• Published 4th Jan 2014
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The Definition of Strength - Viking ZX



Sabra has been searching for his answer for three long years, and at long last he may have found it. It just might not be the answer he expects.

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Part 1

“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a pony.”
—Atom Orbit

Nothingness. There was nothingness around him, a serene absence, a lack of the world at large. Sabra let out a calm, slow breath, his muscles relaxing and then tightening as they moved to new positions. New places. New awareness.

There was a void now. The nothingness evolved as he settled into it, a change from nothing to something. There wasn’t shape or form. It simply was. It was all colors, but none. All shapes, but none. There was the void, and there was him.

He let out another breath. Slow, steady. Like the beating of his heart. He could feel every twitch of muscle, every push of his heart as it sent blood rushing through his body. A wisp of wind moving through his striped mane. Deeper.

There was a lake now, stretched out beneath him. A smooth, flat expanse of water, so calm and still that the most perfect piece of glass could not have laid across it without showing its minute imperfections. The lake stretched on in all directions, melding with a horizon that did not exist. Slowly, surely, with each exhalation of breath, Sabra let himself sink into the lake, letting it pour into him as he poured into it. There was a faint sense of the world around him and then … all was still.

His body was still there. He could still feel each heartbeat, each pulse of blood. He could still feel the faint, dull thumps of the true world, but it was muted, indistinct. Like hearing someone speak underwater. The sounds, the feelings ... They were, at the moment, meaningless. All that mattered was the spiritual.

From out of the void drifted a single, simple, leaf, spinning and looping as it made its way down towards the surface of the lake. It was, surprisingly enough, not one of the arrowhead-shaped leaves of his homeland. Instead it had three distinct arms, a shape that looked familiar although it took him a moment to place it. A maple leaf. Curious that he would see it in such a way.

Perhaps it is a sign, he thought as the leaf drifted closer, fluttering in a non-existent breeze. But a sign of what? It is a subconscious representation of my location? A representation of my own choice to stay here? My unease with my answer? The lake began to quiver, ripples spreading in all directions, and he snapped his thoughts back. The water stilled once more.

Perhaps it is merely chance, he conceded as the leaf struck the surface of the lake, ripples spreading out around it in perfect, concentric rings, not unlike the rings on his flank that made up cutie mark. The ripples spread, stretching across the surface of the lake, growing wider and wider as they pressed onward. And with the ripples, came a memory.

Shikamoo,” Sabra said, bowing his head as he came to a stop before the desk. “Mtawala wa Jua.”

Shikamoo, Sabra,” Princess Celestia replied, although he didn’t see if she returned his nod. “Karibu.” The greeting complete, Sabra raised his head to look up at the Solar Diarch of Equestria. She was still seated behind her desk, although from the soft movements of her multi-colored mane, she’d returned his nod of greeting. For a moment the room was silent, and then the Princess nodded at him again, tilting her horn towards one of the seats sitting in front of her desk.

“Please, Sabra,” she said, switching to Equestrian, “sit. I hope you don’t mind if we hold this discussion in Equestrian. At least,” she said with a soft smile, “my end of it. I’m afraid that my grasp of Zebra isn’t quite what it could be.”

“We may speak in whatever dialect you wish,” Sabra said. “But your Zebra is impeccable.”

Celestia laughed, a soft, gentle chuckle that reminded Sabra of a morning sun rising over the plains. “You may say so,” she said with a gentle smile, “and your kindness is appreciated. But, as often as Akeelah has had to correct me, I hope you will not be offended if I choose to speak a language that I am more familiar—and eloquent—with.”

“It is fine,” Sabra said, giving his head a soft shake. “We may converse in whatever language you desire.” That was the word he’d misspoken before. Language, not dialect.

“That’s very kind of you, Sabra,” the Princess said. “And I congratulate you on your own work at learning Equestrian. I am aware it is not the most easy of languages to grasp.”

“Thank you, Princess,” Sabra said, tilting his head once more.

“You’re welcome,” she replied. “Now, Captain Song said you had a question for me?”

Sabra swallowed, his tongue sticking to the top of his suddenly dry mouth. “I … I do, your highness.” He felt as if he had swallowed an ember pepper, his stomach roiling even as his lips refused to work. Calmness, serenity, he reminded himself. Unity of purpose. Celestia was sitting patiently on the other side of the desk, her eyes looking down at him with a weight he couldn’t begin to measure. Decades, centuries of knowledge and experience, staring down at him. For a brief moment their eyes met, and he felt as if he could feel the weight of her knowledge and experience as a physical, tangible thing that pressed down on him.

He closed his eyes, shutting away the room with its grand golds and reds, its tapestries and shelves of artifacts and scrolls. Shutting away the sight of the immortal sitting scarce feet in front of him. One question, he thought. One question, and my pilgrimage may be over. One question, and his time with the Dusk Guard could be at an end.

