Nearly four months had passed since the dubbed Battle of Manehattan, and the world constantly changed within the spirals of its wake. On one front, my home had been rather unceremoniously rebuilt – and by unceremoniously, I mean under the constant surveillance of Magic Barrier’s company. The charcoal-colored captain had been feeling more than a bit guilty when it came to his circumstantial absence, and he had made sure that the debt would be repaid by overseeing the installation of every bolt and screw.
To be honest, it was a bit comical watching a member of the Mavericks’ Wild spending his time breathing down the necks of construction workers. Though, that is exactly how the stallion behaved – serious, with a chuckle. May Luna bless those mares and stallions; the builders dealt with it far better than I would have if I had been micromanaged by an old-school officer on a misplaced mission.
Nonetheless, thinking about Barrier’s efforts made me reflect upon the other front lingering in the winds. My friends had valiantly struggled to help iron things out. They had made my transition back from the shade and storm far easier than I had imagined possible. They had saved me, and everypony else for that matter, from a lurking danger – a lurking nightmare – that flirted with myth. Yet, there were still some things that just could not be touched. There were still demons locked in the details that I kept from everyone – Mozy, Amora, Trigger, Ambrosia…
Blinding lights simply cast sharper shadows, and that all-consuming void known as oblivion chills my thoughts with its emptiness. It reminds me of the disaster that could have been – the disaster that they prevented – the one that I nearly caused – the one that would have purged friendship, love, and dream. None of those things can survive in an endless night. And though I did not fail, the possibility that I could usher in such a calamity again terrifies me to the core. It’s a scar that may never heal – a scar from which I may never escape.
The crack of my legs striking my desk snapped my attention back from the mental deep. Ruffled powder blue griffon feathers and crimson eyes greeted me with their shock, and I released a long, exasperated sigh upon recognizing that my office had indeed been infiltrated at some point during my daze. “Sorry about that, Azure. I just had another one of those…”
“I understand, Colonel. We all have moments,” she answered as the tension fled her limbs and as her expression considerably softened. “As a friend, might I recommend that you listen to your doctor more thoroughly? I know she has been suggesting therapy routinely throughout the semester.”
I shuddered. “I don’t recall eavesdropping on medical conversations being culturally accepted in the Republic, Ms. Sky.” My response came paired with a flat chill that remarkably made the lieutenant scoff. “It isn’t accepted here either.”
“Any expectation of privacy goes out the window when you’re shouting. I don’t even have to be up against the door when you get into a mood like that. Just pick a nearby spot in the corridor and give it a shot. Look, I know you came clean about a lot of stuff, but I’m a soldier. I know when there is still a battle going on right in front of my face. You’re hurting, and we all can see it because we’re adjusting too.”
My brow furrowed immediately and I rose up out of my desk chair. The wheels squeaked as they traversed the wooden grains, and my joints cracked to the weight that settled upon my stiffened forelegs. “No pony – or griff – can speak to my adjusting!” I winced at my own volume and recoiled. Perhaps Amora and I had been yelling after all. “I appreciate your sentiment. I really do. Your heart’s in the right place. I’m not trying to take away from that, but no therapist is going to give me what I need.
“You witnessed the incredible power that even weak connections to the nightmare were able to generate. We live in a world with numerous applications of magic and science, but there are things I experienced during those fifteen months that challenge everything we know. I have to think about those things. It’s in my nature think about all of it, but how can I? We’re talking about a type of corruption in which the thoughts alone are dangerous. What if they trigger a relapse? What if they push me back over the edge? It’s like dying with a partial thought or an incomplete dream.” Like dying without an answer.
“Then figure out a way, Professor. Figure out how to do it right, and find what it is that you’re missing. You obviously want to. You’re rambling about it, and there are plenty of folks around who want to help you. If I’m being honest, I find your stubborn stance towards professional therapy a little strange, especially considering your position in academia. As a soldier though, I get that it’s a different story…
“You are a great teacher, Wing. You bring life and energy to the class, and being there has been enlightening. But I saw another side of you when you leapt for Artemis. You certainly thrive in the light, but you fight in the dark.” The night will last forever. “It's just my opinion, but I think you’re looking for a confidante to tell you that it’s okay to keep fighting – that it’s okay to seek something more.”
The memories of worthless foalhood treatments coalesced in my mind along with those clutches of shadow. That stubborn stance Azure had alluded to had nothing to do with my positions or assignments. It had everything to do with then. I didn’t need that kind of analysis. I didn’t need a witch-hunt for things that might have been missing. I didn't need those figurative razors stabbing and cutting up things better left alone. I couldn't stand the scrutiny!
