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Game of Pones

By NOF
Created: 16th July 2021 09:31:33 PM
15th April 2021 02:52:11 AM

  1. 1: The First Shot Fired
  2. ----------------------------------------------
  3. >You are Anonymous.
  4. >Born to a poor family in a barren part of the American midwest, you grew up fearing God and studying history between lessons taught by the school of hard knocks.
  5. >With many of your family members in the military, it colored your interests which were already aligned closely with that of the average boy. Guns were cool, war was glorious, and soldiers were good guys.
  6. >Your house didn’t get an internet connection until your early teens, so you spend many a day in the local library, basking in the grand exploits of men now dead and gone. So begain your first passion.
  7. >These men, with their names recorded and deeds written, were never truly dead. So long as their memory did live, so did they.
  8. >You would venerate them all, and learn from their mistakes so you might avoid such pratfalls.
  9. >If only you too could be a king and lead an army.
  10. >When your humble home finally did get an internet connection, you found yet another interest.
  11. >Strategy games.
  12. >Nothing as simple as chess, no no, things of a grander scale.
  13. >The family computer was old, and could not handle much. Text adventures, though? That, it could do.
  14. >Some might see grand strategy simulators limited to just text to be grueling, but you found that it forced you to think and visualize. There were no pictures or graphs to help you, and no guides to be found for such obscure games on the early age of the internet.
  15. >The game, designed by a sadistic, meticulous man who set his players up for failure, became a source of frustration. You failed, and failed, and failed some more, with your empires barely lasting several years between runs. You could last longer by being a tyrant, but you wanted an empire like America, with liberty and justice for all just like dad said is right. So began your second passion.
  16. >Then… you started lasting longer. You employed what you learned from your reading of men better than you. 5 years, 10 years, 25, 50. Before you knew it, you exhausted one of the most comprehensive text games there was when you reached 999 years in a game that took over a year of work to finish. You left nothing to chance, and ruled a republic for a millenia. You emailed the creator inquiring on an update, and he insisted you cheated somehow.
  17. >You were 16 then, and that's when dad decided you spent too much time on the computer, and gave you your first rifle.
  18. >You plinked with dad’s little airguns and .22 rifles before, but this?
  19. >He gave you an old soviet rifle, an SKS, that he bought for cheap years ago. The mechanics and inner workings fascinated you, and your interest branched rapidly. You learned the how and the why and the when. Dad taught you how to shoot it, and how to respect the power you now held.
  20. >”You could kill someone with that, boy.” He said. “Me, your mother, anyone you so wished if you point and pull the trigger. Killing is a terrible power to have. Remember that.”
  21. >The rifle suddenly felt heavier, but you clutched it all the tighter. So began your third passion.
  22. >By now, you were getting older.
  23. >With few job prospects and dreams too large to fit in your little home town, you left to work in a nearby city, but the culture shock was unreal.
  24. >It shocked you to realize that people would willingly give their rights away for a feeling of security that isn’t even guaranteed, and no matter how sharply you debated, few would listen to you.
  25. >Fed up, you joined the military like your father and his father before him.
  26. >Again, you were disappointed.
  27. >The United States Military, the most powerful fighting force in the world, turned out to be a cruel joke.
  28. >Incompetence left and right, corruption down to the core, and members who just didn’t care, as they were here for the benefits only.
  29. >There were of course a few excellent servicemen who did their station proud, but these rare men and women were so few and far between that they may as well not exist.
  30. >Being in the military also put your ear right on modern politics in the worst way, and it makes you realize something.
  31. >In politics, concern for those under you was a facade at best, and nonexistent at worst. The name of the game is “Strip rights and consolidate power.”
  32. >Where did it start to go wrong? Why do your leaders do this? Why aren’t people upset by this?!
  33. >Pondering this, you were shipped off to fight the so-called ‘War on Terror’ in the middle east.
  34. >In your years in the desert, you killed four men, lost one friend, and were then sent home and honorably discharged as a hero after a stray bullet zipped through your left leg.
  35. >It was friendly fire from a careless squadmate.
  36. >With a few months of government-paid therapy, you recovered, then sat and wondered where to go from there.
  37. >Is this just a part of becoming an adult? Realizing that the world is a parody of what you saw as a child? Is there a way to make peace with such a fact?
  38. >You went on a hike to clear your mind, and thats when time and space dumped you into the frozen north of Equestria.
  39. >You are Anonymous.
  40. >American, Historian, Strategist, Marksman, Soldier.
  41. >And now, King.
  42. -------------
  43. "Thank you, everyone, for arriving on such short notice. I know the last several hours have been hectic."
  44. >On the too-small meeting room table made of solid, glittering crystal, you sit tall with your hands folded and your face schooled into a neutral expression
  45. >Seated around you are a number of ponies, all mares. All of them are alarmingly thin under their faded robes and dresses.
  46. >”His Majesty is too kind,” One of the mares, a beige mare with a deep red mane and tail says from her spot on your left. She bows her head and closes her tired vermillion eyes, but her smile remains. “We’ve all the time in the world for you, should you ask.”
  47. You nod. “Thank you, miss…?”
  48. >”Ruby Rose, of the noble house of Ruby, and I am the Minister of Agriculture, Your Majesty.” She raises her head and opens her eyes again. “If it pleases His Lordship, we can all introduce ourselves and explain our functions in this council.”
  49. >A council? Did Sombra keep them around, or did they all assemble after his death?
  50. “An excellent idea. Madam Rose,” You agree. “Is your title self-explanatory, or do your duties include functions that do not typically fall under agriculture?”
  51. >She smiles again, this time a little wider. “My position is centered only around agriculture, my lord.”
  52. >Rose looks to her side at the next mare, an older looking pony with a plain gray coat and deep purple mane. She clears her throat and begins. “King Anonymous,” her voice is quiet and reserved. “I am Amethyst Lens of the noble House of Amethyst, and I hold the office of Minister of Finance and Commerce. The flow of money and goods in and out of the kingdom is my domain. I look forward to serving you,” she says with a subdued bow of her head.
  53. You incline your head back. “Thank you, Madam Amethyst.”
  54. >The next mare, a lean pony with a light purple coat and eyes the same color offset with a silver mane, speaks next. “Your Highness, I am Shatter Point, Commander of all branches of the Crystal Empire’s armed forces,” she says with a sharp salute and a voice like your old drill instructor. “I am responsible for both our standing army and our royal guard as Minister of Defense. Please feel free to use me as you see fit. I have no noble title.”
  55. You can't help but let out an amused huff at the words you're about to speak. “At ease, Commander.” The words feel novel coming from a former grunt such as yourself. “And thank you for the introduction.”
  56. >Shatter Point gives you one crisp nod.
  57. >”I suppose I’m next,” a thin, reedy mare with a sky-blue coat and silver eyes begins with a laugh. “I am Sleek Silver of the minor house of Silver. I’m the Minister of Intelligence and all that entails, Your Majesty.” She seems to debate something for a second, but the overly expressive face all ponies have gives away that she’s thinking about something. “Erm, officially, I’m the palace Majordomo. The Minister of Intelligence isn’t a position on the books.”
  58. >A spymaster then?
  59. “I see what you mean…” You rub your chin. “Thank you, Madam Silver.”
  60. >The mare waves her hoof, seemingly embarrassed. “Ah, no need for the ‘madam’, Highness. I’d like to go without it if you wouldn’t mind?”
  61. >”Silver…” Shatter Point’s brows slowly furrow. “That's not your place to decide.”
  62. “It’s no issue, Commander,” you stop the mares before any nerves can become frayed. “I’ve no issue with Silver’s choice in how she is addressed. Moving on?”