“You may ask whenever you are ready,” the Princess said, her voice reverberating all around him, although he doubted she realized that it was. That was the gift of his talent, to see the world through sound and tone. He knew exactly how close she was to him, knew that she had leaned back slightly as she’d spoken, heard the feathers of her wings rustle as she adjusted her sitting position.

“Your highness,” he said, still holding his eyes shut. He could hear her lean forward slightly. “The question I ask may not have an easy answer, and if you are unable to answer, do not take offense. But I wish to know: what is life?”

There. He’d said it. The question was spoken now. He kept his eyes closed tightly as he waited, holding his body still despite the quiver of anticipation that was shooting through his soul.

For a moment, neither of them spoke. He heard the Princess draw a breath in several times, as if she was going to speak, but then she let it out again, a silent gale of air that swept across the desk. Then at last, her voice filled the room; calm and serene, but cautious.

“What do you mean, Sabra?” she asked, and he could hear the tone of curiosity in her voice, picture the expression on her face.

“I mean what I ask,” he said in return, tilting his head downward. “My question is ‘what is life?’”

“There … are many answers that somepony could respond to that with, my little pony,” the Princess said. “Are you looking for any particular answer?”

“Only your own,” Sabra said, his head still bowed.

“Well then,” she said, and he could hear a faint tone of satisfaction in her voice. “I shall do my best to honor your request.” The faint shushing sound of wood on carpet reached his ears as her chair slid back and the Princess rose, her voice moving across the room as she spoke until he could tell she was facing away from him.

“Sabra, life is something that is not simple, nor should it ever be. Even in it’s calmest moments, it is a complex, wonderful thing, full of joys, triumphs, achievements, successes, and hardships. It is not easy, nor is it always what we wish, but in the end it is something that is always worth having.”

“But it is up to each individual to make of their life what they may,” she continued. “Some may be born into hardship. Some into pain. Some into ease. But regardless of any single pony’s circumstances, there is one thing that remains the same, no matter what.” There was another pause, and he could hear her hooves shifting as she turned towards him.

“To me, Sabra,” she said, her voice soft. “Each life is a gift, a gift far too few treasure. A gift that can grow and spread. A gift that can be shared. Each and every life is unique, from its birth to its inevitable death. Always growing, always changing, always learning.” She let out a soft chuckle of amusement, like tiny bells ringing in Sabra’s ears. “Even I, an immortal, learn something new every day.”

“Life is a gift, Sabra,” she said, turning back towards her desk. “A beautiful, wondrous gift. You and everyone else in this world have been given this gift. A chance to learn. A chance to grow, to make of yourself more than you were the day before. It’s a wondrous gift, because what it ultimately becomes is up to you. And—” she said as he opened his eyes once more, locking gazes with the immortal ruler and feeling a faint sense of awe as he was swept away in the ageless, purple irises, “—like all gifts, it only means something if it is shared with another.”

Shared with another… The ripples continued their endless journey outward towards the horizon, spreading in perfect rings as the leaf slowly slipped beneath the surface. Life is a gift… The Princess’s words echoed across the open water, stirring up eddies and waves across the flat surface. Images stood out beneath each disturbance. Places he’d been. Ponies he’d known. A ripple refracted as it struck one of the waves, splitting into new ripples that spread across the infinite expanse.

A gift to be shared...

From beyond the edge of the infinite horizon, something plucked at his consciousness. The lake quivered, its surface shaking as Sabra pulled himself away from it, ripples and waves breaking apart and then burying themselves in a turbulent froth.

“Hey, Sabra?” The edge of the world broke apart, his concentration shattering as his consciousness returned to the outward world. Minute senses—the cool wind running across his coat, the faint rough texture of the wooden shingles beneath his haunches—rushed back into full awareness, no longer muted, but bright as the morning sun at his back.

Msamaha, lieutenant,” he said as he opened his eyes. Floating in front of him, his wings gently flapping to keep him aloft, was First Lieutenant Hunter, an amused—if regretful—look on his face. “My apologies,” Sabra said as he rose up on his hooves. “I was … deep in thought.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the Lieutenant said. He shook his head as he spoke, his long, straw-colored mane bouncing against his light brown shoulders. “The fault’s mine, I’m the one interrupting your meditation. Sorry.”

Hakuna Matata,” Sabra said with a nod, and the Lieutenant grinned. “What do you need?”

“A favor,” the lieutenant said as he settled down on the barracks roof next to him. “Aside from the meditation, how’s the rest of your day scheduled?”

“It is open to change,” Sabra said, rolling his shoulders as he began to stretch, muscles that had locked during his meditation loosening and coming free. “What do you require?”

“Sky Bolt’s looking for someone to test that enchantment thingo of hers with. The Boss and I are set to meet with the Princesses in another hour, so neither of us can do it. Dawn’s attending a medical presentation down at Canterlot General, and Nova’s still forbidden to have a thing to do with magic. Can you help her out?”

