Barrier groaned as his eyes fluttered open, directly into the morning sunlight. “Dammit Celestia....” Barrier flailed aimlessly for several seconds. “Turn it off…”
“Well, I’m not waking him up! He’d make me run laps around the entire city!” A hushed tone managed to slip past the thick crystalline door.
How do they even put a hinge on crystal…? Barrier closed his eyes and focused his hearing.
“Better you than me!” The voice belonged to Hat Trick. “He likes you more than the rest of us.”
“You know that isn’t the case…” Verdant Range replied firmly. “You know the Captain doesn’t play favorites.”
“No, I don’t.” Barrier finally called out, silencing the ponies as he sat up, almost lighting his horn on reflex. Just managing to stop himself, the charcoal pony sighed and flopped back onto the bed with a sigh. “Door’s open. Get in here.”
“A good morning to thee, sir.” Four ponies chorused as they stepped through the door in an almost-practiced fashion in full armor and carrying their respective weapons.
“What’s happening this early that requires all…” Barrier’s gaze narrowed. “where’s Swiftsword?”
“We thought it best to let her sleep in.” Verdant answered with a raised hoof. “She went to sleep at seventeen-hundred hours yesterday and hast been sleeping since.”
Winter Gem raised a hoof and took over for the green pony. “She had not slept for four days prior to the nap thou ordered. We thought it best she be allowed to sleep in.”
“Very well.” Barrier nodded his agreement but maintained the narrow gaze, somehow managing to catch all four of them in it. “So, what purpose are you all have to be up and bothering me this early?”
“Tis dawn, sir. Thou trained us to be awake and fully in armor with our weapons.”
“I suppose I did.” Faust above, how will I break them of what I programmed them to do? “Very well.” The unicorn hefted himself upright. “But if I recall, I stated yesterday to consider yourself on leave.”
“Yes sir, we’re here at the behest of Lady Pinkie Pie.” Hat Trick picked up, hoof raised as the others had done.
“The Pink Devil.” Barrier threw his hindlegs over the side of the bed. “Is everypony else awake then?”
“Yes, sir.” Verdant’s hoof rose as he spoke, “Lady Sparkle seemed quite irritable when Lady Pie awoke her, but said she would feel better after having some ‘kawphy’, whatever that is.”
Iron Forge’s hoof went up. “Lady Pinkie Pie said she hast prepared a large amount of what she calls ‘pan-cakes’ and ‘dough-nuts’.”
Barrier’s eyes widened slightly and he smiled. “Very well. Where are Cobalt, Spearmint, and Moonstone?”
“Patrolling the grounds, sir.” Verdant Range stated. “Captain Armor’s orders, I believe.”
“Well, they are his soldiers at the end of the day. Come on, let’s go to the kitchen before the donuts disappear. You’ll quite enjoy them, I believe.”
The cadets fell into a neat line behind the charcoal pony, going two-by-two, Verdant Range striking up conversation. “Lady Twilight Sparkle hast also informed us that thou misinformed us on Lady Pie’s name during our introduction, for apparently comedic purposes.”
“I don’t have a sense of humor, Range.” Barrier stated flatly and without turning around.
“So sayeth the pony who tried to convince his soldiers that a princess had a name meaning Heart-shaped buttocks.” Iron Forge said with a quick roll of his eyes.
“Everypony has a sense of humor…” Hat Trick argued softly. “Even you, Captain.”
“The Captain is not a normal pony.” Winter Gem half-smiled. “What is the squad’s pool up to?”
“One-hundred and thirty bits.” Verdant answered automatically.
“Wait,” Barrier stopped and turned around to face them. “You have a pool on me? What the hay for?”
It was Winter Gem that offered. “What thou art made of, outworking ponies half your age and the sort, to say nothing of you being so active before taking us under your training.”
Barrier snorted and turned once again, beginning towards the dining room. “And what do ponies think I’m made of?”
