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Crystal Clear Resolution (ATTN: Alivda, dragonofruin)

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To Princess Cadance and Prince Shining Armor,

     Hello, My name is Raven Shadowfire, Heir of House Dupone. I would like to formally request a private audience with your majesties. I hope to be able to discuss matters pertaining to requiring research subjects such as sample of unique geologic formations with high concentrations of thaumic energy, and setting up research projects within the Crystal Empire's domain, as well as setting up a donation fund to help with any possible civil projects that could use the help. I humbly request a response at your earliest convenience, and shall eagerly await it.

      Yours truly,

         Raven Shadowfire

 

Despite Empress Mi Amore Cadenza (Princess Cadence to all Equestrians) having the higher title, Prince Shining Armor had equal power and responsibility over the governance and management of Crystal Empire affairs.  This tended to be downplayed, given that most of the populace's experience with a male ruler was... well, downright traumatic.  He and Cady had both agreed that for the time being, it was best to let old wounds heal under more a familiarly beneficent ruling visage.

 

Which meant that most of the Crystal Prince's duties were restricted to the guardroom and the letterbox, preparing guards up to standards necessary to protect the Crystal Empire and its citizens.  A taller than expected order, given their performance previously; it honestly made Shining Armor wonder if he was the problem, given that both the guard divisions under his command in two nations were proving similarly ineffective.

 

Answering Royal correspondence was one way to put away those doubts, and this letter seemed innocuous enough.  Research projects from curious Equestrians, plus promises of investment weren't uncommon, and were always welcome.  Thus, with a smile, he penned a reply:

 

To Lady Shadowfire,

Greetings from the Crystal Empire!  We are always glad to host researchers, and answer any questions regarding our Empire and its namesakes.  Civil donation funds are always welcome, of course, and we can discuss those when you arrive.  Feel free to show up at your convenience; the Royal Calendar is not too full these days.

On a more personal note, I'd like to say that I'm looking forward to meeting you.  Your parents were an inspiration to me while I was beginning my ROTC training, and they spoke very proudly of you on the one occasion I was able to meet with them in person.

Sincerely,

Prince Shining Armor.

 

Signed, sealed, and sent on its way, the letter would fetch portents that Shining Armor knew not to his adopted home...

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Raven had spent the previous week not doing more than training in her fighting style, as well as rereading her family's journals. It was a shame, as it meant she couldn't spend much time with her guest, but she knew that He would be surprised. Most days she had to drag herself into her study, grab a new journal, and head to her room to pass out reading it. It was... intense.

 

However, there was one event that broke that, a response to a letter she had sent out, one that made her smile. She quickly packed, including a couple of formal dress and even her family's ancestral armor, not sure of which to wear when she met with Prince Shining. Seeing that he had held her parents in a high regard put a smile on her face, and a spring in her step as she headed for the train station, deciding on getting a room at a hotel in the Empire, before heading to schedule the meeting. First, however, she had to say goodbye to her guest, which took her long than she would have liked, mainly because she didn't want to say goodbye to him, and then endure the long train ride to the Crystal Station...

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The hotel, though in one of the old buildings, was clean, modern, and efficient, having all the amenities an Equestrian tourist had come to expect.  The investment in its refurbishing had been offset by crown funds, as part of an initiative by the Crystal couple to encourage visitors (and their bits) to come to the Empire.  It had by and large been successful, though of course some preferred to seek out less modernized, quainter establishments for a more "authentic" experience (never mind that most crystal ponies were installing new amenities into their own homes as fast as they could afford them...)

 

Whatever her preferences, Raven would have found nothing wanted in the hospitality industry, and the welcoming atmosphere would only have increased as she approached the castle.  Impressive as it was, it bore little of the staid, somewhat imposing nature of Canterlot castle, perhaps a result of its more delicate-looking architecture.  More likely, of course, the Crystal heart had something to do with it, too.  Nevertheless, she might have found it surprising how little of a line there was in front of the audience chamber; in fact, Shining Armor was ready to receive her a good 15 minutes before their appointment.

