• Published 3rd Sep 2012
  • 43,806 Views, 1,031 Comments

Tiberian Eclipse - Material Defender

Equestria is under threat from a crystal from beyond their world, one which earns them the attention of forces both benevolent and malevolent...

  • ...

Chapter 14: Respite

Trixie exited the tent, donning her trademark purple hat and raising a hoof to her eyes. Around her, the camp bustled about with its usual activities, brushing off the recent attack with no more than a casual interest. Living in such squalid and grim conditions had conditioned them to accept the worst of their circumstances, it seemed, and even she herself didn’t truly know what to think of it. It was scary to write off such violence as daily happenstance.

“How’re ya doin’, Miss Lulamoon?” She looked to her side and found an old earth pony stallion, wearing a simple dull green scarf with a wheat stalk hanging out of his mouth, sitting on the bench right outside of the mess hall. “Sorry, didn’t want to bother ya while you had yer little moment of mournin’. If you need some o’ the stallions to rough up that human for rousin’ you up, I can put in—”

“No, no, that won’t be needed,” she replied quickly, giving a somewhat flustered wave of her hoof. The stallion simply shrugged in response. “So, Flax... I assume you needed to talk to me about something?”

Flax nodded slowly, eyes closed with lackadaisical patience. “That I did, ma’am. Ran into the guy after he exited the tent. Was with Snips and Snails—you know how those two young’uns can be—diggin’ through the junk pile that Caramel and the others helped roll in. A bunch o’ scraps and bits... and alien parts. Most of ‘em fizzled away into nothin’, but there were some that made it out in one piece. Or a bunch of ‘em.”

“You brought the remains of the dead aliens into the camp?” Trixie asked, closing the distance between them and adding, “And without my explicit permission? You know how I am with accepting any new objects into our camp that doesn’t fall within our needs.”

“The deed was already said ‘n done by the time it got to me,” he said with a shrug. “So, anyway: I was diggin’ through the pile, picking through the useful bits as it looked like they just tossed in some o’ the alien remains in with our regular run, when that feller approached me. He said that we were playin’ with dangerous stuff, the alien bits just sittin’ ‘round in our camp like that.”

Trixie raised an eyebrow at him. Though she did have a good impression of Lieutenant Viers, she was more interested in how he interacted with her campmates. She took a seat next to him, looking around to see Yankee Squad still remaining on guard at the walls and with Viers visible on the other side of the camp, apparently engrossed in a private conversation within that bulbous headspace of his. “And what did he say to you?” she asked.

“Said to leave the alien bits to be. The Screen—I think that was what he called ‘em—boy, are they some strange critters. Snips had one o’ them in his mouth, a little thing that looked like a parasprite if you flattened it like a pancake and covered it with knives or somethin’, and I told ‘im to get rid o’ it. Too dangerous for foals to be runnin’ off with things like that in their mouths.”

“I certainly hope you did get rid of it, along with any other alien objects that were in the pile,” Trixie said. “Did you oblige the lieutenant’s order?”

“Yeah, I did. As if those little bug things, ‘Buzzers’ I think he called ‘em, weren’t bad enough, Caramel and the crew brought in one o’ the bigger ones. A dis-in-tee-gra-ter, as the human put it. Was big and ugly, like you took one o’ those fancy cannon barrels that we used to have on the royal guard airships and gave it legs.” Flax visibly shuddered. “I’ll be damned if that wasn’t the most alien thing I ever did see.”

“You’re digressing, Flax,” Trixie stated, waving a hand in front of his face as he straightened up and cleared his throat. “Stay on topic. Did you do as he asked?”

“Oh, right. Um, so the human told me that the thing was filled with acid! Can you believe that? Somethin’ that looks like a shiny walkin’ barrel with acid in it? Said that if we cut the wrong places or ended up crushin’ it, acid would just start flowin’ out of the damn thing, and that we should get rid o’ it. Ain’t my place to be puttin’ the camp in danger like that, so I agreed. He’s s’posed to have his people come down and clean it up for us sometime tomorrow mornin’.”

“Well, I did happen to get a closer view of the object while it was attacking the camp,” Trixie recalled. “There were certain visible parts that did glow a bright green. I suppose that might have been it, or the crystal that the humans are trying to rid us of. Perhaps it’s for the best that they take these things off of our hooves before we end up playing with things that we don’t fully understand.”

Flax nodded agreeably. “Seconded on that. In any case, we had a little talk right afterwards ‘bout the humans. They got a whole camp set up for us, do they? He said they’ve got hot water... and I gotta admit, as much as we can make do with making our own here in camp, it does take a lot o’ effort to heat anythin’ up. Effort that would be better off spent on tendin’ to them crops.”

“On food, and plenty of other amenities,” Trixie agreed. The sight of clean rooms and running water came up in her mind, and she had to remind herself that it wasn’t just a dream; these new domiciles were almost ready to be used, and only a short trip away. She sighed. “And I’m sure we will eventually make contact with the ponies of Canterlot eventually...”

“Don’t worry yerself over those city folk,” Flax said. “Sure, we didn’t flourish, but I ain’t gonna say that we didn’t carve ourselves our own home out here. Better than the crowded and cramped sanctum, at any rate. Got plenty o’ air ‘round here. Not fresh air, but you get what I mean.”

