlot…

“Well, we won’t find out talking about it here,” Twilight decided. “Come on, girls. Let’s go grab some of our things and head straight for the train station. Whatever was taken, we will fix it and then go home like we always do. Together.”

Because if the worst was realised, then she knew that her friends were at her back. No matter what.

14 - Shatter

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Canterlot. Again.

Twilight wasn’t sure that she enjoyed feeling this much like a yoyo.

But here she was again anyway, back in the capital; albeit with her friends now at her side. That fact did provide the alicorn with no small degree of comfort, especially given why they were here at all.

A break-in, as Celestia had claimed.

The presence of the other Element Bearers, and a desire not to demean herself in front of Sombra, kept her bubbling panic in relative check. However, the possibility that is was her break-in that had been found never left her mind. After all, in the haze of the revelation she’d found inside of Celestia’s vault, she’d never re-filled the hole they’d dug to gain entry. Oh sure, the perception filter was also left over it, but what if the spell failed? Or worse, what if some poor pony walked right into the hole and hurt themselves!?

“Are you okay, darling? You are seeming rather… tense, as it were,” Rarity asked with some worry.

“I’m sure it’s not too bad…” Fluttershy said in reference to the break-in, attempting to console the mare. “Unless you think it is, then that’s fine too…”

“What Flutters means to say is that we’ve totally got this!” Rainbow Dash supplemented.

Twilight afforded them a small smile. “Thanks, girls. I guess this whole thing does have me a little stressed out.”

“You’re telling me. Those wrinkles don’t exactly do any wonders for your complexion; we just have to visit the spa later on! For the sake of your health!” Rarity declared.

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Ya’ll just want an excuse to get all pampered up.”

Rarity glared at the apple farmer. “That is a mere added bonus, dear Applejack. Twilight is what’s important here! Expenses on me, of course.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Twilight gently declined. “Thank you, though.”

“Of course, Twilight.”

It wasn’t long until the group of seven were walking up and into Canterlot Castle, Twilight giving a side glance towards the pathway leading up to the archive even as they passed it by in favour of the castle’s front entrance. They were let through with nary a glance from the guard on duty, passing through the great doors and into the lavish entrance hall of the royal residence. Guards, servants and nobles walked the place as if nothing was amiss, and to the unaware, it would appear to be but a normal day in the life. If there was overall concern about the reported break-in that had occurred some nights earlier, they either were good at hiding it or it had long since dissipated.

Walking up the main staircase and into the next hallway, the group started to make their way towards the throne room, the likely spot to find the Princess of the Sun at that point in the day. And each step closer was another hammer and nail into Twilight’s nerves, something she did her utmost to hide from the others.

“Ms Sparkle, please hold a moment,” a new voice said as two guards stepped out in front of them with one of them holding up a hoof as a gesture for them to stop. They complied, all giving the guard in question a questioning look. “Your arrival was reported. Her Highness has been waiting for you.”

“Makes sense,” Spike noted. “She did summon us here, after all.”

“Indeed,” the guard confirmed. “She awaits you in the throne room and has been for some time. Day court has been postponed ever since the break-in, so the Princess’ schedule is quite free for the moment.”

Well, the fact that the guard hadn’t been sent to arrest her certainly filled Twilight with a bit more confidence. Of course, it’d take unanimous agreement from all the other princesses for one of their own to be treated as such, but given who was nestling inside her head it wasn’t a possibility she’d taken out of the books…

“So, what did the bad guys make off with anyway?” Rainbow Dash idly enquired.

“I’m not at liberty to inform you I am afraid, that duty falls to Princess Celestia herself,” the guard responded.

“You gotta tell us you at least know something about the varmint who did it,” Applejack pressed further.

“I am not privy to those details, but word is that the trail has gone cold. There isn’t any guard left standing who saw the culprit in person.”

With every little detail that emerged, it seemed less and less likely that it was Twilight and Sombra’s little escapade that her been discovered. But if that was true, then something else had indeed gone down that day….

And to top it off, one little detail about what the stallion had just said caused Twilight’s ears to go bolt upright as her hairs stood on end.

“What do you mean, ‘left standing’?”

“I’m sorry Princess, but as I said, her highness is waiting for you. Those details are best left for your private conversation. It is her own request.”

“Intriguing…” Sombra mused. “The timing could be coincidence, but perhaps there is far more at play here than just myself.”

“Let’s hope not…” Twilight muttered.

“What was that, Twi?” Pinkie asked with her trademark grin.

“Nothing!” she replied with an innocent smile. “Princess Celestia! Let’s go do that thing! Yes! Lead on!”

The guard nodded, he and his counterpart wordlessly turning around the leading the way. The duo escorted them quickly through the halls and towards the castle’s throne room. When they arrived, they shared a quick few words with the guards outside before motioning for the seven of them to enter.

The six ponies and one dragon did so, their escort remaining behind and closing the two massive doors firmly behind them. This left the group in the long chamber that was the throne room, a raised dais sitting at the end of a long red velvet carpet upon which the royal throne sat.

And on that throne, Princess Celestia herself looked up from a document of sorts to witness their arrival.

“Ah. I was hoping you girls would arrive soon,” she began, placing her work to one side and rising from the throne to approach the group. “I am sorry to call you here with such short notice, but the matter is urgent.”

“Eh, we’re used to it,” Rainbow Dash claimed.

She tittered behind a hoof. “Indeed, I suppose this is becoming a rather unfortunate habit. But a necessary one I am afraid.”

Twilight bit her lip, studying the large form of equine perfection before her. Or at least something she had considered perfection since she was a filly. But now…

A titbit of rage bubbled up inside the younger alicorn once more as her thoughts returned to the elder’s recent betrayal of trust. A secret kept from her protégé her whole life, it must have been such a joke to her! And now here she was, as radiant as ever, a serene mask covering any true intent she held.

“As is her way,” Sombra noted. “Some need no magic in order to brainwash a populace.”

Twilight thought that statement to be a bit of an exaggeration, but the angriest part of her did slightly agree. To some extent, at least. She hadn’t expected to be before Celestia again so soon, but fate had seen that it had happened anyway.

But Twilight had to put it aside for the moment. There would be another time for that, Equestria needed her.

Still, Twilight’s uncharacteristic disdain towards the Princess of the Sun didn’t seem to go unnoticed. Celestia’s eyes ever so briefly met her own, and it was almost like Twilight could sense the Princess’ recognition of the fact.

And yet, hidden deep within that mask, Twilight also saw a modicum of disapproval in those lavender ovals.

“So, what happened?” Twilight asked evenly, a strange sense of calm overriding her previous fear. “You said something about a break-in?”

Celestia seemed to study the mare for a moment, causing some of the Element Bearers to glance towards one another, but then she nodded.

“I am afraid so. Several nights ago, long after Luna’s moon had arisen, somepony bypassed the guard and infiltrated the castle. They somehow broke into the archive and made it all the way to the uppermost level. There, they used dark magic to break into a sealed off section and make off with several tomes of King Sombra.”

Twilight gasped, and to her right she saw Sombra’s apparition appear with a severe frown on his face.

“The thief stole my works?” he rhetorically questioned in complete disgust. “This criminal possesses that which they should not. It is most imperative that we retrieve them, my descendant.”

“So wait, they used that black gooey stuff that King Meanie Pants used back at the Crystal Empire?” Pinkie Pie asked. “Who is this guy, anyway?”

“That is yet unknown. The culprit was confronted by several guards, but any who were close enough to see their face were… terminated.”

A wave of horror crept through the group. Not only had this dark magically powered pony broke into Canterlot Castle and stolen from the archives, but they’d killed ponies!

“So, what do you want us to do?” Twilight asked.

“For the time being, I ask you remain close in case the Bearers of Harmony become necessary.”

“But we don’t even have the elements!” Applejack pointed out.

“You have long since proven your capabilities without them. And if they do become necessary, their collection can be arranged until the deed is done,” Celestia explained. “Twilight, I believe you can put your mind to use assisting the investigation. Anything the rest of you might also have to offer, you may feel free to do so. I do not need to state that the rise of a new dark mage in Equestria could spell disaster.”

“Only if it’s the wrong dark mage,” Sombra said. “But on this occasion, the Princess of the Sun speaks true. That knowledge is ours alone, Twilight. We must reclaim it.”

“We will do what we can, Princess,” Twilight confirmed with a nod.

Celestia gave them all a smile. “I know you all will do your best. Rooms have been prepared for you all, the guards outside who brought you to me will take you there. Twilight, you will make use of your own royal quarters in the castle.”

“Got it.”

“Well, I guess we had better get to it then,” Applejack remarked.

“Team Super Cupcake Friendship, go!” Pinkie declared.

“Pinks, never call us that again,” Rainbow Dash deadpanned.

“One final thing,” Celestia interrupted before the pink mare could retort. “Twilight, I wish to speak with you in private. Now.

And just like that, Twilight’s hopes that her own crime hadn’t been discovered evaporated. She knew. Twilight could feel it in the way the Princess of the Sun regarded her.

Of course she knew.

“Twilight, what’s going on…?” Pinkie Pie then asked worriedly. “Something doesn’t feel right all of a sudden…”

“It’s okay girls. We just need to talk,” Twilight assured them. “I’ll catch up.”

The girls looked at her with renewed concern but acquiesced to the request of the two Princesses of Equestria. Slowly, they all started to depart the throne room and vanish behind the great ornate doors. Spike was the last one through, turning around and looking like he wanted to say something. But then he thought against it, vanishing out of the throne room as well.

Her friends are gone. Now it was just the two of them.

Well, three.

“I am-”

“Very disappointed in me. I know,” Twilight deadpanned, her tone actually managing to catch the Princess of the Sun completely off guard. “When did you figure it out?”

Celestia was silent for several moments, her surprise at Twilight’s demeanour in the face of a coming reprimand more than obvious. But then she regained her composure, standing up tall so that she stood domineeringly over the younger alicorn.

“Your magic has always been skilled, but my eyes have seen many such spells in my many years of life. I have developed a knack for perceiving what others cannot, as such I came across your little heist while investigating the other break-in. I believe it to have been by the same culprit, but then I studied the magic’s age and signature.”

Celestia let out a breath, closing her eyes for a moment before she opened them with renewed disappointment.

“It was several hours older than the second break-in, and it held you magic signature. You, Twilight, somehow managed to break into my personal chamber and rifle through items I hold close. Of all ponies, I had never imagined YOU to completely disregard another pony’s privacy. Perhaps I could expect it from Luna in an act of sibling rivalry for the sake of a joke, but I highly doubt you had such intent.”

Celestia looked to Twilight for an answer, but much to her inner aggravation she received none.

“Twilight! Why did you break into that chamber? Why go against me in such a horrid manner?”

“Why?” Twilight parroted with a humorous chuckle. “Oh, you’re the last pony who should be asking me ‘why’. In fact, it should probably be the other way around. I’m not the first out of the two of us to violate the rights of the other, am I!?”

“What are you-”

“WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME THAT SOMBRA WAS MY DISTANT GRANDFATHER!?”

A penny dropped.

Celestia was silent, horrified as to the words that had just come out of Twilight’s mouth. Her mind suddenly found itself racing, finding herself in one of those rare moments where she simply had no idea what to say. In a mere moment the tables had turned, and now it was Twilight confronting her.

“You… how…?”

“I had… suspicions…” Twilight dodged. “But after you always denied knowing anything about Sombra’s son, I found that genealogy book among your collection. You had detail on every single descendant. Branch families as well as the main family line! I even found myself and Shining Armor, covered in little written details about ourselves. It’s good to know I inherited his magic!”

“You… you were never supposed to know…”

“And yet the lie has unravelled,” Sombra said in clear satisfaction, taking glee in what was transpiring.

“Clearly,” Twilight said in response to them both. “But I know. So why, Celestia!? You knew who I was from the day I was born! Was I a threat to you? A weapon to be used? Is that why I became your student? Is that why I’m a bearer? I’m your tool!? A thing!?

“No! I… Twilight!”

“Was any of what we had real!?” Twilight screeched, tears starting to bur her vision as she pushed out with a hoof and shoved the shell-shocked Celestia backwards. “All those years! Were you just pretending to care!? Just so you could keep an eye on me! So you could weaponize me and even send me against Sombra himself! Was it some kind of twisted revenge for what he started inside of Luna!? WAS IT!?”

“What would telling you have accomplished?” Celestia rebuked. “You or Shining Armor? Or even your mother? What would telling any of you have achieved?”

“We deserved to not be lied to for a millennia!”

“The truth is simple, Granddaughter.” Sombra frowned darkly. “She will offer no forgiveness for the sins of mine, passed down through our line.”

“I was protecting you!”

“Liar!” Twilight bellowed. “You were protecting yourself! You didn’t care about us! About me! No, I’m just another Sombra waiting to happen, aren’t I? Had to keep me close, just in case…”

“You are being ridiculous!” Celestia shouted in turn. “Yes, I tracked his descendants. But I never once thought you a danger, Twilight. I did care for you.”

“Did?”

“Do!” Celestia quickly amended. “I just- Twilight, my omission did not give you the right to do what you did.”

“It gave me every right!” the mare disagreed. “You sent me against family without realising it! I don’t need to be an Apple to know that that’s just… not right! Yeah, he needed to be stopped, but… you should have told me!”

“…Perhaps. But I had good reasons.”

“Oh, I’m sure you did,” Twilight scoffed. “So, I broke into your precious little vault and learnt the truth. But if you think I had anything at all to do with the second break-in then you’re out of luck.”

“I never even considered it,” Celestia retorted. “But now I have to ask, what will you do now?”

“My brother and parents should now. Cadance too,” Twilight declared. “Unless she already knew…”

“No,” Celestia denied. “Nor Luna. Only I found Sombra’s offspring in the aftermath of the Crystal Empire’s fall.”

“Then you should tell them,” Twilight growled. “Or I will.”

Celestia swallowed, emotion rising up along her features. “Do what you believe is best. You are also a Princess of Equestria, after all.”

“Glad you know it,” Twilight stated as she turned around and started to head towards the doorway. “I will still do my duty. But I’m not your pupil to push around and lie to without consequence. Not anymore. I’m one of you, don’t forget it.”

“I never have,” Celestia muttered. “I believe we both have much to think about.”

Twilight stopped briefly, turning her head ever so slightly to glance at Celestia out of the very corner of her eye. But then, wordlessly, she pulled the throne room door opened and slipped out through it before slamming it shut behind her.

And there was left Princess Celestia, unbelieving as to what had just transpired. In just a moment, it was if her entire relationship with Twilight Sparkle had been torn asunder. Perhaps forever.

All because of a stupid lie.

She returned to her throne, shakily sitting herself down on it and gently removing her crown. And there, etched into the back of the frame, were two names. The names of ponies that, at some point in their lives, she had failed in such a terrible way that the consequences of her failure were unimaginable.

Luna.

Sunset Shimmer.

Two ponies she’d thought gone forever. Both returned due to the actions of the wonderful mare who had just stormed out of the throne room. A mare who she had just hurt by doing what she thought was the right thing, and yet was no longer certain…

Her horn brightened, and a third name was soon etched alongside the others.


Sombra couldn’t have been happier.

The bond between the Princess of the Sun and his descendant was well and truly decimated. Celestia’s hold on Twilight was at an end, and with it, all that she had taught the young alicorn would be in doubt. Philosophies called in question, entirely new possibilities opening up for the both of them now that the Sun had failed.

Another victory.

Another step closer to their ascension.

Twilight, of course, could not share in his jubilance. But it was all part of the process, even as she stormed through the halls with barely held back sobs. Even as she made it to the royal chamber marked with the lavender starburst cutie mark and threw herself onto the nearby mattress, letting her wails be unleashed as grief wracked her body, it was all part of the plan.

Yes, this was how it had to be.

All part of what had to be done.

Everything was…

Was…

Twilight’s screams continued, her despair assaulting the King’s ghostly ears. He materialised next to her, looking down at his distant granddaughter as she let her sorrow loose, unaware of his physical presence. And there, much to his discomfort, his cheer seemed to collapse.

This feeling… It wasn’t one he had felt for a very long time.

Sadness.

Empathy.

He looked away uncomfortably, unable to look at his descendant in such a state. It was… unnatural. He was King Sombra. He didn’t… ‘feel’ like that.

And yet his gaze returned to her, and he found himself sitting down at her bedside. And that is exactly where he remained until the alicorn cried herself into a deep sleep.

15 - The Moon's Advice

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The next morning was not a happy awakening.

In all honesty, Twilight couldn’t be sure when exactly it was that she’d fallen asleep. Everything after leaving the throne room was a bit of a blur, obscured by forming tears and an emotionally ravaged mind. As one might imagine, this all led to a restless night where, upon the dreaded sun’s rising, the young alicorn found herself feeling even more tired and drained. Not a state she wanted to walk the castle in, bringing about a great desire to simply spend the rest of the day in her room and sulk.

Tempting.

But not very practical.

So, with great effort, Twilight was able to pry herself from the bed and up onto her hooves. Whatever the case may be, there was still an important reason that she’d been called to Canterlot in the first place. For all she knew, her friends were also already up and about in their usual eagerness to be of help towards others. She couldn’t just sit around while there was investigating to do, especially not with such a dangerous pony running around with Sombra’s research in their possession.

Besides, any and all distractions would be welcome.

Dragging herself to a nearby vanity mirror, Twilight inwardly groaned at her dishevelled state. Still, it was nothing that a quick wave of her magic couldn’t fix. Perhaps not to the quality Rarity might produce, but at least she didn’t look like she’d been chased through a bush by an enraged Angel Bunny.

With that basic task completed, and forgoing breakfast due to a general lack of any kind of appetite, Twilight then proceeded to exit the room and immediately head in the direction of the archives. That was where she needed to be.

Where she really needed to be…

The short trip was made in silence, only receiving silent nods from guards and concerned looks from the staff as the Princess passed. Her foul mood wasn’t exactly subtle, something that had become a bit of a theme ever since Sombra turned up inside her head.

Not that it was entirely his fault alone, but it had certainly been the core of it all…

Ignoring a sense of indignation radiating from the spirit, Twilight pressed forth until she was outside and approaching the other building. The entire structure was surrounded by a thick cordon of guards, the Solar Guard started to come and replace their Lunar counterparts now that the night had departed.

But the moment they saw the Princess approaching up the path, a couple stood aside and silently waited for her to pass. She did so without hesitation, moving on into the building proper.

Yet more guards were present inside, a flurry of activity going on around Twilight as they combed every inch of the place for evidence. There also seemed to be a few ponies without the ornate armour of the Royal Guard too; ponies called in from other branches of Equestria’s government and forces perhaps.

How much had been found in the days since everything had happened?

There was one specific spot where Twilight could find out.

Moving past the reception and upstairs, retracing her steps from her previous visit to the archive, Twilight trotted all the way up to the topmost floor. Upon entering, she was almost floored by the sheer devastation that awaited her.

The entire entrance to the restricted section had been destroyed. It honestly looked like someone had brought in a starved manticore and let it run wild in such an enclosed space. Her horn tingled slightly from the increasingly familiar presence of dark magic still permeating the air, further drawing Twilight’s eyes down to markers on the floor seemingly placed out to indicate where the fallen guards had laid.

“Most concerning,” Sombra mused as he appeared beside Twilight. “This display troubles me.”

“It’s not unlike what you did to Celestia’s vault,” Twilight muttered under her breath, all too aware of the other ponies in the area.

“On the contrary. My spell was controlled and precise in its intended function. Feel the air, the pure uncontrolled energies of darkness that yet infect this site. There was no control behind this, no finesse, just pure uncontrolled waves of magic. Had they attempted the same thing in the superior wards of Celestia’s little collection, the backlash likely would have caused the perpetrator to vaporise themselves.”

Twilight just hummed in response, slowly stepping over the rubble and around the spots where corpses had only recently lain. Heading into the restricted section proper, the alicorn trotted around the bookshelves and back towards Sombra’s own works. As expected, a significant swath of what had been recovered in the Crystal Empire was missing.

“I’m seeing a lack of books on the fundamentals, enthrallment… and necromancy,” Twilight noted with no small amount of worry.”

“Indeed. Yet they left behind any references to shadowform, crystallisation, the afflictions of fear…” Sombra further noted. “The thief had a specific agenda.”

A cold shiver made its way down Twilight’s spine at the implications. “Controlling the dead?”

“As it would appear, Granddaughter. To play with corpses is a dangerous practice, one so easily squandered and uncontrolled. My usage for such things were limited beyond experimentation.”

“Lucky us…”

“Draugr are durable but of limited intelligence, slaves whose wills were bound to mine were far more useful. That, and I held little desire to rule over a moving grave,” Sombra explained “And yet the thief also stole the basics, so they are an untrained novice. That is even more dangerous.”

“You trained yourself from scratch,” Twilight pointed out.

“My own natural ability carried the weight of my ambition, something we share,” he rebuffed. “I know nothing of this novice’s abilities. Indications of his delving into such advanced spells suggest a lack of patience and readiness I would not allow of you. The spells inside that book, completed by one not prepared, could have results that benefit nopony.”

As if Twilight wasn’t on edge enough. “How so?”

“Abominations. Mutations that are as unpredictable as they are dangerous. Our family’s collective knowledge must be returned to us, Twilight. Only we can use it safely.”

“I’m not sure about that last part, but I definitely agree to the ‘getting it back’ part. Who knows what kind of damage this dark magic could cause…?”

As Twilight trailed off, she started examining the empty bookshelves more closely. A cursory scan with her magic for any recognisable signatures only returned the same dark magical taint that was infecting the rest of the area. With a hum, she realised that if anything was to be found here, it likely had been already. Asking one of the present investigators would be the next logical course of action, though a final thorough check wouldn’t hurt.

Staying focused on the shelves, Twilight started looking through the remaining tomes to see if they’d been disturbed. For even a crumb of evidence left behind, maybe a tuft of a mane lodged between books?

But, as she moved one aside, two large cyan coloured eyes suddenly met her own.

Twilight yelped, jolting up and bashing her head painfully into the shelf above. The world swam for a moment as the mare stumbled backwards, rubbing the new bump on her head as she squinted through the pain at the pony who was now rounding the bookshelf with an apologetic, if somewhat amused, look on her face.

“Forgive my abrupt arrival, Twilight Sparkle,” Princess Luna said, standing tall and regal with her star-filled mane flowing gracefully behind her, albeit with a noticeable degree of tiredness in her ancient eyes. “I simply heard you talking to yourself and wished to see if any discoveries had been made.”

“It’s- Ow!” Twilight made a note not to poke that new bump. “It’s fine, Princess. I was just going over what had happened to myself.”

It was somewhat eerie how naturally these lies and half-truths were starting to come to her.

She nodded. “I see. Anything you wish to reveal?”

“I’m afraid not. I actually only just got here, I was about to ask around.”

“Ah. Yes, there is much to digest of these events. It is a most troubling incident, and one that could have profound repercussions should the foul villain remain uncaught.”

“Looking at what’s been taken, you’re not kidding,” Twilight replied, giving the empty shelf one last cursory glance before making a move back towards the caved-in entrance. “But I should get to it, I really need to figure all of this out. And I’m sure you’re in need of rest after a long night, Princess.”

“Indeed, my Realm of Dreams does call to me,” Luna confirmed as Twilight walked away. However, what she said next stopped her in her tracks. “And yet, the talk I had with my sister indicates that my presence in the waking world is yet required.”

With a small twitch of her eye, Twilight slowly turned to look back at Luna.

“Twilight, please try not to look so distressed,” Luna said softly. “Recall that you are among friends.”

Twilight huffed. “It’s been hard to feel like it lately.”

Luna gave her a sympathetic smile. She then started to trot towards the mare, shooting the other ponies in the room a look that said ‘be gone’ before sitting down next to her fellow royal alicorn.

And, once they had privacy, she started to talk.

“I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of my sister’s ill-advised machinations. Her history is one filled with mistakes and their consequences. Her mask hides a great deal of uncertainty as a result, on that you can trust me.”

“She told you?”

“That you descend from one of our greatest enemies? Yes, Twilight Sparkle, she did,” she replied without a hint of malice. “Last night left her most distressed within her dreams. I tend not to intrude into my sister’s fantasies, but this nightmare drew my attention.”

“Really? Why?”

“Need you truly ask?” Luna asked, before giving a low sigh. “When I first regained access to the Realm of Dreams, I discovered my sister was plagued with a millennia-long streak of night terrors. Some were of my fall. Some were of my victory as Nightmare Moon. Others were, well…”

Luna bit her lip, seemingly reluctant to tell Twilight the contents of Celestia’s nightmares. And yet, for some reason, she relented.

“When I first ‘departed’, Celestia was ruined within. A spark was ignited somewhere within her, one ready to cast off responsibility and let the world burn around her. She resisted, of course, my sister is of strong constitution. But this spark, this Daybreaker, would haunt her dreams. I did my best to assist in quelling the side of her I helped create. I thought the level of torment these dreams caused her were unique, until last night.”

“A world on fire…” Sombra said with a sneer, unseen by Princess Luna. “Behold the true core of your Celestia.”

For the moment, Twilight kept her focus on the Princess of the Night. “What did she dream about me? Was I becoming like Sombra?”

“No,” she denied, much to Twilight’s surprise. “Rather, you never forgive her. You stopped trusting others, forwent friendship, returned to your old ways. She watched your happiness die because of her lie, and it was tearing her apart. Tormented by the thought that her decisions had driven you to such a tragic outcome.”

“Like they had to you…”

“Indeed. Celestia and I were… not on good terms back then. In short, depression crept at my mind, my misery becoming a constant state of being. Celestia refused to see the signs, too busy being the goddess the ponies of Equestria made her out to be. And then, when I could take no more…”

Luna paused, closing her eyes as she tried to quell an influx of despair and regret.

“I gave in, Twilight. I was too weak, both to resist Nightmare Moon and to resist the seeds that King Sombra had implanted within me. Before my fall I let Celestia become consumed by her light, too afraid to pull her back. And then I did unspeakable things, became something terrible. So, you see, each of us holds part of the blame.”

“Irrelevant,” Sombra dismissed. “The weakness of the Night holds no bearing on you, Granddaughter. You are nothing but justified.”

“You’re saying that I am partly to blame for this?” Twilight asked incredulously.

“What I’m trying to say is that you have both clearly wronged one another,” Luna calmly rebuked. “As impressed as I am with your little heist of my sister’s belongings, for which I implore you to give me some pointers by the way, it was still wrong of you. Each of you has sinned against the other, just like we once did. But I beg of you, Twilight, don’t let it end the same way.”

“She is a fool,” Sombra stated. “Once a prisoner of her jealousy, and now of her shame. For siblings to conflict is expected, but the very rights of your birth were stolen by that blight. We must walk in nothing but certainty, while the conflict within both alicorns demonstrates their weakness.”

“But whatever may come, know that she loves you,” Luna suddenly declared. “A maternal affection brighter than Daybreaker’s rage could ever be. Do not be so quick as to believe it all a fabrication.”

Luna got up, looking down at Twilight with one final smile of understanding.

“Now, I shall leave you to your work, Princess Twilight. I do wish you well, but I must return to my chambers. Good luck.”

And with that, Princess Luna turned to depart from the room, leaving Twilight alone with the ghost inside her head.

“Do not fall for such folly,” Sombra once again implored. “Luna is of a weak will, both to fall and then to return to her sister’s shadow. Celestia’s oppressive nature was demonstrated on both occasions, and again with recent events. All her ‘love’ is but a ploy. You must be stronger than the Night, Granddaughter. You do not need Celestia nor her teachings.”

“I… don’t know what to believe anymore…” Twilight muttered defeatedly.

“Then believe in what I have to teach, and find solace in those studies,” Sombra pressed. “Our previous lesson remains incomplete. I believe we will have some time once the investigation is concluded.”

“Studying, right… I think that will be a nice break,” Twilight agreed, getting up and wiping some forming tears from her eyes. “It might help me get my head in order. I need to figure this out on my own.”

“A wise policy, not falling under the whims of others. And I trust you will come to the correct conclusion.”

If only she knew what the ‘correct’ conclusion actually was...

16 - Fears of the Dark

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Well, Sombra was right about one thing at least.

Studying was definitely the distraction that Twilight had so desperately needed.

The investigation after her talk with Luna had been… less than enlightening. The sum of all that she had learned was that nopony else had learned anything at all. There were no leads, no suspects, barely a scrap of evidence to go off of. At least, no evidence that they had yet found. All that was truly known was that the perpetrator was a unicorn dark mage who may have been someone who had access or at least detailed knowledge of the castle and its guard rotation.

Of course, even the latter piece of information was only speculation. There was no reason to think that he had simply used a dark magical spell yet known to them to gain access without being seen. After all, if the likes of Nightmare Moon or King Sombra would be capable of that, why not this new threat?

And there was the problem. Speculation. Way too much of it. There were too few facts, no true certainty, and that left the trail cold and dead on arrival.

It was frustrating to everypony involved. A solution was required, but Twilight had yet to form any ideas as to how they could achieve it. Even Sombra himself had provided sadly little insight on the matter, only knowing as much as Twilight herself was able to ascertain.

So, at least for the time being, the dark mage remained concealed in the shadows.

For the time being.

Still, it did provide Twilight and Sombra ample opportunity to return to the Princess’ room and go over what the former King of the Crystal Empire had taught the mare before they were whisked away by this new mystery. And ample time for Twilight to pick back up where she’d left off and continue trying to make use of Sombra’s fear spell.

And, rather than a scroll, the target for enchantment was now a quaint little hoof mirror recovered from the nearby dressing table.

And with each passing moment, each attempt, she got a little bit closer to completing the sinister spell.

But that attempt had yet to come.

As before, Twilight’s horn fizzled out and the mirror sat on the table in the same idle position it had been in for the past couple of hours. She gave a huff and a noise of disappointment at the latest failure but wasted no time in mentally and physically preparing herself for another attempt.

“Focus,” Sombra urged. “Remember, the intent is key. You must want the object to suffer your wrath, be beholden to its inner demons. Unleash your strength without hesitation, and all will bow to your indominable will.”

“As you’ve been saying for hours now,” Twilight deadpanned. “Still hard to do on a mirror. I don’t hate myself that much, you know.”

“It would have made this lesson far simpler,” Sombra said in what Twilight hoped was his attempt at humour. “But as it is, all preconceptions must be conquered. All hesitation denied. You are faced with an obstacle to your ascension, even if it is a simple mirror, would you truly let such a trifling trinket stop you now?”

Twilight gave a low growl of frustration, focusing her eyes back on the mirror as dark magic started to flow from her eyes and her horn lit up with the sickly hue of dark magic. She started to focus on forming the spell, forming the necessary matrices as she started to let her negative emotions build up inside her to power the spell. The energies bubbled and crackled as it built up along the surface of her horn, the alicorn’s eyes narrowing as she started to focus back onto the mirror.

And yet, still, the connection just wasn’t forming.

This was ridiculous! She was better than this, she could learn any spell she set her mind to! Magic was such a huge part of her life, she would not let this thing stop her. On that, Sombra had been completely right. This stupid and insignificant thing thought it could get in the way of academic progress? No, it would not. She wouldn’t let it. It would not stop her!

IT WOULDN’T!

There was suddenly an almighty gust that blew through the room and dislodged anything not nailed down as a beam of pure dark energy shot out from Twilight’s horn and impacted the mirror. The dark magic in her eyes deepened as her red slit-like pupils narrowed spitefully.

The mirror almost seemed to come alive, writhing in sheer agony as the crackles of dark magic assaulted the object and dug their way inside of it any way they could. The surface started to splinter, the mirror cracking as the stress became too much!

And then it stopped.

The dark magical stream stopped, the mirror popping back together like nothing had happened as the last vestiges of the spell gave their last pops before retreating inside its frame.

Twilight, panting heavily from the exertion, couldn’t help but feel her lips slowly crack into a humungous smile. She had done it! She had completed the spell! Take that mirror! Science wins!

Sombra noted the extreme amount of pride Twilight was feeling in herself at that moment, the sheer elation of having conquered yet another magical spell. He gave an amused, if still slightly sinister, chuckle at the sight.

“Very good, Granddaughter. It appears you have yet another triumph to your name. As it was expected.

“Well, there’s nothing like magic studies to get the blood pumping!” Twilight said, giving a nerdy little snort that she followed up with a small blush and a giggle. “Sorry, but this is so exciting! I live for magic!”

“As I have long noted,” he responded. “Now, you have proven just how far your prowess extends. Your capabilities are worthy of the most advanced of my spells, as I had hoped. Yes, I can teach you all I have to offer.”

“Great! Where do we start!”

“Patience, there shall be plenty of time to learn all I have to give. For now, let us continue along with your elation and further your mastery of fear itself.”

“Oh? There’s more to the spell?”

“Recall, my descendant, the other use of the spell beyond simple enchantment on household objects.”

Suddenly, Twilight felt her bad mood start to return.

“Please tell me you’re not suggesting that again.”

“To cast upon a living being is quite simple now that you have achieved it upon an inanimate object,” Sombra confirmed with a fang-filled smirk. “I am certain there are plenty of individuals deserving of such punishment in this wretched city. Oh, I can see a few right now, festering within the pits of your memories… Hm, this ‘Blueblood’ would be a valid target, yes?”

“No!” Twilight protested. “There are plenty of jerks in the castle, but looks who is talking, Sombra! They don’t deserve that! Nopony does!”

Sombra rolled his eyes. “It is ultimately harmless, and not so dangerous. They need not know what happened, it could be but a simple nightmare they experience during their sleep. Or their memories could be clouded by their fear, for that is the beauty of it. Fear is an eternal tool, and with it, any of these entitled fools will serve our lineage until their dying breaths so not to experience it again.”

“I’m not doing that! No fear slaves! At all!”

“But think of how things could improve. You could make the selfish become selfless. The greedy give all their possessions to charity. Their terror will make them slaves to your will, with which you could improve the lives of those they would ignore.”

“N-no, it’s still wrong. You can’t just… mess with a pony’s head like that! The moral implications are so messed up and… I mean, what if their will was too strong?”

“They need not recall the encounter should they prove too powerful a mind. No, there are more… direct methods for individuals of such calibre.”

“Sombra. Stop. I’m not talking about this!” Twilight shouted, her blood starting to boil and her patience wearing thin. “I don’t care what I could use them for, it’s still wrong! A pony’s mind is private, it’s not happening.”

Sombra’s face curled into a deep frown. “Do not let moral sentiments blind you to your potential, Twilight Sparkle. We are beyond the grips of what is ‘right’, we do as we will.”

“That’s not how this works!”

“We are above the petty lives of the common pony. Even those so-called ‘nobles’ are but ants in a giant’s playground. They are ours to command, it is our legacy!”

Your legacy! You really are a monster, you know that!”

“You seek to learn from me, you are my very own blood,” Sombra growled. “Yet you still slave yourself to the false teaching the Celestia!”

“Don’t mention her!”

“Her plaything. Her puppet. A tool. Weapon. Piece of a perverse game of chess. Celestia is-”

“FINE! YOU WANT ME TO TEST MY STRENGTH ON A JERK, THEN I WILL!” Twilight bellowed, a wave of magical energy cascading around her as she turned on Sombra, her emotions finally bursting from all of the stress she’d been under since his arrival. The whole world became a blur, all except for the flinching phantom who was the blame.

Sombra!

Twilight’s dark magic seemed to shift and mutate, the darkness increasing while the sickly green highlights shifted hue until they were more of a ghostly blue. Both the magic coalescing around her horn and streaming from her eyes underwent this shift, the slits that were her pupils going from a deep red to a darkened lavender.

Sombra, on his part, met his descendant’s gaze. His eyes narrowed as his mind raced, analysing this… unexpected outcome. This darkness was new, feeling and looking different to type he was used to. It felt… powerful. Hungry.

And it was searching for him.

He didn’t have anywhere to go, attached to the mare as he was. And his strength, still recovering, was insufficient against the wave of magic heading towards him.

There was nothing he could do as it consumed him, the last thing he saw being Twilight’s eyes returning to their natural state as she seemed to realise with great horror what she had done.

Then she too entered the darkness.


The Crystal Empire.

Twilight examined her surroundings, her body and mind feeling numb with shock as she tried to process the last few moments.