Sky Bolt. Another confusing puzzle that he really didn’t want to think about at the moment. At least, not in too much depth. The light-grey pegasus mare was a meditation session all on her own, but…

Ndiyo,” he said, giving the lieutenant a quick nod. The tan pegasus let out a sigh of relief.

“Oh, good,” he said, grinning. “I was hoping you’d be free. To be honest, I was halfway tempted just to tell her to wait until I got back and volunteer myself but…” He shrugged as he spread his wings again, his shoulders rolling under his mane. “She needs something to focus on, something to keep her occupied after the other day.”

“I understand,” Sabra said, his mind flashing back to the night before last, by far one of the most confusing nights of his life. Awoken by Nova in the middle of the night, told that Sky Bolt had asked for him, only to find her on the tail end of a breakdown that he hadn’t the slightest clue how to help with. Apparently, just being there for her had been enough but … He shook his head, the thought fading back into the recesses of his mind.

There will be a time to consider such things later, he reminded himself. For now what matters is the question, and my duty here. But… “Is she going to be alright?” he asked, the words slipping free of his mouth before he could stop them.

“Dawn seems to think so,” the lieutenant said, his grin narrowing slightly. “Myself, I think she’ll be ok, she’s just … adjusting to something she’s never had to deal with before.” Sabra could see the feathers on the pegasus’s wings twitch slightly at his own words. “I probably shouldn’t say more about it, but if you wouldn’t mind—if you get the chance—talking to her about it? I want her to know the whole team is there for her.”

Sabra gave the request a moments thought. Certainly it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask her about it. After all, he’d hardly spoken to her the next day, aside from accepting her thank you that morning when she’d awoken. They just hadn’t … spoken wasn’t quite the word for it. Interacted, perhaps. Not since she’d spent the larger amount of the prior day meeting with Dawn. He’d only seen her after that in passing, as the blue-maned mare had headed for her workshop after dinner.

“I can do that,” he said, looking back up at the lieutenant. When had his eyes wandered down towards the roof of the barracks?

“Thanks, Sabra,” Hunter said, slapping one hoof against his shoulder. “Be sure to suit up before you head down there, she said she needed you in full armor kit.”

“Wait,” Sabra said, confused, “she said?” For a moment Hunter seemed to stall, his expression locked somewhere between bemused surprise and the look of a foal who’d been caught by a matriarch with their hoof in the sweet-reed bag.

“I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” he said quickly, his wings spreading as he jumped backwards off of the roof. “Full kit, workshop! I’ve got to get going!” He threw Sabra a quick, sloppy salute before arrowing off through the air towards Canterlot Castle, his last cry of “Good luck!” echoing across the open, grassy expanse.

Sabra shook his head as the pegasus vanished and then closed his eyes, letting himself sink into a lighter form of the same, peaceful tranquility that he had used earlier. Life is a gift, he thought, running the Princesses words through his mind. But a gift I will attempt to understand at some other time. He took one final deep breath, stepped forward, and then with a grace that even the most skilled of acrobats would have envied, dropped from the side of the barracks.

* * *

The door to his room slid open and Sabra reached out with one hoof, flipping the light switch upwards almost without thought. He didn’t need the light. His senses were more than attuned enough for him to conduct his business in complete darkness. After all, he spent a good portion of each day blindfolded, his eyes cut off from the world, forcing him to make greater use of his special talent.

Not that he would have needed it to cross the room he’d been given. The long, rectangular space was far more spacious than anything he’d ever lived in, easily twice as large as the room he’d dwelt in at the monastery. Almost three times as large. It was certainly larger than the small dwelling he’d constructed for himself in the Unicorn Range where Captain Song and Hunter had found him.

Perhaps that was why it was so empty. Unadorned. He trotted across the polished hardwood, his hooves ringing with each step and sending faint echoes bouncing from the walls as he headed for his dresser. Along the way he passed the room's sole adornments, a few swaths of colorful cloth that had been draped along the walls, covering the bare wood in a reasonable facsimile of the colorful silks of his homeland.

He hadn’t put them there. They’d been part of the room when he’d arrived. The only part of the room he’d ever touched aside from the bed was the dresser drawer that he was opening up now, his few meager belongings shifting inside of it. He’d never even had the occasion to open the other drawers. Everything he owned fit inside the top drawer with space to spare.

He paused, his hoof draped over the edge of the open drawer, his neck twisting as he ran his eyes across the room. It wasn’t that the bright red cloth was not … appreciated. He knew who had been responsible for it, and why. Sky Bolt had simply wanted him to feel at home. It almost bothered him that she had done more to decorate his quarters than he had.

Still, what reason do I have to do otherwise? he thought as he turned his attention back to the drawer. He stretched out one hoof as his eyes caught sight of what he’d been looking for. The one thing he’d kept since coming to Equestria. Two halves of a bamboo staff, broken cleanly in two only a few weeks earlier. The only thing he had left from his homeland.