A gentle knock upon my door abruptly swept away the swirling anxieties. It grabbed me from the turmoil and allowed a deep, calming breath to fill my lungs. I peered upon a laser lemon highlight that meandered through a fuchsia blue mane, the lilac coat that prodded my heart with its subtly pinkish tint, and a set alluring aquamarine eyes that surprisingly forged a path through the expanding crack between entrance and frame. “Hey Wing.” Her sweet southern charm repudiated my disbelief as it grazed my ears, though I still struggled not to fall back into my chair from the shock-driven shiver that dashed down my spine and raked away my woes.
“Amby,” I squeaked gleefully and stumbled out from behind my desk. Azure stifled a chuckle at the embarrassingly clumsy display, and Ambrosia’s face blossomed into a smile that I had loved at first sight. “I thought you were due out on a shift a few hours ago. Did something happen?”
She nodded and stepped inside. “There were some maintenance problems with the locomotive. Hopefully it will be fixed soon, but it does give me some extra time to spend with my special somepony and... maybe hear what he’s been working on.”
“Oh honey, you know I’ll teach you some physics if you show me some chemistry.” I lifted my eyebrows and winked in the most mockingly seductive way imaginable. The maneuver drove Azure Sky to a prompt sidestep and exit, leaving the tender sounds of an Ambrosia giggle to conquer what would have been the resulting awkward silence. At least the griffon had remembered to leave her completed homework on my desk. “Well, you can hear all about the annoying classroom antics of Twilight Sparkle, but since it’s lunchtime, I wouldn’t mind grabbing a bite with my favorite mare. Perhaps a little homemade pizza and a stroll through the park?”
“Actually,” she replied, simultaneously flicking her tail, “I was hoping you would be up for giving me a tour. You’re honestly enthusiastic about what you do. Since we taste each other’s cooking all the time, I thought it might be fun to try something different and see how a certain pegasus thinks on the job.”
Laughter burst from my lungs as I affectionately brushed my muzzle against Ambrosia. “Giving up a shot at homemade pizza!? Who are you, and what in Equestria have you done to my mare?”
A teasing gasp and a chortle later – and her teeth were pressed gently against my ear. My fur stood on end to the sudden sensation before her sultry whisper buried its way into one of my other senses. “There’s your bite. Now is it so wrong for me to want to explore the sciences?”
I flicked free from the confines of her nibble and sauntered to the entrance. A toothy grin flashed from my face as I pressed my hoof against the varnished door and pushed it closed. A snap from the gate’s metal wedge poked my perception, cuing my motion to the deadbolt latch. My heart thumped, and I turned to affix my gaze upon the brushed aluminum surface. This was it. This was the moment. Click.
“Heh, you should know that I’m always up for some education in the physical sciences, but…” I spun around after my brow had descended to build a frigid leer. “I wasn’t joking when I asked the question. I know the local engineers. There’s no way they would let that train be in maintenance for even an hour. Who are you, and what have you done with Ambrosia?”
The mare stepped back and held still as her sights briefly examined my frame. “I see, very perceptive, Professor. I’ve done nothing with your mare and will not attempt to do anything so long as you keep your voice down. Wouldn’t want all that information regarding the poor soundproofing in this establishment to go to waste.”
Her timbre shifted into something far more commanding than I had expected. Green flames burst from her body, burning away the lilac contours and amethyst locks until a towering black creature stood in the center of my office. Her irides captured the same iridescent hue of her magical fire; long, blue raspberry locks cascaded beneath the pinnacle of a jagged horn; and holes, yes holes, pierced the mare’s legs and translucent wings.
My jaw had fallen before the spectacle, and the pressure around my eyes made it feel as though they would leap from their sockets in an instant. My heart had sped to the possibility, but this went well beyond the realm of reason. This wasn’t some student pulling a dumb Magic 501 prank on me. It wasn’t even a wandering drone. The queen of the changelings was in my office. She had set those pointed fangs into my ear. She had played with my emotions for the one who had earned my heart and soul.
“Don’t even think about it,” Chrysalis spoke as her stare fell upon my leg. “Our little… foreplay… gave me more than enough time to read you like a book, pony. Your mind’s at work – probably calculating the odds of an attack rendering me powerless. I bested Celestia, and reading emotions is my specialty. You would have no chance if we met opposed on the fields of conquest. Thankfully for you, this visit concerns a different type of business altogether. I’ve come here seeking an ally.”
The shadows never really go away. They just wait for you to be ready to play with them again.
A Game of Targets
A State of Darkness – Arc 4