The Definition of Strength

by Viking ZX

First published

Sabra has been searching for his answer for three long years, and at long last he may have found it. It just might not be the answer he expects.

When a monk has learned all he can learn, he is sent forth on a pilgrimage. A search for knowledge, guided only by a single question, never to return home unless they find an answer. Sabra has been searching for three years, and at long last, he may have found his answer.

It may just not be the answer he expects.

Second of the Side Stories to The Dusk Guard: Rise. Familiarity with Rise is not required per se, but recommended.
Side Stories so far:
Carry On
The Definition of Strength
Old Habits

The Saga has a TV Tropes page!
"This is 100% Approved by Twilight's Library!"
Added to Twilight's Library 1/21/2014
Featured on Canterlot's Finest
Special Thanks to Sonorus, Jorlem, Sinister Voice, Templar22, Bronze Aegis and JinShu for their help pre-reading, editing and getting a summary together.
Art by dpjohnson22

Part 1

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“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a pony.”
—Atom Orbit

Nothingness. There was nothingness around him, a serene absence, a lack of the world at large. Sabra let out a calm, slow breath, his muscles relaxing and then tightening as they moved to new positions. New places. New awareness.

There was a void now. The nothingness evolved as he settled into it, a change from nothing to something. There wasn’t shape or form. It simply was. It was all colors, but none. All shapes, but none. There was the void, and there was him.

He let out another breath. Slow, steady. Like the beating of his heart. He could feel every twitch of muscle, every push of his heart as it sent blood rushing through his body. A wisp of wind moving through his striped mane. Deeper.

There was a lake now, stretched out beneath him. A smooth, flat expanse of water, so calm and still that the most perfect piece of glass could not have laid across it without showing its minute imperfections. The lake stretched on in all directions, melding with a horizon that did not exist. Slowly, surely, with each exhalation of breath, Sabra let himself sink into the lake, letting it pour into him as he poured into it. There was a faint sense of the world around him and then … all was still.

His body was still there. He could still feel each heartbeat, each pulse of blood. He could still feel the faint, dull thumps of the true world, but it was muted, indistinct. Like hearing someone speak underwater. The sounds, the feelings ... They were, at the moment, meaningless. All that mattered was the spiritual.

From out of the void drifted a single, simple, leaf, spinning and looping as it made its way down towards the surface of the lake. It was, surprisingly enough, not one of the arrowhead-shaped leaves of his homeland. Instead it had three distinct arms, a shape that looked familiar although it took him a moment to place it. A maple leaf. Curious that he would see it in such a way.

Perhaps it is a sign, he thought as the leaf drifted closer, fluttering in a non-existent breeze. But a sign of what? It is a subconscious representation of my location? A representation of my own choice to stay here? My unease with my answer? The lake began to quiver, ripples spreading in all directions, and he snapped his thoughts back. The water stilled once more.

Perhaps it is merely chance, he conceded as the leaf struck the surface of the lake, ripples spreading out around it in perfect, concentric rings, not unlike the rings on his flank that made up cutie mark. The ripples spread, stretching across the surface of the lake, growing wider and wider as they pressed onward. And with the ripples, came a memory.

Shikamoo,” Sabra said, bowing his head as he came to a stop before the desk. “Mtawala wa Jua.”

Shikamoo, Sabra,” Princess Celestia replied, although he didn’t see if she returned his nod. “Karibu.” The greeting complete, Sabra raised his head to look up at the Solar Diarch of Equestria. She was still seated behind her desk, although from the soft movements of her multi-colored mane, she’d returned his nod of greeting. For a moment the room was silent, and then the Princess nodded at him again, tilting her horn towards one of the seats sitting in front of her desk.

“Please, Sabra,” she said, switching to Equestrian, “sit. I hope you don’t mind if we hold this discussion in Equestrian. At least,” she said with a soft smile, “my end of it. I’m afraid that my grasp of Zebra isn’t quite what it could be.”

“We may speak in whatever dialect you wish,” Sabra said. “But your Zebra is impeccable.”

Celestia laughed, a soft, gentle chuckle that reminded Sabra of a morning sun rising over the plains. “You may say so,” she said with a gentle smile, “and your kindness is appreciated. But, as often as Akeelah has had to correct me, I hope you will not be offended if I choose to speak a language that I am more familiar—and eloquent—with.”

“It is fine,” Sabra said, giving his head a soft shake. “We may converse in whatever language you desire.” That was the word he’d misspoken before. Language, not dialect.

“That’s very kind of you, Sabra,” the Princess said. “And I congratulate you on your own work at learning Equestrian. I am aware it is not the most easy of languages to grasp.”

“Thank you, Princess,” Sabra said, tilting his head once more.

“You’re welcome,” she replied. “Now, Captain Song said you had a question for me?”

Sabra swallowed, his tongue sticking to the top of his suddenly dry mouth. “I … I do, your highness.” He felt as if he had swallowed an ember pepper, his stomach roiling even as his lips refused to work. Calmness, serenity, he reminded himself. Unity of purpose. Celestia was sitting patiently on the other side of the desk, her eyes looking down at him with a weight he couldn’t begin to measure. Decades, centuries of knowledge and experience, staring down at him. For a brief moment their eyes met, and he felt as if he could feel the weight of her knowledge and experience as a physical, tangible thing that pressed down on him.

He closed his eyes, shutting away the room with its grand golds and reds, its tapestries and shelves of artifacts and scrolls. Shutting away the sight of the immortal sitting scarce feet in front of him. One question, he thought. One question, and my pilgrimage may be over. One question, and his time with the Dusk Guard could be at an end.

“You may ask whenever you are ready,” the Princess said, her voice reverberating all around him, although he doubted she realized that it was. That was the gift of his talent, to see the world through sound and tone. He knew exactly how close she was to him, knew that she had leaned back slightly as she’d spoken, heard the feathers of her wings rustle as she adjusted her sitting position.

