• 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 45.2 - The Mavericks’ Wild, Part 2

Trigger’s silver aura cut through Sombra’s dark magic before the creature of reverie landed a cracking shot to the tyrant’s face. The effervescent light that pooled around Trigger’s frame bathed the mage in the essence of dream and sharply contrasted with his black physique. Homing in on Sombra’s mangled jaw, Trigger hurled another potent punch at the staggering umbral unicorn, and his dominant glare rebelled against the notion that his mind would ever be enslaved again.

The king slammed into the snow-caked dirt with a crunch. Small rocks tore through the remnants of his cape, and some sporadic low-lying plants pricked against bits of his unprotected coat. A streak of red stained the powdered landscape when his face reset, and the snarling royal immediately leapt to his hooves and lunged into a counterattack.

Sombra jabbed the side of Trigger’s muzzle with one of his gauntlet-laden hooves while his opposing foreleg snaked to the inside of Trigger’s nearest limb. He swept the extremity and tossed another left hook, one which missed its mark and slipped past the reverie’s crest. Suddenly confronted with two conflicting vulnerabilities, the umbrum threw his weight into Trigger, and he wrestled the stallion down to the frozen soil.

“No second chances this time!” Sombra growled. Hisses and pops bubbled from his chest as multiple arms of the corrosive muck erupted from the Crystal Heart. Rapidly displacing the air around them, the bands thrust towards the pinned colt at a blistering pace that crossed the limb-length divide in the span of a blink.

Though blood marred his lip, Trigger couldn’t help but grin when the king’s attack was halted with the pressure produced by the reverie’s scintillating auguric field. “Not gonna need it, Fuckwad,” the cowcolt retorted. He planted one of his hind hooves against Sombra’s hip, elevated the unicorn’s leg, and chucked the old executor from his proud perch.

Airborne, the warlord bared his fangs and loosed a deafening howl. Crimson arcs raced along his horn, and sinister-looking bolts jumped between the edges of the Crystal Heart and the king’s reddened fur. “You’re burning away, you insolent whelp!”

The pair leapt into a furious cadence of chained teleports that kicked up flurries of snow each time the stallions attempted to gain an upper hoof on the other. During one offbeat, an obsidian beam swept from the reflective face of the crystal. The strike shoveled clumps of ice and stone skyward while Sombra blindly fired at the dodging Trigger.

Vanishing from view, the creature of reverie barely avoided the searing ray before it dumped its energy into the overcast sky. A second, shuddering boom whipped against the monarch’s ebony mane and purple tendrils after the silver-maned charger reemerged and responded with a sizzling spell, but Trigger was unable to pierce Sombra’s guard.

An angled, transparent shield deflected most of the blast down and away from the sorcerer. Though, a thin stream did slip between both the bulwark and Sombra’s crossed gauntlets before it disappeared into the facets of the priceless gemstone. An impish smirk slithered upon the sovereign’s muzzle, and he laughed once more sickly sludge dripped from the enchanted artifact. “You were better off as my fucking pet ragdoll. I told this to the deceivers before! Since you won’t bow to me in life, you can find your place in death.”

Raising his foreleg, Trigger confronted the serpent’s breath that exploded from the stolen jewel. The luminescent shroud that covered his body brightened until its argent tint surrendered control of the flame-like shell to a brilliant pearly white. Corrupted and rebounded, the reverie’s greyscale cast rocketed from the Crystal Heart and directly collided with the waiting appendage.

A nightmarish banner fanned out from Trigger’s left eye the instant the contact occurred. The devilish wisp kissed the attached sclera, which immediately shifted to an ominous slate hue. Heat enveloped the combatants, and gales, spurred by the impact, scratched the wilderness with savage, sharpened claws.

Scowling at the hysterical captain, Trigger held his pose until the torrid bolt decayed. For several seconds afterwards, the signs of depravity gripped his countenance. However, the taint of the Crystal Heart and the will of Sombra’s malice failed to usher a single sound of discontent from Trigger’s expressionless lips.

The king’s jovial, taunting melody died on his tongue. With each passing moment that he did not hear Trigger scream or grovel, the twitch that plagued his cheek swelled from an infinitesimal tic into visible frustration. “Why isn’t it killing you? Why isn’t my Heart making you pay for your betrayal?” Sombra shouted as the marks of the tantibus gradually faded from Trigger’s face.

“Thought ya said I was better off as your pet ragdoll,” Trigger jeered, staying attentive to the unicorn’s multiple casting points. “But I’d guess it has somethin’ to do with your will bein’ a sack of shit. Ya said the Grand Matriarch miscalculated? Heh, the old hag hit ya right on the head. It must suck havin’ a dream that can’t even burn brighter than a toy guard’s.”

Clenching his jaw, Sombra violently shook. The muscles in his armored appendages tensed, and the subsequent tremors that rode down his limbs crushed the tiny rocks upon which he stood. More electrical flashes surged from the sharp edges of the Crystal Heart, and small streaks of smoke rose from the king’s blood-covered fur as patches became slightly singed. Like a rabid canine, the umbral unicorn jerked his head from side to side as he spewed his venom.

“Toy guard? Toy guard! You keep talking like you’ve already won, but the fact remains that you cannot take my life. Even in your gimmick state, we trade blows! But I have been blessed by this divinity and you have not. I have outlasted your storm once already. I can do it again, and when I do, you will all suffer the same fate. The only mistake on my record is not following through on slaying the source of your strength.”

Both stallions streaked across the arctic plain after Sombra teleported away from the obstinate reverie. He reappeared behind Cadance and hovered above the mare in a whirlwind of thick fog that reached out from the king like the rainbands of a hurricane. With a clear line to the back of the alicorn’s neck, a sadistic smirk shaped the unicorn’s mouth. The lingering trails of the poisonous muck snaked through his fur, and they began to accumulate on the face of the Heart.

Shining Armor’s hairs bristled beneath the hefty plates of his kit. He dove from his post in front of the Princess of Love, contorted his body, and tossed the tip of his horn so it pointed at the looming attacker. The captain’s zealous, icy stare bore into the image of the floating menace, and he hastily bashed the monarch in the side of the head with one of his glistening pink barricades.

“Get the fuck out of my house,” the Captain of the Royal Guard spat after he threw Sombra into the dirt with his spell. “The love Cady and I share is stronger than your desire to dominate. I won’t let you hurt our family, and I will make sure she never cries again because of you.”

