Aged wooden fence posts highlighted the perimeter of the daycare grounds. Their white coats had faded long before, exposing dried boards to the more arid region of the realm, and Trigger briefly imagined that – had they been alive – the cool breeze of the night would have felt like a glorious oasis.
As anticipated, South Central was crowded with tourists and residents making the most of the drinking hour. The whole scene hardly appeared fit for a beast – at least one that was attempting a getaway. Of course, the thing they were after might have acquired a penchant for action, which would have made the spot an ideal location for nestling amongst a mass of inebriated ponies.
Contrarily, the daycare lot possessed the woeful mood of a cemetery. Stalks of grass, strokes of deep green painted beneath the moon’s argent veil, stood out against the dusty surroundings and collectively cast the illusion of a void atop the wastes. The sounds of joy that danced about the air fell flat before the desolate darkness that yearned for the lost light of its energetic youth, and Trigger gazed upon this unfolding spectacle while a trickle of anamneses sauntered about his awareness.
A familiar feeling delicately caressed the fibers of his fur, leaving the stallion a bit on edge as the troops of the 49th surrounded the facility. Slowly, they approached the multistory building erected near the center of the estate, and with every step they took, unease continued to wrap tighter about Trigger’s heart. Suspicion mingled with the sensations that slipped beyond the noise of the crowd. There was something in the scent of the midnight wind that was almost maddening – something that drove him to look at the events unfolding in front of his eyes with a scrutiny that eclipsed his typical nature.
The squadron’s maneuvers screamed all of the hallmarks of infiltration specialization. The repertoire did not line up with Trigger's expectations of how a research unit should operate, and as he mimicked the group and pressed his body against the red-wrapped siding of the center, Trigger could not help but wonder why. He had dipped beneath a windowsill, falling in with the cluster of ponies that moved to sweep through the building, and discovered that he had gained a bit of a reprieve from the constant onslaught of Wire’s inspections.
Cimmerian shades stretched from beyond the pane, drawing the stallion of reverie to lift his head and peer into the void. Empty tables lingered in the silence, and toys – haphazardly misplaced by the curious hooves of foals – sang their inaudible hymns of seclusion to the manifested congregation. Through the crystalized sands, he could hear their whispers – terrifying echoes of history that he had never wished to hear again – for their words were unmistakable. Finish us…
The silent signal arrived from the right flank, and the ponies at Trigger’s side quickly rustled to attention. News flooded from the east in rising murmurs that flicked the fluff backing the stallion’s ears. One of the soldiers had spotted a shadow drifting down the bolted halls, and the sighting pulled the flock of lambs closer and closer to the rumor mill.
From around the corner of the structure, Trigger could hear the raised voice of Proud Valiance as it delivered order after order to the guards. Growing tension coiled about their limbs, and weary expressions pressed stoic demeanors to the threshold of panic. They might have been trained in the approach, but the members of the 49th were definitely unwilling to perform the decisive act at the critical juncture of their fight.
While Proud tried to prepare his forces for the penetration phase of the operation, the midnight stallion stealthily slid a slip of magic beneath the window’s frame and popped the latch. No longer inhibited by those distracted eyes, Trigger pushed the glass upwards and climbed inside the bleak confines before resealing the route of his clandestine entrance.
The simple step catapulted Trigger through rewinding threads of fate until his location felt nothing like the daycare it was. It was as if he had trotted through a rift in time to the ocean from where he came – where greyscale shades of the nocturnal domain washed over the Sandcolt’s heavy shores. The wondrous torrents of reverie faded to a jagged chill when an ominous drone drew the stallion’s attention.
The cadence lured him from the playroom to the gloomier hall with cacophonous jumps in pitch that tugged at the strings of experience. Not even Luna’s glow managed to pierce this place, for the few trickles of moonlight that fought for access to the corridor soon surrendered to the ghostly veil. Beneath that mantle, the unrelenting noise grew louder as Trigger ventured down the linoleum path, and the vile scent of lactic acid jerked the composure of his snout.
Negligence incarnate heaved its disfigured vessel into the passageway as a roar as infinite as the cosmos raked the stallion’s ears. His gaze immediately fell upon the hideous nightmare, whose boil-covered flesh could be discerned through a shoddy patchwork of charred-looking fur. Decrepit legs, ripped asunder by grisly wounds that defied the limits of even the most imaginative, stretched towards the midnight charger, and a low rumbling groan crawled through the air as the monster’s mutilated form shifted sluggishly towards its company.
Blood poured from the creature’s muzzle as it howled, for torn sinews struggled to maintain the shape of a pony’s jaw. Its bones cracked to the rhythm of its limping pace, and its murky figure appeared ever more expansive as it closed in upon Trigger’s unmoving frame. The reddened eyes of this unkempt devil glared lustfully at the promise of a peaceful trance while amber irides silently responded with a fire all their own.
It had been a long time since the gunslinger had beheld such a being. Over two decades had passed into memory, yet the discord, gluttony and aura retained the same recognizable hallmark signatures of an unresolved terror. “Been awhile, hasn’t it big guy?” he addressed the mangled beast as exterior rumblings drove the argent-crowned colt to remove his hat. It seemed as though Valiance had finally managed to corral his restless regiment, and based upon the percussive taps of buckling doors and sliding panes, Trigger assumed that his moment of opportunity was rapidly coming to a close.
His majestic horn emerged from its cloak before spikes of shadow engulfed the structure. The prongs of the expanding barrier, mimicking the garbled bedlam that radiated from the entity in his presence, halted the 49th’s advance in its tracks. Displaced wails seeped around the strands of dusk from frustrated guards that could not comprehend the power before them. They recoiled, dreading that the animate mesh was a product of the unfinished they sought.
