Imperius

Slaves of the Sun (Queen Umbra)

Feb 4th, 2015
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  1. >The earth quakes and the castle shakes, shards of crystal raining down as engines of war and spells of terrifying magnitude pummel away at the last bastion of your lady’s dominion.
  2. >Dried blood cakes your sundered armor, several steel plates hanging loose upon your form as you make your way through the halls of the Crystal Castle, decorating the floor with a gentle rain of red as you go.
  3. >A shattered blade of black crystal is clutched tightly in your hand, the emerald flames that once ran its length now reduced to smouldering embers while violet smoke seeps from the cracks that run its length.
  4. >The towering black doors to the throne room steadily approach, the weight upon your shoulders steadily growing at the thought of the dire news you bear.
  5. >As you press your free hand against the gates another explosion rocks the castle, the stress proving too much for the great portal to bear.
  6. >The doors shatter from the shockwave, a rain of razor-edged shards cascading down upon you with several of them finding gaps in your armor.
  7. >The wicked hailstorm soon passes and with a grunt you muscle through the pain, great black shards protruding from your form with fresh streams of crimson now decorating your ruined plate.
  8. “My queen,” you announce to the near vacant throne room. “The gates have fallen and the towers lie in ruin. Even now the usurpers advance, and with them the light.”
  9. >A figure rests upon the crystal throne, head hung with bangs of midnight obscuring her eyes. Queen Umbra sits solemnly up there, steadfast as the winter. If she heard you she makes no indication, but experience has taught you to be patient.
  10. “I beg you, my lady, flee before it is too late. There are places below.”
  11. >Slowly, ever so slowly, she raises her gaze to meet yours, those wickedly beautiful eyes boring into your very soul.
  12. >”And you know them too,” she says at last, her words carrying the weight of doom. “I release you from my service. My servant you’ll be for all time.”
  13.  
  14. >Your blood runs cold at her words; your queen is proud and she will never willingly abandon her seat of power.
  15. >Nor will you abandon her, no matter how hopeless your position.
  16. “Then by your leave I shall return to the gates, the enemy is approaching.”
  17. >Those beautiful emerald eyes narrow in barely restrained irritation. “That is not where I ordered you, knight.”
  18. ”You ordered me nowhere, Lady Umbra, and even if you had I am released from my duties. I may go where I please.”
  19. >A single, smoking tear runs down the deposed monarch’s cheek, quickly fizzling into nothingness as she regards you.
  20. >Your heart aches at the sight, at any other time you’d have rushed to her side in your single-minded desire to please your mistress. Now, though, you simply look on powerlessly, knowing in your heart of hearts that there is nothing you could do that might console her.
  21. >”Go then, knight. Die as you see fit,” she growls spitefully, an alien quaver entering her voice. “There will be no one left to sing of your glory.”
  22. >You regard your queen for a long while as the sounds of battle rage in your periphery. As the two of you gaze upon each other in relative silence the castle shudders beneath the usurpers’ assault, great shards of midnight breaking loose and crashing against the floor in a terrible clamour
  23. >Almost of your own accord your feet move forward, the echo of steel upon crystal lost in the commotion.
  24. >Umbra watches on impassively as you approach, her expression stoney and unreadable.
  25. >Unreadable to all save you.
  26. >Those hardened, burning eyes betray more emotion than she’d ever dare admit, chief among them fear.
  27. >On the outside she may appear as solid as the crystal about her, but within you know she is as a child.
  28. >You grab hold of your dented helm and tear it free, tossing it carelessly to the floor where it vanishes beneath falling debris.
  29.  
  30. >Time seems to slow as you cross the floor, the commotion about you turning to so much white noise.
  31. >In what seems like an instant you’ve crossed the room to stand before Umbra, those beautiful eyes boring into your own with a quiet intensity.
  32. >For a long while only silence passes between you, the clamorous destruction and sounds of battle providing a backdrop to this moment.
  33. >A veritable giant by comparison, your mistress appears as little more than a child before your armored frame as you gaze down upon her.
  34. >Umbra makes the first move, slowly and regally raising herself from her throne and standing as tall as she can.
  35. >”I dislike being looked down upon,” she growls up at you.
  36. >You drop to a knee at her request, honoring your queen one last time.
  37. >”Well?” she demands. “Have you something to say to me, knight?”
  38. >In response you let your broken blade fall from your grip, grab her by the shoulders, and pull her forward into a kiss.
  39. >As your lips meet Umbra tenses up in your arms, yet she makes no move to resist.
  40. >Slowly her stoney demeanor melts away and she begins to give in, emerald eyes fluttering closed as she relinquishes herself to you.
  41. >The kiss deepens and you feel her pull you into an embrace, the mighty sorceress clutching tight to you with a desperate strength.
  42. >And all the while the world falls to pieces around you, but none of it matters, the two of you as an island of calm in a maelstrom. In this moment all that matters is your queen.
  43. >After what feels like an eternity Umbra breaks the kiss, face flushed and panting while a single string of saliva still connects the two of you.
  44. >In an instant the strand breaks, the world going silent at that same moment, the heavy breathing of your queen the only remaining sound.
  45. >As pleasant as it is, the silence can only be an omen of ill. The end of the bombardment can only mean one thing.
  46.  
  47. “They are coming.”
  48. >Umbra’s embrace tightens possessively. “Let them come,” she declares, a tone of desperation entering her voice. “You will be safe with me, I will slay any who dare come near you. None may take away what is mine.”
  49. “The usurpers aren’t fools, they know the threat you pose, they will come for you.”
  50. >”Then I will kill them too!”
  51. “You are mighty, my queen, none can dispute that, but they are as gods. Your only hope is to escape.”
  52. >”I will not run! I will not allow them to trespass within my halls and remain unpunished!”
  53. “My lady-”
  54. >”Umbra.”
  55. >Her interjection catches you off guard.
  56. “My lady?”
  57. >At last she breaks the embrace, meeting your gaze with a stern glare. “Do not waste my time with formalities. Call me by my name.”
  58. >Here her bearing softens, an almost pleading look crossing her face. “Please,” she all but whispers. “I hear it from you so rarely, I just want to hear you say it before…”
  59. >Overcome with emotion, she directs her gaze at the ground, unwilling to speak aloud what she knows to be true.
  60. “Umbra,” you say at last, her gaze snapping back to you as the word leaves your mouth. “If you bear any love for me then fly. Leave this place and live.”
  61. >”I will not leave you to weather this storm alone,” she says with finality.
  62. “Please, Umbra,” you plead. “Allow me to serve you in the manner of my kind. I will never see another midnight sun, I have come to accept this. Let my death mean something.”
  63. >”What will your death accomplish? What is this desire to die? You knights are all the same, thinking of nothing save your own glory!”
  64. “I can delay them, give you enough time to escape.”
  65. >”You won’t last a minute against them, if you don’t choke on cold steel you’ll be torn apart by Celestia’s lapdog.”
  66. “I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it.”
  67.  
  68. >”And how do you propose to hold them off with no weapon?”
  69. >You bend over and retrieve your fractured blade from where it lay, grunting with effort as you heave yourself to your feet.
  70. “Even when broken a sword may still cut. So long as I live I can fight.”
