Mornings were never friendly to Tail. The night had always been her kindred spirit—fueling those hours when she could drift into the lab and remain undisturbed. With numerous early morning activities on the horizon, he would hold those precious seconds hostage for her immediate future, and she simply groaned at the impending prospect of that adjustment.
Thankfully, Barrier had given the group a couple days to get their affairs in order, and Tail had most certainly done just that. The pegasus could honestly not remember the last time she had been up at this hour, but she praised the two nights that were allotted to shift her sleep schedule. It had been an operation of critical necessity. Luna’s advice on the matter had been crystal clear. “Fifteen minutes early is on time. On time is late in Barrier’s world.”
Tail’s head snapped about at the realization that she had once again mumbled things aloud in the castle halls. She heaved a sigh, concluding that all of the present guards either just did not care or were too busy wondering just what in Tartarus she was doing in armor.
Her muzzle scrunched while she took a few more steps. Despite having a day to acquaint herself with her newest friend, she did not feel quite at home beneath the gleaming plates. Her appreciation for the pegasus ponies in service swelled with each stride. Getting used to the added weight was rapidly moving up the mare’s mental checklist.
She halted abruptly before reaching the training grounds, her pupils dilating to the thumping pulse that pounded behind her golden breastplate. “I’ll need it,” she whispered in recollection of Shining’s warning, “because it’s my responsibility.”
Her breathing steadied, her posture straightened, and her brow descended as Tail steeled herself. She stepped forward, passing beneath the stone archways and onto the field. If trotting into that world was the only way, then it was the only way.
Off in the distance, Magic Barrier made his turn into the straightaway portion of the track that circumscribed the yard. He bolted towards the staring mare with a surprisingly quick dash and slid to a halt a short distance from her position. “You’re early,” he stated flatly, though his tone did not come across nearly as disapproving as it had the other day.
Tail nodded, noting how he briefly examined every bit of her equipment, and she instinctively returned the favor throughout the short reprieve. The stallion paced his breaths, and his mane, through the courtesy of his sweat, clung weakly to the gunmetal plates that covered his withers. The spiked armor made it look as though Barrier had stepped right out of a bygone and vastly more intimidating era. A towering stallion in a ghastly shell, he cast a presence that suddenly made Luna’s suggestion make a lot more sense.
“Laps.” Barrier shattered the silence. “As hard as you can until the others get here.”
Barrier took off down the track as soon as his lips had closed. His commanding tone brokered no opportunity for a retort—not that Tail would have offered any. Without complaint, she had moved to follow, though the first stretch was anything but pretty.
The percussive pops of clashing metal sheets echoed off the walls while Tail clumsily sought a rhythm that actually allowed her to function. Her muzzle reddened through the next few lengths, driven by the grating bangs that accompanied her lumbering steps. The strap placement was clearly not ideal for any sort of exercise. “Why didn’t anypony warn me about that?” she huffed quietly after stopping to make reasonable adjustments to the gauntlets.
Once again, Barrier slid to a halt before he pivoted to watch the mare fiddle with the straps. “Because you’re not here to be coddled.”
Tail rose upon resecuring her kit, and with a high-step trot, she found that her changes had effectively silenced the obnoxious noise. “You’re right, Captain,” she answered as she approached him, still figuratively wiping the red off her muzzle. “I’m here to learn. Sorry for stopping. I should have run with it yesterday.”
“You’ll get there.” Barrier rolled his shoulders, drawing several sharp cracks. “Come on. If you’re here, you’re working.” Barrier began his jog once again, glancing behind him briefly to ensure that Tail was following.
The mare couldn’t help but smile at his words. It was, by far, the most encouraging thing she had heard him say to her. The instant he glanced back, however, she tried to wash the expression from her muzzle. It was neither the time nor place to get lost in some momentary giddiness. She was clearly lagging behind and had to exert more effort just to regain the pace.
Bonecrusher grumbled as she and Indar neared the training grounds. “I’m tellin’ you, Indar, she hasn’t seen a day of guard work in her entire life. I don’t know how she got accepted into this program, but it’s a slap in the face to ponies like you. It’s a slap in the fucking face to ponies like me.”