Having gotten a few minutes of rest, Barrier rejoined the battle as well. Helmless, he charged at the hobbling unicorn while the cold winds whipped through his blue mane. Fatigue tugged on his ears and eyelids, but his determination showed in his purposeful steps and fiery irides. He flung a frost-blue spike into Sombra’s thigh before his former mentor had regained balance, and in the wake of a short-distance silent teleport, the Equestrian defender snagged a foreleg.

“I second the motion,” Barrier grunted, wrenching the umbrum’s captured limb before he jammed his free forehoof behind the vulnerable shoulder. The Equestrian captain winced from the touch, for the influence of the cursed crystal brought the dimmest of shades to encroach upon his visage. Thankfully, Philomena had also made her return to the skies, and the additional coverage afforded Barrier with enough time to tighten his grip on Sombra and guide the surprised stallion into a thudding buckshot from Trigger. “We lived through the dream you wish to create. I’m not going to let you make it.”

A heated huff cleared Trigger’s nostrils once he rammed his hoof into Sombra’s crumpling muzzle. A splintering crack burst from the king’s bent neck, and the cowcolt’s ears quivered to the wheezing that preceded the inevitable collapse. “Give the guy a little praise, and he starts soundin’ like a badass—”

Cadance shifted her location in Shining’s protective bubble to be as close to the decked Sombra as she could get. Color vanished from her eyes as a radiating white light poured out at the behest of her alicorn magic, and the atypical raspberry aura returned to envelop the princess’s towering spire. “I clearly didn’t reach you the first time, my little pony, but I shall most certainly reach you now. You’ve endured the weight of that curse for too long, and it has blinded you from the truth. The kind of love you seek is as false as the kingly title you wear.”

Numerous vivid-red bands zipped from Cady’s horn towards Sombra’s limp frame. Crescents of his spiteful, sinister mire acted without his conscious effort, and they blocked the inbound bombardment through a chorus of loud, stirring claps. Both Trigger and Barrier put some distance between themselves and the battered unicorn’s debasing venom, and the Princess of Love displayed her full talents with the extra space.

Lowering her chest and craning her neck, she stretched the duration of her assault. The blinding streams of her spellcraft fought against the fluidic shields in pressing advances that pushed closer to Sombra’s folded mass. Cadance narrowed her gaze. The fringes of her field rippled as jagged flares meandered around her horn, and dozens of her decursing raspberry fractals danced across the surfaces of the corrupting filth.

The alicorn’s onslaught gained ground in the battle of attrition, and eventually, several of her brilliant threads outflanked the floating ooze and shot into the Crystal Heart. The crimson flickers that had frequently pulsed within the high-karat gemstone during the brawl surrendered several facets to beating amber orbs.

Instantly, Sombra’s bones popped into their proper alignments, and an enraged, multi-tonal wail erupted from the king’s gaping maw. “‘Your destiny would be in the reflection!’ she said! You can’t have it back! You can’t take it from me! This is my will! And your magic will be mine!”

Barrier rocked on his rear hooves before he aborted his retreat and darted towards the umbral unicorn. His senses had quickly registered the change in the corrosive gunk once it began to intelligently backtrack along the beams of Cadance’s magic. He read the telegraph clearly written by the tactic. Sombra was gunning for his niece, and the alicorn had no other choice than to abandon her spell.

The kitted captain was joined by Philomena, who swooped onto Barrier’s withers just before he kicked his way past the loitering bands of Sombra’s irritating muck. Heat soaked through his armor as he leapt onto the mage’s trunk. Panting, Barrier pushed one of his gauntlets against the lord’s collar guard, and he threw his other foreleg around his target’s neck before yanking his spiked cannon into Sombra’s throat.

Rearing up, the rogue executor tried to shake off his matured protégé. Choked, stuttered gasps fled the fanged muzzle, and he stumbled and twisted away from the Princess of Love and her knight. “It’s not enough to take it from me! I’ll have yours instead!” the king spewed. He sped up his backpedaling and rolled—desperately trying to jam Barrier into the ground with a fall.

Maintaining his grasp, Barrier huffed and winced as the ink-like coils stabbed his metal plates with the ferocity and movement of a spider’s legs during a hunt. Pricks of pain stabbed the officer through any gap the ooze could find in his gear, and he tumbled to the dirt as a series of groans exited his lungs.

Philomena, having evaded the frenzied strikes, hovered above the pair to burn away the slime before Barrier could succumb to the dark pull.

Nevertheless, the exchange had given Sombra a large enough window to wiggle out of Barrier’s hold, claw for some separation, and settle his precarious position. He glared at his enemies and slowly drew a breath before another sea of sludge violently swirled around his body. The black mass took on a bloody shade, and the crimson glints that oppressed the sacred jewel outshone the dwindling amber sparkles.

“I have had enough of this game! I will not cater to the notion that you hold power here, Amore. I’ve outmatched your kin twice! How much longer until their coals grow dark and their motivations die with them? I will be the savior against the deceivers! I will be the judge that destroys the unjust! You tried to stop me! I won! Aislynn tried to seal me, yet here I stand. Luna’s envy towards her sister? I could feel it! Strange she’s not here, and neither is that bitch coward Celestia—”

Right as Sombra spoke her name, five spearpoints sprinted from the primary arc of his demonic cast towards Barrier, Cadance, Philomena, Shining Armor, and Trigger. The weapons all missed their marks and dropped onto the dirt and snow in sputtering crashes that mimicked stormy waves hitting a cliff. A heinous scream emerged from the umbrum as his trunk was blown into the tundra with enough force to produce a small crater beneath his abruptly splayed figure.

None of the Equestrians focused solely on the king. Their sights had all trailed the pair of golden Celestial bolts that rained from the sky and obliterated Sombra’s withers and spine. Blood gushed from the cavernous wounds until the deep-mahogany fluid retreated from the field and refilled the excavated barrel.

To the tune of the Armistice’s four combined-cycle engines roaring through the clouds, Tail safety-locked her revolver’s trigger, pitched her wings to finalize a banking glide, and landed at Barrier’s side.

Dismayed by the incredible blasts, Spitfire and Soarin touched down a few meters from Shining’s barricade with the equally awestruck Bonecrusher and Indar in tow. Trigger tossed a sidelong glance once Wing and Amora appeared beside him in an ephemeral shell of cobalt light. The Director of the E.I.S. unsurprisingly had his brown case tucked beneath a namesake, and the glow of Aurora’s Eye illuminated his muzzle.

“I would make a cliché quip about how ya got here late as fuck,” Trigger snorted, “but considerin’ what Flicker just did, I’m more inclined to say that you’re all right on time.”