The joke elicited a chuckle from her, doubling as Flax’s own laugh joined in. “Well, I sometimes miss the snootiness of the old days. Traveling around, visiting towns and cities as a performing showmare...” She chuckled again, this one more somber. “I can’t believe I’m actually pining for the life I used to live... I’m sure it wasn’t as glamorous or as fulfilling as I think it used to be. What of you, Flax?”

“Well, can’t say things’ve changed much for me. Once a farmer, always a farmer, I guess,” Flax said. “Now, if you don’t mind, I should probably go see if them unicorns need help to tendin’ with the crops. Magic’s fine and all for keepin’ ‘em alive, but only the care of an earth pony will pull ‘em through. G’day, Miss Lulamoon.” He gave her a respectful bow of his head and left, leaving Trixie to contemplate her former life while sitting on a bench made out of bits of wood that may as well have once belonged to her travel carriage.

She stared out towards the open lane that ran straight to the camp’s gates. How peachy that just mere days ago, they had been busy scrounging whatever they could to get by. Equestria used to be a beautiful place, verdant with rolling hills, beautiful snow-capped peaks, rustic deserts with beautiful horizons, and everything in between... and now it was all what? Gone, forever snatched away by the accursed crystal and transforming the home of all who lived on this world into Tartarus itself.

Not to say that Tartarus was any worse compared to the realm of the living; last the scouts had reported in, Cerberus and the doors to Tartarus had both surprisingly managed to survive the calamity, though whether or not it was the intervention of magic more ancient than the Princesses themselves, nobody knew. The last thing Equestria needed was an outbreak of ancient monstrosities atop of their current crisis.

Trixie brushed off her star-dotted cloak, cleaning it of dirt before hopping off the bench and returning to all fours. There were a great many things that had happened since they left Canterlot, and a specific set of bridges that would need to be traversed again ever since the humans had arrived. They didn’t need to simply survive anymore... they didn’t have to languish day by day to a nightmare that they would never awake from. No, the dream had shifted dramatically, and now they could rebuild.

Rebuild. The word hung in Trixie’s mind, a strange concept that enthralled her as much as her magic tricks earned the adoration of the foals. To be honest, the thought titillated her, if only moderately. To see the vivacious lights of Manehattan’s nightlife once again... oh, how her heart fluttered.

But to reach that day, where Equestria rebuilt itself taller and prouder than anything they had once built... that would require time and effort. Trixie trotted towards her tent, located near the rear of the camp. Her simple home held all the basic utilities that a pony would need, but remained the closest domicile to Otis’ sleeping grounds, in the case that where she needed to rise immediately and march to battle, so would he.

She tossed aside the heavy cloth and made her entrance, immediately making for her office table: a relic of the golden days, converted from a strong plank of wood torn from a waxed cabinet door, and the only one she’d kept since then. She reached aside into the bag that sat at its legs, pulling out a roll of paper, along with a quill and an inkwell.

Equestria could rebuild, but it could not do so divided. And as much as she may have once hated even giving mere thought to the name, she knew now, out of everyone that she knew, that this one pony would never refuse to hear what she had to say.

Dear Twilight Sparkle...

The Canterlot General Hospital had fallen into disrepair since Shining Armor had last visited it, but the hardy building seemed to withstand the worst that the world could throw at it. Compared to most of the other buildings in its surrounding area, he thought it looked rather intact, though that could probably be attributed to the continued guard presence in the area. The extra security certainly put the continual lines of patients at ease.

He basked in the surge of activity, feeling very glad that he could about walk about and do something rather than sit cooped up in the castle to maintain the barrier. He had continued with his tour of Canterlot, leaving Celestia and Cadance behind to discuss the properties of the humans’ shield, a strange monolith that channeled new and alien energies never before seen by ponykind.

Shining had been in no mood to discuss anything related to magic after being shackled to it for so long, so instead he had sought out his sister, following Celestia’s directions to the hospital. The grimy tile flooring was no longer sullied, but now a clean stark white after janitorial staff had been brought in from the humans’ base to powerwash the building from top to bottom. Ponies huddled together in lines as ISDI soldiers directed the flow of the afflicted to the medical stations, set up on the ground floor rooms.

The machines that the humans used looked remarkably similar to their pony variants, and then there were the ones that he’d never seen before: machines with spindly metal arms and precise beams that were operated by technicians clad head to toe in operating gear colored in pure white and medical blue, and others with even stranger properties, like a machine that seemed to vibrate to a frequency that shattered the presence of crystals on a pony’s skin.

It was bewildering to him, to leave the sanctity of the bedroom he and Cadance shared and to walk straight into the rushed chaos of a fully-staffed hospital. The pony doctors on hand stood aside and watched with curiosity and rapt attention as the medical teams seemed to clock in and check out every patient in record time, performing triage at a rate that not even he could hope to aspire to.