“Your highness,” he said, still holding his eyes shut. He could hear her lean forward slightly. “The question I ask may not have an easy answer, and if you are unable to answer, do not take offense. But I wish to know: what is life?”

There. He’d said it. The question was spoken now. He kept his eyes closed tightly as he waited, holding his body still despite the quiver of anticipation that was shooting through his soul.

For a moment, neither of them spoke. He heard the Princess draw a breath in several times, as if she was going to speak, but then she let it out again, a silent gale of air that swept across the desk. Then at last, her voice filled the room; calm and serene, but cautious.

“What do you mean, Sabra?” she asked, and he could hear the tone of curiosity in her voice, picture the expression on her face.

“I mean what I ask,” he said in return, tilting his head downward. “My question is ‘what is life?’”

“There … are many answers that somepony could respond to that with, my little pony,” the Princess said. “Are you looking for any particular answer?”

“Only your own,” Sabra said, his head still bowed.

“Well then,” she said, and he could hear a faint tone of satisfaction in her voice. “I shall do my best to honor your request.” The faint shushing sound of wood on carpet reached his ears as her chair slid back and the Princess rose, her voice moving across the room as she spoke until he could tell she was facing away from him.

“Sabra, life is something that is not simple, nor should it ever be. Even in it’s calmest moments, it is a complex, wonderful thing, full of joys, triumphs, achievements, successes, and hardships. It is not easy, nor is it always what we wish, but in the end it is something that is always worth having.”

“But it is up to each individual to make of their life what they may,” she continued. “Some may be born into hardship. Some into pain. Some into ease. But regardless of any single pony’s circumstances, there is one thing that remains the same, no matter what.” There was another pause, and he could hear her hooves shifting as she turned towards him.

“To me, Sabra,” she said, her voice soft. “Each life is a gift, a gift far too few treasure. A gift that can grow and spread. A gift that can be shared. Each and every life is unique, from its birth to its inevitable death. Always growing, always changing, always learning.” She let out a soft chuckle of amusement, like tiny bells ringing in Sabra’s ears. “Even I, an immortal, learn something new every day.”

“Life is a gift, Sabra,” she said, turning back towards her desk. “A beautiful, wondrous gift. You and everyone else in this world have been given this gift. A chance to learn. A chance to grow, to make of yourself more than you were the day before. It’s a wondrous gift, because what it ultimately becomes is up to you. And—” she said as he opened his eyes once more, locking gazes with the immortal ruler and feeling a faint sense of awe as he was swept away in the ageless, purple irises, “—like all gifts, it only means something if it is shared with another.”

Shared with another… The ripples continued their endless journey outward towards the horizon, spreading in perfect rings as the leaf slowly slipped beneath the surface. Life is a gift… The Princess’s words echoed across the open water, stirring up eddies and waves across the flat surface. Images stood out beneath each disturbance. Places he’d been. Ponies he’d known. A ripple refracted as it struck one of the waves, splitting into new ripples that spread across the infinite expanse.

A gift to be shared...

From beyond the edge of the infinite horizon, something plucked at his consciousness. The lake quivered, its surface shaking as Sabra pulled himself away from it, ripples and waves breaking apart and then burying themselves in a turbulent froth.

“Hey, Sabra?” The edge of the world broke apart, his concentration shattering as his consciousness returned to the outward world. Minute senses—the cool wind running across his coat, the faint rough texture of the wooden shingles beneath his haunches—rushed back into full awareness, no longer muted, but bright as the morning sun at his back.

Msamaha, lieutenant,” he said as he opened his eyes. Floating in front of him, his wings gently flapping to keep him aloft, was First Lieutenant Hunter, an amused—if regretful—look on his face. “My apologies,” Sabra said as he rose up on his hooves. “I was … deep in thought.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the Lieutenant said. He shook his head as he spoke, his long, straw-colored mane bouncing against his light brown shoulders. “The fault’s mine, I’m the one interrupting your meditation. Sorry.”

Hakuna Matata,” Sabra said with a nod, and the Lieutenant grinned. “What do you need?”

“A favor,” the lieutenant said as he settled down on the barracks roof next to him. “Aside from the meditation, how’s the rest of your day scheduled?”

“It is open to change,” Sabra said, rolling his shoulders as he began to stretch, muscles that had locked during his meditation loosening and coming free. “What do you require?”

“Sky Bolt’s looking for someone to test that enchantment thingo of hers with. The Boss and I are set to meet with the Princesses in another hour, so neither of us can do it. Dawn’s attending a medical presentation down at Canterlot General, and Nova’s still forbidden to have a thing to do with magic. Can you help her out?”

Sky Bolt. Another confusing puzzle that he really didn’t want to think about at the moment. At least, not in too much depth. The light-grey pegasus mare was a meditation session all on her own, but…

Ndiyo,” he said, giving the lieutenant a quick nod. The tan pegasus let out a sigh of relief.

“Oh, good,” he said, grinning. “I was hoping you’d be free. To be honest, I was halfway tempted just to tell her to wait until I got back and volunteer myself but…” He shrugged as he spread his wings again, his shoulders rolling under his mane. “She needs something to focus on, something to keep her occupied after the other day.”

“I understand,” Sabra said, his mind flashing back to the night before last, by far one of the most confusing nights of his life. Awoken by Nova in the middle of the night, told that Sky Bolt had asked for him, only to find her on the tail end of a breakdown that he hadn’t the slightest clue how to help with. Apparently, just being there for her had been enough but … He shook his head, the thought fading back into the recesses of his mind.

There will be a time to consider such things later, he reminded himself. For now what matters is the question, and my duty here. But… “Is she going to be alright?” he asked, the words slipping free of his mouth before he could stop them.