“And I could make a quip about how you’re looking younger, but Aurora doesn’t let the hidden details slip. You’ve all pushed yourselves to the brink, so I’m sorry we didn’t get here sooner. Just try not to burn yourself out yet. I can tell you don’t have many to spare.” Wing knelt and set the hardshell flat upon the snow. He didn’t delay flipping the clasps with his feathers, and the moment he opened the lid, Amora gasped.

The polished surface of Netitus greeted the pegasus with its winged star emblem. The bronze-colored, arrowhead-shaped relic beckoned the ex-Wonderbolt specialist, and he obliged by slinging the fabled shield over a foreleg. Of course, the interior surface showed signs of modification, and Wing found himself looking down the barrel of a scolding stare after the medic gestured to the six blue metal cylinders he had affixed to the historical artifact.

Meanwhile, a few paces away, Tail turned her blazing sights towards Barrier. She anchored her attention on the scuffs that covered his iron and countenance, the lines of dried blood that marred his fur, and the peculiar stains that shaded patches of his armor. Her brain then gravitated towards the softened contours that sculpted his brow and muzzle, and she inevitably met his returned fixation.

“Exactly who I needed to see, Blanket,” Barrier spoke before he slowly swiveled to eye the stirring Sombra. “I’ll let you know how I think you look in that kit when this is over, but we’re not done. Mind that slimy crap he throws around. It tries to spread his dark magic and hurts like hell.”

“Celestia!” The howl exploded from Sombra’s mouth as he thrust his forehooves into the rim of the impact crater and stood tall. Pitching his head back, the Heartbearer peered up at the clouds and fumed. Red torrents of plasma jostled around his curving horn, and a boiling ring of his corrupting miasma encircled the stallion.

Tail watched the developing spectacle, and she instinctively shifted her stance to a defensive crouch that could spring her away from harm at a moment’s notice—or catapult her into another offensive exchange. The stench of battle pierced her helm, and her pulse raced once she started to comprehend that the pony she had just shot to death with Celestia’s magic had fully recovered.

But it’s more than just recovering, the pegasus pondered while her spread feathers brushed against the cold winds of the northland. This is— Come on, calm down, Tail. You knew this was a possibility. Look at the Crystal Heart. You know what auguric corruption can do. Everyone is here. You already know that this is where we’re supposed to be.

“Where is she?” Sombra spat, flinging his snout in random directions. Spikes rapidly extended through bubbles in the venomous, toroidal structure. They changed their yaws and pitches, seemingly scouring the landscape like their master, but after they grew to a couple meters in length, the cones collapsed and receded into the ring. “That was your magic! I know it was yours. Drenched in the veiled superiority you call motherly love! How dare you wield your sorcery against a king! How dare you put it into my back! How dare you hide from me when your surrogate called me a fake! Did you think I wouldn’t remember? Did you think the Crystal Heart would forget? It yearns to take the rest of you, and yet, you’re not actually here. So who is?”

Tail shuddered when the enraged unicorn methodically inspected the members of Wave 2. Centering the surreal canvases crafted by his lime-green sclerae, crimson irides kindled an intense sensation that the scientist internally logged as bloodlust. When her turn came, Tail primed her thighs, calves, and span for action. Beneath S.B. Sally’s protective plates, she spun loops of her own in the form of large, low-current detection elements that stealthily pitted the mare’s weather magic against a potential umbral teleport.

However, Sombra set a different course with his magical migration. He disappeared from the lip of the ridge and reformed in front of Amora. Wedges of his vile brew collided with hastily erected shields, which a shuffling medic and steadfast creature of reverie ushered into existence. The muck crawled along the cobalt and silver-colored translucent surfaces until a soaring Philomena cast her radiant rays upon the impasse.

Entering the fray, Indar dashed forward to join the colonel and major. A tower of umber light enveloped his horn, and in a blink, perfectly cut barriers slotted against the existing defenses to seal off the flanks against any incursions from the toxic terror. The stallion grunted, and his eyes widened when Sombra hurled another arc of the splattering, dark mass against the concocted shell.

The lieutenant’s breaths grew more erratic while Sombra’s shadow draped its cloak over the guard’s magic. Grimacing, Indar diverted additional reserves to his horn, and his leg muscles bulged as he cemented his position. “What the hay is he trying to do?”

A disgruntled scowl swiftly swept over the king’s countenance. He gradually tilted his head and growled at the pair of fresh mages, “Neither of you possesses her power, so who is it? Certainly, it’s not the lost farmer over there. Though, perhaps the lot of jester-dressed feather dusters could serve as her sheep. At the very least, they look like they belong in a carnival as opposed to being on a field of battle. Is this another one of your gimmicks?” he asked, sliding his focus to Trigger.

Wing plucked one of his metal tubes from its holster near the grip of Netitus. “Damn, Trigs, you were right. The dipshit does talk too much.” The pegasus promptly chucked the cylinder through a gap Trigger had deftly opened in the barricade, and he smirked when Sombra immediately piked the rod with one of his corrupting bands.

Sky-blue smoke poured from the puncture hole, and the bits of the corrosive arc that touched the gas instantly transformed into something far tamer. The produced baby-blue goop dropped to the ground below, and toony flowers burst from the flattened splotches. Wing threw his namesakes out wide and flapped, pushing the plume of gas towards Sombra’s face, but the Heartbearer jumped away.

Narrowly avoiding the atypical attack, the umbrum watched the vapor disperse before he brought his scrutiny to bear upon Wing. A heavy exhalation scraped against the walls of Sombra’s esophagus, and he shuddered once he paid enough regard to the pegasus to catch a glimpse of Aurora’s Eye. A spasm rode up the side of his neck, and he released a clearing snort through his nostrils. “Another resort to cheap trickery while you continue this treason! Was it you then, Boy? Was it you who dared to put a bolt of her strength into my back?”

For a few seconds, Wing paid no mind to the sorcerer’s words. Instead, he gazed upon the glassy surface of the Crystal Heart and slowly fashioned a lopsided grin. “Red, amber, and gold? How very interesting. Almost like the band’s getting back together, but no”—Wing lifted his head to stare Sombra in the eyes—“that isn’t quite my style. My wife says I’m more of a dancer.” The flier unfurled his namesakes and hopped into the air with a powerful flap. He soared over his comrades’ works of spellcraft and dove at the vigilante without hesitation.

At first, Sombra reeled, showing shock on his contorted muzzle, but he quickly recovered his composure, thrust his foreleg into the ground, and loosed a crimson beam from his horn.

