• 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 41 - LOADLINE

Wind howled over the snowy landscape at the southwestern arrival node. The rays of the sun valiantly battled an expanding, gloomy miasma that stretched from the center of the Crystal Empire. The smoky swirls plummeted an already chilly environment into the depths of a bitterly frigid deathtrap, and it was into that abyss that the members of the Wave 1 Team emerged.

Philomena soared from Cadance’s back the instant she came through the array. Heat poured from her spread wings, and the power of her phoenix aura pushed away both the fog and the cold. Circling above the four ponies at an altitude of about twenty meters, she gradually banked along a flight path drawn by a wide arc. The golden gaze of the majestic bird darted between the ponies she chose to protect and the haunting spire that stood at the core of the Empire City.

Peering out through the slot cut into his closed visor, Barrier spotted the tainted structure through the suppressed sea of haze. It sliced into the sky like an obsidian knife drawn against flesh, and it stood as a beacon that clearly broadcast a silent message to all who saw it. The light of Amore’s will had been snuffed out. King Sombra reigned here.

Barrier turned, catching the expressions of Trigger, Shining, and Cadance. The creature of reverie’s cheek twitched while he gawked at the glassy surfaces of the pinnacle—as if something unseen had prodded his senses before even Barrier’s keen eye could detect it. To his credit—or detriment—Shining appeared resolute and unfazed. Standing a step ahead of his princess, his proud posture and subtle smirk betrayed his determination to be her shield no matter the odds.

Cadance, however, sent a shiver along Barrier’s spine when he observed the dread gouged into her countenance. She directed a wide-eyed, trembling stare towards the city limits. Her muzzle quivered as though she teetered on the brink of vomiting, and she repeatedly recoiled at a frequency that strongly suggested a wretched horror.

“Do ya feel that, Cady?” Trigger asked.

The serious, soft-spoken tone drove Shining Armor to look over a shoulder at his wife. Barrier couldn’t see what contours the muscles of the captain’s face drew in response, but he could tell from the flinch that rattled the stallion’s kit that Shining had been caught by surprise.

None the wiser, the Princess of Love remained captivated by the trance that pulled her focus towards the city. For several seconds, she lingered in her silence until a curt nod broke the cycle of her dismay. “Yes, I feel it. It’s easily the worst collective sensation I’ve ever felt.”

Shining pivoted and reached out for Cadance after he stepped into her sightline. A gentler, more concerned demeanor had erased those hints of deployment pride, and he carefully set his gauntlet-covered hoof upon her shoulder plate. “Hunny, what’s wrong?”

The pink alicorn squinted, forcing out the budding tears that risked clouding her vision, and she took a moment to collect her wits. Her feathers ruffled while she slouched in grief, and her solemn reply carried as much gravitas as the specter of the spire itself. “The Empire’s citizens have been stripped of everything. There’s no love, ambition, or kindness. The entire city casts a field that’s an emotional void—except for one, one who is nothing but hatred.”

“Hey, Kiddo,” Trigger interrupted. A silver ring snaked around his left iris as he tested his dreamshell link to Wing. “Shit ain’t good up here. They’ve all been scrubbed of their feelings, and I’m not pickin’ up on any real dreams either. Sombra’s already got to ‘em all. I’ll let ya know once we learn what node ya should inbound on, but we’re definitely on borrowed time. I’m guessin’ he’s built his army.”

Exhaling, Barrier began to march across the icy and rocky tundra. He tilted his head to catch another glimpse of Philomena, who adjusted her course to compensate for the group’s changing positional distributions. The cool air nipped at his nose and throat each time he drew a breath, which served as a constant reminder to offer some thanks to the phoenix for relieving much of the burden.

“We should get moving,” Barrier called after he lifted his visor with the minimum magical force required. “It’ll likely take forty minutes to cover the ground we need to, and the population of that city was around fifty-thousand when it disappeared. With what is known about the Crystal Heart, and with what I know about Sombra, yeah, we’re probably heading right into an army of brainwashed ponies.”