As he passed through the halls, though, the population began to dwindle, and he eventually ran into the pony medical staff on the second floor and inquired them as to where his sister was. She was very hard to miss: Twilight herself was known throughout the city as Princess Celestia’s aide, and her new armor and vestments practically made her a beacon for attention. But the ponies did not know where Twilight was, and it was only when a helpful human nurse directed Shining to the third floor balcony that he finally found her.

Shining stood at the glass door, observing Twilight through the frame. Her helmet was off to her side, and she seemed... aloof, absentmindedly staring off towards the Canterlot gates as her tail seemed to flick around as she thought, occasionally darting from side to side with flashes of frustration. In a way that only a BBBFF could know, he had an idea of what had Twilight set on edge: a recent appearance by a certain somepony in the throne room.

“Twily...?” His sister’s ears perked up at the sound of his voice, and she looked at him in surprise. “Princess Celestia told me you came here to the hospital.”

“Oh, she told you that, huh...?” she said, trailing off as she began to zone out again.

Shining waved a hoof in front of her eyes, bringing her attention back to him. “Hey, sis, I can tell you have something on your mind. Do you want to talk about it?” he asked. Taking a chance on his hunch, he trotted up next to her and added, “Is it about Blueblood?”

His assumption was proven correct when she sharply inhaled. “Yes,” she said simply.

“Start at the beginning?” he asked, now dearly wishing that he’d brought Cadance along. “Don’t rush... we have the whole day, if you need it.”

She sighed, taking a deep breath before she began. “Okay, so... I’m sure at this point, you’re well aware of Blueblood’s... reputation in the city. With everyone, really, because at this point, there isn’t a single pony in all of the city and sanctum who hasn’t heard of what he’s done, and you were away with Cadance for most of the time, so you probably never heard any of it.”

“You’re right. I didn’t get much in the way of news from the outside,” he said, nodding and urging her to continue.

“Well... it started with me. Blueblood’s spree of debauchery was already well-known at this time, though I expected that he would burn himself out on partying hard and... everything else that comes with it.” She shrugged, pointedly glancing off to the side.

Shining felt his eyes narrow with contempt, almost on automatic. Twilight continued, her voice thick with sarcasm, “So, yeah... he got it in his thick head that I, the personal student of his aunt and the Element of Magic, would make a great new personal conquest. Even after I explicitly told him my intentions, and that was before he even sent one of his stupid groupies to ask for him.”

If the ambient sounds of life going on in the streets below weren’t present to anchor his sanity, Shining would have exploded in rage. As it was, he managed to keep a calm, yet dark expression upon his face as his little sister continued.

“One day,” Twilight continues, “he sends a maid to me. And it wasn’t just any maid; it was Lilydew, who everypony in the castle knows is Blueblood’s... pet.” The word exited her mouth with emphasized disgust. “She said that Blueblood would be honored if I would do him the favor of showing up to one of his parties.”

“I take it you didn’t accept?”

“Of course I didn’t. You haven’t seen the sorts of parties that Blueblood hosts since the crisis began.” She looked down towards the street, watching the lines of ponies below shuffle forward into the hospital in a slow yet steady trickle. She sighed. “All these nobleponies, still trying to live it big and pretend that the world outside their ballroom windows hasn’t just all shattered into tiny itty-bitty pieces, the kind of ponies that laugh at you when you try to get them to actually do something to help the cause.”

Shining nodded; he’d heard of this before, and had actually run into more times than he cared to admit. Certain nobleponies within Canterlot’s affluent circle practically acted as if the world revolved around themselves, with the worst being privy to Blueblood’s antics and joining with him, creating a whole clique of these like-minded buffoons. “And these parties were... how common?” he asked, unsure if he would be happy with the answer.

“Every half month or so, he’d have one,” Twilight said sourly. “And they always had these grandiose displays of food there, like it was a sick joke from Blueblood to every other pony in Canterlot. Princess Celestia made him tone it down when she found out, to the point where he didn’t even have access to food anymore beyond his rationed amount, which is the reason why he turned his attentions to the next greatest display of mockery he could find: mares.

“At first, it was the simple stuff: taking advantage of the maids here in the castle, but he always did it so subtly, like some off-hand remark or a casual touch of places where a stallion should never put his hooves without a mare’s consent. It became hard to out him for what he did when he always kept denying it, and it wasn’t as easy as trying to track where all the missing food kept going.”

“Someone must have complained, right?” Shining asked. With a pony with as much notoriety as Blueblood, there certainly was no room for mistakes. “Didn’t Princess Celestia reprimand him, or punish him in any way?”

Twilight sighed heavily, running a hoof through her mane. “Things weren’t great back then, Shiny. We had problems to deal with, so many of them like you wouldn’t believe: space management in the sanctum, crops to tend to in the gardens, supply distribution to the ponies in Canterlot, scavenging missions to other cities before we had to stop, and more... there was a lot going on, and we just couldn’t afford the time to deal with the problem.”

“Couldn’t one of the guards have helped you?”

She scoffed. “Are you kidding? The last thing anypony wanted to be was the target of Blueblood’s antagonizing comments. We had it happen once, to Princess Celestia’s other aide, Ink Well, who is now working in the library because of the trauma he caused her.”