She had been in her room with Sombra, studying that spell and then… then…

“Oh, Celestia…” Twilight muttered. “Sombra? Where are you? Are you okay!? I didn’t mean to… to…”

The King was nowhere to be found.

And for that matter, why was she in the Crystal Empire?

And why was it daytime now?

“Radiant! Wait up!”

The sound of the colt’s voice caused Twilight’s ear to twitch, and she started looking around to locate the source. And, while it wasn’t immediately apparent as to who had spoken, in quick succession a small pony came scuttling around the corner in a fit of giggles. A filly, one who seemed to enjoy being pursued by… by…

Twilight’s eyes widened, her horror increasing as she began to put the pieces together.

The colt was a grey unicorn with bright green eyes and a deep dark mane. He had yet to gain his cutie mark, and he looked so… innocent. But Twilight recognised him all the same.

Sombra. So young…

“I’m in his mind…” Twilight realised with a wave of guilt. “Did I use the fear spell? What am I…? No, I don’t want to be here! I shouldn’t be here! How do I…”

Twilight tried lighting her horn, but nothing seemed to happen. The foals didn’t even seem to notice her as they passed right on by, and upon examining a hoof she did note an almost ethereal quality to it.

“Oh no. I… I don’t know how to stop this! Oh, why didn’t I ask him about that earlier?”

The two foals stopped a short distance ahead, Twilight’s gaze returning to them. A new curiosity came to her mind, though it was heavily outweighed by the guilt. She hadn’t meant to lash out, but she’d just gotten so angry at him for what he was suggesting. But now Twilight just wanted to stop this in any way she could, but with her current knowledge that didn’t appear to be possible.

Her guilt increasing even further, the alicorn realised she had no choice but to watch and discover just what it was that the Master of Fear himself had to be scared of.

“You are such a slowpoke!” the filly teased.

Sombra huffed. “No, I’m not! You’re just super-duper fast!”

“Well yeah! I will be the fastest filly in the Crystal Empire, or my name isn’t Radiant Hope!”

“You wanted to be a princess last week!”

She puffed up her cheeks with a blush. “Well… that would be nice! But you know I really want to be a doctor…”

“Bleh.” Sombra faked a gag. “That means you’ll be working with yucky leeches and stuff.”

Twilight snorted. She forgot that this was a thousand years in the past.

“I’ll just use magic! It’s what we have this for!” Radiant replied, pointing at her horn. “Queen Amore is really good with it! I need to be as well!”

Sombra seemed to slump, kicking a crystal fragment idly.

“Huh? What’s wrong?”

“It’s fine for you, everypony likes you,” Sombra muttered. “I’m just the orphaned freak.”

Radiant Hope took on a safe expression. “Oh, come on. You’re not a freak!”

“Yeah, he is!” a new voice bellowed, and Twilight turned to see a small gathering of about six crystal pony colts come wandering up. These six lacked horns, earth ponies. “So stop bothering her, horn head!”

Sombra seemed to slink back timidly, though Radiant stamped a hoof indignantly.

“Hey! I’m a unicorn too!”

“Yeah, but you’re pretty. Like the Queen and the Princess!” the colt replied, causing Twilight to roll her eyes and Radiant to blush awkwardly. “He’s just a loser. He can’t even do magic that well.”

“And he’s not all colourful like the rest of us!” another colt added in as all the others cheered in jeering agreement.

All but one, a little purple colt who seemed to be younger than the others. He looked rather like he didn’t want to be there, not joining in while the others taunted the future dark mage.

Wait, was that Crystal Shield?

“Maybe we should go…” the memory of the young Crystal Shield quietly muttered, unheard by the other colts.

The ringleader scoffed, trotting up and standing domineeringly over the cowering Sombra.

“Think you’re so tough because you got that horn, do you?” he taunted, Sombra shrinking down further while not responding. “Not talking? Answer me!”

Still nothing.

“Ugh. This is why your parents didn’t love you!” he shouted, before he then turned around in a huff and bucked out while Twilight watched helplessly.

Radiant Hope gave a yelp as Sombra was hit square in the face, the colt almost doing a backflip as he was kicked backwards and landed hard on the crystalline road. Radiant tried to rush towards him, but the ringleader stepped out in front of her and blocked her path.

“Yeah, you don’t want to hang out with him. You’ll be better off with somepony else,” the colt dismissed, his gathering of colts all surrounding Radiant and trying to lead her away from Sombra as if to ‘protect’ her.

“Hey! Stop that! He needs help!” Radiant begged, trying to push past the group of far stronger colts. “I’ll tell on you! Sombra! Let me help him!”

The mob forced Radiant away from Sombra, the colt now curled into the fetal position as sobs wracked his body. Crystal Shield was the last to walk, looking like he was about to approach Sombra before one of the other colts sharply barked his name and frightened him into submission. With a heavy heart, he left the bleeding foal behind and re-joined his ‘friends’.

The world started to fade, the laughs of the foals and shining crystal architecture growing distant before vanishing altogether. By the end, all that was left was the sobbing colt and a distant, frozen opaque visage of Radiant Hope, desperately trying to push her way back to her stricken friend.

Slowly, shocked at the level of bullying that had just been put on display, Twilight started to approach the colt. He was curled up as tightly as he could make himself, his muzzle pouring with blood as tears flooded down his cheeks.

So, this was what the King of Shadows feared. A childhood of abandonment, a colt left unwanted by the world with only a single spark of light in the form of Radiant Hope. A spark that was forced away, leaving a young child feeling so, so alone.

Twilight glanced towards Radiant. The future mother of Sombra’s son, another of Twilight’s ancestors. What had she thought of him by the end? The stallion who had been born from a world where he believed friendship a lie, and where you had to forcibly take everything you wanted.

Despite it all, a small bit of resolve returned to Twilight’s heart. It confirmed what she already believed, that there was something yet redeemable deep down in Sombra’s soul. A small foal who so desperately wanted somepony to hold him tight and tell him everything would be okay.

And then Radiant started to shift, a new form taking its place. Another stallion, so like Sombra, and yet…

The son he never knew?

But the change in scenery didn’t stop there, and Twilight watched as new images started to play before her eye. And as she did so, the sobs of the colt only seemed to grow more despairing. Twilight fell onto her rump, her eyes unable to be torn away from what she was witnessing.

“Oh, Sombra…”

And then, with his greatest fear of all now known to Twilight, the spell had run its course.


When Twilight awoke, she was on the ground.

Her head hurt, feeling like a thousand molten needles had been forced into her skull slowly and painfully. She let out a small growl as she tried to plant her hooves under her, panting heavily as an influx of emotions wracked her being.

And then, upon looking up, she found Sombra looking down at her with a conflicted expression.

“So,” he began in a low growl. “It appears you have completed the lesson after all.”

“Sombra, I…” Twilight stopped as she got up, her mouth gaping as she tried to think of some way to apologise for the monstrosity of her actions. “I…”

“I am impressed,” he said sincerely. “Offended. But impressed. Your display of power was… intriguing. Yes, your potential is greater than I had ever hoped.”

Twilight was silent, averting her gaze.

Sombra’s eyes hardened. “But I know what you saw. It was not for your eyes, or for that of anypony but myself. This desecration is one I cannot forget.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt you…” Twilight whispered sadly and with great shame.

Twilight sniffled, and Sombra suddenly found surprise within himself as he felt some of his spite drain away at the sight of her sadness. His frown faded, suddenly finding himself assaulted by emotions he had no desire to experience.

But experience them he did, the dark mage inwardly cursing his traitorous heart. Something he had thought himself beyond, and yet was now reignited at the sight of this mare’s first fallen tear.

Sombra sighed. “I… know, Granddaughter. Perhaps our lessons should be placed on hold for the time being.”

Twilight gasped. “No! I mean… I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to use them on anypony either, not like that. Not even to ponies like Blueblood or Trixie. But this… I want to continue, this is my legacy, right?”

A small fragment of what might be considered pride lit up within Sombra.

“Indeed, it is. Very well, I shall refrain from bringing us to live experimentation… for the moment. But you must one day recognise our place in this world, Twilight. You saw the lie that is friendship, another of Celestia’s methods of control. Mine are just less bathed in deception and more transparent in what they are.”

“That’s not true,” Twilight said with a shake of her head. “What you need is a friend. I don’t know what to think about the Princess, but everything I know about friendship came from what I have seen personally. I can show you that too, that there is a better way.”

Sombra shook his head. “There is no better way. The only way to protect those you love is through total control.”

“Is that why you did what you did? It was the only way you and Radiant could be together, even if she didn’t want it to be so?” Twilight asked carefully. “Even if you weren’t the colt she’d known anymore?”

Sombra turned away, closing his eyes. “You will see, Granddaughter. The security of our line is all I care about, but you hold a great many more things close to your heart. One day you must be prepared to cast them aside, or else be prepared to do what you must in order to safeguard them forever.”

“We give each other that. I don’t need dark magic for it.”

“We shall see.”

And with that, Sombra faded away. Twilight stared at the empty spot with a look of sadness, thinking upon the very nature of the stallion as she now understood it. The greatest tragedy of all was that, despite prior beliefs, his conquest had never been about power. Not really. No, the truth was far more terrifying.

It had been about love. For both a mare who no longer knew him, and for a son he never got to know.

And now, just maybe, for a distant granddaughter he had discovered so many years later.

Corrupted love. No wonder the Crystal Heart despised his very being.

But even more terrifying? A small part of Twilight, a deep dark niggling voice from the deepest depths of her subconscious, was wondering whether or not he was right. To sacrifice the needs and rights of so many in order to ensure that those you loved were able to go on in a world that could never hurt them. A world where she saw and ruled all, a world to morph as the alicorn saw fit.

No. She had to shut out that voice, it was wrong. Like Radiant, they never would care for such a world. A world devoid of colour and joy, even for the security such a reality would bring it was not worth it. Creating such a world out of love would destroy the very spirit of that love, leaving nothing but a cold hard shell where nopony was truly happy.

Twilight believed that truth wholeheartedly. She had to.

The Princess glanced at the nearby mirror, remaining right where she had left it after completing the spell. Picking it up, Twilight stared right into her own reflection. The face that stared back seemed, on the surface, to be as it ever was. And yet a cold shiver made its way down Twilight’s spine, a sense of unease filling her as she saw her own inner conflict in the newfound bags beneath her eyes, recalling the strength she had felt when attacking Sombra as she had.

Her grip on the object tightened.

If the wrong magical signature were to touch it, like some poor unsuspecting maid, then they would be forced to live out their worst nightmares.

Twilight took a deeper hold of the mirror and, in a flash of her usual magic, rendered it to ash. Gone was the foul trap of her own regretful creation, and so too was the reflection caught in the glass.

It was probably for the best.

17 - Revealing Truths

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The next day’s investigation was turning out about as fruitful as the previous day’s.

That is to say, not at all.

Twilight boredly shifted through pieces of debris atop a metal table inside a room adjacent to the guard barracks in Canterlot Castle. She had been scanning, re-scanning and then scanning again every single shard for even a scrap of DNA evidence her magic could potentially pick up. They’d even used non-magical options like luminol for any kind of trace in case something about the dark mage could obscure their magical methods.

Every option turned up as empty as the last.

Twilight proceeded to extract two unfortunately familiar fragments from the bottom of the pile, little pieces of the former entrance to the restricted section, and proceeded to give them one more thorough examination. Being thorough never hurt, but even she was starting to reluctantly accept the futility of the effort. Who knew how many times she had examined these pieces alone? And, of course, they yet again came up with no useful trace beyond the simple indication that something dark magical in nature hit it quite hard indeed.

Twilight huffed, throwing the pieces aside and turning to examine the room in full. There were several more tables filled with fragments and evidence, all set up at the Princess’ request for personal examination.

All useless.

“For all this mage’s clear lack of aptitude, they were intelligent enough to not leave any definable trace,” Sombra noted, appearing once more next to his protégé. “Fortunate for them, for that modicum of common sense within them is likely the very reason they didn’t destroy themselves with their own spell.”

“That would have made things easier…” Twilight moaned. “The Royal Guard has been investigating this for days now. And even in the time I’ve been here, I can see that Canterlot is going to be a dead end. There’s just no trail to be found, not unless we find traces of the same dark magical signature elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere indeed…” Sombra noted to himself, giving a hum as he appeared to enter deep thought.

“What is it?”

“A consideration. You took all of my works from my sanctum, yes?”

“You’re in my brain, you should know,” Twilight said, gesturing to her own head. However, she then started to form an inquisitive expression of her own. “Though saying that… did you have anything in there we didn’t find?”

Sombra seemed to go on guard. “Perhaps.”

“Sombra.”

“It is of little consequence, you shall find out in time,” Sombra rebuked. “Unless, of course…”

“The Crystal Empire. That might just be where the culprit ran off to!” Twilight declared with a ‘eureka’ sparkling in her eyes. “Whatever you’re hiding in there, whether this dark mage knows about it or not doesn’t matter. It would still be a tempting target if they want to learn your secrets, they won’t know it has all been catalogued.”

“It is possible. The Crystal Empire is the seat of my power,” Sombra noted, Twilight trying to ignore the present tense. “Even now, those crystals still remember my presence. It is logical for any impersonator to wish to study at the heart of my strength.”

“Well, it’s a lead. Celestia knows I’m not going to find any others around here,” Twilight said, disdainfully nodding at the assembled junk. “Though it would be difficult getting past the guards.”

“And yet they have done it before,” Sombra pointed out with a hint of a mocking tone. “Do not assume they have not, yet again, already gained access to what is not theirs.”

“Well, hopefully, he’s still there at the very least. Or has left something telling us who they are.” Twilight hummed in through, rubbing her chin as she mulled something around in her head. “Alright, I’ll have to tell the others about this. If we can catch a train relatively soon, we might be able to catch them red hooved!”

“Assuming we are correct, there is no certainty.”

“It’s better than nothing, let’s see if we can find my friends,” Twilight said, starting towards the door before she just… stopped. Her magic had been lit ready to grab onto the handle, but even that died out as conflict entered her eyes.

“Your thoughts dwell on those interfering mares,” Sombra observed. “What is this longing I detect, Granddaughter?”

“It’s just… After our talk last night, it’s had me thinking…”

“As I am aware. For all your protest, you yet wonder if I speak only truth.”

“Maybe. But it’s not entirely that.”

“Oh? You believe me to have misinterpreted what I so clearly see?”

“Not entirely, but…” Twilight sighed. “It’s Radiant Hope. How important she was to you.”

Sombra frowned. “Why do you mention her once again?”

“Did it ever hurt? Acting like you didn’t care?” Twilight asked, and despite his mask, she had a feeling that she’d struck a nerve beneath that cold exterior. “That’s what you did, right? To ‘protect’ her?”

“I need not pretend, I was the cold corrupted dark mage who wrought doom to her city.”

“Please, don’t try to deny it now. Not after everything we went through yesterday,” Twilight gently pleaded. “Even if she didn’t know you anymore, I know you still loved her. She didn’t go down with the Crystal Empire, you saved her too.”

“My son required his mother.”

“I still don’t believe you stopped feeling for her, not after what I saw. So, did it hurt pretending not to?”

Sombra was looking distinctly uncomfortable at this point. “This line of questioning is pointless. Cease it at once.”

“Because that’s how I feel lying to my friends,” Twilight declared, and immediately she felt Sombra’s safeguard tighten within her mind.

“You still wish to tell them?” Sombra questioned in an irritated tone. “To warn them?”

“I want their help… And I want to protect them from what we might face,” Twilight answered. “That’s what you tried to impart on me, right? Protecting the ponies you love? Well, this is my method. Telling them the truth, letting them stand beside me knowing what we’re running into.”

“They will betray you.”

“No, they won’t!” Twilight shouted, stamping her hoof in a surge of anger. “Not them! Never!”

“They will not understand what you do to protect them. It will turn their view of you sour, that is why you force it on them for their own good.”

“I will not be like that, it won’t turn out like it did for you!” Twilight objected, and she inwardly knew she’d struck another blow. “I’m not going crazy and enslaving Ponyville, and while they might find it hard to accept at first, I know for a fact that they’ll stick by me no matter what.”

“I warn you, Twilight. Informing them could undo our destinies.”

“I don’t care! Besides, letting them in might be a chance to show you that friendship can work!”

“You do little to convince me.”

“Then do it for me!” Twilight pleaded. “Sombra, it’s tearing me up inside! I HATE not being able to tell them, not having them there to support me. And it’s not fair on them either, they deserve to know! Please, I need them! I… I can’t do this much longer without knowing they’re there…”

“You do no need anypony to succeed, it is they who need you!” Sombra dismissed.

“We need each other. And we’re better for it, stronger. That’s how friendship works.”

Sombra growled, turning his back on Twilight as he gave an enlarged sigh. Why couldn’t she just see? Simple friends were a waste of time, existing only to disappoint and regress. And yet, Sombra could indeed feel the heavy amount of love she felt towards them. It went beyond a casual friendship, that he could not deny.

But all the worse. If she felt such a way, they needed her protection, even if they didn’t understand it. It was her will that should hold sway, no matter how they came to view her in turn. It was for their good, everypony else didn’t even matter. That was how it had to be, any other way would just invite future pain and failure.

And yet…

Sombra could feel the turmoil within those glistening eyes digging into him. The curse of being inside her mind, he could feel all that she did. And it was terrible, such emotional suffering…

She shouldn’t feel this way. She had to have resolve! Dedication! Her empathy made her weaker, she needed unwavering certainty to rule! To protect!

And yet, as he felt the last pony on Equus he actually had some level of care for suffer, he felt his own begin to falter.


When Twilight entered the lounge, her friends had already collapsed into the various chairs around an empty fireplace with various levels of irritation etched into their faces. Rainbow Dash looked particularly restless, the only one not actually sitting as she idly hovered over a bemused Applejack.

“Hey, girls,” Twilight greeted with a tired smile. “Any luck.”

“Oh, hey Twilight!” Pinkie greeted first, who actually appeared to be in typically good spirits. If only because it was her keeping the room from entering a metaphorical greyscale. “You look kinda rough, you okay?”

“Ask me that another time,” Twilight replied, finding a seat on a sofa next to Fluttershy and collapsing into it.

“Oh dear,” the yellow pegasus muttered. “Do you want me to get you something? Some water maybe? A bunny to cuddle?”

“As nice as that’d be, no thank you.”

“No luck?” Applejack asked.

“Of course she hasn’t!” Rainbow Dash moaned. “None of us have! I was expecting to be stopping the bad guys, not staring at junk for hours on end! Urgh, we have no idea where this dude is!”

“Do let her speak herself please, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity lightly scolded, causing the mare to pout.

“She’s… not wrong,” Twilight admitted. “Nothing came up.”

“See!” Rainbow rebuffed.

“At least it saves on paperwork,” Spike grumbled, idly writing on a scroll in the corner. “Not much to document if there are no clues.”

“I don’t know, I had some fun,” Pinkie claimed. “When Detective Diane Pie didn’t find any clues, at least around our current case, though the mystery cake thief turned out to just be Princess Celestia’s snack time, I just went around trying to cheer ponies up with treats and musical numbers.”

“How’d that turn out?” Rainbow asked in bemusement.

“Not as well as in Ponyville, some really were determined to be grumpy. But I got a few smiles, so it was worth it!”

“I’m sure they appreciated it,” Fluttershy supported.

“Still doesn’t help the lack of leads,” Rainbow muttered, crossing her forehooves mid-air.

“As much as I hate to say so, Rainbow ain’t wrong. We’re about as lost on this thing as a blind pig in a new barn,” Applejack pointed out. “I’m not sure what else we can do here. Not unless the Princess has got something we can actually do.”

“Well, about that…” Twilight started. “I might have some idea of where to look next. Nothing concrete mind you, but an idea.”

“Hm? Wish to share, darling?” Rarity enquired.

“Uh, later. There’s… there’s something else I want to… to…” Twilight found her tongue immediately caught by that dreaded internal pressure.

All of her friends glanced between one another, and then back at Twilight with renewed concern.

“You want to tell us something, Twi?” Applejack asked. “Ya’ll don’t look so great.”

“We’re here to listen, if you want,” Pinkie Pie assured the alicorn. “As long as you want!”

“I… Thank you, girls. I want to… It’s…”

And yet, still, she couldn’t form the words. Inwardly she screamed as she tried to fight Sombra off, but his control still refused to give in. A small tear managed its way from the corner of Twilight’s eye, and now her friends really started to worry.

“Twilight, do you wish us to call Princess Celestia?” Rarity asked.

“Or a doctor? Are you sick?” Fluttershy asked worriedly.

“Sick!?” Spike blurted out, suddenly quite freaked out. “No! Don’t be sick! It’ll be okay! Please don’t be sick! Twilight!”

Twilight couldn’t answer, just gaping as she inwardly pleaded. A giant pit opened in her stomach and she started to feel light headed, a physical sickness starting to be felt deep inside of her. She was shaking, desperate. She pleaded to the one none of them could see, hoping against all hope that he would relent and allow her to just speak.

And then…

“Sombra is living inside my head!”

Silence.

All eyes just stared at Twilight, looking at her as if she had suddenly turned into a dragon as they all seemed to process what she had just declared. Twilight, on her part, just panted as suddenly she felt all of Sombra’s deeply applied force depart from her mind, at least in part. It was like she’d shed a saddlebag full of Bulk Bicep’s exercise equipment, and the shock of the gesture had her eyes open as wide as dinner plates.

“I hope you are right, Granddaughter. Or we are already among the damned.”

Then the silence was broken.

“Ha! Good one, Twilight!” Rainbow Dash laughed. “You had us going for a moment! Pfft, King Sombra! Riiiight.”

Twilight just gave her a deadpan glare.

“…Not joking, huh?”

“It happened in the Crystal Empire, when I went for that trip a little while ago. Though, I didn’t know until recently,” Twilight started to explain. “Sombra survived as pure dark magic, but he was still slowly dying without a body. He… wanted to use my body as his own.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Fluttershy asked in horror.

“I couldn’t. As he was gaining strength to overtake my body and… kill me, he got more and more control over me. I couldn’t tell you.”

“But now you’ve found a way around it, right?” Applejack asked, tilting her hat backwards as her eyes betrayed her growing anger. Yet, she didn’t give time for Twilight to answer before speaking again. “Well, that explains a whole lot! Everything you were upset over, all those trips of yours. Everything!”

“We gotta do something!” Rainbow Dash demanded. “Nopony messes with our Sparkle!”

Twilight raised a placating hoof. “Girls-”

“You’re darned right, Rainbow!” Applejack agreed. “Rarity, you and Fluttershy go grab the princesses! Pinkie, you have the guard. Rainbow, you and I will stay here and-”

“GIRLS!”

That got their attention.

“A-are you okay, Twilight?” Spike asked nervously, tapping his claws together. “I-I should have seen, I should have…”

“It’s not your fault, Spike,” Twilight tried assuring the young drake.

“But-”

“Sombra made sure I couldn’t tell. No matter how much I wanted to.”

Spike sniffed, wiping an emergent tear from her eye. Seeing this, Twilight held out an inviting wing, to which he wasted no time in jumping up and snuggling into the alicorn.

“We gotta get him out of you, Twi,” Applejack said. “We need to get moving, if you know anything else that can help…”

“You’re not telling anypony. This stays between us.”

“WHAT!?” came the universal shout from all of her friends.

“Why the hay wouldn’t we kick his flank! He’s probably behind the archive stuff too!”

“He’s not, we were nowhere near there at the time,” Twilight calmly rebuked. “And despite how things started, he’s not actually wanting to harm me anymore.”

“I’m sorry dear, but I find that quite hard to believe,” Rarity responded doubtfully.

“Wait…” Spike suddenly said in realisation, looking up from beneath Twilight’s wing with a renewed look of horror. “Twilight, that spell… Was it…!?”

“I’m so sorry I lied, Spike…” Twilight said, choking up a bit at his horror-filled and hurt expression. “It was dark magic. Sombra’s been teaching me.”

And in came the protests.

“You can’t be serious, Sugarcube!” Applejack spluttered in shock. “That’s… It’s…”

“Crazy!” Rainbow agreed. “You do some crazy spells, but this is WAAAAY above and beyond!”

“This has to be some kind of trick from Sombra…” Rarity muttered in disbelief.

“Yeah, Twilight, that stuff isn’t exactly fun…” Pinkie said sadly.

“Pinkie Pie is right, what were you thinking!?”

Fluttershy shuffled uncomfortably. “Maybe we should hear her out…? There… there must be a reason…”

“I wanted to learn it so that I could better protect you girls. And Equestria,” Twilight tried to justify to them. “I can control it. Control myself. Use it to understand and stop ponies like the one who we’re after right now! Besides, Celestia and Luna know dark magic!”

“But… Twilight, they don’t use it,” Spike pointed out. “Luna only knows it because she was Nightmare Moon, and have we ever seen Princess Celestia use any beyond that spell she showed you?”

“It doesn’t mean she’s not hiding more. I wouldn’t put it past her,” Twilight retorted.

“Forget the other princesses, you’re… well, you Twi!” Applejack stated. “Prove me wrong, but dark magic ain’t exactly what I’d call friendly.”

“But I’m able to control myself! I’m not using it for evil purposes, I just need to understand it.”

“Okay, darling, the magic is one thing. We trust you. But…” Rarity trailed off.

“Why aren’t you letting us kick out King Crystal Butt!?” Rainbow finished for her in a not so eloquent manner.

“I agree,” Applejack concurred. “Name me one good reason why we shouldn’t turn him in after all he’s done.”

“…He’s my grandfather.”

Silence again.

This newer revelation seemed to roll around in their heads for a moment, and it was almost as if some brain cells had blown at the sheer magnitude of what had just been told to them. Applejack, having asked the question in the first place, seemed to be the first to slowly nod and register the information.

“Huh…” the mare began. “I… think you got me there.”

“GRANDDAUGHTER!?” Rainbow suddenly bellowed. “What. The. Hay!?”

“It’s true,” Twilight assured them. “I… You know how I was looking into his son? Well, he had foals of his own… That led to my own mother, and then to Shining and me. And… Celestia, she knew! She had a book keeping track of us! She… she lied to me!”

“Oh my…” Fluttershy whispered.

“Do your own parents know of this?” Rarity gently asked.

Twilight shook her head. “Not yet. I will tell when I can, when it’s right…”

“Seems like you and the Princess need to talk some more…” Pinkie Pie mused.

“And say what?” Twilight snorted. “We said plenty to each other. It’s… complicated.”

“I’ll say,” Rainbow muttered. “This is way too much family drama. Like, a thousand years’ worth of it.”

“A little over eleven-hundred, actually…” Twilight muttered.

“What happens now…?” Spike asked.

“What does he want from us?” Fluttershy asked.

“Nothing right now. Not from you girls, anyway,” Twilight answered. “It took a lot to convince him that I could trust you with this. I… I have gotten to know him, he’s damaged. He still loves, but it's all twisted and broken. I think I can fix it.”

“You think you can reform the most evil figure in pony history?” Rarity inquired with a curious glance.

“Wouldn’t be the first time!” Pinkie cheerfully noted.

“I want to try. He is family, and after what I saw, what turned him into this… I think I can make a difference. I want to do this, but I need your support. It’s… Oh Faust, it’s been so hard…”

Spike snuggled up to her a little harder as she released a small sob. Likewise, the girls seemed to relent a little.

“I think we can help you, it’s what friends do,” Fluttershy supported. “Right, girls?”

“Can do. But if he tries anything, I’ll sonic rainboom his flank!”

“Technically, that’s Twilight’s flank right now, silly!” Pinkie Pie pointed out.

“Oh, right…”

“I’m sure there are other ways to exact justice on the ruffian,” Rarity stated with a huff. “Well, at least this further reinforces your royal status. Not that it was needed of course, but it shouldn’t be ignored all the same.”

“But… you want us to lie about this to the princesses…” Applejack said uncomfortably, biting her lip.

“I’m not asking you to lie for me,” Twilight assured. “Just try to be discrete. Don’t say anything at all, just go on like you were before I told you.”

“It still seems downright deceitful to me,” Applejack remarked with a wrinkle of a nose. “But… you’re my friend, and I also know the value of family. I’ll try. That’s all I can say.”

“Thank you, that’s all I ask.”

And for all that it was worth, despite Sombra’s displeasure at the development he himself had allowed, Twilight spirits soared to new heights. Even higher than magic studies could provide her, bringing her back up to some semblance of the mare before Sombra’s arrival.

She had her friends. Now, for all that awaited her, Twilight had the certainty Sombra so loved to preach about.

18 - Forgiveness

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“So, you really think this dark mage of yours has run off to the Crystal Empire?” Applejack asked idly, walking alongside the others through the hallways of Canterlot Castle towards the throne room.

They didn’t say anything, but Twilight could tell that her recent revelation was still bothering him. She would catch them shoot sideways glances at her, or rather next to her. Likely picturing a certain former King of the Crystal Empire trotting alongside her. It was elating to know that they still trusted her enough to support her and keep things on the down low for the time being, and she was equally thankful they had ceased pressing the issue for the moment.

Just having them there was helping immeasurably.

“Pretty sure,” the alicorn replied. “It is the best lead we could come up with, and from what little we know about this guy it just makes too much sense.”

“I suppose it takes a dark mage to know a dark mage!” Pinkie Pie remarked as she bounced along.

“And I could think of worse locations to chase the ruffian through,” Rarity said gleefully. “I have been long meaning to revisit that wonderful place. My word, I can already feel the inspiration it shall provide!”

“Nice priorities there, Rares,” Rainbow Dash teased. “Hope that inspiration helps us stop the end of the world. Again.”

“You never know, darling. Just don’t ruin the Crystal Empire for me.”

“Me? Neveeeer…”

Twilight chuckled at the back and forth between her two friends, before then returning her focus at the task ahead.

And the pony she had to talk to.

Honestly, she kept running over ways to get out of it. Maybe they could talk to Luna instead? Just go on ahead without telling anypony?

But Celestia had to know. As her peer, a Princess of Equestria in her own right, it was her duty. Both Celestia and Luna had to know about their suspicions, and it had been Celestia who’d summoned them here to begin with.

Best to just get it over with.

“So… how we playing this?” Pinkie asked. “You know, since Princess Celestia’s mortal enemy is helping us and all.”

“Won’t she be mad?” Fluttershy asked worriedly.

“Which is why we aren’t saying nothin’,” Applejack noted with distaste.

“Let me do the explanations,” Twilight said. “I’ll just say that the idea came into my head. Not technically a lie, since he is literally inside my mind.”

“Sorry sugarcube, but I hate ‘technicalities’.”

Twilight cringed. “I know… But we need to.”

Applejack sighed, pulling down her hat partially over her eyes. She didn’t reply, electing to just grumble dejectedly behind the rim.

She’d already promised. Twilight hated making her so uncomfortable, but what was the alternative?

Celestia wouldn’t understand.

“You okay, Twilight?” Spike asked, hurrying his pace to walk beside the mare. “You don’t look it…”

“Better than I was,” she replied honestly. “Don’t worry, Spike. We’ll be off to the Crystal Empire in no time.”

There wasn’t time for him to debate the point, the throne room’s entrance coming into view.

Twilight took a breath without slowing her pace, trying to calm her quickening heartbeat as she bypassed the saluting guards and made her way inside.

Celestia was already waiting.

As was Luna.

Both elder alicorns turned to look at the seven of them as they entered, the throne room doors remaining ajar behind them. There was a moment of awkward silence that deafened the ears of all present, even the guards. All eyes went between Twilight and Celestia, all but for the two in question. They just glanced at one another momentarily, before they then averted their eyes shamefully.

“Indeed…” Luna said to Celestia, apparently responding to some unheard remark. “I shall leave you to it. Tell me how it proceeds.”

“You’re not staying…?” Twilight asked, rather hoping she’d decide to do so.

“I do not believe my presence is required for this. I would suggest your friends also depart once you have spoken of business and proceed to more pressing concerns. Be well.”

The Princess of the Moon departed, closing the door shut behind her.

“What is she up to…?” Sombra mused distrustfully within Twilight’s mind.

“What was that about?” Spike asked, mirroring Sombra’s own thoughts.

“Just… some advice and stern words only family could bring,” Celestia replied cryptically. "It matters little… how are you all?”

Even if her friends looked right at her, Twilight didn’t respond. After a couple moments of this, Applejack cleared her throat and decided to try and break some of the ice.

“We’re doing just fine, your Highness. A bit flustered and all with the lack of progress, but I think Twi has an idea about that.”

“Is that indeed the case?” Celestia asked, her hesitant eyes settling on the younger alicorn. “…Twilight?”

“…I might have one or two,” she replied with attempted neutrality. “I’ve had a lot of time to think.”

“As frail as she looks now, do not let it concern you,” Sombra warned. “She is quite practised in forms of manipulation. Yet another weakness of freely expressing one’s feelings, it is so easily squandered.”

“As I understand it, the investigation of my guard has gone poorly,” Celestia noted, trotting over to one of the stain glass windows and looking up and out of it. “False leads and general dead ends, few traces to follow as to the thief’s identity.”

“It’s true. There wasn’t so much as a hair left behind, and they’ve clearly covered any definable magic signature. A good move, in hindsight…” Twilight said, though the latter was clearly in partial reference to how her own little heist had been discovered. A fact not lost on the otherwise passive Celestia. “But I had an idea come into my head. I don’t really know for sure, but I might know where he has fled to.”

Celestia turned, giving her a small smile. “Then I would hear it. I trust your judgement.”

Sombra growled. "Lies for the weak! Beacons for the deluded!"

Twilight had her own doubts.

Celestia paused, before letting out a sigh.

“Twilight…”

“The Crystal Empire,” Twilight curtly stated. “This pony seems to have something of a fixation on Sombra. His teachings, legacy… It makes sense. Who would you want to emulate but the most powerful dark mage in recorded history?”

“A power destined for another…”

“We cleared out anything of use that we knew of on our last expedition into Sombra’s sanctum,” Twilight continued. “But they might not know that. Or… ‘maybe’ he knows something we don’t. Either way, I think it’s the most logical conclusion. Our only lead.”

Celestia hummed, returning her gaze to the window and gazing back out of it. She seemed to consider Twilight’s words, thinking the plausibility of the scenario through in her head.

“I would agree that it is a strong possibility, even if not a certain one,” she finally responded. “But in the lack of other leads, I would ask that you reunite with Prince Shining Armor and the Crystal Guard to commit a full investigation. My sister and I will continue to oversee efforts here, we may yet uncover something thus far missed.”

“Want me to send a letter ahead?” Spike enquired.

Celestia nodded. “That would be appreciated, Spike. I believe they would like to know… And they should know a great many things…”

A renewed air of uncomfortableness descended onto the mares and dragon, Celestia noting the atmosphere and turning to face the Element Bearers.

“You are aware, aren’t you?”

“You see, uh…” Applejack started to answer, but her tongue became tied.

“Yeah, I mean, she… Ugh…” Rainbow helpfully added.

“Oh dear,” Fluttershy muttered simply.

Celestia gave another sigh. “It is only natural she would tell you of all ponies, and I am glad she had the support. But for the moment, my sister is correct. This cannot be delayed, and I would ask you to leave us be for a moment.”

Twilight froze up.

“Are you okay with this, Twilight?” Rarity asked gently.

Twilight didn’t answer.

“Rarity,” Applejack softly addressed. “This is family business, we ain’t got no business here.”

“Are you sure…?” Fluttershy asked worriedly.

“Yeah, I’m not sure what to do here…” Pinkie Pie agreed.

Rarity shook her head. “If the dear wants us to stay, then…”

The unicorn looked at her royal friend, but again seemed to get no recognition.

She took that as her answer.

“…But I think Applejack is right. We should give them space.”

“Thank you…” Celestia said to them, before then looking at Twilight. “In fact, perhaps my study might be more… comfortable for this.”

“Do whatever…” Twilight replied, not meeting her gaze.

Celestia was silent a moment, but she then nodded in confirmation. She lit her horn the usual bright gold, giving her former student’s friend a final glance and noting their troubled eyes before engaging the teleportation spell around both herself and Twilight.

In a swirl of magic, the throne room distorted and vanished from existence, giving them a very brief glimpse of the golden void of light before being so suddenly ripped from it and placed down into Celestia’s private study with a loud pop. The room was neat and immaculate, entirely silent but for the birds chirping on branches beyond the nearby balcony. It all looked undisturbed, yet to be visited by the Princess of the Sun on that day. Not another soul could be seen or heard, helped by the multitude of privacy spells over the study.