Countering, Wing positioned Netitus and did not waver from his chosen trajectory. The blistering strike slammed into the legendary shield, and a low, resonating hum spread from the metal after the king’s attack skipped along the bronze-colored contour and rocketed towards the heavens. The lavender stallion torqued his span and rolled once he caught sight of a claw of venom barreling towards his body. Putting Netitus to the test yet again, Wing parried the thrust and uttered a note of approval that instantly drew Sombra’s ire.

“Piss off, you worthless gnat!” he cried, flashing his fangs at the pegasus while his horn bathed in a haunting glow. Controlled, the deflected glob swung around in midair to take another swipe near Wing’s haunches, but by the time Sombra executed the maneuver, the twisting ace had completely closed the separation.

“Suit yourself,” Wing replied, returning the monarch’s expression with a toothy smirk. He grabbed the second canister from the interior surface of Netitus and let it go just before making a sharp turn to the left. The abrupt change in momentum and the timing of the drop painted a portrait for the ages.

Sombra’s still-streaking line of sludge met another piercing spike that the unicorn spat from his filth-covered mouth. Both airborne strings of the corrosive, nightmarish ooze ruptured the matte-blue casing and unleashed the smoke within. The heavy cloud instantly converted the assaults into rainbow vomit that produced another patch of comedically cartoonish flowers when it hit the ground.

From her position at Barrier’s side, Tail watched as Wing put on a Wonderbolt show—and a very calculated one at that. His choice of moving to the left had kept the glimmering steel of Netitus between his frame and the angered king. When he cut back in towards Sombra’s flank, Wing had not simply delivered a nudge that almost pushed Sombra into the awkward puff of gas. He buzzed the umbrum’s personal space in a traditional gesture of pegasi dominance.

Blitzing the distracted mage, both Spitfire and Soarin performed fly-bys that dragged the retreating Sombra even farther away from the pack. The trio of uniformed soldiers quickly converged and tightened their formation before they rapidly climbed to higher altitudes.

Tail’s ear flicked against the inside of her helm as she eyed Sombra’s orientation. The garish sorcerer had pitched his head towards the clouds, and bright reddish bolts of magical current agitated the air around his horn. Did they plan this? the physicist pondered as she raised her right foreleg. Back to me, looking out into space, and no friends along my line of sight to him.

She kicked her limb and provided enough impulse to jerk her crescent-shaped trigger out of its safety lock. Beneath her armor, static sparks bristled her fur. Power flowed through her revolver’s induction circuit, and Tail quietly muttered under her breath, “You believed in me even when I doubted myself. You’ve become more than a patron. You’ve become a friend and a kindred dreamer, so let’s show him what happened to that envious nightmare.”

A radiating ray cast its violet-blue blaze over the tundra after Tail pressed her hoof against the trigger and flexed. Like a plasma torch with an endless range, the shot burned through its target with brutal efficiency.

Sombra shrieked as the fiery column incinerated the meager remnants of his cloak, dissolved the armor beneath, and bore into his lower crest. The remaining clumps of his swirling poison fell to the rocks and ice in a deafening series of thuds matched only by the sound of his body slumping once Luna’s magic ruptured his chest just above the top of the Crystal Heart. The cacophonous barrage of howls that followed rang out over the barren landscape and swept across the Empire City in the distance. Steam rose from Sombra’s body, and additional arcs of crimson lightning traversed the length of his horn while the king regenerated.

“It was you!” Sombra roared, snapping upright before he jerked around to glare at Tail. Aside from the throbbing blue orb that joined the competing hues in dancing around the Crystal Heart, color seemed to abandon the space near the mad monarch. A dozen new tentacles of his acidic, augury-defiling sludge aggressively thrashed, and the blackened tendrils that extended from his eyes fanned wider and wider. “Celestia and Luna? You dare wield their power against me? A pegasus, one with barely any magical birthright of her own, opposes me with the gifts of false goddesses? No wonder you attacked your true king from behind. A traitor unworthy of such a craft! Just an unworthy windrat unfit to exist before me! Now, give me their magics and rot!”

Under the bulk of S.B. Sally, Tail winced. A dull ache meandered along the forelimb that supported the revolver, and she could sense some tension on the metal that yearned to tug her closer to Sombra.

Barrier recoiled as well, and a residual wisp of Luna’s aura evaporated from the tip of his bony spire. Looking at his former mentor, he endured a sullen grimace and sighed, “How much hatred must it make him feel? How much—to turn him into this? I can tell that he’s scavenging for Luna’s magic, Blanket, and given what I’ve seen, that can’t be good. We’re not going to let him take something from one of our insufferable brats, are we?”

“Not a chance, Sweety—” A jarring rattle suddenly shook Tail’s armor. Both of the current loops secretly stored behind her shoulder plates produced strong shocks that accompanied the umbral unicorn disappearing from her sight.

His snarling visage emerged less than a meter from the tip of Tail’s muzzle, and the threads of his venom had coiled up like springs ready to strike. Primed to meet their target, the tips lunged forward and closed in on the prepared pegasus. Vapor lines, which she had laid along with her sensors, ignited to form a battery of auguric-field generators that deflected the inbound bands.

Another spell from Barrier flashed into existence, and the blue-tinted barricade provided additional stopping power against Sombra’s blows. The charcoal-coated captain gritted his teeth and growled when the cherry-obsidian mass began to stretch across the outer surface of his shield. A huff rushed through his nostrils as the glob’s sinister sway sought his magic. The incursion forced the stallion to steady his frame, and his sights darted to track the alternate trajectories taken by the redirected miasma.

The current loop covering Tail’s left haunch crackled after the umbrum jerked his head at the unusual combination of resistance. The mare’s hind leg twitched in response, but not even Tail’s training and knowledge had given her the speed advantage needed to parry the secondary bombardment. A sailing spike nailed the glistening iron, and the splattering fluid caked atop the defensive gear before it seeped through the joints.

Upon contact, Tail’s wits and senses hurled themselves into a nightmare of oblivion. Grayscale enveloped everything the scientist could see, and the surging pain in her barrel stabbed her nerves with enough force to make her eyes bulge. Screams fled her muzzle as a chorus of hateful voices drowned her ears in a tempest of tantibus ambition. Luna told her she had failed. Her squadmates railed that she could never cut it where it counted most. Amora, her best friend since foalhood, threw her out of their home for her crime of inadequacy, and Barrier told her that she was unloved.

In all honesty, the pegasus couldn’t even tell if she had actually started screaming at all. She heard nothing beyond the conjured taunts of those that she cared for the most. Her sense of touch gripped her trunk, which felt as though it were heaving against a ghastly burn that searched her soul and gouged deeper into her very being. Slowly, her unsteadied sights drifted to the blur of a lime-green pony diving at the unicorn who now seemed to tower above her figure.

