• Published 10th Dec 2020
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No Longer Alone - NoLongerSober

Sass, science, and surviving shipping! Postage paid! The gruff captain put a certain pegasus professor to the test and learned that she just couldn’t quit. Now come the hard parts: an actual relationship and maybe a villain or two.

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Chapter 30 - Dreams & Calamities

Late afternoon had arrived by the time Tail trotted up the stairs to the living room of the apartment. She carried all of her gala apparel in a tote bag that hung over her withers, and a broad, infectious smile stretched along her muzzle.

“Hi,” she happily hummed after taking the corner at the top of the stairwell. She lifted her leg to wave at the three ponies that had reclined across the purplish-brown faux-leather couch and ottoman.

Sincerity’s eyes immediately lit up, and he aggressively snuggled Barley Blues while his sights remained locked on Tail. “You were so wonderful on stage! Everypony loved it! The excitement and energy of your sweet act pumped the crowd up straight into the majestic cosmos! You should have seen the look Princess Cadance had. I thought she was just going to burst into a ball of glitter or something, but then that other friend of yours did it first. Was cool, but still not as cool as your dynamite performance. But then you disappeared. Well, not really, but you get what I mean, right?”

“Please stop him!” Barley shouted through a warbling voice as his partner in crime jostled him about. The black-and-blue-maned stallion tried desperately to brace himself from Sincy’s shaking, but against the unicorn’s stoked emotions, the earth pony could only grimace and hold out hope.

Finally, Amora’s horn illuminated, and she bolstered Barley’s position with her cobalt aura. “What your brother is trying to say, Tail, is tell us fucking everything.”

Tail started giggling. Her namesake bounced back and forth, and her limbs bent to shape a posture akin to a little filly on the verge of jumping into a vat of candy. “He took me to the training yard and we sparred.”

The answer drew perplexed expressions from the two stallions, and Sincy even pulled his hooves away from Barley in response. Amora, conversely, fashioned a knowing grin and nodded for her roommate to continue.

“I spent the night at his place, obviously, and that was very nice.” Tail’s timbre instinctively took on a more sultry touch through the latter half of the sentence. “Not going to give you details beyond that, but”—she paused and twirled around on the spot—“I told him I love him, and he told me that he loves me too.”

Sincy dramatically gasped. The blue colt slipped his hind legs off the ottoman and leaned forward as though he were preparing to lunge at his sister. “You told him you love him?” The squealed question emerged with just as much flamboyance as the noise that preceded it, and both Amora and Barley Blues splayed their ears from the loudness.

“Uh, yes,” Tail answered with a rising inflection that made it sound like she was asking a question more so than offering a definitive statement. She shuffled to the sight of her brother’s disbelief, and the dreamy joy that had been plastered on her face began to show the subtle twitches of erosion. “You don’t think it was too soon, do you?”

Groaning, Amora cocked her foreleg, shoved her hoof against Sincerity’s shoulder, and easily pushed him off the couch. “Stop putting idiotic thoughts in your sister’s head—”

Slumped over the ottoman, Sincy grumbled. Twisting his body to glare at Amora, he shouted, “What was that for?”

The medic was having none of it. She levitated one of the displaced throw pillows for her sofa and hurled it at Sincy’s muzzle. “Hush,” she commanded, recasting her gaze to Tail. “Hunny, you’ve spent almost every day of the last four months with Barrier, and even then, timeframes aren’t fixed things. If it felt right to you, which I’m assuming it did because I know my best friend, then that’s all that matters.”

Tail blushed. Her thoughts clung to every facet of her night and morning, and the swirl of emotions quickly restored the whimsical wonder to her smile. “I love Magic Barrier,” she reaffirmed to the crowd before she began to flutter towards her room. “I’ll be back in a bit. I’ve got a journal entry to write.”

Sincerity rolled over the ottoman in a frantic effort to catch up to his sister. “Wait!” he shouted as his aviator shades materialized on the bridge of his muzzle. “Do you have Bonecrusher’s address?”

Decked out in her golden armor, Tail met Barrier at one of the gates to the castle grounds right before sunrise. While she had grown more accustomed to the early hours during her time training, the first day of the workweek after an important, packed Grand Galloping Gala weekend proved to be a tough sell to the pegasus.

