There is something inimitable about the comfort of home. Home is more than mere shelter, but a place of rest and restoration both physical and mental. Home is where one retreats from the world when weak and weary, where one may lick their wounds and build their muscles for the next fight.
I had been looking forward to returning to my tower, to stand upon the parapet and gaze out upon Luna Bay and feel, once again, at peace.
My home was, as much as any other’s, my palace of respite. It had been a long journey from the coastal village where we fought the Sirens, and the road itself was fraught with plenty of dangers. Victorious we may have been, it had come at a price—there was always a price—and so I looked forward more than anything to the silence and security of my own abode.
I did not expect him to be there when I arrived.
So much so, in fact, I hadn’t even noticed him when I finally trundled into my tower. Climbing the wooden steps up to my living quarters seemed to me the most difficult leg of my journey. It took an age for me to drag my tired hooves up the winding staircase, but at last I had made it, smiling weakly. I pushed open the door and slipped inside, sighing as I looked around.
The library off to the south looked as it always did, my life’s work of spells and research in as much disarray as I had left it (so far as I could tell through the doorway). Moving north, against the west wall, my fireplace stood dark and cold. The couch before it was shrouded in shadow, moreso than the midday sun shining through the window opposite should have allowed—my first missed clue. North beyond the dust-gathering hearth and living room was the kitchen, where every pot and pan and mug rested exactly as I had left it after my hasty departure the other month.
With a flicker from my horn I struck a spark in the fireplace. Dry kindling I had prepared long ago caught quickly and soon illuminated the rest of my home with a crackling and comforting warmth. It was not cold, being midsummer, but I was fond of the background noise.
I dropped my pack in my bedroom and shuffled into the kitchen, noting with disdain a skillet that had been used and not cleaned. Tomorrow, I decided, setting it aside and levitating my favourite mug down from the cabinet. That its pair was not next to it on the shelf was my second missed clue, but tired and parched, I was already too focused on the winerack to notice.
I grabbed at a bottle that had been half drunk and recorked, musing as I did that I could not remember opening this particular vintage. It was not so old, not so good, but one that had a peculiar time of my life associated with it. Given the nature of those memories and the fact that alcohol had been involved, I disregarded the absence of wine and my recollection of it with a grunt.
My final missed clue.
My home did not need much cleaning, and I set to dusting away the bare minimum necessary for comfortable living. Tomorrow, after an invigorating sleep in my own bed and a meal cooked with my own utensils, I would set about bringing life back into my tower. For now, I was longing for not only refreshment but also repose.
After a quick gust of magical wind to stoke the flames and sweep away the dust, I approached my hearth. The fire, now active and energetic from logs that had been left out to dry, was burning quickly and I let my eyelids droop to the soothing pops and hisses.
I sat down in my rocking chair, sighed deeply, and took a deep sip from my wine. A painful memory passed briskly through my mind as the tannic liquid cut the dryness in my throat, but I welcomed it all the same. It was not so much a tidal wave of despair but a faint, lingering hurt, and as it came the wine soaked the wound and numbed it. My coat, my heart, my belly, all welcomed the wash of warmth from the fire, the thoughts, the wine, and all content, I opened my eyes to simply take in the moment.
“You’ve really mastered the art of looking far older than you are, Stars.”
There, lounging on his side with crossed hindlegs and wineglass in hoof, he lay. King of all Monsters, Subject to None, that Bastard of Shadow himself, Sombra. My blood boiled at the sight of him here—here, in my house!—and I sputtered and blustered as he swirled his glass and continued speaking, as if he were some old guest I had invited for dinner.
“You really should take some time off, you know, friend. Stop reading those dusty old books. Graze some grass from the fields. You’re about as leathery looking as the covers of your textbooks.”
My chair shot backwards as I jumped to my hooves, my horn already charging with magic. I squinted, keeping my eyes locked on the fiend, my weariness rushing away as my heart raced from the sight of him.
“You! You knave! You cur! How dare you invade my home?” I pawed at the ground, doing all I could to keep anger from fogging my mind. Why was he here? Why now, after all this time?!
Sombra chuckled, the deep reverberations of his laugh shaking my own chest, and set his wine glass down.