  63. >The next pony, a mare older than Amethyst if her mane of gray-streaked black is any indicator is the next to speak. “Your Lordship, I am Onyx Scale, Minister of Labor. The regulation of the Empire’s business and workforce is what my office is responsible for,” she says with a small smile. Her voice is even with just a bit of rasp, the sort public speakers might get after years and years. “I can already tell that our dear Empire will heal under your rule. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for ridding us of Sombra.”
  64. “Your thanks are appreciated, but unneeded, Madam Onyx,” you tell her, feeling your lips pull downward into a frown. “‘Thus, always to tyrants’ as they say in my homeland. Fate conspires against those who would do evil, especially to the ones they are meant to serve.”
  65. >Shatter Point nods in approval.
  66. “I would speak more, but it’s best to get intros out of the way so we can speak on other important matters,” You continue on, turning your gaze to the next mare.
  67. >Clad in a tattered red cloak with a white coat and blonde mane, the next mare speaks up. “My name is Channel, and I am acting head of what remains of both the alchemist and engineer guilds,” the mare blinks her exhausted green eyes behind her glasses, and you're suddenly struck by how youthful she looks in comparison to her peers. “Sombra… Did not like the idea of non-magic machinery or magic items that he could not control. He wanted us to be dependent on him, and thus many of our guild members are hiding or… dead,” She shudders. “I’m sorry, my liege, but it will be some time before we are any substantial use to the Empire…” Channel‘s head falls in shame as her ears lay flat.
  68. >The sight makes your heart ache.
  69. >The more you learn of Sombra, the more you hate him.
  70. >To enslave, starve, and kill your own people. It drives home that the bastard was no cartoon villain. No, he was a true monster. You're beginning to suspect that the more the bigger picture gets revealed, the worse things will become.
  71. >What a mess...
  72.  
  73. You stifle your anger for now, as it would do you no good. Instead you take a deep breath and smile gently. “You don’t need to apologize, Miss Channel. Even without the full story, I know it will take time for everyone to recover from Sombra’s tyranny. The last thing you should do is blame yourself, as he was the one at fault,” you say, reaching a hand over to lay over her hoof and giving it a light squeeze.
  74. >The young mare jumps a little, but looks up before unsurely returning your smile with one of her own.
  75. >You withdraw your hand and turn to the last mare, who sits on your right.
  76. >She is especially striking, with a wavy emerald mane that still retains some luster in her poor health, a light gray coat, and bright green eyes like gems. A smile is affixed to her face, and she’s worn the look since she witnessed Sombra’s end. “My liege,” she begins with a bow of her head. “I am Emerald Quill of the noble house of Emerald, and I am the royal attendant. I am your right hoof in all matters, and I am acting as Minister of Law and Justice, Minister of Education and Public Welfare, and Minister of Culture due to… vacancies,” her smile falters, but she is quick to regain it. “Once you have chosen suitable replacements, I will relinquish these positions to them so I may better serve you. If it pleases His Highness, I do not require a title and just being addressed as Quill is how I prefer.”
  77. “Thank you, Quill. I will apologize in advance for the inane questions you will surely get from me,” You reply with a short laugh and a smile so she could not mistake your joke for anything else. You then sober up and continue. “The first point on this meeting’s agenda before I act as ruler in any capacity, is to confirm the legitimacy of my claim to the throne. Quill has already informed me of my claim by ‘Right of Conquest’, but I wish to confirm that there will be no conflict regarding this. In the Empire’s current shaky state, it would not do to have more upheavals.”
  78.  
  79. >Quill is quick to take the floor as she clears her throat. “I dare say none will challenge you, Your Majesty. Sombra had no heirs, and by laws set in place by the noble houses many winters ago, Right of Conquest means the crown and throne are yours. If there were anypony left of the noble house of Sapphire, then perhaps they could claim Right of Succession, but after their betrayal? After you ended the nightmare we all lived in?” The mare shakes her head. “No, to challenge you is foolish. None would dare. You are our Hero.”
  80. You can hear the capital H she put on ‘Hero’, and you're honestly a little unsure how that sits with you. “Right of Succession?” You ask, raising a brow. “Was the house of Sapphire the former royal family? And how did they betray the Empire?”
  81. >”Yes, sire.” Onyx is the next to speak. Takes a deep breath, seeming to gather her courage. “Princess Amore, our ruler for many hundreds of winters, was born of the house of Sapphire. She was kind and fair, and built our fine Empire into the crown jewel of the tundra that the world envied. When Sombra rose…” The mare has to stop for a moment, shivering. “He slew Princess Amore with his dark magic, but not before she warned her daughter of the stallion’s treachery. Rather than lead the Empire against Sombra, she instead… She warned only the house of Sapphire, who with Princess Amore’s blood, bore the mightiest unicorns in the Empire. Together, they fled with their magic, leaving us at Sombra’s mercy…”
  82. >The older mare fights to keep her face straight, and her fellow council members eye her with worry.
  83. >Ah, magic. The one thing you can’t say you have experience with. You’ll need to study for certain. You glance up at the crystalline chandelier above, wondering if magic is what makes the crystal candles glow with a soft light.
  84. “Madam Onyx, if the memory is painful, then do not stress over it. I will be content to go over written accounts…” You tell her, wishing she wasn’t on the other side of the long table so you might comfort her.
  85.  
  86. >”I insist, Highness,” Onyx takes a deep breath and visibly steadies herself. “You need to know this history. Blindsided and devoid of our best casters, Sombra seized the empire as if it were foalsplay, and in a bid to control us totally, he rounded up all the unicorns and pegasi of our population and expelled them into the cold tundra. With no food or supplies, it was a… a...”
  87. >’Death sentence.’ Your blood turns to ice when your mind supplies what Onyx cannot finish, as her breath hitches before she can say the final words. Was Sombra out of his mind? Does dark magic darken one’s soul?...Or did he make such a horrific decision while of sound mind? You’re not sure you want to know the answer. You roll your tongue around in your suddenly dry mouth as you think of your next words.
  88. “Who did he take from you, Madam Onyx?” You ask quietly, already dreading the answer.
  89. >”Both of them. My stallion and my little colt…” She curls upon herself, eyes taking on the dead expression so you saw on every pony as you first walked through the empire to the palace. It’s a look you’ve seen too many times on too many people.
  90. >You need no other prompting to stand and walk around the table to Onyx’s side before kneeling down to her level.
  91. >Then you wrap her in a tight hug.
  92. Her breath hitches again, and bringing your mouth close to her ear, you whisper; “Sombra is gone, Onyx Scale. He can’t hurt you or anyone again.”
  93. >The mare presses her face to your shoulder, and you feel two wet spots bloom upon your shirt as you gently rub the grieving wife and mother’s back.
  94.  
  95. >As the mare silently sobs, you look to the other members of the council, who watch with wide eyes, even the seemingly apathetic Amethyst.
  96. “He took someone from all of you, didn’t he?”
  97. >The resulting silence is all the answer you need.
  98. >Onyx’s tears slow to a stop, and she carefully pulls away. “I’m… sorry for such a shameful display, Your Majesty,” she says, her red eyes looking away. “That was unbecoming of a mare of my age and station, and I will not do it again.”
  99. “Don’t be sorry,” you smile tenderly and squeeze her wither before rising again. “If you weren’t upset by such a horrific loss, I would be much more concerned,” you say as you return to your seat and sit down again. “It’s always okay to feel strongly for the ones you love, because it’s what makes us who we are.”
  100. >Silver’s smirk returns. “Ah, now that’s some stallion advice alright,” she murmurs, though not quiet enough as Shatter Point glares at her with venom. “What I meant to say was none of the noble houses will oppose you, my lord,” Silver says with a smile. “The minor houses of Silver, Gold, Onyx, Opal, Jade, and Pearl certainly won’t, Gold especially since they went into hiding, and Ruby, Emerald, and Amethyst won’t, right?” She asks, turning each of the council members in question.