This left Celestia and Twilight completely alone.

“So…” Twilight spoke first. “What did Luna say to you?”

Celestia gave her a sad smile. “That I’m an old fool. That I didn’t consider the full range of consequences beyond the outcomes I desired. That she half wants to hit me for being so negligent and half wants to hug me for my honest intentions. All that I know already, and all that I deserve.”

Twilight hummed but was otherwise silent.

“She also made some good points about what you did. I still don’t approve, and I won’t say I’m not hurt by it… But I understand wanting to know the truth I hid from you, especially one as great as this.”

Twilight turned away. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. But… I trusted you!”

“I know. But… Luna also said she spoke to you as well.”

“I… Yeah, she did,” Twilight confirmed. “And… Ugh, I’m so angry! I still can’t believe you did any of that! I trusted you more than anypony! I… I… You betrayed me! And not just me, my family! Shining… He still doesn’t know!”

Celestia let out a breath, closing her eyes. “I know…”

“And yet…” Twilight continued, feeling a sudden ping of alarm from Sombra. “She also made some good points about you.”

“Twilight…” Sombra said in a low, warning tone.

“I know you were looking out for me, that what we had was real. I’ve always known.”

“Do not be taken in by this farce!”

“And I KNOW I was wrong to do what I did. I hurt you, but I felt like you deserved it. Part of me still does! A BIG part of me! But… Ugh, I’m so confused, Celestia!”

“I know. And maybe I did deserve the reality check,” Celestia said softly, walking over to and sitting beside Twilight. “My love for you, my faithful student, has always been unwavering. You are not him. You have his power, but your spirit is your own. You are not bound by that legacy.”

“There is ONLY our legacy!”

“And yet fear kept the truth within me,” Celestia admitted. “Fear of what it might do to you. You… are stronger than that, I know. But I have always been weak towards fear when it involved the ponies I care so deeply for. Luna, Sunset… now you. My best intentions for those I love always leads to their downfall… I am so, so sorry…”

Even as Sombra’s rage startled to bubble and boil, Twilight let all recognition of him fade away as she leant into Celestia with a tearful sniff. A small tear dripped down onto Twilight’s mane from above, a large alabaster wing draping around her lovingly.

“I… I don’t think I can forget what you did to my family…” Twilight muttered sadly. “Not yet, I… It hurts…”

“I know… It feels the same, you too breached my trust. But I do not wish to lose you, I just… I want to save something I love, somepony, just this once. Not to lose you for so long as I did them…”

“I don’t want to lose what we had, either…” Twilight replied in an emotional whisper. “But you… I… We… How do we move on from here?”

“We have both erred, and I hope we can both learn. Mother knows it is long since time I learned the boundaries of what you can do for those you love, the line you can never cross…”

Twilight looked up at Celestia, eyes wide.

“I shall tell the others the truth, when our current crisis is resolved,” Celestia promised, looking down at her daughter-figure. “They do deserve the truth. It is high time I faced up to my mistake.”

Twilight sniffed, nodding in agreement as she looked away and leant back into the larger pony’s soft fur. She felt so warm, so safe… For the moment, her turmoil seemed to disappear entirely. The conflict between the ideologies of her two mentors didn’t seem to matter, for all their differences in approach and yet eerie similarities in their commitment of terrible deeds for the sake of a corrupted love. But this moment wasn’t corrupted, it felt as pure as the pearly white feathers wrapped around her form. And that, for the moment, was all that mattered.

Until she heard five words that filled her with a profound sense of dread.

“You disappoint me, Twilight Sparkle.”

19 - Differing Perspectives

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“Crystal Empire, here we come!” Rarity gushed, a rather large collection of bags following on behind her held within a shimmering field of magic. “Come, darlings. There is hardly a moment to waste.”

“Where did you even get that stuff!?” Rainbow asked in exasperation as she idly glided through the air alongside her friends as they started to approach the train station. “You barely brought a thing to Canterlot!”

“I had a little more notice to prepare this time, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity retorted. “As for where I got them, I enlisted Pinkie Pie’s help in ensuring I had all the essentials required for a visit to that glorious city.”

Pinkie giggled as Rainbow’s dagger stare shifted towards her. “I have a few things stashed away in case of Rarity emergencies.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. Of course she did.

“Just let ‘em have it, we’ve got bigger varmints to fry,” Applejack pointed out. “What’s the plan when we get there, Twilight?”

“Any advice from the devil on your shoulder?” Spike quipped.

Twilight bit her lip. “No… He’s been a little quiet all day. I actually think he might be a little mad at me.”

“The King of Evil is mad at you, what a shocker,” Rainbow Dash deadpanned.

“Rainbow!” Twilight hissed defensively, before she then gave a quiet sigh. “But yeah, he hasn’t said a word since I talked with the Princess. I’ve tried reaching him, but he’s been silent every time.”

“That’s just family for ya’ll,” Applejack mused. “They get mad when you do something they don’t think you should and give the cold shoulder, but that’ll only last until they’ve cooled off.”

“This is Sombra we’re talking about!” Rainbow Dash objected. “I don’t think he’s capable of ‘cooling off’!”

“Family is family. Twi’s is just a bit… unique,” Applejack said hesitantly. “Ya’ll know I don’t rightly agree with any of this. But I know family, and I know they always make up eventually.”

Twilight wasn’t entirely convinced. The Apples were as closely knit as families could get, but not everypony had that kind of luck.

Still, she hoped she was right. How could she even begin to save his soul if he refused to speak to her?

“Anyway…” the alicorn started to continue. “Him aside, you were asking about our plans?”

“I think so, yes,” Fluttershy confirmed with a small nod.

Twilight took a breath. “Alright. Well, first thing to do is find Cadance and Shining. Spike’s sent them a letter, they should have already started an investigation of their own. Best case, they’ve already discovered something by the time we arrive.”

“Which is, let’s face it, not gonna happen,” Spike said with barely hidden bemusement.

“And if not…” Twilight continued, giving the young drake a quick flick with her tail for his snide remark, much to his protest. “We can slide right in with the others and help out. This is all we’ve got, either Sombra and I hit upon something or we’re running straight into a dead end. And if that’s the case…”

“What happens then…?” Fluttershy asked nervously.

“Then we can only wait for the culprit to maybe show up again somewhere down the road. Which, it goes without saying, is not ideal.”

“I don’t know, I think we can take them,” Rainbow commented.

“And what about the ponies caught in the middle before we can get there?” Applejack deadpanned.

“I don’t know if you realise this, AJ, but I’m preeety fast.”

“Right. That just leaves the rest of us to catch up, then.”

“Either way, it’s not something we want to happen,” Twilight interrupted. “The consequences of this dark mage succeeding could be devastating.”

“Slightly wishing we hadn’t left the Elements in a tree,” Pinkie Pie said with a small bit of worry.

“Well, we did beat the biggest dark mage of them all without them already,” Spike pointed out. “After all we’ve been through over the last year, as long as we stick together you probably don’t even need the Elements!”

“Beyond you, they are all mere peasants playing in the game of gods and demons. Their entrustment with such things, and their continued success, is nothing short of a miracle. It cannot last.”

“Thanks…” Twilight deadpanned.

“What was that, dear?” Rarity enquired.

“Sombra spoke, finally,” Twilight reported. “He thinks the rest of you shouldn’t be able to save Equestria.”

Applejack huffed indignantly. “Well, Mr Sombra, just because we’re not fancy alicorns and dark mages don’t mean we can’t do nothin’. We’ve come a long way together, the Princess trusts us because we’ve proven we can do what most ponies don’t.”

“You tell him, AJ!” Rainbow supported. “And I’M going to be accepted into the Wonderbolt reserves soon! Part-time EUP commission! Besides, we’re clearly good enough to beat his sorry flank.”

“As stated, a miracle. And one that is to my eternal shame.”

Twilight rolled her eyes.

“Oh! What did he say now?” Pinkie asked, eager for the scoop.

“It doesn’t matter,” Twilight dismissed. “Besides, we’re here.”

The group stopped right outside the main entrance to Canterlot’s train station, a fresh wave of ponies piling on out indicating that a train was currently sitting on the platform. Not their train, unfortunately. No, they still had a little while to wait until the Crystal Express was due to arrive.

Twilight led the way inside, several ponies gawping, staring and occasionally bowing as one of the alicorn Princesses of Equestria casually passed them by.

Twilight cringed each time, and every time she did so she could feel yet more of Sombra’s disapproval. She didn’t care if he thought she should revel in their reverence, it still felt as uncomfortable to the mare as it always had.

From there, the group of seven proceeded to one of the ticket booths and procured their seats on the next train. The pony behind the counter was far less fazed than some of the bystanders, Twilight recognising them as one who she’d dealt with on more than one journey through the station in the past.

And she had been doing plenty of travel via train as of late.

With tickets in hoof, and Rarity politely declining assistance from staff to help with her bags due to not wishing to ‘be a bother’, the friends made their way out the back of the building and onto the platform. There were a few ponies already waiting, eliciting more stares as they found an empty pair of benches and made camp there for the time being. As they made themselves comfortable, Twilight’s eyes were drawn to a nearby clock and board listing the day’s arrival and departure times.

They had around forty-six or so minutes until their train was due to arrive, barring delays or even early arrivals.

“And now we wait. Because that’s totally the best part of any adventure,” Rainbow quipped.

“We can always talk to each other to pass the time,” Fluttershy suggested, a small amount of sass in her tone. “Anypony?”

“Mare or stallion?” the rainbow-maned pegasus then abruptly asked.

Everypony looked at her oddly.

“The dark mage. I’m picking up bets, guy or gal? I’m betting mare, five bits!”

“Really scraping the bottom of the barrel for topics there, RD,” Applejack deadpanned.

“Hey! Fluttershy asked, I answered!"

The buttery pegasus hid a little behind her mane. “Maybe we should try something else. Um, but only if you want to…”

“So how did your talk go with Celestia anyway, Twilight?” Rarity quickly switched the subject. “We know it went ‘well’ of course, but I wouldn’t be prying too hard if I asked for details would I?”

“I’m a little curious about what Princess Luna wanted myself,” Applejack noted.

“Luna just wanted to help, she put things into perspective for… well, the both of us. But…” Twilight bit her lip again. “It’s a little touchy, girls. We’re okay now, mostly. But…”

“It’s still a little sore. We gotcha,” the apple farmer confirmed in understanding.

“They’re a big happy family again, that’s all that matters,” Pinkie Pie supported.

Speaking of family, Twilight felt Sombra’s indignation increase again as they talked about the subject of Princess Celestia and Twilight’s reconciliation.

“Uh… Could you girls excuse me for a moment?” Twilight asked, vacating the bench as the others gave her worried looks. “I need to use the bathroom.”

“You okay, Twilight? ‘He’ isn’t bothering you, is he?” Spike asked cautiously.

“Not really, just… Back in a moment.”

Twilight quickly retreated to a nearby lavatory, rapidly swinging the door open and jumping inside before she could inadvertently worry her friends even more. All the while, Sombra’s internal grumbling continued, and Twilight was starting to feel more than a little annoyed herself.

Thankfully, the bathroom was completely empty.

“Sombra, what the hay is your problem!?” Twilight bluntly asked.

No response.

“So Celestia and I made up, so what!?” she shouted. “Friends make mistakes, we get hurt. But we don’t let it keep us apart forever. If it can survive that, we become stronger for it.”

“I sense no strength in what you have done,” Sombra dismissed as he finally materialised before Twilight. “Only pain buried beneath delusion and a step taken back from your potential.”

Twilight scoffed. “Yeah, well, if my potential means pushing away the ponies I love then you can launch it into the sun.”

“Now you act as if a child,” Sombra snarled. “You return beneath the hoof of Celestia and thus shall forever remain beneath her. She is not worthy of your affections.”

“You don’t think anypony is, you wanted me to cast off my friends!” Twilight retorted. “Which is really hypocritical considering the whole Radiant Hope thing, by the way.”

Sombra’s eye gave a subtle twitch. “They are not worthy of your affections, but your bond is infuriatingly undeniable. Yet even when I reveal the only way to protect them, you fail to grasp the need and thus fail them as well as me.”

“That’s bogus and you know it!” she snapped. “How was your relationship with the mother of your son by the end, hm?”

“Twilight…” he said warningly.

“Not great! So, don’t lecture me on friends, that’s my job!

“And a tragic waste. Your foolish actions are a ruination of all our progress.”

“I’m NOT being your heir, Sombra!”

“And I shall drag you to greatness whether you yet appreciate it or not, Granddaughter.”

“And I will drag you into friendship whether you value it or not! So there, we can agree on something! Dragging each other until we both go crazy!”

Twilight let off a load defeated groan, turning around and leaning against a nearby sink, planting her head into her hooves as stress wracked her body. Her breaths remained heavy and laboured for several moments. After several more moments of attempting to apply Cadance’s breathing tactic, Twilight looked up and into the mirror. She couldn’t see Sombra’s reflection in the mirror, but she knew he was still standing there.

“You still hold spite for the Princess of the Sun,” Sombra noted with narrowed eyes. “And yet you fight the only natural response to her betrayal. For all I see in your mind, I cannot fathom your naïve actions.”

“You can see what I feel, but you cannot feel it. I wish you could because then maybe you would get what happiness actually feels like.”

“I knew happiness,” Sombra dismissed. “For the briefest of moments, I did. Before you precious Celestia took them both, took him. And now you, apparently.”

“There’s more for you that you realise, Grandfather,” Twilight quietly responded. “But us staying mad at each other won’t help. We still need to find this thief.”

“That we must. But you do not need Celestia to achieve anything. Her teachings will continue to lead you towards one inevitable outcome.”

“And that is?”

“Death,” he responded factually. “A time will come where the petty freedoms you so laud, the friendships you hold so dear, will not be enough to protect yourself or those you hold close for reasons I cannot understand. And it is in that moment that you will understand the truth of my words, and how power and domination is the only security necessary for their protection.”

“But then I’d never be happy,” Twilight softly argued. “You’re wrong, Sombra. I once believed I could go it alone, but Nightmare Moon proved me wrong without a shadow of a doubt.”

“We shall see…”

There was a knock on the bathroom door, Sombra immediately evaporating into shadow.

“Um, hello?” a mare’s voice came through the door. “Is there something wrong in there? I kinda need to go, but there’s a lot of shouting…”

“Um…” Twilight blushed with embarrassment. “Sorry, just… venting! I’m coming out!”

The Princess gave a sigh, returning to her own reflection and studying herself. The bags under her eyes betrayed her continuing exhaustion, and a part of her wondered if she could ever actually succeed in saving him. Was he too hurt? Too set in his ways?

No. She knew there was good in him, she had seen it for herself.

It was ridiculous to think he could be right at all. She’d reconnected with Celestia! He’d never seen that coming…

Yes, completely ridiculous…

She shook her head violently, trying to clear the tired cobwebs and mental conflict. She would need a very long rest when this was over, but for now…

The Crystal Empire awaited. Back where it all began.

And where, hopefully, it would end.

20 - The Vanished

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The Crystal Empire.

Each time seeing it, it never got any less breathtaking.

Twilight looked towards her friends, all fresh out of the station and each looking at the empire with the same awe-filled expression. Except for Rarity, she looked even more like Pinkie Pie when presented with the world’s best chocolate cake.

That is to say, about to burst.

“How delightful!” the fashionista declared. “Oh, I do hope we get given the same rooms as last time. The palace staff are simply a wonder to be around!”

“Everypony sure seems to be in good spirits,” Applejack noted, seeing the cheerful expressions on the various crystal ponies passing by. “Seems like a fine day all things considered.”

“Well, they ARE hosting the Equestria Games really soon,” Rainbow pointed out. “Look, the stadium is almost finished!”

Indeed, the new stadium built for the big sporting event was rapidly approaching the end of its construction. It looked like they were just finishing one of the far walls, ponies being seen hard at work from even where they were standing. The new stadium absolutely dwarfed the original one built before Sombra’s rise to power, being easily one of the grandest in Equestria itself. Fitting, seeing as the event was shaping to be the largest one yet. Every city and large town was sending a team of their own. On top of that, even the Griffon Empire was sending a team of their own this year!

If it was successful, maybe other nations would start partaking in the tradition!

“Such pointless frivolities…”

Twilight pouted. Sombra was such a killjoy.

But she doubted even he could deny the feat of modern engineering. It was as functional as it was grand, capable of seating thousands upon thousands. It was large enough for the vast population of the city to all sit and then some, useful for all the outside visitors they were going to get around that time. And who knew how many would listen in to the radio broadcasts? Memories of the event would be magically catalogued, and it was probably going to be the first Equestria Games recorded on film cameras for conversation into a silent movie format any projector might play.

“And guess who will be sitting up in the royal booth, backed by a fabulous throne alongside the other princesses,” Rarity lightly teased.

Twilight blushed. She would be up there, wouldn’t she…

She’d prefer to sit with her friends.

“Even if you insist on following the naivety of friendship, do not deny your own superiority over the masses by mingling with them.”

He was rapidly giving her a migraine.

But putting humungous historical sporting events aside for the moment, they really should be getting a shift on.

“Come on, girls,” Twilight said to the others. “I don’t want to keep my family waiting too much longer. I’m sure there will be time to check out the stadium later.”

“You bet!” Rainbow agreed towards the latter point.

“I am a tad surprised that the Princess hasn’t arranged some transport for us,” Rarity noted, waving a hoof towards the non-existent carriages waiting for them. “You did tell them the time of our arrival, didn’t you?”

“Only to expect us soon,” Twilight admitted. “They have enough to worry about than chasing after us.”

“It’s not like a walk will kill ya’ll, Rarity,” Applejack said teasingly.

Rarity huffed. “No, I suppose not. At least I will be able to take in more of the Empire’s majesty in the meantime.”

“That’s the spirit!” Pinkie declared, almost giving Rarity a noogie before the fashionista warned her off with a glare that implied certain death should she even try.

And with that, they set off down the main highway ahead of them. The group of seven was almost instantly attracting a fair amount of attention from passing ponies, the crystal ponies suddenly coming into contact with not only a Princess of Equestria but also the very people who had helped save them from the tyrant they didn’t know was tagging along.

Of course, Spike seemed to be getting most of the jubilant stares. One mare even swooned when he gave her a wink, causing the drake to give a self-indulgent chuckle that caused Twilight to groan. Maybe she should have smuggled him inside a blanket…

And yet, Twilight couldn’t help but ponder what they would think of them if they knew what they did. If they knew that the stallion they all feared was right there with them. Would they just be scared? Angry? Betrayed?

“Irrelevant.”

Not to Twilight.

Fortunately, the rest of her friends seemed to be either oblivious to the attention or, like Spike, basking in it. Rarity and Fluttershy were both too busy examining the various shop windows they were passing, discussing among themselves particularly in-depth about a boutique run by a young crystal pony mare. Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie were the showboaters, the former flexing and doing the odd trick while Pinkie just giggled and bounced happily along. Applejack, being Applejack, just focused on the task ahead and ignored the distraction.

Twilight giggled at their various reaction, before then looking up at the Crystal Palace as it drew closer. They were soon close enough to spy the guards around the Crystal Heart, said ponies standing aside to let Twilight and her friends through as they approached.

And then… Twilight stopped.

There was an odd ringing in her ears. A… call. A pull towards…

The Crystal Heart.

Yes… It was calling to her. Summoning her. It was like it detected Sombra’s presence inside Twilight, it was offering to free her from him. In all her planning to get rid of him back when this started, she had forgotten that she didn’t necessarily need Cadance to use it. Like the Elements of Harmony, the Crystal Heart had some kind of will of its own. It would help her. Free her.

All she had to do was ask it.

Twilight turned away, continuing to follow her friends as they started to rise up and into the palace.

As much as they squabbled and disagreed. As much as Sombra, perhaps, deserved it…

He was still family. And she still planned to save him.

It was almost a relief for both herself and the King of Shadows when they emerged from the staircase and into the hallways of the palace. For her so that the temptation was far away, for him so that he knew his demise was not upon him.

Not again.

And yet Twilight could feel his dour mood get even worse. He did not enjoy being in the Crystal Empire with the heart still in play. Twilight could at least somewhat understand the sentiment, it HAD almost killed him, after all.

“Welcome, Princess Twilight Sparkle,” a crystal pony in a smart tuxedo addressed as he approached from down the corridor. “I was informed of your imminent arrival, and I am to direct you to Princess Mi Amore Cadenza and Prince Consort Shining Armor.”

“Uh, great! Where are they?”

“They are currently occupied in Prince Armor’s office,” the pony dutifully informed them. “Follow on, your Highness. I shall take you to them.”

Twilight gave him a thankful nod as he turned to do just that, the alicorn then motioning to her friends to follow on as she fell into step a short distance behind him. It was only a brief trip through the hallways of the grand palace, coming to a stop inside a section that seemed to be home to various guard-related facilities. A barracks, a break room, a mess hall… And, of course, Shining Armor’s office.

“You brother is inside with the Princess,” the crystal pony informed Twilight. “I have been told to admit you right away.”

“Thank you,” Twilight responded, trotting over to the door and pushing it open without a moment of hesitation.

Inside, a neatly laid out and efficiently organised office came into view. One trait the siblings shared… At least when it came to Shining’s duties as both a prince and a guard. The stallion himself was behind a desk, his horn alight as he levitated some document or another out before him, his eyes intently scanning whatever was written upon those pages. Two guards stood the opposite end of the desk, both standing briskly to attention as they waited for their Prince to finish. And there, looking over his shoulder, Cadance was also reading the report alongside her husband.

Then they both noticed the new arrivals.

“Twilight!” Cadance greeted first as the group entered. She then turned her gaze towards the two guards. “You may go.”

Each saluted, turning and trotting past the arriving seven with only respectful nods before departing and shutting the doors up behind them.

“What was that about?” Rainbow asked. “Those guys in trouble or something?”

“Not really,” Shining answered. “They were just delivering a report on our investigation into this dark mage of yours. There’s been a few… problems.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Problems?”

“We can get to that in a moment,” Cadance cut in. “How are you? I hear things got a bit hectic in Canterlot.”

“Nothing we couldn’t handle, Princess,” Applejack claimed. “Though, ‘hectic’ might be the wrong word. We couldn’t find the varmint…”

“So now we’re here instead!” Pinkie chirped.

“We gathered,” Shining replied with a chuckled. “Anything else we should know that wasn’t in your letter?”

Twilight briefly considered going down the lines of “By the way, you’re the really distant great-grandson of Sombra! Congratulations!”, but she then decided that should probably be left for a more opportune time.

“We told you most of it,” Twilight ended up saying. “The Crystal Empire is the only place we could see him going.”

“Well, you might not have been far off the mark…” Shining then said, glancing back at the report.

“Oh dear. Has something happened?” Fluttershy questioned.

“Try multiple things,” he stated. “For the past few days, ever since the dark mage hit the archive, we’ve had a string of missing ponies reports.”

“Ponies have gone missing?” Spike asked. “H-how? Why?”

“We’re not entirely sure as to either,” Cadance explained. “They just vanish. The guard were already starting an investigation when your letter came, it just can’t be a coincidence…”

“So, you think it’s this dreadful dark mage that’s been taking crystal ponies?” Rarity inquired worriedly.

“It’s what we suspect,” Shining Armor confirmed. “We’ve stepped up the investigation, we’re practically turning the Crystal Empire upside down to try to find either the pony responsible or any of their victims.”

“And?” Twilight asked.

“Nothing. Not yet, anyway.”

Twilight grimaced. That was bad… “Have you looked into Sombra’s sanctum? If there was any place they’d go, it would be there?”

“Don’t you need Twilight to get in there?” Rainbow Dash pointed out.

“Twilight isn’t the only one good with magic,” Cadance remarked with a small smirk. “I’ve taught myself the basic spell since the last time, we didn’t want to call Twilight in from Ponyville every time we needed to go down there. It’s… horrible. I hate it. But we need it, so…”

“I still think I should have it on hoof, too,” Shining said with a frown.

“No, two of us in the family learning a bit of dark magic is enough, thank you.”

Oh, she had no idea.

“So, what do ya’ll want us to do? Last thing I want is us wandering the Crystal Empire like a blindfolded bull in a rodeo.”

“I don’t think the bulls would appreciate being used for a rodeo…” Pinkie Pie pondered.

“But dear Applejack has a point, in her own unique way. We need a plan,” Rarity agreed.

“We have the location of the most recent victim. They vanished this morning,” Shining Armor informed them.

“This morning!?” Twilight blanched. “They’re still doing this with all the guards everywhere!?”

“And nopony has seen a thing,” he confirmed. “They’re good. But now you’re here, maybe we can put our heads together and find them, eh kiddo?”

Twilight puffed her cheeks up indignantly at being called ‘kiddo’.

“Aside from that, we’re going to give the sanctum another look over first thing tomorrow,” Cadance further explained. “We have some things to do here, but I’ve arranged for a couple of ponies to accompany you to the site.”

“Oh? Who?”

Timed almost to perfection, the door opened up behind them. Twilight turned to see two figures she immediately recognised, one adorned in full guard armour while the other wore only his saddlebags filled with various magical tomes and other such books.

“Ah, Crystal Shield. Shadow Flare,” Shining greeted the two. “Good timing.”

“So I see,” Crystal Shield said with a smile as he observed Twilight. “Good to see you again.”

Sombra seemed to cringe as he also recognised the stallion’s face from a certain memory…

“You too, Crystal Shield,” Twilight responded in a friendly tone. “You too, Shadow Flare.”

“And so soon. Though I’m sorry it’s under these circumstances,” Shadow Flare said. “Terrible business, this. I only came here for some research and now I’m neck deep in this investigation. But if your brother wants my help, who am I to say no?”

“Friends of yours?” Spike asked the alicorn.

“Girls, Spike, this is Shadow Flare and Crystal Shield,” she introduced them. “I met them during our expedition into Sombra’s sanctum. Crystal was one of the guards here before Sombra’s reign, and Shadow went to some of the same classes I did back during our time at Celestia’s school.

“Which, as I recall, you didn’t remember,” Shadow Flare teased.

Twilight blushed. “Well, I do now!”

Shining Armor chuckled. “Always in a book… But you should all have time to catch up on the job. As much as I would love to spend some time with you, Twily, I don’t think our ‘friend’ will wait up for us.”

“Shining is right,” Twilight agreed. “We can talk on the way; can you take us to the scene?”

Crystal Shield nodded. “Then follow on, Twilight, Especially you, Sir Spike! I feel miles better now that you are here!”

Spike puffed up with pride. “When it comes to saving the day, I certainly do my best!”

Twilight rolled her eyes.

But despite the drake’s growing ego, Twilight gave a few parting words to her brother and sister-in-law before following the unicorn and crystal pony out of Shining Armor’s office.

With them all working together, she was certain that they’d have the dark mage in custody in no time…

21 - Investigation

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Eight sets of hooves clopped along the crystalline floors of the Crystal Palace, followed on by the patters of claws from their more draconic companion. Crystal Shield was leading the way while the others filed in behind him, heading back through the halls with intent to exit the palace and depart for the site of the most recent disappearance. The visitors from Ponyville spoke to one another in worriedly hushed tones as Twilight pulled ahead, coming up beside Crystal Shield and giving him an inquisitive look.

“Something on your mind?” Crystal Shield asked the Princess. “You seem a bit distant.”

“Oh I have a lot on my mind,” Twilight answered honestly, if vaguely. “But right now I’m more wondering what we’re wandering into, though.”

“Specifically?”

“Who is the latest victim?” Twilight enquired. “Where was it? What are we actually walking towards?”

“The victim was a mare by the name of Shiny Sapphire, I believe she was a recent addition to the city,” the guard began. “Moved here from Manehatten but a week ago as I understand it. I don’t know much about her beyond that.”

“Bad timing,” Rainbow remarked.

Rarity hummed. “And nopony saw a thing?”

“Just like the others. Not a thing,” Shadow Flare said. “Poof, gone. It’s been a bit of a pattern, but the foalnappings themselves don’t paint a cohesive picture.”

“What is that meant to mean?” Applejack deadpanned.

“It means that they’re random, sporadic. There’s no clear area with more disappearances than the next, it’s happening all over the city,” Crystal Shield explained. “If it was condensed in a single area we could get a better idea of where the culprit might be hiding out. But as it is, we’re strapped for clues.”

“They are cautious, never hitting the same singular area twice,” Shadow Flare further noted. “They also tend to happen in the night, we think. Which makes sense for a dark mage, the shadows are their domain.”

“An accurate observation,” Sombra said in a mocking tone. “Your fellow students of the sun at least can note what is an obvious fact.”

Twilight, as usual, ignored him.

“And the place she vanished from?”

“Her own home,” Crystal Shield answered. “As Shadow Flare said, dead at night. Witnesses say she went home as the sun set and never emerged when it arose. Seeing as her absence was strange, combined with all that has happened, we were quickly alerted.”

“Did you happen to find anything when you arrived? Signs of a daring struggle? A cryptic clue or message left behind in taunt? Perhaps a single blackened rose?” Rarity asked enthusiastically, though quickly stammered back with a blush when all eyes turned towards her questioningly. “Ahem, apologies. I do like a good mystery and intrigue.”

“Only this ain’t some fancy spy book, this is real,” Applejack pointed out.

“Indeed. Which is why we must know all the details!”

“Then I’m sure you can pick them out when we arrive,” Crystal Shield deadpanned. “But the house itself seemed fine. Nothing obviously displaced, no signs of any kind of fight… Just an empty home.”

“Aside from the empty bed, covers thrown aside,” Shadow Flare stated.

“Yes… The poor mare probably didn’t know what hit her.”

“Oh my…” Fluttershy muttered sadly. “I do hope she is okay…”

“I’m sure they’re fine, darling,” Rarity gently assured he pegasus. “Just waiting somewhere for us to rescue them.”

“Imagine how super happy they will be to see us!” Pinkie Pie added.

Fluttershy paused before hesitantly nodding along. “I… guess so…”

“Is it all the same with the other incidents?” Twilight asked. “Empty homes? Disturbed bedsheets?”

“On a few cases,” the crystal pony confirmed. “One young stallion was returning from the bar one night with his friend and wandered into a dark alley to… Well, relieve himself according to his friends. He never came back out.”

“Somepony snatch him up and take him out of the other side?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“Thing is, the alleyway was a dead end.”

“Oh…”

“The ruffian is clearly a unicorn,” Rarity reminded them. “A teleportation spell seems more likely, yes?”

“I would agree with that assessment,” Shadow Flare said with a nod. “It’s the logical conclusion. Teleport in when the chosen victim is alone, incapacitate them with whatever terrible dark magic they have in mind, teleport back out again.”

“If it’s just a teleport, then I doubt they’d leave a magical trace. Not unless it was a particularly large scale spell,” Twilight mused with a hum.

“Dark magic on the other hoof…”

“Did you find dark magic at the scene? Like we did in Canterlot?”

“That is also consistent,” Shadow Flare confirmed. “Nothing we can really use, but it certainly makes it clear that our culprit and yours are one and the same.”

Crystal Shield sighed. “But the others haven’t been able to make much use out of it. We don’t exactly have much in the way of recorded dark magical signatures to compare it too. Unless you could count King Sombra, but I think Sir Spike and the Princess saw to him already.”

“We did do that, didn’t we?” Spike said with a puffed up chest, but he then suddenly blanched as he remembered a ‘certain’ detail upon making eye contact with Twilight. “Uh… But it’s really not him, eheh...”

“We did check for a match anyway, though. Some of the crystal ponies grew fearful that he was returning,” Shadow Flare noted. “You are right, of course. It wasn’t a match.”

“What we would really need is a normal magical signature,” Crystal Shield mused. “That we could use and get some results.”

“What if the culprit ain’t recorded?” Applejack asked.

“Then we’d compare it to every damned unicorn in the Crystal Empire to find them.”

“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” Twilight said. “What little we know points to the Crystal Empire being of some importance to this dark mage. Working together, we can make sure this is one corner he can’t back out of.”

“For he leaches on our family’s legacy. It cannot last.”

For that reason, and for other far more pressing ones, Twilight had to agree.


From the outside, the crystalline home looked friendly and unassuming. Yet another humble abode along the street full of humble abodes. This one was no different to the rest, just a cosy place for a pony to spend their time in safety and comfort.

That had been the idea, anyway.

Unfortunately, for this one’s owner, it hadn’t exactly panned out that way.

“An otherwise innocent-looking home hiding dark secrets and unimaginable mystery!” Rarity said with perhaps more enthusiasm than should be held for the present situation. “My, doesn’t it get the mind racing?”

“Meh. It could use some death traps,” Rainbow said with a shrug.

“Oh shush. The more subtle the threat, the greater the excitement!”

“Subtlety may be good for you, Rares, but this pegasus needs actual adventure in her life.”

“Do ya’ll think you’re getting a tad ‘too’ into this?” Applejack asked in bemusement.

“This was a mare’s home until recently,” Fluttershy scolded the two ponies.

Rarity awkwardly coughed into a hoof. “Yes, quite right, Fluttershy dear. I should focus on the task at hoof, our minds need to be sharp to solve this conundrum.”

“What do you think, Twilight? You’re good with magic and stuff!” Pinkie Pie stated.

“I have to actually get inside to look at it first,” Twilight pointed out, heading off towards the front door. “Come on, let’s see what we have.”

Crystal Shield trotted ahead, nodding to a pair of guards outside for them to admit the group. They did so quickly, the ponies and dragon ducking inside to find themselves in a modest entrance hallway. An arch to the right led to a living room conjoined with a kitchen holding a round crustal dining table in the centre. Everything was neatly arranged, almost like the home was expecting its owner to arrive back from a hard day’s work at any second.

Twilight looked from that to the end of the hallway. A staircase was leading upstairs, a doorway also sitting nearby that probably led either to a storage cupboard or a downstairs bathroom.

“Well, this is oddly creepy,” Pinkie noted with a bite of her lip.

“Looks normal to me,” Rainbow said.

“That’s the oddly creepy part. You know, seeing as what happened to the mare…”

“This is everything we saw when we first arrived,” Crystal Shield stated. “The downstairs is completely normal. Not a drop of dark magic was found.”

Rarity hummed, heading into the living room and looking it over with a well-trained critical eye. But whatever it was she was looking for, she didn’t seem to find it judging by the whinny of disappointment she gave off a few moments later.

“Yes, it all seems quite neat and tidy…” she mused. “Perhaps some of you should stay down here to check further anyway?”

“I can take some of your friends around the place if you so wish,” Shadow Flare volunteered. “Unless you have other plans.”

“Some of us check downstairs, some of us head up,” Twilight agreed. “I’m heading up. Who wants what?”

“I’m with you, Twilight,” Crystal Shield said.

“Ditto,” Spike agreed.

“Ah, even more reason!”

“I think I’ll stick with the other egghead down here,” Rainbow Dash declared.

“Then Flutters and I will stick right with you, Rainbow!” Pinkie decided, dragging the buttery pegasus in question into a side hug while eliciting a little ‘eep’. “Detective Diane Pie and pals are on the case!”

“Then I suppose Applejack and I are also with you, Twilight dear,” Rarity noted.

Applejack shrugged. “Fine with me.”

Twilight nodded. “Alright, girls. Keep an eye out for anything we can use. We’ll head upstairs and I’ll see if I can glean anything about our dark mage problem.”

And so, they all got to work.

Twilight started to trot up towards the upper floor, the others following closely behind her as the second diverging group started to better examine the ground floor. The alicorn swiftly ascended and reached the top landing, examining the space awaiting her.

The hallway was much like the previous, only adorned with a few more picture frames showing who she assumed was the missing mare alongside friends and family. There were three doors here, two on Twilight’s left, facing what would be the front door below them, with a single other door on the right. Whatever the lower floor’s door led to, the one to Twilight’s right up here was slightly ajar to reveal a tiled bathroom floor. It clashed with the otherwise crystalline architecture, but who was Twilight to judge?

The other two doors, meanwhile, were closed.

“The bedrooms,” Crystal Shield said helpfully. “One guest, one master.”

“Thank you. I think we should check the master bedroom as a priority.”