Bonecrusher drilled Sombra in the side of the head with a shattering hook before she was also snared by some of the king’s corruptive ooze. The pair of whips snaked around opposing fore and hind limbs, and they threatened to rip the mare apart while another dissonant melody got scripted to the terrifying score.

Trapped and shaking, Tail somehow managed to reposition her right foreleg, dump an appreciable amount of weather magic into her revolver’s circuit, and fire the second Luna round.

The violet-blue blast obliterated Tail’s network of Synchrotron Flickers, along with a chunk of Barrier’s spellcraft, before it dissolved both of Sombra’s left legs and a portion of his lower barrel. Immediately, the toxic swarm receded to tend to its fallen emperor, and the Heartbearer gained some tactical separation by riding a reddish swell of his magical aura as his body regenerated.

“Yeah, that’s right! Who’s the coward now? This lost farmer just broke your face!” Bonecrusher shouted through gasping breaths in the aftermath of the hasty repositioning. With tiny teardrops occupying the corners of her eyes, the historically stubborn earth pony threw an amethyst scowl towards the umbrum. “And no one, I mean no one, gets away with hurting my squadmates like that!”

Meanwhile, Philomena dropped onto Barrier’s head and puffed a sprout of orange flame that coated the stallion’s horn. He and Trigger simultaneously launched blazing magical attacks that lobbed waves of heat and sound over the tundra. The icy-blue and silver volleys crashed into multiple layers of defenses, but the rendezvous only left behind a healed, slowly rocking Sombra.

Amora sprinted towards the clustered group, and the medic swiftly snagged both Bonecrusher and Tail into a protective spell just as Wing landed between the shepherded pegasus and the aggressively leaning Barrier. The M.D.’s attention homed in on the bloody patches that marred Bonecrusher’s legs. “I hope I never have to hear sounds like that from either of you ever again. Now, hold still and let me treat you,” she spoke in a trembling voice while ripples of cobalt witchcraft poured over the duo and incrementally reversed the damage they had each endured.

Behind her visor, nopony could see the tear stains that had drenched her cheeks. Though, given the force in Barrier’s return-fire, and considering that Bonecrusher had come to her rescue, the wails that Sombra’s sorcery had coaxed—and prevented her from hearing—must have conveyed some idea of her distress. At the very least, Tail agreed with Amora’s assessment.

“You were amazing,” the colonel said after her gaze drifted to Bonecrusher, who responded with a few blinks of surprise. For Amora to say that she never wanted to see her friend in that kind of pain again spoke volumes. For Bonecrusher to charge in while the physicist was still writhing in that painful purgatory? That was resolve.

“Bullshit, Civvy, I couldn’t even knock him off his hooves. You actually got a shot off in the middle of that. I don’t want to know what you heard when that crap got under your gear, but you wouldn’t have had to double back for me if I had a strong enough punch—”

Hysteria burst from Sombra’s maw, and he promptly slapped his forehead with his repaired appendage. Like the corona of the sun, the bulwark he had constructed around himself pulsed and shed swirling plasma, and from within the confines of this makeshift abode, the unicorn recommenced his verbal jabs. “Oh, I see it now! You two love each other! Like the false princess and her toy, you stand against me on such unsure ground. Devotion belongs to your king! How many years have passed if you’ve taken another whore for your own, Barrier?

“Heh, either way, it doesn’t matter. The strategy is the same. The Crystal Heart grows stronger with every step you take. Keep throwing your magic at me and watch as I continue to rise above your invalid claims to my throne. Watch as I grow bored with your feeble bullshit! And then, watch as I snuff the light out of the life you’ve come to adore! With the death of your beloved, your motivations will fade, and you’ll either die or rejoin the ranks of my slaves.”

“Colonel Tail,” Wing spoke up in the middle of Sombra’s tirade. “Think you’d be up for a bit of an experiment with your fifth shot?”

The pegasus swiveled her head to glance at her fellow officer, and for a moment, she considered lifting her visor just so he could see the grin he had managed to slap onto her face. “Two Ph.D.s, an M.D., and my squad? There’s no better company I’d rather do science with.”

Unknowingly, Wing reciprocated the enthusiastic expression. The Netitus-wielding director perked his ears, swished his tail, and explained, “The babbling idiot over there doesn’t even realize he’s on the clock, but we’re not going to get there quickly enough as long as he has a corrupting agent to rely on. I thought my Poison Joke Emitters would do the trick”—Wing nodded towards the canisters attached to the shield—“and they certainly work. But he just keeps avoiding a decisive load. Thankfully, Philomena and Barrier just teamed up, and things look kind of interesting to me under a certain scrutiny. Perhaps a shot with the firebird acting as your muzzle augment could yield more of an opening. Considering you can break the 1 A.E.U. plane, I’d put bits on it.”

Tail shifted her focus from Wing to her coltfriend. His icy stare traversed the battlefield and drilled through Sombra. Sparks still danced along his flame-kissed horn, and his forehoof pawed at the dirt as though he had grown more than tired of his former mentor’s words.

“I’ll hold your line, Blanket,” he grunted, not taking his sights off Sombra’s figure for a second. The aura above his forehead brightened, and a new shield appeared in front of the captain’s comrades. “Do what you’ve got to do with Ms. Philomena.”

The physicist’s irides consequently glimmered at the behest of her determined inferno. She aimed her right foreleg to point at the mad king, and she adjusted to compensate for the added mass of the phoenix that landed atop her limb. “Hold that thought, Bonecrusher. Once I’m done with this experiment, I’ll give you all the proof you need that it’s a bad take. Doesn’t suit you at all, honestly.”

When three fiery rings began floating directly off the end of the revolver’s barrel, Tail channeled another wave of weather energy into the augurite circuit. She thought of Luna trusting her with the story of the Drecht—and that night when the princess first handed over Barrier’s file. Even in the midst of battle, the memories brought a warm smile to Tail’s concealed visage, and with these pleasant feelings anchored in her mind, she pushed the trigger again.

Picking up traces of Philomena’s magic, the shot produced by the L-Type round took on a wine hue as it instantly melted away the snow below its path and plunged through Sombra’s bubble. Another dreadful cry assailed the ponies’ ears as the beam struck the face of the Crystal Heart, but in the wake of this blast, there were no shredded remains left behind. Quite to the contrary, the unharmed umbrum stood tall and kept shouting as the column of light simply entered the gemstone.