Tiredness frizzled the parts of her mane that peeked out from under her helm, and caffeine had not yet conquered the bags dangling below her eyes. “Don’t be a jerk,” she mumbled, catching the stallion at her side doing a terrible job at stifling his chuckle.

“I’m not chuckling at you, Blanket,” he replied, shaking his head. His armor rattled once he turned to glance at the black satchel draped over his gunmetal kit. He opened it with his magic and retrieved a small white bag of pastries. “I’m chuckling because I figured this morning might be rough, so I picked these up to share before we get into it. They’re apple.”

Tail wrinkled her snoot at the teasing delivery that accented Barrier’s trailing statement. “You actually listened to the pink one? By Celestia, that was such a strange exchange, but I guess she does live up to her element.”

“She’s… an acquired taste? Not necessarily a pony I’d like to be around 24/7, but she does know how to throw a party. Twilight swears by her too, so at least I don’t have to worry about her going rogue. I just have to worry about her talking my ear off.”

Nodding, Tail flipped her focus between the hovering bag and Barrier’s face. “It’s equally strange that her information was right. I’ll take apples over blueberries every time, but”—she ruffled her feathers and shifted gears—“we should talk about what the game plan is for the day, preferably while I stuff my mouth with one of those goodies.”

Snickering, Barrier lifted a triangular apple turnover out of the bag and guided the scrumptious-looking staple to Tail’s opened mouth. “I’d like to skip the weight room today and focus on the two of us sparring. In the past, this training involved more intense activities. Some had survival courses, and others were assigned actual missions that put them behind enemy lines.

“There aren’t that many enemy lines drawn on the map anymore, and I should probably get a definitive answer out of Celestia if survival trails are even socially accepted these days. That might tack on another few weeks to the program, but for now, it’s my job to connect the dots. Shining helped hone an attack. Trigger helped develop a defense, and I need to do what I told you I would. We’ll be paying extra attention to your decision-making in combat, specifically when to protect and when to strike.”

Munching on the apple turnover, Tail released an approving moan. “Cinnamony,” she commented after Barrier had finished his explanation. “It’s almost like you, Trigger, and Shining got together to construct a curriculum with a narrative. It’s a good teaching habit. I’m impressed.”

“Heh, well, you’re not exactly the typical student. Your B.C.T. proved that. Seemed wise to put together something that’d fit you better. Chances to poke, chances to work, those sorts of things. Now I’m just wondering stuff like, ‘Is Sally really going to cut it during this next phase?’ and, ‘How do we tackle the shit out of each other without thinking about the other night?’”

“Hmm? You don’t think Sally is up to the task?” The mare’s curiosity spilled out while she gulped down the remaining bites of the turnover. A thin smile formed as the sweet and sugary flavors from the pastry danced atop her tongue. The crust, with its wonderfully crisp texture, carried just a hint of salt, and the filling might as well have been straight out of one of Granny Smith’s famous apple pies.

Barrier swiveled his head to look directly at Tail, and his icy sights noticeably meandered over her entire figure. “No, I don’t. At some point while I was sealed away, Celestia changed the standard kit from what I’m wearing. It just doesn’t offer you the proper coverage for actual field deployment. Yes, you have some protection for your head, neck, and back; but parts of your barrel are still exposed, and your legs are completely unguarded. I thought you earned proper gear on the wall outside Tower 41. I certainly think you have earned it now.”

Tail promptly met Barrier’s stare with one of her own. “Captain, if you keep saying things like that, it might become rather difficult for me to spar without thinking about how much of an adorable flatterer you are.”

“I stand by what I said, Colonel,” the unicorn said with a smirk. “We’ll have to make do for the time being, but we should get you fitted. There are still certain companies and divisions that make use of less ceremonial attire.”

Tail fanned her wings while she took stock of Barrier’s armor. “I’m still quite fond of Sally, but yeah, I can see the difference. You’ve really got full protection with your kit, and I imagine those spikes on your legs can be turned into potent weapons if you want them to. Probably takes some getting used to, though, fighting with all that extra weight.”

“Quartermaster chat is in order then,” Barrier added, tossing the empty bakery bag into a trash bin placed along the walkway. “But it’s getting lighter, so we should get to work.”