  71. >”If I must flee then why can’t you join me? Why must I go alone?”
  72. “Because I’m going to die no matter what happens. My wounds are too severe,” you state matter-of-factly.
  73. >”I’ve seen you survive worse than this, surely you can hold yourself together a while longer.” Umbra says with growing desperation.
  74. “With medical aid, yes, but it is unlikely that I’ll survive long enough to find that aid. I estimate I have a few hours left at the most.”
  75. >”You will not die!” Umbra screams petulantly. “I am queen of the Crystal Empire and my word is law! We shall both survive this day, I command it!”
  76. >You can’t help the smile that comes to your face, your queen has always been a stubborn one. It’s what you love about her.
  77. “I fear I must defy you, my queen. I’ll only slow you down and our time grows short. The invaders are within by now and I must be ready to meet them.”
  78. >Umbra finally loses all sense of composure, tears flowing freely from her eyes as she throws herself at you, embracing you once more.
  79. >”Please don’t go, don’t leave me alone like this!” she begs. “I’ve lost everything this day, if I lose you as well then I’ll have nothing left. Please…”
  80. >For a little while you allow her to simply sob against your chest, your free arm wrapped about her holding her close.
  81. >This is the most vulnerable you’ve ever seen your queen, always has she presented herself to the world as an untouchable demigod secure in her power.
  82. >But now, having lost all but the one thing she cares most for, all of her barriers have been stripped away revealing the frightened girl within.
  83.  
  84. “Don’t cry for me, Umbra. Dying in defense of queen and country is the greatest honor a knight may ever know. It will be a good death.”
  85. >”You knights and your honor,” she mutters between hitching breaths as she pulls away from you. “Fine then, be gone from my sight. May your death be as glorious as you desire.”
  86. >Before she can even take a step your hand is on her shoulder, pulling her back to you, though she avoids your eyes.
  87. >Sliding a finger under her chin you urge her to meet your gaze and she reluctantly relents.
  88. >With your thumb you wipe away the tears staining her cheeks, streaks of red replacing them as you unintentionally tarnish her face with mortal blood.
  89. >She raises a hand to touch a cheek, staring at the blood that comes away.
  90. >”Is this yours?”
  91. >A glance at your shaking hand reveals that it is, fresh streams of blood leaking from the gaps in the plates.
  92. “It would seem so,” you say with a weary sigh. “My apologies, Umbra, I did not intend-”
  93. >Umbra silences you with another kiss, this one short and sweet.
  94. >”I am not accustomed to loss,” she says, having regained some modicum of her composure. “I’m not well versed in simply letting things go.”
  95. “Are any of us truly? It pains me to leave you, but I must if I am to fulfill my duty to you.”
  96. >For a moment she simply rests her forehead against your chest. “You have my leave to go. But you must do something in return.”
  97. “Anything, my queen, you have but to ask.”
  98. >”Say it.”
  99. “Say what?”
  100. >”Say the words I’ve longed to hear you say for ages. I know you may think them, but I want you to say them to me here and now.”
  101. >The smile returns to your face and you struggle to resist shedding a tear yourself. It wouldn’t do for her to see you cry.
  102. “I love you, Umbra. I always have and I always will, however long that may be. I love you.”
  103.  
  104. >She takes a deep, shuddering breath against your chest, then slowly pushes you away, those wicked, terrible, beautiful eyes locking with yours once more.
  105. >”And I you, my loyal knight. Now go and prove your love; slay my enemies, defend your country, fight and kill and die in the name of Umbra.”
  106. “It has been an honor, my queen. By your leave?”
  107. >That stubborn defiance returns to her face, that look you love so much.
  108. >”Kill them, my knight. Kill them all.”
  109. >Wordlessly you turn on your heel and retreat from the throne room, leaving Umbra to make her escape.
  110. >For you, however, there is no escape. Even now you can feel your life draining away through a hundred rents in your armor.
  111. >As you exit the room you tread through the shards of the Black Gate, the clinking of fractured crystal against your armored feet reminding you of the shards still lodged in your flesh, each about an inch thick; one in your left shoulder, one in your right thigh, and one in your back.
  112. >You’re tempted to remove them, the one in your shoulder in particular. Having come down from the adrenalin high of battle you’re beginning to feel the effects of your injuries, becoming conscious of the shard in your shoulder scraping against bone as you move.
  113. >They’re too big though, removing them would allow too much blood to escape, it seems you’re simply going to have to fight through the pain.
  114. >At the very least you won’t suffer for much longer.
  115. >About fifty meters down the main hallway you come to a halt. Rubble from the bombardment is piled high on both sides of the hall, the gap in the middle wide enough for perhaps one or two bodies to pass through at a time.
  116. >As good a spot to make your stand as any, their numbers will count for nothing so long as only soldiers come your way.
  117. >If Celestia or her shadow reach you first then it’s all a moot point anyways, you won’t survive long enough for positioning to matter.
  118.  
  119. >For the time being you take cover behind the rubble, keeping out of sight until the invaders are upon you.
  120. >The waiting is always the hardest part, though. With or without the addition of countless mortal wounds the anticipation is always magnitudes worse than the battle itself.
  121. >Of course the silence can be just as terrible, with nothing to distract you your thoughts turn unwillingly inward.
  122. >You would have liked very much to join Umbra, it’s unfortunate that you have to die. For queen and country, though, it’s worth it. If your death allows her to persist even a little longer then you’ll have fulfilled your duty.
  123. >In the distance your ears pick up the sounds of life; shouts and the clamor of plate mail heralding the arrival of your prey.
  124. >”Kill them,” she’d said. “Kill them all.” The words ring through your head, you’re queen’s final command.
  125. >A vicious smile slowly spreads across your face, a vile emerald seeping into the whites of your eyes.
  126. >Closer and closer the footsteps get, the anticipation making you almost giddy. These are the moments you relish with battle so near and the future so full of possibilities.
  127. >The green has taken over your eyes completely now, amethyst fire beginning to leak from your eyes in a grim parody of tears.
  128. >So close, so very close. The scent of blood, sweat, and fear fills your nostrils and sets your blood to boiling as the might of your mistress fills you.
  129. >Armor groans gently as your muscles tense, a feeling of hyper-awareness coming over you while all thoughts of pain vanish from your mind.
  130. >From the noise they’re making they can’t be any further away than thirty meters.
  131. >Your grip upon your blade tightens and the sputtering flames begin to grow, the blood your wounds have wept over it fizzling and smoking.
  132. >Twenty meters.
  133. >The hungry flames cover the length of your sword, the malign pseudo-sentience contained within begging for you to sate its thirst.
  134.  
  135. >Ten meters.
  136. “Blade with whom I have lived-”
  137. >Nine meters.
  138. “Blade with whom I now die-”
  139. >Eight.
  140. “Serve shadow and fire one last time-”
  141. >Seven.
  142. “Seek one last heart of heroes-”
  143. >Six.
  144. “Still one last life of valor-”
  145. >Five.
  146. “Cut well, old friend-”
  147. >Four.
  148. “And then-”
  149. >Three.
  150. “Farewell.”
  151. >Two.