 

The stallion was dressed in his old guard uniform, the red jacket looking quite sharp on his chiseled form.  He only wore medals from the Crystal order, though; signaling a clean identification with his adopted country.  Though he was seated on one of the two thrones on the dais, he got off it to greet Raven personally upon her arrival.  "Ah, Raven of House Dupone, I presume?  I'm guessing you prefer Raven, though."  He laughed, extending a hoof.  "Been looking forward to this, I'll be honest.  How do you like the Empire so far?"

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Raven had been amazed by the Crystal Empire. While she had travelled with her parents, it had always been to locations in Equestria, never to what amounted to a different country. She had to admit though, there wasn't a lot of differences, but that just made the ones there were more special...

 

After settling in at a hotel, she decided that she would get started on what would be an undoubtedly long discussion... or an extremely short one. She looked over what she had packed, and decided against wearing her family's armor, instead changing into a slightly formal dress. After asking directions, she made her way to the palace, and paused as she took in the majesty of it. Finally gathering her courage, she went in, almost surprised at the lack of petitioners, though the Empire seemed to take care of itself.

 

As Raven took Shining's hoof, she smiled slightly. "It's been different to the rest of my experiences, and yes, just Raven is fine. I haven't really earned my title yet, after all. I must say, I'm surprised you knew my parents, even if it was in passing... I mean, I knew you'd heard of them, seems like everyone in the REA has, but to know they were an inspiration to the former captain of the royal guard... just... wow." She said, her tone amicable, but yet slightly guarded. It wasn't anything Shining had done, however, just her still trying to steel herself to even begin talking about her true reason for coming here...

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Shining, noticing her mood, tried to encourage Raven with further reminiscence.  "I don't know if they would remember me; they came to talk at my school, tell their stories and what they wanted us to learn from their adventures.  I'd heard of what they did, everypony who wanted to be in the guard had, but they shared with us how they became the ponies that they were.  I know family had a lot to do with it, but also the kinds of stories they were read as a kid, the games they played, the way they found themselves treated as foals by others... and even some of the steps where they stumbled along the way.  It gave me hope that I could be a pony like that, even if I didn't get it all right in the first go.  Perfectionism kind of runs in the family, so that can get pretty paralyzing if one doesn't learn how to learn from failure."  He laughed a bit, hoping that Raven was more at ease now.

 

"So, what brought you here?  I know you mentioned studying the properties of crystals, but what about them caught your interest?"

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Raven listened closely, this being a part of her parents history she didn't know. It was nice, and when Shining mentioned the bit about perfectionism, she couldn't help but smile a comforting smile. "I know what you mean... I've always felt so... So pushed to follow what my family has done. Not that I don't want to, or anything. It's silly, but I still kinda wish I hadn't had to turn away from serving, you know? But there's still that pressure..." 

 

She had relaxed, though the Prince asking about the crystals brought some of her worry back. "Well... I'm sure you noticed my... my horn, and I was discussing with a friend... The topic of spell foci came up, and he suggested utilizing the crystals from here... He... He had opportunity to research them before, for a different purpose... and I just got to thinking about if they could work to make a spell focus, maybe we could make more, to help others... like me..."

 

She took a deep breath, glancing around to see that her and Shining were the only ones in the room. She bit her lip, her nerves starting to fray, as she tried to think of a good way to discus this. Finally, she couldn't help it, and just kinda blurted it out. "The real reason I'm here is actually about him!" Well there went the cat, taking the bag with it...

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Though he was in every way trying to be polite, Raven mentioning having to turn away from serving did bring Shining's attention to her cracked horn.  He felt an internal twinge of sympathetic pain for his fellow unicorn; to be so affected could cut to the core of a pony's identity, just as much as a pegasus rendered flightless or an earth pony with a gimp leg.  These weren't unknown afflictions among the veterans, either, so Shiny had some degree of familiarity with their predicament.  As for pressure, though, he had to admit he felt that less.  His own family were scholars, not military; Twilight was much closer to the legacy of House Sparkle.  "Mm, I can understand that, though is it simply a matter of not being able to enlist, or do you feel unable to exercise any talent in that field?"

