As the ponies geared up, Barrier’s eyes settled on Private Range for a brief moment before narrowing at the almost invisible bulges beneath his cloak. “Private Range,” Barrier’s tone caused the pony in question to snap to attention and turn away from his group who continued to gather their gear. “What are you wearing under your cloak?”
Verdant Range didn’t reply immediately, instead eyeing the ground nervously.
“What’s going on, Barrier?” Shining asked, quickly gazing over the situation.
“Verdant, remove your cloak.” It wasn’t a request.
“Sir.” Verdant whipped his forehoof to his throat and tugged the cloak free revealing a series of straps and small holsters, each one containing a small bag and all of them seemingly linked together with a thread that ran through the mouths of the bags.
Shining Armor recalled the conversation he and Barrier had shared in the armory and hissed sharply before taking several steps back.
Barrier’s gaze hardened and the unicorn let only a single word escaped him. “Why?”
“Tis most logical that I carry this burden.” Verdant quickly explained. “The bombs require no special skill. The others have skills I don’t. Greater hoof-to-hoof combat, expert swordplay, medical skills, magic, flight. Besides that, Winter Gem and Hat Trick are engaged, Swiftsword has the Falchion clan to lead and Iron Forge has a promising career as a smith ahead of him. But me?” Verdant smiled almost sadly. “I’m only a gardener. Tis not a question that I’m the most expendable of the five of us. Should attacking Sombra head on fail… it would be best to sacrifice myself for Equestria and the empire.”
Barrier sighed and pressed a hoof to his forehead. He couldn’t be mad at this. It was thinking he had taught them.
Rather than Barrier, Cadance was the first one to comment. “Are you crazy? That’s in-”
Barrier rested a hoof on Cadance’s shoulder and sighed.
“The other privates and I discussed this for an age and though they despise it…the squad and I are in accord. Tis the most logical course of action. The needs of the many,”
“Outweigh that of the few.” Barrier finished. “Your plan is pragmatic, and I applaud you for it. I couldn’t be any prouder of all of you than I am at this moment,” the Captain’s voice dropped almost threateningly, “but there is no way in hell I’ll let any of you do it.”
“Sir?” Verdant tilted his head in uncertainty.
“Captain…” Swiftsword hesitated to speak up. “Why? We do not like it either, but we know it may be required to ensure our victory against Sombra! Surely you would not risk Sombra escaping the Empire!”
“If any of you attempt to sacrifice yourself going forward, I’ll personally break you.” Barrier gazed at each of them in turn.
Verdant Range shook his head and took several steps closer to the captain. “Captain, I don’t like this anymore than you do. Believe me when I say I don’t, but if it’s required of me…than so be it. I’m ready for it. This is what thou hast trained us for. What you prepared us to do.”
Barrier’s lips tightened slightly, knowing he couldn’t refute the statement.
“I don’t want to die, but this is our duty. Thou wouldst do the exact same thing in my position. Thou wouldst fulfil thy duty no matter what…so let me do the same.”
“You’re really willing to die for this city?” Rarity asked almost in awe.
“We all swore that we would gladly gives our lives in the line of duty. Tis what we were trained to do.” Swiftsword shot a pointed glance at Barrier. “We’ll do whatever is required to ensure Equestria’s safety.”
The soft sound of Barrier taking another swallow of the flask drew the group’s attention to him once more. “I nearly lost all of five you forever what seems like a lifetime ago.” He once again replaced the flask in his saddlebags. “I will not lose my kids again. Not so long as I draw breath.” Barrier’s tone softened towards the end, becoming almost melancholic.
“Sir?” Swiftsword gazed at him with uncertainty.
“My… my cadets.” Barrier corrected himself before flaring his horn and carefully removing the makeshift suicide-vest from Verdant Range. “You five have your whole lives ahead of you. Regardless of what I taught you to do or what you’re willing to do, you do not die today. Not so long as I can help it.”
“Sir,” Swiftsword made to argue again. “Thou art a captain and the most-”
“It’s not up for debate, Private.” Barrier stated bluntly. “Now gear up, ponies. Shining Armor has something to show you before we go.”
Swiftsword saluted sharply before she and the others turned to finish strapping on their weapons.
“Alright ponies, gather around.” Shining’s horn flared and began emptying out his saddlebags as the ponies put on the last of their gear. “Normally I wouldn’t do this on such short notice, but we don’t have much time. We have to stop Sombra ASAP.” The stallion laid three-dozen small metal capsules and half as many silver apples. “These,” he motioned to the first of the objects, “are called flash-bangs. What you do with this is pull this pin…” Shining Armor’s magic tugged the pin in question slightly. “And then,” he glanced at Barrier, “you throw it at your target.” He shifted back to the cadets when Barrier snorted. “This makes an explosion that temporarily blinds, deafens, and severely disorients. We don’t know for sure if it’ll work on Sombra, but it’s what we’ve got. Hopefully it’ll buy us a few seconds.”