A lull in their conversation arrived when the humming sound of an Orca dropship was heard, the craft flying in low from Canterlot’s north side and through the shields. The ponies below all turned their heads to the skies, several foals squealing in awe as the dropship landed at OP Castle outside the gates. The low static of public ISDI communications chatter could be heard from inside Twilight’s helmet.

“Well... I assume that you tried to do something about that... didn’t you?” he said, mind swirling in thoughts at the circus of activities he could put Blueblood through.

She groaned and plopped her head down on the railing. “My mood was frayed at the time, and I took the invitation from Blueblood personally. Lilydew and I traded some... heated words, some about her and most of them towards Blueblood, and then she stormed off to tell him what I’d said.”

Twilight groaned and wheeled around, grabbing her helmet and relocating it to the cushy lounge chairs nearby underneath an awning, still clean and in good condition from repeated use by the hospital staff. She took up a seat as Shining followed, reclining into her seat as her mood degraded. Shining himself sat prone on his chair, as close to the edge as possible.

“Sure enough, his attacks were focused on me after that. Oh, he never did anything directly—that would be too telling—so he had his subordinates fill in for him. Nasty words whispered by maids as I walked in the halls, the nobleponies trying to cause as much trouble for me as they could near the library and the office, creating accidents outside my room so I couldn’t get any sleep... I was already weary, and they were trying to drive me off the edge!

“And that wasn’t enough: they even went after my friends! Applejack would have lost a whole harvest of crops in the garden if she hadn’t the sense to buck all the thugs he sent to destroy it into tomorrow, Rarity had all of her tailoring materials stolen from her room while she was away, Pinkie Pie had all of her newly-baked pastries for the foals in the sanctum robbed from her, Fluttershy had to deal with rampaging animals after they were all riled up by extremely suspicious noises, and it’s fortunate that none of them were stupid enough to mess with Rainbow Dash, because they knew that would only end badly!”

Twilight was panting furiously, settling down from the rampant gesticulation of her hooves. Shining waited for her to calm down before saying, “I had no idea it was that bad. Was that the worst of it, or did he continue?”

No.” The word danced through the air with cold immediacy. “That wasn’t the worst of it.”

Shining blinked in confusion as she went deathly quiet. “Well...” His eyes looked away as he thought, judging the weight of his next words for fear that he would step into traumatic territory. “...he didn’t do anything to you... did he?” he asked, eyes slitted with caution as he leveled the question at her.

“No,” she replied again. “He... destroyed... my... books!” Twilight’s eyes snapped to him, filled with incomprehensible anger. “And not just any set of books! It was Star Swirl the Bearded’s Treatise on Thaumaturgical Applications of the Magically-Inclined Mind, and his subsequent addition of Magia Encyclopedia, volumes one through fifty! And they were all first editions. First. Editions. Poof. Lit up. Burnt to a crisp. Just like that.”

Twilight’s intense stare was broken as her face went from still shock to melancholic sullenness. Her shoulders slumped and she seemed to melt into her chair. Shining opened his mouth to speak, but found no words, unsure of how to go about Twilight’s loss of incredibly valuable books. He merely closed his mouth and stared off over the skyline of Canterlot, simultaneously thankful and terrified of the break in conversation that had come off of a high string until she continued.

“And that’s why I hate Blueblood,” she ended simply.

“You know... I thought that Blueblood had attacked you—physically,” Shining admitted. “But this... I know how much you love your books, Twily, and I agree with you there: What Blueblood has done is nothing short of a travesty. To think that the original works of Star Swirl the Bearded were destroyed in malicious intent...” He shook his head, and in all actuality, he did feel a pang of disappointment at the loss of work from an iconic figure in Equestrian history. “I noticed you were a bit off kilter during that meeting today. Why didn’t you tell Princess Celestia?”

“I tried to, but Blueblood had a solid alibi: he had been off in the city doing... whatever, and he had his lackey take the fall for him. I knew it was him because I was with her when she confronted him on it, and that self-satisfied grin on his face the moment Celestia turned around...” Her face scrunched and she shook her head, shaking her fist at the sky. “I knew it was him, and now he’s finally getting what he deserves, that parasprite.”

Her disposition recovered, reemerging as the little sister he knew and loved as she sat back and sighed at being able to overcome the explanation of her ordeal. “Thank you for telling me,” he said. “I know it must have weighed heavily on you, though... did the Princess not believe you?”

“Well, it was...” She grumbled, turning about in her chair. “Princess Celestia had been so busy during those times. And in every free moment she had, she always went to see Luna, always attentive to that stasis bubble of hers, and I just thought... she had enough problems to deal with.”

“What about your friends?”

“They had their own problems to deal with, too,” Twilight said, sighing. “Honestly, everypony has problems, building up all this stress for so long and now that we finally have our reprieve, everything is just...” She waved her hoof emptily at the horizon. “...falling into place.”

“I’m sure it is,” he said, lingering on his cushion as he looked up absentmindedly, the shield bubble shimmering as another dropship sailed through the barrier. “When you get the time, be sure to speak with Cadance and the Princess about this. I’m sure they would want to know, and maybe when we can all agree on a time, we can discuss this issue together.”

“I will,” she replied. “Thanks for listening, BBBFF.”

