• 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 42 - Their Resolve

Three minutes after Barrier, Cadance, Shining, and Trigger parted ways with the Smoky Andes Trio, the creature of reverie abruptly halted his trot. His coat stood on end, and he hurled a fiery sidelong glare over his trunk at the Princess of Love. “We need to double back right now.”

Cady flapped her wings in short, flustered strokes, and she unconsciously grazed the ground with one of her iron-clad hooves. With her mouth agape, head maximally recoiled, and ears completely splayed, she nodded in agreement with Trigger’s unexpected statement. “I just felt a massive surge of rage coming from the city. It’s fresh, raw, and drenched in jealousy.”

Barrier fixated on Philomena’s demeanor after Cady finished her explanation. Once the squad had eliminated the immediate danger posed by the three enslaved crystal ponies, the phoenix had resumed her coverage flight, but she no longer appeared to be on the active hunt for additional pockets of resistance. Instead, she hovered above the center of their formation and gestured with her beak towards the spot where the liberated threesome had first been seen.

“We miscalculated that consequence,” Trigger gruffly complained. He took a few steps to align his sights with where he and Barrier had destroyed those hypnotic helms. “It’s a damn good thing we kept Cadance out of sight. He doesn’t know the how, but”—Trigger tapped into his dreamshell magic, and the timbre of his voice instantaneously morphed into a ghastly, hissing tempest—“do they think they can disappear!? Do they think that they can abandon their family, their heart, their king? It shall not be allowed! My crystal slaves serve one purpose! My will shall not be cast aside by what belongs to me!”

Shudders jolted the other ponies in the group, but the most affected of the bunch was undoubtedly Barrier. His armor rattled as the deranged ramblings of his former mentor battered his ears, and he squinted in the wake of the brutal cacophony. His legs began to move before anyone else added a word. “If you sense him shift location before I do, Trigs, teleport us in as silently as you can. I can hear it in his voice. Sounds the same as griffon slavers. A stallion bent like that will go himself to retake what he wants. It fucks up the timetable—”

“But it also means that we might get him away from his army.” Shining draped his foreleg across Cady’s withers and gently brushed his muzzle against the princess’s. “Just hang in there. I know it’s hard dealing with resentment, but we’re here for you. I’m here for you.”

Leaning against him, Cadance closed her eyes and steadied her breaths. “I’m fine, Shiny. We’ve prepared for this day. I won’t let my aunts down, and I won’t let you down either.” She returned the affectionate rubbing motions until the noise of grinding rock emanated from beneath Trigger’s moving hooves.

Shining looked up in time to spot Trigger right before the stallion placed his hoof on Cady’s helmet. His brow descended once his sights snagged the cunning curl of Trigger’s lips, and the Captain of the Royal Guard quickly groaned, “If you’re about to misuse your wit, now is probably not the best moment.”

“Nah, ya got it wrong, Armor,” Trigger spoke while his irides fully surrendered to the silvery hue of his dreamshell state. Ripples of auguric energy slithered over the surface of Cady’s kit after the stallion’s hoof made contact with the glimmering steel. His cast poured over the Princess of Love, creating a visual effect that made the contours of her gear look like an ocean of liquid metal. “It makes me think that ya got the right stuff. I’ve anchored my primary camouflage to you, Cady. End the curse when ya get an opening, and Shining, ya might want to power up your shields. Talkin’ time is up.”

Cadance’s coat bristled, and her saddle swiftly became Philomena’s latest perch. Trigger’s magic washed over them all before the two unicorn captains sensed a thing, but the creature of reverie had obviously felt the nightmarish dread that usurped the tundra in front of them.

Barrier’s enchanted armor buzzed in response to Trigger’s invasion, but it stilled at the overwhelming behest of the stealthy teleport. The two strikers emerged on the rearward flanks of the self-proclaimed king, and from distances of a few meters, they unloaded two powerful spellcast salvos.

The jagged beams of silver and blue burned through the crimson cloak that draped over Sombra’s barrel. He stumbled forward as an enraged, blood-splattering scream erupted from the depths of his throat, but before he could fall to the ground, he slammed his chevron-accented gauntlet against the rocky dirt and violently heaved a rush of wind from his gaping muzzle. His jaw swayed side to side in the seconds that followed, and he methodically surveyed the rain of red that stained his land.

A bright reddish radiance pulsated through the peeled, shredded strips of Sombra’s chestplate, and the king’s trunk swelled with air as the tainted magic of the Crystal Heart enveloped his skewered body. More blood seeped through the charred holes in the fabric, but the wounds beneath evaporated in rising wisps of violet smoke.