  101. >”Never,” Ruby sniffs.
  102. >Amethyst Lens shakes her head.
  103. >Quill seems almost offended by the question. “No.”
  104.  
  105. You nod, pleased. “Anyway, if my right to rule will not be questioned, then we can begin on the important matters for today,” You school your face back to it’s practiced neutral look. “I’m going to need a complete sitrep on critical services. At this time, we have to assess food stocks, how quickly food stocks can be restored, the operational capacity of hospitals and other medical facilities, the Empire’s finances, and the readiness of our armed forces, who will need to restore order if needed now that Sombra’s regime has collapsed. Madam Ruby.”
  106. >Everyone seems poleaxed by the sudden tone shift, but Ruby perks up. “Yes, my lord?”
  107. “To your best knowledge, what is the current state of the Empire’s crops, and how much food has been stockpiled for emergency use?”
  108. >The redheaded mare grimaces. “Not well, Highness. Without the Crystal Heart to protect against the blizzard outside, we’ve had repeated crop failures and staple shortages due to the low amount of feed available to livestock. Our seed stores are lower than what is comfortable, but they will hold for now. Our food supplies overall are dwindling, and we’ve only several weeks worth of food any given time as Sombra insisted on collecting the best of any harvest. If any more crops fail, we will be in peril.”
  109. You frown and curse Sombra yet again. “Damn. Tell me about this Crystal Heart, as you say it can protect against the blizzard? Is it a magic artifact or a machine? Forgive me for my ignorance, as my people do not have much experience with magic.”
  110.  
  111. >”There is nothing to forgive, Your Majesty,” Ruby smiles and shakes her head. “I will let Guildmaster Channel field this question since she is the expert in this field.”
  112. >”Ah?” Channel blinks in surprise before quickly composing herself. “O-Oh, right I guess I am the guildmaster since Golden Fleece is gone…” The mare adjusts her glasses and turns to you. “The Crystal Heart is a magic focus created and enchanted by Princess Amore approximately three-hundred years ago. By way of an enchantment known only to house Sapphire, the Heart converts the positive emotion of ponies within the walls of the Empire into raw magical power. Using this, Princess Amore could accomplish feats outside of her already considerable power, like setting up a self-sustaining ward that excompasses the entire Empire and the surrounding lands, protecting us from the cold. So long as the ponies of the Empire keep their spirits high and believe, then the Heart can protect us.”
  113. “Fascinating…” You murmur with genuine intrigue as you lace your hands under your chin and rest your elbows on the crystal table. How such a thing works, you have no idea, but you're certainly going to study the force known as magic. If it’s limitless like many depictions of fiction would have you believe… “Obviously, the recovery and reactivation of the Crystal Heart has jumped to a priority one issue along with securing immediate needs like food, shelter, and medical care. Do we know where Sombra has put it?”
  114.  
  115. >All eyes turn to Silver, and she hisses. “I don’t, My King. I’m sorry for the failure,” the spymaster shakes her head, ruffling her white, muzzle-length mane. “Rumor has it that Sombra hid it somewhere in the palace, but I have no idea where exactly or if his magic persisted after his death. It’s sure to have protections in place.”
  116. “Another roadblock, then.” You huff. “Guildmaster?” You turn your eyes to Channel, who sits up straight. “Do your alchemists have a way of negating magical protections of the dark variety? If you have any magic casters in hiding who can aid in this, now is the time to recall them.”
  117. >It takes a moment for the blonde mare to answer. “I think so, Your Majesty.” She finally says. “I… We don't have any unicorns, but I’ll have somepony check our hidden storehouses for neutralizing agents and concoct a spellbreaking potion. We were lucky that Sombra didn’t find most of our true supplies and was satisfied after several raids on dummy caches.” Her eyes water. “Golden Fleece took the punishment for ‘hiding’ the decoy caches and suffered for it…” She takes a deep breath and calms herself. “A splash should dispel all but the most potent of curses if made correctly, so I’ll oversee it myself. We’ll also begin the construction of a rune-crystal to detect dark magic to speed up the search.”
  118.  
  119. “Please do so,” you smile. “A good place to start might be Sombra’s quarters, as he may have some sort of account of his spells or plans. Please let your staff know to not let the urgency get to their heads, as this becomes a hollow victory if one of them is harmed by a trap in their haste.” You then turn to Shatter Point. “Commander.”
  120. >She stiffins. “Your Highness?”
  121. “At this time, how many able-bodied ponies do you have?”
  122. >”I have approximately three hundred mares fit for duty, a far-cry from our peak,” she scowls. “With our population in freefall, poor food supply, and morale at an all-time low, voluntary military service is increasingly unpopular. Sombra was considering a ‘draft’ if the number dropped any farther.”
  123. >The emphasis on ‘draft’ and your predecessor’s use of dark magic instantly leads you to think that brainwashing or other types of indoctrination would be involved.
  124. >...Or did Sombra already use such things?
  125. “I see…” You mull over the information. “Once the alchemists have found the hiding place for the Heart, please assign a detachment of your best to aid them in returning the Heart to its rightful place. There is no telling what could be waiting for them in there. In the meantime, please have teams venture into the city to keep unrest to a minimum.”
  126. >Shatter offers you a sharp salute. “Your will be done.”
  127.  
  128. Next, you address Quill. “Quill? I can already guess why it’s happening, but what is the current projected population growth?”
  129. >The mare grimaces. “Negative five-and-a-half percent per year, My King. The last census placed us at just under ten-thousand ponies. ”
  130. ‘Christ almighty…’ you think. You rub your forehead, already feeling a headache. “Thank you. Quill, please work with Silver to assess the palace’s food and medical supply. Madam Onyx? Please prepare a task force to distribute essentials to the city while official hospitals and food stores are spooled up for a relief effort. Next up, our finances. Madam Amethyst?”
  131. >”My liege,” she answers, still as cool as she was in the beginning of the meeting. “I have plans to conduct an audit of all available liquid and non-liquid assets of the crown at the earliest possible time. Sombra’s whims with money were not kind to our ponies, so I imagine our coffers are the only thing fairing well.”
  132. “Excellent, you practically read my mind,” you smile. “In addition, please the tax records taken during Sombra’s regime pulled so that we can reconvene at a later date to go over them and decide how to move forward with reviving the Empire’s no doubt devastated economy.”
  133. >Her eyebrows rise just the slightest amount. “Yes, My King.”
  134.  
  135. “Good, finally, the last items on this meeting’s agenda,” feeling a little awkward and ready for protest, you look finally to Silver. “Silver, please begin a discrete audit of all palace staff. Any who feel loyalty for Sombra or show signs of indoctrination, mundane or magical, are to be placed on watch and reassigned to non-critical roles immediately.” you cross your arms. “It goes without saying that bold-faced saboteurs are to be detained and questioned. We cannot risk bad actors trying to cause trouble or spark conflict this early in our recovery. Afterward, keep your ears to the ground for any whispers of old regime loyalists in the city.”
  136. >Silver’s eyes widen and she rocks back in her seat, then her shining eyes narrow to slits “Of course, Your Majesty. It’ll be done. I don't know who would sympathise with that demon in stallion’s skin, but if they exist, they’ll be rooted out.”
  137. “Thank you,” you smile. “I think that covers everything here at the moment. Oh, and please note that all troops, damage assessors, and relief agents are not to confirm or deny any rumors regarding myself or Sombra’s dethroning. I will be making an official statement once the Crystal Heart has been recovered, or before the end of the day tomorrow, whichever comes to pass first.” You take a breath. This is the most you've spoken in quite some time. “I have no doubt we’ll be meeting again soon, and please call for myself and the other council members if an urgent issue or breakthrough arises. Any closing statements before this meeting ends?”
