• 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 2

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will.”

—Wise Chant

Greetings, Sabra of the Dusk Guard. I trust your visit with my sister went well?”

Sabra bowed low as the Princess of the Night addressed him, kneeling one knee on the thick carpet. “Shikamoo, mkuu wa Usiku.

“You may rise, Sabra,” the Princess commanded. “However, I thank you for your gracious formality. It is an aspect of society that some ponies these days neglect. Although,” she said with a faint wisp of a smile as he looked up, “I hope you’ll forgive me if I do not reply in kind. My grasp of your people's language is…” she paused, her smile growing. “I suppose ‘somewhat antiquated’ would be the proper term.”

“It is no bother,” Sabra said, stepping towards one of the two cushions sitting before her desk as the Princess motioned with one hoof. “Please, converse in whatever language you desire.” The room he had been invited to was much smaller than he had expected. More compact, as if the ruler of the night had decided to make the most of whatever space she was given, despite her ability to receive as much as she asked for.

Life is simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” The words of the ancient scholar rang through his mind as he ran his eyes across the room, taking in the careful lines of the design, the way the paintings on the wall had been hung close together and yet spaced just so, one design not drawing the eye more than any of the others.

The Princess had noticed his straying eyes. He brought his attention back forward, although part of him wished to examine the room in greater detail. And yet, there were a few paintings hanging behind her desk as well, and one on an easel that sat by a closed door in the back of the room, a cloth covering it from the world. Most of the space was, however, taken up by a pair of simple shelves, each carved from the same dark wood as the Princess’s desk.

“I see you have noticed my paintings,” the Princess said, and once again Sabra was forced to bring his attention back to the dark-blue alicorn sitting in front of him, her mane forever shifting in some infinite, ethereal wind of the stars. “Please, look all you wish. You are a philosopher, are you not?” Sabra nodded, not daring to speak. “Then please, look, I would appreciate hearing what you think of my own ‘musings on the world.’”

Sabra turned his attention left, back to the wall of paintings that had so fully grabbed his focus when he had first entered. Each painting was different, unique in it’s own way, either in subject, scenery, color, or even pattern.

But there was more to it, he realized as he began to look at the wall as a whole. Each was carefully placed, carefully positioned where it would most compliment its fellows. None of the paintings were meant to truly be near one another, at least, not that he could see. Certainly a painting of a city at night had little to do with a scene of two young foals chasing fireflies. But as he pulled his attention back, back to the careful spacing between the paintings and the positioning of the paintings themselves, he could see the grander design.

“Well,” the Princess asked, her tone calm. Regal. “What do you think?”

“I think…” he began. “I think that you truly are a mare of your medium, if you will forgive the use of the saying.”

“Forgiveness given. Why?” He could see the Princess peering at him from the corner of her eye, a curious expression on her face.

“Your skill with the paintbrush is evident,” he said, “although I cannot claim to have any great knowledge of such. However—” he raised his hoof, pointing, “—only one who truly understood the art in which they were engaged would attempt to make the display of such work itself a work of art. I admit that I am, ah … mgonjwa mjuzi...” He stopped, rolling his hoof by his head as he searched for the word he was looking for. “Perhaps, ill-educated?” He shook his head.

“I understand your words, Sabra,” the Princess said, smiling. “You refer to my attempts to make the placement and positioning itself a work of art.”

“Yes,” he said, nodding. “Asante. Yes, the … coordination of color, the way it blends and stands with other color, it causes each painting to catch the eye as a whole, while still submitting to the great work as a whole. It blends the colors together, causes them to stand out from the darker blue of the background, almost like … almost like…”

“Stars in the night sky?” Princess Luna suggested, and Sabra looked at her in surprise. “Merely a figure of speech,” she said, turning her attention away from the wall. Her mane seemed to flare in a gust of unfelt wind, twirling around her horn as she faced him once more. “Still, do you enjoy it?”

“I do, your highness,” he said, nodding. “While I lack understanding of the form, what I see is impressive.”

“You may lack knowledge of the form, Sabra,” the Princess said, her voice as firm as the night, “but that does not mean that your thoughts, ideas or viewpoints on it are any less valid. In art, it is what one sees that truly speaks.”

“True,” Sabra said, nodding and keeping his eyes fixed on the desk in front of her. “But what I see is certain to be different from what you see.”

“As long as we both agree that we see something in it,” the Princess said. There was a tone in her voice that was difficult to place, even for his keen sense of hearing. Was it … pride? Or was it sadness? It almost seemed to be both at the same time.

“Now, Sabra,” the Princess said, ducking her head slightly. Once again he found his gaze commanded by ageless eyes, immortal and full of centuries of wisdom and knowledge. “Your captain said that you had a question for me.”

“He is correct, your highness.” The Princess began to pull her head back and he followed without thinking, no longer looking down at her desk, but up, up into her stern, but oddly serene, face. “It is not an easy question, nor a simple one,” he said. “And if you feel that you do not wish to answer, I will not ask further.”

