He walked fast along the elaborate marble corridors of the palace, all the while worrying what would be waiting for him at the end of it. Shining Armour had just left the side of his sister, Twilight Sparkle, in the Canterlot royal hospital, having ensured her well-being, and was now making his way towards the meeting chamber of the palace. He'd been called there by Celestia herself to discuss, as described in her letter to him, a matter of great importance. Shining suspected it had something to do with the recent dragon attack on Ponyville, though that was mere speculation on his part.
After some time, he found his destination, a large wooden door at the end of the hallway. It was flanked by two unicorn guards, both of whom saluted him on approach. He gave a small smiled and nodded back. Although he was no longer captain of the royal guard, he had personally trained many of those who were still serving, including the two at this door. But he had no time to reminisce right now and, as he made his was towards the door, it was engulfed in the glow of the guards' magic, and soon opened.
Inside was a less well-lit room than the hall and was circular in shape. At it's centre was a large stone table, circular like the room. Around it stood several figures. The one closest to the door turned to face him and smiled. Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. Cadence to those closest to her. Shining's beloved wife. He walked beside her, taking his place next to her and nuzzled her head affectionately in greeting. It was after this that he turned to face the other figures. Two were the high princesses, Celestia and Luna. Although Luna nodded at him in greeting, Celestia did not look up to see him, instead keeping her head down and looking uncharacteristically unhappy about something.
As much as Shining was unaccustomed to seeing the princess like that, his full attention was drawn to the final figure around the table. It was a unique creature few had ever laid eyes upon. A body serpent-like in shape, with a combination of mis-matched body parts as though somepony had cobbled together many different animals to make one.
Discord, the lord of chaos, and one-time enemy of Equestria.
The spirit looked at the captain, gave a brief grin and then nodded. Shining turned to his wife, giving her a look of uncertainty. She smiled back and nodded, knowing full-well what was going on in his head. Shining had heard much of this creature, having been responsible for a great deal of suffering in this land. Only recently however, was he eventually turned to the side of good, having been convinced to abandon his mischievous ways by one of Twilight's closest friends, Fluttershy.
Although Shining was wary, if Twilight and the other princesses had vouched for him, he would accept his presence here. And so, he gave Discord a silent nod back. It was at this moment that the silence was broken by the sound of Princess Luna speaking up.
"Friends. We are gathered here today because Equestria faces a grave threat. One which requires serious actions".
The mood was ruined somewhat by the sound of Discord snorting, which drew everypony's attention.
"Oh please! From what I hear you ponies can't go one week without something major happening." He said dismissively.
Shining narrowed his eyes at such a disrespectful comment, but Luna spoke up again.
"This is different. We are dealing with an enemy. An intelligent enemy that seeks to do harm to this nation."
Luna turned her gaze away from Discord and towards Shining.
"Shining Armour. Cadence. As you know, Ponyville recently came under a serious attack by a dragon. Fortunately, from what the clean-up crews told me, the damage was mostly to the buildings and no pony was harmed. However, the fact that the dragon attacked at all is a cause for concern."
Shining nodded. Dragons were, by far, the most ferocious beasts in Equestria. The few times that ponies had interacted with them had never ended pleasantly.
"The reports we've gained, coupled with the fact that there was no gold or treasure in Ponyville for the dragon to covet, leads us to believe that the only explanation....is that it was enchanted."
The room fell silent at that statement, with even Discord suddenly sitting up and taking things seriously. Shining glanced over at Celestia, who was still looking morose and quiet, despite the severity of the situation. But his gaze drew back to Luna as the continued.
"Dragon are perhaps the most inherently magical and powerful creatures we know of. To influence their behaviour with magic, even slightly, takes both great talent and enormous concentration. But to influence a dragon in the way this one was, to take it over completely, that is magic on a whole other level. And that alone should tell us just how dangerous a foe we face."
Shining and Cadence turned to each other. It was clear from each other's expressions that both were concerned over this. There were only a handful of magic users in Equestria who could perform behaviour-altering magic, and none of them had ever been known to be gifted enough in magic to pull something like this off.
Cadence turned to look at Luna.
"What can be done to find out who's behind this?!" She asked.
Luna raised a hoof and gestured it towards Cadence.