He chuckled. “You’re welcome. To be honest, it’s liberating to finally be able to walk around Canterlot again... the bedroom Cadance and I shared was just so...” He shuddered, feeling a chill tickle his coat. “I don’t think I’m going to stray anywhere near that room for a very long time. The power of love is great, but even that has its limits...”

“I know, it took quite the toll on you. But now you don’t have to worry about that anymore,” she said, looking up to the shield. “I’m actually very interested in how that shield works. When Doctor Wesley isn’t busy here, I’ll ask him.”

“He works here at the hospital?”

“Yep. He’s taking a nap right now on one of the upper floors.” She levitated her helmet and snugly fit it over her head. “And now that I think about it, I probably should, too... today’s been a long day. Or maybe I should visit Luna down at the humans’ base camp.”

“She’s probably still recovering from her treatment,” said Shining. “It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to check on her so soon...”

“What in heaven’s name are they doing over there?” Rarity wondered, looking across Camp Greenwood with a squint and seeing the engineers jet up and down the containment building in the distance. The perpetually-rotating apparatus that they installed onto the roof of the facility projected a shield, enclosing the facility two-fold with illuminating energy and the rising smoke.

“A lot of hubbub ‘round that thing lately,” Applejack said with an electronic echo from her helmet, grunting as she propped Luna up as her support. The sturdy frame of her power suit did more than its share of the work in that regard. “Hold on now, Princess. You okay?”

Luna had a featherless wing, darkly tinted in flesh and eerily nightmarish in appearance, wrapped around Applejack’s shoulder. “I think I can... walk,” she said uncertainly. She attempted to move forward, clicking her hooves against the tiled floor, but her legs wobbled weakly in response. “It... it will require time, but I think I may be able to walk by the end of this day.”

“What about your feathers?” Dash asked, gesturing to Luna’s spindly wings. “Got any alicorn secrets to growing wings back quickly or anything?”

“No,” she replied. “The feathers will reappear within a half-year to a whole year, but they will grow back.” A bandaged leg accidentally jerked in response and flung a hoof into Applejack’s stomach; the cowpony gave a pained shout in response. “Oh, I apologize, Applejack. My legs are not functioning as well as I hoped they would.”

“Um... Mister Harold and Mister Winslow have been gone for a while now...” Fluttershy said, staring at the closed door to the room with worry. “He said he would only be gone for an hour... and it’s been an hour and a half now.”

“They said it was a meeting,” Dash said, hovering over to her friend and sitting down at a comforting distance. “We had stuff like that all the time with the weather teams. Sometimes things didn’t go over well last time, or maybe there was a mix-up, or an accident. Stuff needs to get sorted out before it gets worse, you know?”

“Probably something to do with that,” Rarity agreed, still watching the building over the horizon. She whirled around to find Luna’s left side legs sway and fold as she crashed into Applejack. “Oh, dear. Perhaps you should let the recovery take its course first, Princess. Your attempts to walk do not seem to be yielding results.”

“A-ha!” Luna shouted triumphantly. Applejack scurried around her, leaving her to stand proudly on her legs. Wobbly as they still seemed, her bandaged legs remained steadfast, and she gave herself an approving smile, and turned to Rarity. “Success!”

“Woohoo!” came a quiet cheer. Pinkie Pie groggily waved her hooves in the air, a tired but attentive eye on Luna. Coinciding with her congratulations were Dash and Fluttershy’s cheers as Luna took her first steps in years. Applejack gave a quiet chortle as Luna’s stride appeared as if she were attempting a clumsy tap dance.

“Land sakes!” Applejack was again at her side, catching Luna before her direction would have led her straight into the door, which opened just as Harold looked up from his PDA and his face contorted in shock. He instinctively leapt aside, sliding onto the floor as the door guards responded with rifles aimed at the pony-alicorn pair. “Uh... hehe... sorry ‘bout that. Was tryin’ to help her back on her hooves.”

“You scared the sh—” Harold began, nipping his statement in the bud and ending with, “—crap out of me!” He picked himself up and dusted off his pants, already wrinkled with the lines of unending activity... and lack of sleep. The guards, in turn, lowered their rifles at the absence of a threat. “Honestly, Princess, you’re too early in your recovery to worry about being able to stand, much less walk.”

“I am perfectly capable of—” Her knees wobbled, and her defiant eyes met Harold’s, who reflected amusement. She bit her lip, trading glances between her hooves, then Harold, and it was only through will of force, it seemed, that prevented her legs from giving out. “I... shall... not... be... DENIED!

Harold’s half-smile disappeared and his eyes widened in horror as he was thrown out into the hall again, colliding with the reinforced window and hitting the floor with a solid thud. The guards looked at her in surprise, exchanging glances from behind their helmets that spoke of the outlandish reveal of Luna’s moving voice as they leveled their guns again at her.

“Keep your voice down in the hospital,” warned one of them.

“I... I apologize. I did not mean to act maliciously...” Luna said. The guard gave a slow nod before gesturing to his comrade to lower their arms. “Are... are you alright, Harold?”