“Sabra,” Luna said, shaking her head gently from side to side, “whatever your question, I will do my best to answer it. After what you have done for my sister and I—nay, for Equestria, you are owed at least some knowledge to reward your search.”

“Then Princess,” he said, breaking eye contact for a only a moment before looking at her again. “What is life?”

For a moment, the room was still. The Princess broke eye contact with him, turning once again towards the paintings on her walls. “Is there an answer you are looking for?”

“Only your own, your highness,” he said, biting back the urge to point out that her sister had asked the same question.

“If I may,” the Princess said, rising from behind her desk. She strode over to her wall of paintings, her gaze fixed on a single, simple portrait of a smiling pegasus with a coat almost the same shade of grey as Sky Bolt’s. The mare in the painting had a bright, almost platinum-yellow mane that somehow matched her golden eyes. The mother was looking at something off in the distance, and Sabra could just make out what looked like a small, grey, unicorn filly off in the distance.

“Do you know what these paintings represent?” Luna asked. “There is a common theme contained within each one of them.”

For a moment, Sabra stared at the paintings once more. Then he shook his head. “I do not,” he admitted.

“Each one is an answer,” Luna said, shifting her attention to another painting. Then another. “Or perhaps a better way to explain it would be a step. Or an accomplishment. Perhaps the end of a trial. I painted this one—” she said, returning to the first that she had looked at, “—after an eventful conversation with a certain, struggling, suffering mailmare. She’s a single mother, you see.” Her attention was fully fixed on the painting now. “Her daughter is a unicorn, and she tries hard to understand her and be the best mother that she can. I painted this after she had a particularly difficult trial to overcome.”

“Now this painting,” she said, turning a landscape scene that appeared to be a sunrise seen from Cloudsdale. “This painting I made after the weather manager of Cloudsdale successfully fixed a nearly disastrous storm system that got out of control. If you look, you can still see the faint traces of the storm in this portrait from where the team he led managed to tame the maelstrom.”

“I paint, Sabra, to preserve those fragments of joy. Of accomplishment. Of achievement.” The Diarch turned, striding back to her seat behind the desk once more. “To remember and preserve a small part of the pride, the joy, that each of my subjects felt on that day. To remind myself of their accomplishments, their trials, and their successes. To remind myself what we each strive for each day.”

“You ask me what life is. To that, I answer this: life is triumph. It is facing that which challenges us every day, every step up our entire lives, and overcoming it, growing in strength to become better.” Her voice was firm yet soft, but Sabra found himself leaning forward as the Princess continued.

“Life is a triumph, Sabra. We learn. We grow. We love. We gain knowledge to understand ourselves. Patience to endure and overcome trials and challenges that we dream are insurmountable. We learn to hope, or even to have faith in that which we thought impossible. Sometimes we are humbled. Sometimes—” her voice grew quiet, “—we fall. Sometimes we make mistakes. That’s when we learn to forgive, and even to love.”

“Life is triumph, Sabra,” she said again, her voice still soft. “With every passing of the sun and moon, ponies learn, grow, laugh, and care. We build strengths we never knew we had, overcome challenges that will be gone the next. But one thing remains the same. One thing that I strive to capture every time I put my brush to the canvas.” She looked directly at him now. “That sense of triumph, that feeling of contentment, of joy, and of pride as we accomplish something, no matter how small, that makes us better.”

“That, Sabra, is life. Triumph. The triumph of becoming more than we were.”

More than we were… The Princess's words echoed inside the void as he replayed the events of the previous day. The armor. Sky Bolt’s tired but determined actions. The surge of power that had swept over his body when he’d activated the E.E.S. The crack of the training post as it had broken in two under his hoof.

More than we were. A curious choice of words. He mulled the words over in his head, casually shifting his weight to his other leg as he thought. The triumph of becoming more than we were.

But which is it? he thought, rolling his body forwards and exchanging his rear right hoof for his left forward one. He arched his body back and up, pushing out with his foreleg and curving his body in the air above him. He flanks tickled as his tail brushed across them. I need to get that cut, he thought, letting the momentary distraction pull him away.

He felt like his mind was buzzing, burning with questions that he couldn’t answer. Questions that set his mind aflame like a sun-burnt field of grass after a long drought. Questions that pulled at his consciousness, distracted him. Questions that made meditation difficult, transforming the peace and serenity of the void into one of overlapping thoughts and ideas that rippled the surface of the lake like strong winds.

Life is a gift. The intrusion of the Solar Diarch’s words was not unexpected, and he shifted his position again, pushing himself upward in a brief hop and switching to his left hoof. Both answers had been satisfying—no, almost edifying in their simplicity and directness. Both had been unexpected, but enlightening. And yet…

He took a deep breath and pulled himself away from the chaos of his thoughts for a moment, his senses turning outward to the world around him. Birds were singing in the nearby castle gardens, their songs carrying over the garden walls and across the Guard grounds. There was a detachment of Royal Guard coming down the path towards their barracks, their hooves ringing out against the stone, and he could make out the faint lack of precision in their steps. One of them stopped, and he heard him call out to his fellows. The hoofsteps slowed, and Sabra could almost feel their eyes on him.