Winter Gem answered again. “The most common guess is that the princesses assembled you out of the spare parts of the most accomplished ponies to fall in the war.”
Barrier actually snorted in amusement.
Iron Forge’s expression shifted as something dawned on him. “It would explain the Captain’s willingness to work with the Ghoul.”
Barrier snorted again. “I’m not made out of spare pony-parts, you all know that. Faust, you’ve met my mother.”
“Yes, we all remember how well that went…” Verdant grumbled, remembering the fear at potentially being hung.
“You learned a valuable lesson.” Barrier pushed his shoulder into the large doors to the dining room, inwardly glad that he’d been to the palace before on more than one occasion.
“That thou hast no sense of humor.” The four answered in unison with a roll of their eyes that the unicorn couldn’t see.
“That I have no sense of humor.” Barrier repeated as he shoved into the dining room.
A soft squeal and the sight of his Captain side-stepping was the only warning Verdant Range had as a fuzzy blue blur latched on his face, drowning his vision in darkness.
“Oh Faust!” Verdant stumbled back in panic at the unexpected darkness and weight. “Get it off of me!”
Barrier simply continued into the dining room, nodding to each of the Element Bearers and Cadance before his eyes fell on Swiftsword. I should’ve known she wouldn’t sleep in even if the cadets tried to let her. The unicorn fell into the chair next to Fleetfeather. “I wish I had half of that foal’s energy.” Barrier set about serving himself with his hooves as the rest of the element bearers continued to eat, half asleep with the exceptions of Applejack and Pinkie Pie.
“Thou and I both. Though I guess tis especially bad for thou.” Fleetfeather elbowed him. “Thou must be nearing retirement at this point. What is thy age, thirty-six?”
“Thirty seven.” Barrier shrugged. “And technically, I’m already retired. Even if I hadn’t, three years isn’t much to serve.”
“Wait,” Twilight interjected, having overheard their conversation from where she’d been staring into her coffee. “Ponies retired at forty in your time?”
“Not exactly.” Barrier took a moment of silence to scarf down a plain, unglazed donut. “For a soldier, forty tended to be when we were taken out of the field. Those of us with rank would serve five to ten more years behind a desk whereas the others would retire to live their last few years in relative peace.”
Fleetfeather took a sip of her crystalberry juice.“Do ponies no longer retire at forty in this modern era?”
“Uh, no.” Twilight chuckled slightly. “Most ponies don’t retire until sixty to sixty-five years old.”
Fleetfeather and the cadets all looked at the lavender mare in surprise.
“Ponies were lucky if they lived that long in our time.” Barrier offered as he choked down a plain pancake.
“Well,” Cadance started as their conversation lulled. “The princesses, Queen Leena, and Professor Yearling should be here around ten o’clock. Barrier, would you, Swiftsword, and Verdant Range, accompany the elements bearers, Shining Armor, and myself, to the edge of the Empire to greet them?”
“Of course. We already volunteered to meet with Queen Leena, so we might as well meet her at the border.” Barrier nodded. “Besides, I look forward to seeing Daring again.”
“Daring?” Cadance tilted her head curiously.
Shit. Daring will skin me alive if I blow her cover before she even arrives.
Iron Forge saved Barrier with an irritated snort. “I don’t know why the three of you are so willing to shake hooves with the queen of the griffins.”
Swiftsword swallowed the last piece of her donut before responding. “I believe myself to be the last of my noble clan. If this truly is the case, then the duty to bring the Falchions into the modern era falls upon me. If these times say peace with the griffins is what we have, then I shall act accordingly. Besides that, a viscountess should put on a good show for visiting royalty, regardless of her personal thoughts or opinions.”
“And why has thou volunteered, Verdant?” Hat Trick nudged the green stallion.
“From what Lady Applejack told me,” Verdant fell silent when Applejack tapped the table, drawing his attention.
The mare in question stopped eating for a moment. “Just Applejack, sugarcube.”