“You... you can do that?!” Harold said, wiping stray spittle off of his lip as he repeated his uprighting process, this time proceeding to clear his shirt of any wrinkles and ensuring that he wasn’t injured. “Can all ponies do that? Just...” He waved in the air with his hands. “Just shout at people and then send them flying?”

“Well... being able to send ponies reeling was not the original intention of the Royal Canterlot Voice,” Luna said with Applejack standing directly underneath her as she was carried back to her bed. “It was intended to be a show of intimidation to demonstrate the power that an alicorn wields, and to ensure that our subjects would heed our word when the situation demanded it.”

“So this is just a... you-thing, right? Aside from your sister in the city?”

“Yes, this is indeed a trait unique to alicorns...” Luna said, sitting down on her bed. Across, Pinkie was flailing wildly, her enwrapped head and single eye thankfully only adding the presence of her movements and not her voice. “I believe Miss Pie has something she wishes to say...”

Rarity trotted over, levitating a pen and paper on a clipboard over to her. They stared intently at Pinkie as the party pony began to deliver a strange series of messages through rapid movements as objects were scribbled out: a cake followed with ‘x3’, an alicorn that appeared be Luna, herself, and a badly-drawn representation of a group of humans. She ended her drawing with a satisfied hum to herself and handed the clipboard back to Rarity, who in turn handed it to Fluttershy, who translated it for her.

“Oh, she wants to throw a party! Three parties, to be exact.” She pointed a hoof at Harold. “And you and all the humans are invited!”

“Me?” Harold said, gesturing with a finger to himself in surprise. Pinkie nodded.

“Well, it was quite the delivery,” Rarity said. “It was rather vague at first, but I can understand now that Fluttershy has successfully conveyed Pinkie’s intent to us. Pinkie wishes to throw parties: for the recovery of Luna, the recovery of herself, and the arrival of you and your human companions.” Pinkie tapped her shoulder, receiving the clipboard back and scribbling down a note at the bottom before showing it to Rarity. “Oh, and she wishes to bake all the treats for these parties. All three of them.”

“That’s going to have to wait until we finish the relocation,” he replied. The ponies’ ears all seemed to twitch in curiosity at that statement, a strange habit that left Harold repeatedly speechless. “Right... so, we’re going to relocate you all to the clinic that we just set up in Canterlot. With you girls there, and especially the Princess, they’ll be happy to see that you’re all alive and well... and not taken off to some alien camp down the hill to be dissected.”

“Yes, that would be a wise course of action, seeing as we are healthy enough,” Luna agreed, mulling over her mental backlog of issues gone untended since she had been put in stasis. “And I believe it has been long enough since I have spoken to my sister. I must find her.”

“We’ll find her as soon as we arrive at Canterlot,” he assured her. He rapped the side of his PDA with a flat palm, looking up and returning a sheepish grin as the ponies gave him a quizzical look. “Sorry about that, this thing is... well, it’s seen better days.” With a quiet beep, his eyes were drawn back down to the screen. “Oh, great. Winslow is waiting outside with the transports, but the engineers and medical technicians will be in charge of ferrying you downstairs.”

“You aren’t coming?” Dash asked.

“I will, but later. Doctor Wesley wants his file cabinets moved up to Canterlot, and, well, I got put in charge of that job.” He shrugged and looked over his shoulder at the guards. “You two will be going with them. Job remains the same: stand outside the door, keep them safe. OP Castle will have information on your new quarters.”

“Yes, sir,” the sergeant said with a nod. Harold flicked through his PDA again, mumbling to himself as he cycled through his notes in search of something else he forgot to mention.

“Ah!” he said as he happened upon the note. “Right, for Applejack: if you don’t mind, Wesley also has me slated to go downstairs with you to the barracks. The engineers want to do some touch-ups on your armor.”

“Really?” Applejack asked, interest piqued. “Can’t hardly see why they would need to, it’s not like any part’s broken or anythin’.”

“No,” he said, “but seeing as how the only two ponies on this world that are wearing power suits happen to be you and Twilight, he wants to keep the equipment already assigned contained to a select few. You two will be our test cases for now, and the engineers want to work on improving the design for a pony power suit.”

“Well, alright, then,” she said, the click-clack of her armor tapping against the ground as she trotted for the door. “Thinkin’ of givin’ some ponies these suits, huh?”

“Well, it certainly couldn’t hurt,” Harold admitted. “And there has been some speculation around involving the pony military in some of our military operations.”

“Hot dang, guess things are gettin’ pretty dangerous, huh?” she said with a laugh. “I think I know of a few ponies who’d be more than happy to kick some flank with these things on.” She trotted up to him and stopped, staring up at him with green on green between her eyes and the color of her visor. “Of course, y’all ought to avoid usin’ hand-me-downs when you’re makin’ new ones.”

“I’ll make sure of that.” Harold added in a footnote on his PDA. Having ponies wear obsolete—but not dilpidated—equipment was adequate, but Applejack and Twilight’s suits could only go so far: the power suit’s components themselves were not designed to the pony form, though that would be rectified in short order if the engineers from the Methuselah were already aware of the task that lay before them.