Perhaps the roof of the barracks was not the best place to choose to practice my motions this morning, he thought as the voices of the Guard rose in excitement. He could hear the change in tone, make out the whispered excitement and disbelief as one of Guard began to relate a version of the events of the previous day, complete with hoof gestures.

Captain Song had been a little less excited about the results of the test than Sky Bolt had, mostly as a result of being informed that the replacement training post would come out of the team’s budget. But aside from suggesting that future tests be done elsewhere until Sky Bolt was certain that said tests wouldn’t do any additional damage to equipment that wasn’t technically their own to destroy, he’d seemed impressed with her work.

At the very least he seemed slightly less … abrasive? He twitched as he began to fold his rear legs. What is the word in Equestrian? He shook his head ever so slightly. Gruff? It sounded right. Perhaps that was it. Yes, less gruff than usual. It still felt slightly unfamiliar, thinking in Equestrian rather than Zebra, although his time with the Dusk Guard had certainly made it much easier.

He twisted once again, his body coming into the final position of the exercise. Across the field, the guard’s interest waned, and their hoofsteps once again became regular as they moved towards the barracks, although his ears didn’t fail to pick up the soft pause in their cadence every so often as one of them turned to look back.

He made one final twist and then dropped from his staff, his hooves ringing out against the barrack's roof. His staff fell across his outstretched hoof, the metal warm from the sun, and he flipped it around in one swift motion, air whistling past the tip as it spun into his other hoof. He gave the center of the staff a quick, hard twist—and both ends collapsed inward with a sharp snap, cutting the length of the staff in half. Now reduced in length, it continued on its journey, rolling around his other hoof and flipping back towards his back, where it slid into place above his saddlebags. The well-practiced motion complete, he sat back on his haunches, let out a deep breath, and at last opened his eyes.

For a moment the light of the sun was blinding but his eyes adjusted quickly, the brilliant green of the grass field around the barracks giving way to the sharp clarity of the relatively simple buildings that stood in it. From his position on the roof of the Dusk Guard barracks, he could not only see the barracks of the Royal and Night Guard, but past them in both directions into the Castle gardens or the Guard’s training grounds.

It was cooler today than it had been the day before, a subtle reminder that at long last the summer was reaching its final weeks. Not cooler by any large amount—the Guard were still seen drinking water at their posts, and the weather overhead could hardly be called cool by Equestrian standards—but noticeably cooler nonetheless. Autumn would be coming soon, a time Sabra both enjoyed and dreaded. Enjoyed for the beautiful colors that it presented, the trees lighting up in swathes of deep red and golden yellow, so like the silks of the cities back home. Dreaded for the shift to cold that it would bring, and the admittedly beautiful but freezing snow that would come soon after. He’d experienced snow before leaving the Plainslands, of course. Several monasteries were built in high mountains, although thankfully not the one he had lived in, and he had visited them as the occasion had called for it.

His first experience with snow had been equal parts excitement and wonder, followed by absolute astonishment that anyone would even touch the cold substance willingly. The monks at that particular monastery had found it quite amusing.

Still, he’d learned to live with it. His first winter away from the Plainslands had been a learning experience, but thankfully there had been those around him to offer advice. He shook his head as he dropped from the roof of the barracks, his hooves dragging against the side to slow his descent. He landed on the grass a few moments later, crouching to absorb a bit of the impact.

And then there had been his first Equestrian winter, in the already cool Unicorn Range. The memory gave him a chill just thinking about it. Thankfully, the Rangers had elected to assist him, but it had still been harsh. Far harsher than he had expected.

And now I’ll be spending the winter here, he thought as he opened the door to the barracks and walked in, his hooves ringing out against the wooden floor. It almost feels… His thoughts trailed off as he took in the empty common room with its comfortable couches, the kitchen area in its immaculate cleanliness. The steps leading up to Captain Song’s office.

Like home? He shook his head again as he trotted down the hall towards the workshop, his hooves already feeling the faint vibrations that signified Sky Bolt was hard at work. Is it?

The workshop was still in the same chaotic state that it had been the prior morning, at least to his eyes. Sky Bolt was hovering over a workbench, her face screwed up in concentration, her tongue sticking out as she deftly manipulated a thin, narrow tool with her hooves. Music pounded from the shop's speakers, a heavy, pulsing beat that made his coat quiver. He took a few careful steps into the workshop, waiting until it was clear that the sound of his hoofsteps wouldn’t disturb her. When she didn’t look up, he increased his pace.

“Hey Sabra,” she said as he drew closer, and he paused in surprise. Apparently, the sudden lack of motion wasn’t lost on her either. “I can still see you, you know,” she said, setting the tool down on the workbench. She looked up at him, her muzzle melting into a grin as she flipped a bit of blue mane back. “I might be busy, but even I can see the door opening out of the corner of my eye if I’m looking at it.”

Msahama—

“Oh relax, Sabra,” she said, her grin growing wider. “I’m not mad at you. Really,” she said as she rolled her eyes, “you’re too easy to tease.”