“Dawn seems to think so,” the lieutenant said, his grin narrowing slightly. “Myself, I think she’ll be ok, she’s just … adjusting to something she’s never had to deal with before.” Sabra could see the feathers on the pegasus’s wings twitch slightly at his own words. “I probably shouldn’t say more about it, but if you wouldn’t mind—if you get the chance—talking to her about it? I want her to know the whole team is there for her.”

Sabra gave the request a moments thought. Certainly it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask her about it. After all, he’d hardly spoken to her the next day, aside from accepting her thank you that morning when she’d awoken. They just hadn’t … spoken wasn’t quite the word for it. Interacted, perhaps. Not since she’d spent the larger amount of the prior day meeting with Dawn. He’d only seen her after that in passing, as the blue-maned mare had headed for her workshop after dinner.

“I can do that,” he said, looking back up at the lieutenant. When had his eyes wandered down towards the roof of the barracks?

“Thanks, Sabra,” Hunter said, slapping one hoof against his shoulder. “Be sure to suit up before you head down there, she said she needed you in full armor kit.”

“Wait,” Sabra said, confused, “she said?” For a moment Hunter seemed to stall, his expression locked somewhere between bemused surprise and the look of a foal who’d been caught by a matriarch with their hoof in the sweet-reed bag.

“I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” he said quickly, his wings spreading as he jumped backwards off of the roof. “Full kit, workshop! I’ve got to get going!” He threw Sabra a quick, sloppy salute before arrowing off through the air towards Canterlot Castle, his last cry of “Good luck!” echoing across the open, grassy expanse.

Sabra shook his head as the pegasus vanished and then closed his eyes, letting himself sink into a lighter form of the same, peaceful tranquility that he had used earlier. Life is a gift, he thought, running the Princesses words through his mind. But a gift I will attempt to understand at some other time. He took one final deep breath, stepped forward, and then with a grace that even the most skilled of acrobats would have envied, dropped from the side of the barracks.

* * *

The door to his room slid open and Sabra reached out with one hoof, flipping the light switch upwards almost without thought. He didn’t need the light. His senses were more than attuned enough for him to conduct his business in complete darkness. After all, he spent a good portion of each day blindfolded, his eyes cut off from the world, forcing him to make greater use of his special talent.

Not that he would have needed it to cross the room he’d been given. The long, rectangular space was far more spacious than anything he’d ever lived in, easily twice as large as the room he’d dwelt in at the monastery. Almost three times as large. It was certainly larger than the small dwelling he’d constructed for himself in the Unicorn Range where Captain Song and Hunter had found him.

Perhaps that was why it was so empty. Unadorned. He trotted across the polished hardwood, his hooves ringing with each step and sending faint echoes bouncing from the walls as he headed for his dresser. Along the way he passed the room's sole adornments, a few swaths of colorful cloth that had been draped along the walls, covering the bare wood in a reasonable facsimile of the colorful silks of his homeland.

He hadn’t put them there. They’d been part of the room when he’d arrived. The only part of the room he’d ever touched aside from the bed was the dresser drawer that he was opening up now, his few meager belongings shifting inside of it. He’d never even had the occasion to open the other drawers. Everything he owned fit inside the top drawer with space to spare.

He paused, his hoof draped over the edge of the open drawer, his neck twisting as he ran his eyes across the room. It wasn’t that the bright red cloth was not … appreciated. He knew who had been responsible for it, and why. Sky Bolt had simply wanted him to feel at home. It almost bothered him that she had done more to decorate his quarters than he had.

Still, what reason do I have to do otherwise? he thought as he turned his attention back to the drawer. He stretched out one hoof as his eyes caught sight of what he’d been looking for. The one thing he’d kept since coming to Equestria. Two halves of a bamboo staff, broken cleanly in two only a few weeks earlier. The only thing he had left from his homeland.

He wasn’t sure why he’d wanted to look at the staff before going to see Sky Bolt. Maybe it was a reminder of where he’d come from, a reminder of what he had left behind when he’d set out on his pilgrimage. Maybe it was because he missed it. True, the replacement fimbo Sky Bolt had gifted him had been a more than capable replacement, surpassing the bamboo in every way possible. But the staff had been a gift from his first teacher in the ways of Fimbo.

Perhaps he wanted to remember it. To keep it as the first tangible keepsake and reminder of his homeland. But if that was true, why was in the bottom of his desk? He reached out with one limb and rolled the bamboo under his hoof, hearing the faint rattle of the grain as it pushed against the drawer.

Maybe one day he would display it. Place it on top of a dresser instead of hidden within. But not yet. For now it was a reminder—the last reminder—of the journey he was still on. Of what he had left to accomplish.

He pushed the drawer shut and took one last look around the room before shaking his head. The time to dwell on his thoughts was over. Right now, he needed to assist Sky Bolt.

* * *

“Hey! You made it!” Sky Bolt said, looking up at him with a smile as he trotted into the workshop. He returned her smile with a faint one of his own, noting the twitch her wings made at the faint gesture. It felt good to be back in his armor again, even if one of the chest plates was still cracked from a particularly heavy blow during their last mission.

Ndiyo,” he said, nodding as he came to a stop. As was the usual he’d come to expect from the grey pegasus mare, Sky Bolt’s workshop was in various stages of disassembly. Parts and pieces of dozens of machines and projects scattered across nearly as many workbenches in a seemingly random pattern that made no sense to him but seemed to work for her, judging from how much she accomplished. “How are you?”

“I’m doing fine,” she said as she turned her attention back down to the desk in front of her, where several crystalline objects sat sparkling under the lights. “I’ve been working on this for a few hours now and I think it’s ready—”

“No,” Sabra said, shaking his head as she looked up at him in surprise, a small, thin tool dropping from her lips. Is it truly my place to pry? he wondered as she looked at him expectantly.