“I suppose a kiss is out of the question?”
My first shot was not well aimed. The lance of white magic sailed over his head, earning only a cocked eyebrow from the Umbrum. Something shattered against the wall, but I paid it no mind. I honed my focus into those eyes, those damned, hypnotizing eyes of his, and shot another bolt.
This time my aim was true, though it passed only through a mist of shadow as Sombra dissolved. The couch tipped over backwards as an explosion of goose down filled the room. Those eyes of his were as much his downfall as they were mine, and I tracked his shade by them as they warped around my room, keeping my distance and stepping nimbly whilst my mind raced.
He reformed in my kitchen, inspecting a hoof with a grin.
“Must we really do th—”
Two more beams of white magic lit up the room, though with hardly a flick of his horn Sombra snatched the dirty skillet from the sink and deflected the shots, sending the magic somewhere out the window and over the Luna Bay. Undeterred, I brought my head low, down enough to aim my horn more precisely at his body without losing sight of my target. This time he did not disapparate, yet shot after shot of magic pummelled the dish until it glowed red hot and started to melt.
I paused, my lungs heaving, fuming. Sombra inspected the destroyed pan and nodded, impressed, before flinging it too out the window.
“So how many more of these are we going to destroy before you’ll come to your senses?”
“Me?” I gaped. “Me come to my senses? You really have lost it, Sombra. After what you’ve done, you think I’m willing to just sit down and talk? Are you truly so delusional to think that you deserve that chance?”
I stepped back, finally breaking eye contact from the stallion to quickly survey my house. The fireplace still crackled peacefully behind me, though char marks marred the walls of my room and feathers floated down from the rafters above with every light gust from the windows.
My spell came fast, as soon as his muzzle cracked to speak. He recoiled and a flash of purple cracked the air an inch before his face, the shield rebounding my spell into the tapestry above the mantle. It burst into white flame and collapsed onto the rug in tatters.
“Aww,” he said, his withers sagging. “That one was always my favorite.”
“Leave this place, Sombra.”
“In time, Starswirl. We must talk.”
“We must do nothing! You must leave!”
He scoffed, his ethereal mane shimmering with the movement. “You know you can’t destroy me, Starswirl, so you might as well listen.”
“I’ve become a lot more powerful since we last met. You have no idea the ability I have.”
“Oh, I’m sure. But all the same I know you will not, and you know that as well.” He frowned, standing tall again, looking down on me as purple haze leaked from his tear ducts. “Sit, Starswirl. Down, now.”
“Down, you say?” I asked, and then I obliged. Whipping my horn to the floor I rent the rafters above Sombra in an instant, holding my ground as timber and stone and steel collapsed where he stood and rocked the tower to its foundations. A cloud of dust and gravel exploded out from the kitchen, and I turned my head to keep from breathing it in as I watched and waited.
The dust settled, leaving only a pile of rubble.
I watched and waited longer.
It did not move, nor did any shade seep out from the cracks, yet startled I found myself breathing harder, my throat swelling shut, my eyes watering.
“Would you really destroy your home just to spite me?” came a deep, echoing voice in my ear.
“You destroyed it long ago!” I cried, spinning in place as my horn took on that same green glow as his eyes. My horn sputtered and sparked in complaint as I forced dark magic to infuse it, and wasting no time I targeted the disdainful shade behind me and set to work.
Sharp slices of steel appeared in the air as I twisted my neck back and forth, cutting at him, shouting in wordless rage. The air hissed where my strikes landed, split by forces forbidden and unknowable, the room heating up as each burst from my horn slashed at Sombra. His shade shifted up and down, left and right, forward and backward, never retreating but simply patiently dodging each and every one of my furious blows. I heard woolen cloth shred, stone bricks cleave, wood supports splinter as I advanced on him, forcing his spectre closer to the south wall with each swing.
For only a moment, Sombra’s eyes glanced backwards into the library. I saw them widen, almost imperceptibly, but even he could not mask that flash of true emotion. With a new surge of agony I screamed, doubling my efforts with dark magic to finally cut him down.