“We should be thorough and check the guest room as well,” Rarity suggested. “If you take the guard here and Spike, Applejack and I can nosy around the place.”

Twilight nodded. “Alright. Meet up with us in the main room when you’re done.”

“Lead the way, Detective,” Applejack said with a snort of bemusement.

Rarity just rolled her eyes, opening the first of the two doors as directed by Crystal Shield and slipping inside with the apple farmer.

“And next stop would be ours…” Spike muttered.

“Indeed,” Crystal Shield confirmed, taking point and leading the alicorn and dragon into the room in question.

The bedroom was quite the space, a dresser sitting up against the window to the outside city with various drawers and cupboards lining the room. Against the wall also sat a double bed, sheets flung aside as if in a hurry as described to Twilight previously.

And the feeling the room gave. The moment they stepped through the threshold they could all sense it. Cold. Dark. Wrong.

Whatever dark magic had been used on the poor pony, it was sickly and vile.

Spike shuddered. “Uh… All of a sudden I’m thinking I should have stayed downstairs and helped them.”

“It’s the same story wherever ponies have vanished,” Crystal Shield sadly expressed. “It’s… a little too close to home.”

“Says the tormenter of children.”

Twilight frowned. Crystal Shield hadn’t been like that.

“The inaction of the weak is just as damning as the actions of the cruel.”

Then Twilight supposed Sombra and Crystal Shield were each as damned as the other.

The King flared up inside Twilight’s mind, clearly not liking the comparison.

Twilight lit her horn up, not losing her frown as she sent a wave of her magic around the room. The wrongness got even worse as she did so, but it probably wasn’t that bad as it would have been if she didn’t have her own subdued dark magic bubbling around inside her. On the first scan, much as Crystal Shield had said, there was no detectable ordinary magic beneath the darkness. No trail, no mistakes.

Not yet, at least.

“I’m going to run every scan and test I know. It might take a while,” Twilight told the others. “It might actually be best for you to help the girls until I’m finished.”

“You’re sure you don’t require assistance?” Crystal Shield asked.

“I’m sure. Besides, I bet you’re gagging to ask Spike a thing or two,” Twilight pointed out knowingly.

The guard scratched the back of his helmet with a hoof. “Well…”

“Think you can oblige?” Twilight then asked the drake in question.

Spike saluted. “Aye aye, Princess!”

Spike turned towards Crystal Shield, leading him back out into the hallway as they began to talk. Once they were gone, Twilight lit her horn once more and moved one of the drawers in front of the door to block the entrance.

And then her eyes lit up with dark magic.

She started to infuse the corrupted energies into her usual scanning spells, experimenting with the frequencies to see if she could get a read on anything. It was a long shot, but they wouldn’t know its effectiveness until they tried.

And as she did, a dark unicorn materialised beside her once more.

“To at all compare me to that-”

“Oh, hypocrite me later, Sombra.”

“What?”

Twilight gave him a bored look. “You want a tormenter of children? Look in a mirror. You tormented a city full of them!”

“It was necessary.”

“Not really. No.”

Sombra bristled under her scrutiny. “I made the Crystal Empire safe. This ‘dark mage’ would not run amok with me on the throne!”

“They wouldn’t need one, because he would be sitting on the throne.”

“Do not mock me, Granddaughter.”

“Then please don’t insult my intelligence,” she shot back, annoyed. “Those colts were jerks, but it doesn’t exactly justify why you became what you did. I can understand. To protect yourself, to protect your family… But I just can’t agree with it, Sombra.”

“And just when I thought you might have been coming overcome your foolish connection to the light.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your rebellion is getting tiresome. I did what I did to protect us. Only those willing to take power can rule. Only those of strength can protect those they care for. Lesser ponies exist to be under the hoof of those like us. It’s how things should be, and only then can they themselves be safe, even if they are ungrateful.”

“You’re not disproving my point,” Twilight stated. “Why can’t you see that you became the bully! That, in the end, you are no different.”

Sombra barely flinched. But he did flinch, his eyes flashing for the briefest of moments with the memory of Radiant Hope being torn from him by those who had tormented the youthful unicorn. But then, all too quickly, it was buried again.

“It is different.”

“How? How in Equestria is it any different?”

“Because I do what I must for you! And yet you fail to understand, even as you were previously starting to,” Sombra proclaimed. “Perhaps you never will, perhaps you will cling to your faux notions of friendship and never be worthy of the throne… Not unless you were to lose what is close to your heart.”

Twilight considered his words, and then she narrowed his eyes.

“Please tell me you didn’t just threaten my friends.”

The King of Shadows growled. “Just… an observation.”

In truth, Sombra was becoming increasingly frustrated by Twilight's strong link to the light, and he had growing doubts inside his mind as to her being worthy as a successor. But she was his blood. She had his mind. All the potential was there, and yet it seemed that nothing short of losing her friends in a terrible manner would turn her.

And yet, despite seriously considering it, he couldn't help but feel a sense of dread at causing Twilight such a large amount of pain. The torment that it would cause for that realisation to sink in. Would it… Would it be worth the throne?

He had to make her see before it came to that.

Twilight, meanwhile, simply gave off a tired sigh. She wondered just what she would have to do to convince him. If there was anything she could actually do as determined as she was. Their argument seemed to sit on a turntable, coming back around after each go.

Who knows? Maybe she was having a subtle effect on him. Maybe that momentary flinch was a sign.

But… what of the other? Twilight had to admit, things were… different now. Right now she just felt… angry. Frustrated.

All. The. Time.

It was certainly fuel for her dark magic. And… He hadn’t really done any lasting damage to her psyche, or so she surmised to herself. Her friendships were strong, as were her beliefs… But would she ever really be the same?

Another sigh, trying to cast their quarrels from her mind and get back onto the task at hoof.

“So… any bright ideas?”

“Your technique will yield little results. And without a body, I cannot help.”

“Not wanting to take me out for a joyride?” she asked sarcastically.

“My strength is not returned to that level,” he responded. “But the feel of this magic… I would not hold much hope of finding the victims in a pleasant state. It’s… necrotic.”

Twilight cringed. If that were true… If they really were…

She would not mention that to the others for the time being. Especially Fluttershy.

“Perhaps you should rest, Twilight,” Sombra suggested. “Your mental state is not at its peak.”

“I wonder why that is,” she deadpanned. “Look, Sombra… Our whole philosophical debate thing, can we just try to hold off on that for a while? I… We really need to focus on this.”

On that he had to agree. “Very well. When our work is done and the lessons resume, then we shall talk.”

She couldn’t wait…

22 - A Terrible Finding

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The Next Morning


“Is all of this really necessary?” Twilight asked dubiously.

“Why do you always ask that? You know the answer,” Shining retorted with a chuckle. “Going into a dark spooky hole in the ground chasing after a probably murderous dark mage? Nooo, why would you ever need a guard escort, Princess?”

“You shall be fine by yourself… That being said, having bodies to step between yourself and impending doom is not something to be easily dismissed,” Sombra, surprisingly enough, agreed with Shining Armor… Not in a way Shining would probably agree with himself, but there you are. “Let them come, see the worth of having those who serve you.”

“You know I hate being surrounded by guards,” Twilight whined at the both of them. “But fine, I guess I’ll have to deal with it…”

“Unfortunately for you, your very protective brother was a guard,” Shining pointed out with a smirk. “Besides, you’re probably going to be seeing a whole lot more as your time in a crown progresses.”

“Don’t remind me.”

Twilight leant back in her seat, picking a bagel off of the dining table and floating it idly in front of her with her magic. Shortly after they finished breakfast, Twilight was going to be taking a guard escort down into Sombra’s old sanctum to search out for the dark mage. It had to be related to why they were here, it was just such an obvious spot. A couple of guards had protested at the idea that the mage had gotten by them on a daily basis to get inside via the throne room. But if they could break into the archives in Canterlot then they could probably do the same in the Crystal Empire.

Besides, Crystal Shield had mentioned that they couldn’t get a bead on the mage’s hideout in any one area because the disappearances were scattered all over the city, no single district having a significantly higher rate than any other. But, in that case, if you were to take all of the various sites into account to find the central point where the mage was most likely hiding out, what did you get?

The Crystal Palace itself. It had to be.

And again, it was about the only lead she had to mind. The whole investigation was like a narrow slope leading straight back to where all of this began. All other possibilities were, well, non-existent at the moment. The lack of evidence in any regard made sure of that, but all logic told Twilight that they had to be looking right beneath their own hooves for the answers.

The lack of success the previous day only vindicated Twilight’s train of thought. She had yet to reveal what she sensed in the mage’s magic, the stench of death it had given off… Nothing else had been found, her friends all but hitting a brick wall. They had returned shortly after that, a little demoralised but determined to keep trying.

Thus, they had all heavily protested when she told them that they would remain in the palace while she was in the sanctum. Part of it was a desire to keep her friends safe. Part of it was so that they were up there just in case things were to go wrong elsewhere in the city, those in the sanctum left unaware. They would help Cadance, Shining Armor and Shadow Flare keep things in check while she and Crystal Shield led their group of ponies into the depth; she trusted in them to do so.

“Waffle for your thoughts?” Cadance asked gently, holding out said food item. “I would offer you another bagel, but you’ve been staring at that one for the past several minutes.”

“Huh? Oh, sorry…” Twilight apologised. “I’ve just got a lot on my mind.”

“You always have a lot on your mind. Studying usually, but I still want to hear about it,” Shining Armor mused. “So come on, Twily. Spill the beans.”

Twilight sighed. “I guess I’m just worried about what we’ll find. And… I didn’t tell the guards what I found yesterday.”

Her brother and sister-in-law stared at her, the latter raising an eyebrow at her statement.

“I thought that you and your friends didn’t find anything?” the Princess of Love enquired. “That’s what Crystal Shield reported. You found the exact same things the Crystal Guard did.”

“uh… That’s ‘technically’ true…?” Twilight chuckled sheepishly. “But I was able to get a better idea as to the nature of the dark magic left over from the foalnapping.”

Shining Armor blinked. “You did? How?”

“It’s… complicated.”

“Twily…”

“Okay, I might have used a bit of dark magic to do it.” She felt Sombra almost facehoof when she admitted that, as her family just had their eyes widen in horror. “It’s not as bad as it sounds! Really! I just weaved it into my usual scanning spell to see if it could get a better read! And it did!”

She obviously neglected the mention of how much more proficient she had become with other spells as well.

“Are you alright?” Cadance asked worriedly. “That magic is…”

“I’m fine!” she quickly reassured the other alicorn. “Just a small and very beneficial experiment! Though… I didn’t want to share the results in front of the girls…”

Shining Armor frowned. “Why? What is it your ‘experiment’ found out…?”

Twilight’s expression became more sombre, the mare biting her lip as she thought back on the dreary feeling the spell had brought upon her. The decay, the entropy… All indications that the room may have been the site of the missing mare’s final moments…

“The magic was… necrotic,” Twilight reluctantly informed them. “I… I don’t think…”

“I get it,” Shining thankfully stopped her explanation in the middle. “You don’t think the vanished ponies made it.”

Twilight grimaced, but then she nodded.

Cadance gave a gasp of horror. “You both think they were… murdered!?”

“I don’t want it to be true,” Twilight muttered. “But…”

“You want your friends to stay hopeful that we will find them alive,” Shining noted. “I understand. In the guard, we had to… Well, we had to do something too similar to the families of certain ponies. Those were the bad days.”

“Shining…” Cadance said sympathetically, putting her hoof atop of his.

“But it’s even more of a reason to send our guards down with you,” the Prince then pointed out. “He already killed a few guards in Canterlot, and if what’s happened here is what you think, then I don’t think he’ll hesitate to do whatever he can to evade capture.”

“I’ll be fine, Shiny,” Twilight assured him. “I know how to handle myself.”

He sighed. “I know. But I still don’t like it.”

“I can’t say I do either…” Cadance admitted. “But I also know that you are probably more used to life-threatening situations than you really should be at the age of nineteen.”

“When you put things like that…” Twilight muttered sarcastically.

“Just be careful, Twilight. Do try and stick with the escort we’re sending down with you,” she pleaded. “And… be careful with any future ‘experimentations’ with dark magic spells. The simple technique we now share is disturbing enough, I dread to think of what might happen if something went wrong.”

“I’ll stick to my normal studies,” Twilight lied smoothly. “I know what I’m doing.”

“Yes, you’re right. But Shining isn’t the only one who has to worry about you twenty-four-seven.”

“You’re so my mother!”

“Hey, she’d probably be telling Twilight to go knock the mage’s lights out,” Shining mused with a tinge of amusement. “Worrying while she did it, mind you. But she still would.”

“Your mother is always one for excitement,” Cadance replied with a titter. “So, one of us has to be responsible.”

“Oh, I am definitely telling her that when we next see each other!”

Cadance gasped. “Hey! Traitor!”

Twilight giggled at the two’s continuing bout of playful bickering, each promising Equus shattering vengeance upon one another’s subsequent vengeance plots. They mostly involved hogging the covers at night and stealing all of the ice cream from the kitchens so the other couldn’t have any, simple foalish things like that.

But it was simple, light-hearted and, most importantly, normal.

It almost made Twilight’s mind wander away from the coming horrors.

Almost.


“Come on, you just gotta let us come with you!” Rainbow Dash protested for the twelfth time by Twilight’s count. And that was just in the past few minutes. “We’ve let our Sparkle run off enough for one forever!”

Twilight paused in the middle of the hallway, turning to give Rainbow an odd look. “…’Our Sparkle’?”

“Yeah, you are our egghead!”

“I think what Rainbow is trying to say is…” Rarity interrupted the pegasus, much to the latter’s irritation. “…that with everything that has happened, we would just be loath to let you go now.”

“Yeah! Friends do these things together!” Pinkie Pie added in.

“I agree,” Twilight responded. “But I need you girls here. If I’m wrong about this and something happens up here while I’m gone…”

“You want us to be here to make sure everything is still standing when ya’ll return,” Applejack noted reluctantly. “I do get it, really. Makes sense, but it still ain’t a comfortable thing letting you go back down there by yourself.”

“But she won’t be by herself,” Fluttershy pointed out.

“Yes, I suppose you do have a sizable contingent accompanying you,” Rarity hesitantly continued on. “Which does make things a tad more reasonable. But still…”

“Girls, really, it will all work out okay,” Twilight stated. “When doesn’t it?”

“Do all the explosions between the start and end of every big thing count?” Pinkie pondered.

“No.”

“Then only some of the time!”

Twilight groaned.

“And what about the you know who floating around right now?” Rainbow asked. “I know you are here, jerk!”

“Childish foolishness…”

“Don’t worry, Rainbow. I know how to make him behave.”

“Truly? This is news to me…” Sombra deadpanned.

“Shut up.”

Rainbow Dash and Applejack glanced at one another.

“Guessing he didn’t take too kindly to that, hm?” the apple farmer noted.

“As I said, I got it handled.”

“Uh-huh…”

“Ah, Twilight Sparkle. Good morning.”

All eyes turned towards the purple stallion approaching from the opposite direction, the stallion perky and with a relieved grin on his features.

“Oh, you were… Shadow Flare, right?” Spike asked.

“That’s the one, Sir Spike,” he confirmed. “I’m relieved to see you prepared. I think Crystal Shield and the other assembled ponies are eager to put this all to rest.”

“You don’t have to call him Sir Spike,” Twilight deadpanned, much to Spike’s indignation.

“It’s what the ponies who popularly refer to him as, actual knighthood or not. I have been somewhat immersing myself in their culture as of late, new and old! A fascinating study…”

“Isn’t it just?” Twilight lightly gushed before coughing into a hoof. “Well, were you looking for us, or…?”

“Well, Prince Shining Armor wants a word with the Element Bearers if they have a moment. I was asked to relay the message if I ran into you. I can lead you to him if you wish.”

“If he has need of us, then that would be most welcome,” Rarity agreed. “Thank you very much, my good stallion.”

He nodded appreciatively. “You’re very welcome. You should say your farewells now; I do believe the Princess has important business awaiting her.”

“I do,” Twilight confirmed, turning towards the others. “I’ll see you girls when I get back. Either we’ll have everything solved or at least be a step closer, I’m sure of it.”

“Well, still wishing we could accompany ya’ll,” Applejack said. “But we know you will. Good luck to you, Twilight!”

“Yeah, what she said,” Rainbow agreed. “Just give him one form me, yeah?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I’ll see what I can do… be careful yourselves, girls. Just in case…”

“Oh, we’ll be fine. You should worry about yourself,” Fluttershy replied. “Down in the dark cavern…”

“Eh, we got each other’s backs!” Pinkie Pie claimed. “If he shows up, we’ll have a ‘surprise party’ waiting!”

“Damn right!” Rainbow agreed, sharing a hoof bump with the pink mare.

Twilight knew the Crystal Empire would be in good hooves while she was down in the sanctum. She was brimming with confidence that, wherever the mage was bound to turn up, they’d soon have them in custody!

“I wish I shared your confidence in their abilities to do so without your guidance…”

Twilight huffed at his words, but she nevertheless shared a few final fond farewells and good lucks with her friends, not missing their continued reluctance. But everything was in place and, hopefully with a bit of help from the king himself, she could now get his old sanctum scoured from head to hoof.

She had a good feeling about all of this.

Once Shadow Flare had disappeared with her friends, Twilight continued on her previous path towards the throne room. There were no more interruptions as she reached the giant crystalline doors, being admitted by two very tense guards who hurried her inside before securing the entranceway behind the Princess of Equestria.

“Ah, there you are,” Crystal Shield greeted the lavender alicorn as she entered. “We are all ready for your word.”

Twilight stopped, tilting her head at the already visible staircase sitting right before the throne. The guard followed her expression, giving an understanding nod.

“Princess Mi Amore Cadenza opened it last night, there have been many guards in this throne room keeping watch,” Crystal Shield explained. “The ponies here are those who have descended into its depths on both previous occasions. They are all eager, and confident, that something may come of it this time.”

“Way to pack on the pressure,” Twilight joked. “Well, if they’re eager I don’t want to keep them waiting. Don’t wait around on my account.”

He smiled. “That’s our job, Ma’am.”

But with her word, the formation was already beginning to descend. Crystal Shield and another guard flanked either side of the royal pony as she too started to go down into the darkness of Sombra’s sanctum. The blackened staircase was familiar to both Twilight and, even more so, Sombra. She heard his hum in her mind, the unicorn seemingly contemplating something.

She left him to his musings, keeping up her pace until she was once again back in the long corridor leading to various rooms Sombra had previously decked out with his knowledge and artefacts. Very little remained now but dust and cobwebs, no signs of recent intrusion beyond the guards immediately visible.

Twilight really hoped they were on the right track…

“As you can see, nothing is immediately suspicious,” Crystal Shield noted. “Well, as much as such a dark place could ever be, at least.”

Twilight hummed, her eyes peeling off towards the rightmost room. She trotted inside, her escort following while the rest of the force started their own searches. The room was filled with rows upon rows of dusty, cobweb-ridden shelving. All of it was made up of innately carved stone, looking perhaps like it predated Sombra. Twilight had already looked into their origins previously, but the exact dating still eluded her. Sometime during the era of the three tribes…

“I could tell you about it later if you so wish, I know their origins quite well.”

Twilight lit up, clearly eager for the idea. She stayed quiet, however, not wanting to attract unwanted attention from Crystal Shield or the others.

Twilight lit her horn, starting with a basic scanning spell as she delved through the maze of shelving whilst leaving all but her two escorting guards behind. Nothing was immediately visible, but perhaps that was where her recently formulated dark magic-entwined scan could help.

But she also knew that the ponies with her might not be comfortable with such a display…

“Go examine the units over there,” Twilight commanded the two of them.

Crystal Shield frowned. “All due respect, Twilight, but we’re meant to remain with you.”

She snorted. “Come on, I’ll be fine. Besides, it’s only over there. If anything happens, you’ll hear it and be over in a second.”

“A second too long for me…” he grumbled.

“Crystal Shield…”

“Alright, if it is your command…”

“It is. Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.”

“I’m not disputing that, but this place is not one I’d wish to be alone in,” he responded. “Keep an eye out. Shout if even the slightest thing happens.”

“Really, I will be fine.”

“Well, alright then. I don’t like it, all due respect. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you of all ponies. But I will do as commanded.”

“I know. But thank you.”

Crystal Shield hummed in displeasure, clearly not wanting to let the royal alicorn out of his sight for even a moment. But with her authority far superseding his, he gave his fellow guard a nod before turning away and heading into the shelves. He turned back briefly, giving Princess Twilight a look of concern. But then he turned back again and vanished from view.

Now the real work could begin.

Twilight lit her horn, beginning to replicate the process she underwent the previous day in the missing mare’s house. And yet, as she went to do so, Sombra’s voice cut in to interrupt her concentration.

“Hold.” The spectre of the dead king appeared by her side. “I would have you listen a moment, Granddaughter.”

“Huh? What is it?” she asked in turn, letting the dark magic ebb away. “Some insight you want to share about this place.”

“Indeed,” he confirmed. “There is… one section you did not discover during your previous searches. But one that, by some chance, the culprit may have.”

Twilight blanched. “W-what? Another section!? Where!?”

He turned towards a blank wall right by Twilight. “As fortune would have it, right here.”

Twilight turned towards the wall, giving it a critical look. How did she miss it? She found his son’s room! What was he hiding? Why was he hiding it? How could the dark mage have found it!? So many questions!

But that was moved aside for one moment, Twilight relighting her dark magic and letting loose a similar spell upon it that she would on the throne to reveal the sanctum. She assumed that she was correct in doing so due to the lack of any objections from Sombra, pressing forth with her spell to peel away the façade of a wall.

As the dark magic washed over the space and rid the falsities, a simple wooden door much like all the others was revealed.

“You weren’t kidding…”

“You didn’t believe I practised all of my art within the confines of my study, right by my own son’s bedroom, did you?” he asked with a dark chuckle. “No, the most dangerous and unpredictable of my spells and experiments required their own dedicated space. One with the heaviest of protection, ready to seal within anything… unfortunate I may have produced.”

“Did you ever?”

“Seal it? No, but many of such spells never saw the light of day beyond its walls. Too unpredictable to be of practical use to me.”

Oh, but if the dark mage had found it…

“Some of that research was also contained in the journals taken by the thief,” he continued. “So, it is a reasonable conclusion that he could be utilising it.”

“But how would he have found it before the theft? He must have known, must have set up before…”

Whatever the case was, Twilight wouldn’t find out by just standing around staring at a doorway. So, with that in mind, she carefully slipped inside.

“What is this!?”

Sombra’s declaration of surprise would have startled Twilight if she too wasn’t perplexed by what she saw. Beyond the doorway was another corridor, a single door to her right with another at the far end. And yet, while both doors were almost closed, each had a gap in which a long modern-looking wire was running between both rooms. Magical torches also lined the walls, looking quite recently placed.

“This…”

“Isn’t meant to be here,” Twilight surmised. “That wiring isn’t from your time.”

“Clearly,” he growled. “So, they have made it here. What do their unworthy hooves touch within these walls?”

“Let’s find out…”

Hesitantly, Twilight started towards the closer of the two doors. A large part of her was screaming to go back and get Crystal Shield, but with everything she had been searching for potentially right in front of her muzzle…

Just a peak, then she would run to get them.

The alicorn reached the door, ready to burst into combat spells at a moment’s notice. And then, carefully, she started to open the door.

And Twilight almost screamed.

The room beyond was large and circular, almost looking like an arena. A place where Sombra once tested a whole manner of sinister magics, now laden in even more modern technology that did not belong. The wires were hooked up to various machines, most of which giving print outs for research Twilight was as of yet uncertain as to the purpose of. And yet her blood ran cold as her eyes moved past the machines, moving towards the rows of pulsating dark magical bubbled the machines were clearly monitoring.

And inside each of those bubbles were the seemingly lifeless bodies of the missing ponies. The one closest to her, the most recent one to be placed, even held the very mare whose house she had so recently visited. The mare’s eyes were closed, her still features looking almost pained, the dark magics entrapping and violating the carcass in ways that made Twilight sick to her core.

They were being harvested. Collected. But why? Who would do such a thing?

And then something hit Twilight. Hard.

“Twilight!” Sombra’s alarmed cry sounded out, sounding a little distant as the mare hit the floor with a hard thud.

Her world swam, her subsequent attempts of calling upon her prepared spells now failing her. Her glazed over eyes weakly glance dup to try and spy her attacker, to see the face of the dark mage who had been plaguing the Crystal Empire and Canterlot both.

The equine figure above her was dark, his features obscured by the heavy blow she had taken to the head. But they leered at her from above, their eyes almost hungry… And yet with a tinge of regret. The figure’s horn was lit, a wave of magic washing over Twilight and only serving to increase the grogginess she was now feeling.

And then, with Sombra’s futile attempts to keep her awake sounding in the back of her mind, Twilight Sparkle lost consciousness.

23 - The Mage

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“Twi… light…”

That was the first thing Twilight registered within the darkness. A single distant voice, the mare unable to make out who it belonged to. It was like a whisper on a consistent wind, existing within the cold void around her. The alicorn couldn’t hear anything else, couldn’t feel anything. It was just a blank expanse of nothingness, filled with nought but her own growing sense of unease and alarm.

She tried calling out… But, as it was, she had no lips to shout from.

“Twilight…”

There it was again, calling out to her with the barest increase in clarity. She still couldn’t really make out any details in its tone… But it still sounded familiar. More than that, it sounded… Insular? Like it was coming from somewhere deep inside her own head…?

“Twilight!”

It was male. Urgent. Distressed, even. The empty void seemed to vibrate at its increasing presence, filling Twilight with yet more concern at its tone. There was something about it… Why was it here? For that matter, where was here? Why was she…? What was happening?

“Wake up!”

Wake up? Twilight was certain that she was awake. She never recalled going to sleep… For that matter, she didn’t remember much of anything. What was going on?

“Twilight Sparkle!” Sombra’s voice finally broke through with an edge of indignation. “When I command you to wake, you shall wake!”

Twilight gave a sharp gasp, attempting to shoot upwards as her eyes opened with a start. Something stopped her movement, however, keeping her restrained in a position laid on her back. A bright light assaulted her eyes, all but blinding her by sheer contrast to the dark void she had just experienced. But, sure enough, her eyes steadily began to adjust as she felt her brain pounding against her skull. Something had hit her…

She tried to move again, but upon looking down she realised that she had been strapped to some kind of operating table. Her wings were also tied, and the moment she tried to use magic she felt a kind of resistance that would insinuate that a magic suppressing ring had been placed upon her horn.

In short, she wasn’t going anywhere.

“What is this!?” Twilight shouted in alarm, regretting it as her headache flared up at the action.

She was definitely still in Sombra’s sanctum if the room’s architecture was anything to go by. A glance revealed she was also still in the secret area Sombra had led her to, inside the second of the two rooms with the ajar doors. The cable here was leading to yet more machinery scattered around her. That, and more of the dark magical sphere containing pony corpses. Only these ones seemed far more desiccated, almost like they’d been experimented with…

The horror of her situation was not lost on Twilight. Especially since she might have been moments away from joining them in their terrible fate!

“Calm yourself,” Sombra cautioned as his apparition materialised beside the table. “Panic will not help.”

“You’re not the one strapped to a table!”

“On the contrary. If you die, I die,” he pointed out.

Twilight groaned, attempting to let her breathing steady as she thought through her situation. Maybe Crystal Shield had seen something happen?

“If he did, he is dead,” Sombra theorised. “If not, he will not know you are here. Only that you vanished, the wall once again but that. A wall.”

“You don’t know which one?” Twilight asked in annoyance.

“When you were hit, I also lost recognition of all outside of your own mind,” he explained. “I never even got a view of our attacker. But his identity is obvious…”

“The dark mage…” Twilight muttered. “So, he IS down here!”

“It would seem to be so, yes…”

Twilight looked at their surroundings once more, her eyes looking specifically at the equipment said mage had set up. Now that she had a chance to study them without interruption…

Oh.

Of course.

Sombra felt a moment of realisation from Twilight. “What are you… Ah, I sense your thoughts. I see…”

Twilight bristled, a sense of anger and betrayal coursing through her. She should have seen the signs before! It made sense! But she had been so focused on it being somepony else that she wasn’t paying attention! Gah, how could she have been so blind!? She was meant to be better than this!

“Even the best of us have our follies,” Sombra mused. “If we did not, I would never have been defeated by you.”

“Maybe I was just better?”

Sombra scoffed. “Not yet, Granddaughter.”

“Well, your ‘Brilliance’, maybe you can help me out of here?”

Sombra shook his head. “I can still do little. None of it will be of use to you.”

Great. So, what was she meant to do, just wait until the culprit returned and did… whatever it is he intended to do? No, she couldn’t let that happen. If nopony knew she was down there, or even that this particular part of the sanctum existed, then it was up to her. Up to her to both save herself AND warn the others about the threat in their midst.

Her magic was useless. Even with her alicorn enhanced strength, the restraints were sturdy and didn’t budge as Twilight pulled experimentally on them. Her wings were likewise perfectly trapped, and anything she could potentially use around the room was out of reach.

Though, on the note of the ring…

Yes, perhaps the ring would be the answer. She glanced at a nearby side table with a concerning number of scalpels and other sharp things on it. But alongside those, there was also a small metal container with polished surfaces. She could just about make out her own reflection, if blurrily, in the metal. Enough so to make out the ring.

Yes, the pattern and layout of the mana crystals around the ring’s surface indicated it was a higher end model. Prudent, anything lower and any magic user of significant strength could brute force their way through it. But saying that, it was missing certain arcane pathways that the absolute best magic suppressors on offer had…

But even so, she wasn’t sure if any of those were designed and graded against dark magic.

The sound of the door being sharply opened ejected Twilight from her scheming, her eyes darting aside to see the entrance of a pony adorned head to hoof in a simple black cloak. Nothing extravagant, but it did the job of concealing. Twilight stared at the pony’s obscured face a moment, before he turned and walked around the table.

“What are you doing?” Twilight demanded to know, trying to suppress any fear in her voice. “Why are you doing this!? Answer me!”

He did not, instead, moving to fiddle with one of the machines while purple magic idly arranged the knives on the side table. Twilight gulped, staring at the dark mage as he worked. And yet the pony continued to pay her no mind, almost like he was trying to ignore her entirely…

“Come on, speak to me. It’s not too late to stop this.”

Silence.

The mage turned from one machine to the next, briefly stopping to glance up at one of the suspended corpses before crouching down. His horn lit up from beneath his hood, the device reacting and starting to whir at his touch.

“Shadow Flare!”

The stallion froze. Dumbstruck, the pony remained routed for several moments before, finally, he stood. He began to turn; the hood of the blackened cloak being pushed aside as Shadow Flare regarded Twilight with an expression of shock.

“…You knew?” he asked, bewildered. “I was careful…”

“Yes, you were. But it’s obvious now that I really think about it,” Twilight chided herself. “Your interest in this place. You returning to the Crystal Empire right after the theft. Your access to both Canterlot Castle AND the Crystal Palace, not to mention in-depth knowledge of their layouts.”

Twilight paused, nodding at the machinery that Shadow Flare had just been working on.

“Also, those things are marked as property of Celestia’s School of Gifted Unicorns. You are an alumni of that school, just like me.”

He was silent a moment, letting the list of clues sink in for a moment. And then, humourlessly, he chuckled.

“Well, that was good. You are every bit as smart as they say,” he said with a hint of regret. “I didn’t want you to be here with the others, Twilight. We were classmates. And… I am quite fond of you. But I knew if anypony would find this place, you would. So after I delivered your friends to the Prince I followed you down. Sure enough, you opened the passage.”

“I’m more interested to know how you found it.”

He smirked, his horn lighting and retrieving something from a saddlebag beneath his cloak. A book came into Twilight’s view, one that she recognised after a moment of scrutiny.

“So nice of you to point this out to me and leave me alone with it all those months back,” Shadow Flare thanked. “While you and the rest of our team examined the rest of the sanctum, I was able to simply pocket the tome and read it in my own time. It made mention of a place that King Sombra used for his most advanced spell crafting, and here it was…”

A pang of guilt hit Twilight’s heart, her eyes glancing up at the bodies of Shadow Flare’s victims. Had she known...

“Getting this set up was tricky, but as you say, free access from the Princess herself helped,” he said smugly. “And when I was ready, all I needed was his research from the archives. Then, my work began.”

“Work!? You call hurting innocent ponies work!?”

“A necessary sacrifice for the greater good. Only fresh subjects would do.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think about it… Do you think we can rely on you and your friends forever? Our other protectors surely have fallen short as of late, the ‘guard’ indeed…” he scoffed. “And then we have the dead. Bodies are memorialised but left to rot, a waste. They, like anything else, are a resource to be used. An army of the dead at Equestria’s call, unflinching and unwavering, ready to protect the living!”

“Draugr,” Sombra stated. “As we suspected from what he stole, he is making draugr.”

Twilight’s eyes widened. “You’re insane…”

“Open your eyes, Twilight! Equestria has faced more dangers in recent times than in the last several centuries! For all his errors, King Sombra’s power was something to be admired. I’m using that strength for Equestria!”

“By killing the ponies who live in it!?”

“Only to prove my point! I will face the music when my task is complete, but by that point, my new army’s effectiveness will be undeniable!”

“You expect the other princesses to accept violating the dead like this?”

“They won’t have a choice.”

“This is folly. For all his idolisation of my magic, my experiments into such things seldom left the theoretical. Necromancy is a technique far too unpredictable, and the soldiers they produce far too stupid,” Sombra informed Twilight, studying Shadow Flare. “And this fool is but a novice. No teacher, only second-hoof accounts. And to go straight to such a high-risk task, mistakes are inevitable.”

“So how has it been going for you?” Twilight asked, following on with Sombra’s point. “Messing around with necromancy has been flawless, I’m sure.”

Shadow Flare hesitated, averting his eyes momentarily. “…The flaws will be worked out. I just need time and bodies.”

“What have you done?”

“Sombra’s notes, mixed with my own ingenuity, were enough to raise a simple mindless corpse. At first,” he started. “But then, trying to turn them into soldiers… I couldn’t get them to obey me. The ones around you are the failures, ones I had to dispel to save my own life.”

“So you can’t get them to work for you. Do you even know where to begin solving that problem?”

“The King’s journals didn’t go that far into the subject, it is true. I don’t believe he ever actually tried to.”

“He would be correct,” Sombra confirmed.

“But I can figure it out! It just requires some trial and error, even if recent results have shown some… compilations…”

“Shadow Flare…?”

The dark mage actually looked a bit nervous. His eyes were darting left to right, his gaze constantly returning to the corpses surrounding them. He almost looked like he was scared of his own creations.

“Shadow Flare?” Twilight asked again. “What complications?”

“There may, uh…” He gulped. “Yes, I have to admit that there have been some unexpected variables. The last draugr I produced tried to… ‘spit’ at me. I immediately terminated the creature and studied the substance. It was heavily necromantic, not unlike the spells I have been experimenting with to make them in the first place. Had it hit me…”

“He would have turned into one himself,” Sombra surmised after Shadow Flare trailed off. “Abominations and monstrosities, just as I said.”

“I have no idea how it mutated so, but I will fix the flaw!”

“You’re creating a plague!” Twilight shouted at him. "Shadow Flare, please stop this! You’re not experienced enough, you’re nowhere near Sombra’s level and even he wouldn’t go this far! If you keep going, you will just hurt more ponies!”

“I will not fail!” Shadow Flare raged. “I will make history with this; ponies will thank me for it in future generations!”

“You’re not good enough!”

“Oh, I am perfectly suited. I’ve already started to solve the intelligence issue!”

Sombra blinked. “What?”

The stallion chuckled at Twilight’s confused look. “Oh yes. A hive mind of sorts was the answer. Alone they’ll be dumb as rocks, but the more there are, the smarter they become.”

“I find his claims unlikely, but even if it’s true…” Sombra mused. “Then he is increasing their intelligence before he even controls them. He is beyond reckless.”

“Shadow Flare, you need to listen to me,” Twilight tried to say both sternly and calmly. “No matter how brilliant your mind is, never mind the moral implications, you are new to dark magic. You are not ready to handle something like this.”

“And what would you know about dark magic?”