Trigger physically shook the illusion of Tail’s revolver from his foreleg before he jump-started a brisk trot. Quickly matching Barrier’s pace, the silver-maned stallion gruffly remarked, “Wing is gonna need that intel as soon as we can get it, Barry. Isolating Sombra from a large population ain’t a promisin’ scenario, so I think we’re stuck in stealth mode until the cavalry gets here—”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Shining growled into Trigger’s right ear the instant he arrived at the unguarded flank. “You didn’t actually bring Colonel Tail’s tech with you? Are you out of your fucking mind? The contingency plan was clear. If she was out of action, it would fall on you or Barrier. I thought we were clawing for every second we could get. What about all that crap about duty and sacrifice? Is it too much of a duty for you to bear, or is it that Cady’s sacrifice isn’t enough?”

Trigger met Shining’s piercing scowl with a cocky grin that etched its mark on the reverie’s timbre. “Shiny, Buddy, we were makin’ such progress, and then ya say somethin’ stupid like that. Admittedly, I can understand why that might piss ya off, considerin’ that you’re balancin’ the duties of a princess against the needs of your love, so I won’t hold it against ya. But seriously, do ya really think I’d take that kind of dice roll without thought? I didn’t bring Tail’s shit because who do ya think the fuckin’ cavalry is?”

“You knew I’d come?” Tail questioned, glancing up at Commander Hurricane before she raised an eyebrow and pursed her lips. The chill that had formed in the wake of the grand revelation continued to echo throughout her affected limbs, but as the muscles in her cheeks slowly relaxed, she returned her contemplative stare to the statue. “How does that even make sense, and why would you expect me? Come to think of it, you said we. Who’s the we?”

The towering pegasus scrunched his muzzle and snorted. “You truly are a Clover type, aren’t you? I guess that makes a lot of sense considering the number of generations that have passed since our day. By now, she’s probably touched a sizable chunk of equinity, but then again, so have I.”

Tail blinked and her ears perked. Even though her attention stayed locked onto the column’s glyphs, she could feel the warmth of his paternal admiration without directly observing his tender gaze or curling smile.

“Rumor has it around these parts that you can’t quit, Colonel. From which warrior in history do you believe that fire comes? Like it or not, you’ve inherited my blazing pride. You’ve taken up a mantle that has left its mark across the ages—from my beloved Pegasopolis to your Cloudsdale, and”—he gave the smaller mare another squeeze with his wing while his deep voice continued to rumble—“I might add that we have a lot in common.

“Though, it took me a lot longer to find my place at Clover’s side. All the same, I came to protect that unicorn with every ember I had. The roles have been reversed in some ways, but the story is still there. You proved yourself to him over and over until he became the piece of your life that you have to protect. You showed your heart to those who shored him up before you were around, and they saw your truth. Now a mad king wants to bury it all in the snow. Tartarus will sprout flames before I allow it.

“That pride is your birthright. It took me countless battles and numerous wars to glean the truth from beneath the windigoes’ breaths. We need not wait your entire lifetime to claim what already belongs to you, what you’ve already shown you deserve.” Hurricane lifted his bulky foreleg and extended his gauntlet-laden hoof until it tapped the pedestal of the precious statue. “I’m here because you answered the call.”

Sucking in a sharp gasp, Tail held the gulp of air in her lungs as her jaw fell. Intrigue lifted her browline so widened eyes could track the bursts of electricity that skipped along the beveled edges of the inscription. As swiftly as the arcs traversed the letters, Tail understood. She could read it. She could grasp it. She could learn a spell that scholars had forgotten.

Hurricane’s Loyalty: With these wings, I have created a world, and in it, all I hold dear is safe.

“Protect them all with that inferno of yours, Colonel Tail,” Commander Hurricane decreed. “Let your love pierce the darkness like mine once did.”

“Colonel?” a lighter tone dragged Tail’s focus to the right of the pillar. Standing in front of one of the opposing triangular faces, the image of Indar shone as clear as day. The umber eyes of the taupe stallion punctuated his gaping visage, and his sunny mane bore the atypical signs of bedhead.

Beside him, a high-born pearly unicorn tittered. Draped in a crown and a purple robe, the violet-eyed mare winked to Commander Hurricane without uttering a single word. Tail’s heart thumped in response, and her mind immediately churned up questions that she could ask.