  152. >You raise your blade high into the air, still obscured by the rubble.
  153. >One.
  154. >A glint of gold around the debris is all the invitation you need. You surge forward with a furious roar, filling the air with the name of your queen so all would know who delivered them to their ends.
  155. >The hungering blade carves a deadly arc through the air trailing ribbons of emerald fire. It catches the first royal guard in the neck, shearing through metal, flesh, and bone as though they were air.
  156. >You allow the momentum from the blow to carry you into the next guard, shoulder checking him into the mound of crystals, his flimsy armor crumpling like parchment beneath the force.
  157. >Whirling about to face the breach, you lash out with your sword and take the head off another guard, kicking his body backwards and into the oncoming guards.
  158. >They stumble to a halt, their momentum broken by the weight of their former comrade’s corpse and for a moment everything is still.
  159. >The legionnaires stand stock still, sizing up the giant in black iron that’s appeared before them.
  160. >In the back of your mind you idly note the image you must present. Eyes and blade alight with witchfire and dripping with blood you must seem as a demon to them.
  161. >All the better, fear softens blows and turns blades as efficiently as any armor.
  162. >Slowly you take two great, lumbering steps towards them, arms held out to the sides as though in welcome.
  163. “Well? Come at me, insects! Come and die!”
  164.  
  165. >They hesitate for the barest of moments, but eventually they regain their nerve and resume their charge.
  166. >With a wicked grin you retreat backwards a half dozen steps, watching with amusement as the rabble before you crashes against the bottleneck.
  167. >It works as well as you could have hoped with guards trickling through in ones and twos, their advantage in numbers utterly negated.
  168. >The fractured point of your blade catches the first guard to pass through beneath the chin, bursting through the back of his neck.
  169. >With a kick you send the corpse backwards into the bottleneck, grinning as the same trick works again and sends them stumbling.
  170. >The next one comes at you with his sword held high, bringing it down in a wild slash.
  171. >You raise your left arm to intercept the blade, sparks flying is it skates harmlessly off your armor. You pay him back with a knee to the gut and sword to the throat.
  172. >They may have managed to overwhelm the Empire’s defenses with their numbers, but in here strength and skill are what determine the victor, both of which you have in ample supply.
  173. >The tide of flesh and armor breaks against you like waves against a rock with results to match. Here you are at home. Here on this field you are as a lord of war. Your will is unbreakable, your conviction unshakeable, and your might irresistible.
  174. >The process repeats itself ad infinitum; some poor conscript will squeeze through the breach only to be cut down and cast aside, the mound of corpses piling up and further aiding in slowing their advance.
  175. >Eventually you fall into a rhythm, your movements becoming unconscious, your blade moving seemingly of its own accord. The clash of steel and the screams of dying soldiers blend together into a chorus that makes your blood sing.
  176. >You receive the odd wound for your efforts, but such things are meaningless to a dead man, instead the pain only fuels your fury and drives you on.
  177.  
  178. >However long the carnage continues you cannot say, time loses all meaning in the heat of battle. Instead you judge your progress by the number of corpses littering the halls.
  179. “You dare stain these hallowed halls with your filthy blood?” you shout through the clamor. “You will pay for this transgression with your lives!”
  180. >In the back of your mind is a voice that tells you it matters not how many you kill, for all your might they will eventually overwhelm you. Against a single knight their numbers are effectively limitless and you will tire in time.
  181. >It is that voice that you pointedly ignore. Every second you hold them back is a victory and affords your queen a better chance at escape.
  182. >Though if the battle continues in its current manner then you won’t be tiring for a while yet, the clumsy guards practically throw themselves onto your blade as they attempt to traverse the carpet of slain allies.
  183. >Secure in the knowledge that the only way to the throne room is to get past you, you give yourself ever more to the flow of battle. All you need to do is hold out for as long as you can, it’s as simple as that.
  184. >Then gradually, almost imperceptibly, the flow of bodies begins to slow. You nearly miss it at first, but when your blade meets air when it should have met armor or flesh it’s almost as jarring as a blow.
  185. >And just like that it’s over, the tide has been halted. How long has it been? How many lay dead by your hand? Your enemies lay in mounds piled meters high, the floor beneath you completely obscured by the legion dead.
  186. >As you return to your senses you become aware of the quaking in your limbs. Whether it’s as a result of bloodlust or exhaustion you cannot tell.
  187. >Weary of a trap you tread carefully forward over the graveyard the great hall has become, attempting to see what you may beyond your chokepoint.
  188.  
  189. >Oddly enough there’s no one waiting to ambush you on the other side. As far as you can tell you’re the only living thing in the vicinity.
  190. >Suddenly the world blurs as some invisible force grabs hold of you and pulls you bodily into the air.
  191. >The force whips you through the air and into wall, floor, and ceiling over and over as a child throwing a tantrum might with a doll.
  192. >One impact throws you back-first against a wall with force enough to drive the shard of crystal in your back further into you, the tip emerging through your abdomen.
  193. >Over and over you’re thrown about, the edges of your vision beginning to go dark as your body finally begins to give in to the assault.
  194. >Then as suddenly as it began it ends and you drop face first to the floor, the fall cushioned by the casualties from your battle.
  195. >Somehow throughout the ordeal, though, you managed to keep hold of your blade, its presence in your hand bringing you some small comfort through the blinding pain.
  196. >Attempts to get your free hand beneath you result in failure, the arm hanging broken and useless at your side.
  197. >Somehow your sword arm escaped further injury and you attempt to hoist yourself up with it, only for your face to meet the ground once more as something impacts the small of your back.
  198. >”Pathetic, this is what our forces were having so much trouble with?” a feminine voice dripping with arrogance asks to the air.
  199. >Whoever it is rolls you over with a kick to the side, though the trauma makes it near impossible to focus on the being above you.
  200. >You manage to discern only a few aspects about your assailant, but it’s more than enough to identify them.
  201. >Silver armor, great, black wings, and hair like billowing midnight. You grin up at her with bloodied teeth and barely manage to croak out a greeting.
  202. “Hello, Nightmare.”
  203.  
  204. >The moon goddess kneels down to take a closer look. “Do I know you?” she asks haughtily.
  205. >As your vision slowly regains focus you’re greeted by two malign serpentine eyes like glittering sapphires.
  206. >After a long moment those wicked eyes widen with recognition. “Oh my goodness, the Knight-Commander? You’ve certainly seen better days.”
  207. “You as well, up close it’s easy to see why your people prefer your sister.”
  208. >You hiss in pain as she stamps sharply down upon your broken arm, the fragments of bone grinding together.
  209. >”I hear that it’s custom to beg for your life when beneath the heel of a god. Would you like to try that again?”
  210. “I-I believe I m-misspoke,” you stutter through the pain, earning a smug smile from the Nightmare. “W-what I meant was-”
  211. >A fit of coughing interrupts you, what feels like a collapsed lung making the act of speaking an effort.
  212. >When the fit subsides Nightmare leans in closer so that those eyes fill your vision.
  213. >”Yes?” she presses.
  214. A grin once more splits your face. “Your sister’s hotter.”
  215. >Nightmare’s face becomes a mask of unrestrained fury.