The sandy-colored unicorn regarded the lime mare with a degree of apathy. “If I’m being honest, Bonecrusher, I don’t care,” Indar stated in a gravelly voice. “This class was put together by Princess Luna, and if she didn’t have a reason for the other mare’s presence, then our squadmate wouldn’t be here. That’s the same for the both of us.”
The earth pony growled as one of her massive hooves stomped into the dirt. “That rookie trash is no squadmate of mine. Don’t ever put her in the same league as me.”
Indar grunted and rolled his eyes. “I can do that if you do me the favor of shutting up about this subject. Your opinions are not of my concern.”
“Let’s go, you two!” Barrier called out, his harsh voice reaching the new arrivals with surprising clarity, given that he and Tail were on the other side of the track. “Sixty laps, full-speed! And you could learn some things from the mare that was on time.”
Indar winced at the order, but the unicorn promptly moved into his running stride. Behind him, he could hear the seething grumbles of Bonecrusher and the muttered, “Kiss ass,” that followed.
“Catch up, you two!” Barrier’s voice rang out again, effectively muffling Bonecrusher’s angry rambling as it pushed the ponies to pick up their paces.
Tail paid little attention to the developments down the track. Strained breaths sloshed in and out of her muzzle, and she quietly counted her steps. Her heart thumped, producing a throbbing sensation in her head, and the ache of acid-drenched muscle radiated throughout her limbs.
Barrier didn’t even shift his gaze as Bonecrusher sped past the pair, though his ears did drift to the deafening stride. He let out a displeased sigh as a knowing look shaped his countenance, and with that, he turned his attention to the pegasus instead. “Tail, run a cool-down lap and take a two-minute break. After that, you can meet me by the stands. I still have to put you through some evaluations and see where you stand versus the standard guard. Indar, Bonecrusher, you’ve got thirty more laps before I even consider letting you have a break. Count them out loud.”
“Yes, sir,” the smaller mare breathed out with a considerable degree of effort.
Tail immediately slowed, and an uncontainable groan seeped from her muzzle once her pacing had been thoroughly, albeit purposefully derailed. She moved to the outside lane, giving her fellow trainees the benefit of the inside track, before she settled herself back into a trotting rhythm.
The lavender mare had made it about halfway through her cool-down lap before the thunderous gallop of Bonecrusher perked her ears. Pops pierced the air with each of the earth pony’s steps, and Tail could only imagine the speed until she turned around to actually observe it.
Bonecrusher was already a few lengths behind and rapidly closing. The impressive ease with which she carried her golden armor left Tail a bit awestruck. Those thoughts would have to wait.
“Out of my way!” Bonecrusher wailed, drifting into Tail’s lane before bulldozing the pegasus with a shoulder tackle. “Hmmf!”
Tail tumbled to the ground and rolled onto her side. Her mouth hung open while her widened eyes tracked Bonecrusher’s movements. Her wings twitched, particularly the one that had been pinched by the blow, and an instinctive stretch quickly tested the appendage. She wheezed and pushed herself back onto her hooves before a scowl, clawing away shock’s remnants, scraped its way onto her face.
“Just get to Captain Barrier,” Indar spoke calmly as he passed by.
His words jolted Tail to cap her mounting anger and resume her jog. As much as her heart burned to call out Bonecrusher for the juvenile antics, the stallion’s suggestion was wise. It’s not my place to discipline Barrier’s students.
Barrier clutched a quill and a stack of parchment with his magic, and a grimace spread across his muzzle as he glared at the first blank page. The clamor of colliding armor drew his attention just in time to see Bonecrusher bowl through the smaller pegasus. Barrier’s expression narrowed. He sighed and stepped towards the track, but when Tail picked herself up and continued with her run, the captain shook his head and returned to his papers with the slightest hint of a smile on his face.
“Light frame, hopefully nimble. Won’t want anything too extended. Quick takedowns…” Barrier scribbled down the points he spoke aloud, not bothering to stop as his eyes flicked up to watch Tail approach. He forced the ghosts of that smile from the corners of his lips and continued. “No prior experience on file. We’ll start from the ground up then. Form and launch…” The quill and parchments floating in his magic both vanished with a pop.
Tail’s breaths had steadied considerably by the time she reached the stands. Fatigue, however, still clung to her coat in the form of earned sweat that made her shift her armor in search of some relief. After a few attempts, she huffed through her scrunched muzzle, firmly planted a hoof into the grass, and affixed her gaze upon her captain.