“Apologies. From what Applejack has told me, Equestria and the griffins have been at peace for centuries now. In addition to that, from the Empress had said earlier, we know that Queen Leena chose to aid in reinforcing the northern Equestria border, in order to assist against Sombra had we failed. Centuries of peace, followed by clear willingness to provide aid leads me to believe her actions are for a true show of kindness and a genuine desire for peace.”
Nopony reacted when Iron Forge sighed and rolled his eyes in annoyance.
Cadance nodded at those who had agreed before addressing those that hadn’t. “May I ask why some of you turned down the honor of shaking hooves with the queen of the griffins?”
“With all due respect your majesty…” Iron Forge was the first to answer, his tone low and tired. “My homeland was ravaged by the griffins of my era and I only recently learned of my mother’s death. Honestly, I do not believe I could act peaceably around those…” Forge bit his tongue before continuing. “Beasts. I believe it would be better if I simply kept away from them as much as possible.”
Cadance nodded sadly, understanding the stallion’s motivations.
Winter Gem was the next to address the pink alicorn. “I may not despise the griffins with the same intensity as my brother-in-arms, but I am very far from fond of them. This, coupled with recent stresses has lead me to believe I would be…less than cordial to the Queen. I believe I will attempt to stay away from them at the festival.”
Cadance nodded and turned to Hat Trick who responded first by draping a wing over Winter Gem.
“Where she goes, I go.” The answer was simple and drew a smile from Cadance at the implication.
“Very well, I understand and respect your decisions.” Cadance turned to Fleetfeather and flashed her the same soft smile.
Fleetfeather sighed and met eyes with the larger pony, actually causing her to wince at the pain and uncharacteristic age reflected within.
“There are two primary reasons I will avoid them. First and foremost, I don’t feel my child would be safe within one-hundred hooves of one. In addition to that, I will not be spending any unnecessary time away from her.” Fleetfeather broke their stare to nuzzle the filly. “She’s all I have left.”
Cadance took a slow breath and nodded, regretful at having indirectly brought the topic to the forefront.
After a brief silence, Cadance clopped her hooves together. “Well then, we should probably start getting ready. I’ll meet you all at the border.”
Barrier sighed and swallowed another donut without actually chewing before sitting up, both Swiftsword and Verdant following suit.
“Ah, Mr. Range,” Rarity stood up and approached the stallion in question. “If I may borrow you for a moment…?”
Barrier tapped his hoof impatiently against the crystal pavement as he gazed at his companions as they stared into the snowy tundra just beyond the Empire’s barrier. The element bearers were all in conversation with one another while Verdant Range and Swiftsword were waiting silently, the former now donning a greenish-yellow vest that served well to hide the bulk of his bandages and eventual scarring, made by Rarity at Swiftsword’s request.
“Sir?” Verdant Range turned to face the grey unicorn. “Shouldst we wait here for their arrival, or shouldst we travel towards this train thou mentioned before?”
“We’ll wait here.” Barrier turned his gaze to the shield. “No reason for us to conduct introductions in the snow.”
“They should be here any moment.” Shining Armor offered.
Almost as if in response, a loud train whistle just reached them, Swiftsword and Verdant Range both tensing at the shrill noise.
“Speak and ye shall receive.” Barrier commented as the locomotive was finally coming into view. “That,” Barrier turned to face his two ponies. “Is a train. They are…safe enough, I suppose.”
Verdant Range shook his head. “I…hope I don’t have to get used to them. They do not strike me as safe. It fills me with a sense of foreboding.”
Barrier squinted at the slight outline of the train platform before a familiar tapping drew his attention to Swiftsword.
“Sir, dost thou wish to use my spyglass?” Swiftsword offered the instrument, though quickly retracted her hoof when Barrier shook his head.
“Nah, I can wait. They should be-” Barrier was drowned out by the loud crackle of teleportation before four griffins and three ponies appeared in a flash of golden light.