He wasn’t sure why he’d wanted to look at the staff before going to see Sky Bolt. Maybe it was a reminder of where he’d come from, a reminder of what he had left behind when he’d set out on his pilgrimage. Maybe it was because he missed it. True, the replacement fimbo Sky Bolt had gifted him had been a more than capable replacement, surpassing the bamboo in every way possible. But the staff had been a gift from his first teacher in the ways of Fimbo.

Perhaps he wanted to remember it. To keep it as the first tangible keepsake and reminder of his homeland. But if that was true, why was in the bottom of his desk? He reached out with one limb and rolled the bamboo under his hoof, hearing the faint rattle of the grain as it pushed against the drawer.

Maybe one day he would display it. Place it on top of a dresser instead of hidden within. But not yet. For now it was a reminder—the last reminder—of the journey he was still on. Of what he had left to accomplish.

He pushed the drawer shut and took one last look around the room before shaking his head. The time to dwell on his thoughts was over. Right now, he needed to assist Sky Bolt.

* * *

“Hey! You made it!” Sky Bolt said, looking up at him with a smile as he trotted into the workshop. He returned her smile with a faint one of his own, noting the twitch her wings made at the faint gesture. It felt good to be back in his armor again, even if one of the chest plates was still cracked from a particularly heavy blow during their last mission.

Ndiyo,” he said, nodding as he came to a stop. As was the usual he’d come to expect from the grey pegasus mare, Sky Bolt’s workshop was in various stages of disassembly. Parts and pieces of dozens of machines and projects scattered across nearly as many workbenches in a seemingly random pattern that made no sense to him but seemed to work for her, judging from how much she accomplished. “How are you?”

“I’m doing fine,” she said as she turned her attention back down to the desk in front of her, where several crystalline objects sat sparkling under the lights. “I’ve been working on this for a few hours now and I think it’s ready—”

“No,” Sabra said, shaking his head as she looked up at him in surprise, a small, thin tool dropping from her lips. Is it truly my place to pry? he wondered as she looked at him expectantly.

Habari gani?” he asked again, this time in his native tongue, emphasizing the words.

“I…” She let out a sigh and sat back, one grey hoof and rubbing up and down her shoulder as her eyes avoided his gaze. “I’m doing better.”

Sabra stepped forward, placing his armored hoof down on the workbench. “I did not see you enjoy dinner in the cafeteria last night with us,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “Nor were you at breakfast this morning. Is everything alright?”

“I’m okay,” she said as her eyes met his. “I ate here.” She shook her head, her sky-blue mane cascading around her shoulders before she looked away, breaking contact with his gaze. “I keep a stash of granola in one of the workbenches. I wanted some time to think, and I think best when I’m tinkering, so…” She shrugged as she turned back to him, and he could see a weariness in her eyes. Then she smiled again and the weariness was pushed back as her face lit up with excitement. “So, are you ready to see what your armor is supposed to really be like?”

“I … of course,” Sabra said, holding back his reaction at the abrupt change in conversation. She does not wish to discuss it. He turned his attention down towards the grey-white crystal armor he was clad in. It shone under the workshop light, the crystalline surface giving it an almost silvery color if he looked at it correctly. Perhaps I will ask again. “What do I need to do?”

“Well, at the moment,” Sky Bolt said, her voice warm and spry once more, “just come over here and stand still.” She tapped an open section of the floor next to the desk with her hoof and he complied, darting his eyes towards hers every few seconds. He hadn’t been mistaken in his initial impression. They did look tired.

“Hold still,” she said as he turned to get a better look at her. He snapped his head back forward. “Good,” she said as she turned away. “Now, we’re going to start with the helmet, alright?”

Ndiyo,” he said, his mind only half focusing on her words. Lieutenant Hunter asked me to make sure she’s alright, and I’ve asked, he thought as Sky Bolt stepped in front of him, a large, angular helmet made of the same, polished crystal as his suit clutched beneath one hoof. The rest of her body didn’t look tired, just her eyes, like she’d spent time deep in thought. She said she was alright. Have I done enough? Was her answer enough?

“Alright!” Sky Bolt said, a grin on her face as she reared back on her hind legs, her wings spreading to help her keep her balance as she hefted the helmet in her hooves. She was in her element now, her bright smile driven by the thrill of showing off her creations.

“So, there’s a couple of things to explain about your helmet,” she said, and he snapped his mental process back on topic. “First of all, unlike the helmets worn by the other Guard, this one has a visor,” Sky Bolt said, spinning the helm in her her hooves so he could see the clear crystal surface that made up one side. “The crystal is pretty hard stuff,” she said, tapping the clear surface with one hoof, “but in the event that it breaks, there’s a safety spell on it that will cause it to shatter outward. Assuming anything can break it.”