Damp with sweat, Tail deflected one of Barrier’s spells and dodged a strong thrust from the stallion’s foreleg. Having spent most of the morning discussing the concept of O-O-D-A cycles and engaging in their analysis, the pegasus leapt into a quick mental assessment of the situation. Spell deflected, estimated recharge, melee strike overexposed—barrel vulnerability. Tail cocked her foreleg, drew in a swirl of water vapor, and thrust a blazing Bullet Flash spike towards Barrier’s open flank.

His sightline never drifted from Tail, and his horn illuminated again. In the span of time it took Tail to throw her jab, the stallion had erected three small, square-shaped shields to intercept and block her attack.

He’s smiling, she thought as the gentle curvature expanded over his muzzle. The current loop situated between her wings responded to something with a barely perceptible buzz, and in the blink of an eye, Barrier had moved ten feet away with a silent-type teleport.

“Getting quick,” the stallion commented, taking a gentler posture to indicate to the mare that it was acceptable for her to launch into another round of questions. “And way more consistent with your decision-making too.”

“And you’re manipulating your auguric field with that teleport, Captain. The loop response is noticeably different, which I already expected, and now I’ve confirmed it. But”—she lifted her forehoof and slapped it down against the dirt with a resounding thud—“did I actually make the right decision? I thought I might have had a wider window, but you got a counter up anyway. Given what Shining could do with his shields, I imagine you could have fashioned a similar block-and-trap counter if you wanted. So did I make the right call, or did you telegraph a weak spot for me to take the bait?”

“Little bit of both, if I’m being honest.” Barrier’s grin grew more pronounced as he spoke. “If I threw tricks every time, then I wouldn’t exactly provide a good sample for learning. It’s a ‘walk before you trot, trot before you gallop’ sort of thing. The better answer to your question is to have a cover for the worst case. If I snagged you after your strike, what would you do next? The practical answer is that both noticing the opening and doing something about it come with the intuition-building process.

“B.C.T. started this. You increased the scope of what you could do with your body, and you learned the basics of how to move around and command a small squad. Celestia would probably toss in a chess analogy if she were here. Guess I’ll do it for her. You know how to move pieces. Now you get to figure out all the best combinations.”

“Mm, saying things to touch my inner nerd? Well done, Captain. One more before lunch?” The physicist unfurled her wings, planted her hind legs, and crouched in preparation for another set. She narrowed her gaze as she stealthily formed two additional current loops beneath her primaries. That might be enough area to appreciably boost the gain on his teleport chains.

Barrier dashed forward without uttering a word. In two steps, he had dissolved the gap between the ponies, and then, he was gone—

Tail’s wings flicked, and she immediately jumped to the left. The unicorn had been speedy with his teleports, and even with her advanced warning mechanism in place, Tail still could not fully avoid the stallion’s punch.

He slammed his metal-clad hoof into the golden flank-plate and pushed the pegasus up into the air right in the middle of her dodge attempt. Iron thunder boomed around the yard and echoed off the stone structures while Barrier’s horn glowed yet again.

A buzz rippled through Tail’s left wing. Other side! She hurled the flight appendage towards the ground and rolled her body to catch Barrier with a swing of her right foreleg. A ringing noise filled the air when her gauntlet connected with his chestplate, but the strike lacked the momentum and power to do much of anything against his bulkier physique.

Dammit, Tail internally grumbled as her brain nitpicked the updated data. Her rotation had exposed her underside to the attacking stallion, and her counterattack had not been strong enough to parry the advance. What are you going to do when it all goes to shit? How are you going to survive? Remembering the words of her mentors, Tail decided. Vapor rapidly congregated in two cloudy toroids that whirled half a leg length above her trunk.

When the loops sparked to life, Tail watched the aura around Barrier’s horn fade. Physical strike! She snapped her muzzle downward, casting her gaze along the length of her barrel. Her two rings, serving as glimmering bullseyes, pulsed from her weather magic and beckoned their wielder to push her boundaries even further.

Tail trailed the colt’s inbound hoof and drew a breath. As quickly as she could, she formed a tiny, aggravated tuft in the space between the tip of her tongue and her teeth. A scowl took shape in response to the acidic, metallic taste that brewed in her mouth, but Tail kept pumping the electric charge until Barrier’s gauntlet breached the domain of her Synchrotron Flicker. The mare flicked her tongue downward and blew.