“Captain Barrier,” Sombra growled, throwing his crest to the side to show his fanged, snarling countenance, “and the mark of that thestral bitch! Did you come and take my crystal slaves from me? Did you do this for the great deceivers who would not bow before their king? They would send a babe to kill me in their stead! But all they’ve done is foolishly bring about both your ends. Your powers, too, will become one with the will of my heart. Your magics won’t touch—”

Trigger dissolved the distance between himself and Sombra. He sprinted through the blind spot created by the tyrant’s choice of target, spiked the corrupted unicorn directly above his unprotected kneecap, and pounded his other forehoof against Sombra’s skull. Resounding cracks, hurled by shattered bones, echoed over the barren landscape before the king’s broken frame staggered to the side.

As Sombra fell, Barrier’s horn sparked. The captain flashed into position on the mad mage’s dropping flank. Gurgles and grumbles poured from the former executor’s mouth, and Barrier only compounded the misery by driving the thorned kneecap of his hind leg into Sombra’s throat with a propelling jump. Blood smeared across the gunmetal plates of Barrier’s kit as he continued his leaping motion until he landed next to Trigger.

For an instant, Sombra’s contorted body lost its semblance of control. Between the snapped, disjointed limb, cratered crown, and gushing neck, a normal pony would have likely found serenity in the sweet embrace of death. Instead, the dark-grey unicorn furiously howled. The old wound around the Crystal Heart seeped and throbbed, and the threatening light that enveloped the maligned artifact swelled in intensity.

More violet tendrils burst from the gemstone and Sombra’s greened sclerae. The notes of grinding scratches creaked along the disfigured limb before the radial bone reset. Wails accompanied the whipping purple bands through the frenzied display that burned away the king’s injuries. He whirled around, squaring up to the two stallions before a sanguine lance—dripping with the blackened, oozing venom of corruption—sprang from the surface of the Crystal Heart.

Barrier and Trigger met the inbound assault with multiple layers of magical shields that hovered in the pike’s path. The attack obliterated the first pair of disks that the duo had cast, which sent a spray of blue and silver powder tumbling through the air. However, with each successive layer, less and less cracking occurred—until the vibrating auguric shells stopped the pike from reaching the captain’s covered haunches.

“And the game is won!” Sombra cackled as he rose to his full height. Globs of the nightmarish substance, dropping from the cylinder of the still-scintillating strike, crawled over Barrier’s and Trigger’s defenses. “Why a foal shouldn’t try to play king! You’ve grown stronger, Captain. I can give you that. A lesser pony would have died in my place, but they clearly didn’t teach you, in all of that time I must have been sealed away, that my desires forge the absolute right that will bring peace to our world!”

The expanding darkness swallowed the entirety of the stallions’ barricades, and from the conquered interior surface, bridges of the vile gunk began to reach out for the two Equestrian officers. Grinning at the developing spectacle, Sombra maniacally laughed, “I’ll hear the gift of your screams soon enough, but it won’t repay the debt that those cowardly deceivers owe. Perhaps I’ll keep you alive through your coming punishment long enough to wear my precious helms. You broke three after all. It’s the least you could do, allowing me the entertainment of watching you two kill each other off for your lord.”

Jerking, Barrier winced from the pull of Sombra’s sorcery. Though the ferrofluid-like bands had not yet directly touched either him or Trigger, a lingering burden of dread settled in the former’s heart. Echoes of experiences he never had stabbed at his mind, and the thought of losing himself without seeing Tail again made his blood boil. From the fringes of his peripheral vision, the telltale violet tips of dark magic started to stretch towards Barrier’s eyes.

However, the manic glee that skewed Sombra’s countenance into a wide, beaming grin vanished when a wave of summer heat blew across the battling trio. The spell’s shock wave incinerated the trapped lance along with every black strand of defiled aura that sought the pair’s annihilation. A surprised frown swept over Sombra’s face as he recoiled, and he rather hastily put a few meters between himself and the untouched duo.

“Look at that, Barry,” Trigger quipped, taking a step towards the alarmed king. “Piece of shit talks too much, but at least he doesn’t drop his clown act.”

In the wake of the insult, Sombra’s horn illuminated, ushering in a vermillion sphere that shrouded the stallion. One of his cheeks violently twitched, transforming his grimace into a fanged exhibition of rage, and his head rapidly swung about to home in on the source of the intrusion.

“You didn’t come alone! Who is it? Did you bring Ember? Is it the remnants of our squads that Celestia offered up as fodder for the griffon scum? Which is it!? Tell me, Boy! Tell me who dared to oppose the just!” Bolts of lightning arced along his spire before he swerved again and fired a sizzling shot.