Trotting to the tired mare, Barrier gave a reminiscent snort at the sight. “Think about how much it sucks later. Your file is empty, and there are things I need to know. Ever had any combat training of any kind? Martial arts, self-study, schoolyard scuffle, sibling brawl?”
“No, sir,” Tail answered dutifully.
“Alright, stand at attention, wings out.” Barrier motioned vaguely with his right foreleg before he stepped closer to the mare.
Immediately, Tail flared her wings to their full length. She stood up a bit straighter, straining against the oppressive armor that, at this stage in the game, only sought to weigh her down.
Without ceremony, Barrier pressed a hoof into the crook of the mare’s left foreleg, bending it inward and causing her to pitch forward slightly at the shift in balance. A squeak bubbled from Tail’s lungs, and almost on reflex, Barrier pressed a hoof to her chest to steady her.
Her gaze snapped to his, and the pair stood in silence for several seemingly endless seconds before Barrier broke away. He cleared his throat. “You’re small and light, so you want any fight you’re in to end quickly.” Barrier moved to her other foreleg to repeat the same action, after which he stepped back to glance at the results. “Anything prolonged will put you at a disadvantage.”
Tail’s front half had been considerably lowered by the shift in foreleg position. Her hind legs remained in their straight, standing configuration, which left her flank awkwardly raised. Barrier mumbled something inaudible to himself and moved closer to make some much-needed adjustments to the mare’s limbs.
“Sorry,” he stated abruptly once his little maneuver had managed to draw out another squeak. “Been a long time since I last did this with a pegasus. Someone else usually handled this part back in my day.” He stepped back to observe the form once again. “The point’s the same though. I want you to propel yourself at me at full speed.”
Barrier then walked away, putting distance between the mare and himself. “Don’t hold back. I’ll stop you when you cross the distance.” Barrier braced himself, readying his hind legs and tilting his forelegs in a manner similar to Tail’s.
Tail inhaled sharply and tentatively explored her posture by rolling her weight back and forth. “Oh…” She swished her namesake and rocked once more. “This position is way more efficient!” A smirk actually made its way onto her muzzle as Tail crouched. She leapt forward, her wings snapping after the jump-start her legs provided, and bolted directly into Barrier.
Barrier’s nostrils flared slightly in surprise at the speed Tail had achieved in her armor. With a sharp intake of breath, he waited until she was nearly on top of him to raise his forelegs and grasp the mare. He clenched his jaw as his hind hooves dug into the ground, and a gritty exhale shot between his teeth. With a heave and a pivot, he reared up with the smaller pegasus in tow and spun several circles until her speed had bled off and he could carefully set her down.
The mare gazed up at her superior with a wide-eyed expression. She panted heavily, though her paced demeanor drowned any sign of exhaustion and instead carried the hints of exhilaration. From the moment she had made contact with the stallion, everything had been a blur. The grapple, the way he moved her body, and the fact that she felt no pain from the impact were all new and shocking experiences.
“Not bad, but could’ve been better. For this strike, you want to keep your sights on the legs. Non-pegasi will have problems with less than three hooves on the ground, and you have the opportunity to take out two of them right from the get-go, so mind the trajectory to keep that option.” Barrier’s critique emerged in a wholly emotionless tone that was meant as much for himself as it was for Tail. “You’re gonna wanna work on synchronizing your wings and hind legs better as well. You want the kickoff to add to your downstroke as if it’s all one motion. There’ll be a couple more things to work on later, but for now, take five and then start a set of fifty wing-ups. The other two should be done by the time you are.”
Turning his back to the mare, Barrier started towards the track. He tugged a silver flask from…somewhere as he did so and upended it into his muzzle. His head shook, following a slight shudder that raked his neck, and he promptly sealed the flask before falling in line with Bonecrusher and Indar.
Tail surveyed Barrier as the officer strode away. She raised her foreleg and opened her mouth, but for a moment, the air refused to move at her behest. So many questions lingered at the tip of her tongue, and so many thoughts tried to make sense of the blur. However, it was the thought of those metallic contours that sat upon the forefront of her mind until a wince managed to force out a whisper. “It’s not your place, Tail.”
She dropped to the ground and started her wing-ups. There was much to do and much to learn. She could have her five minutes some other time. “But if I work hard enough, one day it will be.”