“You look more alert today,” he said as he saw the sparkle in her eyes. “Are you feeling better?”

She nodded. “I was talking with the boss last night, about stuff, and … and I slept a lot better.” Her grin faded to a hopeful looking smile, and her eyes seemed to widen as she looked at him. “It wasn’t a full night … I mean I still stayed up a little late working, but it beats, well, you know.” Her wings began to twitch again, the feathers shifting as she unconsciously ruffled them. “I don’t want to be the one who bothers everypony at night, you know?” The smile was still on her face, her tone playful, but he knew it was a mask. An act for his benefit.

Hunter asked me to help, he thought, watching her wings twitch with discomfort. And even if he hadn’t I … I want to.

“Sky Bolt,” he asked, shaking his head. “May I tell you something? Before we start?”

“Sure,” she said, turning back towards the workbench and once again deftly plucking the thin, metal tool from the workbench. “As long as you can do it while I make these modifications,” she said, her mane slipping back over her face as she looked back down at the complex pattern of crystals in front of her. “Go ahead.”

“When I was nine years old,” he said, stepping forward so that she would hear him over the thumping of the electronic beat, “I left my family for the first time to join a monastery. I did this because I wanted to learn about the world around me in a more intense capacity than the teachers or the elders of my home could supply. The monastery was hundreds of miles away, far from my home, but I wanted to go, and my father and mother were honored by my acceptance. My father brought me the full distance, said his farewells, and left.”

“I was alone,” he said, Sky Bolt’s tool clicking against the crystal as he spoke. He stared at the small array, watching the glint of the small, crystalline components, his mind sinking back to when he had been a young colt. “I had arrived at an unusual time for the monastery. There were no other foals my age. No one to make friends with. I was given my own room.” Another clink as a piece of crystal moved.

“I was alone,” he said, the words coming out a little quicker. “For the first time in my life, I was away from everypony that I’d ever known, in a place I barely understood. I wanted to be there, even with my limited understanding I knew how valuable my chance to be there was to me, but…” The chime of crystal touching metal stopped as Sky Bolt turned to look at him.

“I was scared, and alone,” he said, giving his words all the calm he could muster. “The nights were different. I spent the first few nights worried and alone. One night, it became too much, and I started crying. Unknown to me, however, one of the elders at the monastery had suspected what I was feeling. The night I cried, he heard me. He came and spoke with me, helped me feel better. He came every night after that, to talk with me and help me feel more welcome, until my … my home sickness had passed.”

“I would be a shameful student indeed if I did not pass on all the knowledge I learned in my stay there,” he said, giving her a faint smile. “If you ever feel bothered at night, if I can help…”

“Thanks, Sabra,” Sky Bolt said, her cheeks flushing a pale pink against her grey coat. “I … I will if I need to. I promise.”

For a moment they stared at one another, and Sabra found himself feeling a faint sense of unease alongside the accomplishment. Should I do something else? Say something? Then Sky Bolt turned her attention back towards the array, a smile on her face, and the moment was gone.

“So!” Sky Bolt said as she bent down close, eyeing the delicate work, “should we go ahead and get this test underway?” The cheer was back in her voice now, he could hear it. Not the strained cheer she’d given him moments ago, but real, solid mirth. “Go ahead and gear up like you were yesterday, helmet and everything.” Her left wing snapped out, pointing towards a nearby workbench, where the helmet he’d tested the day before sat on the bare wood. “I should have this finished up by the time you get back, and then we can go test this stuff again. Alright?”

“Alright,” he said, still feeling a slight sense of accomplishment as he turned back towards the workshop entrance. “I will return in a moment.” And then, he thought as he headed for the armory, we can see if I can understand again what strength truly is.

* * *

“So, no egg today?” Sabra asked as Sky Bolt held up what he assumed was the E.E.S. from the day before.

“Nope,” she said, shaking the small device in her hooves. “I spent some time yesterday tightening down the design since you got it to work—”

“Once,” he said, shaking his head. “Just once.”

“Good enough for me,” she said. “Now hold still while I attach this.” She flapped her wings and rose into the air, the downdraft rippling blades of grass underneath her. “I wanted to make it a bit more compact as well as simplify a few circuits, and since I didn’t want it to be called an egg…” Her words trailed off as she moved behind him, and there was a moment of pressure at the base of his shoulder blades, followed by a click as the device snapped into place.

“What is it called then?” he asked as she dropped back to the ground, a satisfied look on her face.

“Actually, Hunter called it a ‘mod’ last night, and I kind of like the name,” she said as he twisted back to look at it. “It’s certainly better than ‘egg.’ Plus, it’s easy enough to describe. Strength mod, speed mod, invisibility mod…” she gave him a shrug. “I think it’ll work enough for our purposes.”

“So ‘mod,’ then?” he asked, twisting the strange word around in his mouth.

“Short from modification.”

“Ah, modification. Mod.” The word still felt odd in his mouth, but that would fade with time. “And this is it?”

“Yeah,” Sky Bolt said. “That’s it.”

