Fear. That had always been his greatest weapon. A pony's greatest fear, used against the. Forcing one to face that fear time and time again until they lost the will to resist. Sombra had always had a talent for influencing the minds of others, but now, he had used fear against her in a way that required no magic on his part. Celestia had seen this day just how much of a blow he'd struck against Equestria by defeating Twilight. A moral defeat to be sure, but the after-effects were rearing their ugly heads.
She sat there, upon her throne, and beside her sister, Luna. All day that had to assure and re-assure representatives from all over Equestria about the rumours and threats that had been emerging recently. The dragon attack on Ponyville was the start, but Twilight's defeat and transformation back into a unicorn had undermined the population's faith in her and the other alicorns abilities to protect them. Celestia could not blame them however. Sombra was a powerful enemy and, thus far, had not been hindered in his plans.
But things had been growing worse. As expected, the changelings had entered the fray. Reports had been coming in almost daily about raids and hit-and-run attacks by squads of changeling drones on outlying Equestrian territories and villages. Whenever the royal guards had been dispatched to try and help the locals, the attackers had vanished as quickly as they had come. Many homes had been destroyed and families uprooted by these attacks, and they showed no sign of halting.
Worse still was that the attacks left no clues as to the whereabouts of Sombra's hiding place. If they simply knew where he was then they could launch some sort of offensive. But as things were, all they could do react. And their reactions were simply not quick enough. Things had become so fearful among the ponies that many have begun to stop travelling in-between cities for fear of sudden attacks. Despite Celestia's best attempts to alleviate the ponies' fears, terror had gripped their nation.
Things weren't any better at court. Ambassadors from virtually every major pony city had come here, seeking an audience with the princesses to voice their concerns on the current crisis. Baltimare, Manhattan and half a dozen other diplomats were lined up in front of her It would have been so easy for Celestia to simply send them away and let her deal with it, but as always, she had to treat things diplomatically. Although she and Luna were the absolute rulers of Equestriia, they had always strived to show the ponies that they were not the tyrants that had ruled before them. And so, to that ends, they listened to their concerns.
"Princess. Almost every day the farmlands in the east have been pillaged. My citizens are terrified that they might be next! The only good news out of all this is that nopony has been killed yet. But we need to know what you intend to do about this!"
The ambassadors all looked to Celestia, as did Luna, waiting for her response. Celestia got up from her throne before answering.
"Ambassadors. Understand this. The forces of the royal guard have been scouring our borders for days now. They have spent day and night searching for the changeling raiding parties, trying to find the headquarters of them and their master. As of yet we have had no success. But I promise you, our enemies cannot hide forever. Sooner or later, they will make a mistake, and when they do, we will deal with them."
Many of the pony representatives looked warily at each other. They had the greatest respect and admiration for the princesses, but times were difficult for all of them and few among them would be willing to make things worse by confronting their own leaders further about this. But, one look at the determined look on Celestia's face made it clear that this was not something she wanted to discuss further. And so, bowing in respect, the ambassadors all left the throne room.
Celestia allowed herself a brief moment of relaxation before Luna nudged her on the shoulder. Facing her, she saw that Luna was looking straight ahead. Celestia then saw that one of the representatives, a pegasus stallion from Cloudsdale, had not departed with the rest. The princess was in no mood for further discussion on this point, but she cleared her throat and spoke as politely as possible under the circumstances.
"Ambassador. Is there anything further you wish to say?"
The pegasus stepped forward, though only just. He had the distinct look of somepony who knew that what he was about to say would not be received well. But he stayed there regardless and spoke.
"Your majesties. I wish to inform you that the mayor of Cloudsdale has taken action to ensure greater security and protection of our fair city."
Celestia was not all that bothered by that. It was only natural that the various pony cities would be extra careful with all the recent attacks. So much so that it was odd it was being brought to her attention.
"And how does this concern us exactly?" Luna asked.
The ambassador was looking increasingly nervous as he cleared his throat.
"Well, your majesties, the mayor has sent out an order for the immediate recall of.....the wonderbolts".
Luna stood up out of her chair, looking furious at the ambassador, who was now stepping backwards in fear over her reaction. Celestia meanwhile stayed sitting, though her expression was no less surprised. She remained silent as Luna spoke out.
"What?! Does that fool have any idea how much that would lessen this city's defences? The wonderbolts are Canterlot's fastest response team. If they're recalled it will hinder our ability to respond to outlying changeling attack!"
The Ambassador waved his hooves, trying desperately not to incur further wrath from the younger sister.
"I understand that your grace! It's just that....."
But he was stopped from speaking further by Celestia raising a hoof. The ambassador and Luna both turned to face her.
"Tell you mayor that he is free to pursue any path he sees fit to ensure Cloudsdale's safety." She said calmly.
Luna could not believe that Celestia was allowing this, but decided against questioning her in front of their visitor. She merely took her seat next to her as the ambassador, who was looking very relieved over her response, bowed in respect to them. He said nothing, but merely began walking out of the room the same way the others had done. Only one he'd left, and the door closed behind him, did Luna finally speak.
"Sister, are you sure about this? We know that Sombra will most likely try someth9ing against us directly soon. We will need all the help we can get if that happens."
Celestia nodded before replying.