  216. >At the same moment you find yourself flying into another wall and staying, pinned by the Nightmare’s sorcery.
  217. “Y-you will always b-be second to her.”
  218. >”Be silent, wretch.”
  219. >Another impact rocks you, but you’re beyond caring at this point. Pain means nothing to you and your strength is fled. You will need to rely on other methods to hold the line.
  220. “They will n-never love you a-as they do her.”
  221. >”I said silence!”
  222. >Another impact, in a strangely detached way you note your ribs fracturing.
  223. “A-always in her shadow…”
  224. >”Be quiet!”
  225. >Another impact, your collar bone crumples.
  226. “W-worthless in h-her eyes…”
  227. >”Shut up!”
  228.  
  229. >Once more you fly through the air, but this time there is no pain. She drags you before her to hang spread eagle in the air.
  230. >”You have no idea when to shut your mouth, worm.”
  231. >Still you maintain your antagonizing grin.
  232. “Nor you. I-I hear that mouth of y-yours is your only th-thing they like about you.”
  233. >It takes her a moment, but soon she becomes absolutely livid, an indignant blush coloring her cheeks as she grasps your meaning.
  234. >”I will crush you like an insect!”
  235. “G-give your sister m-my regards.”
  236. >Groans erupt from your armor as it slowly begins to crumple, Nightmare clearly intending to draw it out as long as possible.
  237. >A resigned smile crosses your face as the armor that has protected you for decades now slowly crushes the life from you.
  238. >Idly you wonder if the gesture was meant to be symbolic, though you doubt Nightmare has the mental faculties to make that connection.
  239. >Nevertheless, you can now die knowing you gave everything you had for your queen and that in the end it took a god to finally bring you down.
  240. >It’s all up to Umbra now, all you can do with your last few moments of life is pray for her safety.
  241. >Your bones begin to creak under the stress placed upon them and you know that your life is now measured in seconds.
  242. >”Now now, don’t look so glum, take solace in the knowledge that your whore queen will be joining you. Soon you’ll be together forever.”
  243. “Only… one… whore… here...”
  244. >”Farewell, Knight-Commander, you will not be mi-”
  245. >”Luna!”
  246. >All at once the pressure stops and you fall prone to the ground like a marionette with its strings cut.
  247.  
  248. >Once again your face meets the floor in what you sincerely hope is not going to be a recurring trend.
  249. >As battered as you are and with your armor so warped by the Nightmare’s sorceries it’s all you can manage to simply lift your head.
  250. >You’re nearly blinded for your efforts, the radiance of the being your gaze falls upon too much to bear.
  251. >It was enough, though, a glimpse of golden armor and snow-white wings telling you everything you need to know.
  252. >”What are you doing, Luna?” Celestia demands.
  253. >”Securing objectives, as you requested,” Nightmare replies curtly.
  254. >”I asked you to apprehend Umbra, not torture her soldiers.”
  255. >”Are you blind, sister? Do you not see the mountain of bodies? I am dealing with a threat to our interests that cannot be permitted to persist. This monster deserves worse than what he got.”
  256. >”There are more humane ways of dealing with the situation. I will not condone the torture of enemy combatants.”
  257. >”It was just a bit of fun.”
  258. >”Step away from him, Luna.”
  259. >Nightmare growls in annoyance, but the sound of retreating footsteps fills your ears nonetheless.
  260. >A wheezing, gurgling laugh fills the hall as you somehow manage to prop yourself up on your one good arm.
  261. “That’s right, dog, run back to your master,” you slur through broken teeth and a mouthful of blood.
  262. >For an instant the footsteps stop.
  263. >”Ignore him, Luna, you’re above petty insults.”
  264. >With one last glare cast over her shoulder Nightmare relents and returns to Celestia’s side like a faithful hound.
  265. >Looking past the pair for the first time you realize they’ve brought company in the form of their honor guard; no less than fifty knights in hulking armor, half gleaming gold and half shining silver.
  266. >A shame they couldn’t have come sooner, that might have been fun.
  267. >The sun goddess studies your face for a long moment, eyes widening in recognition as Nightmare’s had.
  268. >”Knight-Commander?”
  269.  
  270. “Aye.”
  271. >”I missed you on the field, I had expected to find you at Umbra’s side instead.”
  272. “Your boy-”
  273. >A weak coughing fit interrupts you again, blood spattering the floor as your body tries in vain to expel the blood slowly filling your remaining lung.
  274. “Sorry. Your boy found me easily enough, the one with the hat. Broke my sword, that one.”
  275. >Celestia glances at the pile of bodies behind you. “You seem to have managed well enough all the same.”
  276. “Aye, until your Nightmare found me.”
  277. >Celestia’s eyes narrow in barely restrained anger. “Do not say that word in my presence.”
  278. “Or what?” you spit. “You’ll kill me? Burn my home? Slay my men?”
  279. >Strength spent, you collapse against the ground, unable to support yourself anymore as another fit of coughing overtakes you.
  280. “Just kill me and be done with it, I’ve served my purpose and have no regrets.”
  281. >”May I have the honor, sister? It would be a mercy to put him out of his-”
  282. >”No,” Celestia interjects. “You’ve had your fun, now find Umbra. If she escapes then this entire operation has been for naught.”
  283. >An irate growl is the only response Nightmare sees fit to give as she saunters off to do her sister’s bidding.
  284. >As she passes you by you reach out and grab her ankle weakly, quickly earning you her ire.
  285. >”Remove your hand, mortal.”
  286. “You won’t find her,” you wheeze. “She escaped while we had our fun.”
  287. >Celestia casts an irate glare at Nightmare. “If what he says is true-”
  288. >”It isn’t, sister, calm yourself. He’s bluffing, that stuck up whore would never abandon her throne.”
  289. >”For your sake I hope you’re right, Luna.”
  290. >”You’ll see, I’ll be back shortly with our prize. Don’t wait up.”
  291. >She tears herself free of your grip and takes to the air, bound for a very unpleasant surprise.
  292. >”What shall we do with this one, my lady?” you hear one of the praetorians ask. “Shall I put him down for you?”
  293.  
  294. “That would be much appreciated.”
  295. >Celestia seems to consider his words, but gives no indication as to what her thoughts on the matter might be.
  296. >Approaching footsteps suggest that perhaps she’d like to finish you off herself, though that hardly fits Celestia’s character.
  297. >She stops before your and a gentle pressure beneath your chin urges you lift your head.
  298. >Allowing yourself to meet her gaze, you give her a broken, bloody smile.
  299. “Honorable of you to look me in the eye before you kill me. Too bad I’ll have to haunt you now.”
  300. >For a while she’s silent, simply studying your face as the seconds tick by and your end draws nearer.
  301. >Her amethyst eyes are so unlike Umbra’s, but no less beautiful. It pains you to admit it, but there are worse things than dying with those eyes filling your vision.
  302. “If there’s a point to this you may want to make it soon, not sure how much longer I can last here.”
  303. >Finally she speaks. “What color are your eyes?”
  304. “You blind?”
  305. >”Those are Umbra’s eyes, I want to see yours.”
  306. >For a moment you entertain the idea of simply antagonizing her as you did Nightmare, but it would serve no purpose. Instead you decide to humor her, allowing the power that filled you to drain away.