  138. >Heads shake all around.
  139.  
  140. “Good. Everyone knows what they need to do. Lets move and begin immediately. I will assist Quill as she works to better acquaint myself with the palace and the ponies who live and work here. Meeting adjourned.”
  141.  
  142. >Everyone stands and turns to exit, with Quill rushing ahead to open the door for you. You give the mare a smile and pass through the door first with everyone else trailing behind. The guardsmares on either side snap sharp salutes as you walk by.
  143. >The coming days are going to be tiring, you can already tell.
  144. >But why else would you be here, if it wasn’t fate? The last thing you expected to was to seize a magical kingdom fit for a little girl’s fantasy, but they need someone, anyone.
  145. >You couldn’t make a difference back home…
  146. >As you walk with Quill at your side, your eyes narrow.
  147. >But you can make a difference here. You won’t leave these ponies, who have had it even worse than nearly any human being on earth, to struggle on their own after a who-knows-how-long reign under a tyrant of the worst sort.
  148. >Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.
  149. >You’ll make that childish, idealistic dream come true here.
  150.  
  151. ---------------------------------
  152. 2: Seize The Day
  153.  
  154. “I see…” You lean back into the too-small chair and place the parchment back down on the desk with a sigh.
  155. >Sitting with you in the somewhat cramped and paper-filled office of Amethyst Lens is Lens herself, who sits behind the desk, and Emerald Quill, who is seated to your right in the other guest chair.
  156. >Quill gave you a quick tour of the palace along with an entourage of four guardsmares, all of whom were dressed in blue-tinted metal armor rather than the black-iron they were equipped with before. Quill pointed out where the offices of each minister were situated, the servants quarters, the kitchens, the on-site barracks and armory, and finally your new and very opulent quarters.
  157. >By god did Sombra live in luxury. The top-most room of the palace would put all but the most ridiculous places on earth to shame. You’ll not be stepping foot inside until it’s sweeped by a team of guards and alchemists, however.
  158. >When you happened by the throne room, Sombra’s corpse was nowhere to be found. Even the blood was gone.
  159. >All the while, servants whispered as you passed, and although the guards remained professional, you could feel their eyes following you.
  160. >The tour took several hours, and with nothing else to do, you sought out Amethyst Lens to begin the planning of the empire’s recovery.
  161. Both mares with you wait for you to speak again. “Madam Amethyst?” You chew on your next words and you think them over. “What exactly is the value of one bit? What can be purchased with one?” You ask, again lifting the audit form one of her aides delivered not even five minutes ago.
  162. >The dour mare looks between the form in your hand and your eyes. “A difficult question, Sire. A pony could purchase a loaf of bread, or a dozen eggs with one bit before the reign of Sombra. Sombra’s harsh taxation policy has been driving the price of most goods up, forcing commoners to make do with less as time goes on. Those figures are currently at almost triple what I’ve described.” She sighs. “The median income of a herd consisting of one stallion and three mares has been stagnant at roughly twenty thousand bits per year for the last several years.”
  163. 1/20
  164.  
  165. >You frown and rub your forehead, the lowkey migraine you’ve been feeling all day intensifying.
  166. >Quill’s green eyes instantly pick on on the motion, so she turns to Amethyst's aide, a young cream-colored mare standing quietly by the door of the office. “Please have a servant prepare some willow tea or something else to soothe headaches for His Majesty on the double.”
  167. >The mare jumps at suddenly being addressed, but hastily bows. “Yes, ma’am! I’ll be right back!” She says, ducking out of the room.
  168. “Sharp eye, Quill. Thank you,” You smile, making your attendant blush and bow her head with a murmur. You turn back to Amethyst. “Well, if this audit is correct, then we’re sitting on just under a billion bits in purely liquid assets? That seems… rather high considering the median income and total population of the empire.”
  169. >”The noble families along with the famed runecrafters and crystal refineries the world envies the Empire for suffered greatly under these taxes, My Lord,” Your financial minister frowns. “The runecrafters and crystal refiners were responsible for much of our GDP, and they were why our wealth grew to such heights.”
  170. “I’m not liking how you’re speaking of these crafters and refiners in the past tense, Madam…” You shake your head with a sigh. “Are they gone?”
  171. >”Not… exactly, Sire,” Quill takes over, so you turn to her. The mare clears her throat and shifts slightly in her seat. “Many commercial runecrafters are still in business, but most of our industrial crafters were unicorns…”
  172. “...Who were expelled,” You finish with a grunt. “I’ve cursed Sombra a hundred times in the last few hours, and here I am doing it again. Damn it all.”
  173. >There is a knock on the door of the office before a bronze-colored muzzle noses it open. With a silver tray holding a tea set carefully balanced on his back, a stallion servant trots inside with a smile. “Good evening Your Majesty, honored ministers,” he says with a bow of his head. He turns his neck and takes the edge of the tray in his mouth before setting it down on the desk. Then he rises on his hind legs and quickly busies himself making three cups of steaming tea. “Our finest Willow Bark tea for His Majesty,” the bronze-coated servant smiles again, serving you first before Amethyst or Quill.
  174. 2/20
  175.  
  176. >You smile in return and raise the delicate looking crystal teacup, silently marveling at the gold filigree somehow infused under the crystal itself.
  177. ‘I can only imagine the obscene cost of the whole set,’ you think before taking a small sip. The flavor is odd, but you can't say you’ve ever had tea made from willow bark of all things. You give the servant a smile. “Thank you, Mister…”
  178. >The stallion blushes. “Oh, His Highness needn't worry himself about his servant or give thanks…” He says, bowing again after setting Quill and Amethyst’s cups down. “It pleases me to serve.”
  179. “And it would please me to thank you properly,” you counter, still smiling. “Where I am from, it’s only proper to thank anyone doing you a service, no matter how small, and I would enjoy having your name to do so.”
  180. >The stallion can’t quite hide his bashful expression, even with his head still bowed. “Bronze Ewer is my name, Sire,”
  181. “Thank you, Bronze Ewer,” You nod, taking another small sip from the cup in your hand. Already, you feel the edge being taken off your migraine. “Did you brew this?”
  182. >”I did, Sire.” Bronze’s visage suddenly shifts to something akin to worry. “I-Is something amiss?”
  183. >Hrm. He’s expecting some sort of negative response after you thanked him? Sombra didn’t play head games with his staff, did he?
  184. “Quite the opposite. My migraine is already beginning to fade, so my compliments to you.”
  185. >Bronze shifts back to bashful near instantly. “O-Oh! You humble me, Your Highness.”
  186. 3/20
  187.  
  188. “Take pride in your work, Bronze, because everyone’s part is important. I think that’ll be all for now, unless Madam Amethyst or Quill need anything?” You look over to the mares.
  189. >”No, Your Highness. Thank you for your consideration,” Quill says with a smile as Amethyst just shakes her head.
  190. >The servant stallion, still a bit pink in the cheeks, bows once more and silently exits, shutting the door behind himself with a quiet click.
  191. “Back on track,” You look between the pair of mares. “How critical were these crystal refineries and runecrafters to the Empire, both economically and otherwise?”
  192. >”They were our backbone, Sire,” Quill murmurs, looking down at her reflection in her tea. “The Empire’s farms can sustain us, and our land has modest deposits of ores for our own use, but refining crystals for mana storage and the secrets of runecrafting were our chief export. It gave us leverage in the wider market, and runecraft magic is what made our Empire so desirable, as it effectively put magic in the hooves of anypony who wanted it. With our top runecrafters gone and the crystal refineries running on skeleton crews, our place in the world has been adversely affected.”
  193. 4/20
  194.  