 

There could be many reasons for that, not all of them related to her horn injury.  It did seem, however, that her visit was not unconnected with that, as she mentioned her desire  to utilize the crystals as a kind of prosthetic.  Shiny smiled, feeling on more confident ground now that his guest had relaxed more.  "Oh!  Yes, Cadence had been talking to me about that; crystals are often used as mineral-based focuses for magical constructs, such as the golems of Neighpon, and are programmable, in that you can disenchant and re-enchant them with different spells.  I've not seen them used as a prosthetic before, but it's certainly worth looking into."  He grew more interested in the idea the more that he thought about it, tapping his muzzle with a hoof.  "Yeah... horn injuries aren't as uncommon as ponies might suppose, especially in our line of work.  If that's the research you and your friend want to do and fund, I don't see any reason not to help you."

 

The Prince, naturally, wouldn't see any such obstacle yet; the other horseshoe hand't dropped.  Still quite unconscious of any approaching difficulty, he responded to Raven's last outburst with a mild curiosity.  "Oh?  Is your friend a scholar?  He might have common grounds with our Crystaller, Sunburst.  Was he interested in a full-time position here?"

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Raven thought for a second about how to put what she was going to say diplomaticly, but couldn't find the words that she needed. Her nerves were building still, but blurting that out had seemed to work as a pressure valve, and she was a little more in control. She took a few deep breaths, focusing on the rhythm of the air going in and out as a thoughtful look crossed her face.

 

"I suppose I should address your questions in order..." She began, having chose to answer in that way as a delaying tatic to get more time to think of how to bring up Sombra... "It's not that I don't have talent, or even that I'm 'unable' to enlist... It's just their position on the fact that no squad would be able to trust that I could cast the right spell on command meant I would get a desk job, like logistics or such, and I really don't think that would be enough for me. I can see their point, but still, to... discourage someone from joining like that... and if it wouldn't hurt the REA, I would pressure them, but that would just foster more distrust with whoever I ended up with..." 

 

Raven still really didn't know what to say, so she was hesitant at first, as she began to talk about Sombra. "In a way, my friend is a scholar, he's done a lot of research, but it's all been very... pioneering research, with no one to check it, or keep him from going to far, until now... I think at one time he was interested in the Crystal Empire, but now it's kinda faded, he's fickle like that..." She thought some more, and decided to ask in terms of hypotheticals. "I... I actually have a subject that, while I'm here, I would love to pick your brain about. Do you have experience with redeeming previous enemies? I've always been a bit altruistic, and I kinda find it hard to believe that any pony could mess up so badly they couldn't be saved..."

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Shining nodded as Raven began to answer his questions.  The risks to unit cohesion and morale from having a 'loose canon' on the team would certainly motivate an officer to move a recruit to the 'chair force,' and the stallion could certainly sympathize with an urge to not be sentenced to that kind of career.  He'd trained to be the shield at the front, after all, and such was the nature of the Crystal Empire, that even at the center, he was still on the front, doing what he was called to do.  "I understand.  What I meant was, had you any intention of acting on your own account?  Your family's wealth and position would allow for you to operate independently, or even as a knight-errant, if you're that old-fashioned!"  He laughed.  "I probably would have done that myself, if I'd lived back in the early days."

 

His easygoing grin would have begun to falter, though, as Raven continued on about her 'friend.'  Shiny was by no means the most sensitive of ponies to the nuances of diplomatic language, but he'd picked up on some from the fact of his position.  And the fact that she brought up the idea of redemption so soon after surely wasn't a mere non sequitur...  "Mm... yes and no.  I've had a hoof in it, back in the days when I did street patrols.  Just proving to some ponies that they can't get away with crimes is often enough to convince them not to do them anymore.  But I never really considered the ponies I arrested my enemies; like Chrysalis, Sombra, or Tirek.  I've heard Chrysalis has actually reformed, or is at least a capitalist now rather than a tyrant.  I can't say I'll be taking my family to the tropical resort she runs anytime soon, though."  Now with a fully straight face, he looked Raven dead in the eye.  "Why do you ask?"

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Raven blanched as Shining stared at her in the eyes. She knew she was caught, knew she was in trouble... "Well, I... I kinda help around Canterlot... and I met someone there who has a long way to go before they can just walk out in plain sight... but I know, I really do, that it's because of how they were treated in the past, and I... I just know, if you listen to his story, you'll agree..." 

 

She had managed to avoid saying who he was, but she was still extremely nervous. She didn't know if she would be arrested, or stripped of her titles, or what for harboring Sombra. She could handle almost anything other than the titles being stripped from her, honestly, because even if she didn't feel like she had earned them, it would mean her family's legacy would end in infamy and disgrace. She couldn't be the one to cause that...