The blazing ray ionized the air before it slammed into the protective bubbles produced by both Trigger and Shining Armor. Ten meters away, the cloak of concealment that had hidden Princess Cadance, her escort, and Philomena crumbled until Shining’s pink transparent barrier came into Sombra’s full view.

Shuddering, he retched at the sight of an alicorn. The bloodlust in his eyes brightened while the sweeping flows of dark sorcery that poured from Sombra’s sclerae pounded against the inner wall of his stronghold. Fiery plumes erupted from the outer wall, and the king’s voice returned with an unbridled, ferocious fervor.

“They didn’t have the spell, they said! They didn’t have what it took to take—what—is—mine! They misled! They schemed! They schemed to seal me away! You’re alive, Barrier, but it cannot be! The time needed to bring another anointed into this world would have been eons! I see what this is! I see the grand farce! I simply have—” He stopped as a second wave of energy drew his attention to his other flank. “You turned them against me and sent them away. I can feel it! I can feel my crystal slaves! You will not have them!”

Barrier and Trigger teleported from the unhinged unicorn before another blast ripped through the frigid wilderness. Ice and snow boiled to steam at the behest of the firestorm that rocketed from Sombra’s horn. It tore through the dirt, kicking up chunks of rock amidst the blistering snaps, until a heaving, spittle-spewing king was left staring at the scar he had carved across kilometers of the southwestern wastes.

Trigger also stared from his new post in front of Shining and Cadance. He didn’t need his dreamshell link to know. He didn’t need the word of confirmation from Wing either. The creature of reverie could feel it, and the words dribbled from his gaping mouth for the other members of the squad to hear. “We’re going to have to go it alone for a while. He just blew the array.”

“Will you pull it from the shadows now that the hour is upon us all?”

For a wrinkle in time, Tail floated as a ghostly apparition above her own hospital bed. She gazed down upon her sleeping self while Barrier’s lingering melody played with her ears—and while he apparently kept a constant watch over her physical health. For several seconds, the physicist haphazardly threw her gaze around the room until she looked down at Trigger and found that the stallion was now staring directly at her.

“Hot damn, now he’s just bein’ stupid,” Trigger blurted, flashing a knowing grin towards the mare in his audience. “I’m not taking her shit with me either. I’ll fake it in front of Celestia if I have to, but it’s not my part to play so I ain’t playin’ it. It’s not really a surprise. Ya already know she’s going to be there. She will go north. Ya can just feel it in the air. I can’t quit, right? Flicker told ya herself, so there’s no real point in me takin’ her work to the front line. She’ll wake up and find her lab in proper order. Though, I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up meetin’ some friends on the way. Ya can’t always get what ya want, Barry, but ya can sum up everything ya have to tell this mare in three words. Which three words will it be?”

“Three?” Barrier interjected with a sharp whisper. Tail felt her muzzle flush as her coltfriend loitered directly above her body’s ear. “Heh, it would fit my habit of not being one for long speeches, but she deserves more than that. She deserves to know, in every sense of the word, that she’s earned being named my successor—or that she’s worthy of more respect than anyone else I know—or that she’s honored those who came before her.”

“I won’t argue that she doesn’t deserve to hear all that,” Trigger said, audibly stifling a budding laugh with a dribbling snicker, “but ya shouldn’t debate the power of three words. Sometimes those are the absolute best for helping ponies find resolve in the shadows.”

A thunderous roar, like the sound of a storm-backed wind, abruptly assaulted Tail’s ears. The spectral pegasus squinted and curled up as though the world were in freefall, and once the sensation subsided, Tail found that time had skipped a beat. Discord had joined the two stallions, and by the looks of it, he had done a fine job in jarring Barrier’s nerves. Still, in Tail’s opinion, the serious expression that the draconequus wore seemed rather out of character, and his tone followed suit.

“If you think for one second that I want some washed-up edgelord from before Luna’s tantrum to come and ruin all the fun, then you don’t know me well enough to make that call. If I wanted to toy with your marefriend, I could do it with ease, but I don’t because she was kind enough to give me an invitation to join her class. What I really want is for you two to win, and—”

Tail squeaked after Discord held up a clipboard to her ethereal form. An inked quill appeared in front of the scientist’s curled foreleg, and she blinked a few times as the draconequus carried on as though nothing were out of the ordinary.

“—for you to sign this.” Wiggling in the air, Discord smiled broadly while waiting for Tail to ink her signature upon the delivery sheet. The moment she did so, he pitched his stern timbre to the chaotic realm of days gone by and laughed. “See!? That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now I get to take my leave, so toodles and ta-ta! Mm, but one more thing! You’re stronger together.”