Shining Armor returned the flashbang to the row. “And these little babies…” he tossed one of the silver apples in his magic. “Are the more standard grenades. They’re like the little bagged explosives you guys use, only safer. The explosion isn’t as big, it’s way more controlled and they don’t shoot bits of metal like some of our other grenades, but when they go off they turn anything caught in the blast into chunks. What really sets them apart from your explosives though is that they have a five-second timer and won’t turn you into ash, so long as you throw them. Explosion radius is about five meters.”
Verdant Range raised a hoof. “The tartarus is a meter?”
“Five meters is about thirty-two hooves.” Barrier clarified before glancing at Shining Armor in silent askance to which he received a nod. “Right, with that out of the way,” Barrier’s magic began to divide the explosives up between the cadets before removing more of them from his own bags and dividing those up between himself and Shining Armor. “Cadance, if one of us isn’t back in ten hours with news, then I want you to make sure everypony gets out safely.”
The mare in question nodded.
“Alright ponies. Move out.”
“This is more the state I expected the empire to be in.” As the group had gotten closer to palace in the center of the city, whole corpses had begun to turn up, some of them horribly disfigured with others being near pristine.
“We didn’t have time to burn all of them. We weren’t certain where Sombra was, so we burned the ones closest to the base.” Swiftsword explained, nervously glancing at the ponies they passed.
“By Faust…” Rarity’s gaze fixated on a particularly messy corpse dangling from a jagged piece of crystal sticking out of the side of the palace. Had she anything left in her to throw up, she would have.
“What kind of pony would do this?” Twilight blinked back tears as she spotted the upper half of a foal amidst the dozens of bodies, most of them armored.
“Sombra wasn’t a pony when he took over the Empire. He didn’t take it over in the conventional sense. He just killed everything he saw.” Swiftsword explained. “The bastard went mad, likely from meddling with forbidden magics.”
“Sombra is akin to a more violent and feral Nightmare Moon. What he’s become is not who he was.” Barrier weakly defended. “He meddled in things he shouldn’t have, but he did it with good intentions. He once told me he was doing research to end the war with the griffins.”
“The road to Tartarus was paved with good intentions.” Shining offered.
“There’s a road leading to Tartarus?” Verdant asked. “Faust, why wouldst thou build such a thing? Also, how couldst anypony turn good intentions into a building material?”
Shining Armor ignored the green stallion. “So, do any of you know anything that could help us against him?”
“There was a rumor once that stated he and Princess Celestia were lovers at some point. Possibly even just before he turned.” Hat Trick offered unhelpfully.
“There’s nothing I’ve not already told you. Sombra is strong and extremely fast. His feral state has effectively reduced his training to raw instinct. He doesn’t think, he simply does. And like me, he was trained and built to kill as efficiently and cleanly as possible.”
Shining nodded.“How strong is he compared to you?”
“A whole different level.” The charcoal pony admitted, stopping as they turned down a long hallway with two massive crystal doors at the end. “Even as a regular unicorn, he probably could’ve been a threat to the princesses in a one-on-one fight.”
“And we get to fight that.” Rainbow Dash chipped in, surprisingly somber.
“No, Shining and I get to fight that.” Barrier clarified. “My ponies will be outside of the throne room ensuring nothing gets in. You,” he stared pointedly at Rainbow Dash but addressed the element bearers in general. “Are to charge the elements the moment he shows up. We’ll be hard-pressed to hold him long enough for you to do that, to say nothing of immobilizing him long enough for you to hit him.”
“So, why exactly am I here?” Black Harvest asked from the back of the group, having been silent in favor of staring at the corpses and wondering how many organs were wasted.
“Because I don’t want anypony dying and I don’t think you’ll let that happen. I also don’t think you’ll let yourself die.” Barrier didn’t turn around to address her, but instead stopped and stared at the palace doors, shivering at the pulses of black magic radiating from it. “Well, we all know our roles.”
Barrier’s horn flared and shoved the doors open to the throne room…or what was left of it. The single strip of red carpet was charred and torn and a huge chunk had been torn from the crystal throne. The walls were covered with ash and some parts warped violently while others appeared to have been ripped apart and strewn throughout the room. The unicorn didn’t even want to think about the princesses fighting such a monster to a standstill.