“Thank you for the offering, you damn little fool!” Sombra chuckled. His crimson-colored defenses dissipated, leaving a clearer view of the mage and his extending, corrosive tendrils. For a few seconds, the arcs of acidic fluid steadily swelled until a chaotic flux of frequencies exploded from the ancient alicorn artifact. The levitating arms of ooze rebounded, coating the stallion in a midnight shell that caked the vast majority of his physique. With the lone exceptions of Sombra’s red horn and the Crystal Heart itself, even his sclerae had surrendered to the black, leaving his vermillion irides alone in a void.

“What did you do!? What did you do!?” The emperor repeatedly thrust his forelegs towards the lavender pegasus in a series of frantic gestures. When nothing seemed to occur, he foamed at the mouth and started grinding the dirt with his hooves. “You insolent fuck! I will kill you! Ahhk, I don’t know how you’ve locked me out of that power, but it will not matter in the end! All you’ve done now is enrage the will of your king!”

Wing smirked as he peered at Sombra through the rotating lens of Aurora’s Eye. “Save the sixth until it’s time, Colonel. I think you’ll know when. The Heart only needs one more key, and you’ve just reduced him to the magic he was born with. Now, we can get up close and personal.”

“One more key?” Bonecrusher interrupted. Her eye twitched as she stepped towards the two nerdy pegasi. “What in Tartarus is that supposed to mean?”

Snorting, Amora glanced at her pesky patient. “Hunny, I’ve been trying to decipher that dork for a decade, and this is on top of knowing Tail for thirty years. Good luck trying to get ‘em to retune the crazy.”

“Mm, I don’t know, Ams. I actually think there is an easy answer to that question, and I can use the teaching opportunity to deal with another Bonecrusher issue.” Tail turned to the lime-green mare and fashioned a mischievous smile. Reactivating the revolver’s safety, the scientist lowered her right forehoof and raised her left. Vapor trails wrapped around her iron gauntlet before she shaped the developing tuft into a pre-sparked Bullet Flash. “You’ve got one of the strongest punches I know. Take it, and we’ll go kick his ass together.”

Opting to act, Trigger claimed his own invitation to charge the transfigured Sombra. The youthful-looking colt flickered into position in front of the monarch, and he immediately threw a heavy jab at the umbrum’s chest. The collision shoved the Heartbearer back a step, and Trigger wildly grinned when none of the plastered muck moved from Sombra’s body to attempt another corruption.

The king retaliated by whipping his head and firing a red rod of magic from the tip of his horn, but a series of speedily deployed umber shields diverted the attack from its mark and guided the strike into a snowbank. Sombra furrowed his brow and growled. Lifting his hoof, the stallion pummeled Indar’s magical intervention and decked Trigger with a right hook that smacked the creature of reverie into the dirt. “You seem to think I’m done. I’m not.”

Barrier darted in on the offensive just as the nicked Trigger rolled through the blow. “Yes, Captain, you are,” the charcoal-coated unicorn answered before one of his spells slammed into Sombra’s side. Against the king’s newly hardened exterior, the bolt dealt little damage beyond producing a cosmetic glow, but the window had opened for Barrier to plow his left gauntlet into his mentor’s muzzle.

Snatching his former protégé, Sombra reared up while his head still swiveled. His forelimbs wrenched Barrier’s outstretched appendage, and the umbrum delivered a little payback by driving his cannon above the captured elbow. Snapping his frame to the side, he tossed the Equestrian guard to the ground with the same ease that he had dispatched Trigger. Stoked by his own surging confidence, Sombra roared, “And now the line can die with you, Executor Barrier!”

“Your history is a thousand years out of date!” Tail countered as she flew towards the fray. Her cry pulled the unicorn’s attention in time for him to direct his brewing cast at her as opposed to Barrier. She spun around the assault and skipped over the terrain before she lunged towards the pretender with her forelimb ready to embark on a different kind of flight. However, when she saw Barrier rise in her peripheral vision, the physicist pumped the brakes and slowly floated away from Sombra. “I’m the newest in the line of executors, so your quarrel on that front rests with me.”

“My quarrel rests with all those who bow to lesser sovereigns!” A scythe of the umbrum’s aura sliced into the rock and kicked up a cloud of debris that shrouded the Heartbearer. He blindly fired two spells towards Trigger and Barrier, and both of the unicorns dodged with lateral motions that carried their positions along the amorphous edge of the dust field.

Tail’s blazing sights narrowed as she continued to drift from the king’s last-known location. Mild shocks popped into her fur along the paths of her sensor loops, and she flapped her wings to avoid the fierce jab that Sombra would have likely put into her spine had she not gotten out of the way.

Three Bullet Flashes appeared on each of her forehooves before Tail struck the umbrum’s unguarded flank with as many punches as she could throw before he made his next move. Thin cracks appeared in his second skin near the impact points, but none of her strikes packed the power to bring Sombra down.

“Nnngh!” Tail groaned after she hit the earth with an armor-rumbling thud. Her brain didn’t even have the opportunity to process that she had been swatted out of the air with a menacing punt before Sombra’s iron-clad hoof pounded against her chestplate and helmet. Get up. Get up. The internal decrees spurred her to roll and shuffle despite the blistering aches that rocked her skull and sternum.

Thankfully for the pegasus, the squad rallied to her aid. Multiple layers of Indar’s buffers met the monarch’s continued attempts to batter the mare’s frame. She regained her footing right as an argent ray ripped from Trigger’s horn into Sombra’s side and forced the dark mage from his position. Barrier added his own spellcraft to the joint assault, and the corrupted shell was still radiating with heat when Tail’s coltfriend teleported to her side.

Bonecrusher also emerged through the dissipating dust. Scowling, she sprinted towards Sombra, ducked under and around several of his crimson bolts, and passed his guard to land some quick jabs to his chest, neck, and Crystal Heart. Against the powerhouse defense, the earth pony wisely didn’t stay there for long, especially after her cheeks started twitching in frustration to the meager flinches he offered in response.

Barrier swept into the space yielded by Bonecrusher’s deft retreat, and he fashioned a fearsome stare while he closed the distance to Sombra. One of his shields burst to life behind the umbrum’s head. The construct hammered against the poll and crest with enough energy to shove the king forward, and Barrier followed the maneuver up by ramming a lance of blue magic, and his boot, into Sombra’s crown.

With soreness still speaking to her nerves, Tail pathed an arc towards Sombra’s flank while he and Barrier locked into a temporary stalemate. Thrusts and flares collided with magic and flesh, creating a symphony that easily overwhelmed the fog of war. She watched as Barrier fought on in spite of the cuts that smeared his countenance in red, and she watched as Sombra’s temper fueled another shock wave that erupted from his hardened body.