"Yes. But the ponies of our land are afraid Luna. If the wonderbolts returning can help them to feel safer, then that in itself is a worthy end. It may not help, but how do you think ponies will view us if we deny them access to the only ones they think can help them?"
Luna considered this for a moment. As much as she hated to admit it, Celestia was right. Sombra ruled through fear. If the ponies were given more cause to be afraid, his influence would spread. Realising this, she nodded in consent. Before either of them could speak further, the doors of the throne room opened one more. Luna and Celestia turned as a pair of ponies walked in towards them. One, a pink alicorn mare, and the other, a white unicorn stallion.
Princess Cadence and Prince Armour had arrived. Once they reached the bottom of the steps leading to the two thrones, they bowed, though not as low as the ambassadors given their own status as Equestrian royalty.
"You sent for us Princess?" Shining asked.
Celestia got up from her chair. Luna was confused at their arrival however. She had not been informed of this, so listened carefully to what was being said.
"Yes. As you both know, Sombra's forces have begun an attack on our outlying territories. I have no doubt that he will attempt a direct assault on Canterlot in the near future."
Shining and Cadence looked at each other. The worried look on their faces made it clear that they had the same concerns as Celestia. Ever since they'd been made aware of Sombra's return, they'd been worried about what he might do. Celestia could not blame them for that however, given what happened the last time Sombra had shown himself to these two. Shining looked determined now and stepped forward.
"Have no fear princess. Though I am no longer captain of the guard, I feel it is my duty to stand at this city's defence."
Celestia was pleased to see such devotion in her former captain. However, such dedication made it all the harder for her to have to say what she needed to.
"Actually Shining, I require you and Cadence to return to the Crystal Empire."
Those words silenced all of them, even Luna. They stared at Celestia, wondering if, perhaps, she was joking. But one look at her made it obvious that she was not kidding about this. The three others looked at each other with confusion. Shining's shield spell was among the most powerful in Equestria, as was Cadence's. If Sombra was indeed going to attack as Celestia predicted, surely it was in everypony's best interests for such defences to remain at the capital?
"With all due respect your majesty, I feel that this city's best chance of success against Sombra is if it has as many cards stacked in it's favour as possible."
"You are correct. Luna, Discord and I will remain in the city to defend it should Sombra attack. However, although I have every confidence in our abilities to stop him, there is always a chance that he may be able to defeat us. If that happens, it would not do to have all of Equestria's leaders together in one place."
It was here that Shining understood her plan. If Sombra succeeded in his plan to attack Canterlot, having him and the three princesses together like that would just make them a bigger target. If he won, and they fell, then Equestria would become completely leaderless. That would make the rest of the nation easier to conquer. But if Cadence and him were elsewhere, behind the protective power of the crystal heart, they could hold out hope of defeating him one day.
Shining looked up at Celestia. The two had known each other for a long time, and so few words had to pass between them to understand each other. Celestia knew that Shining was not the kind of pony who could simply leave when he knew something bad was going to happen. And likewise, Shining knew Celestia well enough to know that she was not going to back down from a decision like this at this stage. And so, he said nothing, merely nodding in agreement with her decision. Cadence and Luna looked between the two of them, deciding against voicing any dissent.
Cadence gave her husband a look of concern, then finally understanding as she too nodded to the princess. The two then began to make their way out of the throne room, leaving only the two sisters behind. Celestia and Luna looked at each other, both knowing that they were worried about what would happen. In this place, Luna was free to speak her mind.
"Tia. You know I have every confidence in your abilities, and mine. But with Shining and Cadence gone, we may not be strong enough to hold off Sombra."
Celestia faced her, her face it's usual stoic expression.
It took a while for Luna to understand that statement. But soon, understanding dawned on her, and her eyes widened with surprise.
"That's what you wanted, wasn't it? For Canterlot to appear weak?"
"In part. What I told the other two was true, that Equestria' leaders are better off not being in one place during the attack. But yes, my plan is to lower this city's defences to encourage Sombra to attack."
Luna was aghast at this revelation. She could not fathom why her sister would do something so incredibly risky. A concern she was more than willing to tell her.
Celestia sighed before replying.
"Sombra is my son. I know him better than anypony. And I know that he will only risk exposing himself in the field if he's absolutely certain that he will achieve victory. If Canterlot appears weak, he will most likely be at the head of the force he musters against us. This will be our only chance to find him and.....deal with him."
Luna now understood her sister's plan. And she was right, Sombra had indeed become more careful after his previous defeats, never showing himself directly. If Canterlot's defences were lessened, he would appear to handle the city personally. But, as much as she knew Celestia's prediction to be right, there was another concern.
"Sister.....do you really think we can stop him this time?"
Celestia lowered her head mournfully.
".......I hope so".
Far away, in the middle of a barren wasteland, in a dark and dank chamber in the middle of the changeling hive, Sombra was sitting. He was sitting on the cold stone floor, his eyes shut, but his mind far afield. Searching. Watching. Judging. After a few moments, his eyes awakened, glowing as bright red with the power of the alicorn amulet he still bore on his chest. Thinking over what he had just seen in his mind's eye, he did not laugh, nor mock, but merely smiled.
"And thus.....the crack in their lines is formed".