  307. >The loss leaves you dizzy and lightheaded, that support was one of the few things keeping you lucid.
  308. >As Umbra’s power gradually slips from you your eyes return to their natural color and a fog descends upon your unprotected mind.
  309. >Celestia watches intently throughout the process, searching your eyes for something you could not guess at.
  310. >“Eyes are the windows to one’s soul,” Celestia remarks out of nowhere. “You are not a being of evil, you simply have questionable loyalties.”
  311. >Unsure of what to make of her comment you instead opt to retain your silence while she continues to study you.
  312. >”What has my sister done to you…?” she says more to herself than you.
  313.  
  314. “Quite a temper on that one, you’ll have to watch her.”
  315. >”My lady?” the praetorian presses. “You needn’t sully yourself with the blood of such as these, allow me the honor.”
  316. >”No, captain. He will be our prisoner.”
  317. >”Your Highness, I beg you to reconsider. He must be punished for his crimes, how many of our own lay dead at his hand?.”
  318. >”And how many of his lay dead by yours? This is war, captain, I will not punish him for doing his duty just as I would not punish you for doing yours.”
  319. >”Even so, my lady, he is dangerous.”
  320. >”As are you. He is also Umbra’s closest confidante, if she truly has fled then he is our best chance at finding her.”
  321. >You try to force a laugh, but all that comes out is a wet gurgle and a stream of blood.
  322. “A fine sentiment, but your sister was far from gentle. What makes you so certain you can simply take me?”
  323. >She releases you almost tenderly to lay against the ground. “Because I am Celestia of the Sun and the world itself moves to suit my will. If I command it then it shall be so.”
  324. >At her word a golden warmth suffuses your being, your eyes flying open as you suffer pain the likes of which you have never known.
  325. >A succession of metallic pops echo through the air as your armor returns to its original shape. Meanwhile your bones snap and sunder, resetting themselves and becoming whole once more. The shards of crystal still embedded within you are wrenched free from your body, the gaping holes they leave behind closing promptly thereafter just as your other myriad injuries zip closed.
  326. >In your chest your collapsed lung reinflates and the other purges itself of the pooling blood, a red torrent issuing from your mouth as it empties.
  327. >The entire process takes less than thirty seconds, but in your mind it could have been hours, such was the pain.
  328. >But it does eventually end, all of the damage Nightmare had inflicted upon you completely undone.
  329.  
  330. >For a while you simply lay still in shock, trying to wrest yourself from the fog of pain you’re smothered in.
  331. >”You are whole again,” Celestia announces. “A show of good faith. We need no longer fight, the battle is over, come with us peacefully.”
  332. >You maintain your silence as you attempt to assess the situation. Going with them is out of the question, if Celestia is capable of remaking you so thoroughly then their avenues for interrogation are effectively limitless. So long as she holds Nightmare’s leash tight enough she can inflict whatever horrors she deems fit upon you without worry of losing you.
  333. >As confident as you would like to be in your devotion to your queen, you are only mortal. Under potentially eternal torture you will eventually break.
  334. >The flapping of wings pulls you from your thoughts as Nightmare returns empty handed, a sour look upon her face as she alights by your side.
  335. >Celestia glares sternly at her sister. “Umbra?”
  336. >Nightmare refuses to meet her gaze. “Gone, the wretch spoke truly.”
  337. >Here the booming laughter that erupts from you is completely genuine, a wave of relief so complete washing over you at the news. You have succeeded.
  338. >Nightmare’s glare is so full of venom it would have stopped the heart of a lesser man, but it only makes you laugh harder. She had been so close, yet her temper had foiled everything.
  339. “Excellent job, Nightmare!” you mock as you struggle to rise, “You could have had her, it would have been so easy for you. But instead you decided to toy with an insignificant mortal and allowed the opportunity to pass you by.”
  340.  
  341. >”Be silent, wretch! If you enjoyed it so much perhaps you would like to go another round.”
  342. “And every second my lady will slip even more out of your reach. By all means, have at me.”
  343. >Nightmare appears sorely tempted to do exactly that, but a pointed look from her sister stays her.
  344. >”Is this true? Did you spend so long with him that you allowed Umbra to escape?”
  345. >The dark sister refuses to answer, instead staring at the ground in indignation.
  346. >”Luna, do you realize what you’ve cost us? This is all meaningless if we don’t take Umbra.”
  347. >”And we shall, she cannot have gone far.”
  348. >As the two go back and forth and you push yourself from the ground a glint of light catches your eye; your blade.
  349. >As you are on your hands and knees it’s hidden from the sight of the two goddesses above you.
  350. >It would be so easy to simply drive the blade into your own heart and be done with it all.
  351. >But the ease with which Celestia remade you presents a problem, it's likely that anything you try will prove futile before her power.
  352. >That temper of Nightmare's may prove useful, though. With sufficient impetus she could be goaded into destroying you so thoroughly that bringing you back will be beyond even the sun princess’s great power.
  353. >A desperate plan forms in your mind; you must force her to kill you. Surprise her with an attack and make her strike you down in the heat of the moment.
  354. >The chances of success are low, but you have no other options available. They cannot be allowed to take you.
  355. >Slowly your hand creeps towards the hilt of your sword, attention riveted on the two sisters as you search for an opportune moment.
  356. >”We’ll speak on this later, Luna,” Celestia says, silencing her sister. “For now we must concentrate our efforts on finding Umbra. Captain?”
  357.  
  358. >”My lady?”
  359. >”Take the praetorians and secure the throne room. Try to find any hidden passages Umbra may have used to escape.”
  360. >”Your will be done, my princess.”
  361. >With a great, booming shout that reverberates through the air the captain orders his praetorians forward.
  362. >The tide of gold and silver parts around the three of you like water, their footsteps echoing like thunder as they pass.
  363. >As the last guards pass you by Celestia returns her attention to the Nightmare.
  364. >”Luna, scour the castle and leave no stone unturned. I want Umbra found.
  365. >Nightmare bows mockingly to her sister. “As you command, my princess.”
  366. >She is mere inches away from where you kneel, you could not have asked for a better opportunity.
  367. >While Nightmare remains bent over, faster than either of them can follow you grab hold of your broken blade, the hungry flames springing to life at your touch, and thrust it upwards into her belly.
  368. >With every ounce of strength you possess behind the blow it tears through her hallowed armor with contemptuous ease, the shattered tip entering her and exploding out through her back as your blade drinks deeply of divine blood.
  369. >Howling with pain and anger, she reels from the blow, grasping at the hilt and trying to wrench it free of her flesh while her sister stares on in shock.
  370. >Evil fire burns Nightmare as she struggles to remove it, but eventually the blade comes free and in her fury she turns it on you, your blade aimed squarely at your throat.
  371. >”Luna, no!” Celestia shouts, but to no avail, her sister is beyond her control.
  372. >Time seems to distort as you watch death come for you in the form of your own weapon, once again wondering if Nightmare is capable of understanding the symbolism behind her actions.
  373. >You aren’t left wondering long, your eyes slipping closed as you feel the point of the blade upon your flesh.
