“It’s open,” Barrier called out after a knock poured through the door to his workspace. The captain neatly folded his hooves atop his paper-ridden desk and peered across the bland, undecorated expanse—save for the purple candle to his right.
The latch consequently clicked and the entry opened, injecting a swath of sandy tones and lamp-lit shades. “Captain Barrier.” Indar saluted briefly, having learned weeks ago that Barrier cared very little for such ceremony. “Colonel Trigger has requested that you pay him a visit at the Phoenix Fire.”
Barrier hummed, detangled his limbs, and went back to his daunting pile of paperwork. “Next time you see him, tell him I’ll drop in when I can. Not much time for social drinking at the moment.”
That much was true. While Luna was paying him handsomely, she demanded extensive information on her investments. Per her orders, Barrier had documented almost every detail of his outfit, from how many laps the cadets ran to how much break time they took. The specifics of their sparring matches were included in the reports as well. Likely, the princess wanted access to his training methods for reference, so she wouldn’t have to fund him out the flank for any future services.
“Sir.” Indar saluted again.
Barrier waved a hoof, gaze staying on his desk. “Dismissed.”
Indar’s foreleg quivered for a moment. Though, he quickly steadied it and firmly stood with his salute.
“You’re still here,” Barrier commented, continuing to put the day’s events to paper. “You have something to say?”
Indar hesitated, but with a swallow, he nodded. “With all due respect, why? Why do you let Bonecrusher get away with everything she does? I know you’ve noticed. Any other instructor would’ve had her skinned and hung, and you’re harder than any of them—by pretty much every count.”
Barrier’s attention was pulled from the paper and fell onto his fellow unicorn. The captain’s eyes narrowed darkly as he leaned over his desk. “Are you questioning my teaching methods, Corporal?”
“No, sir!” Indar responded immediately, taking a step backwards at the apparent hostility held within his captain’s stare. “I… was just curious, sir.”
Barrier looked back to his parchment as if nothing had happened at all, and his horn glowed before a quill and stamp appeared hovering by his head. “What hurts you today makes you stronger tomorrow,” Barrier answered matter-of-factly. “Tail comes from a world unlike ours. She doesn’t really know what guards are like, what our tempers are like, or what kinds of attitudes and traits we share. She came in with few-to-zero relevant experiences. If she’s going to be a part of our culture, then it’s something she needs to learn.”
The captain signed the bottom of his latest report with a flourish before stamping it with an ornate crest in the shape of an arcane star. “She’ll get the physical training and knowledge from my course, but she’s missing out on the social knowledge one learns from going through B.C.T. with forty other ponies.” The scroll was rolled and tied off with a silver ribbon. “Princess Luna doesn’t do things at random. She made sure that Tail had the best opportunity she could. She has the absolute worst of the guard mentality in Bonecrusher…”
Barrier lit the candle on the corner of his desk and held the scroll above the flame. The paper was quickly reduced to an argent ash that swiftly departed the room. “And she has the absolute best in you.” The unicorn slid the chair backwards and stood up before stepping towards the corporal. “The workday is over, Indar.” Barrier tapped the smaller stallion on the shoulder in a surprisingly friendly fashion. "Go home and get some sleep. Tomorrow, I start your shield training, and it won’t be that defensive crap my grandson teaches you guys.”
The unicorn waited until Indar had left to retreat to his seat, and he gently coaxed open one of the desk drawers. Inside, a pair of glasses and a clear, bulky jug—one filled to the cork with an amber liquid—taunted the captain. Foregoing the glasses entirely, Barrier retrieved the bottle, popped it open, and brought it to his lips. Several large swallows scorched his throat before he set the container down and sealed it. “Just like her…”
Tilting back tiredly in his chair, Barrier stared blankly at the ceiling, his mind drifting to years long past. For nearly thirty minutes, he simply sat there, until his eyes slowly drifted shut and a soft snore escaped his muzzle.