The first thing the group heard was a hacking cough, followed by a soft feminine voice. “Ugh, a little warning next time, Princess?”
“I second that…” A scratchier female voice agreed. “I really don’t wanna taste my breakfast again.”
“Oh Faust…” Verdant groaned. “It’s almost as bad as a flashbang…”
“Princess…” Barrier wasn’t in quite as much pain as the others, but his eyes were held tightly shut regardless. “Mayhaps you should try to tone down the energy in your teleportation. I can taste burnt magic…”
“Apologies,” Celestia smiled sheepishly. “I didn’t realize I was so out of practice. Rest assured, I plan to rectify this.”
“We had offered to cast the spell for thee,” Luna sighed. “But thou insisted on testing thy ability.”
Swiftsword and Verdant had bowed almost immediately on their recovery, though they found their gazes following tan hooves as they made a bee-line for Magic Barrier.
“I leave you alone for a month and you hurt you horn.” The disguised explorer snagged Barrier’s ear in a hoof and tugged him down to her level to examine the bandaged horn.
“Faust above,” Barrier squinted in pain. “What is it with ponies and yanking my head around lately?” Barrier’s eyes fell down to the mare’s chest as he noticed the bandages running from her barrel to her throat. “And like you’re one to talk.” Barrier snaked a hoof under the hem of her cloak and lifted it up slightly, eyes fixating on her heavily-casted wing.
“Barrier!” Rarity chastised, swatting his hoof away from the cloak. “A stallion does not simply look under a mare’s cloak!”
Daring answered before he could. “What? Why not? We’re pretty much always naked.”
“That’s not the point…” Rarity tried to weakly argue before a snicker from Rainbow Dash drew her attention.
“Looks like we’ll have to trade stories later.” Daring smiled at the unicorn before surprising him with a hug. “Glad you’re okay. Kinda expected to get here and find you a cripple.”
Barrier returned the hug, drawing a slight smile from Twilight, a devilish grin from Rarity, and silence from the other element bearers.
Verdant and Swiftsword both just stared in surprised awe at the exchange between the two. They’d seen a handful of interactions between Barrier and Ember, but they’d never been quite so tender with the other in their public, usually trading barbs, even when one was injured.
“Eh-hem.” One of the griffins cleared his throat. “Announcing her royal majesty, Queen Leena Imperator of Das Greifen Königreich.”
Several sets of eyebrows were raised.
“Thank you for the introduction, Lieutenant Panzeron. I shall handle things from here. As to the likely question of what Das Greifen Königreich means, it means ‘The Griffin Kingdom’ in my native tongue.” The well-groomed golden griffin in the center stated, her dark-orange eyes scanning the assembled group.
The gathered crowd’s gaze shifted to the tall griffoness, roughly as tall as Princess Luna, minus her horn.
“My ancestors were many things. Brave, bold, powerful, intimidating, cunning…” Leena paused. “Creative was not one of them.” Leena motioned a leg towards her guards. “These are my most trusted griffins, Brigadier Kristopher Kramurx, Lieutenant Ian Panzerson, and Lieutenant Louis Lavados. My advisor, Conrad Lohgock, was unable to make it, unfortunately.”
“It’s an honor, your majesty.” Barrier, Swiftsword, and Verdant Range had spoken and bowed almost as one.
“Rise,” Leena motioned with a claw. “The honor is entirely mine, Magic Barrier. Forgive me if I seem rude, but I was under the impression there were more soldiers than this. I hope nothing unfortunate befell them.”
“I apologize, your highness.” Cadance strode forward. “Equestria’s war with the Griffin Kingdom was far more recent for them than us. I allowed them to volunteer to meet you.”
“One of my soldiers, Iron Forge, was from Gallopfrey. He was…less than thrilled to hear of your visit.”
“Ah,” Leena nodded in understanding. “I understand. It was never my aim to make anyone uncomfortable. In any case,” Queen Leena held a leg out. “It is my pleasure to meet the heroes of the Crystal Empire.”