“Civvy!” Bonecrusher’s recognized wail brutally terminated that plan of action. Tail turned in time to spot the lime-green earth pony standing before the third side of the base. “Civvy! The buck are you doing? It’s time to wake—”

Commander Hurricane did not move his blanketing wing when the rest of the library vanished from Tail’s view. She shuffled beneath his black feathers as her head rapidly swiveled around to examine the empty expanse, but nothing snagged her interest until she craned her neck and peered rearward.

“You’ve done well, my old friend.” Massive thestral wings spread from the black barrel of Aislynn Caliber. The long, mystical locks of her argent mane floated as though they were being eternally brushed by a dreamy breeze, and her red-ochre irides shimmered as she stared upon the two pegasi. “But I believe it’s time she learnt that I am the we.”

Tail’s mouth formed a tiny grin before the pegasus kindly nodded to Commander Hurricane. She slipped out from under his wing and started a paced walk towards Aislynn. By her fourth step, a silver mist had begun to coil above the thestral’s forehead, and an impressive horn soon parted the matriarch’s bangs.

“Throughout history, many came to fear my presence, while others revered it. Some cherished my company as though we were family and gave me the hope of their ambitions, whereas others revealed their lust for calamities. Not long ago, I told you that nightmares had the power to stretch across the past and the future, but as you have already seen, that is not an ability unique to the dark. Dreams, by themselves, hold sway. When they’re created, they can either terrify and haunt or spur and inspire. Every living thing dreams, and every living thing decides what to do with them.

“Every desire, idea, and fantasy leaves a lasting imprint on the world through energy that finds its way to the Sea. Dreams only truly die if one lets them, and I was not going to let Amore’s dream die on a misguided whim. Ponies might have forgotten. They might have come to believe that I have been sitting idly in the shadows for the hundreds of years that marked Luna’s absence, but they’d be wrong. E tenebris, invenītō fortitudinem. Like the rites upon the fountain, it’s an old creed that I left to generations of the Woken World to find those who would answer the call.”

Now floating in the empty expanse mere steps from the Grand Matriarch, Tail looked at the mighty thestral as Aislynn folded her wings. She watched a silver halo form around the mare’s horn, and her sights slowly drifted after two vibrant blue bands ran parallel through the abyss and trapped the physicist in her own canal. Across this new dividing line, one of the strongest creatures in the Universe met Tail’s rising curiosity with a softening, motherly expression helmed by a decidedly impish smile.

“The Temporal Drecht may have started as a single channel meant to keep the Crystal Empire at bay until a counter for the Heart was discovered, but it became something far greater. After a thousand years, more than one came forth. More than one had dreams. More than one understood the message, and more than one had a pony they loved worth protecting across time. I built canal after canal for generation upon generation to make sure that those who found resolve in the shadows saw exactly what they needed to see. I left a message in one of your dreams too, Ms. Tail. One day, your resolve will change the world. The question is—will you pull it from the shadows now that the hour is upon us all?”

After ten minutes of marching towards the city boundary, the Equestrian squad noticed the first signs of Sombra’s army. Philomena acted first, swooping down from her held flight pattern to reclaim the prominent perch offered by Cadance. The phoenix’s keen sight had done its job, picking up on the potential danger before the two groups of ponies spotted one another amidst the low-lying haze and against the bland backdrop.

At the head of the pack, Trigger flicked his ear after the firebird delivered three taps to the rear of Cady’s helmet. He bobbed his head in response to the message, and he waited for an amber glow to pour over his horn before he replied aloud. “A group of three, huh? Sounds like a standard patrol to me. I’ve put us in camouflage, so stay within five meters unless ya want to be seen or heard. You’re the Sombra expert here, Barry. Do we keep searchin’ in the blind, or do we take ‘em for intel and see where the chips fall?”

Barrier halted his stride once Trigger asked for his input, and the quiet crunches of rock and ice that tumbled from beneath his heavy hooves brought the others to a stop as well. His bout of silence yielded the floor to the howling winds until his gritty tenor rendered the verdict. “We take them. They could be refugees, but if he’s got a force patrolling already, then he’s either gotten antsy, or he’s looking for a pony to kill. You’re not going to sneak up on a dragon actively protecting its horde. Best bet is to take a few coins.”

