“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Barrier wailed as the energy of Conrad’s weapon slammed against his shield. Twyst had at least taken some of the load off his aching body, but the decorated captain was still putting his cards in DarkOps, Nighty, or Trigger dropping some trump out of the unfathomably stacked deck. The Maverick had claimed a bit of a reprieve after the first shot, but it became clear from the whirring cannon in the distance that Conrad was not willing to retain his patience.
“We have to keep going,” Amora spoke suddenly beneath the glow of her own horn. She watched as her comrades began to race towards the skies of battle, and she dumped all of her focus into keeping them safe with her protective spell. “Come home,” she whispered while watching the trails pour from the streaking bodies of her pegasi companions. “I don’t want to watch another…”
A flagrant spark blazed a rebellious and painful path through Barrier’s coat and mane. “Buck Luna!” he cursed, damning the renegade arc after his armor endured yet another attack. “C’mon! Just hurry up and get that asshat off my shield!” His teeth mashed against one another. His jaw tightened more and more with every second that passed, and his muscles trembled with the rising tension that begged for some sweet release.
The roar of the House Guard and Eagle forces coaxed his ears as they joined the frontlines, and Magic held a bated breath while he wondered if the maneuvers would succeed in giving him exactly what he needed. The audible cadence of conflict swelled to the faded echoes of contorted Wonderbolt jet streams, and the hushed murmur of hurled arrows popped against the calamity that Lichlos manipulated. For a moment, it appeared as though Wick and Defiant had their enemy on the run. For an instant, it seemed as if they had truly put Conrad on the ropes. For a second…
Jolts rode down the trio’s spines. The sizzle of teleportation magic cracked atop the deco spire, and Luna emerged from her cosmic aura along with the scowling Autumn Tea. The latter barreled into Trigger’s midnight coat faster than Luna’s light could join the shield that defended the city, and her whispered words carried a harsh bite that the others could clearly hear. “Get the buck up, stallion.”
“We came as soon as we could,” Princess Luna spoke over the quiet declaration. She assessed the state of affairs, and a frown formed upon her muzzle as she let her eyes follow Tea’s path to Trigger’s unmoving body. “It must be true…” she muttered. The feel of Amora’s spell – one that repressed the powers of a tantibus – finally crept into her awareness, but beneath it, she could still sense the ripples of nightmare that meandered about the inner confines of her mind, leaving little left to the imagination. “And what of Sir Wing?”
“Wing’s M.I.A., Your Highness. Presumed dead, but… Trigger was unable to summon Resolve.” Quick and concise, the response snapped from the captain’s tongue, producing added layers of grief upon both Tea’s and Luna’s expressions.
“We see.” She took a short breath and spent a moment in reflection. The thought that more of her own had died in the line of duty tugged at her eyelids and stiffened her lips. Each of the little ones in her presence had a connection to this loss, and they were all being propped by that one glimmer of hope that shone through the darkness. “This explains a lot to us the events which have transpired here. We will do whatever we can to assist. Lady Tea, if thou would please continue thine efforts to awaken our knight of dream, we would show our gratitude.”
She nodded and ran her hoof against the base of his argent mane before giving the hairs a jerking pull. “Did you hear that, handsome? Princess Luna’s calling your name, and only a bitch sleeps on the job. It might just make up for you neglecting to bring me along on this one.” The mare released her hold as groans dribbled from his lungs, and she was about to roll him over when the chilling sounds of a hummed nursery rhyme crawled through the air from all directions.
“The buck is that?” Twyst blurted before Luna raised her forehoof. Jagged contours redefined the typically smooth edges of her ethereal mane, and the hairs on her legs stood on end as though an icy wind had frozen her to the bone. “Hey, you alright?” the stallion questioned after cocking his head to the side.
In silence, Luna walked to the edge of the roof and peered down upon the waterfront. Glistening lines and thaumic bands arced through the streets below to the shore. Their pink glows carried with them the vibrant energy of youth, and only she seemed to capture the bigger picture of what was transpiring.