The swelling vermillion sphere pushed the exhausted Barrier away from the tyrant. The former spread his limbs and gasped for air while trickles of blood continued to stain his charcoal-colored fur. The latter cackled once he became partially hidden by the vibrant sun of sorcery. “It is time to bring this chapter to an end! You do not yet see your fates, but I know that you’re done!” Sombra shouted triumphantly to the combatants.

Tail slowly veered to face the fiery mass. She lowered her chest as she walked, and she stretched a hind leg farther forward than usual before she sprang into a low-altitude flight. Pulling her lifted forelimbs inward, she rapidly collected streams of water vapor from her own evaporating sweat. At two meters out, the wisps formed a pair of conical-shaped cloud tufts. One hovered in front of her right forehoof and shifted into its lightning state, while the other gathered on a spike that decorated Tail’s left cannon guard.

She nailed the first Bullet Flash into Sombra’s star-like barricade and flew onward once the shell shattered. Through the slits in her visor, Tail registered the dismay that contorted the colt’s mouth and quirked brow. At leg’s reach, the iron-clinging tuft released its luminescent fury the nanosecond before the glaring pegasus whipped her appendage around in a ridge-hoof strike that buried the radiant point into the side of the enslaver’s head.

“Begone! Begone! Begone!” Sombra wailed as tiny arcs of electricity spilled over his rosette from the puncture hole that splintered his final line of defense. He slid backwards, grinding the mare’s momentum to a halt, and tossed his foreleg around her snaggable appendage. Cinching his catch as his iron circlet fell to pieces, Sombra unloaded a vengeful battering of punches into Tail’s breastplate. “Get out!”

A few more jabs followed until the king rammed his hoof against Tail’s crest and squeezed with all of his might. He started headbutting her helm, over and over, as growls and unintelligible decrees sputtered from his maw. “You’re not strong enough! Your punch is useless! Your love is useless! You will fail!” Finally, Sombra pushed his foreleg higher and tore Tail’s helmet from her head.

The colonel didn’t know what exactly King Sombra expected to see, but she met the cold wind that raked her shortened mane with a paradoxical stare that radiated an icy inferno. Blood seeped from a wound on her forehead, and the red banners of battle drew their rivers over her cheeks and muzzle.

Adrenaline pumped through her system, and she hyper-focused on the crimson bands that jumped along his horn. In less than a second, she yanked her foreleg from his head and gazed into the fiery cast that would have been destined to kill her. Thankfully, the pegasus had not taken an idle stroll.

Dozens of current loops simultaneously flashed when Tail triggered her Synchrotron Cascade. She stole Sombra’s spell the instant he shot it, and the crackling scarlet bolt raced around the mare’s body before it backtracked the path she had trotted. The countless coils bathed the snow in a gentle, wavering amber light while they guided the powerful assault around Barrier as well. When the beam emerged from the end of the line, it had a new target, one which put it directly into the spot Tail had spiked.

Sombra gagged as the magical blast further fractured his obsidian skin. A sanguine wave gushed out of his opened muzzle after he released Tail and stumbled away. “No! No! N—aaack!”

“You don’t know me, Captain Sombra,” Tail continued in a chillingly reserved tone, “but I can’t quit. Not for me. Not for them. Not for him! And while we’re on the subject of comrades, let me just say that you’re right. My punches aren’t that strong, but only a dipshit would assume that I’d have to have the strongest punch here.”

“With this earth, I have sown a bounty, and from the dust, unbridled joy shall grow.” Bonecrusher appeared off of Sombra’s flank in an umber flash. The cloud tuft that Tail had left her moments prior now devoured the pony’s lower cannon in a spiraling flame. The corporal cocked her limb, hurled it forward, and plunged her radiant hoof into Sombra’s skull like a jackhammer hitting concrete.

The umbrum gurgled as more of him crumbled. He skipped across the ground, flopping and flailing about until he eventually came to a halt in a folded heap.

Upon observing the spectacle, Tail sighed and collapsed onto her haunches. Barrier swiftly strode to her side, and the scientist met his concerned glance with a tired, dopey expression. Don’t dawdle, she reminded herself once Barrier took a protective position that put him a step closer to the mad monarch.

“I’ll ki—aughh!” Sombra screeched as he climbed onto his hooves with shaky motions that spilled more blood. The Crystal Heart hummed a song of discontent, and renegade pools of energy leaked from its surfaces. “My will! My—nngh! Everything! I’ll send you all to oblivion!”

Beside Trigger, Wing readied another one of his canisters after he glimpsed at the creature of reverie. “The Curse of the Crystal Heart demands an alicorn-level wielder. King Sombra just lost his grip. The gem’s rejecting him. Get ready to cast it, Trigs. We’ve reached checkmate in five.”

Sombra’s hellfire stare fell upon Barrier and Tail. An enormous amount of magical energy coalesced around his horn as he tapped into everything that the Crystal Heart would still give him. “Your treasonous devotion to one another is my birthright to end!”

We knew you would come. Tail squinted as she eyed the frightening, jagged aura that Sombra manifested. Pain tugged at her senses, and the dreadful sight sent shivers racing beneath her drenched fur. Still, she pushed up onto all fours when the echoes of Commander Hurricane’s timbre nipped at her mind. She leaned towards Barrier and wrapped her wingspan around him before the sacred words dribbled out of her mouth. “With these wings, I have created a world, and in it, all I hold dear is safe.”

Thunder rumbled across the tundra in the wake of Sombra’s devastating spell. Snow melted and boiled on the spot where Tail and Barrier had been standing. The blood-red beam excavated a trench that dwarfed the previous scars of the fight, and the taste of metal lingered in the air for several seconds after the shot. In spite of the massive damage he had taken, Sombra unleashed laughed notes as he celebrated the demonstration of his power—at least until the hallmarks of an outrageously noisy teleport drew his gaze skyward.

Tail clutched Barrier with three of her four legs, and thin lines of her lightning traced an archaic runic seal as they danced around the couple. Suddenly a few hundred lengths above the deranged king, Tail flapped her feathers like there was no tomorrow while she fought to keep them both aloft. A shuddered sigh of relief spilled from her lips into his ear, and she softly spoke, “I’m never letting you go, Magic.”

Sombra peered in horror as two blue lines of dreamshell magic began to climb higher and higher into the sky towards where the pair of lovers had emerged. The space between the bright bands grew black as sackcloth, and the view of Sombra’s cloudy sky became obscured. Focusing on his former protégé, Sombra’s obsession with the group of ponies that still buzzed around him like gnats fell to the wayside.