“Three of them, five of us,” Shining added. “Those aren’t bad odds. Personally, I would have liked to have gotten closer to the city limits, but I trust your judgment.”

Both Magic Barrier and Trigger swung their bodies so they faced the Captain of the Royal Guard. “Trigger and I will handle the attack on this one, Shining,” the former said, beating the creature of reverie to the punch when his mouth had barely opened.

For a split-second, the alabaster unicorn gritted his teeth and fashioned a half-scowl. As rapidly as the expression blossomed though, it vanished once his body jerked. He mouthed an “oh” towards his great-uncle while his cerulean sights bashfully drifted towards the sky, and after a small delay, he said in an equally bashful voice, “My duty is to protect Cady.”

“In this case, Philomena too. She’s our lifeline, and we shouldn’t risk her wellbeing more than necessary. We’ll approach under the cover of Trigger’s spell and reevaluate before they cross the threshold of detection. Ascertaining the scope of Sombra’s control is also a part of our mission.”

The group engaged in a collective nod and commenced a methodical approach towards the targeted trio. Philomena periodically gave gestures with her wings to guide the ponies, particularly through the initial phase when their marks blended into the environment. Yet soon enough, the hunters started to ascertain more details about their quarries.

Iron helmets, each bearing the red crescent of Sombra’s House along with dark-violet plumes, encased the three crystal ponies of different hues. Their eyes had been sealed behind blackened gunmetal semicircles, which only facilitated vision through narrow rectangular slits that radiated lime-green light. Haphazardly bound greyscale plates covered their trunks and cannons, and jagged spikes stretched from their withers, shoulders, and necks.

Tracing their movements, Cadance cringed. The three soldiers demonstrated the uncanny ability to trot in perfect unison, which raised some red flags on its own, but when they froze after twenty steps and surveyed the landscape with synchronized motions of their heads, even Trigger stopped in his tracks.

“Total control and obedience,” Barrier grumbled. He huffed, pitching his stern visage in Trigger’s direction. “I guess those helmets explain why you and Cady didn’t pick up anything.”

Trigger cracked his neck and flashed a devilish grin. “Isn’t it a bit fascinatin’ that Sombra would have to use ‘em? They’re definitely spellcastin’, but why? Does he need ‘em to keep control? Is it just to keep tabs on the inbound intel? Maybe it’s just fuckin’ branding. I’m sure Kiddo can figure it out, but I’d bet bits ya already know what I think.”

“Cady, stick with Shining,” Barrier gave the order. “We’re going to move in from behind and hit them when they conclude their sweep. I don’t want Cadance even coming into view of those eyes. Captain Sombra was an excellent data miner. Sooner or later, he’ll see what they’ve seen. At least, that’s the safe assumption to make. Ms. Philomena, Trigger and I can attempt to disable the spell before we tear those hunks of shit off their heads, but there’s a chance we might need your talents on this one after all.”

The quintet pressed forward until the three patrolling ponies remained just outside of Trigger’s five-meter zone. Sensing that the squad had been flirting with that threshold, the aforementioned stallion veered to the right and lined up the ambush trajectory. He and Barrier crouched in place once the trio predictably began another scan, and the instant the soldiers took a synchronized step, the duo was off to the races.

A snare of Trigger’s amber magic snagged the hind legs of both the navy-blue colt on the right of the formation and the orange mare in the middle. The makeshift lassos yanked the limbs out from under the ponies, and before they could turn around, Trigger had already slammed his forehooves into the backs of their heads.

Meanwhile, Barrier launched his assault on the burly brown stallion who occupied the row’s left flank. As the captain darted forward, a jagged blue aura surrounded his horn. He charged the brewing bolt, waiting until after Trigger played his cards to loose the precision strike. Like Tail’s Bullet Flash, the thin needle of sparking auguric energy drilled dead-center into the dark-grey slab that covered the crystal pony’s occipital crest.