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Shining's straight face then deepened into a frown, though more at Raven's own moral philosophy than anything about her friend in particular.  "Ponies aren't villains because of what others do to them; it's what they do to others.  Otherwise, I'd have been trained to arrest the victims, as well as the criminals.  And while I don't have much personal experience in reformed villains, from what I've seen of former criminals, it's a lot better if they take responsibility for their past actions.  If they were in control of their actions in the past, when they wanted to hurt others, they can be trusted to have control once they don't.  Otherwise, they're just slaves to whoever has power over their circumstances."  A corner of his mouth turned upward, breaking the tension in his face and in the room.  "And something tells me that your friend wouldn't want to be called that."

 

"So... who is you friend?"  He tilted his head in inquiry, his gaze still locked on the mare's/

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Raven sighed, her fear not pressing on her so much, just because at this point, she didn't have any options, really. However, she did decide to clear up a misunderstanding with Shining first. "That's not what I meant. It's true that you can't be forced to do something, but your options can seem to be taken away from you, making it seem like you have no choice. Besides, just imagine you're an orphan, brought into a city where the other foals treat you like crap for not being like them, you get hurt every year, without fail, at the yearly celebration, culminating in you nearly dying from it, being saved by your one friend, who gets her cutie mark and decides she gonna leave you to go to a different country, leaving you alone in a city that doesn't want you to the point that the city itself tried to kill you! Oh, and on top of all that, you flee into the desolate wastelands around the city, hoping that you finally earn your cutie mark, but instead encountering a way to talk with beings in a contaiment field underneath the city you called home, that claim to be your family, and that the queen of the city has been lying to you this whole time, and knew you were being hurt... pretty sure that would cause most ponies to snap and lash out in anger and hatred..."

 

Raven took a deep breath after her rant, not having intended to get so forceful. It just kinda all came tumbling out. "Sorry, your highness, I'm not sure why that came out like that, probably just needed to get it off my chest. Anyway... as... as you probably guessed... It's Sombra..." She looked weary as she said his name. She was afraid, sure, but as the phrase goes, the cat was out of the bag, and there was no way to put it back...

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Shining pursed his lips, hardening them out into a thin, straight line.  He didn't trust himself to speak quite yet, and until he could be judicious with his words, he would not risk an outburst.  Taking a deep breath, he chose each of his next words carefully, stepping around the core issue of who had just been mentioned.   "There are circumstances under which ordinary decency requires heroic effort from a pony, whereas in others it requires little to no effort at all.  I understand that; it's one of the things that makes life less than fair.  But that does mean, realistically, that it takes just as much effort to stop being a villain as it would to not be a villain in the first place.  That's what I need to see evidence of, if we're talking about anything like a pardon."

 

He sighed again.  There was no way of avoiding the specific question by wandering in the generalities anymore.  The proverbial umbra in the room had to be addressed.  Sombra... "And it wouldn't be quite accurate, in any case, to call what Sobmra did an outburst, or what could be pleaded as a crime of passion.  It was a years-long campaign of conquest and oppression, hurting many more than could possibly have been involved with past grievances, in extremely disproportionate manners.  It was premediated, with time enough to doubt, think better, or repent."  His gaze finally broke from Raven's, looking out of a window.  "He's told you his side of the story, no doubt.  Well, I don't doubt, myself.  But it is only one side.  I couldn't even tell you the other side; Cadence and I only came in on the tail end of it.  We've suffered worse at others' hooves, but our little ponies... it wasn't a thousand years ago for them, just a few.  Most crystal ponies alive today remember those times vividly.  Princess Luna has had to work overtime to ease their nightmares, and the Empire has therapists in high demand.  If you came to ask for forgiveness on his behalf..."  He turned back to Raven, his voice softer and gentler.  "It isn't me you'll have to ask it from."

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Raven blanched, and nearly fell in a heap as she realized what exactly she had inserted herself into the middle of. "You... You're right. I... It's just... I mean..." She couldn't think for a bit, and thought about bolting, the room seeming to shrink around her. Gone was the collected but nervous mare that had walked into this room, in her place a shell.