  195. You sigh. “I see… What sort of things can be accomplished with runecrafting, if you forgive my ignorance?”
  196. >”There is nothing to forgive, Sire.” Quill regains her bright smile. “Runecraft is the art of describing refined crystals with runes to direct magic spells, which are powered by the mana stored in the crystals. There is very little they CAN’T do. Basic runes operate with a sort of table, where messages containing spells are activated depending on surrounding conditions, sort of like different-”
  197. “-Gates,” you interrupt, making Quill blink in surprise as it suddenly clicks for you. “Boolean logic gates. That's astounding. Like a magic computer of all things,” you mutter, leaning back and letting your imagination run wild. You look up at the crystal lamp on the ceiling, wondering if it’s controlled with a magic switch somewhere in the room. A simple ‘If/Then’ statement would be all that it needs, unless the switch is mechanical like lightswitches back home. “I’ll definitely need to talk to Channel soon.” Then you realize you interrupted Quill and offer the mare a sheepish smile. “I apologize about the interruption, Quill. I was just surprised, is all.”
  198. >The emerald-colored mare regains her bearings quickly. “No need to apologize, my King. Are you familiar with runecraft?”
  199. You debate on what to say with a hum. “Not runecraft, but something similar. Very similar. I’m only a novice of such things, but if you can induce magic phenomena with runecraft and the Empire held a monopoly on such a service, then I understand just how important it is.”
  200. >”If it pleases His Highness…” Amethyst begins, tucking a bit of her purple, jaw-length mane behind her ear with a hoof. “I can work with Onyx Scale on a crown-funded incentive for runecraft education once the Empire’s immediate needs are seen to. With so many bits to work with, I imagine many ponies will be pleased to take up the art.”
  201. “Please do so.” You smile.
  202. >Just then there is frantic knocking on the door. “Highness! Honored ministers!” A mare on the other side cries. “Urgent news!”
  203. >Quill jumps from her seat and opens the door, letting a young guardsmare on the other side in. She snaps to a salute and stands with her eyes facing forward.
  204. >”What news do you have, guardsmare?” Quill asks, her eyes narrowing. “And identify yourself for His Majesty.”
  205. >”Sire, Ma’am! I am Specialist Arrowhead of the 3rd Infantry division!” The mare says, not dropping her salute. “The Crystal Heart! We found it!”
  206. 5/20
  207.  
  208. >That fast?
  209. You stand as quickly as you can without throwing your chair back. “At ease, Specialist. Has it been recovered? Spare no details.”
  210. >”Yes, Sire!” Specialist Arrowhead relaxes and nods rapidly, making her helmet bounce a little. “The alchemists found a hidden chamber in the throne room, and an expedition team ventured in. Most defenses in the way were defeated, but…” The mare shifts on her hooves. “Ah, the last defence could not be countered, and our squad lead Corporal Lazuli…”
  211. >Quill’s breath hitches and Amethyst’s eyes narrow. Your heart leaps into your throat as you pray to God that you didn’t lose a pony already.
  212. >”...She braved the last obstacle to recover the heart. According to the alchemists, the obstacle shows the trespasser their worst fear to deter them.”
  213. You resist the urge to chew on your lip, having no idea how severe the magic’s effects might be. “What is the corporal’s current status?”
  214. >”She’s currently resting in medical, Sire. She was shaken but unharmed,” Arrowhead shifts on her hooves again. “The medics have her talking to a counselor.”
  215. You don’t bother to hide your sigh of relief and hold a hand over your hammering heart. “Good. I was fearing the worst, there.” You look back to your attendant. “Quill, please remind me to visit Miss Lazuli so I can give her a personal thanks.”
  216. >”Of course, My King. I will clear out a spot in your schedule.” The emerald-maned mare smiles. She turns to Arrowhead and schools her face back into a professional mask. “Thank you, guardsmare. Please escort His Highness and I to where the Heart is being held. His Highness would like to move swiftly in restoring the Heart.”
  217. >The armored mare salutes again. “Yes, ma’am! Right this way.”
  218. 6/20
  219.  
  220. Before you leave, you turn to Amethyst. “Madam Amethyst? Will you be joining us?”
  221. >She shakes her head. “Go on, My King. There is much to be done and an old mare like myself will slow you down. I will await your announcement of our liberation before I venture out.”
  222. You nod in acknowledgment, then turn to Quill and Guardsmare Arrowhead. “Let's move.”
  223. >The ponies take off in a brisk trot with you following behind. As you walk, you watch the pair.
  224. >Arrowhead’s sky-blue-painted armor is too large for her, and it rubs and rattles even with the buckles pulled tight. Like most other ponies, she’s thin and her eyes are sunken slightly, no doubt from not eating enough. The short sword at her side is spotted with surface rust from disuse.
  225. >Quill, like most of the other ministers, obviously fared a bit better. Her ribs are just barely visible, and her emerald mane and long, almost-touching-the-floor tail still retain a bit of shiny luster. There is no fat on either her or Arrowhead.
  226. >As you pass through the halls, a few more guardsmares see you and form up with Arrowhead. Two trot on either side of you, just inches away, and another takes the spot behind you.
  227. >When you turn the corner into the throne room, you can't help but blink in surprise.
  228. >Standing around a square hole in the throne room floor that leads down a spiraling flight of stairs, a number of ponies in red cloaks wearing saddle bags mill around, many of them clustered around a glowing array of spiky, multicolored crystals that sits off to the side on a wheeled pedestal. In the mess of red-coated ponies, you see a frazzled Guildmaster Channel tapping away at the crystal array with a thin, quartz-like crystal held in her mouth. Each tap produces a short flash of light, but what exactly she is doing, you have no idea.
  229. >Guards boasting old spears stand in a perimeter around the hole, letting none get close enough to fall in, and off to the side of the room, Commander Shatter Point converses quietly with another guardsmare, one in armor more decorated than the others. An officer maybe? Just beside them is a wooden crate with six guards standing ready.
  230. 7/20
  231.  
  232. >Shatter Point looks past the officer she is conversing with and spies you with wide eyes. “My Lord!”
  233. >All activity in the room stops as everyone turns to look at your entourage. Many of the guards remain stoic and salute while a number of the red-cloaked ponies openly gape, having never seen you before.
  234. >”That’s him! Bow!” You just barely hear Channel hiss.
  235. >The ponies in red all quickly prostrate themselves.
  236. All the eyes on you makes you just a little uneasy, but you raise a hand is a dismissive wave. “Everyone, there is no need to interrupt your work on my account. Please resume.”
  237. >Slowly, the ponies raise themselves and return to their jobs, though at a slower rate as their gazes follow you.
  238. >Shatter Point quickly trots up with her officer trailing her, and both stop to snap their hooves up in a salute. “My King.”
  239. “At ease, everyone,” You fold your hands behind your back. “Commander, report. Spare no details.”
  240. >”Sire, the retrieval team headed by Corporal Lazuli successfully recovered the Crystal Heart at approximately 1600 hours today,” The violet-coated mare lets her hoof drop, but she keeps her narrow-eyed, tense visage. “Injuries to the retrieval team were minor, with only Corporal Lazuli needing medical attention. The medics report that she will recover.”
  241. “Excellent,” you offer Shatter Point a smile, which makes her ease just the slightest amount. “According to Specialist Arrowhead here,” you gesture to the lead of your little honor guard. “The final defence around the heart was a curse that forces the target to live through their worst fear, correct?”
  242. >Shatter nods once, making her short mane bob. “Yes, Sire.”
  243. >You smile a little wider as an idea comes to you.
  244. “Commander, please see that Sergent Lazuli is properly rewarded for going above and beyond the call of duty.”
  245. 8/20
  246.  