“Enough to say that I wouldn’t jump straight to the riskiest spells. Just like any other type of magic,” she answered, Sombra nodding along in agreement. “You can still end this. You can.”

He shook his head in denial. “No, I have come too far. I need to do this. And you, Twilight… I’m so sorry…”

Twilight locked eyes with the unicorn. “W-what are you going to do to me…?”

“I can’t have you leave here. And… there’s a lot your biology could help me with in regard to my experiments,” Shadow Flare said regretfully. “Once I have sufficiently prepared, you will help me with my research. I wish it didn’t have to be this way. I wish you never came here. But this is the end of the road for Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

And with that, Shadow Flare could no longer look at her in the eyes. He hesitated a moment before he turned away, trying to ignore Twilight as she started to frantically struggle against her restraints. She called out his name as he reached the door, but he slipped through it and shut it behind him.

Once again, Twilight was left alone with King Sombra.

Yeah. It was time to leave.

Dark magic lit inside Twilight, the flow of sickly energies travelling up to her horn. A few embers tried to light, but the ring went into overtime trying to stem the flow. Fortunately, however, Twilight doubted it would have the capacity to try and stop what she was going to do next. It simply wasn’t designed with such spells in mind.

Twilight inverted the magic flow, letting the dark magic spread throughout her body and into every cell.

And then the alicorn evaporated into shadow. The formless mass slid out of the restraints with ease, the horn ring coming loose and clattering to the ground alongside the wing straps. The mass swirled around the room and came to a rest next to the table, coming back together to reform Twilight Sparkle.

“Good thinking,” Sombra complimented. “Now, let us be done with this foolish unicorn.”

“One second,” Twilight interrupted, looking around the room and spotting a desk containing an inkwell and some parchment.

Trotting over, Twilight figured that the parchment was usually used for research notes and checklists. It’s how Twilight would do things, after all. But when she picked one up and started to write, she used it to write a warning. It was a warning addressed specifically to Cadance, and on that parchment she wrote everything she could as quickly as she managed. Shadow Flare. The secret section of the sanctum. Everything she could.

And then she took hold of the parchment before her, lighting her horn with dark magic and watching as it burnt up.

“Sending it straight for the Princess of Love,” Sombra noted. “I am glad to see my lessons have not gone to waste.”

“They were bound to come in handy someday,” Twilight agreed. “And unlike Shadow Flare, I was smart enough to start with spells inside my ability.”

“You mean I was smart enough to teach you said spells inside your ability,” Sombra refuted with a smirk.

“Same difference. Family secrets, right?”

“Hmph, indeed. But now…”

“We need to go. I know.”

Twilight started to move back through the chamber, lighting her horn with normal magic as she went. She prepared an array of combat spells, all ready to go when she ran into Shadow Flare. He may have been a gifted unicorn, but she was still far better than him in every way. If he wanted to fight, then that would be his own folly.

Twilight reached the door, carefully prying it open and looking out into the corridor. Everything seemed clear, the exit out of the secret area being closed tightly up ahead. However, Twilight heard a noise coming from the room where the Princess had first been incapacitated, a shadow passing by the door from Shadow Flare somewhere within.

Twilight ruffled her wings, increasing the build-up of magic in her horn as she took a step out into the corridor.

And then she gave a blood-curdling scream.

Pain erupted throughout every nerve in her body and bolts of magical electricity seemed to streak out every surface around her! The magical energies violently lashed out at the alicorn, Sombra’s spectre vanishing in a puff of shadow as Twilight felt all of her strength abandon her. For several agonising moments the assault kept up, before finally she was allowed to hit the ground in a pained heap.

Twilight’s head swam, her vision fading as she saw the other door open back up. Shadow Flare stepped into view, giving Twilight a look of sadness as he approached.

“Twilight, not a good idea,” his distant voice professed. “For all the dark magical ability you believe I lack, I did graduate Celestia’s school. I have my own array of spells. And with an alicorn on my table, did you not think I would prepare a countermeasure in case you escaped?”

Twilight tried to respond, but all that came out was a groggy murmur.

Shadow Flare shook his head. “I won’t deny your magical superiority. But even you are just flesh and blood, Princess. A simple shock trap designed to hit every pain receptor in your body was an easy choice. And now, I’m sad to say, this is goodbye…”

Darkness claimed Twilight again, unconsciousness depositing the mare back into the empty void.

24 - Unleashed

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Pain. It was a familiar feeling. Perhaps too familiar.

But it was a feeling, so that was already an improvement on the also increasingly familiar void of unconsciousness. It was subdued at first, subtle. Much like the voice trying to, once again, rouse her from her slumber. But second by second the feeling grew. It was like every nerve in her body was both numb and on fire at the same time, every single one having taken their fair share of the trap’s magical energies. It wasn’t the same level of pain that the alicorn had felt when the trap had first activated, but it was still an extremely uncomfortable experience.

And it is with that sense of pain that Twilight Sparkle’s eyes opened again, taking a moment to adjust as the mare held a profound sense of Déjà vu as her situation. She was strapped once again to the very same table as she had been before, looking up at the same ceiling with the same ominous blades and machinery around her.

Twilight groaned.

“Do not make this a habit, Granddaughter,” Sombra jeered. “It is most tiresome seeing you fall to this pretender’s machinations.”

“Ughh…” Twilight moaned in response. “I will admit, I think I underestimated him a little…”

“Indeed.”

“But it’s not like you warned me either!”

“That’s beside the point,” Sombra swiftly deflected the accusation. “Your Shadow Flare is once again making preparations in the next room. At least, that is what I presume. If you are to escape, now would be the time to do it.”

On that, she had no argument. Maybe it would be best to stick to the literal shadows until she was truly out of danger, only returning to her natural form when she could safely find the undoubtedly frantic guards outside for help. Maybe her message had gotten through and they were already on the way? She couldn’t have been unconsciousness for that long if Shadow was still preparing and rescue had yet to arrive.

Well, she wouldn’t know for sure musing on it there. Especially not while a certain corrupted unicorn was preparing unspeakable things right next door.

Twilight let her dark magic bubble up inside her again, preparing to repeat the process of turning her form into a featureless black mass that would slip out of her restraints without issue. She ran through the motions, redirecting the darkness into her own body, into every cell, and…

And…

Nothing?

Twilight tried again. And again. And once more for certainty. But every time she received not even a hint of the shadowform spell coming to fruition. She knew she had not missed a step. She could feel it inside her, the spell wriggling about as the shadows all but begged to be free from her physical body.

But every attempt was blocked.

Sombra frowned, his eyes glancing at the ring on Twilight’s horn. The ring that, now that he considered it more closely, had seemingly undergone a small modification.”

“Ah.”

Before Twilight could question the King’s statement, the door opened and admitted Shadow Flare once more. He carried with him a few vials of… something. Twilight couldn’t determine what, but the swirling masses inside each bottle was enough for the mare to know that she really didn’t want to find out.

“Awake? I see… It would have been better for you to remain asleep until death came for you,” he noted regretfully. “But I suppose it will give better results this way. Forgive me.”

“I will if you don’t try to turn me into an undead monster,” Twilight retorted. “That’s always an option.”

“Not anymore,” he dismissed, placing the vials down on the table next to Twilight and moving to retrieve a piece of parchment.

Twilight just watched as he made some notes that she could not see, the alicorn continuing to try and probe at the ring for any small weakness. This only continued for a few moments, before the unicorn moved the parchment aside and approached her once again.

Shadow Flare stared down at her for a few moments, Twilight glaring back up and causing him to shamefully avert his eyes. He then gently moved her head to one side, seemingly examining the ring on her horn. He gave a low hum, seemingly finding whatever it was he was searching for. He then released his grip on her skull, Twilight returning to glaring at the stallion.

“Dark magic, hm? You surprise me.” Twilight’s eyes then went wide at his words. “I had suspected as much after I saw no damage to your restraints. Not to mention an aura left in the air that I was certain wasn’t mine. And sure enough, my modification to the ring has blocked a surge of it from that horn of yours already. It looks like I’m not the only one taking what Sombra left behind to heart.”

“The difference is that I’m not hurting ponies with it!” Twilight growled. “You’ve gone too far!”

“You’ve studied his work. I don’t believe you don’t see the merit of my work!”

“Lay where I am and then talk about the ‘merit’.”

“You know I can’t do that. If you understood, you could have helped me in other ways. But your morality gets in the way of what will really protect the ponies out there. Protecting the ponies you love.”

“Now you really ARE sounding like Sombra!”

Shadow Flare raised an eyebrow. “And how would you know what Sombra sounded like? I wasn’t under the impression that you spoke at length.”

“I… Never mind that,” Twilight redirected. “What you’re doing won’t protect anypony. You will just hurt them more. Even if you succeed, nopony will want their loved ones to be turned into that when they die! And even then, they’re dangerous. You’ve seen how unpredictable this magic is. If they ever got free…”

“I will solve the problems. Given time,” he stubbornly insisted. “You just need to believe in me!”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“ENOUGH!” he suddenly shouted with what could only be described as madness dominating his features, his horn lighting and a scalpel bring brought into the air right above the squirming alicorn. “I will save Equestria. I don’t need your approval now! Not when you will be one of our new protectors soon…!”

The scalpel started to descend.

And then it fell out of his grip and onto the ground, both Twilight and Shadow Flare startled by a sudden deafening boom from somewhere beyond the room. Their eyes locked onto the door, the sound of hooves rapidly approaching assaulting their stunned ears.

And then the whole situation changed.

The door burst open as a flare of magic came hurtling in, igniting in a blinding spark of light that causing their vision to instantly become one solid colour. Twilight just cringed and averted her eyes while listening to Shadow Flare’s startled shout, before it was joined by the angry shouting of several ponies seemingly charging into the room.

There was another shout and a crash as Twilight’s vision started to return.

“Room secure,” a pony reported. “We have the Princess.”

The blurred equine shapes around her started to focus, allowing Twilight to make out that a whole squad of Crystal Guard had stormed the room, one of them having his Shadow Flare around the head so hard with the butt of their spear that the stallion was now out cold as two others moved to restrain him.

Her eyes then locked onto one stallion in particular, none other than Crystal Shield, rushing over to the table and immediately starting to undo her restraints.

“Next time I’m not letting you out of my sight,” he stated irritably. “Ever.

“Sorry,” Twilight apologised sheepishly as the last of her restraints were undone and the guard helped up get up to her hooves. “On the bright side… I found the culprit!”

He gave her a deadpan look, her title seemingly a moot point at the moment.

“…Never running off again. Got it.”

Crystal Shield hummed, looking around to give Shadow Flare a surprised and disappointed look. The dark mage was still out of it, his legs bound while another guard was busy preparing an appropriate horn ring to suppress his magic. A small ping of satisfaction came from the back of Twilight’s mind at the latter point.

“Shadow Flare…” Crystal Shield muttered, before he then regarded Twilight again. “Are you alright? What was he about to do to you?”

“Same thing he did to them,” Twilight replied sadly, gesturing to the failed draugr around the room. “I’m really glad my message got through. Thank you.”

He nodded. “Anytime. We were already searching for you when we got word, so we mustered and stormed this place as quickly as we could. Still, I can’t believe that he was the one we were looking for the whole time.”

“He played us well,” Twilight admitted. “I should have spotted it earlier, but… Ah, it’s over now. He can’t hurt anypony anymore.”

“Aye. We’ll finish securing him and then stick him into a cell. I’m sure Princess Cadenza and Princes Shining Armor will-”

“N-no!” Shadow Flare suddenly shouted, thrashing as hard as he could as consciousness returned to him just as they were attempting to apply the horn ring. “Idiots! Not now! Not now!”

“Hold him still!” the guard trying to plant the ring commanded the two attempting to keep the struggling stallion restrained.

Twilight’s blood ran cold as Shadow’s horns started to bubble with dark magic, the alicorn lighting her horn to help restrain the stallion as Crystal Shield leapt into action to assist his fellows. Twilight’s magic and Crystal’s strength halted all attempts at movement, the ring going on just as Shadow Flare let out a gigantic shout of anguish and unleashed a pulse of dark energy all around them!

But with the ring on, all dark magic ceased. So too did the sickly magic suspending the corpses around the room fizzle out, the bodies no longer being suspended and falling to the ground with a stomach-wrenching splat.

But then everything was silent sans for the heavy breathing of everypony around the room.

“Ugh, get him up,” one of the guards said, the others dragging the defeated-looking Shadow Flare to his hooves. “Shadow Flare, for murder and treason against the Equestrian crown you are under arrest.”

“I was… so close…” he lamented, looking around the room with an almost expecting gaze, one that was increasingly devastated and disappointed.

“Princess Twilight and Princess Mi Amore Cadenza trusted you, Shadow Flare,” Crystal Shield stated, not hiding his profound sense of betrayal. “Why…?”

“Bah. Somepony like you could never understand, Crystal Shield…”

“That’s enough,” Twilight interrupted. “All of this… Everything you’ve done… I still hope there’s something in your heart still open to friendship, Shadow Flare. Maybe I can help you find it. I hope you might come to realise just what kind of pony you’ve become, for your sake, before it’s too late…”

“No more than I can…” Sombra chided.

“I haven’t lost all hope yet,” Twilight said to her distant grandfather as much as to Shadow Flare. “I can’t change what you’ve done. I can’t bring back the ponies you… hurt. But this doesn’t have to be the end of everything…”

Shadow Flare shook his head. “You can’t save everything, Twilight Sparkle. Some things you just can’t control…”

Twilight gave him a saddened look. Maybe he was right. Maybe she couldn’t save his soul after all he had done. Maybe she couldn’t save Sombra either. Their souls might have become even darker than Nightmare Moon’s. Than Discord’s. Maybe her efforts would be futile… But she had to keep trying, that’s just who she was.

“Someday soon, Twilight, your optimism won’t be enough…”

Twilight was silent.

“Come on, let’s get out of here,” Crystal Shield said to the Princess as they started to take Shadow Flare away, the stallion now offering little resistance. “We can handle him for the time being, I think you need some rest.”

“Yes… You’re probably right…”

Twilight started to turn away, ready to put this whole incident to rest.

And then something moved.

The Princess shot back around, Crystal Shield looking at her with confusion. The guards leading Shadow Flare away also stopped by the door, turning to see just what had startled the alicorn so much.

And then the bodies started to move.

The desiccated corpses, despite being allegedly deactivated as failures, started to rise. Their dead eyes opened, a green tinge flowing behind those otherwise milky soulless orbs. All of the ponies couldn’t help but recoil in horror at the sight of the dead rising to their hooves, just standing there with blank expressions. All except for Shadow Flare, who suddenly seemed sadistically overjoyed.

“It worked!” he exclaimed excitedly. “My servants! Now do you see? They come to my aid! Their loyalty knows no bou-”

He never finished his sentence, one of the undead ponies giving a loud wretch as a glob of black and green magic was spat straight from its maw. The energy streaked right at Shadow Flare, the only pony speaking, and struck him directly in the face.

The dark mage screamed.

“No!” Twilight shouted, her horn lighting and firing a bolt of lavender magic at the newly resurrected draugr.

The creature was struck, flying back into the wall hard enough to crack its surface. Its spine broken, the monster fell to the ground while shrieking like a wounded animal. It then reoriented itself, started to crawl on its forelegs.

Almost as if the dinner bell had been rung, the other draugr awoke.

The guards dropped Shadow Flare’s limp body as they drew their weapons, Crystal Shield standing protectively close to Twilight as the draugr struck. Two more dark magic projectiles were spat towards the Princess, the mare lighting her horn and concocting a shield to protect herself and the Crystal Guard.

Several of the creatures pounced on the others, the ponies pushing back with their spears and swords. One was impaled on a spear and yet kept on coming, dragging its body down the weapon’s shaft until it was upon its owner. The guard tried to pull back, but their assailant and a few others started to swarm and maul them. Another struck at Crystal Shield, but he swung his sword and batted the creature aside with a new gash along its torso.

Twilight released the shield and converted it into a wave of magic, brushing the other swarming draugr from the other two remaining guards. From the open doorway, Twilight could also see draugr emerging from the other room and charging down the hallway. And as if the situation wasn’t already morbid enough, Shadow Flare started to rise back to his hooves, his movements noticeably more sluggish and feral-like.

“His arrogance and inexperience was his doom,” Sombra mused. “He belongs to them now.”

The other guards fell back towards her and Crystal Shield, batting away at the draugr as they made grabs for the group.

“Leave this place,” Sombra commanded. "Now that the gate has been unlatched, headstones pushed aside; corpses shift and offer room, a fate you must not abide!"

Twilight replied by pushing back against the undead horde with another wave of magic, she was not leaving them.

“Princess, stay behind me!” Crystal Shield warned as another glob of their infectious spit barely missed her.

Only for a second to come streaming in and hit Crystal Shield’s front armour plate. The crystal pony stuttered in shock, before trying to clear the substance off of himself in a hurry. And yet, almost as if it had a mind of its own, it had already started to seep in through the armour and soak into his skin.

“Crystal Shield!” Twilight shouted in a panic, trying to move to help him only to be forced to step back and raise a shield as all of the draugr started throwing their projectiles at the Princess.

The other guards were hit, all falling and screaming in pain as Crystal Shield’s pained eyes turned to look at Twilight’s horrified ones.

“Run…!”

And then he grew silent.

“It is time to leave,” Sombra further urged. “Lest you too join the chorus of those that are dead.”

They were dead. Crystal Shield. Shadow Flare. All those ponies…

But there were so many. All of Shadow Flare’s victims now joined by the dark mage himself as well as Twilight’s former saviours. They pounded against her shield, all seeking to claim her too as the mare’s eyes glanced over them.

And then she spotted something else.

In the chaos, some of Shadow Flare’s things had been roughly knocked aside. Among them was a now-open box, a box from which a curved red horn had clattered out.

Sombra’s horn.

Tears filling her eyes, Twilight released the shield and rolled to the side. She grabbed both the horn and a saddlebag, planting the latter onto her back and the horn into the pouch in quick succession. She then screwed her eyes shut and redirected her magic into a teleportation spell. She popped out of existence just as the draugr charged again. They found nothing but empty space, but all heard a second pop outside of the secret chamber further back in Sombra’s sanctum.

Twilight came out of the teleportation spell sprawled on the ground but wasted no time in trying to get to her hooves and frantically examine her surroundings. A few more guards were arriving behind her, staring at the Princess in shock before their eyes went to something else. Something far more terrifying.

The draugr had already turned around, spilling into the sanctum.

“Everypony out!” Twilight ordered as she fired two bolts of magic with as much energy behind them as she could muster.

Both attacks hit the lead draugr, all but turning the creature to ash as another projectile was spat out and hit another guard. As she started to turn, the others got the message and began to fall back with Twilight following closely. They started to move back towards the stairs, one draugr following them out closer than the rest before being struck by a spear thrown by one of the crystal ponies. It didn’t destroy the creature, but it did at least temporarily pin it to a wall as the living made to abandon the sanctum to the undead.

A light appeared above them, the survivors emerging out into the throne room and into the view of Prince Shining Armor and several other bewildered ponies.

“Twily?” Shining addressed with both relief and confusion. “What’s going on!?”

“We need to close the sanctum!” Twilight shouted, turning around and starting to ready the spell. “There’s-”

Too late.

Shining Armor bit onto Twilight’s mane and pulled his sister aside on instinct as the first draugr appeared and fired its corruptive substance at her. Thusly, Twilight’s spell went wide and impacted harmlessly against a wall.

And then the horde started to emerge into the palace with alarming frequency.

Shining erected a shield of his own as the swarm surrounded them, the other guards unable to assist the royal pair and rapidly either falling to the infection or retreating to safety outside of the throne room. As her brother glared at their attackers, Twilight again lit her horn with a teleportation spell that surrounded both siblings.

Then they were elsewhere, falling to the ground in a random corridor in the palace.

Shining helped Twilight up, giving his sister a stern look. “Twilight, what just happened!?”

“Shadow Flare has let loose a horde of draugr, they can infect other ponies really quickly!” Twilight warned him. “We need to evacuate the palace, try to hold them here! Use the Crystal Heart if we have to!”

Shining Armor studied her for a moment, but then he nodded.

“Alright. We find Cadance, and your friends, and then we do just that. Come on!”

He turned to lead the way, Twilight following on. All the while, a certain stallion’s horn remained silent in her saddlebag. And, for some reason, it was filling Twilight with an even larger feeling of dread than the army of the dead.

All the while, despite his ever-present concern for Twilight’s safety, King Sombra looked on with growing interest.

25 - Evacuation

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The Crystal Palace was being overrun.

Had the horde remained the small number Twilight had encountered down in the sanctum then there could have at least been a little time to form some kind of buffer between the dead and living before they spread out too far. But with almost all of their victims being turned rather than mercifully slain, the infection was spreading like wildfire. The ponies of the Crystal Empire were seeing the beginnings of a plague, one that threatened to spill out from their seat of power and into the rest of the city.

If that happened, then what could they truly do but watch as civilians, who unlike the Crystal Guard didn’t even have weapons and armour with which to defend themselves, succumb to the epidemic.

At least the Frozen North would prevent its ascension into Equestria and beyond as a pandemic. Or, at least, that’s what Twilight Sparkle hoped.

But it had yet to spread beyond the palace, so maybe there was yet hope of containment.

They just needed the Crystal Heart.

Shining Armor led the way with his little sister following on, both briskly moving through the palace in their attempts to find Princess Cadance and the Element Bearers. A group of guardsponies rushed past them, moving down an adjacent corridor to undoubtedly join one of the lines trying to keep the draugr from spreading their dark influence throughout the rest of the palace.

Twilight feared she would not see any of them return.

“How could this happen?” Shining Armor lamented. “They’re just chewing through us.”

“Whatever Shadow Flare did in his experiments, the spread was an unintended mutation,” Twilight explained. “I don’t think he ever really appreciated just how dangerous necromancy was.”

“How dangerous all of Sombra’s magic is,” Shining remarked. “I can’t believe how much of an idiot he was. How much I was for not to see this happening before it grew out of control!”

“None of us did…” Twilight did her best to comfort her brother.

“Then we’ll have to make up for it by stopping it here.”

“But if we can’t…”

“I know. Hopefully, Cady had already sent somepony to begin evacuating the Crystal Empire.”

Twilight did some quick math in her head, but she didn’t like the results. The train station was still small, even if it had been built up a little more since it was first erected many months prior. It only held a single line, a single train at the station at any given time, more akin to Ponyville than Canterlot or Manehatten. More trains could be diverted if a message was sent, but that didn’t change the fact that only one could ever be present at the station. Not to mention the time it would take for more of said trains to arrive. Even if the Friendship Express could get into the station so soon after the Crystal Express left with the first wave of evacuees…

It would take too long. Too many trips with too few of the several thousand civilians on board, even if the train was overloaded to capacity.

And that meant that, unless they could come up with a solution, most of the ponies in this city were going to die.

Shining Armor saw Twilight’s panicked look, glancing at her with a grim expression of his own.

“…I know, Twily. We have a lot of ponies to get out,” he said. “When this is all over, remind me to increase the railway company’s funding so we can get more than one platform.”

That would probably be a good idea. After all, how else were ponies meant to leave? The very same barrier of snow and ice that might save the rest of Equestria from the horde also meant that the crystal ponies couldn’t just flee via their own hooves.

A double-edged sword if ever there was one.

The duo came upon an intersection, one of the conjoining corridors leading further into the current floor while behind it also sat one of the staircases leading further down into the lower levels of the palace. A small contingent of the Crystal Guard had set up here, a unicorn erecting an orange magical barrier while the earth ponies accompanying them prepared their weapons. Each looked terrified and determined in equal measure, them being the only thing between the draugr and the staircase.

“Guard,” Shining Armor addressed the ranking officer in the group. “Where’s my wife!?”

“Prince Shining Armor, sir!” the guard greeted with a salute. “I do not know, your Highness! She may be in the lower levels!”

“Have the draugr gotten there yet?” Twilight asked worriedly.

“Not from this staircase they haven’t,” the pony responded. “As for the other barricades, I cannot say…”

Shining hummed. “Alright. We’ll head down, you-”

“Contact!”

Following the alarmed shout of the unicorn, several globs of tainted dark magical spit hit the barriers they’d erected, the magic sparking and hissing from an almost corrosive effect. Twilight’s wings flared even as Shining Armor stepped in front of her defensively, the guards taking up their positions as a stream of bodies appeared down the other end of the hall.

This group was almost entirely comprised of ponies adorned in the armour of the Crystal Guard, mixed in with a few of the palace’s staff. Twilight could only spot a single pony amidst the crowd who looked like one of the first she’d encountered in Shadow Flare’s lab. A testament to their growing numbers.

And they, seeing their initial attack blocked by the shield, all gave feral growls as they charged forward. A mass of bodies all struck the barriers, the dead pounding their hooves and gnashing with their teeth against the barrier as its caster gritted their teeth from their assault.

And then, clumsily, one of the deceased guards drew their sword from its scabbard. The blade joined the pounding as yet another draugr, one who used to be a unicorn, lit their horn and unleashed a primitive and uncontrolled burst of mana.

It was just like Shadow Flare had said. With more bodies and minds among their number their intelligence grew.

And now they were learning.

“Most fascinating indeed.”

With the increasing damage the barrier was taking, the unicorn keeping it up looked increasingly pained as a crack split along its surface. And then, with little time to react, one final strike of a sword came down onto the weakest segment of the barrier which then proceeded to shatter like a pane of glass.

The draugr all darted for the hole.

It was a horrific sight, so many bodies all trying to fit in such a small gap. But the unicorn was unable to repair their own shield as the draugr made their rush, leaving the first few to start making their way through.

Two projectiles were launched through the air, the first being batted aside by a burst of Twilight’s magic while the second made its mark and hit a guard between their chest plate and neck. As the pony’s dying scream rang out, the guard got to stabbing and piercing the first of the intruders. The first took a spear through the skull and fell limp, but the others were only enraged by their garnering wounds and lunged outwards.

Twilight stepped forward, sending a wave of magic towards the draugr as they clambered through the barrier. All caught in the blast were sent sprawling backwards, most out of the breach and back into the corridor beyond the barrier. One, who had already gotten completely through, was simply pushed up against the barrier’s interior with a terrible shriek. Two more spear-wielding guards struck forwards and skewered the draugr, the previously infected guard simultaneously starting to rise up behind his former comrades.

Shining Armor saw this, lifting the creature in his magic and forcibly levitating it through the breach. The act caused the new undead to barrel into some of the others as they returned to try and make their way through the shield, knocking them aside before both of the royal siblings added their own magics to the barrier and sealed the breach.

The unicorn who had erected the original barrier gave them a grateful look, regaining their composure and sealing up the hole in their own orange layer between the lavender and pink.

“Thank you,” the officer said. “We will continue to hold here. Private, you have the shield?”

The unicorn nodded. “I-I can do this, sir!”

Twilight glanced at Shining Armor, the stallion looking reluctant to leave his ponies behind. But they still had to find Cadance and the Element Bearers, especially if they wanted to stop the infestation in its tracks.

“Alright,” the Prince conceded. “Good luck. Come on, Twily.”

“I’m coming,” the alicorn confirmed, letting her shield drop alongside Shining’s as the undead kept up their assault.

As the royal pair retreated down the staircase, their ears could not miss the unicorn’s strain as the guards prepared for the next inevitable breach. They hurried down to the lower floors, all but galloping their way down the steps with an urgency befitting their current situation.

“There is a fascinating modern game in here…” Sombra mused. “Chess, I believe. Suitable for the pawns to be sacrificed so their Queen might live.”

Twilight gritted her teeth. She did this both out of distaste… and out of a personal horror that she could see the cold logic of it. But those were living ponies whether they were guards or not. She didn’t want to think so casually of such a brave stand against hopeless odds, and their likely coming fate. She couldn’t afford to let herself think that way…

But the logic was there.

Twilight grunted, ridding herself of those terrible thoughts as she focused back on the task at hoof. As long as the undead were held upstairs they could-

They were already down here.

The first thing they saw was a draugr pounce upon some poor mare, teeth biting into her shoulder and keeping her pinned before, with a dreaded finality, the creature reared up and wretched its corruptive goop onto her.

“Get off!” a raspy voice bellowed, a prismatic blur flying down the corridor and bucking the creature with all four hooves. “Gah, dang it!”

Twilight and Shining Armor stared on in shock as the rest of Twilight friend’s trotted around the corner to the sight of a writhing, albeit recovering draugr alongside with the newly turning mare. All of them looked ashen at the sight, even more so as two pairs of hungry eyes turned towards them. Twilight already had a spell prepared to protect her friends…

…And then she let it die out, both creatures frozen in place as a certain buttery pegasus stepped forward with a burst of courage, her eyes wide open with a stare capable of drilling terror into even the undead.

With the two paralyzed by the Stare, Rarity gave a wince as she lit her horn and levitated the two up and into a nearby cupboard. Pinkie Pie followed this up by grabbing a plank of wood from… somewhere before having Applejack buck some nails in to keep the door shut.

“Phew, lucky I kept that around for zombie apocalypse emergencies!” the party pony commented.

“Not exactly ‘zombies’, but close enough,” Twilight stated as she approached her friends. “Are you all alright?”

“We’re plum tuckered, but in one piece,” Applejack replied. “You, Sugarcube?”

Twilight nodded. “I’m fine. It’s… just been a lot to take in.”

“You’re telling me! This is totally like the zombies in my comics!” Spike blurted out.

“Again, not quite,” Twilight retorted. “Draugr are a dark magic entity in possession of an empty body, not literally a pony coming back to life with a hunger for flesh.”

“Psh, the dead are coming back to life, who cares about the technicalities?” Rainbow Dash deadpanned. “They’re everywhere, and while I can kick flank all day long, this is WAY crazier than fighting off that changeling invasion!”

“We’ve seen p-ponies… they… d-d…” Fluttershy whimpered, tears breaching their eyes before she found Rarity’s hoof placed comfortingly on her shoulder. “The changelings didn’t hurt anypony this badly…”

“Chrysalis wanted us alive,” Shining Armor pointed out. “But they were still dangerous.”

“Yeah, we’ve been in more than one life threatenin’ scrap,” Applejack mused. “We gotta do right by the ponies who don’t know how to fight back.”

“Where’s Cadance?” Twilight asked. “Is she alright?”

“We got separated from the Princess,” Rarity said apologetically. “But I believe she was going to try and claim the Crystal Heart.”

“Then that’s where we go!” Shining announced. “Put an end to this nightmare!”

Suddenly, Twilight felt a build-up of alarm inside of her subconsciousness.

“Granddaughter, if the Crystal Heart once again activates with its accursed magic…”

Oh! Twilight had completely forgotten! But… with everything that was happening… She would find a way. Teleport outside the Crystal Empire if she had to. But she would have to be careful when interacting with the Crystal Heart, she wasn’t willing to let all this effort be put to waste because of Shadow Flare’s mistake!

But his creations needed to be stopped before more ponies got hurt.

“Girls, come on!” Twilight addressed her fellow Element Bearers. “We have a city to save!”

“That’s the spirit!” Pinkie Pie encouraged. “Let’s get the sparkles going!”

They all returned her determined look with nods and determination of their own. With that said, the group quickly got back on the move and weaved through the corridors. More shouts and shrieks of the undead could be heard throughout the palace, the eight of them trying to avoid the worse off areas as they descended down through the palace. But, with more of the creatures coming into existence by the second, it was all but impossible to avoid them all.

They were almost to the last staircase leading down to the Crystal Heart when a loud screech sounded behind them. The group whipped around in time to see a barrage of three dark magic projectiles heading their way. Twilight raised a shield to catch two, the third having been aimed high towards the flying Rainbow Dash. The pegasus, however, was no slouch when it came to avoiding unwanted objects seeking her demise. Her acrobatics in full form, she flipped around the spit as it harmlessly hit and dissolved against one of the crystalline walls.

And then they saw their attackers.

Six of the creatures were charging down at them, three with spears raised at the ready for combat. Even now they seemed to be gaining more of a handle on using the weapons, the implications of their still rising intelligence more than a little worrying.

The first draugr leapt forwards, pouncing through the air before the far faster Rainbow Dash swooped in and kicked it away. Another two came in with gnashing teeth, Applejack retrieving a coiled rope from a saddlebag and twirling it in the air, letting it fly and snagging one of them by the muzzle. Its mouth shut up tight, it started to thrash as it found itself unable to produce more of its infectious spit.

The other, meanwhile, had attempted to launch one such projectile at Fluttershy. Fortunately, Rarity had quickly moved the mare aside and blocked the attack with a panicked burst of her magic. Pinkie followed up on this by producing her party cannon and blasting the culprit away amidst a flurry of confetti.

While Rainbow Dash against kicked the first of the draugr down, swiftly swooping around to buck the back-most of the creatures, the three armed of the undead focused on charging down Twilight and Shining Armor.

Shining lit his horn and promptly yanked away the first of the spears, spinning it and pummelling the former wielder to the floor before driving the sharp end into the next one’s skull. The third one barrelled towards the Princess, the tip of its bladed weapon glinting much like the reflective crystals all around them.

This creature would hurt her. Her friends. Twilight’s eyes narrowed dangerously at the monster, at the aberration created from her family’s own stolen magic. With all that in mind, Twilight redirected her magic into another bolt of destruction and fired it at her attacker.

The spear clattered to the ground, ash following it.

Twilight didn’t miss the shocked looks the others gave her as she followed in her brother’s example and picked up the discarded weapons, driving it aside and into the one that Applejack was wrangling. Shining drew his own blade and finished off the one he’d knocked aside, Rainbow Dash picking up the two she’d been running circles around and throwing them towards Twilight.

The alicorn kicked briefly into the air with a flap of her wings, firing two more bolts of mana at the creatures and rendering them too to dust.

In a bid of desperation, the lone remaining draugr stood back up from the confetti assault and spit back at the ponies. All sidestepped it, the goops splashing down onto the floor near to Spike. He recoiled as, even as it dissolved, it seemed to reach out towards him. The drake reacted with a burst of fire, leaving nought but a scorch mark where the substance had been.

Then, rather than press the attack, it decided to turn tail and attempt to regroup with more of its kind.

Twilight fired one final bolt as it retreated down the corridor, its form crumbling down into dust.

The corridor was once again clear and, Twilight not wanting to waste even a moment, the alicorn turned to continue towards the exit.

“Come on, we need to- Guys?”

She turned, seeing them all staring at her like she’d grown yet another pair of wings. Suddenly feeling rather self-consciousness, Twilight returned their gazes with a confused one of her own.

“Uh, sorry for staring there, but you…” Applejack started sheepishly.

“I’ve never seen you kill anything before,” Shining Armor noted with no hesitation, looking a little disturbed. “Not that I’m criticising you, Twilight. They’re dark magical abominations. But… You seemed rather calm about it, that doesn’t seem right to me.”

“Yeah, that is a little weird,” Rainbow agreed. “You’ve never fought like that before.”

“Y-yeah…” Fluttershy agreed nervously. “You… looked a little scary.”

Scary? Twilight had looked… scary?

Spike tapped his claws together. “Are you okay, Twilight?”

“Fine!” Twilight protested. “We don’t have time for this! Besides, how else are we meant to stop them!? You know, since there isn’t another cupboard nearby!”

“I’ve seen a few unfortunate things in the guard,” Shining said calmly. “Things that bother me. It’s not that you did it, but for a first I’m just worried how it didn’t even phase you. Of all things, that doesn’t seem like you, Twily.”

Twilight cringed. Truth be told, until they’d just called her out on it, she hadn’t even considered it. Maybe that is in of itself was the problem, striking these creatures down, killing them, hadn’t bothered her in the slightest. But it should have done, shouldn’t it? Even if she had to. Even if it was the only way. Should she not have felt something for the act of killing for the first time?

But she had done it to protect her friends. She’d do anything to protect them.

“Exactly. Because only we know what is best for those that we love…”

Twilight froze.

She… He…

A cold shiver ran its way down Twilight’s spine, now extremely aware of just how jaded she had been in the midst of this infestation. Her mind flashed back to the Roc that had attacked her, just how good she had felt hurting it. How similar destroying these draugr had felt.

“W-we can talk about this later,” an extremely disturbed Twilight stuttered, trying not to think about how Sombra’s influence may have successfully started to change her. “Let’s just find Cadance…”

Maybe it was Sombra. Maybe it had just been the heat of the moment. But the horn in her saddlebag felt all the heavier as Twilight started to walk once again.