The device sitting on his back was less than half the size of what she’d placed on him the day before as well as shaped far differently. While the other had been almost half the length of his back and shaped like a flattened egg, this was far shorter and shaped like a rectangle. It ran lengthwise down his back, although it was small enough that it barely extended past the tip of his shoulderblades, and it was barely wider than one of his own hooves.

“You know,” Sky Bolt said, her voice taking on a somewhat absent tone, “I think I could make it smaller. Maybe make it face the other way, too.”

“Later,” Sabra said, holding back a chuckle at how quickly the pegasus could find ways to improve her own creations. “So, are we testing the device here today?” he asked, looking out over the scene in front of them.

Here was the Guard’s Capture-the-Flag field, a massive, sunken space reserved for a more intense version of a game similar to one he’d played as a foal. According to what he’d understood from the Guard who’d given them the history of the place when they’d used it once before, the field had once been a hoofball field, but had fallen to disuse until somepony had suggested using it for a combination of fun and training. Some extensive modifications earlier, and the field was now home to trees, wooden buildings, walls, and even large ditches and fields of small shrubs that ponies could hide themselves in.

“‘old out ‘our ‘ight ‘oof,” Sky Bolt said, stepping up next to him with something clutched in her mouth. He complied, extending the armor clad-hoof as he ran his eyes over the field. There was a faint tearing sound, and he looked down to see Sky Bolt wrapping what appeared to be tape around something attached to his fetlock.

“What’s this?” he asked as he eyed it the small device. It was a dial of some kind behind glass, with a needle that was currently sitting to the left side of the display. Two wires extended from the bottom of the dial’s small case, and Sky Bolt was currently taping them above and below the joint of his leg.

“Don’t move, please,” she said, her words slightly muffled by the roll of tape in her mouth. “It’s a magic reader. It’s designed to detect and measure magical energies, kind of like a horn light test.” He nodded, although he had no idea what a “horn light test” was. Something to do with unicorn horns and a light, he would guess.

“I’m connecting it to the mod on your back,” she said as she moved to his shoulder, wrapping the clear tape between the plates of his armor against the black underlayer. “This way, you’ll be able to accurately see how much of the crystals enchantment you’ve used as well as judge how quickly it recharges.”

“Will it go quickly?” he asked as she tugged against the wires. The needle on the device sprang to life, snapping itself to the right as it detected the charge.

“I’m not really sure,” she said, shrugging. “Yesterday it was already mostly charged by the time I got the thing off your back and hooked up again, but that did take a bit with all the screaming and yelling from the Guard so ... As long as you don’t rip the wires out or something, we’ll find out.” She gave him a wide grin, one that he was beginning to recognize was one she made when she wasn’t quite as knowledgeable about something as she was pretending to be. The difference was in the eyes, those flame-red eyes…

You’re staring, some small part of him warned, and he snapped his head back down to the reader strapped to his foreleg. “So keep an eye on this—”

“—and let me know what the rate is like,” Sky Bolt said with a nod. “Now, do you remember how you got it to activate yesterday?”

“Ah, not really, no,” he said, picking his helmet up in his hooves and sliding it over his head. It took a moment to get it to slide on right, and he was thankful for whatever magic its creators had worked that allowed his mane to slide through the opening made for it without catching on anything. “I was trying a lot of different things,” he said as the visor settled in front of his eyes. Sky Bolt stepped up alongside him as he tapped the underside of his jaw, his armored hooves tapping against the helmet.

“Here,” she said, grabbing the straps and tightening them down. He gave her a thankful nod as the helmet locked itself in place. “It’ll take some getting used to, I know,” she said as the final strap cinched tight against his jaw. “I may design a better way of getting the helmet on before long…” She cocked her head to one side and for a moment he thought that he was going to have to snap her out of planning something new once again. Then she laughed and shook her head.

“Anyway,” she said, winking at him as if she knew what he had been thinking, “let’s get this armor tested.”

“Alright,” Sabra said, looking down at the reader on his foreleg. He could barely feel its weight, but he knew it was there. He would have to keep a close eye on the needle, especially if he was to lift something heavy. “What do you want me to do?”

“Well, we’re going to start off simple,” Sky Bolt said, jumping into the air and gliding down into the field. “Come on down here.”

“Alright,” he said, turning for the stairs. A short trot later, and he was down on the field.

“Ok, now,” Sky Bolt said, her sky-blue tail fanning out behind her as she flew back up to where they had just been, “jump up here.”

“What?” Sabra said in surprise eyeing the embankment. It stretched overhead, a rising mass of dirt overgrown with untrimmed grass and held back by thick, heavy boards. “Do you mean climb?” He eyed the spaces between the boards. It would be a tight fit, but he’d climbed harder before.

“No, I mean jump,” she said, tapping her hoof on the edge of the embankment and kicking off a small avalanche of dirt. “Use the strength mod. And make sure to keep an eye on the needle when you land. I want to know exactly how much energy it takes.”