Habari gani?” he asked again, this time in his native tongue, emphasizing the words.

“I…” She let out a sigh and sat back, one grey hoof and rubbing up and down her shoulder as her eyes avoided his gaze. “I’m doing better.”

Sabra stepped forward, placing his armored hoof down on the workbench. “I did not see you enjoy dinner in the cafeteria last night with us,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “Nor were you at breakfast this morning. Is everything alright?”

“I’m okay,” she said as her eyes met his. “I ate here.” She shook her head, her sky-blue mane cascading around her shoulders before she looked away, breaking contact with his gaze. “I keep a stash of granola in one of the workbenches. I wanted some time to think, and I think best when I’m tinkering, so…” She shrugged as she turned back to him, and he could see a weariness in her eyes. Then she smiled again and the weariness was pushed back as her face lit up with excitement. “So, are you ready to see what your armor is supposed to really be like?”

“I … of course,” Sabra said, holding back his reaction at the abrupt change in conversation. She does not wish to discuss it. He turned his attention down towards the grey-white crystal armor he was clad in. It shone under the workshop light, the crystalline surface giving it an almost silvery color if he looked at it correctly. Perhaps I will ask again. “What do I need to do?”

“Well, at the moment,” Sky Bolt said, her voice warm and spry once more, “just come over here and stand still.” She tapped an open section of the floor next to the desk with her hoof and he complied, darting his eyes towards hers every few seconds. He hadn’t been mistaken in his initial impression. They did look tired.

“Hold still,” she said as he turned to get a better look at her. He snapped his head back forward. “Good,” she said as she turned away. “Now, we’re going to start with the helmet, alright?”

Ndiyo,” he said, his mind only half focusing on her words. Lieutenant Hunter asked me to make sure she’s alright, and I’ve asked, he thought as Sky Bolt stepped in front of him, a large, angular helmet made of the same, polished crystal as his suit clutched beneath one hoof. The rest of her body didn’t look tired, just her eyes, like she’d spent time deep in thought. She said she was alright. Have I done enough? Was her answer enough?

“Alright!” Sky Bolt said, a grin on her face as she reared back on her hind legs, her wings spreading to help her keep her balance as she hefted the helmet in her hooves. She was in her element now, her bright smile driven by the thrill of showing off her creations.

“So, there’s a couple of things to explain about your helmet,” she said, and he snapped his mental process back on topic. “First of all, unlike the helmets worn by the other Guard, this one has a visor,” Sky Bolt said, spinning the helm in her her hooves so he could see the clear crystal surface that made up one side. “The crystal is pretty hard stuff,” she said, tapping the clear surface with one hoof, “but in the event that it breaks, there’s a safety spell on it that will cause it to shatter outward. Assuming anything can break it.”

“Now, past that,” she said, flipping the helmet so that he could see the inside, “you’ll notice that the same material that you wear under your armor plating is also on the inside of the helmet.” True to what she’d said, he could make out the faint, dark, rubbery material that made up the bodysuit under the armor panels. She gave the helmet a shake, and his eyes could just make out the faint lines shining in the material.

“Are those—?” he began to ask.

“Yes,” Sky Bold said, nodding. “Like I said, it’s the same material, and that includes the crystal enhancement pathways. Now, there’s also a mesh for you to work your mane through, as well as small openings for your ears. I’m still not sure about that design though,” she said, sitting back on her haunches and looking down at the helmet as if she’d forgotten he was there. “I’m still not sure I couldn’t come up with some method of letting you hear while still offering protection.” Her face snapped back to him as she shrugged. “Oh well,” she said with a smile. “That’s why this is the mark one.”

“Mark … one?” he asked as she flapped her wings, rising from the floor and moving to hover just above his head.

“Well, yeah,” she said, bending her head in close and adding in a “hold still,” as he started to pull back. “Everything I make starts as a mark one. There’s always room for improvement, Sabra. Always. I mean, I know this equipment isn’t perfect,” she said, her voice picking up speed. “I mean, look at that cracked plate on your chest? My armor failed when you needed it. You could have—”

Kuacha.” Sabra put his hoof out and covering Sky Bolt’s mouth. Her eyes widened as she stopped speaking.

“Your armor worked,” he said, his hoof still covering her mouth. “I do not know if the damage all our armor sustained in battle is what’s been bothering you, but the reason this armor is cracked is because it did what it was supposed to do. The armor cracked because it took a blow meant for me, kuelewa?” She nodded, and he pulled his hoof back, noticing for the first time that he had leaned in closer to her as he’d spoken. Or had she sank down? Did it matter?

“But what about your ribs?” Sky Bolt asked, her voice soft. “Weren’t they cracked?”

“But not broken, thanks to your armor,” he replied, giving his head a slight side-to-side shake. “Your armor worked.” She stared at him for a moment, and he wondered if he should say something else, anything that could help convey his words.

“Thanks, Sabra,” she said with a small smile, and he could see a glimmer of fire burning behind her bright red eyes as she spoke. Her eyes had always reminded him of campfires on the plains. Faint, but bright against the clear, blue-sky that was her mane. Unless she’d smudged grease in it again, but even the plains had rain. “I actually am kind of glad to hear that.”

Mwakaribishwa,” he said, giving her a small bow of his head, breaking the eye contact.

“Well, alright then,” she said, hefting the helmet once more, her voice sounding more alert, more upbeat than it had a few moments earlier. “You ready to try this thing on, mark one or not, and then do the real test?” She moved towards him without waiting for an answer, pushing her hoof under his jaw.