“Now, past that,” she said, flipping the helmet so that he could see the inside, “you’ll notice that the same material that you wear under your armor plating is also on the inside of the helmet.” True to what she’d said, he could make out the faint, dark, rubbery material that made up the bodysuit under the armor panels. She gave the helmet a shake, and his eyes could just make out the faint lines shining in the material.

“Are those—?” he began to ask.

“Yes,” Sky Bold said, nodding. “Like I said, it’s the same material, and that includes the crystal enhancement pathways. Now, there’s also a mesh for you to work your mane through, as well as small openings for your ears. I’m still not sure about that design though,” she said, sitting back on her haunches and looking down at the helmet as if she’d forgotten he was there. “I’m still not sure I couldn’t come up with some method of letting you hear while still offering protection.” Her face snapped back to him as she shrugged. “Oh well,” she said with a smile. “That’s why this is the mark one.”

“Mark … one?” he asked as she flapped her wings, rising from the floor and moving to hover just above his head.

“Well, yeah,” she said, bending her head in close and adding in a “hold still,” as he started to pull back. “Everything I make starts as a mark one. There’s always room for improvement, Sabra. Always. I mean, I know this equipment isn’t perfect,” she said, her voice picking up speed. “I mean, look at that cracked plate on your chest? My armor failed when you needed it. You could have—”

Kuacha.” Sabra put his hoof out and covering Sky Bolt’s mouth. Her eyes widened as she stopped speaking.

“Your armor worked,” he said, his hoof still covering her mouth. “I do not know if the damage all our armor sustained in battle is what’s been bothering you, but the reason this armor is cracked is because it did what it was supposed to do. The armor cracked because it took a blow meant for me, kuelewa?” She nodded, and he pulled his hoof back, noticing for the first time that he had leaned in closer to her as he’d spoken. Or had she sank down? Did it matter?

“But what about your ribs?” Sky Bolt asked, her voice soft. “Weren’t they cracked?”

“But not broken, thanks to your armor,” he replied, giving his head a slight side-to-side shake. “Your armor worked.” She stared at him for a moment, and he wondered if he should say something else, anything that could help convey his words.

“Thanks, Sabra,” she said with a small smile, and he could see a glimmer of fire burning behind her bright red eyes as she spoke. Her eyes had always reminded him of campfires on the plains. Faint, but bright against the clear, blue-sky that was her mane. Unless she’d smudged grease in it again, but even the plains had rain. “I actually am kind of glad to hear that.”

Mwakaribishwa,” he said, giving her a small bow of his head, breaking the eye contact.

“Well, alright then,” she said, hefting the helmet once more, her voice sounding more alert, more upbeat than it had a few moments earlier. “You ready to try this thing on, mark one or not, and then do the real test?” She moved towards him without waiting for an answer, pushing her hoof under his jaw.

“Alright, now, this might be a little tricky at first,” she said as she tilted his head back. “The regular Guard armor is a little simpler than this, and isn’t as well secured, but that means it’s a bit more tricky to put this on. For now, let me just—” Sabra closed his eyes, tensing his muscles as the crystalline helm descended around his head. To his surprise, it wasn’t cold, although he felt a faint tingle run across his body, like the feel of powdered snow brushing against his coat. He shivered.

“Are you alright?” Sky Bolt’s voice was muffled, distorted by the helmet crushing his ears, although not echoey like he’d expected. “You’re not feeling … odd? Are you?” The snow was competing now, fighting for attention with the tugging on his mane.

“It tingled,” he said, fighting the urge to shake his back. “It was similar to the first time I put on the bodysuit.”

“Oh, that’s good then,” Sky Bolt said. Her words sprang into sudden clarity as the helmet twisted beneath her hooves and his ears sprang free. The pressure on his mane faded as well, and he could both feel and hear the faint drone of the woven straps sliding against the crystal as she began to tighten the helmet beneath his jaw, cheek and crest.

“Good?” he asked, clenching his jaw as the straps tightened against his throat.

“It means it’s…” She paused for a moment and her heard her step back, the straps going slack against his jaw as she released them. “I guess the best term would be ‘interfaced’ or maybe ‘synchronized.’ But it means that the helmet is at least mostly working with the rest of the suit. It just tingles because it took a moment for the enhancement-lines to line up.”

“Is it alright if I admit I only understood a part of that?” Sabra asked half-jokingly, his eyes still closed.

“Are you smiling?” Sky Bolt asked, her tone playful. He liked hearing it. “I can’t tell now that you have that helmet on. And you can open your eyes, Sabra. It’s not going to blind you.”

It certainly wasn’t what he had expected, he realised as he inched his eyes open. There was some slight distortion around the edges of his vision were the straight edges of the workshop curved ever so slightly, and he could see the helmet itself in the corner of his eyes or if he tried to glance to one side or the other. But for the most part, his vision was absolutely, perfectly, clear.