“The honor is ours,” Barrier, Verdant Range, and Swiftsword each shook the hen’s proffered claw before she went down the line of gathered ponies, eventually ending with Cadance.
As Cadance released the claw, she smiled warmly at her fellow ruler. “It’s an honor to have you here, Queen Leena.”
Barrier’s ear twitched at a clicking sound and the stallion turned around to see Daring holding a camera, one of the contraptions he was still mostly unfamiliar with. “Really, Daring? Pictures?”
“What?” Daring shrugged. “It’s a historic moment. When am I gonna get to see something like this,” she motioned to everypony and the griffins. “Again?”
“Perhaps we should head to the Crystal Palace?” Cadance offered to everyone present.
“Of course, but first,” Leena motioned to her griffin escorts. Queen Leena stood back and cleared her throat, ready to say something dramatic. “It is long past time we end this war on all fronts. Your Imperial Majesty, as Queen of The Griffin Kingdom, I come seeking peace between our nations. Long ago, my ancestor, King Alarick, declared war upon Equestria. As Equestria's ally, Empress Galaxy declared war upon my kingdom. While The Griffin Kingdom's war with Equestria ended so very long ago, our two nations were unable to declare peace. As I extend my talons in friendship,” The Queen held a leg out to Cadance once more, “I ask for peace between our kingdoms. Please, let us end this war."
Without missing a beat, Cadance took the extended talon once more. “I, Empress Mi Amore Cadenza, humbly accept your offer of peace and friendship, Queen Leena Imperator. Welcome to the Crystal Empire. Please, step forward and be the first griffin to set paw upon its soil in centuries.”
A.K. Yearling’s camera was clicking like mad as the two exchanged their speeches.
Very impressive improvisation on Cadance’s part… Barrier rested his head atop Daring’s, slightly nuzzling her. “I’m glad you’re well, Daring.” He watched as everyone began to head further into the Empire. “We should go, lest we be left behind.”
Almost as if reading Barrier’s mind, Celestia raised her voice. “Princess Luna and I will be staying behind to accompany the doctors and guards into the Empire once they catch up to us.” Everyone nodded and hummed their affirmation.
“So are we.” Daring stated as she hooked a hoof around Barrier’s neck. “Barrier’s getting his horn checked by a doctor that’s not one-thousand years out of practice.”
“Well then,” Cadance smiled at her aunts. “I suppose we’ll see you soon.”
“While I’m thinking about it, Cadance; there’s uh…something I need to ask you after you’ve actually signed the treaty.” Shining Armor bumped into the Empress affectionately. “Nothing urgent, but it is important.”
“Of course,” Cadance returned the bump. “As soon as we finish.”
Barrier addressed both Verdant and Swiftsword’s questioning gaze. “I’ll be back soon. I hopefully shouldn’t be too long. Keep everyone safe.”
“Aye sir!” Both of them saluted sharply before doing an about-face and following the group that had decided not to wait for them.
Barrier smiled faintly as Swiftsword shoulder-checked Verdant and hissed softly. “Verdant, stop staring at the queen’s rump!”
“I’m not!” Verdant hissed back, not nearly as quiet as he seemed to think. “I’m looking at Fizzy Tower, my view is merely obstructed by her Majesty’s hindquarters.”
“Right, with that out of the way,” Daring tugged Barrier forward by a hoof. “Let’s go meet the medics and get you properly patched up. I’ll catch you up on me beating the stuffing out of Ahuizotl with the help of a cat spirit.”
“Wait, what?” Barrier allowed her to drag him along.
“Short version, I put some medals in a book, a song and a light show started, and a little cat in blue samurai armor popped out and helped me kick Ahuizotl’s face in. It’s just a shame I was the only one who could see him…”
“...mayhaps the doctors should look at your head while we’re there.”
The pegasus flared her good wing and checked the unicorn in the back of the head.