The Crystal Heart glowed a dim burgundy, the low light pulsing like a throbbing heart and barely managing to cut through the darkness. Princess Skyla could see her reflection in its blood-red facets as clearly as if she were gazing into a mirror. Though the ground she stood on sent an icy chill through her body, and the air was dusty and stale, she could feel the Crystal Heart’s power radiating through her like a fever.
Hesitant hoofsteps echoed through the darkness behind Skyla. Her lips curled into a smile as she saw the pony’s horrified face reflected in the Crystal from where he was standing. Bathed in the crimson light of the Crystal Heart, it was impossible to determine what hue either of them were, but she already knew exactly who he was.
“Why, Prince Sombra… so good of you to meet me here,” she intoned smoothly, regally. The Crystal Heart’s pulse kept pace with her words, like a candle wavering from her frigid breath.
He flinched at the title, eyes narrowing to slits. “Skyla. What in Celestia’s name are you doing here? And what is… that?” he demanded in an ominous voice, jabbing a hoof at the floating red crystal.
She chuckled. That expression he wore like a shield, so complex. Fear, tension, distrust… expectation. But Skyla was not afraid; even reflected in the violently red Crystal Heart, his visage was a shadow of his formerly glorious self.
“Don’t you recognize its perfection? You out of all ponies - oh, I’m sorry, Umbrum - should know. It is - “
“The Crystal Heart,” Sombra snapped. “I’m no foal. But what have you done to it?”
Skyla sneered, observing his mounting anxiety from the glassy scarlet surface of the Heart. “I’m sure you have been well-informed of all the mindless drivel about light and love. As you and I have both proven, you need neither to become a great ruler. But while you feared it and locked the Heart away, I decreed that its power be put use in order to benefit the Crystal Empire.”
Sombra let out a breathless laugh of disbelief. His voice was quieter as he replied, “So, then what, Skyla? Instead of filling it with light and love, you…” he trailed off. The words were too horrible to say. “Impossible. You couldn’t have!”
“Oh, but it was all too easy!” The grinning princess’s stare fixed on Sombra’s reflection hungrily. “What is the Crystal Heart but a conduit for power, I ask you! And, from one monarch to another, let me tell you that it is worlds more efficient to induce pain and hate rather than happiness, especially using my armies! Not even with magic could I force myself to be happy!”
“Monster!” Sombra’s roar rang off the stone walls, deafening Skyla’s ranting. He harshly struck his hooves against the ground, punctuating his low growls. “The royal family has fought your armies. We have met your demands! I have come here, as agreed upon! So what do you want? What do you mean to accomplish by this war?”
Skyla’s brow darkened like storm clouds. The Crystal Heart’s red glow grew brighter. “Oh. Pardon me. I forgot that Cadenza took you in after your… fall. You are still trailing after her tail like a starving dog? Surprising… ” she spat, voice dripping with ice and venom. “Well. Then, let me get straight to the point. I want to make a deal with you.”
“A deal?” he echoed. “With me? Not with the generals, Prince Shining Armor or Princess Cadenza, or even Princess Flurry Heart?”
“Don’t you dare mention that pony’s name in my presence!” Skyla hissed, whipping around for the first time to glare at Sombra. She had to push her unkempt and disheveled hair out of her eyes at she took a deep breath and looked back at the Crystal, struggling to compose herself all of a sudden. “I am perfect. Unlike her,” she muttered, as if trying to reassure herself. “Ahem. Prince Sombra, I have done no paltry amount of studying on the history of the Crystal Empire in my rise to the throne, and I understand that this land is rightfully yours. I cannot imagine the suffering you and your people have been through… and I am sorry. Nobody should have their kingdom torn away from them like that.”
She was sincere, he knew it. Sombra’s eyes widened. An apology? To the former king of darkness, who had inflicted so much pain on ponies in his wrongful rampage? Even under the acceptance and reform of Princess Cadenza, he had not expected anything more than distrustful tolerance from the Crystal ponies, let alone an apology.