“Well?” Sky Bolt asked, stepping away from him as he turned to look at her. She cocked her head to one side, her eyes narrowing. “What do you think?”

“It’s … different,” he said, giving his head an experimental roll. It did feel different. He could feel the extra weight of the helmet—even as little as it was—slowing the motion of his head ever so slightly. “It weighs more.”

The grey pegasus nodded. “Yeah, I tried to get it as light as possible, but it still weighs almost a half a kilogram. The enhancement array should help compensate, but like the rest of the armor, be careful with sudden movements until you get used to it, alright?”

“Agreed,” Sabra said, giving his head an experimental nod that was much more smooth than he had expected. I am already growing used to it, he realized as he felt the natural movement behind the motion. I’d best be careful. He could still remember his surprise at how much more quickly he’d been able to move when he’d first donned the bodysuit that he wore under his armor—and how easily he’d almost overextended his own limbs trying to move. It had almost been like learning how to walk. Still, the weight does help a little, although I suppose it could make it easier to damage my neck…

“So,” Sky Bolt said, taking a few steps forward as he continued to twist. “How does the visor work? Can you see clearly?”

“It’s fine. There’s a little distortion around the edges—”

“How bad is it?” Sky Bolt asked, stepping up to him, her wings flaring out. “I tested the prototype lens myself but I didn’t—”

“It’s fine, Sky Bolt,” he said, shaking his head, slowly at first but then with increased speed as the weight began to feel natural. Sky Bolt’s voice dropped in volume, but she kept muttering as he spoke. “It only appears if I look for it. I’ve seen worse heat distortions on the plains.”

“—and then it could—wait, really?” she asked as she appeared to catch up with his statement.

“Of course,” he said, nodding again glad for the chance to get her mind away from her tensions. “Out on the plains, in a heated day, one can see all manner of things when the sun is overhead. It is why we have such clearly marked roads. The distortion can play tricks on the eyes, especially if one is tired, hot, or thirsty. That is true distortion,” he said. “This—” he tapped the side of his helmet with his hoof, “—is like wearing a piece of sun glasses. Pair,” he corrected with a shake of his head. “A pair of sun glasses.”

“It’s one word,” Sky Bolt said, letting out a soft chuckle. “Sunglasses.”

“Ah, sunglasses. Well, it’s like wearing a pair of those, except not…” he searched his mind for the proper word. “Kimvuli?”

Sky Bolt frowned for a moment, then her face brightened. “You mean tinted?”

“Yes,” Sabra said, nodding. “There is no ‘tint.’ Such an odd word. Tint.” Sky Bolt laughed.

“Alright, well if it’s not distracting enough that you can’t stop wondering about the word ‘tint,’ then I think we’re ok,” Sky Bolt said, rolling her eyes. “But since we’re on the topic … stay right there for a second...” She turned and flew across the workshop, the breeze from her wings rustling papers as she passed. A few desks were covered with tarpaulins that had been loosely tossed atop them, and the free ends waved in the disturbance like ocean grass when the tide was high. He smiled as the thought occurred to him.

Some things really do stick, he thought as Sky Bolt came down near the far wall of the barracks and flipped a lever down. Like seeing the ocean for the first time... He smiled as a hiss started on the far side of the workshop, the shop's pneumatics kicking in.

A bright crack split the roof overhead as the ceiling began to fold back, the barracks roof opening wide and letting in a bright beam of sunlight that began to fill the workshop. Sky Bolt flipped the lever again, and twin halves of the roof halted, the hiss of the air dying out as flow cut off.

The technology behind the roof of the workshop had always impressed him. He’d had sky Bolt explain it to him one day, but past the basics of a few windmills on the back end of the barracks harnessing air pressure in containers, he was lost. Still, it allowed the diminutive pegasus to both open and close the massive workshop roof so that the team’s airship could come and go, and to him it was just one more sign that she’d earned the blueprint and wrench cutie mark on her flank.

“Alright,” she said, grinning with the anticipation as she glided back over towards him. “Step right under the sunlight, and look up, alright?”

Sawa…” he said, stepping forward as she folded her wings. He looked up, his eyes reflexively squinting as the bright light poured into his helmet … and then he widened them again, this time in surprise.

“It … ‘tints’ itself?” he asked, glancing back down at her and watching as the visor cleared almost immediately. He turned back to the sun, watching in amazement as the clear crystal visor once again shaded itself, growing slightly darker in accordance with the bright blue of the sky. It wasn’t dark enough that he no longer had to squint, and he narrowed his eyes just a tad until they had adjusted, but it was just slightly easier.

“Self-tinting,” she said, her tone sounding smug. “It can’t darken itself forever, so it won’t do much for you if you, you know, stare at the sun or something, but it should keep you from squinting if you’re exposed to a lot of glare or bright sunlight. Also, it’s technically not supposed to be something the armor does, so don’t tell the boss yet. When he finds out about it, I’m telling him it’s to prevent snow glare for those winter operations and hoping I don’t end up doing a lot of KP in turn.”