She had to protect those around her, but she could also control herself.

She could…

Plagued by the realisation, Twilight tried to remain focused as the others followed on. She could still feel their confused and worried eyes on her back, but they had more pressing matters. They could deal with the Sombra situation later, they had to find Cadance. Just at the bottom of these steps they were bound to find the solution to this mess. Just a few more steps.

They reached the bottom, Twilight latching onto the entranceway and letting the door swing open.

“GWAH!”

“Eep! Twilight screamed, a burst of magic sending the draugr that had jumped out at her hurtling across the courtyard.

They were outside the palace.

They could all hear screams as they rushed out of the palace, the Crystal Guard deep in combat with the horde of undead as they flowed out of the other exits. Nearby civilians were scrambling to flee as other guards bellowed orders for evacuations, a cordon being set up around the base of the palace in further efforts to contain the infection.

They also realised, with growing horror, that there was a growing chill in the air. The reason was clear, one look at the central two crystal spikes showed the Crystal Heart absent. Indeed, if one were to glance at the ground amidst the rampaging hooves of the undead, the glimmer of the discarded artefact could be seen.

“Cadance!” Shining shouted, all eyes turning to where he had spotted and was now bolting towards the pink alicorn.

She was on the ground being helped back up by a guard. Residue of the infectious spit was all around her, dissolving into nothingness. She looked dazed; her horn charred beyond any practical usability.

“What happened!?” Shining asked urgently as the group reached her, two unicorn guardsponies stepping up to provide magical barriers against incoming projectiles.

“Got hit…” she murmured sluggishly. “On my horn… Channelled all the energy I could to stop the infection…”

“You burnt out the dark magic…” Twilight realised, glancing at her sister-in-law’s ruined horn. “But you’ve really done a number on your horn. I don’t think you’ll be able to use most magic right now.”

Cadance winced in pain. “I know. Which means I can’t encase the palace in a shield spell to contain this…

“What about your husband?” Applejack asked. “Or Twi?”

“It’ll take time for me to get one up like that, the same process I did for our wedding,” Shining explained.

“And I don’t think I can get one that big,” Twilight admitted sheepishly. “At least, not one will last long against constant abuse. Cadance’s was uniquely suited against them due to being based on love, dark magic’s counter.”

“The one thing I’m better at magically,” Cadance noted with a small chuckle before it was cut short by the pain. “Ugh, I was trying to use the heart. But it got knocked from my grasp…”

“Which means winter is coming!” Spike stressed.

Rainbow Dash groaned. “As if we didn’t have enough problems!”

“We have to move!” one of the guards stated urgently. “The dead are pushing out!”

“Twilight,” Cadance addressed. “Take your friends and try and help the evacuation of the city along. We’ll do what we can here.”

“I’m staying with you. Especially if you’re hurt,” Shining demanded.

Cadance gave him a weak smile. “I won’t even try to argue.”

“Then I think we should make an exit,” Rarity said with growing alarm. “I don’t believe the guard can hold them here.”

“Spike, can you send a message to Princess Celestia?” Twilight asked, successfully finding some parchment and a pencil that had already been inside her pilfered saddlebag.

“On it!” he confirmed, taking them and urgently scribbling away.

“Princesses!” the guard bellowed in a panicked tone, many guards falling back around them as more joined the dead.

“Twilight, go!” Cadance told her.

Reluctantly, Twilight started to move away with her friends as her family joined up with the Crystal Guard as they reformed a defensive line. Both were dishing out orders, particularly Shining Armor for his experience. Twilight wasn’t sure how long they could hold before the line was pushed back again and again, but she hoped they would be okay.

There was a rush of green flame from Spike, so at least Celestia and Luna would now be aware of the crisis. If they could get to them in time with help…

They would have to take any hope they could get, the sheer hopelessness of the situation even more apparent by the terrified ponies fleeing all around the Bearers of Harmony. How many were caught up in the fray behind them? How many more were coming? Even now there were more ponies by the minute heading down the grand highway towards the station, ponies could be seen attempting to board the Crystal Express even from their position.

“The dead toil as their graves burst open. The ponies around you are all going to join in their march,” Sombra taunted. “Because the lesser cannot protect themselves, cannot be in charge of their own lives. True safety for these foals lies only within chains.”

Twilight tried to ignore him, the chill returning to her spinal column as she recalled the ecstasy she had felt back at the palace and beyond. The power she’d felt in defeating the Roc. Of destroying the draugr…

No, she couldn’t let that bother her. Couldn’t let Sombra’s dark view of the world distract her. She had to remain focused on the ponies around her, on keeping them safe.

The dead were coming for them all.

26 - Midnight

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The train station was up ahead, the Bearers of Harmony quickly approaching the building before most of the crystal ponies had arisen from the various side streets in their attempts to evacuate. There was still a significant amount of bodies piling into the station already, however, all those who had been the first to get the news and acknowledge the royal order to evacuate the city.

But those already there were clearly the luckier ones. Twilight could only imagine that the Crystal Express was rapidly approaching its maximum load and would soon need to depart. Everypony else… Well, they would be stuck here until the next train arrived. And as the alicorn looked behind her, the highway was now being filled with countless more civilians stampeding towards their only hope of escape.

All while the draugr continued to push towards them.

“Everypony, please board in an orderly fashion!” a guard commanded, he and a small contingent of his fellows doing their best to keep the peace amongst the terrified herd. “We are working on getting seats for you all, please be patient!”

The guard then saw the Princess and her friends rushing over, his features quickly sifting through a variety of emotions Twilight was barely able to catch. Relief, hopefulness, dread and despair in one big unholy mix.

She could relate.

“Your Highness!” the guard said, becoming the group to one side. “Thank Celestia you’re all here. What’s the situation at the palace, ma’am?”

Twilight bit her lip. “Not good. We need to speed these ponies along.”

He regretfully shook his head, his voice entering a low whisper. “That’s not going to happen. The train is about to depart, and we have yet to get an ETA on the next arrival. Even then, I’m not sure how many more ponies we can evacuate.”

“Not enough,” Applejack dryly commented. “Ya’ll seem in a bind.”

“Your compatriot speaks truly,” he confirmed. “Ponies are, for the most part, cooperating and remaining calm right now. But… most of us are trying to keep back the infection. If the line breaks and the creatures reach the crowd… We won’t be able to contain the ensuing panic.”

“But won’t that swamp the train?” Rarity asked worriedly. “A crowd of scared and desperate ponies may very well be a dreadful eventuality.”

“Then nopony will be leaving,” Pinkie Pie noted sadly, her mane delating somewhat. “M-maybe I can try to keep them preoccupied?”

Twilight nodded. “Good idea, Pinkie. If anypony can keep their spirits up, it’s you.”

The mare perked up a bit, giving the Princess a determined salute. “Aye aye! Operation: Keep Everypony Smiling is underway!”

And with that, the mare bounced off into the gathering crowds and vanished. In truth, Twilight inwardly believed that this might be a morale boost too big even for the infamous party pony. Maybe she could keep them distracted for a little while, but once the draugr hit…

The alicorn just had to hope Pinkie had something extra special contained in that physics breaking mane of hers.

“We’ll take any help we can get keeping things in order,” the guard said with approval. “Morale is most certainly needed, now more than ever.”

“What about the rest of us?” Fluttershy meekly asked. “I… I don’t want to be so… useless…”

“You are anything but, darling,” Rarity comforted the pegasus. “But I do agree that the rest of us could be doing something to help.”

Twilight hummed, her eyes scanning down the grand highway. There were thousands of ponies now, all waiting for their chance at escape. A daunting crowd of terrified faces that chilled Twilight to her core. Her mind flashed back to the changeling invasion once again, ponies running for dear life against dark chitinous figures coming down upon the city like meteorites. But this… this was beyond that in so many ways.

Maybe it was because the changelings had subdued the city in mere moments, but she wasn’t sure if the prolonged nature of the current crisis was more or less terrifying.

But her friends were right. They had to help in any way they could.

“Some of us should head back, see if we can help Cadance and my brother,” Twilight decided. “I will go. I’m an alicorn… A Princess of Equestria, I can do more there.”

“You sure?” Applejack asked. “Might do folk a lot of good seeing a Princess with ‘em.”

“It’ll do more to see her back there shooting lasers from her egghead,” Rainbow disagreed. “And I’m going with you! I’m too fast for any of those bone heads to hit me anyway.”

“I think we’d be better off assisting Pinkie Pie,” Rarity said in reference to both herself and Fluttershy. “Maybe I can help ensure the little ones get quick seats on the train…”

“A-and I could try and keep ponies calm…” Fluttershy said, though seemed to shrink at the sheer size of the crowd. “If that’s okay with them…”

“They will more than welcome it, dear. I’m certain of it.”

“Alright,” Twilight agreed before she looked down at her assistant. “Spike, you stay here too. They could use your organising.”

“But what about you?” he asked with deep concern.”

She nuzzled the drake’s head. “I’ll be fine. But I need you back here, okay?”

He reluctantly nodded. “A-alright. I can do that…”

“Then I’m coming with you and Rainbow Dash,” Applejack announced, adjusting her lasso. “I don’t have any of those fancy weapons and doohickies, but I can still knock some skulls together and keep the varmints’ traps shut with this here rope.”

“Just try to remember to duck, yeah?” Rainbow suggested.

“Don’t you worry none about me. Always was a good dodgeball player back in our school days.”

“Ugh, those games were always so barbaric,” Rarity blanched.

“Only because you’d keep getting yourself hit,” Applejack jabbed with a smirk.

“All that mane preparing just for some brute with a bouncy ball to-”

“Before we get side-tracked,” the guard interrupted. “I think your dragon friend is choking.”

Sure enough, Spike coughed up a few embers of fire before belching and unleashing a torrent of flame that ended as quickly as it had begun. And, from that burst of fire, a scroll seemed to come into existence and fall down onto the hard crystal below their hooves.

“Guess they got our message…” Spike mused, picking up the scroll and quickly reading it. “Yup, Princess Celestia and Luna have sent word for every available train to divert to the Crystal Empire after offloading their passengers. They’re also flying straight over here with a bunch of pegasi from both the Royal Guard and EUP army.”

“That’s welcome news,” the crystal pony said. “I just hope they get here in time…”

“I’m sure they will,” Twilight assured him.

“Do not be so foolish. The flight is long, all they shall find is a kingdom of the damned.”

Twilight flinched, her eyes once again trailing over all of the gathered ponies. In her mind’s eye, she could see images of them but an hour or so from now, shambling bodies with dark magical constructs taking the place of the once bright personalities behind each of their eyes…

“All because they lacked one with the will to do what was needed. A shepherd leading their flock, even if they lack the realisation of their own fragility. The curse that is their own freedom.”

No. That wasn’t going to happen! She wasn’t going to listen to him! Never! She… It wasn’t…

And yet, looking at them now, all she could see was a long stretch of corpses.

“Come on,” she said to her friends. “We know what we’re doing, so let’s do it.”

“Ya’ll heard the mare, hop to it!” Applejack concurred, sharing a few encouraging looks between the others.

They all watched as Rarity, Fluttershy and Spike vanished into the crowd as the guard too returned to his own ponies. Twilight couldn’t help but feel a little lonelier at their departure, taking as much comfort as she could in the remaining presence of Applejack and Rainbow Dash.

“We need to shoot,” Rainbow stated. “Need a lift, AJ?”

Applejack gave her a flat look, but pretty soon she realised that fighting her way through the crowd would probably take far longer than was acceptable.

“Yeah, alright. Just try not to drop me, you hear?”

“Pfft, please. Who are you talking to again?”

“That’s what worries me,” Applejack deadpanned as she hopped onto the pegasus’ back.

“Hey! Well, I’ll show you, AJ!”

“Enough!” Twilight snapped, her friends looking at her with shocked expressions as she unfurled her wings. “Helping now, joking later!”

The alicorn took off, missing the concerned look her friends shared before Rainbow went to follow. They all quickly found themselves high above the crowd, allowing them to appreciate just how large it was. So many people, and beyond them…

Flashes of light from cast magic, yet more bodies swarming against an all too thin barrier of guards with a mix of feral abandon and increasingly calm and collected strikes. It was hard to make out the details, but even from there they could see the fight against the dead wasn’t going well. The line had been pushed quite some ways back from the palace, getting dangerously close to the back of the crowd quite fast indeed…

They had even less time than Twilight thought.

Celestia and Luna didn’t even have a chance to get there in time.

“Behold, in our absence, the full breadth of the weakness that has doomed the Crystal Empire. Your Empire.”

They were doomed. After all the hardships she had faced since becoming the Elements of Magic, this was where they finally faced something their friendship couldn’t defeat.

N-no! There was still a chance! There had to be…

But the Elements of Harmony were going to be of no help. Not with the gems that the six mares represented sitting comfortably in a tree so many miles away…

“But why rely on such relics when you have your own potential?”

The fliers grew close to the ongoing action, the remaining ranks of the crystal guard forming a cohesive shield wall against the draugr. Said shield was a mix of physical and magical, polearms raised over the barrier to attempt to ward away potential attackers. But their enemy was one who didn’t fear being cut, and so they slammed against them anyway. Sometimes, a pony making up the wall would stumble and be dragged out. Other times, the creatures would arc their spit over the wall and, unless the projectile was intercepted, another would fall to the infections.

Step by step, the ponies were being pushed back towards the evacuating civilians.

“Twilight!?” Cadance called out in shock as she saw her sister-in-law and two of her friends land, the Princess herself having been trying to lend assistance to a stallion who appeared to have taken a slash from a blade. “I thought I told you to go help with the evacuation?”

“The others are, but I decided we’ll be more help up here,” she responded, seeing Shining Armor break off from the wall towards them.

“Well, I guess you have as much in it as I,” Cadance mused, glancing at Twilight’s wings. “Alright, but it’s not going well here.”

“That’s an understatement,” Shining Armor stated. “We’re losing ponies. And we can’t plug up all the side streets they’re trying to use to get around the shield wall. I have squads scouting them out, but I don’t think too many are left.”

“Let us see what we can do!” Rainbow Dash demanded.

Cadance looked reluctant. “Just be careful.”

“Please, my middle name is careful!”

Applejack gave her a wry look. “I thought it was ‘Danger’.”

“That too! Now, come on!”

The prismatically maned pegasus took to the air with unparalleled speed, almost immediately shooting off over the wall and into the crowd. Not a moment later, the mare arose again amidst a rainbow streak as two draugr went flailing back towards the palace with shrieks of surprise.

Applejack too went to go see where she could help, but quickly found herself struggling to find anywhere her lasso might be of use. So, she started pacing behind the retreating wall, looking for holes she could help plug.

All the while, Twilight approached Cadance and helped with the injured guard. She cast a healing spell that Cadance was unable to before passing him off to a medic for further treatment.

Then, a loud horn sounded through the air. The Crystal Express was departing from the city.

“I’m going to head towards the station,” Shining Armor announced. “Things are about to get hectic, and I may be able to cast somewhat of a shield over the entrance. If nothing else, protect the ponies already inside should things get worse.”

Both mares nodded as the stallion started to move back, the crowd parting for the Prince of the Crystal Empire as he went.

Cadance gave Twilight a look, Twilight acknowledging it as a sign to act. She still had all her alicorn magic, she could do some good for the defence.

Opening her wings, Twilight took to the air as she spied another rainbow blur and more surprised draugr flying unexpectedly through the air. There was a surge of movement amongst the horde, a group seemingly looking to try and brute force the right flank. Seeing this, Twilight veered off towards the potential incoming breach and readied her magic.

A surge of the horrid projectiles was launched at her, the dead seeing her arrival. She shot multiple from the sky with quick beams of mana before blocking the rest with a shield around herself. This was followed up by a multi-layered build-up of magic in her horn with she let out with an amazing pulse of pure energy. The wave of magic struck against the coming horde, driving many of them back, off of their hooves and forcing the rest to stop their charge and regroup.

The Crystal Guard seemed to be reinvigorated by the Princess’ actions, polearms striking forward and impaling any who did happen to get too close. Where a single strike was seldom enough to stop one of the beasts, continued assaults or, as Twilight had come to learn, strikes to the head felled the creatures well enough.

Still, the right flank managed to hold some ground due to her efforts. However, it was painfully apparent the middle and left were still being pushed against, the defensive line starting to become unbalanced as a result. The wall was becoming slanted, more than a few members of the line glancing around in confusion at the sudden occurrence, hurrying to compensate.

Assisting one end wasn’t enough, they all needed her help.

Twilight swerved again, skirting the top of the shield wall and lashing out with more waves of her magic where she could. She did her best to support the ponies there, trying to keep the pressure off of them where she could. They were all dirtied and tired, their stamina slowly dropping even if the fight was far from leaving them yet. And if they fell, the innocents who had made it beyond the line would soon be next.

So many lives, all depending on her doing what she could to lighten their load…

“Destroy the abominations, do not focus your efforts on saving these insignificants. You are far more than mere support.”

But without her, if she focused on them rather than the ponies beneath her, the wall might collapse.

“Necessary sacrifices. Let go of the Sun’s lessons and embrace my own. Use all your strength to overcome this challenge and take what’s left beneath your hoof.”

She wouldn’t trade lives! Not while there was still a chance!

“You are alone. Your friends will die. Your family will die. Forget the nameless faces you seek to protect, do what needs to be done.”

“But they all have families too…”

“Ours is the only family the matters.”

“That’s… That’s not…”

There was a huge shout as, quite suddenly, a wave of draugr burst out from one of the alleyways alongside the shield wall like an exploding water main! A hail of their putrid spit hit many of the defenders, screams of death ringing out as the horde beyond took advantage and pushed against the opening wall.

The defences started to collapse.

There was a clear sense of alarm and panic spreading through the ranks of the Crystal Guard, the left flank struggling to reorganise itself while the middle and right were only able to hold their own positions as their peers fell to the onslaught.

Cadance was trying to move the wounded to safety with the assistance of the medics. Rainbow Dash and Applejack had both seen what was going down, the former moving to focus her efforts there while the latter was once against struggling to hogtie one of the undead. Twilight herself moved in, her magic building once more for another large wave she hoped would allow the guard a moment to push back against the intrusion.

And then a pulsating mass of green and black came into view in the corner of her eye, but an inch from her head!

She didn’t have time to think.

She didn’t have time to breathe.

She just did.

Twilight exploded into darkness, the projectile phasing through the shadow and dissipating within its depths. Many eyes, both amongst the guard, civilians and even the now numerous and intelligent draugr, all turned in shock and awe to see the sight. More than a few crystal ponies started to scream of King Sombra’s return, hurling blame at the shadow for the current crisis as they started to hurry their way towards the station.

Then the shadow reformed into a pony, the form of Twilight Sparkle appearing in the air with her wings gently beating amongst the breeze. An eerie silence overtook the Crystal Empire as all looked towards the lavender pony, snowflakes drifting past and landing amongst the stunned bodies in the increasingly wintery city.

They all stared.

And they were all scared.

Twilight saw Cadance and her friends, all of them looking up at her with horror. And every single one was a stab at Twilight’s heart, her secret now revealed to everypony around.

They all knew. They would never trust her now. Cadance. Celestia and Luna. She could see it in her eyes! They all saw her as a monster! A freak! No better a dark mage than Shadow Flare! They all hated her, and she still couldn’t do anything! She couldn’t stop this! Not with her friends, it was like they were all beating against a solid wall!

A storm raged within Twilight, a green tint building and starting to pour from her eyes and tears fled down her cheeks. They wouldn’t understand why she had to do what she did. They would shun and alienate her, her title meaning nothing as Equestria turned against her.

Something snapped inside Twilight, the green glow steadily turning a corrupted blue as her pupils started to morph into slits.

It didn’t matter now.

They all thought her a monster. They wouldn’t understand this, so why should she care what they understood?

She could protect them all, even from themselves. Just like Sombra had tried to warn her, a warning she had so stubbornly refused to listen to.

Friendship had failed her.

And because of it…

“Because of friendship, everything you love will die…”

No…

NO!

There was a burst of dark energy around Twilight as she began to change, a terrible scream echoing throughout the Crystal Empire and reverberating off of every surface. The mare started to grow, approaching a size akin to Princess Luna as her wings turned a blue that was almost black in colour, twisting and elongating in a sinister manner. Her coat too darkened a shade, her mane beginning to blow ethereally in the wind not unlike the Sun which she had once believed in. A snake of dark magic slithered around her body, splitting off to form a piece of regalia on her chest in the form of a six-pointed star alongside four deep purple shoes with lavender diamonds adorning the front.

So too did her horn elongate, glowing a bright cyan much like the dark magic trails pouring from her eyes. She could feel her bones creak and her jaw ache as her teeth realigned themselves, sharp fangs replacing the flat equine teeth she had known since they had first emerged.

And then the screaming became laughter. Horrible, tortured laughter that betrayed the pain driving deep into the mare’s soul.

And there she hovered, far above her new subjects as the sky itself seemed to darken. That very darkness she radiated made even the dead shift in discomfort

“Twilight,” Cadance muttered from down below, her voice quivering with naked terror. “No…”

“And so it is,” Sombra declared from within the corrupted alicorn. “Most fascinating, the true form of an alicorn. And now, my dear Twilight, it is time to reclaim what is ours.”

The mare looked down at Cadance at her friends, each one pleading with their eyes for her not to do this. Not to fall to the corruption in a similar vein to Princess Luna once upon a time. It was just as she expected, just as she despised. They truly didn’t have a clue. Even with their impending deaths they still clung to their fragile view of freedom and the ability to choose.

But they didn’t know the truth. And that was that her pure bloodline were the only ones who could decide what was best, not unlike a parent disciplining a misbehaving child. She would protect them all, especially those for whom she gave her love, even if they hated her for it.

Maybe they would understand one day.

But as long as they lived, she didn’t care.

“Sombra,” the alicorn with Twilight’s cutie mark spoke. “And you, my little ponies…”

All hung on her next words, waiting to hear what she would have to say. Living or dead, all were enthralled by the sight of the dark figure high above the cityscape. The darkness was enough to strike terror in their hearts while also captivating them with the strange beauty emanating from the winged pony.

Their salvation through chains.

“Behold all that is Midnight Sparkle,” Midnight announced her emergence to the world. “And fear not, never will you suffer again. In servitude to me, all will live the existence I desire of them.”

“Twilight, STOP!” Cadance shouted. “You need to calm down, your magic is clouding your mind!”

“What do you take me for, sister?” Midnight asked, taking her words as an insult. “I am magic itself; I know the perils of letting its energies use you as a puppet. But I am more than in control, this is what I choose.

“B-but you can’t!” Rainbow Dash protested. “This is not okay! At all! Sombra’s messing with your head, you know he is!”

Cadance’s eyes widened. “Excuse me!?”

“She’s right, Sugarcube!” Applejack agreed. “He’s got your head all messed up! Get down here, we can sort all this out!”

“Oh, we’re well beyond that,” the corrupted alicorn dismissed. “I will save you, even though you try so hard to destroy yourselves!”

“What are ya’ll yammering about!?”

“Friendship will only get us so far,” Midnight proclaimed. “No, I have examined all the variables and my conclusions are clear, I know what Equestria needs for true security. You all belong to us! I care not for your objections, your false ideas of individual freedoms. I know what is right, I now realise what I should have from the start. And here is where it begins…”

Midnight turned, her eyes narrowing further as she examined the stunned horde of undead before her. A horde created by one who too wanted to protect Equestria, but he had failed to grasp how to actually do it. But where Shadow Flare failed, she would not.

With Sombra to guide her…

“All who stand against me, they shall all be destroyed!

And then, like the shadows themselves had come to life as a force of nature, she struck.

Midnight had fallen across the land.

27 - Desolation

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There was a cold chill in the air.

They could all feel it, a malignant aura that pervaded the landscape around them. From the ground to the sky high above, all exuded the feeling of bleakness that all the ponies on route to the Crystal Empire felt. The physical chill spreading through their bodies was all the more disturbing due to the fact that nought but green fields were sprawled out beneath them, still far from the threshold of the Frozen North.

Even as the sun started to dip into the horizon, as willed by the Princess of the Sun presently taking in their situation, there should have been some warmth remaining from the celestial body to counteract the strange breeze in the air.

Something was very wrong.

“Sister,” Luna called out worriedly, seeing Celestia stop mid-flight to consider the horizon. “Are you well?”

The large pegasi escort all glanced at their two princesses as they faltered, slowing their speed but not stopping entirely. The Crystal Empire was still some distance away, and delay would be unfortunate given the dire circumstances that brought about their flight. Many had chalked that strange feeling they were all being subjected to towards knowing what laid ahead, the monstrous abominations that had allegedly invaded the distant city.

But the alicorns knew that this was no mere sense of nervousness in the face of an uncertain enemy. This was… something else.

Something worse.

“I do believe so,” Celestia lied. “I have set the sun on its final descent. Soon your night shall be upon us, Luna.”

“Yes. A shame I shan’t have time to showcase the constellations,” she lamented in turn. “A moderate brightness tonight shall have to do. Not that too many ponies will pay much mind.”

“You know the constellations are what make the night breathtaking,” Celestia retorted. “You always know just how to make them shine through the best.”

“An artist lives to see their work appreciated,” Luna said, clearly flattered. “But you are also deflecting. I can feel it too.”

Celestia sighed, giving a flap of her almighty wings and starting to move back towards the squadron of pegasi. Her younger sister did the same, keeping pace with Celestia and looking expectantly into her sister’s troubled eyes. The elder alicorn didn’t satisfy her with a response, at least not right away. Celestia took more than a few moments to collect her thoughts, her eyes turning in the direction of the distant Crystal Empire.

“Nature is unbalanced,” Celestia finally announced. “Something is happening, but I am unsure as to what.”

“I would endeavour to agree,” Luna replied. “Darkness is brewing in Equestria, a darkness I could almost describe as feeling familiar. It has soiled the very magic leylines running throughout the world, leaving them in quite the state.”

“Thus, what it is we feel.”

“I imagine we are feeling it far more acutely than our escort,” Luna further noted with glances at the pegasi. “And with what young Spike has warned us of, these abominations summoned by Shadow Flare, I cannot fathom it as a coincidence.”

“It would be convenient timing,” Celestia agreed. “But Twilight and her friends are there. I know they can keep our ponies safe until our arrival.”

“In the city of her lineage,” Luna noted, causing Celestia to inwardly flinch. “I fear what else this unicorn dark mage has unleashed.”

Celestia had considered it. A student at her school had attempted to emulate Sombra, continue his work. For a novice, who knew what other consequences messing with such dark forces could have held? And for how it had to be for Twilight, facing it all in light of recent revelations.

A pang of fear hit Celestia's heart, her speed increasing ever so slightly and causing Luna to falter a moment before she quickly compensated to match. The quicker they could help Twilight and her friends, the better.

“But for all our concerns, we should tread lightly,” Luna then noted. “The infectiousness of these draugr is deeply troubling.”

“We should keep the pegasi to the air as much as possible, remaining mobile and a difficult target for any of their attempts at spreading the plague,” Celestia stated, glancing around at the guards around them. “But our primary task should by the Crystal Heart. Spike said it is at the centre of the horde, so I believe it is clear where we should go.”

“Let us hope we can prove suitable replacements for Cadenza,” Luna said. “One would hope that it is little different from activating the elements.”

“On that, it has also been a long time. But with our intent being pure, the Heart should abide by us on this occasion. It has to, for the sake of all our little ponies.”

“Then let us do what we must,” Luna remarked confidently. “I look forward to facing these abominations and showing them what true power over the shadows looks like!”

Celestia rolled her eyes, albeit with a small smile. “As much as I admire your enthusiasm, Lulu, just remember to-”

And then there was a flash.

An almighty light erupted, just for a moment, in the distance. As it did, that feeling of dread multiplied exponentially within the alicorns. It was an aurora the colour of the twilight, a wave of magical energies washing out over the distant Frozen North.

It was only momentary, gone within the blink of an eye.

But then the sky above the region, so far off and yet still visible to the naked eye, started to warp and darken despite the continued rays of the setting sun. A darkness that hung entirely over the Crystal Empire, radiating heartbreak and hopelessness in its wake.

They could feel her.

And in that momentary flash, seen only to the alicorns, they had seen her. Eyes warped and twisted, filled with dark magic and complete soul-crushing despair. Tipped over the horizon, gripped with grief to the point of no return. Her beautiful lavender coat darkened and sinister, her wings almost predatory and promising a swift demise. A visage clearly of one singular pony, but one twisted into a strange mirror of herself.

And Celestia’s eyes grew wide in confusion and terror at that tormented face.

“Twilight…?”


A colossal beam of magic trailed through the horde of draugr with unparalleled destruction, a mix of light and dark magics interwoven as if they were always supposed to exist that way. It carved a chunk through the undead as the rest scrambled to part as the attack came their way, the alicorn responsible gliding over the mass of bodies with hatred in her eyes.

The horde immediately started to disperse, moving into smaller groups as they turned to fire their infectious projectiles at the dark alicorn. Dark magical masses flew high through the air, the beam of magic ceasing as Midnight weaved through them in a manner that would impress Rainbow Dash. She flipped and dived down towards the ground, flicking her head and sending a wave of magic that dislodged one of the groups and sent its members sprawling to the crystalline ground all around them.

The ground cracked as she landed on all four hooves, the surrounding crystal corrupted at her very presence into a dark colouration.

“The crystals… Can you feel them? The voice of the empire, ready to serve its Queen?”

“I do…”

“Let it tear them asunder, buried beneath our power.”

Midnight’s eyes flashed, a shadow reaching out from her body as her distant grandfather helped guide her magic. She looked towards the first two draugr to recover, likewise planting up a shield as yet more tried to fire on her one more.

They saw her.

She smirked.

Two black crystals shot out of the ground, impaling both of the creatures with horrific screeches. They struggled and thrashed, their movement becoming more difficult as yet more crystal grew from the shards inside their bodies.

Then they went limp, the dark structure having grown out of almost every orifice they had.

Midnight turned as the impacts against her shield ceased, her glowing dragon-like eyes examining the abominations around her. They had stopped, their milky eyes locked on her as they almost seemed to hesitate. The fallen alicorn observed their reactions with scholarly interest, a fanged smile emerging as she reached a revelation.

They’d claimed enough bodies, enough intelligence, to know fear.

And they feared her.

Good.

Midnight Sparkle reared up onto her hind legs before slamming her forehooves down onto the crystal road, countless shadows shooting forward as the draugr scrambled toward safety. Most managed to avoid what was coming, but an unlucky few were too slow as a wall of spiked black crystal shot out of the ground and skewered all in its path.

The centre of that crystal then started to morph, a crude staircase emerging as Midnight ascended. She stood on top of the wall, eyes examining the scene.

Then she saw it. Even with her strike, the horde had continued to lash out at the ponies holding them back from the station. As she had predicted, without her help, several were now being overwhelmed by the horde.

Weaklings. Must she do everything?

A draugr leapt through the air towards her, Midnight catching it within a levitation spell and planting the creature between herself and several more of the infectious spit. A magical blade bubbling with dark magic was then conjured out of the air, slicing through the restrained draugr and dropping it to the ground.

Then Midnight burst into shadow, whipping around several more strikes before returning to a corporeal form close to the collapsing shield wall. Her horn lit up, another beam of magic trailing along through the beasts closest to the defensive line. As the magical fire burned through the undead creatures, the ponies took several steps further backwards and reformed themselves.

Many looked towards Midnight Sparkle with confusion. Should they stop her? Assist her? Friend? Foe? Dark words she had spoken, yet assistance was what she now provided.

And then Midnight’s eyes locked onto the tracks leading out of the Crystal Empire.

“That will no longer be needed,” Midnight announced, leaving the guards to do their jobs for the moment as she flapped her wings and started towards the station.

“Twilight!” a familiar raspy voice shouted, a prismatic blur quickly catching up to her. “What are you doing!? Stop!”

“I shall protect you all, Rainbow Dash, and I do not wish you to leave.”

As Rainbow went to protest, Twilight lit up her horn and vanished the cyan pegasus amidst the pop of a teleportation spell.

“Our slaves must stay…”

Midnight streaked forward, her horn lighting once against as she flew over the tracks leading into the Crystal Empire.

And then she destroyed them, more dark crystals springing forth to create a barrier no train would be able to pass. There would be no running for them, no fleeing what had to be done. After she had dealt with the present threat, the ponies would be categorised accordingly. Sombra would help, he had done it all before.

The system she would create was going to be the most efficient in history, and all beneath her would be safer…

Even if it cost them their free will.

Midnight suddenly shouted as something cut her hide, the corner of her eye barely catching sight of a spear thrown up from below and just scraping her barrel. Her eyes narrowed as she shot around to find the culprit, finding the guards in front of the station running along the ground towards her.

Fools.

Her horn was lit, and immediately the Crystal Guard found themselves unable to act. A magical aura had surrounded their entire bodies, encasing them and restricting all but their breathing and eye movement. Midnight could feel their growing fear, each would be shaking in their boots if they were able. Their lives were now in her hooves, and it would be so easy to punish them for what they had just tried to do.

“So, my granddaughter, do just that.”

A simple squeeze and it would be over…

“Let their education begin on the folly of disobedience.”

There was a flash of Midnight’s horn…

And the guard fell down into unconsciousness.

“I see…”

“There would be little use in it. There are other ways to punish,” Midnight dismissed, her eyes returning to the horde. “But for now, there are bigger issues than they.”

And so she took flight once more, her shadow casting down onto the screaming ponies of the Crystal Empire. There was no doubt in their minds now to just who she was.

An enemy.

And now they were trapped, caught between Midnight Sparkle and the draugr as they continued to fight. And, no matter who would ultimately come out the victor, it seemed that they were destined to lose either way. Consumed by an undead horde or reduced to slaves once again…

Neither was an appealing prospect.

And that was no more apparent than to those closest to Midnight’s rapidly shrivelling heart, who had only been able to watch her final descent into madness and her ensuing onslaught. Even now, still right behind the lines as Applejack helped the dazed Rainbow Dash back to her hooves and the others rushed back through the crowd towards them, they could hardly believe their eyes as Midnight started to glide over the side alleys in search of lingering draugr.

“What’s going on!?” Spike asked in a panic as he and the other Element Bearers rushed towards Princess Cadance and the others. “W-was that T-Twilight…?”

“I was putting on a show for some foals and then BOOM everything went wibbly and then purple snooty came flying over and I was like OH MY GOSH Nightmare Moon’s cousin and then things exploded and-”

“Pinkie Pie!” Rarity interrupted the mare’s tirade. “Breathe!”

“B-but… Was that her!? Because that’s just completely bonkers!”

“Tell me about it…” Rainbow muttered as she finally seemed to recover from the sudden teleport. “Her eyes…”

“She’s just trying to help… Right…?” Fluttershy asked.

“I think so…” Shining Armor noted, but his expression was grim. “But I’m not sure she really realises just what her ‘help’ will bring.”

Either that... or she no longer cared.

“What was this about Sombra!?” Cadance finally shouted. “What did you girls do!?”

They all flinched, looking a little guilty and scuffing the ground as Cadance and Shining Armor gave them expectant looks.

“He’s all up inside her head,” Applejack was the first to respond, seemingly glad to finally speak of it even as the Prince and Princess baulked. “She’s been learnin’ dark magic from him. And it also looks like ya’ll are related to him, Shining Armor.”

“WHAT!?”

“Super crazy, right?” Pinkie remarked.

“Hold on,” he adamantly protested. “No. Nuh uh. No way. You’re making that up!”

“I don’t think so…” Cadance muttered with a frown, looking into Applejack’s deadly serious eyes. “Not with everything that’s happened.”

“But… That’s…”

“Something for later,” Cadance decided, grimacing as she spied Midnight shoot by overhead amidst another beam of magic that made the buildings around them shake. “We need to stop these draugr, and then we need to calm her down.”

Shining sighed, nodding. “Agreed. We need to get that bastard out of her head!”

“How do we do that?” Spike asked.

“We’re her friends, we have to do something,” Fluttershy said hopefully.

“Flutters is right about that,” Rainbow Dash agreed. “But… We can’t let the draug-whatevers through to all these ponies! So, maybe we should let her finish up first? She really seems to be doing a number on these guys!”