  374. >Once again, though, death is denied you. The crystal weapon shatters in Nightmare’s grip, peppering the both of you with shrapnel.
  375. >The both of you stare dumbly at the space where your weapon once was, then to Celestia.
  376. >But before any words can be exchanged a dozen golden halberds are leveled at you, the praetorians clearly not appreciating your actions against their charges.
  377. >”Stand down,” Celestia orders sharply.
  378.  
  379. >”My lady-”
  380. >”That is an order.”
  381. >”But the princess-”
  382. >”Is fine. It is only a flesh wound, Luna will survive.”
  383. >”Do not presume to speak for me, sister,” Nightmare growls through the pain as she clutches tight at the still burning wound.
  384. >Celestia ignores the comment and turns her attention to the remaining praetorians. “Go, you have your orders.”
  385. >Hesitantly they raise their weapons and return to their comrades, a few casting weary glances your way.
  386. >Celestia fixes you with an even stare. “I will grant you that, Knight-Commander, in truth I’d say you earned it. But I warn you, try nothing of the sort again or even I will not be able to save you from Luna.”
  387. “Truth be told I was rather counting on that,” you admit.
  388. >”I imagined as much. Now please, come along peacefully and we can resolve this like civilized beings.”
  389. “There is nothing to resolve, I’m afraid. You want my queen and I will not give her to you. Nor could I even if I wanted to, I know not where she’s fled to.”
  390. >Celestia takes a few slow, deliberate steps towards you until you’re nearly face to face.
  391. >”I’m trying very hard to resolve this civilly. I did not want a war, but things do not always work out the way we hope. I do not relish this bloodshed, I have had more than my fill of it. However one way or another you will be coming with us.”
  392. >Without flinching you meet her gaze, searching for any sign of a weakness you may exploit.
  393. “We are not so different, you and I. We both love our countries and would defend them through any means we could. And as I‘m sure you’re well aware I am a man of honor and duty, however duty always comes before honor. It is my duty to defend this realm; I think it is safe to say I have failed in that.”
  394.  
  395. >”You defended it to the best of your abilities, I can respect that. I would have expected nothing less from a knight of your character.”
  396. “But my best was not good enough, now was it? I could not drive you back.”
  397. >”Such an expectation is unrealistic. You had no hope of victory to begin with.”
  398. “Realistic or not, that is the nature of my duty; to defend the realm against all threats. And since I have failed I will take the only option left to me.”
  399. >”And what would that be?”
  400. “Vengeance. For your transgressions against the Crystal Empire I will make you pay in blood. I will hinder your efforts at every opportunity that passes. As much as I share your desires of a peaceful resolution I’m afraid that such a thing is not possible, my duty will not permit it.”
  401. >Celestia is silent for a moment, turning over your words in her head.
  402. >”You are either very brave or very stupid to say such a thing to my face.”
  403. “Just so we’re on the same page, I wouldn’t want to deceive you about my intentions.”
  404. >Celestia sighs in exasperation. “Why are you so adamant about this? Why will you not listen to reason?”
  405. “Wrong or right, she is my master. Dark or light, this is my country. Gift or curse, it is my duty to defend it. That is what my station demands of me and I shall not flinch from it no matter how distasteful.”
  406. >”How very noble of you,” Nightmare mocks. “If you ask me-”
  407. “Well nobody did ask you, did they? And with good reason, you just disappoint everyone every time you open your mouth. And I do mean everyone,” you finish with a sly wink.
  408. >Face flushed with anger and indignation, she takes a menacing step forward only to have her path blocked by Celestia.
  409. >”Control yourself, Luna.”
  410. “Are you just going to let her tell you what to do like that? I thought you were her equal, not her subordinate.”
  411. >A spark of anger flits through Celestia’s eyes as you antagonize her sister. It’s all you need.
  412.  
  413. >”On second thought, I will lead the search for Umbra. Luna, you take the Knight-Commander back to Canterlot.”
  414. >”Unless I can kill him then I want nothing to do with him. You take him.”
  415. “Since when do you need permission to do what you like? Does she ever ask your permission?”
  416. >For an instant Nightmare glances at Celestia, that same same loathing look she favors you with now leveled at her sister. Though it is only for a moment it speaks of significant potential.
  417. >What you’re doing is not lost upon Celestia, who evidently decides getting you away from her sister would be the most prudent thing to do.
  418. >”Very well,” Celestia relents. “I will take-”
  419. >Before Celestia can finish you’re seized by an aura of magic and dragged unceremoniously over towards Nightmare.
  420. >”On second thought, no. I think I will take him after all. Enjoy your search.”
  421. >”Luna, I don’t think-”
  422. >”I don’t particularly care what you think right now, sister. I will take charge of the dear Knight-Commander’s travel accommodations.”
  423. “An errand girl to the very end,” you mock, your jaw locking up immediately after.
  424. >”That’s quite enough out of you. Now come along, we have much to-”
  425. >A shout from the direction of the throne room cuts her off.
  426. >Searching for the cause of the disturbance, what you find leaves the three of you paralyzed, though for different reasons.
  427. >A wall of black fog rolls down the hall towards you, the praetorians backing away from it with shields and halberds raised.
  428. >One by one the elite of Equestria’s royal guard are engulfed, disappearing behind the impenetrable wall of blackness.
  429. >Soon the last of them disappears within, though the fog shows no signs of slowing.
  430. >As it closes in on the three of you Nightmare erects a barrier of invisible force, halting the dark fog in its tracks a bare meter from the three of you.
  431. >Eyes wide with worry Celestia calls into the fog.
  432. >”Captain? What’s happening? Are you alright?”
  433. >Then the screaming begins.
  434.  
  435. >Worry transforms to terror the instant that the cries of her soldiers reach her ears, snow-white wings unfurling from her back.
  436. >With a single beat of her great wings the fog is dispelled, but judging from the look on Celestia’s face it would have been better if she hadn’t tried.
  437. >Veins of black crystal ensnare each of her praetorians, growing and crawling along their forms as they claw at their armor as though attempting to escape it.
  438. >Fully half have already summcumbed, appearing for all the world as statues, those who remain on their way to joining them.
  439. >In a matter of seconds all save one are reduced to inanimate crystal.
  440. >The one that still resists attempts to make his way back to where you stand, crystals growing and shattering all across his armor.
  441. >As the veins crawl over his helm he tears it from his head where it shatters against the ground.
  442. >”Captain?” Celestia all but whispers.
  443. >Though he resists it’s clear he’s losing, dropping to his knees a stone’s throw away as he finally succumbs, reaching out as though trying to grasp for Celestia, a look of unparallelled regret upon his face. It’s the look of a man who knows he’s failed those who rely on him; you feel almost sorry for him in that respect.
  444. >Celestia and Nightmare stand transfixed by the scene, eyes wide with disbelief.
  445. >Before they’re able to really come to grips with the situation the fog returns, the implacable blackness surging forth once more.
  446.  
  447. >Celestia and Nightmare both spread their wings wide and wait, the aura of magic around you vanishing and allowing you to move under your own power again.
  448. >Closer and closer it rolls, the figures of the former praetorians vanishing from sight once more.