 

She stood for a while, taking deep breaths.  Once she was calm she spoke in a low voice, almost as if she didn't want to be heard. "I... I knew he'd ran a campaign, and he didn't shy away from trying to remind me he was a selfish monster... but... but I saw there was good in him. Your highness, sir... All I want is to give him the chance to prove he can contribute in a meaningful and peaceful way to Equestrian society... I didn't even think the scars could be so fresh though... I'm serious when I say he most likely wants nothing to do with the Crystal Empire though... He seems to realize that it's nothing but bad memories for him here..." Raven wasn't really aware of what she was saying, it was more of a stream of consciousness thing. But it was the truth... or at least, what felt like the truth in her heart. "I... What do I have to do, so he can have a chance at forgiveness, a chance to prove he can change?"

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Ah, yes, Shining recognized this.  It wasn't uncommon for a recruit to get in this state in the guard; if it wasn't from the berating of the drill sergeant, it was from the calm words of an officer.  Either way, there was both danger and potential in Raven's current state.  Danger, because it could spiral into something broken, or twisted, if not cared for.  But if cared for, she could learn what all guards, all potential heroes needed to learn, if they were to be guided by justice, rather than mere sentiment.  "All ponies have good in them.  Evil, too.  Heroes wouldn't be admirable if they couldn't be anything else."  He continued in his soft voice, reaching out a steadying hoof.

 

"But the fact that he was open to you about what he was is a good sign."  The stallion's face and voice brightened slightly.  "More than that, I can't say.  Honestly, provided he's being honest with you, you'd know more than I, though I do at some point want to see him for myself, and make my own judgement."  He sighed, that was probably not going to be a pleasant encounter, even if Sombra did want to become good.  "But besides his confession, what was it that proved to you that he could change, and wanted to?"

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Raven blinked at Shining, surprised that he had reverted back to how he was when they were first talking. She actually was so surprised, she couldn't stop herself from slowly sitting, her mouth slightly open. A few seconds later she noticed Shining's hoof on her shoulder, and it helped bring her back. "I... That's actually a long story, or at least, one that will take time to tell... but basicly it's a bunch of little things, and... the biggest thing he did... he helped me. I had tried a new spell, which thanks to my horn is somewhat dangerous to me, and way overcast it, like couldn't move for most of the day, weak for the next couple days... when I went to get ready for bed, I glanced into my mirror, and noticed one of the cracks was slightly bigger, and it sent me back, back to when I first woke after the accident, the fear and self-loathing... and he comforted me, even gave me a hug, though he did say he would deny the hug till the end of time..."

 

Raven told her tale simply, pain hiding at the back of her eyes. She didn't start crying though, but it was clear that thinking about the mirror incident hurt. "I... I actually need to confess a little... The whole reason I even am trying this is because I can tell he's in emotional pain, and he acted like a... Well, at least, he acted like what I think a big brother would act like... but I can't adopt him, but I could bring him in to House Dupone, at least, honorary..." 

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"Hm...."  Shining Armor sat down as well in front of her, musing as he rubbed his chin.  A pony, or even an officer, that hadn't been repeatedly kidnapped by a species who specialized in deception would have been quick enough to take those promising signs as genuine.  The question was whether Sombra was or had been that kind of villain.  There hadn't really been anything subtle about the giant cloud of smoke and darkness banished from the Empire not long ago, but neither had there been anything good.

 

Still, to not at least try to trust wasn't really going to get them one enemy the less, even if Sombra still was one.  "I... can understand, wanting to have a sibling.  I can't imagine what my life would have been like without my LSBFF.  I suppose if you continue along this way, acting to steer him towards doing the right thing, it's probably our best shot at redeeming him.  Just make sure that you don't make him turn back, or stand in his way, if it looks like he's going to actually do something wrong.  You won't be doing him any favors by letting him ruin his chances."

 

"Worst case scenario..."  He sighed, getting to his hooves again.  "I'm asking you to stay and be the one he hurts first, rather than abandoning him.  I think that was Radiant Star's mistake,  She didn't want to have a hoof in his evil actions, but she didn't place herself on the line to stop her friend from doing them."