  247. Shatter Point nods, not even questioning your words. “Of course, My King. Moving on, please allow me to introduce one of my officers, Lieutenant Aegis,” she says, raising a hoof to the guardsmare at her side.
  248. >Aegis is a bit shorter than Shatter Point, with a beige coat and an orange mane and tail both neatly cropped. Like the other guards, her armor is loose on her and her thin, patchy coat combined with her tired blue eyes makes her seem ill. “My King,” she murmurs with an incline of her head.
  249. >Gah. If you weren’t sure that it would be wildly inappropriate, you’d give each of these poor ponies a hug. They look like they need it.
  250. >”I charged the Lieutenant with dispatching guardsmares into the city to address any unrest,” The senior officer says before looking over at Aegis. “Present your report to His Highness, Lieutenant.”
  251. >”Yes Commander,” Aegis inclines her head again. “King Anonymous, I dispatched twenty teams of three equipped with communication rune arrays to different sectors of the city to quell and panic and keep order. Initial reports indicate little panic, but many ponies seem to think that the disappearance of their collars is some sort of trick or cruel prank from Sombra, and that something worse is on the horizon. My guards were ordered to not confirm or deny any rumors as you wished, and are still in the city.”
  252. “Hrm…” You rub your chin. “Communication rune arrays? I assume this is a type of runecraft that allows the transmitting of information and orders remotely, yes?”
  253. >”You assume correctly, Highness.” Aegis nods. She leans her head to the side and taps the neck of her armor with a shoe-covered hoof, and you can see a mess of scribbles unlike any language you've seen etched into the armor. “I can issue orders by speaking into this rune, and listen to incoming messages thanks to a rune in my helmet.”
  254. >Curious. How does that work? Does the armor itself have the power to send and receive over such a distance? Or is there a signal booster or a repeater somewhere in the city? Maybe in the palace itself? You shake away such musings for later.
  255. “Thank you, Lieutenant. If the Heart has been recovered, please send word to your troops to announce a…” You struggle for a second to find the word. “Royal announcement at the foot of the palace in say…” You peer down to Quill, who has been silent the entire time so far. “Quill, about how long will it take to reactivate the Heart and it defences?”
  256. >The mare mulls over her answer. “My Liege, if you plan on announcing the end of Sombra and the beginning of your reign, the sudden joy of the ponies should jump-start the Crystal Heart right away.”
  257. 9/20
  258.  
  259. “Two hours, then,” you say, turning back to Aegis. “Attendance is not mandatory, but encouraged.”
  260. >The Lieutenant nods. “At once,” she says before leaning her head down to the rune in her armor. “Advance teams, this is Lieutenant Aegis. Listen carefully, as these orders are from the King himself. Begin informing the subjects that a royal announcement will be held in two hours at the foot of the palace. Specify that attendance is not mandatory, but heavily encouraged.”
  261. >Aegis remains still for a moment, her ear flicking as she probably gets replies back. Then she looks back up to you. “Your will has been done, Sire. All teams are functioning as criers to inform the city of your announcement.”
  262. “Thank you,” you smile. “Now-”
  263. >Before you can finish, the gaping hole in the center of the throne room glows a sickly purple, and before your astounded eyes, the floor rematerlizes, covering the hole as if it was never there.
  264. >By the array of crystals, Channel sighs and lets the quartz pen in her mouth fall to the floor with a quiet ‘clink!’
  265. “Good timing…” You muse aloud, releasing the instinctual grip on the hunting revolver still strapped to your side. That reminds you. Where did the ponies put your backpack? You’ll have to ask soon. “Guildmaster!” You call, getting Channel’s attention instantly. “A word, please?”
  266. >The young strawberry-blonde mare scoops up the crystal pen and tucks it into a hidden pocket in her cloak, then she gallops up before sliding to a stop before you. “Y-Yes, Your Majesty?” She asks, nervously tapping a hoof on the floor. “How can I help?”
  267. “Just a few things, Guildmaster, no need to be anxious,” You morph your expression into something gentle. “Firstly, thank you and your alchemists for finding the hiding spot of the Heart so quickly. You’ve saved everyone in the palace a sleepless night, and everyone outside another day in the cold, I’m certain.”
  268. >Channel’s brilliant blush is easily visible through her white coat, and a few of the red-cloaked ponies behind her smile. One of them, even younger than Channel, wiggles adorably in delight at the praise.
  269. >“No need to thank us, My Lord. Silver tipped us off that Sombra would naturally keep the Heart close to him at all times, and thus we checked his quarters and the throne room first,” Channel humbly explains.
  270. 10/20
  271.  
  272. You nod. “Naturally. It’s the nature of tyrants to be paranoid and untrusting. Secondly, I would like to ask you a few technical questions regarding the heart. How is it activated, exactly?”
  273. >”It’s largely automatic, Your Majesty,” she says, trotting over to the wooden crate being guarded by the team of six guards and beckoning you to follow.
  274. >You fall into step beside her, and Quill, Shatter Point, Aegis, and the rest of the honor guard trail just a bit behind.
  275. >The guards move out of the way when your group approaches, smartly stepping to the side so Channel can lift the lid of the crate.
  276. >You peer inside, and are promptly struck dumb by how beautiful the massive gemstone inside is.
  277. >The blue, heart-shaped gem is as large as your head and is cut to perfection. Its faces are flawless, its edges are crisp, and the inside of the massive sapphire is free of any voids or impurities. This is the sort of treasure men would slay their kin over.
  278. >’By God. I can only imagine the price this would fetch back home…’ You silently marvel at the Crystal Heart.
  279. >Channel rests her forelegs over the edge of the crate to look down at the Heart with an expression of hope. ”Devoid of joy from surrounding ponies, the Heart would be inert, but take a close look, Sire. Do you notice anything?” Channel asks.
  280. >You do.
  281. >Deep in the center of the Heart, a faint blue light shines, illuminating the inside of the wooden crate.
  282. >”With just the hope of the ponies in the palace, the Heart is already shining,” Quill cuts in, looking over the edge of the box with misty eyes. She blinks her ears away and clears her throat.
  283. 11/20
  284.  
  285. >”All you need to do, Sire,” Channel drops back down to the floor and adjusts her glasses. “Is give hope back to the Empire, and the Heart will do the rest. When you declare Sombra dead and show the Heart to everypony outside, everything will go back to normal.” She blinks and takes a shuddering breath. “E-Everything will go back to normal…” Channel’s eyes slowly fill with tears. “I-It’s really over, isn’t it?” She whispers, and to your alarm, the tears in her eyes spill over and form wet trails down her muzzle. She takes off her glasses to rub at her eyes, and again you notice her youth. How young is she? “Is i-it actually over this time?”
  286. >To hell with it. Being a king means caring about the ones you lead, right?
  287. >Like you did with Onyx, you drop down to a knee and pull Channel into a hug.
  288. >She stiffens and a number of watching ponies go still or gasp, but you ignore them and hold the young mare close, silently holding back your fury when you can feel how bony she is under her cloak.
  289. “This is my promise to not just you, Channel, but for everyone in this empire,” You tenderly run a hand through the back of her mane as you look up and meet the eyes of everyone watching. “I’ll die before I let ANY of you be slaves again. I know the pain of an uncaring ruler, not to the degree of the brave ponies here, but I know it. The old regime is over, and the newest, brightest chapter of your lives is just now beginning.”
  290. >The mare in your grasp abandons the ironclad grip on her emotions and hugs you back. Unlike Onyx, Channel breaks down in great, hiccuping sobs that wrack her whole frame, making her feel that much more fragile to you. You just hold her tightly so she can let it out, gently rubbing up and down her back and slowly rocking back and forth like you might with a child.
  291. >For all you know about ponies, Channel might ACTUALLY be a child.