  449. >Just before the black cloud consumes what was once Celestia’s captain they beat their wings, a great gust of air tearing down the hall and dispelling the evil mist completely.
  450. >The sight that greets you this time leaves you feeling how the praetorian captain must have felt in his final moments, utter despair welling up in your chest and threatening to drown you.
  451. >Queen Umbra strides casually down the hall, displeasure clearly written across her features.
  452. >As she nears the statue of the captain she pauses, feigning a look of interest as she passes, reaching out to grasp the back of his head.
  453. >With a crack she separates it from his shoulders, holding the crystallized head up to eye level while locking eyes with Celestia.
  454. >”Oh my, was this one special to you?”
  455. >The head shatters in her grip as she sashays forward, fragments flying in all directions.
  456. >”Oops. I seem to have broken your toy.”
  457.  
  458. >Celestia’s eyes become strangely watery as though she were about to cry. Perhaps that one was very special to her indeed.
  459. >For a time silence reigns, neither side uttering a word. You dislike the silence, it makes you think.
  460. >Why is she here? Why didn’t she flee as you’d asked? Was everything you’ve done for naught?
  461. >Predictably, Umbra is the one to break the silence.
  462. >”I believe you possess something that belongs to me. I would very much appreciate the return of my property.”
  463. >Also predictably, Nightmare is the one who responds.
  464. >”So the whore makes herself seen at last. How kind of you to save us the trouble of-”
  465. >Umbra’s eyes flare with evil magic and Nightmare crashes against a wall, a symphony of cracks splitting the air as her wings fracture from the impact. The moon goddess then falls limp to the ground in an undignified heap.
  466. >”Speak when spoken to, child. The grownups are talking.”
  467. >Celestia blinks and her eyes harden so quickly that you’re left wondering if you simply imagined the moment of vulnerability.
  468. >Then her eyes go white.
  469. >A wave of force radiates outwards from the sun princess, the magical pressure blowing out every window that remains intact along the great hallway.
  470. >”Villain.”
  471. >The force intensifies, driving you to your knees, but your queen stands resolute before the assault, giving not an inch.
  472. >”Monster.”
  473. >The Nightmare begins to rise, her wings bent in unnatural ways, and when she beholds her sister’s fury even she shies away.
  474. >But still your queen does not flinch.
  475. >”Demon!”
  476. >Winds of magic shriek and howl through the castle, though even before the wrath of a god Umbra stands resolute.
  477. >The display ends with a great burst of white flame that envelopes Celestia and sends you to the floor.
  478.  
  479. >The princess of sunlight shudders with barely repressed rage, white hot flames billowing from her eyes.
  480. >”The fighting is over,” she says barely above a whisper. “You’ve lost. What point is there to this senseless killing? Why must you prolong this barbarism?”
  481. >An arrogant smile grows on Umbra’s face. “Because it suits me to do so. Because it amuses me.” Here the smile vanishes. “Because it hurts you.”
  482. >Nightmare rises from where she fell, her mangled wings snapping and cracking as they reset themselves. “You will regret that, harlot,” she hisses through the pain.
  483. >”I only regret that I didn’t hit you harder.”
  484. >Without warning Celestia reaches out and grabs hold of you by your gorget, lifting you into the air as though you weigh nothing.
  485. >”Return to your master, slave-knight, I have no more need for you.”
  486. >With an almost frightening lack of effort the sun goddess hurls you into the air
  487. >Your flight ends quickly, but not with the solid embrace of the ground that you’d expected.
  488. >Instead a cloud of blackness arrests your flight, cradling you almost tenderly in its embrace, and lowers you gently to the ground before Umbra.
  489. >Once again those eyes you love so much fill your world and the cold kiss of steel meets your face.
  490. >”Where is your sword?” Umbra asks as she caresses your cheek.
  491. >You gulp, swallowing the sorrow that threatens to engulf you.
  492. “It is broken, my lady.”
  493. >”And what of your helm?”
  494. “It is lost, my lady.”
  495. >Umbra regards you coldly, betraying not a single emotion. “That will not do.”
  496.  
  497. >Emerald springs up around your head, growing to encase you in its protective embrace in the form of an ornate greathelm.
  498. >Likewise you feel a presence in your hand, a growth of black crystal appearing from nothing and taking the form of the blade you lost.
  499. >As your hand clamps down upon the hilt witchfire springs to life along its length.
  500. >Through the eyes of your crystalline helm you gaze in wonder at the weapon your liege has seen fit to bestow upon you.
  501. >It is a fine thing with perfect balance and an edge that could shave even stone with little effort.
  502. “My queen-”
  503. >”Knight, what was the oath you swore to me on that day so long ago?”
  504. “I fear not my mortality,” you declare without missing a beat. “I will serve to the best of my ability. I give my life to my mistress, I vow to smite her enemies.”
  505. >She looks upon you with a kind of forlorn fondness as though reliving memories of a bygone age. “Yes. That is your oath.”
  506. “My queen-”
  507. >”Umbra.”
  508. >You sigh, a smile coming to your face though none could see it behind your helm.
  509. “Umbra, it would be my honor to fight and die by your side.”
  510. >”My dearest knight, you will never have to know such an honor.”
  511. “I… do not understand. Is this not where we make our stand?”
  512. >”Oh my faithful, foolish knight.”
  513. >Here she turns to the invaders, her features hardening so completely it’s as if her moment of softness never passed.
  514. >”I curse you, slaves of the sun. You claim the moral high ground here, but you’ve only come to set my empire aflame. I deny you. Every breath, every drop of blood spilt, every death you have suffered this day will be for nothing.”
  515.  
  516. >”I deny you my servants.”
  517. >The castle begins to quake as though the bombardment had resumed.
  518. >”I deny you my land.”
  519. >A tinge of ozone permeates the air and the hair on the back of your neck stands on end.
  520. >”I deny you my life.”
  521. >Magic saturates the air, vile and repulsive. Even through her rage Celestia appears concerned.
  522. >”I deny you everything.”
  523. >The rage disappears from Celestia’s face, her eyes going wide in distress.
  524. >”Luna?”
  525. >”I feel it.”
  526. >”We have to leave. Now.”
  527. “What is this?” you demand. “What’s happening?”
  528. >Celestia meets Umbra’s gaze, a scowl curling her lip. “You haven’t won, you’ve only delayed the inevitable.”
  529. >”That’s victory enough for me.”
  530. >Celestia looks as though she wants to retort, but evidently she thinks better of it. Instead she about faces and leaps into the air, leaving you behind without another word.
  531. >Lightning splits the air just outside, the boom of thunder hitting almost like a blow to the stomach.
  532. >Nightmare makes no move to follow her sister for the time being, evidently reluctant to give ground.
  533. >”Run along, hound. You wouldn’t want to upset your master.”
  534. >If Nightmare hears Umbra she gives no indication, instead fixating on you.
  535. >”We will meet again, little knight. And when next we do neither your queen nor my sister will be able to save you.”
  536. >Before you can utter a response she does as Celestia and turns her back to you, taking to the air as yet more lightning parts the sky.
  537. >As she disappears into the distance and thunder shakes the castle you turn to Umbra in search of answers.
  538. “I don’t understand. Why did they flee?”