The familiarity of Barrier’s own time stretched into his awareness. The modern landscape of Canterlot had been overridden with the towering spires of the Castle of the Two Sisters. The grounds were abloom with silvery flowers, and the yard—his yard—was teeming with life.
“Captain Barrier!” The mare’s voice sparked a tension in his chest. Her accent, spiced by her Gallopfreyan roots, made his ears perk. “Fifty wing-ups done, sir.”
He turned to face the yellowish cream pegasus that stood in front of him. Her burnt orange mane caught a gust of wind as it blew past, and her amber eyes remained in a crisp stare that had to be real. “Ember,” he exhaled her name. The pain in his chest spiked again, sending a jarring tremble down his forelegs.
Barrier dove onto the pegasus. His forelegs snatched her barrel, and he planted his muzzle against her neck in a desperate search for warmth, softness, love. “By Bonnie, Barrier!” she squeaked out from her extremely disadvantageous position. “We’re right in the middle of the field.”
“Field.” The single word crept through the stallion’s subconscious. Around him, the castle crumbled. The vibrant flowers around them shriveled and died, and the green pitch upon which he rested morphed into a brownish muck that dragged both himself and Ember down.
“We’re right in the middle of the field!” she screamed over the zip of an arrow. He squeezed her closer while his hind legs scrambled about the mud for any sort of solid footing, but the crawling filth continued to swallow them up. Screams filled the air, forming a dreadful cacophony that accompanied the stench of blood. They would never find home again. They would die in this wretched place. Battle would take away everything he ever loved, and nothing he did would change that.
“I’ll cover you, Captain!” Another cry yanked his attention skyward as a lavender blur bolted overhead. Tail swung around and landed directly behind his position. Somehow, she managed to steady herself in the treacherous soil and hoisted a large wooden shield above them just in time to counter a barrage of descending arrows.
Barrier threw his head downward, but what he sought to find was no longer there. Ember had disappeared from his grasp. Her heat was gone, taken away from him again, and all that remained was one of her feathers.
“Magic Barrier! Go!” Tail shrieked at the captain. The ground beneath his hooves solidified when the commanding character of her speech pounded his senses. Clutching the feather in his aura, he climbed out of what was certainly meant to be his grave and turned to face his cadet.
His jaw fell and his pupils shrunk, trying to force out the picture his mind projected. Blood coated her body. It dripped from every crack in her armor. She was gasping for breath and struggling—struggling to hold that damn shield above her head with the added weight of uncountable bolts. She was taking his place in the ground. She was claiming his curse, and yet, she still had that hauntingly memorable fire in her eyes.
The unicorn sprinted when she began to collapse. The world around them seemed to evaporate as he reached out for the mare, and he soon found himself grasping Tail as if his future depended on it. “Not again,” he mumbled repeatedly until tears began to fall.
The clanking of glasses rang like bells while Barrier sobbed. Amber waves of a faintly recognizable magic washed over the pair as they drifted through the white expanse of emptiness. “You’re not the only one having a nightmare tonight, Barry.” The bar of the Phoenix Fire erupted into existence, and a smug Trigger stood ready behind the counter. “Be sure to bring the filly, and don’t keep me waiting.”
Somewhere high above her, an invisible tribunal converged to decide her fate. In the reddish spotlight, Tail felt small. Her feathers ruffled as the shadow of a giant gavel briefly held the pegasus in darkness, and the next witness was summoned.
Iron slammed against the stone floor with every hoofstep Magic Barrier took. The fully armored unicorn slowly progressed to her side, and a dreadful glow radiated from the eye slits in his helm as the voices above seemingly directed the affair.
“She is completely unfit!” Barrier chided. “Your faith has been wasted! Your bits have been spent for nothing. Never before have I seen such a worthless scrub be sent to me as a cadet. She’s not one of us, and she never will be.”