“Right, you six.” he glanced at the element bearers. “Hide behind something…” he glanced at the throne. Even with a portion of it missing, it was still impressively large. “Maybe even behind the throne.”
“But dare not sit upon it.” Swiftsword warned, a hoof resting on the hilt of her sword. “To sit upon the throne is to claim ownership of the empire.”
“And you six,” Barrier turned to the cadets-turned-privates and the doctor. “Wait outside the throne room. Nothing gets in. Period.”
Barrier waited until his orders had been followed to fall to his flanks and glance at Shining Armor. “Shining Armor, I want you to focus primarily on keeping the element bearers safe while they charge up. Help where you can, but they’re your priority. Your shields are stronger than mine.”
Shining Armor nodded. “Just don’t do anything stupid or reckless. I doubt Daring Do would be pleased if I bought you back in pieces.”
“If something happens to you, Cadance will send me back in pieces. I don’t eve-.” Barrier visibly shivered as another, heavier pulse of magic pulsed through the room, causing him to drop his speech and stand up and Shining Armor to swallow nervously as he scanned the room.
“Look alive, ponies!” Barrier yelled out as the magic began to condense in the center of the throne room, taking off at a sprint even before the magic had condensed into a solid form. Pivoting, Barrier raised himself on his forehooves and swung around, his hindlegs impacting with the freshly formed body of Sombra. With nothing more than a grunt, Sombra was lifted bodily into the air before his body vanished into smoke and shot forward at a blinding pace, solidifying again just before impacting with the grey unicorn.
Faust dammit… Barrier swore to himself as he felt something in his chest crack slightly and he was sent hurtling through the air. Glancing behind him, his eyes widened as a sharpened spire of black crystal raised itself to meet him at his grisly end. Horn flaring to teleport, he instead grunted when his back hit something. Shining Armor’s shield had caught him and another shield erected itself around Sombra.
Bouncing off of the shield, Barrier touched the ground just in time to hear Shining Armor cry out as Sombra brute-forced his way through the shield. The evil unicorn turned his attention on the alabaster one and with an otherworldly roar, shot forward, plowing through each shield Shining Armor erected in an attempt to stop him, each shield appearing weaker than the last.
With a flare of his horn Barrier reappeared in front of the sweating unicorn, watching Shining through the younger ponies own shield before taking off at a charge towards Sombra. Barrier’s horn retrieving a grenade from his saddlebags as the two closed the distance.
Yanking the pin, the unicorn began to count as the two cleared the massive throne room rapidly. Five, four… He could see the reds of his former mentor’s eyes. Three, two… Barrier dropped the grenade just as the pair collided...or would have, had Sombra not turned to smoke once again.
Disappearing in another burst of magic, Barrier reappeared behind Shining Armor’s shield just as the explosion went off, the gaseous pony letting loose a bone chilling scream before solidifying once more, the smoke of the explosion seeming to cascade off of his body, contrasting sharply to the sickly purple glow of his blood-red horn.
Oh shit… “Shiny, move!” Barrier’s own horn flared, conjuring up a half-dozen tiny reflective shields as the white unicorn dove to the side. Shining’s shield dissipating just as Sombra’s horn fired a beam of pure energy. Setting himself as firmly as he could, the sweat-matted charcoal unicorn tilted his horn forward slightly as the magic over it doubled and then tripled, the bit-sized mirrors seeming to grow brighter each second.
Barrier would’ve sworn he felt something in his horn snap as the first shield caught the beam of energy and began to bounce it back and forth between its companions before finally launching it back at Sombra, who was ready to counter it with another beam.
“Shiny, give it everything you’ve got!” Barrier yelled out before lurching forward, just catching himself on bent forelegs. Coils of smoke rolled from the white-hot spear of bone atop his head. Stay conscious, stay conscious… Even as Barrier mentally chanted to himself, he could feel his world spinning.
Shining tried to fight back as he took over the spell from Barrier, feeding the redirected beam with whatever energy he could spare, his eyes clamped shut as the two directed energies collided.
“Well, shit…” Shining stumbled backwards as the magic from his horn began to taper off and Sombra’s energy began to shove his own aside…only for Sombra’s face to erupt into flame as an arrow connect with his jaw, exploding as the grenade tied to the shaft timed out, sending the stallion’s head -and beam- jerking wildly.
“Oh Faust…” Verdant’s eyes widened as Sombra’s head snapped sidewards and Shining Armor’s energies connected with the unicorn, sending him -and his magical energies- spiraling wildly through the room. Almost on instinct, the green stallion’s legs vanished from beneath as he ducked, yelling out in agony as the dying stream of energy from Sombra just clipped his back, burning off some skin on and around his withers while simultaneously cauterizing the wound.