He turned back and fused into solid form, his own horn ablaze with his signature purple aura to meet each of my swings. Flares of lethal energy smashed into each other, ringing out like steel on steel, and he stomped hard before pushing back. My eyes were watering with the pain of summoning this hateful magic, and with each parry I slid back, the light of my horn beginning to fade, my coat soaking with sweat, my legs starting to shake. Further and further away from the library he pushed me, until once again I found myself in front of my fireplace.
I saw his horn bubble purple and went to throw up a counter strike of my own, only to find that I had nothing left within me. My mind raced through a hundred tactics as my horn sputtered feebly, and I realised that I had no choice. I swallowed hard, met his eyes, and, my body drained of all my will, I collapsed.
Straight into Sombra’s outstretched hooves, where he pulled me tight into an embrace I could not fight, his sideburns rubbing against my tear-stained cheeks, his kingly voice now nothing but soothing whispers.
“I’m sorry,” he said into my ear. “I’m truly, truly sorry, my friend,” he continued, stroking my mane, and I started to weep.
“I… I hate you,” I choked, my hooves clenching into his back as I returned the embrace.
“I know,” he said, nodding. “I’m sorry. I know.”
We held together for an untold time, with not a sound between us save for my pitiful whimpers. I had been struck low by him, not by magic or any weapon, but by his actions, his mere presence, and I hated myself for it. I did not have the stamina to fight back anymore, and so I simply hugged him, hoping for all the world it would not be our last and knowing, on some level, that it would.
Eventually he patted my back, helped me to my hooves, and led me back to my rocking chair which had luckily been spared the destruction my anger had wrought.
“Why are you here?” I finally asked him, graciously accepting a new mug of wine that hovered in front of me. It was hot, as if it had been mulled, and I managed a sideways glance at Sombra which he caught and replied to with a wink. More dark sorcery, of course—a specialty to me, but utterly ordinary for an Umbrum.
“I’m about to be setting some things in motion,” he said, righting the remains of my sofa and seating himself upon it. “Parts of my plan that, once in play, will place me as an adversary to you. I wanted to say goodbye before then—a proper goodbye,” he added, catching my glare.
“Three years ago you vanished from my life with nothing more than a quick brush on my cheek, and now you feel you deserve the chance to say one properly?”
“No, Starswirl. I tried to tell you before you destroyed your own kitchen. I don’t deserve this. But you do.”
My head hung low, a movement I tried to betray as if it were due to my exhaustion.
“Very well. What’s the plan, then?” I asked, looking away from him and into the fire, where shadow could not live and memories of him were weakest. “Offer to convert me? A bribe, or threaten me, perhaps?”
Sombra slammed a hoof into the armrest, causing the sofa to bounce on the stone. “Damnit, you blockheaded stallion, can’t you see I’m trying to apologize!?”
I grimaced. He had restrained from responding to any of my attacks, only fighting back when I had pushed him towards my library—gracious, my library! Where all my life’s work lay scattered about. In my haste to punish him for the pain I felt I had almost obliterated everything I had worked for. Still thinking about me, after all this time then. Perhaps he was indeed telling the truth.
“Go ahead,” I said, looking away from the fire to meet his eyes. For once, they were not narrowed in anger, but wide and wet, and tears welled up in my own as he spoke.
“I knew you couldn’t come with me to retake the Empire. I knew the things I would have to do were contrary to everything you and the Pillars had been working for. To ask you to join me would have been foolish at best and suicide at worst. I couldn’t have you sabotaging my own plans, Starswirl.”
He was quiet for a long moment while I said nothing in reply.
“...And so I felt it was best if I left overnight and cut off contact from you. Trust me, Starswirl, it wasn’t easy for me either. Aside from my next steps, it was the hardest choice I’ve ever made in my life." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "And I am sorry for it.”
I started to shake again, and clenched the warmed mug in my hoof to keep from lashing out again.
“You and that Crystal Empire. Is history truly more important to you than love?”
“It is my birthright, Starswirl, and more than that, it was my home!” Sombra leapt to his hooves and stomped on the floor. “You ponies were so obsessed with micromanaging the weather that you inadvertently massacred my entire race, Starswirl! And if that wasn’t enough, they had the gall to move in after purging the city!”