“Alright, now, this might be a little tricky at first,” she said as she tilted his head back. “The regular Guard armor is a little simpler than this, and isn’t as well secured, but that means it’s a bit more tricky to put this on. For now, let me just—” Sabra closed his eyes, tensing his muscles as the crystalline helm descended around his head. To his surprise, it wasn’t cold, although he felt a faint tingle run across his body, like the feel of powdered snow brushing against his coat. He shivered.

“Are you alright?” Sky Bolt’s voice was muffled, distorted by the helmet crushing his ears, although not echoey like he’d expected. “You’re not feeling … odd? Are you?” The snow was competing now, fighting for attention with the tugging on his mane.

“It tingled,” he said, fighting the urge to shake his back. “It was similar to the first time I put on the bodysuit.”

“Oh, that’s good then,” Sky Bolt said. Her words sprang into sudden clarity as the helmet twisted beneath her hooves and his ears sprang free. The pressure on his mane faded as well, and he could both feel and hear the faint drone of the woven straps sliding against the crystal as she began to tighten the helmet beneath his jaw, cheek and crest.

“Good?” he asked, clenching his jaw as the straps tightened against his throat.

“It means it’s…” She paused for a moment and her heard her step back, the straps going slack against his jaw as she released them. “I guess the best term would be ‘interfaced’ or maybe ‘synchronized.’ But it means that the helmet is at least mostly working with the rest of the suit. It just tingles because it took a moment for the enhancement-lines to line up.”

“Is it alright if I admit I only understood a part of that?” Sabra asked half-jokingly, his eyes still closed.

“Are you smiling?” Sky Bolt asked, her tone playful. He liked hearing it. “I can’t tell now that you have that helmet on. And you can open your eyes, Sabra. It’s not going to blind you.”

It certainly wasn’t what he had expected, he realised as he inched his eyes open. There was some slight distortion around the edges of his vision were the straight edges of the workshop curved ever so slightly, and he could see the helmet itself in the corner of his eyes or if he tried to glance to one side or the other. But for the most part, his vision was absolutely, perfectly, clear.

“Well?” Sky Bolt asked, stepping away from him as he turned to look at her. She cocked her head to one side, her eyes narrowing. “What do you think?”

“It’s … different,” he said, giving his head an experimental roll. It did feel different. He could feel the extra weight of the helmet—even as little as it was—slowing the motion of his head ever so slightly. “It weighs more.”

The grey pegasus nodded. “Yeah, I tried to get it as light as possible, but it still weighs almost a half a kilogram. The enhancement array should help compensate, but like the rest of the armor, be careful with sudden movements until you get used to it, alright?”

“Agreed,” Sabra said, giving his head an experimental nod that was much more smooth than he had expected. I am already growing used to it, he realized as he felt the natural movement behind the motion. I’d best be careful. He could still remember his surprise at how much more quickly he’d been able to move when he’d first donned the bodysuit that he wore under his armor—and how easily he’d almost overextended his own limbs trying to move. It had almost been like learning how to walk. Still, the weight does help a little, although I suppose it could make it easier to damage my neck…

“So,” Sky Bolt said, taking a few steps forward as he continued to twist. “How does the visor work? Can you see clearly?”

“It’s fine. There’s a little distortion around the edges—”

“How bad is it?” Sky Bolt asked, stepping up to him, her wings flaring out. “I tested the prototype lens myself but I didn’t—”

“It’s fine, Sky Bolt,” he said, shaking his head, slowly at first but then with increased speed as the weight began to feel natural. Sky Bolt’s voice dropped in volume, but she kept muttering as he spoke. “It only appears if I look for it. I’ve seen worse heat distortions on the plains.”

“—and then it could—wait, really?” she asked as she appeared to catch up with his statement.

“Of course,” he said, nodding again glad for the chance to get her mind away from her tensions. “Out on the plains, in a heated day, one can see all manner of things when the sun is overhead. It is why we have such clearly marked roads. The distortion can play tricks on the eyes, especially if one is tired, hot, or thirsty. That is true distortion,” he said. “This—” he tapped the side of his helmet with his hoof, “—is like wearing a piece of sun glasses. Pair,” he corrected with a shake of his head. “A pair of sun glasses.”

“It’s one word,” Sky Bolt said, letting out a soft chuckle. “Sunglasses.”

“Ah, sunglasses. Well, it’s like wearing a pair of those, except not…” he searched his mind for the proper word. “Kimvuli?”

Sky Bolt frowned for a moment, then her face brightened. “You mean tinted?”

“Yes,” Sabra said, nodding. “There is no ‘tint.’ Such an odd word. Tint.” Sky Bolt laughed.

“Alright, well if it’s not distracting enough that you can’t stop wondering about the word ‘tint,’ then I think we’re ok,” Sky Bolt said, rolling her eyes. “But since we’re on the topic … stay right there for a second...” She turned and flew across the workshop, the breeze from her wings rustling papers as she passed. A few desks were covered with tarpaulins that had been loosely tossed atop them, and the free ends waved in the disturbance like ocean grass when the tide was high. He smiled as the thought occurred to him.

Some things really do stick, he thought as Sky Bolt came down near the far wall of the barracks and flipped a lever down. Like seeing the ocean for the first time... He smiled as a hiss started on the far side of the workshop, the shop's pneumatics kicking in.

A bright crack split the roof overhead as the ceiling began to fold back, the barracks roof opening wide and letting in a bright beam of sunlight that began to fill the workshop. Sky Bolt flipped the lever again, and twin halves of the roof halted, the hiss of the air dying out as flow cut off.

The technology behind the roof of the workshop had always impressed him. He’d had sky Bolt explain it to him one day, but past the basics of a few windmills on the back end of the barracks harnessing air pressure in containers, he was lost. Still, it allowed the diminutive pegasus to both open and close the massive workshop roof so that the team’s airship could come and go, and to him it was just one more sign that she’d earned the blueprint and wrench cutie mark on her flank.