The unbridled power of the innocent was being harnessed before her very eyes. It congregated in nine spots along the ocean’s edge, and the darkened figures of colts and fillies stood out beneath the dancing lights. The song grew louder, and the Princess of the Night could feel the ironclad hold upon her heavenly body slipping as the moon crested the horizon at the behest of Manehattan’s foals.
The San Palomino Nine had gathered to repay their debts, and they had brought the city’s children with them. They had come to confront the terror that plagued them – history and all – and they would not be denied the keeper they had selected. Along with her unicorn companions, Luna’s head turned upwards as the shining silvery orb slid into place over the sun. Shock seeped into her chest as a widened gaze absorbed the wonders of that lunar penumbra.
Midnight Star’s power erupted in the shadow, sweeping out across the sea to replace the salty waters with the black-pitched Ocean of Nightmare. From her dreamshell, an Equestrian flag emerged through the depths. It was perched atop the mast of a mighty ship, one that opened the mouths of those who had happened to greet it, one that revealed to the masses the breadth of dream, and one that carried guns – his guns – my guns.
Trigger had not stirred, but his amber glare pierced the walls of the Port Authority along with the bridge plating of the Phoenix Star. The conflicting pulls of nightmare and reverie yanked at the heartstrings of his senses. “What the buck did ya do?”
Pegasi and griffons stumbled as two garnet bolts slammed into Conrad’s barricade. The thaumic arcs ripped through the barrels of the griffon’s charging weapons and stripped the metal fragments from the nightmare’s hold. Shards plunged into the waiting waves as the bluish sparks that had seeded each cannon were snuffed by the oppressive counterassault. As the haunting reddish glow fell upon the allied defense force, the fliers momentarily lost their abilities to stay airborne. The shots had also stolen their magical connections to the skies, and while the skills were returned soon enough, stunned demeanors remained plastered upon their faces as I darted along the firing path.
Kill him, was all I could think as I lifted the transparent crystalline broadsword with my right forehoof. Long strands of my black mane, unrestrained by the colonel’s cap atop my head, caught the wind as I flapped my wings as hard as I could. Kill him. The voice grew more dominant as I slipped into the gap my guns had torn through Amora’s spell, and the anger that came with that whisper sent the stripes of shadow painted upon my coat slithering beneath the faux-leather vest draped over my back.
I blew by the shell-shocked guards and thrust the razor known as Revenir deep into the floating steel layers. Much like the R-type rounds that borrowed her name, Revenir was capable of absorbing magic from whatever it cut. “Get out here, you son of a bitch!” I wailed as the scraps peeled away from Conrad’s control. “Get out here and atone for your failures!” Kill him.
“Wing!” Mosaic Breeze’s pitched squeal pinned my ears back before I snapped my head to the side. Wishful excitement had wiped the dismay from at least her face, and her feathers fanned wide as they blindly strained for a thrill of hope that was nothing more than a distraction.
“No pony has called me by that name for months, and no pony should.” My response practically drained the life from her muzzle as confusion grabbed the reins of her mind.
“What are you talking about, Wing?” Defiant shouted after regaining his wits. He still panted from the heat of battle, and his expression shifted into a perplexed state that tucked one of the corners of his lips and sculpted his brow.
He had always given himself so willingly for the sake of others. But he hadn’t come for me... I scowled. My left foreleg trembled, and my pulse aggravated a burning sensation that lingered in the limb. A lightless veil dripped from that hoof to seclude Resolve’s silver sheen once it succumbed to the dusky dread that fed upon the darkness of my thoughts. “That name belonged to a pony who still clung to compassion. I am not that fuckin’ pony.”
Wisps of shade billowed from the corners of my eyes, and I swiped at the griffon’s pathetic fortress. A thin crescent of nightmare sprang from the transformed blade. Tiers of iron snapped to the strike and popped in succession with a shrill that mimicked the overdriven wails of a guitar’s anthem. The crumpled remains of the Albatross broke away, and in the dusk of my eclipse, Lichlos emerged from his false coffin for a proper burial.
The instant the gap was large enough, I launched forward. The sounds of his astounded cries met my ears as I flew through the wreckage and cut down what dared get in my path. His power exploded into frantic snarls that gripped onto whatever could be controlled. His imagination conscripted the guns of my ingenuity in a pitiful attempt to finish the job, but each demonstration willed my leg to drive Revenir through every abomination he shaped.