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Raven was surprised by Shining's change in attitude. That didn't change how she felt though, not even when he stated she would be putting herself as the first victim in the firing line. "I agree. I think him being abandoned was the last straw, and I won't put him through that again, even if it means getting hurt. If you really want to meet him, to assess things yourself, I feel I would be remiss if I didn't mention he could be... harsh-spoken. Especially if he doesn't know you... though he was quick to pull it back." She finally said, a soft smile on her face as it seemed they were at an agreement. 

 

Raven couldn't wait to head back home and tell Sombra, though there were some details still to work out. "I really appreciate you keeping an open mind avlbout this. Oh! The stuff in my letter, I really meant that as well. That wasn't all just a pretense to get in your or Princess Cadence's presence." She was almost beaming with how happy she was with this outcome, seeing as it was almost exactly what she had wanted to happen...

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In truth, Shining wanted a reformed Sombra as much as anypony.  Even from the least sympathetic perspective, it was pretty clear that actually trying to kill the former tyrant went far beyond his own capabilities; but Celestia certainly wouldn't have promoted him as high as she had if the stallion hadn't shared a good portion of her ideals.  His own experience notwithstanding, he wanted to think of himself as largely hopeful for the redemption of others.  The only exception really was Chrysalis, but there were only so many threats to one's wife and child a pony could be expected to stand...

 

"I honestly wouldn't expect any different.  Remember, I don't think he's really reformed yet, I just think there's hope, and more than I would have dared think before, honestly.  I try to not be pessimistic, but..."  He sighed.  "There's a memorial outside, a fresh one, about an attack under my watch here.  This world... it's a dangerous place, with a lot of awful creatures in it.  But good ones too, heroes.  If we can make a former into the latter, that's a real victory."

 

He nodded, getting up and gesturing for Raven to follow.  "I guessed that you were sincere.  I'll show you the library below, though I have to warn you, the research is all a thousand years out of date!"  He laughed; Flurry was still a baby, and already Shiny was developing a tendency for dad jokes.  "For your own purposes though, you might want to set the lab up outside the Empire.  Crystals here all resonate somewhat with the Crystal Heart, which might affect their performance... and your new friend."

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Raven smiled widely, glad that it had worked out. As she followed Shining to the library, she spoke.  "I figured it would be a better idea to set up outside as well, to have better access to purer crystals, though I don't know how much of an active part I'm going to be able to play in the research itself... I actually applied to join the newly formed Twilight Guard... and besides, I have other duties that would require me to stay in Canterlot for long periods of time. I was actually thinking of setting up a research foundation, I could fund most of it personally... My family never really used any of the stipends they were given throughout the years..." 

 

Raven had trailed off as they arrived at the library, surprised at how massive the thing was. She could spend years here, and not read every book, and was almost drooling at the prospect of doing that. If she couldn't find anything on the crystals here, it wasn't known...

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Shining's ears perked up when Raven mentioned the Twilight guard.  "Oh, Twily's got her eye on you, has she?  She'd probably be willing to lend some aid too, should you end up joining.  In fact, you might have to peel her out of the lab in order to actually do her royal duties!"  He laughed, before sighing.  "Speaking of which... I have those too now.  I need to get the paperwork for that lab ready, and make sure any locals who might have insight or interest know about it.  Although... hm, if you're bringing in Sombra, I don't know how well that will go."

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Raven nodded, a slight frown on her face. "I doubt I'll bring Sombra up here, not for a bit... There are just way too many bad memories for him here, as well as of him here... I might have him help me pick a location, but that's about it..." She stared off for a bit before continuing. "Um... Do you think you could help me speak to Princess Cadence about this? I don't mean to upset you, or state that I don't have faith in you, I just think it's best if the one who's asking for something like this is the one who thought it up, you know? In the meantime, I think I'll avail myself of your library, it looks amazing!"

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Shining nodded.  "When she's available, yes.  Cady will definitely need to know about this; I think it'll be alright though. I remember her telling me that she saw Sombra visiting Prince Blueblood's vacation cabin in the Gallopagos, and he seemed to behave himself."  Smiling again, he began to walk back out of the library.  "Like I said before, still got work to do today.  Good luck in your searching!"

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Raven waved goodbye, deciding the first thing to do would be to find an atlas or two on the lands nearby. While they would be out of date, they would give her an idea of where to set up the research center. Afterwards, the rest of the day would be spent finding any imformation on the crystals, as well as just general history of the Empire...

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