Tail jerked to the searing pain that ripped into her heart. Her limbs burned to the spreading ache, and she could not hold back the sniffle that caused all of the eyes in the room to assault her with their glares. “How could you say that, Captain?” she wailed, taking a few steps back from his figure.
“You don’t have a fire in you,” the stallion retorted. “You can’t even execute the simplest of moves. You need me to hold your hoof every step of the way!”
“I needed your help!” she screamed as her legs gave out, sending her tumbling into a floor that warped and shattered beneath her flailing mass. “They’re going to take it from me now! They’re going to taint it! Ponies will die, Barrier! You can’t mean that! You can’t mean that after how much I’ve tried! I’m not a quitter!”
“But you are a failure.”
“Enough!” A blinding arc of teal magic slashed through Barrier’s armor. The fragments burst away, revealing to a gawking Tail that nothing more than a shadow had lurked within the plates. Luna’s figure gradually took shape beside the pegasus, and the alicorn carefully pulled her subject into a soothing embrace. “Is that what you believe he thinks of you?”
Tail clung to Luna’s sides and nestled her head into the elder mare’s coat. She wept uncontrollably for what felt to her like an eternity. Her wings limply fell from her sides, and her ears had sunk as low as they could go. Whimpers, prodded by gentle hoof strokes, bubbled to the surface. Each tender petting calmed the cadet a little more until she finally managed to say, “N-no.”
“His reports are honest. You have a lot of work to do, my little pony. You are indeed not a soldier, and turning you into a proper defender will take time. I can say, however, without any doubts, that you are decidedly not a failure in his eyes.”
The pegasus pushed away from the princess just enough to properly see her face. Tear stains still dotted Tail’s muzzle; though, a relatively suspicious smirk had meandered into place at the behest of roving thoughts. “Why are you wasting your time on me, Princess? Aren’t there any fillies or colts who need the looking-after a lot more than I do?”
Luna simply beamed at the question. “Indeed, you’re not the only one who’s had a nightmare tonight, Ms. Tail, but I’m not wasting my time. I’m very vigorously protecting my investment. You needed to be reminded that you have a fire in your eyes.” She paused for a second to move closer to Tail’s waiting ear. “Now, do me a favor, filly,” she whispered. “Remember he trusts you, and wake up.”
“Inside wing down!” Tail wailed, rolling out of the bed and onto the floor. Her coat was drenched in a cold sweat that forced the pegasus to cringe, and her head snapped about to take in the familiar contours of her darkened room. “Fire! Luna!” She scrambled forward, and fumbling forehooves finally found the correct side of the door to escape the bedroom.
Amora stood a few meters away in a state of groggy disbelief. “Hun, what’s wrong?” she uttered through a yawn while the light of her magic kept the hallway aglow.
“Dream, vibe, gotta go! Luna!” The mad scramble evolved into a dash that propelled the mare onto the streets of Canterlot. “Fire! Eyes! Barrier,” she gasped as she galloped. The details of the dream that had stirred Tail from her slumber eroded amidst an ever-thickening fog, yet one critical piece of information remained cemented in mental clarity. She had been asked to wake up, and whatever circumstances surrounded it, it most definitely involved her captain.
Bolstered by the notion, she picked up her pace, clearing block after block faster than she ever had in the past. At least, that was the case right up until the instant a blue aura halted her stride in its corralling bubble.
“Cadet.” Barrier’s magic drew a squeak from the pegasus as much as his voice had. “Just what are you doing running around the city at this time of night?”
Tail fidgeted from her perch within the stronghold. “I had a dream, sir,” she answered with a hint of reluctance, “and—” She stopped, spotting the slant to his brow and the gape on his muzzle.
“I had one—” he began before momentarily biting his lower lip. A restart was in order. “I had been on my way to get you, actually. I was informed that we need to make a social field trip to one of the local establishments. It’s one of the most well-known guard hangouts. Seems I have to take care of some business, but for you, this assignment is probably hazing.”