“Shiny, now!” The familiar voice of Twilight finally joined the madness, the shield around the mare-in-question dying out as Shining Armor released his magic. The Elements of Harmony struck the tyrant king and the rainbow light engulfed his body, starting from his horn, a rainbow-like fire burned away the corruption, marring his physical form. As the fire spread, the look of rage and hatred melted to one of fear, and then regretful acceptance. The myriad of colors swirled, filling the room with bright light before Shining Armor fell to his haunches in exhaustion, eyes falling tiredly on the form of Sombra who was laying smoking on the floor.
“We got him…” Shining Armor huffed, only now realizing how heavily he was breathing. “Barrier, we got him…” Shining Armor craned his head around to the charcoal unicorn, a smile beginning to form on his muzzle.
“The undead have fell! Has Sombra been…” Swiftsword’s gaze fell on Sombra’s almost deflated form. “Faust…” the mare bit back a gag.
“Is it over?” Black Harvest shot into the throne room, sliding to a halt before staring at everypony in turn, lingering slightly on Barrier and then Sombra, before approaching the latter.
“Art thou out of thy mind?” Swiftsword took several steps forward. “Don’t help him!”
Harvest whipped around with an almost dangerous stare. “I’m a doctor! I must save lives whenever I can, no matter how vile the pony.” She turned back to Sombra who only stared weakly at her in return, his eyes no longer the brilliant scarlet they once were, instead having faded to a dull green.
“Can he be saved, Doctor?” Barrier stumbled unsteadily towards the two ponies, shaking his head in a futile effort to clear his double-vision.
“He’s…” Black Harvest hesitated slightly, her horn dimming and her hoof moving from Sombra’s side. “He’s experiencing organ failure all over. Dear Faust, his insides are like tissue-paper, his bones are severely degraded…there’s nothing I can do, Captain. Sombra is going to die within the next few minutes, and it shall be the most agonizing thing imaginable.”
Barrier all but fell forward, his forehoof lightly grazing Sombra’s ear.
Everypony’s ears twitched slightly as their attention was drawn to the grating, raspy voice of the black unicorn. “I’m…so sorry…”
“I know, Sombra…” Barrier stared down at the one-time ruler almost fondly, his hoof resting on Sombra’s chin.
“Please-” Sombra’s already-hagged speech was cut off as a coughing fit over took him, droplets of blood being expelled in the process.
“A lung just collapsed…” Harvest stated sadly.
“End... the... war…” Sombra managed to grab the hoof Barrier had on his jaw. “And…tell... Celestia…I’m sorry…”
“The war’s over, Sombra. We won.” Barrier took a shaky breath, blinking several times to keep control of his emotions. “And I’ll tell her. Now, I’m going to end your pain…”
Sombra never finished the statement as Barrier threw his entire weight behind the hoof, snapping Sombra’s head sharply to the side, the already-weakened bones giving way under the sudden movements and setting the stallion into his final sleep.
“Right…” Barrier forced himself upright and around, gazing at the Elements of Harmony who looked like they were going to be sick and then to the cadets who looked on with simple resignation. “Private Forge, cremate the body.”
“Doctor Harvest,” Barrier glanced at the mare who was now going over the injured earth-pony. “How is Private Range?”
“Well, he’ll have a scar and the fur’s certainly not coming back, but he’ll live. I believe I have some ointment for his burn.” Doctor Harvest patted the earth-pony on the side, careful to avoid the burn before standing up and staring at Barrier.
“Alright, you six…” Barrier turned to the element bearers, drawing the attention of all save Fluttershy, who was crying, and Rainbow Dash, who was trying to comfort her. “I need you to start searching for the Crystal Heart.” he turned to Swiftsword and Shining Armor. “Swiftsword, Shining Armor, I want you both to go with them. Don’t let anything happen to them.”
“Sir.” Swiftsword saluted sharply.
“Hat Trick, Winter Gem, I want you two to go back to the wine cellar and then escort Cadance here to the palace.”
Both ponies saluted. “Alright ponies, get to it!” Barrier raised his voice slightly, inwardly wincing as the louder tone sent pain lancing through his head.
“So…” Doctor Harvest tapped her hoof lightly on the ground.
“Yes?” Barrier raised an eyebrow, only now realizing the mare had been staring at him the entire time.
The Doctor gave him a flat stare. “Art thou going to allow me to take a look at thy horn?”
“...what’s wrong with my horn?” Barrier’s eyes crossed as he tried to stare upward.
“For starters, tis still smoking…”