I could practically feel the blood pump to my skull as I hacked my way through the evolving labyrinth until I caught sight of those damned emerald irides. “What’s the matter, Conny? Not used to seeing ghosts?” Another edge of maligned reverie leapt from Resolve as I slashed at the griffon.
He lurched to the side, dodging the attack before it sliced through the heavens. His gaze swiftly wandered over my form, and even the aura of his own tantibus quivered as he traced the maze etched upon my body. The calculations finally caught up with him. “You’re!”
“I’m here to kill you,” I interrupted in a flat tone. Debris was hurled aside as my wings tossed me through the dilapidated sanctuary. Lichlos scrambled to the west, pushing away from the remnants of his vessel as his bastardized magic coalesced into a blackened blade meant to oppose Resolve. Kill him, the shadow spoke with a bit of eagerness that made the corners of my lips curl skyward.
He swung his saber as I approached, and we grunted in unison when our unworldly weapons collided. My other leg pitched the point of Revenir towards the griffon’s neck, but the able fencer gained a few wingspans of separation with a well-timed retreat. We had met under the banners of technology and progress, and yet now, we marched forth embracing the most primal natures of combat. We had shed the baggage of our history to pick up the razors of our shattered dreams, and I could think of nothing more fitting or appealing.
“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” I roared as I charged again. “You wanted the me that would play your dumbass little games.” He backpedaled through the skies, desperately trying to regain some distance as I continued the pattern. Slash with Resolve. Jab with Revenir. Slash with Resolve. Jab with Revenir.
“I got what I wanted! And there is no way I’m going to let you take it from me, Wing!” His talons clutched the hilt, and he struck back with force. “I have the power to take away the sun! I have the power to transcend even alicorn magic! I have what your miserable species denied my race, and I can make Equestria see that it is not infallible!”
Laughter drowned out the crackling arcs that rushed from the locked swords. The sinister essence that had come for me finally overwhelmed the lingering resistance of the heart to flow freely. “You think that’s you?” I threw one of my hind legs back, collecting the moisture off the sea air before condensing it into a stormy tuft. “You think that’s your doing, you arrogant shit? My name is Atomic Caliber! And that eclipse is mine!”
I flew back sharply and thrust the toting rear limb forward as my wings carried the rest of my body behind the cloud shot. Lightning, stoked by the full inferno of my dark magic, burrowed into the griffon and chucked him to the deck of my battleship. He squawked and squealed as he descended, and the harsh scent of burnt feathers drifted from the start of his trail to my muzzle.
My grin stretched when I arched my back and descended rapidly. The Albatross had finally failed Conrad. Its chorus of metallic rainfall serenaded my ears atop the hushed murmurs of Equestria’s defenders. The perfect opus to our endgame played for the moment. It played in homage to the series of checks and counters that had spanned our ages.
The griffon recovered in time to land relatively gracefully atop the Phoenix Star. He rolled across the platform and threw his paws into the floor while a single talon raked the surface for leverage. I would have rather watched him splatter and break, but my strike had served its purpose. It had done enough damage. It had brought retribution. “Nowhere left to run, Conny! Charred primaries don’t do fucking much for flight.”
He snarled and pressed the two halves of his beak while raising his sword to meet the pending blow. I had prepared him for it. I had trained him like the misguided fool he was. Slash with Resolve. Jab with Revenir. I had taught him how to defend against my sword of dream. I had allowed him to flirt with Resolve. But this time, the pieces on the board would be changed. Slash with Revenir…
The crimson blade bit into the manifestation of his magic. It fed upon the desire that coursed through my veins and tore through the weapon as though it had not existed at all. The edge continued downward, ripping into Conrad’s shoulder to the accompaniment of snapping bones and jarring screams. My laughter roared from my penumbra as my free forehoof guided the other sharpened brand towards his throat.
I had struck him with the relic that robs magic from whatever it cuts. “You called me to play a match, Lichlos. Allow me to show you a little veracity. Checkmate.”