The hospital room vanished in a flash. Tail neither felt the same rush nor heard the same howl through this transition. No longer did she believe that she was drifting as some phantasmic entity through the Sea of Reverie. Her hooves seemed to be on solid ground, but this domain offered no light and concealed its clues. Here, she and the shadows were one.

Like the dream she had months prior, Tail stood amidst a mysterious darkness that shaped her curious, gaping stare. Unlike that trailhead, however, the powerful pull that beckoned her forward didn’t strike her as ancient or eerie. Instead, a warm, cherished presence reached out across the unknown, and this time around, Tail had earned the courage to not hesitate. She marched forth with purpose, and she stretched her foreleg towards the invisible until a decidedly metallic surface pressed against her hoof.

An amber halo blossomed to the touch, revealing the tip of the tiny gunmetal gauntlet that met Tail’s limb. Slowly, the darkness ceded to the swelling hope. Decorative lines and seams in the iron surface appeared before the first hints of a small lavender fetlock grazed Tail’s awareness. With her heart pounding, the physicist pitched her muzzle upward as more of tomorrow’s promise bathed in the tranquil glow.

Sitting there, a five-year-old lavender colt stared up at her with sparkling icy-blue eyes. A toy helm covered most of his swept-back jet mane, but Tail immediately spotted the familiar blue streak that stuck out from under the helmet’s brim. Sprawling over the earth pony’s withers, a younger yellow-cream, ruby-maned pegasus quietly snored through her slumber, and tucked by their sides, an even smaller charcoal-coated unicorn remained curled up in a peaceful sleep.

“Ground Breaker, did Ember and Rising fall aslee— Oh.” Barrier’s voice lifted Tail’s sights above the adorable trio until she fell into her captain’s waiting gaze. A few more years had been tacked onto the wrinkles that dotted his face, but the dopey, lopsided smile that he threw her way carried the same vigor that it had on their first date. He shuffled around the children and moved closer until their lips hovered barely an inch apart.

“I see a Blanket,” he whispered, lifting his foreleg to brush her mane. She blushed, and her pulse raced as her attention flickered between Barrier, the beaming colt, and the two dozing kids. “We knew that you’d come.”

“They’re,” Tail stammered as softly as she could, fighting to suppress her inquisitive nature for the sake of the youngsters. She eventually settled her focus on Magic after her feathers flicked, and her entire body surrendered to the loving blaze that cradled her essence in an indescribable embrace. Tears streaked down her cheeks as she fashioned an equally silly smile, and soon enough, her admission came, “They’re exactly who I needed to see, Magic Bear.”

Swishing his tail, the calm Barrier chuckled. “They’re a hoofful too, but that’s not what matters right now. There’s so much I could tell you, so much I could say, but Trigger was right in the end. It only takes three words.”

Tail’s coat fluffed when Ground Breaker suddenly planted his muzzle into his mother’s chest, and the dreaming scientist couldn’t help but peek down at the affectionate colt.

At that moment, Barrier leaned forward and planted a sweet kiss on Tail’s vulnerable forehead. The gentle breaths of his quiet laughter flirted with her mane before the echoes of his three simple words resonated with her reverie’s resolve.

“I need you.”

Instantly, lightning arced over Tail’s spread wings. Her own breath hitched as Barrier’s claim bore into her memory, and the promise of a son’s tender touch stoked her pegasus pride more than she imagined. The fiery glow around her body increased in intensity after her family faded back into the Sea’s night. A rush of noise nipped her ears while familiar calls pulled her closer and closer to the Woken World, and the dam finally broke in a crack of booming thunder.

Author's Note:

First and foremost, while it still lingers, the last scene of this chapter was written to Piano Fantasy No. 2 by Rron Delos Santos. Rron is an incredibly talented, young composer, and the second I heard this, I could see the light sweeping over Ground Breaker's hoof. The final puzzle piece of 100K words regarding Tail's interaction with dreams and dream magic neatly fell into place. I strongly recommend giving it a listen. Hell, reread the reveal with this playing in the background. A part of me wanted to suggest it in the middle of the story, but... cringebreaklinkdrop... the AN approach won. If you really want to drive yourself mad, venture back into NLD and observe the unknowns that lurked in Tail's dreams. The Drecht has always been with us. The scope of the canal has just been slowly revealed. Exhale. This is arguably the most important chapter in the NL Lore.

Onto the regular AN programming. Happy Tuesday everyone, and as always, thank you for spending your time here. We're really closing in on the end now, and these final chapters carry some other events that have been a long time in the making. Case in point? See you next week for Chapter 43 - The Doctors Are In.

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