“Alright,” she said, grinning with the anticipation as she glided back over towards him. “Step right under the sunlight, and look up, alright?”

Sawa…” he said, stepping forward as she folded her wings. He looked up, his eyes reflexively squinting as the bright light poured into his helmet … and then he widened them again, this time in surprise.

“It … ‘tints’ itself?” he asked, glancing back down at her and watching as the visor cleared almost immediately. He turned back to the sun, watching in amazement as the clear crystal visor once again shaded itself, growing slightly darker in accordance with the bright blue of the sky. It wasn’t dark enough that he no longer had to squint, and he narrowed his eyes just a tad until they had adjusted, but it was just slightly easier.

“Self-tinting,” she said, her tone sounding smug. “It can’t darken itself forever, so it won’t do much for you if you, you know, stare at the sun or something, but it should keep you from squinting if you’re exposed to a lot of glare or bright sunlight. Also, it’s technically not supposed to be something the armor does, so don’t tell the boss yet. When he finds out about it, I’m telling him it’s to prevent snow glare for those winter operations and hoping I don’t end up doing a lot of KP in turn.”

“So what is it actually for?” he asked, swinging the helmet back and forth and watching as the glass darkened and then lightened again.

“It’s in case of quick flashes of light,” Sky Bolt said, grinning in apparent amusement at his antics. He slowed his back and forth motions with a sense of embarrassment. She’d said she couldn’t see whether he was smiling, so she couldn’t see his cheeks burning now, could she?

“There’s a company in Canterlot that enchants sunglasses for the rich and famous that do the same thing,” Sky Bolt continued as if he’d been simply standing still all along. “I contacted them and had them cast a spell on the lining of the helmet itself, not the crystal, technically. It’s not actually the crystal doing it. Also, unless it’s exposed to a constantly bright light source, it will gradually lighten to a specific point so that the eyes can adjust to glare without being blinded by it.”

“And you designed this on your own?” he asked, fighting the urge to stare at the sun and see how well the visor worked. Such an action would be foolish, he chided himself. Surely you learned your lesson as a foal.

“What?” Sky Bolt began shaking her head. “No, no, I just had the idea. Dawn helped me with the timing, and then I just told the sunglass people what I wanted.”

“Anyway,” she said, taking wing again and flipping the lever once more. Hissing air filled the workshop once again, sounding like a giant snake as the massive overhead doors began to slide shut, overlapping with a loud thump that echoed around the workshop and shook the cross-braces. “That’s all it does. Just, like I said, let the captain find out about it on his own. Please don’t tell him.”

“I won’t,” he said, turning to face her once more. “Your design is most impressive.”

“Thanks,” Sky Bolt said, grinning, “but try saying that after you’re hot and sweaty inside of it. I promise the next model will do a big better and letting out heat and—”

“Sky Bolt…” he warned, shaking his head.

“Right,” she said, blinking. “That’s not what I need you here for today. Well,” she said, running one hoof up and down her front leg, “it is, because it’s going to take some time to get used to the enchantment crystal once we install it, and you don’t want to get hurt. Plus it might be easier to get working with the helmet on and—”

“Sky Bolt.” he said again, and she stopped speaking. “Are you sure everything is alright?”

“Yeah, sorry. I get it,” she said, putting her hoof to her forehead. “Just working on a lot of projects, and I’m a little tired.” She gave him another grin, but he could see the faint worry in her eyes. “I might ramble a bit,” she said, pushing a bit of her sky-blue mane back behind one ear, “but it’s just because I’m thinking about a lot of things. I’m just a little,” she rotated one hoof in a circle near her head, “today, you know? Lots of exciting things going on.”

“It’s alright,” Sabra said, nodding once more. Sky Bolt let out a relieved sigh and turned towards the workbench where the helmet had been sitting. He turned to follow her, watching the way she reflexively folded and unfolded her wings with each step.

Is she … nervous, he wondered as he followed her. Fearful? Is this what Hunter was asking me to keep an eye on? Or is she just overworked? Would she even count it as such?

The motions stopped as Sky Bolt came to the bench and she turned, extending one hoof towards the small device sitting on the workbench. “Behold!” she said, holding one hoof to her chest and spreading her wings. “The fruits of many sleepless nights sit before you, ready to complete your armor. The Enchantment Enhancement System is ready to go!”

“The Enchantment Enhancement System?” Sabra asked, wrapping his tongue around the phrase.

“Yeah, it needs a better name,” Sky Bolt said, her shoulders slumping slightly, although the look on her face seemed to imply that the gesture was for fun. “I tried calling it the E.E.S., but that doesn’t really roll off of the tongue either.”

“It looks a little bit like an egg,” Sabra said as he looked down at the device. It was sitting lopsided on the desk, as if there was something sticking out of the bottom that wouldn’t let it lay flat, although he couldn’t see what. What he could see of it was made of a white, polished crystal that truly did have the shape of an egg—if someone had cut one in half lengthwise, laid it on the cut side and then pressed down on it with a massive weight, flattening it to only a fraction of it’s original thickness.

“Well,” Sky Bolt said as she tilted her head, as if seeing it for the first time, “that does it for that design. You’re right, it does look like a flattened egg, doesn’t it.” Then she shrugged. “Well, it’s just the prototype. I can make a better shape later. Maybe if I built the array in two layers, or better yet, circular…” her voice trailed off again, and she shoved a pile of crumpled papers to one side with her wing. “Give me just a second.” She leaned across the desk, grabbing a pencil in her mouth and turning it to a blank sheet of paper. “‘ust ‘et ‘e sk’tch ‘is.”

A moment later she spit the pencil out and made a face. “Done. Yuck. That pencil tastes horrible.” Sabra grinned under his helmet as she gave the pencil a pointed glare.