  539.  
  540. >Umbra holds her tongue, staring after Nightmare as she disappears into the castle.
  541. >When at last both of the royal sisters are gone from sight Umbra releases a breath you didn’t know she’d been holding.
  542. >At the same moment she collapses to her knees shivering and panting for breath.
  543. “My lady!”
  544. >In alarm you drop down by her side seeking to offer any aid you might.
  545. “I beg you, Umbra, tell me what’s happening. I-”
  546. >The roar of thunder steals your words and the smell of ozone grows almost overpowering. A wave of nausea washes over you, but you fight it back.
  547. “What is this?”
  548. >”I’m so sorry,” Umbra says.
  549. “Answer me!” you snap, tired of being left in the dark. “Why did you return? What is this sorcery? What have you done?”
  550. >The castle rocks violently as though struck by the fist of an angry god and Umbra’s skin begins to smoulder.
  551. >”I am so sorry, my knight. I could not bear the thought of losing you.”
  552. >Outside the sun goes black.
  553. >”It cost me so much, but it is worth it.”
  554. >The fel flames returns, but rather than simply wreathing her form as before they seem to feed on her.
  555. “What have you done!”
  556. >Tendrils of void-black energy arc across every surface.
  557. >”You will be safe, for a time at least. I cannot protect you forever, but it will be enough.”
  558. >Strength gone, Umbra falls forward and with a cry of alarm you reach out to steady her. You wrap your arms protectively around her and hold her close. Your new blade falls to your side, forgotten in your panic.
  559.  
  560. >She stares up at you with eyes so full of sorrow that it breaks your heart to see. The emerald flames continue to spread across her form all the while.
  561. >”It will only seem as a day to you, so do not fear. We will be reunited soon.”
  562. >Slowly but surely the flames begin to consume her.
  563. >Weakly she reaches up to touch your helm and oddly the flames shy away from your armor.
  564. >Her flesh and armor alike are devoured by the ravenous flames, an abyssal smog replacing the limb that rested upon your face.
  565. >A blinding light shines in through the windows as the world outside turns white.
  566. >Tears stream down Umbra’s face, the flames boiling them away into steam.
  567. “Umbra…”
  568. >”Keep safe my throne, I will be wanting it back when I return.”
  569. >As the last word leaves Umbra’s mouth, the fire takes her. Before you can even utter a word all that’s left of your queen is a lingering black smoke. It holds her shape in your arms for the barest of moments, but soon that moment is gone.
  570. >And so is Umbra.
  571. >Wisps of smoke cling to your hands, but other than that it’s as though Umbra was never even there.
  572.  
  573. >In a desperate attempt to keep from succumbing to your despair you focus instead on your queen’s final command.
  574. >You may not understand what she’s done, but you will do your duty regardless.
  575. >Forcing yourself to your feet, you grab hold of your blade, Umbra’s parting gift.
  576. >Ignoring how reality collapses in on itself around you, you make your way back to the throne room.
  577. “I will wait, my queen. Whether it be for a day or a lifetime, I will wait.”
  578. >You pass back through the shattered Black Gate as light consumes the hallway behind you.
  579. >Once more you make the trek across the great court, Umbra’s throne looming ominously before you.
  580. >As you climb the steps to the throne the consuming light passes through the Black Gate.
  581. >Standing before the empty throne is nearly unbearable, but you force down the emotions churning within.
  582. >”Keep safe my throne.” Your queen’s final command.
  583. “It shall be done, my queen.”
  584. >You spin on your heel and lower yourself into the throne.
  585. >Laying your blade across your lap, you stare on unblinkingly as the wall of light rushes forth to meet you.
  586. “My queen. My love. I will wait.”
  587. >And then the world goes white.
  588.  
  589. -Epilogue-
  590.  
  591. ”I don’t like this, Cadance. This doesn’t feel right.”
  592. >”It’s been a thousand years, Shiney, it’s unlikely there’s anything here to be worried about.”
  593. “I still don’t like it. Who’s to say Umbra hasn’t regained her physical form already? Celestia could’ve been wrong, she has been before.”
  594. >”Then we drive her out and hold the Empire until your sister arrives. We’ve overcome greater than a single weakened sorceress. I have faith in our capabilities.”
  595. >You sigh to yourself. Pretty words, but they do nothing to assuage your worries.
  596. >It’s not your place to question your princess, though. If Celestia commands that you capture the Empire for Equestria then you will see your duty done.
  597. >Turning one last corner, you’re met by a final length of hall terminating at a towering pair of black crystal gates.
  598. >Strangely, the entire length of the hallway is littered with what seem to be statues of the same material as the gates.
  599. >As you draw up to the nearest one you stop to inspect it, curiosity getting the better of you.
  600. >It presents an odd sight. The statue seems to be of a soldier on his knees, reaching out as though grasping for something.
  601. >What strikes you the most about it is that it seems to be missing its head.
  602. >”Umbra certainly had an odd taste in interior design. They’re placed so inconveniently.”
  603. >You merely grunt an acknowledgement, something about the statue not sitting right with you.
  604. >Continuing down the hall you encounter more and more of the figures, each of them in what appear to be positions of distress.
  605. >They look to be tearing at their armor, as though they were trying to escape from it.
  606. >As you inspect them more closely you realize that you’ve seen this style of armor before.
  607. >You’re wearing it right now.
  608. “This is the armor of the princess’ praetorians,” you observe.
  609.  
  610. >”Why would Umbra decorate her castle with the likenesses of her enemies? And effort clearly went into these, they seem so lifelike.”
  611. >Your eyes widen in comprehension as Cadance unwittingly identifies exactly what unsettles you so much about these things.
  612. “They’re not statues…”
  613. >Cadance casts a confused glance your way. “What are you talking about?”
  614. “The entirety of the princess’ honor guard was lost in the first invasion…”
  615. >After a moment Cadance also understands, gasping in horror as she backs away from the crystallized corpses.
  616. >”They… they’re all...”
  617. “Don’t look at them. Just keep moving forward.”
  618. >Eyes wide with horror, Cadance follows along behind you, keeping as much distance as she can between herself and the long dead warriors.
  619. >”What kind of monster could do this?”
  620. >You thrust your spear out towards the crystal gates, a violet glow enveloping them and forcing them inward.
  621. “We will find out.”
  622. >The titanic black slabs are heavy and ponderous, but they eventually submit to your will and allow you entry into the throne room.
  623. >The sight that greets you is not one you had expected.
  624. >A giant in hulking black iron armor sits upon the crystal throne gazing down upon you, his face hidden behind a helm of solid emerald.
  625. >Slowly and deliberately he raises himself from his seat, taking up a blade of black crystal that burns with a vile green flame.
  626. >As he reaches his full height a towering cloud of blackness materializes behind him, two great eyes of the same evil green manifesting within and fixing you in their malevolent gaze.
  627. >”Invaders.”
  628. >The dread knight’s voice reverberates through the air, carrying a weight of doom.
  629. >”We have defied your false gods.”
  630. >He takes a thundering step forward.
  631. >”Renounce your loyalties, repent your crimes.”
  632. >Another step. You raise your spear.
  633. >”Kneel before her and beg for your lives.”
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