“So what is it actually for?” he asked, swinging the helmet back and forth and watching as the glass darkened and then lightened again.

“It’s in case of quick flashes of light,” Sky Bolt said, grinning in apparent amusement at his antics. He slowed his back and forth motions with a sense of embarrassment. She’d said she couldn’t see whether he was smiling, so she couldn’t see his cheeks burning now, could she?

“There’s a company in Canterlot that enchants sunglasses for the rich and famous that do the same thing,” Sky Bolt continued as if he’d been simply standing still all along. “I contacted them and had them cast a spell on the lining of the helmet itself, not the crystal, technically. It’s not actually the crystal doing it. Also, unless it’s exposed to a constantly bright light source, it will gradually lighten to a specific point so that the eyes can adjust to glare without being blinded by it.”

“And you designed this on your own?” he asked, fighting the urge to stare at the sun and see how well the visor worked. Such an action would be foolish, he chided himself. Surely you learned your lesson as a foal.

“What?” Sky Bolt began shaking her head. “No, no, I just had the idea. Dawn helped me with the timing, and then I just told the sunglass people what I wanted.”

“Anyway,” she said, taking wing again and flipping the lever once more. Hissing air filled the workshop once again, sounding like a giant snake as the massive overhead doors began to slide shut, overlapping with a loud thump that echoed around the workshop and shook the cross-braces. “That’s all it does. Just, like I said, let the captain find out about it on his own. Please don’t tell him.”

“I won’t,” he said, turning to face her once more. “Your design is most impressive.”

“Thanks,” Sky Bolt said, grinning, “but try saying that after you’re hot and sweaty inside of it. I promise the next model will do a big better and letting out heat and—”

“Sky Bolt…” he warned, shaking his head.

“Right,” she said, blinking. “That’s not what I need you here for today. Well,” she said, running one hoof up and down her front leg, “it is, because it’s going to take some time to get used to the enchantment crystal once we install it, and you don’t want to get hurt. Plus it might be easier to get working with the helmet on and—”

“Sky Bolt.” he said again, and she stopped speaking. “Are you sure everything is alright?”

“Yeah, sorry. I get it,” she said, putting her hoof to her forehead. “Just working on a lot of projects, and I’m a little tired.” She gave him another grin, but he could see the faint worry in her eyes. “I might ramble a bit,” she said, pushing a bit of her sky-blue mane back behind one ear, “but it’s just because I’m thinking about a lot of things. I’m just a little,” she rotated one hoof in a circle near her head, “today, you know? Lots of exciting things going on.”

“It’s alright,” Sabra said, nodding once more. Sky Bolt let out a relieved sigh and turned towards the workbench where the helmet had been sitting. He turned to follow her, watching the way she reflexively folded and unfolded her wings with each step.

Is she … nervous, he wondered as he followed her. Fearful? Is this what Hunter was asking me to keep an eye on? Or is she just overworked? Would she even count it as such?

The motions stopped as Sky Bolt came to the bench and she turned, extending one hoof towards the small device sitting on the workbench. “Behold!” she said, holding one hoof to her chest and spreading her wings. “The fruits of many sleepless nights sit before you, ready to complete your armor. The Enchantment Enhancement System is ready to go!”

“The Enchantment Enhancement System?” Sabra asked, wrapping his tongue around the phrase.

“Yeah, it needs a better name,” Sky Bolt said, her shoulders slumping slightly, although the look on her face seemed to imply that the gesture was for fun. “I tried calling it the E.E.S., but that doesn’t really roll off of the tongue either.”

“It looks a little bit like an egg,” Sabra said as he looked down at the device. It was sitting lopsided on the desk, as if there was something sticking out of the bottom that wouldn’t let it lay flat, although he couldn’t see what. What he could see of it was made of a white, polished crystal that truly did have the shape of an egg—if someone had cut one in half lengthwise, laid it on the cut side and then pressed down on it with a massive weight, flattening it to only a fraction of it’s original thickness.

“Well,” Sky Bolt said as she tilted her head, as if seeing it for the first time, “that does it for that design. You’re right, it does look like a flattened egg, doesn’t it.” Then she shrugged. “Well, it’s just the prototype. I can make a better shape later. Maybe if I built the array in two layers, or better yet, circular…” her voice trailed off again, and she shoved a pile of crumpled papers to one side with her wing. “Give me just a second.” She leaned across the desk, grabbing a pencil in her mouth and turning it to a blank sheet of paper. “‘ust ‘et ‘e sk’tch ‘is.”

A moment later she spit the pencil out and made a face. “Done. Yuck. That pencil tastes horrible.” Sabra grinned under his helmet as she gave the pencil a pointed glare.