Skyla went on, holding a hoof up to the blood-red Crystal Heart. “Are you wondering why I summoned you here, to the catacombs where the Umbrum originally slept before ponies disrupted their slumber? With the power I hold, I can fix all the wrongs we have done, putting your people back to the way they were before. That is my way of making amends, from one race to another.”
Sombra could hardly believe what he was hearing. Her words sank horrifically and heavily into his heart, awakening memories and feelings he had long buried. “... You said you wanted to make a deal,” he said slowly. “What do you gain from this? In exchange for reviving my people, what do you want?”
“You know what I want. It’s what I have always strived for: to be acknowledged as the rightful ruler of the Crystal Empire.” Skyla tightened her wings folded at her back. “When… when my sister returned, with Dragon Lord Ember as her consort no less, half the Empire demanded that she be reinstated as heir to the throne. You must know what it is like for your people to be taken away from you as a monarch, Prince Sombra. We’re the same, you and I.”
A sudden sadness flickered over Skyla’s face, causing Sombra to falter. “Is it not natural to want the best leader for your people? One who holds herself to the highest standards, rather than abandoning her duties to gallivant across the countryside with a dragon? God, I - “ She clutched the Crystal Heart, leaning against it heavily, momentarily overcome by emotion. The feverish warmth of the pain she had fed it brought back her resolve. “Excuse my… impropriety. What I want is very simple, Prince Sombra: ally with me against those ignorant ponies and I will bring back your race, the Umbrum.”
Sombra was quiet for a long while. He had never thought that the Crystal Heart could transform this way… this gruesome, terrible way. Could it really happen? Could he rewind time so that the awful things he had done had never happened, or finally achieve closure for so many Umbrum who had died in vain to a war of misunderstanding and invasion? Would he… finally be liked in others’ eyes?
But he lifted his gaze from his hooves to Skyla and her glowing, bloody Heart. She was obsessed with her reflection in it. If he accepted Skyla’s deal, would he become just like her? A pony who betrayed her allies, taking what she wanted by magic and steel, shivering and twitching in the dark?
After a long time, he tilted his head forward and stepped into the light of the Crystal Heart. Skyla’s smile widened maniacally.
“No?!” she shrieked.
“You were a fool for ever thinking that I would agree to such an offer, Skyla. Do you even regret everything you’ve done?! All the ponies you’ve killed and tortured to corrupt the light and love of the Crystal Heart? The war you started because of your resentment, tearing families - including your own - apart!”
“Nothing less than what you have done!” Skyla cried furiously.
“True, perhaps we were alike once,” he spat bitterly. “But I am not that Umbrum anymore! How could you make the same mistake I did? Look at yourself, Skyla! You once had the respect of every pony in the Crystal Empire, something I could never have! But you threw it all away - and for what? For a bloody crown wrested from the hooves of your own sister? Now you huddle around that thing that is no longer the Crystal Heart in the cold and dark, with nobody at your side! You’ve chased away everybody who ever loved you!”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up! They never loved me, they loved my sister!” Skyla screamed. “‘Flurry Heart’s so amazing’, ‘Flurry Heart’s so adorable’, wow, she looks so happy I could stab her! And once I’m done with her, I’m going to take what is rightfully mine, with or without your assistance!” Hot, angry tears streamed down her pale cheeks, red in the Crystal’s light, but she didn’t notice. Heaving from her outburst, she reached for the Crystal to destroy Sombra until he was nothing but ashes, but the sound of his galloping hooves was already receding into the darkness.
Crack! Another sound rang out.
Gasping for breath, she stared at herself reflected in the Crystal. Fractures in the once-flawless gem were now criss-crossing their way across its smooth surface. Its deep crimson light shined brighter than it had ever had shone, blinding Skyla, who now scrabbled at the Crystal in an attempt to forcefully hold it together.
But the light grew brighter and brighter, and brighter and brighter, until finally the Crystal shattered into a million infinitesimally tiny, glittering fragments that slipped out of her grasp.
And she was left in the dark.