“Hey, Fuckwad,” Wing blurted, his sound carrying from right beneath Sombra’s raised muzzle. The second the monstrous monarch looked down to see the blue and black of the stallion’s uniform, Wing thrust his P.J.E. into the umbrum’s fangs and snickered as they were both engulfed in a plume of gas. “Never take your fucking eyes off a Wonderbolt.”

The unicorn attempted to retaliate against the insolent incursion by blowing Wing away with a spell, but the misbehaving auguric arcs took trajectories that sent them all harmlessly fluttering to the dirt. Sombra opened his maw and emptied the air from his lungs in a long, low, throat-scraping roar.

Wing, now comically without his namesakes, skipped out of the cloud of gas. “He can’t aim his magic! It’s time!” the lavender pegasus screamed as loud as he could.

High above, Tail and Barrier eyed the red fractals of energy that haphazardly darted over the landscape. Every now and again, one of the ragged rays would approach the hovering couple—only for it to be stopped by a towering chandelier composed of Indar’s highly efficient shields.

Platinum's Generosity: With this magic, I have created a light, and the brightest riches shine in the hearts of those it protects.

Amidst the calamity, Tail repositioned her right foreleg to point her revolver’s barrel at Sombra. “Barrier, the feather you left for me—Ember’s feather—was drenched in your aura. Not all that surprising after a thousand years. The key thing is that it gave off enough auguric radiation to try something new. I injected both of our magics. My last round is a BT-shell. If Operation Cobalt was an indicator”—not the time to nerd, Tail!—“we can take him down together. Use the backup leads. Resonate with me, and then we can go home.”

The charcoal-coated unicorn was still turning his head to the left and right in motions that cast his surprised gaze all over the Crystal Empire. He held onto Tail’s foreleg with both of his front limbs—despite already being firmly corralled by the mare. “Did you just teleport? And your mane is really short now,” he mumbled, drawing a snort from the floating flier.

“I have no idea what I just did, to be honest,” Tail answered as a smile began to spread across her countenance. She briefly scanned the rising columns of Trigger’s spell and the midnight backdrop that eventually formed to her rear. “But I bet that’s our cue, Magic Bear. I also know that I’m here with you, and I think that’s all that matters right now.”

Settling down in Tail’s grip, Barrier brushed his mane against the lower side of the physicist’s muzzle. A hum trickled from his throat as they shared a little warmth over the tundra, and after resting in the meditative trance for a few seconds, the stallion simply asked, “What do I need to do?”

“There’s a strip of augurite sticking out from each of the bracket plates. I’d point to where they are for efficiency purposes, but my limbs are a bit occupied with keeping us airborne. Though, you’ll probably figure it out by feel once you get started. Just put a current through the rearward mount, and pull it through the forward one. Then, it all boils down to pushing the swing. You’ll get a little feedback from the round. This is normal. Just dial the frequency as the response ramps.” A blush swept across Tail’s face as she explained, “I’ve often found it helpful to think about the pony involved.”

Electrical discharges jumped along Tail’s outstretched appendage once she felt the force of Barrier’s essence sweep over her creation. A continuous blue thread of his sorcery flowed from the tip of his horn, through her revolver, and back to its source. However, to the physicist, the interplay between that current, the BT-shell, and her own resonance injector produced a far more tangible sensation.

At least ten times stronger than any initial response Tail had felt, the auguric vibrations combed her lavender fur. She cooed in response to the rumblings, and her facial muscles tensed to keep her eyes on the prize throughout her necessary dive into memory. Gaining your respect, learning your secret, and sharing mine.

Soreness seeped across her wingspan and burned her busy legs. She tightened her hold on Barrier as her thoughts drifted to their outing at the Grand Galloping Gala, how they danced to Sincy’s songs, and how she sang one of her own. Not to mention how we dueled under the moonlight, and the way he took me after.

“Mm, you looked quite nice in that hood,” Barrier uncannily commented at just the right moment to send a fresh wave of heat to Tail’s cheeks.

Of course he would say something like that at a time like this, her inner voice squealed. Tail’s flapping rate soared. She struggled to regain her focus, and her heart churned a sassy retort that yearned for life. “Well, you looked great when you opted to bring me the rope, Sweety.”

The stallion chuckled, and an airy glow spread over the cylinder once his melodic notes hit Tail’s ears. “You were amazing on that trip. Those were three weeks of my life that I wouldn’t trade for anything. You grew so much, and you were there for me when I needed to remember them. You’re one of a kind, Tail, and you always have been.”

Tail’s breath hitched when additional waves of magic washed over her frame. The three swells came from Trigger’s mammoth abyss, and her sensor rings purred to the familiar company that had their backs. A goldenrod aura pulled off the rubber caps that covered the ends of the extra barrel coil, and a yellow-cream flame lit the points of the emerging spring-up contacts. A blue field outlined the couple as well, and Tail splayed her feathers once she realized that she and Barrier felt almost weightless.

“‘Cause you’re one of us, and you’re both stronger together,” the whispers of Ember, River Styx, and Silver Dust kissed their ears. “We’ll always stand behind our captains.”

Barrier’s coat stood on end, and a pair of teardrops claimed the corners of his eyes. The icy-blue light that wrapped around his horn blossomed in both covered volume and intensity, and the BT-shell replied in kind with an even brighter brilliance.

The blazes that had ensnared Tail’s irides throughout the conflict erupted into unbridled amber beacons. She checked that she had fully moved the trigger into its firing position before putting some extra pressure on the polished chrome crescent. Her pulse, locking onto her mounting determination, raced with rekindled vigor, and she gulped after finally unloading the pent-up air that had occupied her lungs.

“Aislynn came to me,” she informed Barrier in a subdued timbre. “She told me some things about other ponies, but she also told me that I had to pull my resolve out of the shadows. She said that she had made sure that we had each seen what we needed to see as part of answering the call. What I saw—I saw our kids, Magic Bear. I saw our kids, and they were beautiful.”

Barrier slowly closed his eyes and kept his spellwork going. Once again, he pushed his mane against Tail’s muzzle as tears began to fall from her eyes in streaks that overcame the belts of blood. He nuzzled his marefriend, bequeathing his affection before an equally muted voice slipped through his lips. “I saw them too, Blanket, and they will most definitely be beautiful.”

Streams of lightning fanned out over Tail’s wings. The air around the revolver scintillated, and she clung to Barrier’s words and their resonance with every fiber of who she was. “I love you,” she answered, finally pressing the trigger to release a blistering band of white light that pierced heaven, earth, and crystal.

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