Their voices faded, lost behind Trigger’s dreamshell as it transported the ensnared duo to a world that sat between the realms of reality and imagination – of reverie and nightmare – where the scents of ink, blood and tears flooded one’s natural senses. The unicorn moved his legs through the emotional brew, taking up a fighting stance to respond to the specter’s aggressive screech.
Without hesitation, it lunged for the prepared stallion, flinging globs of its marred, acidic tissues back into the tides from which it came. Trigger threw his forehoof into its face and extracted dribs of the toxic sanguine mix as a shrill squeal saturated the seascape. “Don’t be a dumbass! I’m not a buckin’ toddler anymore; I know that somewhere in that two-bit brain of yours, even ya can comprehend what being here means. Now stand your mongrel ass up and tell me just what in the fuck is going down.”
“Miss…” Visions of the unfinished riled my recollections, and my voice surfaced as a grim minor upon our duet’s score. “Is that unit experimenting with the dreams of foals?” Her irides contracted as the bow of shock displaced the currents of her feelings, and I observed the less-than-subtle manner in which she caught her breath.
The brief moment of shared silence was utterly traumatizing. Fleeting glimpses of my sister sparkled in the wide expanses that were her pupils. Her tiny limbs quivered atop a fermenting tectonic movement that no composition would ever bring justice, and I did not have to hear her opus to feel its growing power.
With each tick of the metronome, however, my guest cultivated her verbal choreography. Internally, the words she needed to speak assembled until the ramping pressure eventually compelled her to unload the lumbering confession. “They’re using orphans. They’re filling them with the promises of happy lives and amazing things, but all they’re doing is keeping them locked up to use their magic.
“They’re doing things that no pony should do. Stealing is wrong! It’s hurting them. They can’t keep taking the shadows from the children. It’ll kill them! This is why I came for Mr. Trigger. He’ll get it because he isn’t like them… He isn’t like you either… I need him! He’s the only one!”
Her delivery quickened with each word until I was left with a frazzled filly on my hooves. I gestured for her to slow down and smiled when she took my advice to heart. “Well, of course Trigger isn’t like me,” I inserted into the ephemeral tranquility. “He’s a creature of fantasy after all, but – my little pony – there is something that you should know.” I lifted my hoof to my head and lightly tapped the side of my skull. “He came from right here, so you don’t have to wait around for him to find somepony who understands.
“I’m assuming that the reason you feel as though you need him is because you’re also from the Ocean of Reverie. It’s not really a hard connection to make. You honestly look like you could be his daughter.” The statement pulled a rosy blush past the stunned expression upon her countenance and through the tufts of her pitch fur. It was a sign that I had built a rapport, and I did not intend to let it go to waste.
“Friendship can come from those you don’t expect, and it looks like you could use one right now.” I turned and stretched out my back from the young mare. “It also doesn’t sound like we can afford waiting around for nothing.” Solemn concern laced my otherwise lenient timbre. I had been soft for the lady in my midst, but the burden of wearing that stifling mask became more difficult as I pondered the consequences of her minimal statements. “Trigger will likely keep them busy, so we can…”
“I came from San Palomino,” she answered intuitively while crawling into the space between my wings. “That’s where… Proud… is doing all of his bad stuff.” She was sharp for one who had not experienced the world of the awakened for long, and I promptly responded with a nod of acknowledgement before heading down the stairs with the filly in tow. There were a few things to collect – and a few facts to get straight – before I could leap off into Luna’s starry canvas.
San Palomino was a small town settled upon the northern edge of the eponymously named desert. I estimated the flight time to be thirty minutes, give or take, which made my companion’s trek all the more inconceivable. She had wandered to Las Pegasus – all the while being hunted by a commander whose activities jackhammered the foundation of ethics – on a hopeful whim that she could find my partner in mischief.
“I need to know what you mean by shadows. When I was a colt, my little sister accidentally exposed me to a dangerous dosage of unbridled magic. This was the event that led to Trigger’s existence, but… it also created things… things that I could not explain… and things that I still don’t want to explain. I just called them the unfinished because that is what they looked like when they haunted my dreams.”
She pressed her forelegs against my sides as the story poured past my lips. Her small snout nuzzled into my mane, and I figured that the sudden display of tenderness stemmed from the anxiety I was undoubtedly exuding. “They are creating those poor things on purpose when they try to use my friends’ raw powers, but they made a mistake. They brought one here. They pulled it out and terrified everypony. They told my friends that the princess would be proud of them – that saying it was wrong would get them sent back or worse – and that’s when I decided to come here too.”
I fetched my pair of combat goggles from the workbench and slid the lenses over my eyes. “So at least one of those things is on the loose,” I stated flatly before drawing in a deep breath.
“There is one in the city. I can feel my own kind. This is how I found Mr. Trigger, but that was easy because his light shines upon this house. The others are always cold because they are missing something.” She tightened her grip upon my coat. “And Trigger’s warmth seems distant now. I don’t know what is happening to him, but I worry that he might have found it without me there.”
Nothing short of charming, her affection melted away the tension that had relentlessly tugged upon the fibers of my muscles. “It’s like I told you before, Squirt; that’s just the way he is. There’s no need to worry about him. He’s a big stallion and can take care of himself. Being unsure can be a frightening thing, but you shouldn’t get sad just because of that. Besides, he’s giving us a window of opportunity to save your friends, so why don’t you let me know the fundamentals? How many friends do you have, and how many baddies are left to get in our way?”