A tiny bolt erupted from Tail’s gaping maw and plowed into Barrier’s gauntlet with enough force to shift the captain’s momentum. Light enveloped his horn before the deflected limb hit the grass, and Barrier teleported to a safer distance in the wake of the surprise strike.

Barrier silently stared at Tail through her aileron roll, and he maintained his stillness for several seconds beyond that. “Wow,” the wide-eyed unicorn finally spoke up. “That first punch got me thinking that we were going to need to have a conversation about the pitfalls of a weak counter, but you turned it into a feint and then did that.”

Tail grimaced and sheepishly pranced in place. “Mm, but it was pure desperation. I knew I fucked up the instant my strike had no power. Then, I realized my barrel was vulnerable because of our armor conversation earlier. Seemed like the perfect spot for you to hit to prove the point. I really didn’t even know if I could shoot a bolt like that. I just tried it because it was the only thing I could think to do to survive the moment.”

“Sometimes that’s all we can do on the battlefield, Colonel.” Repeatedly shaking his head, Barrier snorted. “That expression doesn’t suit you. On both C.O. and coltfriend fronts, I think you should wipe it from your muzzle. You did well, really well, and I think it’s time for lunch—”

Tail’s chest suddenly dropped to the grass. Arcs flashed between her three detection loops, withers, and feathers. Her brow cut an even fiercer scowl than the one she had worn a minute prior, and she snapped her head to glance rearward before her iris flashed an amberish glow. Inbound combatant. The pegasus bucked high and hard with both of her hind hooves just in time to catch the helm of one sneaking, teleporting Shining Armor.

The guard stammered back on his own hind legs and twirled around in the aftermath of the strident blow. “Prank attacks, before lunch, now a bad idea.” He spun around a few more times before tumbling to the dirt. “Medic…”

Tail scanned the horizon while a sensation of endless wonder drove shivers along her limbs. The entire sky had vanished behind a giant dome that flickered with the dynamic luster of an aurora, and the ground was covered in a sprawling ocean of forget-me-nots. The gleaming paradise was still—

“Too still,” Tail mumbled aloud as she began to pivot around. There was neither sound nor breeze to coax her senses. No other pony was in sight. This world was motionless, cut off from time in a bubble that left it anchored in history. She strode forward, hoping to find someone, preferably Barrier, or something that could provide a clue.

As her walk transitioned into a full-throttle gallop, Tail’s sights snapped over the domain. She was the only thing that moved here—the only thing with a tempo, a beat. The pegasus ran through endless stretches of flowery fields for what felt like an eternity. The seconds stretched into minutes, which stretched into hours, and she only came to a stop once a different sign of life was finally detected.

She skidded to a halt as the land tore open around her. The plants ripped down to the root, and from those widening chasms, a bubbling sea of black ink began to rise. The iron-heavy scent of blood forced Tail to scrunch her muzzle, and she recoiled when she watched a drenched limb jut out from the depths.

The leg developed a deep-purple hue before a matching pony head burst from beneath the surface. Two golden eyes glared at Tail from the abyss, and the entity growled in a gaudy, masculine voice, “It’s you! I will make you pay for ruining our legacy! I will make you pay for taking what’s ours!”

The amorphous features of the stallion’s mouth melted and dripped. Pained wails churned a cacophonous echo that perturbed the already-fragile domain, and Tail splayed her ears in the midst of the horrendous wind. To the pegasus, hatred itself started to coalesce into this beast, but as she took another step back, he was abruptly yanked beneath the waves.

A soul-shaking pop preceded the chain of incomprehensible movements that followed. The ink plummeted to the bottoms of the crevices, and the world reformed. For several seconds, Tail’s clock rewound, dragging her along the path she had run until she returned to the center of the field of forget-me-nots.

She flinched once an unexpected gust brushed her mane, and she trembled when she heard another voice ride upon the wave. “Oi, ya daft, stubborn ass!” The Trottingham accent hit Tail hard. “Ah didn’t come all this way ta chase ya down! Gear up and fight! Ya’ve got ta be ready! Especially you, Barrier!”