“How could they have known that the Crystal Heart would kill an Umbrum with its magic? It was tragic, yes, but an accident. And one that happened in the past!”
His glowing eyes grew cold and narrowed back to that familiar frown.
“Your past, Starswirl. Not mine. Had my mother and I not been travelling at the time, those years we spent together would be just as much thin air as every other Umbrum is now. The Crystal Empire belongs to me.”
I scoffed, turning away again before taking a long draught of wine. “You cannot even exist there yourself, not with the Heart where it is. We all have pain in our lives we must learn to move past.” I stared deep into the fire again, focusing on the flickering light. “Like I had to,” I grumbled.
Sombra paced around the living room, stepping over the tattered remains of the tapestry. “I’m aware. The Heart will go, of course, before I move in. Shadow can reach almost anywhere with the right persuasion,” he chuckled.
“And then the ponies as well, and you’ll be left a King of Nothing.”
This time it was Sombra’s head that dropped, and he did not turn to look at me.
“There are no plans for the ponies to go,” he said, quietly.
I looked up at him, curious. “They will not bow to you, no matter how you take the city. They cannot handle the ice storms from the Frozen North, either.”
“This is why I cannot ask that you come with me,” he whispered to the floor.
I squinted at him, thinking. He was always enigmatic (as a master of shadows would be) and I knew I would not gain any more answers directly from him. My magic may have been weakened, but my mind was not, and I considered his words. For a moment, my thoughts drifted back to his eyes and the strange purple haze that could seep from them, I gasped.
“No,” I said, my voice almost a whisper. “You wouldn’t… you… you couldn’t. Could you?”
“I can,” he said, spinning back around to me. “And I will. My race, my culture, my home, all of it was taken from me in an instant, Starswirl. I intend to take at least my birthplace back—with interest.”
“When you left, I called you evil, to make myself feel better.”
He nodded, tight-lipped.
“Had I known how… vile your heart really is… I never would have loved you.” I said it, but at the same time, I wasn’t sure if I believed it. I could not stand idly by while he stormed a city with an army of monsters and mentally enslaved its residents, and would not deny that of all the villains I and the other Pillars had fought, he would truly be the most depraved…
But still, this feeling in my chest, this pounding, what else could it be called but love?
“...I will be leaving shortly to a village of my founding. I suspect you may have heard of it,” he said, approaching me.
“I have heard many tales of the wicked rituals being performed at Hollow Shades, yes, but I assumed it was just rumors inspired by your unique abilities.” I cursed at myself internally, staring at the dregs of wine in my cup. Trust had blinded me to so much. I would not allow it to happen again.
“Will you pursue me?”
The question hung in the air, and I knew he meant a hunt, not a courtship. I stood from my chair and walked up behind him, running my hoof through his mane, letting the silken nothingness of shadow tickle my coat like it had so many years ago.
“Don’t make me do this, Sombra,” I whispered into his ear. “You don’t need to do this. The Pillars will welcome you, I know this. We can right the wrongs you’ve committed these last three years. Taking back the Crystal Empire will not bring your family back, but we can be your new family.”
At my last sentence he winced and jerked at me, throwing me to the ground.
“I do not need family! I have grown without one thanks to your precious little ponies. I shall rule without one too.” He shook, turning towards the door to hide a trembling lip.
I scrambled up from the floor and flung myself onto him, holding him back. I felt the muscles in his body tense at my touch before he flickered into shade and back, dropping me once again to the cold stone.
“Like the pony of shadows you are, you slip through my hooves once again, Sombra,” I groaned from beneath him.
“Shadows cannot be caught, Starswirl.” His hoofsteps were heavy, echoing into my brain through the stone as his voice slowly faded away. “They vanish in the light, and you are too bright for me. Do me a favour, my love.”
I closed my eyes, terrified of his ask.
“What would you have this old unicorn do?”
“Hate me, Starswirl. Hate me as much as you can. Hate me until it no longer hurts.”
I started to weep as the shadows in the room lightened.
“And maybe then,” he continued, the deep voice coming faintly from every corner of my tower now, “it won’t hurt me as much either.”