  292. >You hold her a little tighter.
  293. 12/20
  294.  
  295. >Slowly, Channel calms her sobbing, reducing it to just sniffles as she shakes. “Thank you, Your Highness…” She whispers. “I’m sorry, I just…”
  296. “There is nothing to forgive,” you tell her, loud enough that the rest of the throne room can hear. “I can’t be a good, or even a decent king if I didn’t care about you all, now can I?” When no one answers, you continue. “It takes strength to come forward with your emotions like that, Guildmaster. Don’t ever think otherwise. I am, of course, available to talk for anyone who wishes it,” you smile and stand again, Channel reluctantly pulling away when you do.
  297. >That was a little risky there. If Channel didn’t visibly begin crying, it would have been much harder to justify the hug. You wanted to comfort her, but will everyone see you as sympathetic, or will they see the Guildmaster as weak? You look around to gauge everyone’s response.
  298. >Quill is wearing a pleased smile, but there is a look in her eye you have trouble placing. It seems almost wistful.
  299. >Shatter Point and Aegis are both straight-faced. Nothing to read from them.
  300. >A number of the guardsmares mirror their superiors, while others smile faintly, but one or two seem upset by something. You’re unsure what.
  301. >The alchemists stopped wheeling the great crystal apparatus out to watch, and several of them seem conflicted while most simply smile brightly. They quickly wheel the shiny contraption out when they notice you looking.
  302. >”My Liege, if I may?” Quill begins, stepping a bit closer with a soft ‘clip-clop’ on the crystal floor. “We should begin writing your speech for your coronation.”
  303. 13/20
  304.  
  305. -----------------------------------------
  306. >Emerald Quill is an accomplished mare.
  307. >Eldest daughter of Duchess Emerald Sheen, Heir to The Noble House of Emerald, and Royal Attendant of The Crystal Empire.
  308. >And she’s about to become the only Royal Attendant to see the rise of two kings in one lifetime.
  309. >With Sombra, it was only a game. He seized Princess Amore’s crown from her corpse and destroyed it before a crowd of horrified onlookers. When the Crystal Heart began to fail, he abandoned his poor facade of kindness.
  310. >Instead he shackled the ponies of the Empire, and with this drew the power for his spells from them when the Crystal Heart refused to aid in his schemes. The only way one could avoid the pain of their own lifeforce being sapped was to serve in the mines, digging up mana-rich crystals to present to the king.
  311. >For 7 years they endured a tortured existence. Many became ill with stress and many passed from the strain, but they persisted.
  312. >The Solar and Lunar princesses clashed with Sombra, but with thousands of bodies and a horde of crystals to draw his mana from, the skill of the princesses could not compete with his sheer might.
  313. >With their strength flagging, the Equestrians launched one final spell, then… nothing. Quill can't recall what happened afterward.
  314. >It was as if all the ponies in the Empire were adrift in a drunken stupor. Time lost meaning, senses became muddled, but it was no rest, as everypony knew deep in their soul what awaits when they find purchase in the world again. Then all at once, the spell ended.
  315. >The Equestrians were nowhere to be found, and Sombra’s reign continued.
  316. >Only a day later he came in, Anonymous.
  317. >The scene will be burned in Quill’s memory forever.
  318. 14/20
  319.  
  320. >The tall foreigner, escorted in by a pair of guards, was unlike anything Quill had ever seen. He carried himself with a noble stallion’s pride and confidence, and all the presence of a mighty alicorn, one wholly disinterested with Sombra’s bluster. His attire, still dripping with melting snow, told a muddled story of a land faraway.
  321. >When the dark king began to draw upon their bodies to strike down the foreigner, he did not cower, nor beg.
  322. >No. Like a hardened mare, he remained standing, defiant in the face of death.
  323. >To Quill’s shame, she didn’t cry out for him to move, to save himself, for fear of being punished.
  324. >Then with a flash of silver and the sound of thunder, Sombra was no more. The smoking weapon held in the paw (hand, Quill corrects herself) of Anonymous must have been heard around the world.
  325. >Anonymous walked up to Sombra’s limp form, and in one smooth motion, pushed the dead despot from the throne before claiming it for himself.
  326. >As the magic collar crumbled from her neck, Quill felt lightheaded, and her world began to spin.
  327. >Anonymous leapt down from the throne and caught her before she fell, giving her a smile that brightened the dark room.
  328. >His first act upon seizing the throne was to lift her up, and ask if he could do more to help her.
  329. >Princess Amore was divine, radiant, and a wonderful ruler before Sombra...
  330. >But at that moment, being held in a pair of gentle hands, that was when Emerald Quill knew what TRUE loyalty for somepony else felt like.
  331. 15/20
  332.  
  333. >The Royal Attendant shakes away her thoughts as she peers out from behind the curtains of the hastily-set-up stage sitting before the pedestal of the Crystal Heart.
  334. >Outside are several thousand ponies lining the street, all of them lean and miserable in the winter cold. The expressions they all wear range from weary to just blank. Several seem curious, but they too remain guarded. Many rub their now free necks. Only the rare few foals, worth their weight in gold, look interested.
  335. >Quill smiles and turns back to the others with her behind the curtain.
  336. >Onyx Scale stands to the right of the King, parchment held in her hoof and she and the King go over his speech once more. Off to the side, the other ministers wait patiently, and behind them is a detail of guardsmares surrounding the crate holding the Crystal Heart.
  337. >It’s an inspired speech, one from deep in his soul, but it was just too extreme. Quill had made some edits and changes to it. Her King’s experience in level-headed leading is unquestionable, but it would be some time before he becomes an accomplished public speaker.
  338. >No matter, though. He has Quill to help him.
  339. >With one final deep breath, the emerald-headed mare steps out onto the stage.
  340. >The muttering of the crowd slows to a stop when Quill takes the stage. As she steps onto a rune in the wood, the sound of her clearing her throat is magnified ten times over, carrying all the way to the end of the crowd through the blustery wind.
  341. >Just as her mother taught her, Quill imagines the crowd to be a tenth of its true size, cutting her nerves down drastically as she smiles.
  342. “Ponies of the Crystal Empire,” Quill begins, the rune under her hoof lighting up as her voice booms. “Today, I come to you with incredible news. Many of you may be wondering why your collars are gone, and why the royal guard now dons the colors of the old Empire again. I and here to answer these questions for you. As of this morning…” Quill pauses. “Sombra... is no more.”
  343. >Gasps and exclamations break out over the mass of ponies. Eyes all over are wide, while others are narrowed in suspicion.
  344. “You have seen the proof firsthoof,” Quill continues over that chatter, waving her hoof at everyone. “Our bindings are no more, and the tyranny of black-hearted Sombra is but a memory, all thanks to your new King.”
  345. >Once more, there is silence.
  346. “He came to us only this morning, a stranger from a strange land, wielding a power Sombra knew not That power, you ask?” Quill feels her chest beginning to swell, and she resists the urge to tuft. “A just heart. A kind smile. A will of iron. He slew the black king, then took the throne as his own. His first action as King? To ask ‘How can I help’.”
  347. >In the back of her mind, Quill is delighted to see the crowd listening closely. Some of the dour faces even begin to brighten in hope.
  348. 16/20
  349.  
  350. “He swept through the palace like a storm, and already his plans to revive our proud Empire are put into motion, for he is a King who knows the despair of despots just as we! One sees what the poison of subjugation does to ponies! One… who understands...” Quill’s voice swells with emotion. “It’s with great pleasure that I introduce Anonymous, Hero of the Empire, and Your King!”
  351. >From beyond the curtain, the King steps forth like a colossus, his great height drawing everypony’s eyes as his long strides carry him forward seemingly without effort. His foreign, rough garbs are partially covered with a light-blue collared cloak that a palace tailor made at the last minute, and the billowing cloak only serves to make his broad frame even more imposing.