"Fear not. Measures have already been taken to find out. After the dragon attack, we made efforts to try and trace the dragon's path, trying to figure out where it might have come from. To that end, we enlisted the aid of one who knows much about dragons. A friend of Twilight, known as Zecora."
Discord looked at Luna and raised an eyebrow.
"Zecora? I don't recognise the name." He said.
Luna faced him and shook her head.
"I doubt you would. She's not a pony after all, but a zebra. And on top of that, she lives a fairly secluded life, in the Everfree Forest."
Discord put his hand to his chin, clearly intrigued.
"A zebra you say? My my. She IS far from home, isn't she? And you say she lives in Everfree? Good to know there's someone out there not scared to bits by that place." He commented jovially.
Luna ignored his remark and got back to business.
"Zecora accepted our request and got to work trying to find out where the dragon might have come from. Her people have always had an intimate knowledge of many magical creatures and their behaviour, so it didn't take long for her to find the dragon's trail. Her search soon lead her to what she believes to be the source of the dragon's journey........the Everfree Castle."
Shining's eyes widened with shock. The Everfree Castle? He'd heard only stories. Legend had it that it was the old capital of Equestria, prior to princess Luna's banishment to the moon. Afterwards it became the resting place of the elements of harmony. And, not so long ago, it was where his sister and her friends became the new bearers of the elements and drove the dark influence out of Luna. But as fascinating as this was, one important question remained.
"That castle has been abandoned for centuries. What was the dragon doing there? And who could have cast a spell that powerful on it?" He asked.
Luna opened her mouth to speak, but then glanced over at her sister. Celestia, still silent, simply nodded grimly. Luna turned back to Shining and Cadence and gave a deep sigh.
"Actually Shining, we did find some evidence of who was behind all this. And it's the reason the two of you were called here today."
The married couple gave each other nervous looks. Whatever it was they were about to find out, it wasn't going to be good. And sure enough, as they turned to face Luna again, they saw her horn glow and levitate an object up from beneath the table. It was lowered gently down so that all could look at it. What it was, Shining could not tell, for it was covered in a brown cloth of some sort.
"What is that?" He asked nervously.
Luna's horn glowed again, and it opened the cloth, revealing what was inside. Upon seeing it, Cadence clasped both hooves over her mouth as she gasped, and Shining frowned angrily at the object. It was a crystal. Or rather, it had been a crystal. The kind found all over the Crystal Empire which they now ruled. But something was wrong with it. It was darkened, and crooked. It was corrupted by a dark and twisted magic of some sort. Shining and Cadence recognised this kind of crystal immediately. For there was only one person in all of Equestria who could produce such a thing.
The stallion looked up at Luna, still angry.
"That's not possible. He's dead. We saw him die with our own eyes. The power of the crystal heart shattered him into a million pieces. This......this isn't possible."
Luna then gestured to the corrupted crystal.
"And yet, there it lies."
Shining looked upon the crystal again. His mind was racing. It was about a year ago when he and his wife first set foot in the newly-appeared Crystal Empire, and it was already in danger, from a tyrant unicorn who sought to enslave it as he had done so in ages past. One who had risen again and sought to rule once more. One of the most dangerous foes he or those he knew had ever faced.
But that so-called king had fallen that same day. The crystal heart, source of the Empire's power, had unleashed a powerful magic and destroyed him. Everypony there that day had witnessed his death. There was simply no way that he could have survived such a blast.
"Sombra is powerful."
Everyone at the table turned to see Celestia, who now had her head raised. This was the first words she'd spoken since the meeting started, so all of them listened. But her tone of voice was different to what they were all used to. It was hushed, almost melancholy. Shining knew that Sombra's return was something for everypony to worry about, but he'd never seen the princess so concerned over such a threat before.
"He is no regular unicorn. Remember, despite the efforts of my sister and me to.....remove him as a threat, he still survived his imprisonment underneath the ice sheets of the north. If his power was strong enough to allow him to survive such an ordeal, then it was also powerful enough to allow him to survive the crystal heart."
Shining had not considered that, but now that he thought about it, it made sense. But there were still questions that needed answering.
"What's he up to? When he last emerged, his goal was to take over the Crystal Empire. Now here he is again, far from that place and attacking Ponyville? Why?"
Before Celestia could respond, Discord interrupted her.
Everypony turned their attention towards the formerly-evil spirit.