“These suits...” Luna said, her eyes observing the contours of Applejack’s armor. “I believe I may request one for myself, should the time come. They are designed for operation in our world’s hostile environment, yes?”

“Darn tootin’,” Applejack said, tapping a hoof against her chestplate. “These humans run ‘round in these things out there all day long! Imagine what we could do if we had some of these for ourselves!”

“Well...” A side of Harold’s lips curved up in uncertainty. “The alicorn form is different... that might require different accommodations to be made, but I think we can scale the suits based upon pony forms. That’s all through Requisitions, though, and they request these things in bulk. We’ll need to have all the sizes for any volunteers we get before we can start production on them.”

“Then it is done,” Luna said, smiling at him. “And if you could, I would like to request another, as well.”

“Oh? Who did you have in mind for this one?”

Luna closed her eyes, her smile never fading. “My sister.”

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Celestia said. The pillar hummed with energy as the solid beam of light stretched into the sky, the continuing lifeblood of the shield that protected Canterlot. “Such strange and alien machinery, yet there still exists that familiarity with it... how it looks so similar to our own magical shields.”

“It is...” Cadance said, staring in wonder. Together, both stood at the foot of the citadel shield, arching their necks backwards to stare at the bubble it produced above them. “And you say this pillar just... fell from the sky?”

“Delivered, they claim, from a ship that awaits beyond the clouds. Beyond the boundaries of our fair world,” Celestia said with a calm smile. She looked down at the oblivious Cadance, whose face was no longer afflicted with the haggard lines of fatigue from an endless vigil. “And they say that such a machine is not uncommon for them. They have many more, ready to be delivered from the skies.”

“Incredible...” Cadance reached forward with a naked hoof, and gently made contact with the shield’s cold steel. She shuddered, letting the bite of the temperature course through her arm, but it was enjoyable, a simple pleasure in a feeling that she had not felt in ages. “It’s... cold...” she said, a small smile cracking across her face.

“Yes,” Celestia agreed. Wordlessly, she turned around as Cadance followed, but the young princess’ eyes never strayed even as they returned to a simple bench in the center of the square: the bench that Celestia and Alexandra had spoken on. “I believe it must be cathartic to finally be able to experience freedom and the great city again,” she said.

“Oh, yes,” Cadance said. She sat down next to Celestia, slowly taking in the scene before her: ponies gathering about in their own congregations in the square to talk and laugh with each other, with foals at play across the empty space. If not for the shield and the world being painted in a gloomily drab hue, she might have mistaken it for a normal day. But she could have, and that... instilled something in her.

“You feel it, too, don’t you?” Celestia asked as Cadance looked at her in surprise. “No longer is there worry, despair, or fear.” Their eyes met, and Cadance saw a glimmer in her eye, and they both shared a smile, eventually stretching their cheeks so far that they couldn’t help but laugh. The lilting sound of their happiness carried far as ponies all around saw two of their fair royalty in veritably high spirits, and more smiles spread in return.

“I know what you mean,” Cadance said, when they had returned to their calm. “It’s just so... liberating, I guess. There was... a time where I thought that Shining and I would...” She sighed, gnawing at the tongue in her mouth as she attempted to oust the words hanging in her mind as if expelling a curse. “...that we would die together on that bed. We gave it our all, just... all the time. It felt like forever.”

“For the both of you, it may have well been,” Celestia said, wrapping a comforting wing around her niece. “You did well, you two. You kept Canterlot safe for far longer than anypony could have anticipated, and your actions have been rewarded and our dearest wishes granted. We are no longer alone in this struggle.”

“So I’ve heard... and I’ve also heard that Blueblood is now... well, enlisted. I can only imagine how well that’s going to turn out.”

“Given how your husband is in charge of his overall training, I doubt it will take a turn for the worse,” Celestia said. “And Blueblood has already left a bad impression with our allies and already holds a stigma among the citizens, so he will stand alone in his endeavor. I am sure an... improvement in his character may result from his time in the service.”

“Shining told me that Twilight was...” Her lips curved into a frown, and she looked up to Celestia with an inquisitive resolve. “She was angry at him, somehow. Normally she wouldn’t be this... vengeful, but I suppose this hasn’t been the first time she’s been so apprehensive towards someone...” she trailed off, bringing up memories of her wedding and Shining’s explanation of the events before Twilight had rescued her.

Celestia said nothing, staring blankly towards the side as she ruminated on her own actions. Blueblood had been extravagant with his expenditures, but the losses were minor compared to the problems at the whole she had to deal with: the loss of the remaining refugee settlements beyond Canterlot, the growing discontent from the afflicted in the city, and the encroaching growth of crystals that, she had no doubt, would have made their way up the mountain eventually. But it pulled at her to know that Twilight had been so distraught—in hindsight, the signs had been so obvious—yet she had not found the time to personally console her faithful student.

“Why didn’t you talk to her about it?” Cadance asked, as if on cue and breaking the moment of silence. “I think it’s quite well known that Blueblood is a bit of a troublemaker. Why not give Twilight the time to hear her problems out? You know she wouldn’t do these things without good reason.”