Cadance bit her lip, glancing up towards Midnight as she made another pass. The dark alicorn landed on a roof, her determined eyes glaring daggers at the horde even as they turned to attack her again. And yet, even as she brimmed with power, Cadance noticed the subtlety of her panting.

It reminded her of Twilight as a filly, deep into some new spell she’d seen during her studies under Princess Celestia. So determined, fire in her eyes as she continued well into the next morning with no signs of stopping. And yet, Cadance could always see the signs of wear and tear in her favourite little filly. A twitch in her eye. A frazzled mane. Heavier breathing.

New spells were always more taxing than ones you were familiar with.

Exhaustion came easily.

“They’re pushing!” a guard bellowed in alarm, the line sliding backwards as more draugr now came in like a wave to replace the ones Midnight had slain.

“We need to help!” Applejack stated.

They all hated it, but they all knew the truth. While the undead roamed the streets, none of them could do a thing to help Twilight. Not without putting more ponies at risk.

If only she hadn’t damaged her horn…

And from that nearby rooftop, watching the group return to their previous jobs helping the surviving denizens of the Crystal Empire with heavy hearts, Midnight glared. No doubt they were trying to figure out how to ‘save’ her.

She loved them, but they just didn’t have a clue.

“They never do.”

Another projectile deflected off a shield quickly implemented in an almost casual manner, Midnight turning her glare towards the beast. She leapt from the roof, her wings stretching outwards as she loomed over them like a spectre of death. A single bolt of magic shot forth from her horn and vaporised the undead abomination, the alicorn banking and sending another wave of magic against a few who had clambered up onto a conjoining rooftop in some poor attempt at catching her off guard. They all went flying off the roof in a flail of limbs, each landing on the ground below with a crunch.

It was extremely satisfying to the alicorn’s eyes to see the horde far thinner than it had previously been. And yet, even now, still some turned their dead eyes towards either her or the ponies cowering up ahead.

She would destroy them all.

Midnight’s flight took her over another set of alleyways to the side of the defensive line. And there, sure enough, a small group of about five draugr had been sneaking through an alleyway. During their jaunt, it seemed that they’d come across one of the small groups of guards sent out to scout for any such incursion.

Midnight landed in the middle of the skirmish, her sudden appearance causing a lull in the fight.

The corrupted mare ignited her blade, striking through the first two draugr before bucking the third into the ponies where they instantly laid into it with their weapons. The final two lunged at Midnight, only for each to have crystal structures emerge beneath each of them and tear them asunder.

“S-Sombra! He’s back!” one of the crystal ponies shouted fearfully.

Midnight rolled her eyes, batting aside their weapons with her magic. Then, with such wonderful ease, she put them into a state of unconsciousness much as she had with the last group to oppose her. Oh, what was she to do with them?

She heard an animalistic growl from behind her, Midnight turning to see a few more turned guards coming towards her with intent to either maul or convert the winged pony. She huffed, resisting the urge to yawn at the annoyance.

Maybe it was time to stop playing.

Dark magic spread along her horn, the spell inverting into herself as the first projectile came in. But, as intended, they harmlessly passed through shadow as the alicorn burst into pure darkness.

Then the darkness struck.

The shadow shot down the alleyway, enveloping the draugr for mere moments before leaving behind their still bodies. Through the system of alleyways it snaked, claiming any stragglers it came across before bursting out back onto the highway with a low rumble. The mass quicker grew and spread, rising high into the air and looming over the remnants of the horde and ponies alike. All eyes moved up to view the terrifying sight, struck by the magnitude of the darkness. And from within, glowing eyes emerged alongside an elongated horn.

The draugr started to wretch, sending as many projectiles as the horde could manage up towards Midnight Sparkle. The shadow simply laughed as they passed through without even touching her in any meaningful way, her eyes glancing over what was left while deciding just where to begin.

Then the shadow condensed, shooting downwards and into the horde. And weaved skilfully through the undead ponies and swatted them aside like bugs. Oh, how she could have used this during the changeling invasion! Against Discord! Against them all! Who needed friendship!?

“Let the dead fall still, and the living know all that shall be.”

A bolt of magic struck the shadow from one of the draugr, causing Midnight to hiss in pain as something finally touched her. She created a tendril that lashed out at the creature in question, swatting it like it had so many others.

But now the horde knew how to affect the shadow.

More bolts of magic started to fly from the few unicorns among the dead, each striking and chipping away at the mass and causing Midnight to recoil.

They dared!?

More tendrils came forth, reaching through the crowd and focusing on the spellcasters. One by one they started to fall, the horde all but collapsing before the might of the corrupted alicorn. Her horn sent a wave of magic through some of the horn-less abominations, the shadow contorting and continuing to move through the horde and claim all in its path.

Most of the spellcasters were gone now, they were but a fraction of their former strength! Her dark magic, her will to do what needed to be done, it had assured her victory. Her friends, her family, they would be safe. It was all certain now, it… it…

A wave of nausea fell over Midnight, and with a start did she realise that her shadowy form was starting to distort and shrink. Her horn burned, her eyes glazing over as, all of a sudden, the shadowform spell just collapsed with little warning! Pain rippled through Midnight’s body at the experience, not dissimilar from her original attempts at learning the spell, the mare falling through the air and landing against the crystal with a loud smack.

“Twilight!”

Midnight Sparkle’s world was one of pain, the familiar sensation of magical exhaustion filling her being. She could vaguely make out the approach of the remaining draugr, now leaving the shield wall be as they turned to finish off their most pressing foe. And, try as she might, the energy to stand simply didn’t exist inside Midnight’s body.

How could she have been so stupid? She should have known better than to exert herself in shadowform that much, far from experience with the spell as she was. But the euphoria, her new form, she had actually thought…

Stupid…

As the projectiles came, intent on making a draugr out of the alicorn, she mustered up what little she had for a shield spell that flickered and cracked on contact. She wasn’t even certain how she was managing it… Desperation, that was really all there was to it.

She had been so close. And yet, in a single moment, everything had been ripped away. Her power, her ability to save anything…

She had failed.

“Twilight…” Sombra said, then materialising beside her with a look of extreme alarm on his face. “I should have realised, I apologise. But you must continue, regather your strength. Little remains of the dead, the Crystal Empire is soon to be ours again!”

“Sombra…”

Sombra grimaced, looking at the sheer exhaustion on Midnight’s features. Even the magic trailing from her eyes seemed to be thinner, as did the ethereal nature of her mane. Moreover, he could feel the extent of the burnout inside her. And, with the draugr surrounding the two of them and pounding on the already ready-to-shatter barrier, he realised with horror that his descendant had reached the extent of what she could do.

“I will not let our dynasty end here,” Sombra growled. “We shall rule. No mere beast emergent from an empty grave shall stop it.”

The King then looked down at the saddlebag Midnight had continued to carry during their fight. It was blackened from the shadowform transformation, but the contents within…

It was time.

“Twilight,” he spoke. “Retrieve my horn.”

She looked up at him. “What…?”

“Do it.”

She hesitated, but then weakly complied. Out came the curved blade-like horn of Sombra, levitating in an unstable field out before the two of them. More cracks built along the surface of Midnight’s shield, mere moments from shattering entirely as she dead scratched and pounded on the construct.

“What do we do…?” Midnight then asked him. “Grandfather, how do we win?”

“You have done all you can, and for that you have my pride,” he responded. “But your inexperience is telling, and now the master must do his part.”

Sombra then knelt down and looked her in the eyes, one corrupted pony to another.

“Let me in. It is easier with consent; I ask that you trust me.”

Midnight paused, studying the stallion. But then, with her death imminent, never to see those she loved again, what more did she have to lose?

“Do it.”

Sombra vanished, Midnight giving a sharp gasp as her body convulsed. The shield around them seemed to bolster itself, the colour steadily turning a deep green as the magical trails out of Twilight’s eyes did the same, red pupils looking out at the world from their descendant’s own.

And then Sombra lit Midnight’s horn, dark magic bubbling up its surface all the way to the tip. Through her eyes, he glared at his horn with finality.

“Long live the King.”

The magic was fired out, striking the horn which immediately started to violently shake. Midnight’s eyes steadily became her own again, the dark magic stream continuing on for many moments more. But then, after what seemed like an eternity to the dark alicorn, it cut.

The shield shattered.

The horn exploded into shadow.

The ears of the crystal ponies burned as a familiar, dreadful laugh rang out over the city. The draugr backpedalled as the shadow spread up into the air, two green eyes and a red horn emerging through the darkness. Midnight Sparkle, as if being rejuvenated by the presence of the second being of shadow, too started to rise again.

Back on her hooves, Midnight couldn’t help a strange empty feeling. It was like a piece of her had permanently departed… But she knew it was close by.

And there, up above her, she saw King Sombra look out over the Crystal Empire. His eyes were momentarily transfixed on the horde as they scrambled to recover, but then they trailed up to glare at the thousands of living eyes all staring up with terrified recognition.

“Did you think me defeated!?”

King Sombra had returned.

28 - A Sparkle in the Darkness

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A shadow loomed over the Crystal Empire, one so terribly familiar and completely horrifying to all of the residents of the presently chaotic city. Its green eyes looked out over it all with equal measures of desire and disgust, both ethereal orbs promising divine retribution of the highest magnitude to all those who had dared take what was rightfully his.

Rightfully theirs.

Midnight looked up at King Sombra as he regarded his subjects, holding a new appreciation for the power within that shadowy mass. A form he could hold indefinitely, while she had fallen from her own after such a comparatively short amount of time…

The dark alicorn glanced towards the horde and stunned draugr and, beyond them, the horrified ponies holding the line.

Even with her newly embraced power, she had been unable to stop the undead by herself. She had been trapped in the middle of the crowd, alone and without a friend in the world. Those moments where she’d been certain of her own death, so alone and terrified beyond measure. It was like she’d been swallowed up by a wave of despair, ready to be spat out into oblivion.

She only remained breathing thanks to Sombra. Alone, she had been almost defeated. Just as he had twice before.

But Midnight supposed that their path was now set. At least neither was alone, now. They had each other.

And yet she couldn’t help but cringe as the traumatising memory of those final moments returned in force, a hole of longing opening in her heart.

But she had to ignore it, had to shake the feeling off. Her distant grandfather was no longer a spectre buried deep within her mind; he was here. In his full glory, shadows already seeping into every crystal, Sombra lorded over the Crystal Empire. But even now, it wasn’t over. Not yet. Not while the dead still existed within the limits of the city.

They wouldn’t for long.

“My slaves…” Sombra’s shadow addressed the large crowd of gathered ponies. “Gathered into a joint grave, the dead surrounding you at every turn. A hopeless fate brought about by fragile freedoms, yet you still cling to the delusion.”

A troubling chuckle reverberated throughout the Crystal Empire, it almost sounded like the very crystals were laughing at the crystal ponies. It even sent a shiver down Midnight’s spine.

“But you should not fear the dead, no… Your fears belong to me alone. Me, and my proud protégé.”

There was great murmuring among the gathered ponies, more than a few starting to take steps backwards. Or, at least, as many as they could take before bumping into the next pony directly behind them.

“So, let us return to where you belong. Your safety awaits in chains, and your servitude is required.”

The shadows started to vibrate and spill out further into the city. The effect was immediate, the crystal ponies erupting into the full-blown panic that the Element Bearers had been trying to prevent! Almost like all knowledge of the track’s destruction was forgotten amidst the terror, the crowd began to try and push and shove their way towards the station.

“Pathetic. As ever.”

The draugr, too, seemed to be stirred back into action. But rather than running away, the beasts started to fire up at the shadow much like they had Midnight Sparkle. Sombra turned to regard them with a withering glare, contempt growing in his eyes.

“Leave the politics for later,” Midnight dismissed, lighting her horn with her returning magic. “Let’s deal with these creatures, finally. I’m sick of them.”

“As you wish, Granddaughter.”

Then the shadow struck with a ferocity far greater than Midnight had ever considered.

The world instantly went dark around the corrupted alicorn as the shadow consumed the entirety of the horde’s remnants. Even as she lit her horn with light, she could barely see her own hoof in front of her face or the crystal road beneath her hooves. Screeches of alarm from the remaining undead sounded somewhere from within the haze, continuing growls and retching as they fought something they likely couldn’t even define. Midnight was tempted to return to shadowform herself to better understand what was happening, but her drained magical capacity made her decide against it.

But without it, it was like the very air itself was trying to probe at her mind. At her fears. Sombra likely hadn’t intended it so, not towards her, but it almost seemed a part of his very existence to do so. More flashes of recent experiences crossed through Midnight’s mind, from her fight with Celestia all the way to her near death to the horde.

It was… disconcerting. She’d almost forgotten what it was like to be at the receiving end of such darkness.

There was a feral growl from somewhere nearby, Midnight turning to see an equine figure shambling through the shadow. It gave a shriek, punching up towards the alicorn with intent to kill.

She caught the creature in her magic, slamming it down into the crystal so hard that all movement stopped immediately. She then tossed it somewhere back into the shadow, eyes peeled for further attempts on her life from the infuriatingly persistent abominations.

More growls sounded behind her, the alicorn spinning to find two more of them coming towards her. She prepared her spell, ready to strike them down!

And then a spear of darkness swam through the shadows, somehow distinct enough to just been seen. It shot through both draugr, each one stopping in their tracks as their eyes began to glow a sickly green.

“What are doing!?” Midnight shouted out to the shadows around her. “You’re supposed to end their threat. Forever!”

“I never saw a use in the mindless undead. Too unpredictable, too stupid,” a hushed voice whispered along with the wind. “But these beasts are here. They are now. And they are mine.”

Midnight’s eyes widened, feeling sick to her stomach. Was Sombra serious? These monsters were a sickness! What if he lost control? Never mind that, their very existence was… unacceptable! The things they had done…

Her glowing eyes flickered a moment as doubts started to eat away at her mind once more.

And then, just as suddenly as it had come, the darkness started to recede. The light of the sun returned, allowing Midnight a view of the city around her. The horde remained, for the most part, though they all now shared that distinctive glow in their eyes. So too had they become docile, rooted to the spot almost certainly by the King’s demand.

Sombra was in control of the draugr horde, ready to spread and convert at his leisure.

And there was the unicorn himself, still a shadow high above the city. His eyes were once again locked onto the crystal ponies, those ethereal orbs looking almost… jubilant.

“Now… for you.”

“Sombra!”

Those eyes were pulled away from his would-be slaves by Midnight’s disapproving call, looking down to see his descendant glaring up at him. And then, in response, the shadow started to shrink and simultaneously descend. Black crystals erupted from the ground beneath him as the visage of the unicorn returned, fully draped in his red roped and grey armour. He stood atop the crystal, looking down upon Midnight Sparkle.

“Yes, Twilight?” he asked with an air of caution.

“TWILIGHT!” another set of voices called out, diverting the eyes of both dark ponies.

And there, unobstructed by the pacified draugr, were her friends. All five mares and the young purple drake looked at her with a mix of trepidation and determination. A distance behind them, looking like they were preparing for another fight, the Crystal Guard were gathering at the behest of Cadance and Shining Armor.

Whatever it is they were about to do, the Element Bearers had clearly been sent to try some diplomacy first. And now Midnight stood with them on one side and Sombra on the other, each giving her expectant looks.

“Them again?” Sombra said with clear annoyance. “Radiant was never this infuriatingly persistent.”

“I have no idea who that is, but maybe she should have been!” Pinkie Pie shouted.

“Girls, it’s not safe for you here,” Midnight stated. “Get behind the line. Now.”

“No can do, Sugarcube,” Applejack denied with a shake of her head. “You’re farther in the muck than Winona during rain season, and we gotta save ya’ll.”

“Save?” Sombra scoffed. “I believe she is trying to do so to you, though your appreciation is clearly limited.”

“Shut it, you psycho shadow!” Rainbow Dash snapped. “We’re talking to Twilight!”

“Yes, insults. Your lack of-”

“You heard her,” Midnight interrupted. “Shut. Up.”

Sombra blinked. “What did you say?”

“You were not meant to use those things!” Midnight shouted in a rage, gesturing to the draugr with a wing. “They’re… wrong! Just wrong!”

“It is up to us to decide such things,” Sombra arrogantly claimed. “To use any means necessary to defence what is ours. Do you not want to keep these foals safe?”

“Who you calling a foal!?” Rainbow Dash blurted out.

“That aside,” Rarity started. “Darling, you know this is… wrong. I understand you want to keep us from getting hurt, I really do. But this…”

“This isn’t the way to do it,” Fluttershy decreed with forced confidence, taking a trembling step forward. “Forcing ponies to be your slaves… I don’t want to be safe if that’s the way to do it...”

“None of us do,” Applejack agreed with the pegasus mare. “It’s crazy! Nopony wants to be in chains.”

“But you saw what happened there!” Midnight shouted. “I- I should have been able to stop that. But now ponies are dead because I couldn’t. If I can plan and organise everything, then we can stop it happening again. That’s what control can give us.”

“At what cost?”

“If there a price for safety?” Sombra jeered. “Do you not see how they flaunt your gifts? This is why we take, there is no understanding for those below our station.”

“Is that how you see us…?” Pinkie Pie asked sadly. “But all friends are important…”

“Let them not fill your head with such folly,” Sombra urged. “The step has already been taken; we must work quickly to consolidate our control. There will always be dangers to strike away at all your love, unless you stand with me now. You have resolved to restore us to what we were, and this is the moment of victory.”

Midnight was at war with herself. As much as the draugr were wrong, their very nature horrible, a small part of her could see the practicality in their continued usage. At least until their power base had been secured.

But where would this lead? Would she find herself in another position of hopelessness, alone and without her friends? Friends who didn’t understand, truly, why she acted as she did?

But this wasn’t about her. So what if that did happen? Her fate wasn’t what counted, only of those of her friends and family. She could feel the dark magic still flowing through her veins, the sheer strength her new form granted her. She could craft Equestria into any form she wanted, research the most viable course and implement it to the letter. Only they would control the flow of history thenceforth. She could protect them all…

Midnight took a step towards Sombra.

“Twilight…?”

Midnight turned her head, her eyes widening at the pleading, tear-filled gaze of Spike. He was shaking, almost like he was holding back a complete emotional meltdown. Only a single glimmer of hope sparkled in the corner of his draconic eyes, but he was holding onto it with all he had.

“W-would you be happy…?” he asked. “Would we…? Sombra doesn’t look happy.”

The King growled. “Excuse me?”

“I want the risk if we can go back to how things were…” he continued. “I don’t want to be safe if it means no one can be happy. Especially not my Mum…”

The glow in Midnight’s eyes vanished. “Spike…”

“He’s right, nopony will be satisfied with the world Sombra wants for us,” Applejack agreed, placing a sympathetic hoof onto Spike’s shoulder as he cried. “Not us. Not ya’ll. Would it be worth it?”

“I would say the risk of normal life is worth the moments we can spend together,” Rarity agreed with Applejack. “I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”

“Imagine if we could never share a party ever again!” Pinkie said, aghast at the idea.

Fluttershy gasped. “Oh my, how horrible!”

“Think about it, Twi,” Rainbow Dash stated. “You do this, you go alone. But without that guy up there calling the shots, we will always have your back. What happened back there? We would have helped if you’d just asked. Where any one of us might get our flanks kicked, the whole bunch of us can keep on going.”

“We love you, Twilight,” Spike concluded. “W-we just want you back…”

She stood there, her once again lavender eyes staring wide with shock. How could she… How could she have been so blind? From the moment she had taken the mantle of Midnight, it was like her soul had been screaming. Pain had fuelled her darkness, but she had believed it would all be worth it just so long as they would all be safe in the aftermath.

But could she say it was worth it? Would they be safe from them? Their suffering in Sombra’s chains… Could that truly be called ‘safe’?

No, she wouldn’t be happy. She wouldn’t be happy because they couldn’t be happy. Nopony could. Everypony loses.

Even Sombra.

The alicorn let out a slow breath, a warm glow spreading throughout her body as she turned back to Sombra. And then, when her eyes opened up again, Twilight Sparkle gave her ancestor a resolute smile.

“They’re right. Of course, they’re right,” she said calmly. “I forgot for a moment. So scared of losing them, and with everything you were telling me… I would have lost them anyway, and I would have been the threat that took them away.”

“What is this!?” Sombra bellowed in rage.

“That was how you lost Radiant Hope,” she continued. “That was how you lost your son. You could have been with him for all your days… If you hadn’t given a reason for Celestia and Luna to stop you.”

“You agreed with me, Twilight!” Somrba stressed. “You chose Midnight, I never forced it upon you!”

“True,” she admitted. “I guess I have to live with that now. But that’s okay, because now I’m more certain than ever.”

Twilight glanced back at her friends, their moods clearly brightening as they all came to stand by her side with victorious grins and sighs of relief.

“Friendship is Magic,” Twilight recited. “That’s all the protection we need.”

And then Sombra shouted. It was a terrible shout, one filled with rage and loss. Indignation oozed from him of having been thwarted, once more, at the last possible second. To have all his teachings gone to waste, and at being rejected once more.

“YOU SHALL NOT HAVE HER!”

The King stamped down with a hoof, crystals erupting all throughout the Crystal Empire in one massive display of power! And, alongside this, the draugr once again began to have some life to them! Their eyes flashed as they started to growl, looking around and locking on to the crystal ponies to continue their assault.

“Sombra, stop!” Twilight begged with growing horror as the fighting restarted anew. “It’s over!”

“I know you believe in me, deep down within you,” Sombra growled. “And, if it will return you to my side, I will destroy your friends and show you where friendship leads!”

Another stamp of his hoof, his horn glowing with its putrid magic as six shards of crystal sprung into the air with jagged edges like spears. And in but a moment, each one struck forth towards their intended targets around Twilight.

“NO!”

Twilight’s eyes lit up with dark magic, sending out a wave of pure shadow that resonated with all the crystals it touched and reduced them to atoms. In response, she cut the steam of dark magic and switched out to her usual mana, letting abeam of destruction magic build in her horn until it was unleashed upon the structure Sombra stood atop of.

The magic caused the crystal to crack and shatter, causing Sombra to start falling until he morphed into shadow and reformed a moment alter amidst the rubble.

“Let’s get him!” Rainbow shouted.

“Wait!” Twilight said while holding out a hoof. “It’s my turn.”

Sombra snarled. “Your turn for what, dear Twilight? You are not my equal in the dark magical arts. Even in the light, you are exhausted and diminished. You cannot defeat me. You cannot protect them from me!”

“You’re right… and you're wrong,” she claimed. “You’d been against all of us, the Elements of Harmony together. But despite that, it’s my turn to talk some sense into someone who sorely needs it.”

“What?”

“Don’t you see? Don’t you listen?” Twilight started sincerely. “Everything you’ve done, what I almost did, it’ll just make us as miserable as the ponies we’d enslave. Radiant didn’t love you-”

Don’t.

“-after what you did, not the pony you became. Your son… what would he have become under you?” she then asked. “Would he have lived a happily married life? Would he have been what he was.”

“Silence! You are not above discipline!”

“Neither are you,” she retorted. “But you still have me! I’m still here! All you have to do is stop the draugr and end this!”

“But you won’t be safe,” he calmly claimed. “You will never be safe. There will always be something to snatch you away, just like I lost the rest of my family. Our dynasty will live on… it has to! I will not be swayed by friendship’s lie!”

“Maybe not,” Twilight said with a sad smile, lighting her horn. “But through darkness… I’m lost anyway.”

Twilight’s horn started to brighten, and then crackle and pop dangerously as she started to build up pure mana with little direction or control. All eyes turned towards her in both confusion and shock, but Sombra’s particularly with dawning horror.

“Twilight, stop!”

“Like we said back in the Everfree Forest…” she recalled. “Inverting a normal spell, unlike shadowform, tends to be a little dangerous. Especially if it’s intended to kill.”

“Twilight, what in Equestria do you think ya’ll are doing!?” Applejack protested.

“If he doesn’t stop, then he is going to lose me anyway,” Twilight said with finality. “It’s his choice.”

“NO!” Spike shouted in alarm.

At once, they all moved to stop her. And, expecting this, Twilight flared her wings as an extra layer of magic was added to her horn. All at once, as her eyes lit up a bright white light from the amount of energy she was exuding, her friends were all frozen in place with a levitation spell. They could not speak, but their eyes continued to plead and protest.

“I’m sorry. But there’s no other way to keep my promise.”

“This is insane!” Sombra spluttered.

“Yeah. It really is…”

Sombra shook his head in disbelief… and desperation. “No. This is but a trick. I know you have no wish to sow your own demise, this is but a falsehood.”

“Sombra… Grandfather, I think we both know you’re better at knowing bluffs when you see one.”

"Do you truly expect me to believe you would throw away such a prosperous existence and future simply to stop your own legacy?"

"I know you're going this far to try and protect me. Our family. Everything left that you love," Twilight responded, giving him a peaceful smile despite it all. "But I take after you a little too well, I think. So, you should know how far I'll go to protect those I love!"

And for that, Sombra had no retort.

"...You're a cruel pony, Granddaughter."

"Well, I did learn from the best."

And then it was over.

All at once, the draugr seemed to stop for mere seconds before they dropped lifelessly to the ground, the magic within extinguished. The dark crystals around the city shattered one by one, the bright colouration to all parts of the city touched by his corruption returning in all its glory. A silence spread over the Crystal Empire, one that was both relieving and ominous in equal measures.

But it was done.

Twilight let out a heavily relieved sigh as she let go of her dropping her friends to the ground.

“Oh good, because I was really worried I-”

Something hit the back of her head. Hard.

“OWCH!” Twilight bellowed, rubbing the back of her head where an orange hoof had smacked it.

“Never do that again,” Applejack scolded her angrily. “EVER!”

“Okay! Okay! I’m sorry!” Twilight quickly apologised. “But it was the only way…”

“Gah. Sugarcube…”

“And you guys say I’m the reckless one,” Rainbow commented.

“Shush, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity said.

“But you do!”

“So… does this mean we can get back to being cute and stuff?” Pinkie Pie asked. “This got dark real fast.”

“Yes please…” Fluttershy meekly agreed.

“I can’t believe I lost to these ponies…” Sombra lamented. “Twice.”

“Oh yeah, what do we do with him?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“Twilight…?” Spike called out carefully as the lavender mare regarded the former King of the Crystal Empire.

She gave Sombra a level look, one he returned without hesitation. She took a cautious step towards him, almost like she was testing the waters around the dark mage.

“So…” she started. “It’s done? For good?”

“For as long as your threat is in play, it would seem I have little choice,” he said with disdain. “Your dedication is admirable. But disappointing to who it belongs.”

“I hope, someday soon, I can make you understand friendship for what it really is.”

Sombra was silent, averting his gaze with disgust. Twilight gave him a sad look, before her gaze then moved further inwards towards the palace.

“But for now, there is one last thing we must do.”


The Crystal Heart rotated gently, back in its proper place beneath the palace. The magic restored; snow had long stopped seeping into the city as the Frozen North was once again held back by the protective barrier around the entirety of the Crystal Empire.

King Sombra was visibly uncomfortable being near the magical artefact, though he suffered it in silence during the aftermath of the battle against the undead. In the hours since, ponies had started to return to their homes while others got to work clearing up the mess and collecting those who had not been so fortunate. Many ponies had lost their lives, and there was already talks of a memorial for those who fell against Shadow Flare’s greatest error.

Shining Armor and Cadance had continued to direct things while awaiting the arrival of Celestia and Luna, who immediately put their guards to work assisting their crystal counterparts in restoring the peace.

It was another black mark on the history of the Crystal Empire, a city whose people had suffered more than enough. Now though, hopefully, they could finally continue on in the modern world and leave it all behind them.

After the arrival of the other Princesses of Equestria, they had sought out the Element Bearers by the Crystal Heart and prepared to listen to their explanations alongside Cadance and Shining Armor. Sombra listened in, meanwhile, surrounded by more than a few guards with spears pointed at his throat.

And Twilight told them everything. What a sweet relief it was to just vent all that had occurred to them ever since Sombra had latched onto her subconscious. Her eyes, in particular, remained on Celestia the entire time. Her eyes had remained neutral, and Twilight only became more nervous due to that face.

Particularly when the recount came to Midnight Sparkle.

“And… yeah, that’s the gist of it…” Twilight finished sheepishly. “I… I know I messed up…”

“But she came through in the end!” Rainbow Dash loyally defended her friend. “Like we knew she would!”

“Yeah!” Spike agreed. “She saved us…”

“Even if that final gambit was quite foolhardy,” Luna noted with her eyebrow cocked in disapproval. “Your death would have flung him into a rage like no other, Twilight Sparkle.”

“Yeah…” she replied regretfully. “But I knew the threat of it would be enough… So long as it wasn’t a bluff.”

“So, if you knew that, then you also knew you would be fine…” Pinkie pondered. “So, does that make it a bluff or not? A double bluff? A triple backed fudge bluff? Yum!”

“Whatever the case, I must admit to being surprised at his surrender,” Luna continued with a spiteful glance at Sombra. “To think he was here the whole time. I have half a mind to propel the villain into a grave of his own!”

“But that may no longer be necessary,” Celestia noted, giving Twilight an even look. “So long as we can adequately decide on what to do next.”

“I can’t believe we’re actually related to that monster!” Shining Armor said in profound disbelief. “It’s just… what!?

“Shiny, it changes nothing…” Cadance cooed her husband. “It’s quite far down the line, and you’re nothing like him.”

“Brains, for one,” Sombra muttered from the corner, ignoring Shining Armor’s death glare.

“We also still need to tell our mother…” Twilight sheepishly noted.

Shining went deadpan. “Great. I can’t wait…”

“So, what now?” Spike asked. “What are you going to do to him…?”

“And me…” Twilight said ashamedly.

Celestia gave her a curious look. “You?”

“I betrayed Equestria,” she whispered. “I became Midnight, tried to enslave the Crystal Empire. I thought I was right, that I was protecting them. But…”

“It was a mere moment of madness,” Luna stated.

“What?”

“Your turn was for but a moment, driven by a desperate situation. You came to your senses, thanks to the very special bond you share with this group,” Luna pointed out. “You chose to be better… I am enviousness for how quick it was for you.”

Twilight gave Luna a grateful smile, but then her nervousness returned as she looked towards the Princess of the Sun.

Celestia sighed. “I must admit… ‘Midnight’ troubles me. I can’t quite picture it, you, in such a state of existence.”

“Princess…”

“But… We are not fit to call judgement on momentary brushes with the dark side,” Celestia claimed. “Not with your victory over it, as Luna has said.”

“Wait, have you had such an experience, Aunt Celestia?” Cadance asked curiously.

She nodded. “The days after I lost Luna were the worst of my life. Ones that almost provoked the flames of Daybreaker, a version of myself who had lost all and thus no longer wished anything more than an inferno. But… I found something to care for, creating an Equestria Luna could return to and find acceptance…”

“Sister…” Luna said with a loving smile, nuzzling her gently.

“But, as we are now, we are all in a firm state of mind and wiser for our mistakes,” Celestia continued. “Sombra, however… I do not believe he is quite as ready to accept his past action as mistakes; it seems redemption does not come easily to him.”

“Tartarus might be the answer, then,” Luna said with her eyes narrowed at the mentioned unicorn.

“Wait!” Twilight protested. “We managed to turn your life around, Luna! And Discord, too!”

“Both of whom have long since, sincerely, been rehabilitated,” Celestia noted. “Sombra has not. And without that sincerity, we cannot rightfully absolve him of anything. I doubt any other prison aside Tartarus would hold him.”

“Discord changed because he found something to care about,” Twilight pointed out with a glance at Fluttershy, whose cheeks flushed up red. “Sombra cares about me. And only me. In Tartarus, nothing will change no matter how long his sentence. But with me… I can change him. With more time, now that he has surrendered himself, I know I can.”

Celestia and Luna glanced at one another.

“If he steps out of line…” Luna began.

“I’ll send him to Tartarus myself,” Twilight promised. “I won’t let him hurt anypony. Not again.”

“You’re sure you want to be near that guy for even longer?” Shining asked with worry.

“He’s hurled every argument he has at me,” Twilight responded. “After today, I won’t be swayed by his twisted perspective.”

“Time shall tell…” Sombra mused.

Despite the unicorn’s outburst, Celestia nodded. “Very well, I shall leave it to your prerogative as a Princess of Equestria. Though, as both a peer and a friend, I would advise not letting him wander by himself for the time being.”

“Noted,” Twilight replied.

“Then let that be that,” Celestia declared. “The Crystal Empire and its ponies have a long road to recovery ahead. Let us put the darkness of Sombra and Shadow Flare behind us, I think it is high time their tomes be destroyed.”

Sombra flinched, but the former King otherwise said nothing.

“Yes, and one final thing,” Princess Cadance said, giving Sombra a rather smug look. “From this moment forth, you are hereby banished from the Crystal Empire. If you ever come back, even for a second, I’ll activate the Crystal Heart.”

“Seconded,” Shining Armor agreed.

“Then it is agreed,” Celestia stated. “You should head back to Ponyville with your friends, Twilight. Once all of this has passed, I will speak with you.”

Twilight nodded. “Okay. You know where to find us.”

“Indeed. Go now, Twilight. And good luck.”

And with that, the tragedy of the Crystal Empire had come to a close. Shadow Flare’s plague had been eradicated, and Twilight Sparkle returned to her home with a reluctant Sombra in tow. Already renewed plans for his redemption were coming to mind, all kinds of classes, tests and checklists running through her brain and a million miles per hour.

But he, trapped in his solitude and stuck musing upon what had transpired, still had no desire for such redemption. All he had worked towards had been snuffed out in an instant. By those friends of hers. And that dragon, he should have soured their special relationship back when he first realised it. But there was nothing to be done now, not without hurting Twilight.

So, now there was only one course of action left open to him…

This was just the way it had to be.

29 - Until We Meet Again

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This… was almost surreal, or so Twilight had to muse. Not even ‘almost’, really. It just plain out was. Sitting here, on the Friendship Express as it chugged along back towards Ponyville after all they had been through. The track had been a surprisingly quick fix after Twilight had… inconvenienced it during her little ‘moment’. At least with the application of the magics of multiple alicorns getting everything back in working order.

And now they were here, the first train back so as to get a certain stallion sitting across from the young Princess of Equestria, and the source of the surrealness, out of the Crystal Empire before he could be trampled in an angry mob.

Or change his mind, which would probably be the worse option.

Sombra, on his part, was keeping entirely to himself. He had squeezed his way into the corner by the window, his armour and usual regalia swapped out for a rather simple cloak that covered much of his features. A hood was draped over his head and still curved horn, the recently revived pony’s eyes watching the green landscape of Equestria roll by without any real recognition or care. Not that much could be seen now that the night had fully claimed the land.

Twilight had to muse if he could go back to how she knew he must really look beneath the dark magical corruption. He had a normal horn once; she had seen it after all. Was he stuck like this? Or could he revert at any time, simply choosing not to?

One more thing they would have to work through.

The rest of her friends were bunched up in the same compartment, of course. Spike was stuck sitting to Sombra’s side, though he seemed to be desperately trying to inch away from the dark mage. Which, of course, also happened to get him closer to the next pony along, who so happened to be Rarity. Twilight couldn’t be certain whether this was just some scheme to be closer to the fashionista or to actually escape her ancient relative.

The answer was probably ‘yes’.

Applejack and Rainbow Dash were seated sequentially after them, stuffed irritably into a corner by the young drake’s antics. The rest sat to Twilight’s left, and the alicorn was constantly transitioning between looking at their cautious glares, the forlorn King and too staring blankly out at the passing countryside. There was much running through the mare’s mind, various thoughts and feelings flooding and draining at a million miles per hour.

Everything that happened at the Crystal Empire… it already seemed days ago, rather than a mere few hours. Everything they had gone through, all that suffering around them, and now they were casually sitting in a train as if returning home from a long day at work. Never mind that Sombra, the spectre who had been living in her head for quite some time now, once again had a form and was sitting directly opposite.

Her mind always came back to that point.

Surreal.

“So…” Pinkie Pie started in some attempt to break the metaphorical ice. “How’s it going?”

They all gave her an odd look.

“You remember being with us the whole time, right?” Rainbow deadpanned from her uncomfortable position pinned between Applejack and the wall. “Preeetty hard to forget any of that horseapples.”