“Anyway, we’ll call them something that isn’t ridiculous or egg-based,” she said, turning back to him. “Now stand still while I get this thing attached and lets see how it works!” She turned, picked up the E.E.S., and then paused.

“You know,” she said as she twisted her head as if she was looking at the workshop for the first time, “there’s a lot of breakable stuff in here. Do you mind if we test this somewhere else, like maybe outside?”

“That’s … fine,” Sabra said, his eyes gravitating towards the small, curved piece of crystal in her hooves. “What is this going to do?”

Sky Bolt grinned as she looked at him. “I didn’t tell you? It’s a strength enchantment.” Her grin widened as she flapped her wings, lifting and heading for the door. “Come on, follow me!”

* * *

“So,” Sabra asked as Sky Bolt pressed down on the back of his armor. “how will this work?” There was a sharp click as the E.E.S. snapped into place, and the weight vanished from his back.

“I’m not actually sure,” Sky Bolt said, stepping back slightly. “I’ve never actually used and enchantment like this myself. What you’re supposed to be able to do is think of ‘strength’ while you’re touching the crystal. Then the enchantment activates.”

Sabra froze, not daring to move a muscle. What if I already activated it? he wondered. Would I know? Would I be able to turn it off?

“But in this case, since it’s something that you should be able to turn on-and-off, it might take a bit more than that.” Sky Bolt took another step back, her wings folding and unfolding again. “They told me that because of that, you’ll have to hold the idea of strength in your mind while it’s working, whatever that means. As long as you do that, it should be ‘on,’ so-to-speak. You’d feel it.” He relaxed at her words, the tenseness in his muscles fading. “ So…” she said with a shrug. “Go ahead and try it.”

Alright, he thought, turning his head back and looking ahead. Just focus on strength. Sitting in front of him was one of the wooden training posts that dominated the far end of the Guard training grounds: the wide, grassy expanse behind the caste that was dedicated twenty-four hours a day to any Royal, Night, or now Dusk Guard who wished an open field in which to practice or spar. It was separated from the rest of the Castle grounds by a raised concrete wall that ran the entire circumference of the field, mostly to prevent wayward spells or other potentially dangerous projectiles from going far in the event that something went wrong.

It was midday, so the field was fairly clear. A few Royal Guard, on duty and off, were practicing with the training weapons on one end of the field, and a few other unicorns and pegasi were practicing in pairs or working out at various places on the field. A few of them had looked up in interest when he and Sky Bolt had come through the gate, mostly out of curiosity to see what the newest addition to the Guard were going to do today, but most had gone back to their own projects once it had become clear the pair weren’t there to practice. Nevertheless, he could still see a few of them throwing glances their way from time to time.

As curious as foals at a shaman’s hut, Sabra thought as he turned his attention back to the wooden training post in front of him. Now, think of strength… He took a deep breath as he stared at the post, following the many dents and scratches in the heavy wood with his eyes. Be strong.

His front hoof lashed out, eliciting a deep thunk from the wood as it slammed into the battered surface. He fell back, pitifully aware of the complete lack of difference between that blow and any other he’d made before. He’d spent hours in the field sparring with the post before, and nothing had been any different then than it had now.

Strong, he thought, balancing on his rear hooves as he lashed out again, once, and then twice. Again the wood rung solid with the impact of his blows, but there was nothing about them that suggested they were different in any way.

Be like Captain Steel, he thought. Another plain hit. He envisioned the muscles in his limb coiling and uncoiling as he threw a punch. Nothing. Try acting strong. Another basic hit.

Come on! he thought, lashing out with a rapid series of strikes. Push-ups, meditation, strong-stallion contest, anything!

Nothing. Think of Strength, she’d said. Hold it in your mind. He punched again, the wood resonating but barely quivering under his impact. But what is strength? he thought. Is it an ideal, a concept, or something physical? Why won’t this work!?

He spun around, dancing on his rear hooves and bringing the side of his hoof towards the post in a powerful, sweeping maneuver. His eyes caught sight of Sky Bolt, her wings folding and unfolding as she watched.

Strength. Something seemed to flare through him as he turned, a pressure behind every muscle in his body. His armored hoof met the thick wood—and it splintered, snapping apart as his hoof cleaved halfway through it. The wood cracked, and he felt the force of the impact fly down his arm, shoving him back, but the pressure seemed to pale in comparison to the pressure behind every muscle of his body.

And then it was gone, and Sabra felt his jaw drop as the post, snapped completely from its base, continued onward to slam into the concrete wall with a loud crack. He looked down at his own hooves, seeing but barely believing the foot-long divots his rear hooves had dug into the soil under the force of the impact. Then, at last, he turned to stare at an equally stunned Sky Bolt, both of them staring at one another in dumb shock as the rest of the ponies on the training field looked on.

What, Sabra thought in stunned amazement, his body barely obeying his commands, did I just do?

Part 2

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“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will.”

—Wise Chant

Greetings, Sabra of the Dusk Guard. I trust your visit with my sister went well?”

Sabra bowed low as the Princess of the Night addressed him, kneeling one knee on the thick carpet. “Shikamoo, mkuu wa Usiku.

“You may rise, Sabra,” the Princess commanded. “However, I thank you for your gracious formality. It is an aspect of society that some ponies these days neglect. Although,” she said with a faint wisp of a smile as he looked up, “I hope you’ll forgive me if I do not reply in kind. My grasp of your people's language is…” she paused, her smile growing. “I suppose ‘somewhat antiquated’ would be the proper term.”

“It is no bother,” Sabra said, stepping towards one of the two cushions sitting before her desk as the Princess motioned with one hoof. “Please, converse in whatever language you desire.” The room he had been invited to was much smaller than he had expected. More compact, as if the ruler of the night had decided to make the most of whatever space she was given, despite her ability to receive as much as she asked for.