Ah, of course, he thought, his eyes darting down to the reader, then back up at the wall before him. It wasn’t that tall, only about six times his height. Just use the strength enchantment. It’s a test. He took a step forward, coiled his legs underneath him—think of strength—pushed up and—

He left the ground, soaring upwards, but he could already see that he wasn’t going to come anywhere close to the top of the wall. He put out his hooves as he reached the apex of his leap, pushing himself away from the wall as he began to descend back down. The motion was fluid, natural, and he landed on his hooves with complete ease. The armor was still working exactly as it was intended to, enhancing his own inner magic to grant him a tiny increase to his own abilities.

But he already knew that the armor worked. What he needed was for the enchantment to work again.

What did I think yesterday that caused it to activate? he thought as he landed, his hooves kicking up clouds of dust from the hard-packed dirt service. He could remember the snap of the wood, the shock on his face as the training post had broken in two, but what had led him to that moment.

“No luck, huh?” Sky Bolt called down from above, and he shook his head as he turned to look up at her.

Hakuna. I will figure it out however,” he said, looking back down at his hooves and thinking back. “I have done it once before. I can do it again.” He gave his hoof an experimental tap against the ground, but it was no stronger or weaker than any other. What was I thinking about yesterday? He tapped his hoof against the soil again as he ran his mind over every moment of what had occurred.

I … I looked at Sky Bolt, he thought, his eyes widening. He turned his head upward, locking his eyes on the grey pegasus. Strength, he thought, crouching as he stared at her and pushed upwards. His body began to rise, rushing upward and—

Nothing. Again he pushed himself off of the wall, a shower of dirt falling in his wake as he landed on the ground once more, silently shaking his head. What was different?

“No luck yet, huh?” Sky Bolt called. She was laying along the edge now, her front hooves hanging over the edge of the berm. “I was talking to Dawn last night, and she said that it would probably be difficult for you to activate it at first if you don’t have any trained experience with magic.”

“Did she offer any suggestions?” Sabra replied, shaking his helmet and scattering small clumps of dirt to either side.

Sky Bolt shrugged, her mane bouncing against her shoulders. “She did say that it might be that you need to think of an emotion or an ideal that you associate with strength, not just the idea of strength itself. Then again, she said she’d never heard of anypony trying exactly what we’re doing, so we’re sort of in uncharted territory here.”

“An emotion?” He sank back on his armored haunches as he looked up at her. “What do you mean by emotion?”

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t quite understand all of it,” she said, shrugging again and giving her head a little shake. “Apparently unicorn magic can be influenced by the emotion of the caster. I guess that’s why the Elements of Harmony are what they are or something. But she suggested that if we were having trouble getting the crystal to work, then try associating an emotion with it. One that you would generally associate with strength.”

“Like what?”

“How would I know?” she said, her grin beaming down on him as she shrugged. “I’m not you. I guess I’d think of times I was strong and then go with whatever emotion I was feeling at the time?” She laughed, her voice echoing across the field. “I guess I’d go with triumph or something. You know, like you get after you’ve just finished tightening down the last bolt on a huge project?” She gave him another sheepish grin. “Well, maybe not.”

“Regardless, it may prove helpful,” Sabra said, shaking the last bits of dirt from his armor. “Did she specify exactly how one does what she referred to?”

“She said it had to do with bringing that emotion up within you and then mixing that with her magic. But,” she said, grimacing a little, “she also said she had no idea how that would feel for a non-unicorn. I mean, pegasi magic is just—” she held up her hooves and mimed a lightening bolt sparking between them, a little snap escaping her lips.

An emotion? he thought, twisting his head back to look at the mod nestled above his shoulders. But what was I feeling yesterday when I looked back at Sky Bo—no. Oh no. He turned his head back towards the mare, his stomach twisting inside of him. It couldn’t be that, could it?

No, it couldn’t be. Why would it be that? Sky Bolt was … different, unlike anypony he’d ever met, but…

I am I really associating an attraction with my own inner strength? It didn’t seem likely, but then again, he’d seen others his age do strange things in order to impress mares.

But is that how I truly think of my strength? As an extension of my own attraction? Not that she isn’t beautiful enough to inspire great strength but—

“Hey, you have an idea?” Sky Bolt’s voice pulled him from his thoughts. She was looking at him with a curious expression, and he realized that he had been staring at her.

“Um, perhaps,” he said, silently cursing the words as they slipped from his lips. “One moment.” I am never going to live this down if it works, he thought as he crouched. In fact, if it does, I’m going to lie if she asks me how. His mind wound back, searching for something that wouldn’t feel too odd to dwell on.

There, he thought as his mind came to a halt. The first flight of The Hummingbird, just before she—just before she kissed me. He remembered the feeling he’d felt then, the abstract joy at watching her smile as the ship had lifted off.

Now put that into strength, he thought, trying to mix the momentary happiness of that memory with the surge of power he’d felt in his muscles the day before. Mix those two feelings— he closed his eyes, —and push…

His head slammed into the side of the embankment and he tumbled back, the world spinning around him as he opened his eyes. His hooves slammed into the ground and he stumbled a few steps before he could halt his momentum. He shook his head, checking himself for injury and finding to his delight that the helmet Sky Bolt had designed had done it’s job. He shook his head, clumps of vision obscuring dirt falling away from in front of his visor as laughter began ringing through the air.