“Anyway, we’ll call them something that isn’t ridiculous or egg-based,” she said, turning back to him. “Now stand still while I get this thing attached and lets see how it works!” She turned, picked up the E.E.S., and then paused.

“You know,” she said as she twisted her head as if she was looking at the workshop for the first time, “there’s a lot of breakable stuff in here. Do you mind if we test this somewhere else, like maybe outside?”

“That’s … fine,” Sabra said, his eyes gravitating towards the small, curved piece of crystal in her hooves. “What is this going to do?”

Sky Bolt grinned as she looked at him. “I didn’t tell you? It’s a strength enchantment.” Her grin widened as she flapped her wings, lifting and heading for the door. “Come on, follow me!”

* * *

“So,” Sabra asked as Sky Bolt pressed down on the back of his armor. “how will this work?” There was a sharp click as the E.E.S. snapped into place, and the weight vanished from his back.

“I’m not actually sure,” Sky Bolt said, stepping back slightly. “I’ve never actually used and enchantment like this myself. What you’re supposed to be able to do is think of ‘strength’ while you’re touching the crystal. Then the enchantment activates.”

Sabra froze, not daring to move a muscle. What if I already activated it? he wondered. Would I know? Would I be able to turn it off?

“But in this case, since it’s something that you should be able to turn on-and-off, it might take a bit more than that.” Sky Bolt took another step back, her wings folding and unfolding again. “They told me that because of that, you’ll have to hold the idea of strength in your mind while it’s working, whatever that means. As long as you do that, it should be ‘on,’ so-to-speak. You’d feel it.” He relaxed at her words, the tenseness in his muscles fading. “ So…” she said with a shrug. “Go ahead and try it.”

Alright, he thought, turning his head back and looking ahead. Just focus on strength. Sitting in front of him was one of the wooden training posts that dominated the far end of the Guard training grounds: the wide, grassy expanse behind the caste that was dedicated twenty-four hours a day to any Royal, Night, or now Dusk Guard who wished an open field in which to practice or spar. It was separated from the rest of the Castle grounds by a raised concrete wall that ran the entire circumference of the field, mostly to prevent wayward spells or other potentially dangerous projectiles from going far in the event that something went wrong.

It was midday, so the field was fairly clear. A few Royal Guard, on duty and off, were practicing with the training weapons on one end of the field, and a few other unicorns and pegasi were practicing in pairs or working out at various places on the field. A few of them had looked up in interest when he and Sky Bolt had come through the gate, mostly out of curiosity to see what the newest addition to the Guard were going to do today, but most had gone back to their own projects once it had become clear the pair weren’t there to practice. Nevertheless, he could still see a few of them throwing glances their way from time to time.

As curious as foals at a shaman’s hut, Sabra thought as he turned his attention back to the wooden training post in front of him. Now, think of strength… He took a deep breath as he stared at the post, following the many dents and scratches in the heavy wood with his eyes. Be strong.

His front hoof lashed out, eliciting a deep thunk from the wood as it slammed into the battered surface. He fell back, pitifully aware of the complete lack of difference between that blow and any other he’d made before. He’d spent hours in the field sparring with the post before, and nothing had been any different then than it had now.

Strong, he thought, balancing on his rear hooves as he lashed out again, once, and then twice. Again the wood rung solid with the impact of his blows, but there was nothing about them that suggested they were different in any way.

Be like Captain Steel, he thought. Another plain hit. He envisioned the muscles in his limb coiling and uncoiling as he threw a punch. Nothing. Try acting strong. Another basic hit.

Come on! he thought, lashing out with a rapid series of strikes. Push-ups, meditation, strong-stallion contest, anything!

Nothing. Think of Strength, she’d said. Hold it in your mind. He punched again, the wood resonating but barely quivering under his impact. But what is strength? he thought. Is it an ideal, a concept, or something physical? Why won’t this work!?

He spun around, dancing on his rear hooves and bringing the side of his hoof towards the post in a powerful, sweeping maneuver. His eyes caught sight of Sky Bolt, her wings folding and unfolding as she watched.

Strength. Something seemed to flare through him as he turned, a pressure behind every muscle in his body. His armored hoof met the thick wood—and it splintered, snapping apart as his hoof cleaved halfway through it. The wood cracked, and he felt the force of the impact fly down his arm, shoving him back, but the pressure seemed to pale in comparison to the pressure behind every muscle of his body.

And then it was gone, and Sabra felt his jaw drop as the post, snapped completely from its base, continued onward to slam into the concrete wall with a loud crack. He looked down at his own hooves, seeing but barely believing the foot-long divots his rear hooves had dug into the soil under the force of the impact. Then, at last, he turned to stare at an equally stunned Sky Bolt, both of them staring at one another in dumb shock as the rest of the ponies on the training field looked on.

What, Sabra thought in stunned amazement, his body barely obeying his commands, did I just do?