“Truuue,” she conceded. “But everypony is being quiet and mopey. And that’s sad! And boring! Borad? Sadoring?”

“We get the point, darling,” Rarity interrupted before a tirade could begin. “But I think we are dreadfully tired. Our lives being at risk, again, certainly has me ready for some beauty sleep.”

“It’s also night, so most ponies will be in bed…” Fluttershy corroborated. “Oh, I hope all my animals are sleeping alright. Angel can get so worried…?”

Rainbow snorted. “Yeah, so worried I’m sure he has free run of the place and all the stolen snacks he wants.”

Fluttershy gasp. “He wouldn’t!”

“You are too soft on that demon.”

“Then maybe we should see what she can do for that demon, too!” Pinkie chirped, pointing a hoof at Sombra.

Rarity glared at the mare. “Pinkie Pie! Rude!”

“She’s not wrong,” Rainbow Dash rebuffed.

“He’s as much a demon as I was earlier today,” Twilight said sadly, causing her friends to flinch. Pinkie, in particular, suddenly seemed to regret her choice of words.

“I… just thought he needed a bit of kindness, that’s all…” the party pony muttered sheepishly, tapping the tips of her hooves together.

Twilight sighed. “I know. And I also know I can count on your girls’ help in the days to come. But I doubt this is going to be a smooth transition. I learnt that the hard way.”

Sombra silently sneered, but otherwise said nothing.

“We can see that…” Applejack mused.

Twilight sighed. In truth, she had no idea just how long it would truly take. When she first decided on this path no long after discovering their connection, she had naively and arrogantly believed she could change Sombra quickly and decisively. Nightmare Moon, Luna, had reconciled after finding herself accepted by both Celestia and the modern world. Discord had just required to the knowledge of what it was like to have a friend at all, making it unbearable to lose said friendship through his former evil.

Sombra was not so unlike the latter, he couldn’t bear to lose Twilight. But unlike the Spirit of Chaos, he seemed to lack any interest in true redemption. This would be a very long process. He just… had to live. He just had to experience a normal life, and then perhaps Twilight could chip away at his damaged heart piece by piece.

She didn’t want to believe he was irredeemable. She couldn’t believe that. No matter how much he had enclosed himself, no matter how much he had rejected her prodding up to that point…

The pony Radiant Hope had loved had to be inside, somewhere. And there was no better group of ponies in Equestria to unlock it.

And, more than likely, Twilight herself was the only one capable of leading them toward that goal. The reason being obvious.

But her continued efforts, all that arguing and debating, could wait for another day. The yearning for sleep weighed greatly down upon the young alicorn’s mind, and she wished for nothing more than to embrace the bedsheets waiting for her at the Golden Oaks Library.

“Let’s just go home. Whatever happens next… it can wait until then.”


The night was a cold one, a wandering breeze swiftly moving through the air and between the coats of the arriving ponies. Ponyville’s train station was all but abandoned, as one might expect so late at night in such a usually quiet town, aside from a single late-night passenger waiting to embark and those who had to work the night shift.

Ponyville itself was quiet, only a few lights marking the town out with the assistance of the overhead moon and stars. If anything, the lack of ponies filling the streets was a good thing for the group. It would make the return to their homes far easier, particularly for Twilight Sparkle and those who would be accompanying her to the library. There was no doubt that ponies would begin to notice the presence of Sombra, and the Princess of Equestria’s ears already burned with the numerous questions inevitably yet to come.

But there was time for all of that later, a problem for the future iteration of Twilight Sparkle. For now, that inviting bed was but a few streets away…

Behind the group, the single waiting pony boarded the train before the doors shut up behind them. A loud hiss signified the release of the breaks, the steam train beginning to pull away from the station and move off into the night. Very soon the chugging of the locomotive could no longer be heard, leaving Ponyville’s station completely silent once more.

Another breeze passed over Twilight, one filled with both relief and tension. It was like everything so far had been one trial, one which was now over. But, undoubtedly, more were now beginning.

Well, Celestia never said being a Princess was going to be easy. But come on…

Twilight huffed, and then said huff quickly gave way to a yawn.

“Yeah, we need to drag you off to bed,” Spike declared.

“You say that like I’m about to protest.”

“Yes, because Twilight Sparkle isn’t at all known for all-nighters.”

Twilight gave a small whine of protest, but otherwise didn’t respond. Her indignation only increased by her the giggling of her friends, and even Sombra had the gall to look amused! Even if he tried to hide it, she saw that smirk!

“You can’t go to bed now anyway, sillies!” Pinkie then stated. “We still need Sombra’s ‘Welcome to Ponyville’ party! It’s tradition!

Sombra gave her a flat look. “No.”

“Awww. But tradition!”

“Your traditions are clearly the result of an imbecile. I shall not partake.”

“But there’s cupcakes~”

Sombra growled.

“And piñatas!” Pinkie said, his discomfort clearly lost on her. “Oh, and how about-”

“Ah think that can wait,” Applejack said, the voice of reason prevailing. “We’re all mighty tired, Pinkie. Maybe tomorrow, break the ice a little for everypony whose gonna run into him.”

“I’m not sure a party will solve all that ice,” Rainbow said doubtfully. “There’s going to be a lot of weirded out ponies when they see you.”

Sombra gave the pegasus an uncaring glance.

“Well, I’ll get on it! We have to start somewhere!” Pinkie said, not deterred.

“We can talk about that tomorrow, then,” Twilight said, in about as much of a mood to party as her distant grandfather. “But that’s enough excitement for the day. Let’s just go home.”

That finally seemed to calm Pinkie down, the excitable mare seeing the nods of agreement from the rest of their friends and conceding the point.

And with that, there was little else to do but part ways. Each of Twilight’s fellow Bearers of the Elements of Harmony once again promised their support in the days to come, much to her eternal appreciation, before moving away from the train station in the direction of their individual homes. They all had the realm of dreams waiting for them, and individuals ready to greet them, when they arrived at their homes.

And they all deserved the rest, now more than ever. Of all the dangers they had faced together, the draugr were now easily was among the most traumatising due to all those that had been lost to the horde before it was stopped. But now, perhaps, things could go back to normal…

For them.

Twilight wasn’t sure ‘normal’ even existed in her world, not now.

“Alright, that leaves us,” the alicorn said to Spike and Sombra. “You coming?”

“Lead the way, Twilight!” Spike confirmed, before they both then glanced to the side to see Sombra staring idly off into the moonlight. “Or, at least, I’m ready.”

Sombra paid them now mind, the hood of his cloak now down as he seemed to study the distant satellite. Whatever was going through his head, Twilight couldn’t say. But, after a few moments of respectfully waiting for him to finish, she coughed into a hoof to get his attention.

“Sombra…?” she called out. “Are you alright?”

“A question with an obvious answer,” he said with a small amount of bitterness in his voice. “But do not let it concern you. I shall follow on.”

Twilight went to say something more, but then stopped herself as her ears flattened.

Yes, this was going to be a very long road indeed.

The return to the library from that point was made in silence, only accompanied by the occasional hoot of an unseen owl. The streets were entirely empty and silent as the grave, leaving the path to the golden oak holding their home entirely open for easy navigation. Twilight, on her part, couldn’t help but let out a breath as said tree finally came into view. Her pace quickened until she was stood before the front door, unlocking and admitting the group quick entrance into the library and home before flicking on a light.

“Hoo?”

Twilight’s ears perked up; her eyes being drawn to a perch that was hanging near a small high up open window on which sat an owl not unlike the one she’d heard hooting earlier. Perhaps they were even one and the same, which made sense.

“Owlowiscious,” Twilight greeted her pet. “You’ve been a good boy, I hope?”

“Hoo.”

“Good to know.”

“I never saw the need for a pet bird in this library of yours,” Sombra said as he entered after Spike, closing the door behind him. “An unnecessary annoyance.”

“Hoo!” came the indignant retort from Owlowiscious.

“Sombra, that’s who!” Spike said impatiently.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Spike, go to bed. I’ll be up in a moment.”

“Oh, alright. Do… be careful, okay?”

“She has nothing to fear from me,” Sombra reminded the drake.

“Right…”

And with that, Spike reluctantly slid away upstairs. Undoubtedly, he’d be dead to the world in his basket by the time Twilight did the same. With the two ponies left alone, excluding the ever-watchful owl, Twilight turned back to Sombra with a disapproving look.

“Owlowiscious happens to be a part of the family,” she stated. “And a useful assistant when required to be.”

“A well-trained annoyance is still an annoyance,” he dismissed. “Much like that drake. Though he remains something of a son to you, it appears.”

“Well… I…” Twilight blushed. “Anyway, you can have the guest room. I assume you remember where it is?”

“Of course,” he confirmed. “And I shall take my leave to it. I have much to contemplate, much like the punishment I now have to endure.”

“It’s not punishment,” Twilight argued. “It’s rehabilitation. The Magic of Friendship.”

“Being subjected to a concept I shall never nor ever want to be infected with is a punishment,” Sombra retorted. “More so that I cannot do anything to free myself due to your blackmail. But as it is, I will endure it for your wellbeing. Much is my weakness.”

Twilight sighed, but she chose not to spread the matter further. “Alright, fine. Goodnight, Grandfather.”

Sombra paused as he approached the stairs, glancing back at her with an odd expression. “Farewell, Granddaughter.”

Twilight watched him ascend, sharing a tired glance with the owl perched above her.

“Hoo?”

“Tell me about it…” Twilight muttered. “Goodnight…”

Twilight made sure to switch the light back off as she followed Sombra upstairs. She walked past the now closed door of the spare bedroom as well as the bathroom, as much as a shower seemed appealing, and moved straight into her waiting bedroom. As predicted, Spike was fast asleep and snoring soundly in his basket. Hopefully, his dreams were more pleasant than what any of what he’d seen might make of them.

She moved past her bad, giving it a longing look as she idly wandered over to the balcony. She traced a hoof along the surface of her telescope and glanced up at the stars. She let the peaceful scene bleed away the remnants of her dread, worries and fear as her mind and heart calmed. Things would be okay now, the direst part of all this was finally over.

Yes, with that in mind, she was ready to fall beneath her sheets…

And then something caught her eye, a wisp of shadow darker than even the night sky. It seemed to come from the library itself, from another window, floating off into…

“Oh, dang it.”

Without even a moment of hesitation, all her worries returning like a crossbow bolt to the heart, Twilight lit her eyes with dark magic as she let the shadow flood within herself as her physical form faded from existence. With the shadowform spell engaged, Twilight emerged from the balcony and too flew out into the night.

Her mind screamed at her to stop, especially given what had happened earlier on. But with the wisp she’d seen directly ahead, Twilight instead pushed herself to move faster in her pursuit. The journey rapidly took the alicorn out of Ponyville and into the fields between the town and the Everfree Forest. It was here that the mass ahead of her started to slow, descending down towards the grass below and rematerializing into a vague equine shape. Twilight, too, started to descend upon spotting this action. Her shadow swirled downwards until the tips of the blades of grass were enveloped, the darkness coalescing and returning into the form of the lavender alicorn.

Twilight’s eyes were stern, looking firmly ahead at the emotionless eyes of King Sombra.

“And where do you think you’re going?” she asked angrily. “You’re not to leave my side, that’s the deal here!”

“I am well aware,” Sombra responded, the breeze seemingly growing colder as the two ponies stood a short distance apart from one another in their standoff. “I had intended to slip away before my departure could be prevented, but I see I give you too little credit.”

“Clearly,” she replied with a small amount of venom. “Do you want to be sentenced to Tartarus? Do you want to lose any hope of being with the family you’ve fought so hard for? Is that it?”

“Of course not,” he calmly denied. “But like I said, friendship is a concept lost on me. I am not ‘good’, Twilight. Nor can I be. It is a path wrought with pain and suffering, and I shall have no part in it.”

“There’s far more to it than that,” Twilight tried explaining. “You could actually be happy for once if you just gave it a chance.”

“It is a fool’s hope. And neither of us are fools,” he claimed. “But more than that, I will be a burden upon you. I can see that friendship, even if a pointless exercise from where I stand, means a great deal to you. With my presence, you remain at risk. Vigilantes seeking justice, perhaps. Assassins. Or even just the shun I might receive and infect you with. I have ample reason to leave.”

“I’m willing to take any risk.”

“But I’m not!” Sombra suddenly shouted. “Not with you. My proximity puts you in danger, Twilight. Just like it did my son. I now realise this. I cannot change, and you cannot remain safe and alive while I exist as I do. I must leave, for both our sakes.”

Twilight was silent, finding herself unable to speak as she looked directly into Sombra’s eyes. For the first time in his adult life, they looked pleading.

“…You would be sentenced, if ever caught,” Twilight muttered weakly. “If Celestia or Luna ever caught up to you…”

“An acceptable outcome, so long as you remain well,” Sombra decided. “But I shall not be caught. I will scatter along the wind, among the shadows of the world in complete solitude. I will watch, a story mothers tell to scare their foals. This is my grave, Twilight. This is how my story ends.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

“But it does,” the unicorn pressed. “You cannot be swayed. I can’t be what you need me to be. For you, I need to do this. Perhaps this is my redemption, for I save the one pony I love in sacrificing my ambition.”

“And you won’t hurt anypony…?”

“Not while you still breathe. So, I suggest you put that alicorn immortality of yours to good use.”

Twilight was conflicted. He wanted this, and he wanted this badly. But there was still so much she could try, she still had faith. But could she really stop him…? Maybe, even, was this for the best? He would be free, but equally benign. Equestria and Sombra would be safe, Twilight would remain content with her friends…

But he wouldn’t be happy, would he?

“I know this isn’t the solution you wished to find,” he said regretfully. “I am sorry for not being the pony you wanted of me. In another world… But this is the end. You shall not see me again, I should think.”

“…I’ll miss you.”

Sombra almost seemed to falter a moment, his mouth hanging open as he found himself at a loss for words. His renewed sentimentality clawed at his mind, but his path was clear. With a hoof, the King of the Crystal Empire took a step towards his descendant.

And then she hugged him, wrapping her hooves around his neck as silent tears streamed down her cheeks. And, almost as if he was no longer in control of his own body, the old tyrant found himself returning the embrace.

He could feel her fur, the tears leaking from her and onto him… And he realised this was the first time he’d ever actually touched her. The first… and the last.

“Farewell, Granddaughter,” he whispered. “For all our failings…”

Twilight felt his body come undone within her grasp, the shadows that replaced it feeling uncharacteristically warm to the touch as they flowed around her and up into the air.

“…my love for you was never one of them.”

And then, as the shadows dispersed along the night’s breeze, Sombra was gone.

30 - Of Light and Dark

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Nothing had changed in Canterlot.

It was like nopony had even noticed the events that had just transpired but a short while ago. Or even if they did, they no longer remembered or cared to do so. Even those who walked amongst the halls of Canterlot Castle seemed content in acting none the wiser to anything that had happened within those very walls.

Twilight couldn’t help but envy them. For most of Equestria, the recent disaster was but a story in the local news. A charity had been set up, renewing old sentiments for the then-recently returned crystal ponies, in order to help get the lives of the draugr’s victims back in order. But it was still, for them, far away troubles. A bit of gossip, a talking point while having your morning coffee in some café before work.

But not for her. She had lived it, been at the heart of it. She was quite literally related to the original source of all their problems, a source that had now wandered off into the wilderness potentially to never be seen again.

Sombra was still out there, somewhere. Maybe he was still watching from a distance, maybe he’d left for some far-off nation with no intention of coming back. Zebrica, perhaps? Abyssinia? She doubted he went back to the Frozen North, considering Cadance’s threat the last time he was there.

Twilight sighed from her position on the couch, laying on her back amidst the backdrop of the royal lounge. The room was less formal than Celestia’s study, decorated with several sofas doused in Saddle Arabian silks, lush expensive carpets and many cabinets filled with an unnerving amount of liqueur. The young Princess of Equestria had to wonder if that moonshine belonged to the obvious contender.

But she couldn’t really appreciate the luxury of a lounge seldom few ponies could ever be allowed to enjoy, lest they too have a royal title. No, her mind was firmly on the former king who had caused her so much heartache. He was the reasons she had been forced up to Canterlot once more, an inevitable outcome after she had told Celestia about what he had done.

She couldn’t hide it. Not after everything they had suffered between them already. And now she feared facing her mentor, especially after promising to keep an eye on Sombra in his road to redemption.

Twilight groaned as she sat upright, lighting her horn and taking hold of a glass that was sitting on a nearby table. It was filled with Sweet Apple Acres branded cider she had found in one of the cabinets, her choice of beverage having come down between that and a vintage bottle of ridiculously rare and expensive red wine. She had chosen the cider for fear of opening and consuming such a priceless artefact as well as a desire for a familiar and comforting taste. Comfort was what she sought, after all.

It had been about a week since her distant grandfather had departed as it was. A week before Celestia had elected to respond and ask her to come back to the capital. She really hoped this would be the last trip she would have to do for some time, more than ready to just stay in Ponyville for the foreseeable future. Maybe see to that wildlife sanctuary they had been planning? Fluttershy would be overjoyed.

Her friends…

Of all of them, none were more disappointed by Sombra’s absence than Pinkie Pie. She had really wanted to throw that party and to try and get the dark mage to smile. The rest were more… concerned. They hadn’t said much beyond the usual words of support, but she had seen it in their eyes. They were justifiably worried about him keeping his word, and to what the other princesses would have to say.

The former point Twilight had no doubts about. If she had learnt anything about him, it was that he would keep his word as far as his own flesh and blood was concerned. As for the latter…

Twilight took a gulp of her cider, hoping to do away with those pesky nerves.

Celestia would understand, right? After all that had happened, she would have to trust her judgement. Or at least accept it, hope for the best…

Twilight could already see that little disappointed frown that would turn her insides to jelly.

Twilight groaned as she got up from her seat, placing her drink aside and starting to pace. She couldn’t get comfortable with all this waiting! She just wanted to get all this over with so things could finally go back to some semblance of normality. A tiny part of her almost regretted discovering the truth about Sombra in the first place, but the rest of her being squashed that inkling like a particularly nasty spider. Not knowing would have been worse. Shadow Flare would have done what he did either way, and Sombra would have had nopony to talk him down.

Maybe things really were for the best for how they turned out, but it was still no less troubling to the young alicorn.

She turned and trotted over to the window, looking out over the castle grounds as various ponies walked by without a care in the world. The sun, the grass, it all looked quite inviting. She could just leave. Go back home and take a month or so to regain her bearings.

But running wouldn’t help either, would it? Running from the truth. Running from Celestia. Twilight had messed up badly in the Crystal Empire in becoming Midnight. She would have to live with it. Even if she ultimately managed to reign herself in before going too far, at least in the grand scheme of things, it had still happened. She had almost lost herself to the madness inherent in everypony, especially in alicorns. In her kind most of all it was ever-present, always flowing with power and insanity both.

At least she had a new method of bonding with Princess Luna, right…?

Twilight sagged. She really hoped that letting Sombra go hadn’t been yet another mistake.

“Twilight?”

“Eeep!” Twilight yelped, jumping and spinning around to see the concerned eyes of Princess Celestia staring at her from across the room. “P-Princess…!”

“I am sorry for startling you,” Celestia apologised. “And for keeping you waiting. There is always some noble waiting to accost the crown despite court being out of session.”

“I-it’s alright…” Twilight responded. “I was just thinking.”

“As I can see. I know when you are over stressing yourself to no end, Twilight.”

“You always do…”

Celestia gave Twilight a small motherly smile, striding over and standing next to Twilight as she returned to looking out of the window. There was silence between them for several moments, Celestia looking at the younger royal calmly as the latter seemed to be trying to find the right words to say.

“Celestia…” Twilight finally began. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“I know,” she replied sympathetically. “But for Midnight, you have nothing left to apologise for. You showed excellent restraint in being rid of your darker half so quickly.”

“I needed my friends.”

“For which they so gladly provided their voices. And you listened. The royal vault paid for the damage to the track, and the guards who attacked you in their panic are no worse for wear. The very fact that you subdued them so peacefully shows you were still hanging on to your morality.”

“It doesn’t change the fact that I was Midnight!”

“No,” Celestia conceded. “And nothing ever will. But the circumstances were extraordinary, your resolve proven, and you are easily forgiven. You saved the Crystal Empire from both the plague and from Sombra in the end. Take solace in that, but never forget what we alicorns are capable of when pushed to our limits.”

“I won’t,” Twilight agreed. “I never want to see that face again.”

“On that, we are in agreement. I… feel glad I never bore witness to it myself,” Celestia admitted sadly. “You are very dear to me, Twilight. To know my failures contributed to yet another fall…”

“It wasn’t you,” Twilight comforted her in turn. “Everything was just too much. Between Sombra and the draugr… Even the changelings and Discord weren’t so stressful, though the latter got close.”

“Indeed. However, speaking of Sombra…” Twilight cringed, knowing what she would say next. “You let him go, so I understand. Even after what we talked about, he walks free and without restraint.”

“I wouldn’t say without restraint…” Twilight sheepishly retorted. “I am his restraint. Even when I’m not watching him.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“We… talked, before he left,” she explained. “It wasn’t like he just slipped out and that was that… Not for lack of trying, actually. But still, he thinks he’s a burden. He doesn’t want to see me hurt again, and him returning to his old ways… It will hurt me. A lot.”

“And he knows this, of course.”

“Why wouldn’t he? I know he’ll be true to his word. As long as I stay as I am, he won’t even be seen by anypony. He’s alone…”

Celestia frowned. “And yet that worries you.”

Twilight bit her lip. “…Yes, it does. I didn’t want this. Things could have been better if he’d just given friendship a chance! If he’d listened to me! But now he’s sad and lonely and I can’t do anything about it.”

The Princess hummed thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that, Twilight.”

Twilight’s ear twitched at Celestia’s words, the younger alicorn mare glancing up at her teacher with an inquisitive expression. She couldn’t see what she meant; Sombra had made his position perfectly clear. He couldn’t except Twilight’s world, but neither could he change it. He was going to be alone for as long as she existed, and even beyond that.

So why was Celestia giving her a knowing and somewhat hopeful look?

“Once upon a time, facing him on the field of battle, I thought him nothing but a heartless beast,” she mused. “But he is willing to give up all he gained for your sake. Because he cares for and loves you, Twilight. It is a sentiment I can relate with.”

Twilight gave an embarrassed chuckle. “Well, I am his granddaughter… Plus some.”

“Exactly. His heart exists with you, and so long as it exists it can also grow. Give him his time and solitary travels across Equus, he will have a long journey to think back across all that has occurred. He will miss you; I know it. Eventually, the isolation will make that heart yearn for the one family he has. And then, just maybe, he will be ready to receive your instruction.”

“Do… do you really think that’s possible?”

“I can only hope and speculate, but yes. You’ve proven he is more than a mindless monster, and for all his complexity, the road to redemption is not lost on him yet.”

“But you said if he ever left my side-”

“We’ll consider this detour part of the process,” Celestia decided with a wink. “Should I be proven wrong, I will take action against him. But… something tells me it shall not come to that. He has your blood, after all.”

“A very ancient version of it,” Twilight lightly joked. “So… everything is going to be fine again?”

“I think so, Twilight. This trial is over and, for the time being, your life awaits you back in Ponyville. Put this behind you, but do not forget its lessons. I know… I know I have taken mine to heart.”

Twilight smiled up at the Princess of the Sun, moving in closer as a giant alabaster wing was draped over her smaller form. It was there they sat for some time in contentment, their previous contention long behind them. Twilight had to believe that Celestia was right, she would see Sombra again. He would come to his own conclusions, watch his descendant from afar and realise his error in judgement. One day he would return, and then they could begin to make things right again.

But until that day, life would go on. Twilight, for all her troubles, was finally happy again.


One Week Later…



Twilight huffed with exhaustion as she wandered into the Golden Oaks Library with Spike at her side. She dumped her saddlebag on a nearby table and slumped onto a sofa. Spike glanced at her sheepishly, tapping his claws together as she stared up at the ceiling.

One week. Exactly one week was all the normality she got before the usual Ponyville craziness happened again. This time it had occurred when her friends had decided to go to the Castle of the Two Sisters for some research. While Twilight had gotten some rather productive work done, including the recovery of an old diary of Celestia’s, her friends had scared themselves into a frenzy and caused absolute chaos around the castle! Seriously, she turns her back for five minutes and Pinkie Pie is activating all the castle’s traps with an organ!

And then Twilight laughed, letting the humour of the situation roll over her as Spike breathed a sigh of relief. Oh, their faces when she’d managed to freeze them all in place…

“Well, you’re in a good mood,” Spike commented.

“This was the kind of chaos I’d sorta missed,” Twilight admitted as she sat up. “Nothing world-threatening with shattering revelations - just me and my friends and their usual craziness.”

“Sheesh, I remember when you preferred nothing more than a quiet library and a good book.”

“Nothing beats a quiet library and a good book!” Twilight playfully retorted. “But it’s nice to have some fun with the girls.”

“Never a dull moment when Pinkie Pie finds a trap door,” Spike quipped. “You don’t suppose she has a concussion from ringing the school bell with her head, do you?”

“Spike…”

“Don’t question Pinkie Pie. Right.”

Twilight shook her head with bemusement, retrieving her saddlebag and pulling free her research papers. Despite the slight derailment and self-caused scares, she couldn’t claim the time hadn’t been productive. Even if they hadn’t necessarily found what she was looking for, the glance into the lives of the younger Royal Sisters was fascinating! Oh, she had to ask them about it the next time she was in Canterlot!

Glowing with studious glee, the Princess started to sort through all her documents and file them in the most logical and efficient manner she could. Spike assisted, following her direction to the letter as she had him store them safely away while retrieving more texts from the shelves that might be of some use for follow-up research projects. Very soon, a rather sizable pile were gathered on the table, scrolls wrapped neatly with some quills ready for further writing of her discoveries.

Books. Research. Discovering things new and old. Now, this was what Twilight lived for!

When did it get dark out?

“Spike, what’s the time?”

“Eleven at night,” he replied. “I was keeping track.”

Twilight grumbled, having not been doing so herself. And now her stomach was also grumbling with dissatisfaction at her lack of eating.

Spike chuckled knowingly. “It’s a bit late, but I could still cook something up if you’d like.”

“No, that’s alright. Maybe just go grab a takeout, the hayburger joint should be open another hour or so.”

“Hayburgers coming right up!” Spike replied with a dutiful salute. “Before I go, though, we got a package from Derpy while you were nose deep in those books.”

“What!? Why didn’t you say so?”

“I tried. I believe ‘shush, working’ were the words I heard.”

Twilight gave an indignant noise, but otherwise accepted Spike's offer of a small square package before he took his leave to go and gather their food. As the drake left, Twilight examined the package with no small amount of curiosity. Just who had bothered to send her something like… whatever was inside it.

Twilight left her research apparatus behind and started to make her way up the stairs with the small box held in her magical grasp. On reaching the landing, the mare quickly moved through the door up ahead and into her bedroom. She flipped on a light switch and let the darkness retreat before her, closing the door up behind her and planting the package onto the bed.

She put her magic to work unwrapping the carboard out layer and revealing and small black case within. It was held shut with a simple clasp, one that came undone with no difficulty as the lid swung open.

What… was that?

It was a necklace. A small beautiful crystal of a deep dark violet colouration held at the end of a black chain. The crystal itself was encased in a shell with a highly ornamental in design, the centre of which was the undeniable image of her own six-pointed starburst cutie mark.

And it was magical.

Dark magical.

She could feel the shadow within the pretty thing, albeit it was subdued, a result of its own creation. She could imagine it came into existence much as the other blackened crystals had back in the Crystal Empire, produced from the ground with a simple dark spell. But this one… it hadn’t been done so haphazardly nor intended as a weapon or barrier. No, this crystal had been sculpted by dark magic with precision so that its surface would shine in the light while remaining mysterious and draped in shadow. It was hard to explain, but it felt like she was looking at an almost perfect synchronisation of the light and dark.

Twilight’s breath caught in her throat; the significance of this package not lost on her.

It was a gift. Crafted lovingly by Sombra himself, shipped in secret so it would find its way back to her in Ponyville. Something to remember him by, perhaps?

But whatever it was, Twilight felt drawn to the necklace. It was a perfect blend of two words, each working in tandem to make something wonderful. It resonated with the mare, reaching deep down into her soul like it was a reflection.

Twilight gave a small smile as she brought the necklace around her neck and let it sit in place. It seemed to ever so slightly tug at her magic, both kinds of it, further increasing the resonance she felt inside the crystal.

She glanced towards a nearby mirror, admiring the new piece of jewellery she wore. Twilight had stopped learning dark magic ever since the incident in the Frozen North, and yet she allowed a small trail of dark magic to begin pouring from the corners of her eyes. She felt at peace with the darkness already inside her, the spells she had learnt even if she held no desire to continue that path. The reality was that the darkness had always been a part of her, but the road of friendship was her choice. Like the crystal, she was light and dark both, each working with the other to try and be the best pony she could be.

She let the dark magic fade, treasuring the gift around her neck. Celestia had been right, things were going to be fine. She was going to be fine.

She now believed wholeheartedly that the darkness would no longer sway her for ill.

And yet, even as she turned away from the mirror, she only subconsciously acknowledged the slight shift in the image. Lavender fur corrupted and darkened, a mane floating like a malevolent shadow with glowing eyes that, while distant and unfocused, were filled with bitterness and contempt.

Unaware consciously of its continued existence, Twilight left the mirror and the shade behind, turning off the light and moving back through the door and into the rest of the library she called home. The room fell into darkness, silent as the grave.

31 - Epilogue

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Sometime later…



The air was colder, colder than any mortal could bear, but the presence cared not. It wasn’t even truly there. No, it looked on from another plain. The dark place, darker than even it, banished there by the foolish meddlers who stole what was rightfully its. There it festered and watched and shouted and raved even as nothing could exist to hear it but itself. An eternal torment of nothing, but even eternity had its limits.

It watched. It waited. It would return to the world of light as it had done before, but this time it would be more careful. It would not underestimate the meddlers again, oh no. It would silently plan and wait for its best opportunity, waiting to plunge the world back into the darkness that rightfully belonged.

And, perhaps, one such opportunity yet roamed the Frozen North alongside the unseen presence. It was dark, like it was, but still of the moral plain. A pony? Yes, but… different. Touched by darkness and yet with the taint of the light starting to creep in. Subtle, careful, but it was there. A blighted tumour on what could have once been great, growing and threatening to overturn all that was.

But that could be corrected.

The presence could do nothing as it was, but it would wait further still. This being could be used, this pony a vessel unlike any other. So much spite and hatred, it would be a simple matter to destroy the glimmer of the light once contact was made. But its power was also great, and maybe its mind too. Great care would have to be taken, lest it be the one overpowered and again left as nothing.

But it still had eternity, and it would continue to watch and plan from within the depths of the nothing.

But why was this being of great darkness alone and wandering, it had to wonder. What brought it here? It would watch, it would study, it would learn.

The pony in question moved as a shadow itself across the wintery wasteland, swirling amidst the blizzard without a care as to its dangers. It moved across the icy landscape, ignoring any of the resident creatures and eventually made its way to a frozen hillside that overlooked a place that even the presence could not see into.

The Crystal Empire, the heart that protected it from any blackness that would provide a threat. And it was from this hillside that King Sombra sat alone as he looked out upon the city of his birth, his eyes stern as the consequence of entering the city played back through his mind.

He still had half a mind to try anyway, to rid himself of this tormenting exile imposed upon himself and take back his domain. It would be glorious, the slaves that were rightfully his bowing before him as that little pink princess and her brutish prince with the most decedent of his family line’s genes vacated his throne.

But as quickly as he mused such an action, it was swept from his mind almost as if by the turbulent blizzard around him. He could plan around the Crystal Heart; he had done so before. It was still within his power to take back his kingdom… But his heart was no longer in it. Even the most fleeting of thoughts as to the matter brought with it images of a certain lavender alicorn and the inevitable tears that would take her cheeks. That thought filled the dark mage with a regret like no other, sharing in the hypothetical pain he would bring upon Twilight Sparkle should he go back on his promise.

But, much to his indignation, that was no longer the sole reason. Such thoughts now also brought about the invasive point of view his granddaughter had tried so hard to drill into him. And now he wondered if such lengths to protect her were ever justified, if he could ever have reached a happy ending for any of them with the path he had chosen. That his actions had been wrong.

Sombra growled, violently shaking his head to rid himself of such a weak belief. That throne should have been THEIRS. He was their KING. Why should he care what happened to those who got in his way? They mattered not, only the safety of he and those he held close.

But what if she had been right? What if his lack of care to the fates of those under him had ultimately doomed his own happiness and the safety of his family from the outset? What if her words even had a semblance to the truth? Could friendship actually… be something worth considering?

N-no, that was ridiculous. It was a fantasy. A farce. Something that would always end in failure.

But when had his own path ever succeeded?

Long had these questions been plaguing the King's mind. Running through his head again and again, thinking back on his last encounter with Twilight and even beforehand. She had always been so confident in her assertions, infuriatingly so. And, in the end, her selflessness had defeated his selfishness. Even her fall to Midnight had been born out of a desire to protect the many rather than dominate for the safety of the few. And she was out there, a Princess of Equestria both happy and content with her choices. The ‘Princess of Friendship’ as she was now known. How sickeningly fitting.

Most of all, his greatest desire was just to speak with her again. He had always watched her, but never intervened since the day he sent her that necklace as a final loving gesture.

He had come close a few times. Very close. Mere months after he had departed, that arrogant centaur had tried to eat all magic in Equestria to feed his own ego. He had been quite proud of her combat prowess as she fought him, but to see her give it all up had seemed like valid justification for all his defiance towards friendship. She had lost because of her friends… or so it seemed.

Before he had finally had enough and attacked this ‘Lord Tirek’, she had surprised him yet again. Friendship… won. She and her friend had emerged with more magical power than Sombra had ever imagined, easily swatting the fiend aside and undoing all he had wrought.

And it wasn’t the last time.

The anti-cutie mark cult and the one who had become her personal student of all things. Another who sought power, not unlike Sombra himself, to heal old wounds caused by a failure of friendship. Another who Twilight had changed, making the mare all the happier for it.

Starlight Glimmer’s change of heart had really caused the storm within Sombra to increase in its intensity.

Then there were the changelings. That Queen of theirs had rejected their offer of redemption, just like Sombra, and so too had vanished into the wilderness. For one who was so used to being in a hive of many, he could only imagine she was in a living hell with madness clawing at her mind. Meanwhile, the changelings she left behind were more prosperous than they’d ever been.

Twilight had even saved that old fool Starswirl. She had surpassed every expectation he held towards his descendant.

And she had accomplished all of this without resorting to complete control. She had protected everything she had cared for, where he had failed at every turn. Their family line would be safe to continue because of her actions, her path under the light of friendship had done more for her than the dark ever could. Shadow was still a part of her, sure. She wore his gift and he could feel that power inside her even from afar. But all she had she used for the benefit of others, even her dark magic was put towards the light’s use.

How could this be!? How could she have been right!? He had tasted friendship in his past and it led to weakness and misery! What had he done wrong? What trickery was this!?

And how could he, the King of Shadows himself, conqueror of the Crystal Empire and killer of both Queen Amore and the great Hurricane, even be considering returning to try it for himself!?

Sombra gave a shout of rage and anguish, lashing out with a tendril of dark magic that sent ice and snow scattering into the wind.

He couldn’t return to her. It would pain her. Pain him. He couldn’t learn friendship, not after everything he had done! It wouldn’t work! Not for him, it… he…

Sombra looked back towards the Crystal Empire, memories of Radiant Hope flowing through his mind. Her visage morphed into that of Twilight soon enough, longing screaming within his heart.

And as his inner conflict raged, the unicorn’s suffering rapidly reaching its limit, the presence watched on. It was unseen by Sombra, unheard, but it was there. It watched the light’s embers grow brighter still with dissatisfaction, quite the disappointment for one who had been so promising.

But for now, it just watched Sombra sit in the snow, an uncertain future awaiting one who had once been a tyrant. As the sun settled into the horizon and dusk arose, he remained caught between old hatreds and the memory of a certain mare pressing for change.

A sparkle in the darkness.

And a shadow amidst the twilight.