“Sorry,” Sky Bolt said, covering her mouth with one hoof but unable to stop her shoulders from shaking as she held back her laughter. “I take it whatever that was didn’t work?”

“No,” Sabra said, a chuckle of his own slipping out as he saw the imprint his head had left against the embankment. “In fact,” he said, as he noted how much further down the barricade the imprint of his head was from the hoofmarks he’d left earlier, “I think it was actually worse.”

“Well what were you thinking of?” Sky Bolt asked, her mirth subsiding as she looked down at him.

“Nothing,” he said. He could feel his cheeks growing hot under his coat, and for a moment he was infinitely relieved that the helmet hid his cheeks from view. “It apparently was a poor idea.”

“Yeah...” Sky Bolt said, her eyes narrowing a little. “What exactly were you thinking of though?” Her grin began to change, morphing into a knowing smirk. “Is that why you were looking at me?”

“No,” Sabra lied, looking down at his armor and making a show of brushing the freshly accumulated dirt from it.

“Are you sure?” she asked, dragging out her last word with a teasing tone. She tilted her head to one side, her smirk switching back to a grin. “I mean, it’s a bummer it didn’t work, but it’s flattering all the same.” She laughed again, although it sounded almost a tad forced. “I mean, wow, did you really?”

“I—” He shook his head. “If you you will pardon my rudeness, you are not helping me concentrate on what will work.”

“Sorry,” Sky Bolt said, still chuckling a little. “I think Nova’s been rubbing off on me.”

“It’s … Do not worry about it.” He shook his head again. “It would be something to discuss at another time, in any case.”

“Wait,” Sky Bolt said, eyes widening in apparent surprise. Real or mock, he wasn’t sure. “Do you mean about Nova or about … you know?”

“Can’t talk right now,” Sabra said, grinning under his helmet. “Thinking.” What was it we used to say as foals? he thought as he closed his eyes, Sky Bolt’s almost alarmed expression his last sight. What you plant, you harvest? He held back his own chuckle as he cut out Sky Bolt’s protests.

So if it wasn’t because of her, what was it? His brow furrowed as his mind raced, his ears folding back against the sun-warmed helmet as he ran over the scene from the day before again and again in his mind.

What was I feeling when I looked back at her? he asked himself. Was it frustration that I was failing? He gave his head a small shake, dismissing the thought. He had been frustrated, yes, but that wasn’t something he associated with strength.

But had it lead to something that was? What was I feeling when I looked at her? he thought, replaying the scene in his mind. I wanted … I wanted … to help her! Could that have been it? His eyes opened, and he once again looked up at the edge of the embankment, fixing his goal in his mind.

The desire to not just use my strength, he thought as he took a step forward, his muscles coiling underneath him, but to use my strength to help. There was a familiar surge, a rush of energy that took his breath away as he pushed down with all his might—and he was flying into the air, the ground falling away from him as he shot up past the top of the embankment. He kept climbing, the force of the leap carrying him several body lengths past the edge where Sky Bolt sat, her mouth open wide with astonishment.

Then his momentum was gone, and he began to arc back downward as gravity took over. The surge of power in his muscles faded and his eyes widened as he realized exactly how high up he was. he pulled his hooves under him, bracing himself as grassy surface of the embankment rushed up at him, and then he slammed into it, the force of the impact nearly knocking the breath from his body and reverberating up his legs.

He stood for a moment in absolute shock, his body locked as he considered what he had just done. I … I did it! he thought, his gaze slowly lowering down towards his hooves. They had sunk into the soil under the force of his impact, and he felt the ground pull against one of his hooves as he pulled it out. He had seen boxes that became giant golems, barely escaped from a collapsing building … but this? It had been like nothing he’d ever felt. Nothing he’d ever dreamed of doing.

“Sabra?” Sky Bolt’s hoof cut across his field of view as she tugged his helmet around. “Are you alright?” He could see equal parts glee and worry on her face.

“Did I … Did I just accomplish what I believe I did?” he asked, forcing the words from his mouth. It felt as if each word was a stone, dull and heavy. “Did I?”

“Just jump nearly thirty feet into the air?” Sky Bolt said, letting out a weak laugh. “Yeah, you did. You did!” Her voice was rising in pitch now as she began to shake with excitement. “You did! It worked! You totally did it! It works! It works!” She was hovering now, her wings flapping as her whole body shook with excitement. “Sun above it works!”

“It did,” Sabra said, looking down at his legs once again as his breath began to come back to him. “It did!” He let out another shaky breath as his sense caught up with what had just happened. “Jua juu ya,” he said, “if not that I had just done it, I would not have believed it!”

“What does the needle say? Can you do it again?” Sky Bolt grabbed at his foreleg before he could respond, pulling it from the ground. Sabra let out a grunt of surprise as she twisted the leg up in front of her eyes.