"Aside from the crystal heart, Sombra probably knows that the elements of harmony are the biggest threat to his power. So he attacked the home of it's bearers. Seems pretty obvious to me."
Shining had to concede that. If that was indeed his motivation, then it was a wise move on Sombra's part. But there was something about all this that just wasn't sitting right with him.
"Sombra never used lackeys in the past. He's always tried to strike us head-first himself. Why enchant a dragon to do this?"
Celestia shook hr head.
"I do not know. Perhaps his power was weakened after his failure in the Empire? Or perhaps he was injured? Whatever the reason, it's clear that he's not going to show himself just yet. But if he IS somehow lessened in power, then we can't afford to waste this opportunity."
The sun princess turned to Discord.
"Discord, I have a favour to ask of you."
The spirit raised an eyebrow.
"Could you use your power to try and bring Sombra here? To Canterlot? I have guards on stand-by, ready to apprehend him with magic once he's here."
Discord gave a mischievous smile at that request as he raised his hand.
"Dear Celestia, your wish is my command."
With that, he snapped his fingers. A few moments passed and nothing happened. No flash of light as was customary with Discord's magic. No Sombra appearing out of nowhere. Nothing. Discord noticed this immediately and looked concerned. He looked at his fingers and snapped them again. Sill nothing. Then again. Still nothing. After a few more tries, he let out a growl of frustration. He then turned to Celestia with a nervous smile on his face.
"I'm sorry my dear. I swear this has never happened before."
He then shrugged his shoulders.
"But you know what they say, old age and all that....."
Shining glared at him angrily.
"Can you bring him here or not?" He snapped.
Discord's smile vanished as he turned o the prince.
"I can't. I don't know how, but he's blocked himself from my power."
"I suspected as much. He's too clever to allow himself to be caught like that. Regardless, we need to increase our patrol around our borders. He will have most likely taken himself off somewhere where we ponies do not go. Perhaps deeper into Everfree, where we have not yet charted. Or perhaps some other, even less desirable location. Wherever he's gone we must remain vigilant now that he's returned."
All around the table nodded, even Discord, who was taking this whole thing very seriously.
"Once Twilight is up and about I will inform her of what's going on so that she can....."
Before she could finish, Shining spoke up.
"With all due respect your highness, I would ask that Twilight not be involved in this."
Everypony looked at him, shocked that he would make such a request. Celestia frowned a little.
"Prince Armour, your sister is a princess of Equestria now. As such she has responsibilities to defend it's people."
"I understand that. But as you said, Sombra may not be as big of a threat right now as he was back in the Empire. If not then I would rather Twilight not be put in any undue harm to try and stop him. I know you are her teacher, and I know that she's a princess now. But she's also my sister still. And I want her out of harm's way."
There silence as Shining and Celestia stared at each other intently. No-one else in the room spoke up, afraid of what might happen. Shining, in the past, had always taken issue with Celestia's decisions to put Twilight in potential danger. He'd known of many of the threats Celestia had asked her to face over the years, and had been quite vocal about it to her. But she'd always assured him that it was important to face such threats, as part of her training.
Now though, things were more serious. Not only was an old threat re-emerging, but it was one whose actions had already put Twilight in hospital. And that was the last straw for the stallion. He'd never directly opposed Celestia like this before, but for the sake of his sister, it was something he was more than willing to do. Celestia meanwhile, clearly understood the former captain's reasons for doing what he was doing, and sighed.
"Very well. I will not involve her just yet. However, I must warn you that if Sombra begins to take direct action, she will be called upon."
"Understood, your highness."
With that established, Celestia looked around at everyone else in the room before giving her final words to them.
"Understand. Things are becoming more dangerous in Equestria now. We need to be careful. You are dismissed."
They nodded in turn before making their way out of the room. Discord simply snapped his fingers to teleport himself out. Shining and Cadence began walking slowly out of the room before magically closing the door behind them, no doubt going to find someplace to discuss what they'd just learned. With those three gone, all that was left was Celestia and Luna. The younger sister looked at her elder with concern as Celestia once more hung her head down. The younger sister knew immediately what was going on in her head, much like she had known for some time now.
"You know you're going to have to tell them eventually."
Celestia nodded. She knew her little sister was speaking sense, but it brought her no joy to hear it.
"I know. I just......."
She looked up at Luna, her eyes beginning to well up with tears.
"......I just wish this hadn't had to happen again."