Unlike the physicist’s technique, Barrier’s blast exploded outward after it partially pierced the metal. Right as Trigger was drilling the two other ponies into the dirt, Barrier’s attack blew chunks out of the helm, wrapped around the gunmetal visor, and shattered Sombra’s menacing creation.

Jumping atop the large stallion, Barrier jammed his right cannon against his target’s exposed golden mane. He glared at the fallen fragments of the shredded helmet, directed his weight across the soldier’s withers, and drove the colt’s trunk to the ground. While the green glow had vanished, the captain took zero chances. He unloaded another pair of spells that cast the ocular pieces into oblivion.

Trigger followed suit, ripping the black and grey gear from the ponies’ skulls before the pieces of armor disappeared in a flash of silver light. The orange mare and navy-blue stallion immediately erupted into tears and sniffled under Trigger’s mass, and neither put up an ounce of resistance. “Kinda risky there, Barry, goin’ for a shot like that.”

The bulky crystal pony beneath Captain Barrier did not exhibit the same emotional distress. Instead, he held perfectly still and didn’t make a sound while the charcoal-coated unicorn pitched his muzzle downward. “This one has a rank, and I needed to know the impact. To whom do you swear your allegiance, Boy? By the charge of the Princesses’ Executors, I shall end your life if you give me the wrong answer.”

Flinching, the pony’s ears perked the instant Barrier declared his credentials. “You’re Captain Magic Barrier, aren’t you?” he stammered, not bothering to wait for an answer before he rapidly continued. “My allegiance is to Empress Amore di Cadenza, first of her name, and rightful ruler of all that is crystal, Lord Executor.”

Barrier quirked an eyebrow and shifted his load off the pinned pony. “Empress, hm, haven’t heard that one in quite some time. Tell me then, how many does he have? What do those helmets actually do, and what is Sombra planning?”

“Thirty-thousand, my lord. At least, those are the ones he’s deemed fit for imperial duty.” He gritted his teeth and dug his armored hooves into the frozen ground. “I would very much like to punch the defiler of our Crystal Heart in the face for what he’s done to us. With the Heart tainted, our love is at his mercy, and those helmets ensure he maintains control across the realm. We were sent out to hunt down Princesses Celestia and Luna along with a thestral. Aside from that, I do not know. All I could feel was anger—and his strong desire to twist a griffon king’s head off in retaliation.”

“I see,” Barrier responded after quickly glancing at Trigger. “Should I be inclined to believe that all three of you were imprisoned against your will then?”

Trigger relaxed his hold on the cowering, distraught pair and stood. Once again, the reverie’s cheek noticeably twitched, and he released a slow, heavy sigh as he brushed a fetlock through the tufts of his mane. “They’re definitely clean. Desires comin’ through loud and clear.”

Giving an affirmative nod, Barrier outstretched a leg to the stallion he had tackled. “That settles it then. Rise, gentle ponies. Though, I would like to know your name, Soldier, along with how exactly you know who I am.”

The brown crystal pony pressed his limb against Barrier’s offered appendage, and he used the leverage to boost his ascent. Turning to cast his golden gaze upon the captain, he drew a calming wind into his lungs and briefly indulged in a moment of displayed serenity. “Lieutenant Smoky Andes, sir. I knew it was you because who else would Equestria send aside from the princesses themselves? I also met your sister, Arcane, on several occasions when she came on emissary business. She spoke highly of your battlefield exploits.”

“Arcy, she was quite the character.” Barrier replanted his foreleg before his attention wandered away from the lieutenant and into the depths of history. He missed the perplexed expression that scrunched Smoky’s muzzle, but thankfully, another pony present took up that burden.

“Trigger,” Cadance commanded as she trotted out from behind her Shining Armor, “we’re evacuating these ponies to Canterlot immediately. I don’t care what you have to tell Wing, but make sure he gets it. I will not allow further harm to befall the citizens of the Crystal Empire when I can help it.”