“Wow!” she said, her eyes widening. “That took a lot out of the crystal. It’s already down to two thirds of its reserve. But,” she said, tapping the reader with her hoof, “it does look like its recharging alright. In fact, it looks like it’s recharging faster than I expected!” She dropped his foreleg and looked at him, her eyes sparkling like a dancing flame. “Can you try it again? Maybe see if you can use a little less energy with a smaller jump?”

“Less?” he asked, blinking. “What do you mean?”

“Well, the enchantment can only do so much,” she said rapidly, “but it’ll deplete based on the level of exertion. So you should be able to do a lot of things if you don’t do too much. Go on! Try it! Can you?”

“I think so,” Sabra said, taking a few steps back. Alright, he thought, taking another deep breath. Just concentrate, focus… He gave an experimental hop. Nothing.

“Do not worry,” he said as Sky Bolt’s face fell. “I was testing an idea.” He bent his legs once more. Strength, he thought as he looked up at the sky. Strength to help those around me. The feeling was rising inside of him, the feeling that he would do everything he could. A burst of power was in him now, less intense than its first or second appearance, but surging through him all the same.

He pushed himself upwards once again, more lightly this time. He let go of the enchantment as soon as his hooves had left the ground, watching in amazement as the ground sank away beneath him. He landed in an easy crouch, his legs absorbing the impact of what would have normally been near the highest he could have jumped. He checked the needle on the reader. There was still a little bit of strength left in the enchantment.

“You did it!” Sky Bolt said again, clapping her front hooves together and darting backward through the air. “You did it!” Sabra watched as the needle slowly began to rise once more, making its way from left to right with almost infinite—but visible—slowness.

“I did,” he said, dropping his hoof once more and turning towards the edge of the embankment. There was a whole field down there. A whole field of makeshift buildings, walls, ditches, and other obstacles. “It was a bit like wearing the armor for the first time. At first,” he said, glancing at her, “it was a little strange, hard to get understood—no, used too.” He smiled as he turned back towards the embankment. “But with a little practice…”

He pushed forward with his rear legs, thundering towards the edge. Sky Bolt let out a yelp of surprise as he leapt from the edge, tucking his legs and head against his body as the world spun around him. He closed his eyes as the horizon shot past, trusting his body. He was dropping now, down into the field itself. The ground was coming closer ... closer … He opened his eyes and extended his legs, reaching inside himself and pulling forth the mod's power once again. It surged through his body, every muscle in his body swelling with power.

He barely even flexed his legs as he hit, the last of the mod’s enchantment soaking up the force of the impact. He felt the ground shake under his hooves as the full weight of his armored body crashed into it, dust rising underneath him in a swirling cloud. The feeling of power in his muscles vanished, and he looked down at the reader. The needle was all the way to the left. He’d drained the crystal. But even as he looked he could see the thin, metal sliver begin twitching towards the right.

“Sabra!” Sky Bolt called, gliding down next to him. “That. Was, Awesome!” She let out an excited whoop as her hooves touched the ground. “Look!” she said, her face beaming, “you even left imprints where you jumped!” She gestured at the four divots in the ground his hooves had carved with his first jump.

Ajabu,” Sabra said, placing one of his hooves in the divots. This … this is beyond anything I ever imagined when I first spoke with the captain, he thought as he looked up at Sky Bolt.

“Well?” she asked, her wings barely restrained behind her. He stared at her for a moment.

There has to be something I can do to thank her for— He paused. Of course.

“Help me with this,” he said, reaching up with one hoof and batting at the woven straps underneath his jaw. Her exuberance faded slightly, but she complied, her excitement fading to confusion as she helped loosen the straps.

Asante,” Sabra said as he pulled the helmet free, blinking in surprise at how much brighter the sun seemed without the visor.

“Are you okay?” Sky Bolt asked as he handed her the helmet. “You didn’t hit your head or anything, did you? Is the helmet making you feel funny?” Her voice began to pick up speed. “Did you—”

“No, no,” he said, raising his hoof and shaking his head. “I am fine, Sky Bolt. Usijali. It worked just as you intended.”

“So then why—” she began.

“Because I could not do this with it on,” he said, leaning forward and kissing her on the cheek. Sky Bolt froze, her mouth dropping open in shock.

That was permissible, was it not? he thought as he leaned back. Then a faint blush began to creep across her cheeks as her lips began to turn upwards in a smile.

“If I recall correctly,” he said as he plucked the helmet from her hooves, “I did … deni, deni, ah! Owe!” He slid the helmet back over his head as Sky Bolt lifted a hoof to her cheek. “ I did owe you? No, that is still not the right word. I … kwamba ni majibu yangu kwa wiki iliyopita!” he said at last with a shrug as he gave in, switching to zebra. “Mnaelewa?”

Her eyes narrowed for a moment, and then she nodded, smiling.

Nzuri,” he said, nodding at her as he caught one of the straps in his hooves and began to tighten it down. “Now, do you have any other tests in mind?”

Sky Bolt’s wide grin was all he needed to see to know the answer.