At the mention of her coltfriend, Tail shifted her hooves and spun around. Based on the tones she heard, the scientist had expected to come face-to-face with a mare. What she saw, instead, made her blood run cold. The calm field of flowers and hypnotizing dome did not exist in the space that had been behind her. Instead, darkness stretched over the sky’s solid angle, and a windswept, snowy expanse ran from her hooves to the horizon.

Tendrils of dark magic encroached upon Tail from this haunting void. Their green and purple wisps came closer and closer as they reached across the stormy tundra. “I will conquer all. One banner, or oblivion.” The droning, demonic cry put Tail’s fur on end. Chills raced up and down her legs and sent her wings into an endless ruffling.

In a blink, she was staring at the daunting unknown through the grill of a helmet. Her body had been encased in a grey armor similar to Barrier’s kit, and her muscles tensed in anticipation of the fight to come. Just ahead of the horizon line, the beacon of an orange sparkle reached out to the physicist, and Tail could not resist holding a foreleg out as though it were meant to be grasped!

“There ain’t time, Lassie! Tell ‘im ya heard it too! Protect the line! And don’t ya dare quit—”

A thin beam of white light cut into the black abyss. The fabric of the dream Tail’s mind had been wandering reset, and from the hazy emptiness, elements of the training yard took shape and emerged from the fog.

Heaving for breath, Tail tossed the helm from her head and quickly surveyed the field. The pegasus’s pulse pumped at a rushed pace, and her attention darted along the familiar archway columns as she tried to explain what she had just observed. Dream. It’s a dream. You’re in a dream. Relax. Control. Breathe, or wake up, or

Tail stiffened, and her ears perked. A crunch in the grass off to her left flank tugged at her awareness.

“Or you can keep the courage to ask the question.” A calm, methodical cadence carried the lightly accented tones of a mare across the imagined pitch. While the delivery was new to Tail, she recognized the timbre before the visitor had finished her sentence.

Turning, Tail stared awestruck at the creature standing in her presence. Luminescent argent locks cascaded from the mare’s head in waves and swirls that resembled that of the sister princesses. Thestral wings were folded beside a dark body, which possessed a figure like Celestia’s—and a coat color like Trigger’s. However, the towering mare’s glistening red-ochre eyes provided the greatest source of enchantment.

“You’re—You’re—” Tail babbled reservedly. She blinked several times and pawed at the ground with one of her armored extremities.

“Aislynn Caliber, Grand Matriarch of the Sea of Reverie.” Hints of high nobility coated the creature’s words as she spoke, and she gingerly sat down on her haunches in front of the gaping physicist. “You’ve already met my foolhardy son and my adorably sweet granddaughter. I can’t say his recklessness didn’t pay off. He found love in the Land of the Woken and made a rebellious ball of fluff. Though, I expect both of them will interrupt, given that I’m here, so if you have found the nerve to ask the question, now would be the time.”

“That!” Tail squeaked, flailing her active forelimb. “What the heck was that!? Who the heck were those ponies? Why did one call Barrier’s name? Were they real? Was it just me? Was it you? Actually, why are you even here?”

“Those,” Aislynn corrected in a gentle voice, “were calamities, my child. Nightmares hold powerful magics. They can cast deep shadows over many generations, and they can sweep across both the past and the future. Yet, even shadows dream, and time and time again, others have come forward to find resolve out of those shadows. The one who called your beloved’s name is one such ally. As for why I’m here, it’s to remind you that you are not alone—” The thestral briefly paused, and one of her ears quivered.

Disturbing the landscape, ripples of energy turned the grassy yard into something more akin to the surface of a lake on a windy day. “Tail!” Luna shouted once she fully materialized in the dream. “I came as soon—” She stopped, breathlessly peering at Aislynn as though the Universe decided to halt everything.

“As I was saying, you’re not alone,” Aislynn continued before tossing a warm smile in Luna’s direction, “and neither are you.”

Author's Note:

Do you all remember back in 2017 when Chapter 30 was the end of the line and I was hitting you with a To Be Continued? This time around... we're only just beginning.

As always, thank you for joining us on this fine Tuesday. Hope you're all doing well. Your continued support and chatter is appreciated. Catch you next week for the chapter that gave me chills when it appeared out of the ether: The Line of the Drecht.

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