  352. >Even with much confusion and uncertainty, many ponies stomp their hooves in applause.
  353. >”Thank you, Emerald Quill, your praise humbles me,” he says, his voice rumbling across the Empire as the rune under his boot amplifies his voice. He turns to the watching ponies, many of whom look dumbfounded or awestruck as their applause dies down. “Ponies of the Empire,” he smiles and his foal-eyes sparkle with a captivating shine. “I hail unto you from a land far away, a land where we were promised three things. These were rights, unable to be taken away from us by anyone.”
  354. >He raises a hand, then then a finger. “Life.”
  355. >Another finger. “Liberty.”
  356. >And a third. “And the pursuit of happiness.”
  357. >”All citizens were entitled to these three things, no ifs, ands, or buts.” The King’s smile fades, instead replaced with a somber frown. “These rights are the antithesis of those who would rule for their own benefit, however, and Sombra was a prime example. He robbed you of your life, for you did not live for yourselves, but for him. He robbed you of your liberty, for he bound you in chains and dictated your choices for you, and he robbed you of your ability to pursue happiness, for without life or liberty, can you truly be happy?”
  358. 17/21
  359.  
  360. >He lowers his hand. “My own home faced these same problems, but at a much slower pace, too slow for the average person to realize what was going on. Those who saw could only watch in horrified disbelief. It was only chance, or perhaps the work of a higher power that brought me here?” He shakes his head. “I don’t know. What I DO know is that Sombra would be the death of the Crystal Empire.”
  361. >Countless faces in the crowd flinch.
  362. >”With that in mind, I made my choice,” The King’s visage hardens into hewn marble as he closes his eyes. “And I struck Sombra down.”
  363. >There is total silence at the declaration, as if everypony waits with bated breath.
  364. >”I would not, could not watch a great nation fall again,” he declares, expression softening. “So I took the throne, so I might correct what he did. With God as my witness, I swear to you all, that never again will you be slaves.”
  365. >His voice picks up as he opens his eyes, which now glint in the low light of the Empire’s perpetual blizzard. “Sombra is dead, and so is his regime! Never again will you be subjugated! Never again will you suffer the tyrant! I will see you all whole and happy, or I will die trying!” He roars, eyes blazing. “For my first act as ruler…”
  366. >From under his cloak, King Anonymous raises the Crystal Heart, which glows with a radiant light. “I hereby declare the reign of Sombra over, by giving the Crystal Heart back to it’s rightful owners! The ponies of the Empire!”
  367. 18/21
  368.  
  369. >The onlookers watch with dropped jaws as the heart glows brighter and brighter, casting a warm, soothing light over the crowd.
  370. >The Heart lifts from the King’s hand of its own accord, floating down to the pointed pedestal where it sat for hundreds of years before, and it’s light only continues to grow.
  371. >One pony in the crowd begins stomping in applause.
  372. >Then another.
  373. >Then ten.
  374. >A hundred.
  375. >A thousand.
  376. >Cheers, true joyous cheers ring from the crowd of ponies. Countless more join the mass from their homes, drawn by the light of the Heart. Some cry, others hug, but all of them feel one thing, and Quill knows it.
  377. >Hope.
  378. >The nightmare is OVER.
  379. >Shining like a star, the Crystal Heart explodes with magic, blinding everypony for a moment.
  380. >When the light dies down, Quill can feel it.
  381. >Sunlight.
  382. >She opens her eyes, and can’t help but tear up.
  383. >High above, the snow clouds are gone, pushed away by the magic dome now encircling the Empire, and the light of the afternoon sun shines down, warming her to the bone.
  384. >Quill looks down at her sparkling forelegs and takes a deep breath as the magic of the Heart courses through her veins for the first time in almost eight years, taking the edge off her weakness and aches.
  385. >The cheers of the throng of ponies below only redouble when they too feel the magic of the Heart, and even more break down into tears even as they smile.
  386. >Quill looks up at the King, who smiles down at her with eyes shining like a crystal pony’s. He reaches a hand down and runs it through her glittering mane. Despite how foalish it makes her feel, Quill leans into the touch.
  387. 19/21
  388.  
  389. >One by one, Amethyst Lens, Ruby Rose, and Onyx Scale come out from behind the curtain and form a line across the stage, and Quill pulls away from the King to line up with them.
  390. >Ruby steps forward first. Her beige coat is plain even with the Heart’s magic, but her fiery mane and tail combined with her vermillion eyes makes her utterly captivating. “My King,” her smooth voice quelling the cheering of the watching ponies. “In our time of need, you descended upon the Crystal Empire and did away with the black king, then unto me, you asked how might you feed your starved subjects.” Her little smile grows. “You moved with swiftness to see the Heart recovered so that we are fed and allowed to flourish, and for your selfless heart, the Noble House of Ruby hereby pledges itself to you, now and forever,” Ruby bows so low that her snoot almost touches the floor and remains there.
  391. Quill, as the representative of the next Noble House, steps forward with a gulp and a fluttering heart. “My King, when you seized the throne, the shock of witnessing Sombra’s fall and your ascension left me weak. When I faltered, you leapt down from the throne so you might catch me,” Quill replays the memory in her head as her lips turn up of their own accord. “The first words from your mouth were those of concern, and a question on how you could help not just me, but everypony. For your kind heart, The Noble House of Emerald hereby pledges itself to you, now and forever.” Quill bows and remains so, just like Ruby.
  392. >Amethyst steps forward next, her stoic face breaking in favor of a tender expression. “My King,” she’s much more quiet than Ruby. “Unto me, you asked to see the finances and treasures of the Empire. With eyes unclouded by greed, you asked how you could give them back to the ponies you rule. For your just heart, the Noble House of Amethyst hereby pledges itself to you, now and forever.” And with that, she joins Quill and Ruby in a deep bow.
  393. >With a beaming smile and a bounce in her step, Onyx Scale takes her place next. “My King,” the older, peach-coated mare throws a bit of her lustrous black mane over her shoulder and becomes somber. “You heard the plights of your ponies, and the tragedy of The Exile. When the tale was told, there was no false pity or pretty platitudes offered by you. No, your expression of genuine horror, then the hardening of your eyes told a truth of sympathy and the resolve to protect where worlds would fail. For your caring heart, the Union of Minor Houses hereby pledges itself to you, now and forever by unanimous decision,” Even with her head low, Quill can see Onyx’s beaming grin return as she prostrates herself.
  394. 20/21
  395.  
  396. >”Everyone, please, stand,” The King smiles and Quill and her fellows rise. “Come, stand not behind me, but beside me,” he gestures with an open hand.
  397. >Quill smiles and gladly takes her King’s right side. A sidelong glance at the others shows they too understand just what the King wants to symbolise.
  398. >Ruby coolly takes His Majesty’s left with an utterly radiant Onyx beside her. Amethyst, meanwhile, stands beside Quill, as calm as they come.
  399. >”With the Crystal Heart restored, the Empire united, and a new era of the Crystal Empire dawning,” the King begins again, waiting for a second as the ponies slowly contain their joy. “I feel it is only appropriate to reinstate a tradition wrongfully taken from you. In two week’s time, we will hold the Crystal Fair to properly celebrate the freedom of the Empire!”
  400. >Once again, the ponies of the empire roar in approval.
  401. >The King’s soft hand once more finds its way into Quill’s mane, where it gently rubs right behind her ear.
  402. >With the warm sun on her face, her magic flowing, and a deep breath of her King’s scent, she smiles.
  403. >For the first time in years, Emerald Quill feels free.
  404. 21/21

Untitled

by NOF

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by NOF

Junior

by NOF