The princess took the time to peer into the souls of those crystal ponies. She held each of them with her kind, heartfelt countenance, and she bowed in front of them once the tears finally overwhelmed even Smoky Andes. “My name is Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, and though I am not your empress, you are my responsibility to protect. It may not seem like it now, but your empire has moved forward in time an amount that is difficult to describe in the thick of battle. What I can promise is that The Crowns of Equestria have acted to set things right, and I humbly ask for your trust.”

“She wants to do what!?” Wing’s namesakes flared once Trigger’s explanation bombarded his mindscape. “Of course we can do it, but we also need to finish moving things into place to handle an enemy force of potentially thirty-thousand— Someone get a runner to the E.I.S. Office! I want to know exactly where our reserves are and every single E.T.A.”

“Element Bearers cleared the gate a minute ago, sir! They need to head down to the vault for outfitting, and getting through those enchantment layers will take time. Last message from Tea puts their arrival to the L.Z. at A+33.”

Wing puffed his cheeks and dumped an exasperated breath that made both Celestia and Luna wince from the empathized stress. “Thank you, Mosaic. I know I’m sighing, but please keep up the good work. Trigs, tell your outbounds to book it like they’ve never booked it before. Now, I am relieved that those helmets do sound like an Element problem waiting to be solved, and given the vague threat towards Griffonia, the northeast option is probably best for the subsequent waves. There’s an eight-minute window before we’ll need the network. Keep me posted if something changes. Transceiver Team, standby for inbound refugees. Pull ‘em through on node contact.”

At the entrance to the throne room, Amora, Spitfire, Fleetfoot, and Soarin all gawked at the unfolding chaos with slacked jaws. Fleetfoot and Soarin, both uninitiated in Wing’s style towards operations, appeared the most dismayed by a substantial margin. Though, even Amora and Spitfire examined the teleport array and buzzing support ponies with skeptical smirks plastered on their faces.

With the rays of the palace lights reflecting off the smooth surfaces of her Wonderbolt uniform, Spitfire shrugged as she looked at the medic. “You’d think I’d be used to this by now, but every time he makes me run off to get some crap for him—or I see him doing this type of shit—it rocks my mind.”

“Hunny, you’re telling me?” Amora rhetorically countered. Her sights drifted towards a long brown hardshell case tucked under one of Captain Spitfire’s brilliant gold wings, and the discovery made her stretch to reassess the weight of the medical bag strapped to her barrel. “I’ve been with that dork since Colonel Trigger ran our B.C.T., and every buckin’ time I see him, I wonder how he hasn’t driven Amby absolutely bat-shit crazy.”

Meters away, Wing’s ear flicked, and he rapidly spun around to shout at Amora, “She wanted to bake, and I built her an oven, Ams! It’s the core of a great marriage, and it’s why Canterlot has great goodies. At least now I have four fewer arrival times to think about.”

“Major! Major Amora!” The carrying voice of a relatively distant mare drew Amora’s attention down the glass-lined hallway towards a frantically scrambling seafoam-green earth pony. She skittered across the smooth marble floor, and her deep-violet eyes bore into the medic’s scrunched muzzle and narrowed stare. Finally reaching the group, the newcomer hunched over, drooped her black tail, and gasped, “Major, we have a problem. Colonel Tail’s squadmates, they got briefed—about her condition, and—I’ve never seen anything like it, ma’am. I’m sorry, but they both broke into the ward—mumbling some nonsense about a dream and needing to wake her up.”

“Let it go, Amsy!” Wing teasingly wailed before the white unicorn had a chance to reply. The lavender pegasus gradually swiveled his head while a toothy grin took shape. He peered up at the Princess of the Sun and made a cocky click against the roof of his mouth. “I believe that makes seven, Callie.”

Author's Note:

Operation active. Engagement commenced.

All things have a reason. The science, the library, even the smallest of scribbles thought forgotten in the sands of time. We've planted crumbs stretching back to NLD... before a sequel was even conceived, let alone written. Why Trigger? Why Aislynn? Why did Tail need those dreams? Aislynn's already told you a few times if you were looking closely, and her message hasn't changed.

See you next week for Chapter 42 - Their Resolve.


... lol okay... cryptic blurb aside! Happy Tuesday, everyone! Hope you're having a good week. Thanks for your readership and time. Your presence is appreciated.

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