“I was distracted,” Celestia simply replied. Cadance only nodded, well aware of her aunt’s regal burdens. Though the Crystal Empire was difficult to rule, there was no equal to ruling all of Equestria, still as immense as it was even as it sat crammed into the space of a single city and its adjoining mountain. If anything, the arrival of the humans simultaneously simplified and complicated matters for her.

The royal guard behind them, who remained silent during the course of the conversation, cleared his throat. With a hoof, he pointed towards the distance, on the far side of the square: a human was approaching, in that same suit that Celestia and Cadance had seen him in when they had first met.

“It’s Commander Alexandra,” Celestia said, her smile faltering as the procession that followed him did not halt. Two entire platoons of zone troopers followed him, marching neatly in two lines as he stood at the tip of the spear. The remainder of Celestia’s guard, a paltry three hanging near the avenue that led back to the castle, rejoined with her as Alexandra stopped before them and his troopers fanned out into a half circle behind him.

“Princess,” he said. “There has been a recent development that I need to speak to you about.”

“What development requires that you bring so many soldiers?” she returned. Uneasy she, Cadance, and the guards’ wings all remained half-spread, propped to leap into action should unwanted action occur.

Alexandra, realizing their apprehension, gestured behind him. “They’re here because of the development, Princess. If what my intel says is true, then we know the cause behind the discovery of the unknown shard found in the caves near our camp.”

Celestia stared at his helmet, unblinking. “And what have you learned?”

“How familiar are you with the dragons that live on this planet, Princess?”

Her heart skipped a beat. “We have not had contact for years now, Commander,” she said. “The last envoy we sent to speak with them was never heard from again. We had merely assumed that they had fallen prey to the crystal like so many before them.”

Alexandra folded his arms, slackening his posture. “Then it might amuse you to know that not only are they possibly still alive, they might have contributed to the seeding of Tiberium across your world in the first place. I haven’t asked too much of your side of the story, but it will be imperative that I have this intel: how many impact zones did you record when the crystal first made planetfall?”

Her smile having all but dissolved, Celestia lowered her head, mind sifting through the endless meetings she had been in and all the reports she had read. Having dealt with entirely domestic affairs during the crisis, she was at a loss, and when she looked back to Alexandra, she had but only one thought on her mind: what would Twilight think? Was Spike involved? Had he survived?

“We know of only the one incident to the north,” Celestia said. “A meteorite landed near the city of Stalliongrad, where we immediately deployed a team of researchers to contain and document the object. As you can see, the containment efforts failed.”

“There wasn’t just one...” he replied slowly. Silently, he pointed towards the line of men behind him, head bobbing as he entered into inter-helmet communications with his detail. The soldiers jumped to attention, heeding his orders as they began to shuffle away towards the castle.

“What are they doing?” Cadance asked.

“Patrolling,” he said. “Outside the castle, that is, though I would prefer that they be inside the castle, if possible, and the sanctum, as well. As if the Scrin wasn’t bad enough, it’s possible that they may have had collaborators to help them prime this world for harvesting.”

“You believe that the dragons may have helped them?”

Alexandra shrugged. “Maybe. New strains of Tiberium don’t appear without reason, and evolve based upon influences by local variables. What I’m assuming is that at or before the fall of the first meteorite, and that the uncontrolled—and uncontainable—spread might have something to do with the dragons’ involvement.”

“Dragons are ancient, and their elders are masters at the ways of magic,” Cadance said, putting a hoof over her mouth as she looked at Celestia. “If they somehow altered the crystal, then...”

“Then they could have countered our magic, and used it to fuel the crystal’s growth,” Celestia answered for her. “I understand the reasoning behind this, yes. Dragons have never been one to use magic in their daily activities, but their understanding of its nuances are far greater than our own. If they have turned...”

“Then it’s only a matter of time before we run into them,” Alexandra said. He paced around, trailing a circle on the cobblestone before breaking formality and squeezing himself in at the end of the bench, much to their surprise. “We don’t have the troops to deal with them,” he said, reclining back onto the bench’s backrest. “Not yet, anyway. We don’t have enough, and we’ll be stretched thin across this valley if we try to expand.”

“Well, if you require help...” Celestia said.

Alexandra turned his blank faceplate towards her. “I know. I learned from Doctor Wesley, who learned from Twilight, that you ponies have an interesting proposition for me.” He eased out of his slouch, leaning forward with his elbows atop his knees, hands folded together as he cocked his head sideways. “I am open to your proposal.”

“You wish to discuss this... right now?” Celestia asked.

“Now’s a good a time as any, right? Let’s get this out of the way while we’re all still here, and not busy.”

Celestia smiled, and turned to a guard. “Sergeant? Find Captain Shining Armor and bring him to me.”

Author's Note:

Proofreading of this chapter courtesy of sadron and Setokaiva.

During my moments between chapters, I often find myself frequenting writing forums and other such places where sagely advice from my betters is imparted on me through use of scathing dialogue and informational articles. Much of it has improved my craft, though it's only with a select few snippets of help—of which you can always tell, because they make your mind go 'oh!' the moment you read it—really going the distance for me.

For now, though, this post by Chuck Palahniuk (of Fight Club fame) is the greatest example of "show, don't tell" that I have ever read. He's a wordsmith, that one.