Life is simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” The words of the ancient scholar rang through his mind as he ran his eyes across the room, taking in the careful lines of the design, the way the paintings on the wall had been hung close together and yet spaced just so, one design not drawing the eye more than any of the others.

The Princess had noticed his straying eyes. He brought his attention back forward, although part of him wished to examine the room in greater detail. And yet, there were a few paintings hanging behind her desk as well, and one on an easel that sat by a closed door in the back of the room, a cloth covering it from the world. Most of the space was, however, taken up by a pair of simple shelves, each carved from the same dark wood as the Princess’s desk.

“I see you have noticed my paintings,” the Princess said, and once again Sabra was forced to bring his attention back to the dark-blue alicorn sitting in front of him, her mane forever shifting in some infinite, ethereal wind of the stars. “Please, look all you wish. You are a philosopher, are you not?” Sabra nodded, not daring to speak. “Then please, look, I would appreciate hearing what you think of my own ‘musings on the world.’”

Sabra turned his attention left, back to the wall of paintings that had so fully grabbed his focus when he had first entered. Each painting was different, unique in it’s own way, either in subject, scenery, color, or even pattern.

But there was more to it, he realized as he began to look at the wall as a whole. Each was carefully placed, carefully positioned where it would most compliment its fellows. None of the paintings were meant to truly be near one another, at least, not that he could see. Certainly a painting of a city at night had little to do with a scene of two young foals chasing fireflies. But as he pulled his attention back, back to the careful spacing between the paintings and the positioning of the paintings themselves, he could see the grander design.

“Well,” the Princess asked, her tone calm. Regal. “What do you think?”

“I think…” he began. “I think that you truly are a mare of your medium, if you will forgive the use of the saying.”

“Forgiveness given. Why?” He could see the Princess peering at him from the corner of her eye, a curious expression on her face.

“Your skill with the paintbrush is evident,” he said, “although I cannot claim to have any great knowledge of such. However—” he raised his hoof, pointing, “—only one who truly understood the art in which they were engaged would attempt to make the display of such work itself a work of art. I admit that I am, ah … mgonjwa mjuzi...” He stopped, rolling his hoof by his head as he searched for the word he was looking for. “Perhaps, ill-educated?” He shook his head.

“I understand your words, Sabra,” the Princess said, smiling. “You refer to my attempts to make the placement and positioning itself a work of art.”

“Yes,” he said, nodding. “Asante. Yes, the … coordination of color, the way it blends and stands with other color, it causes each painting to catch the eye as a whole, while still submitting to the great work as a whole. It blends the colors together, causes them to stand out from the darker blue of the background, almost like … almost like…”

“Stars in the night sky?” Princess Luna suggested, and Sabra looked at her in surprise. “Merely a figure of speech,” she said, turning her attention away from the wall. Her mane seemed to flare in a gust of unfelt wind, twirling around her horn as she faced him once more. “Still, do you enjoy it?”

“I do, your highness,” he said, nodding. “While I lack understanding of the form, what I see is impressive.”

“You may lack knowledge of the form, Sabra,” the Princess said, her voice as firm as the night, “but that does not mean that your thoughts, ideas or viewpoints on it are any less valid. In art, it is what one sees that truly speaks.”

“True,” Sabra said, nodding and keeping his eyes fixed on the desk in front of her. “But what I see is certain to be different from what you see.”

“As long as we both agree that we see something in it,” the Princess said. There was a tone in her voice that was difficult to place, even for his keen sense of hearing. Was it … pride? Or was it sadness? It almost seemed to be both at the same time.

“Now, Sabra,” the Princess said, ducking her head slightly. Once again he found his gaze commanded by ageless eyes, immortal and full of centuries of wisdom and knowledge. “Your captain said that you had a question for me.”

“He is correct, your highness.” The Princess began to pull her head back and he followed without thinking, no longer looking down at her desk, but up, up into her stern, but oddly serene, face. “It is not an easy question, nor a simple one,” he said. “And if you feel that you do not wish to answer, I will not ask further.”

“Sabra,” Luna said, shaking her head gently from side to side, “whatever your question, I will do my best to answer it. After what you have done for my sister and I—nay, for Equestria, you are owed at least some knowledge to reward your search.”

“Then Princess,” he said, breaking eye contact for a only a moment before looking at her again. “What is life?”

For a moment, the room was still. The Princess broke eye contact with him, turning once again towards the paintings on her walls. “Is there an answer you are looking for?”

“Only your own, your highness,” he said, biting back the urge to point out that her sister had asked the same question.

“If I may,” the Princess said, rising from behind her desk. She strode over to her wall of paintings, her gaze fixed on a single, simple portrait of a smiling pegasus with a coat almost the same shade of grey as Sky Bolt’s. The mare in the painting had a bright, almost platinum-yellow mane that somehow matched her golden eyes. The mother was looking at something off in the distance, and Sabra could just make out what looked like a small, grey, unicorn filly off in the distance.

“Do you know what these paintings represent?” Luna asked. “There is a common theme contained within each one of them.”

For a moment, Sabra stared at the paintings once more. Then he shook his head. “I do not,” he admitted.

“Each one is an answer,” Luna said, shifting her attention to another painting. Then another. “Or perhaps a better way to explain it would be a step. Or an accomplishment. Perhaps the end of a trial. I painted this one—” she said, returning to the first that she had looked at, “—after an eventful conversation with a certain, struggling, suffering mailmare. She’s a single mother, you see.” Her attention was fully fixed on the painting now. “Her daughter is a unicorn, and she tries hard to understand her and be the best mother that she can. I painted this after she had a particularly difficult trial to overcome.”

“Now this painting,” she said, turning a landscape scene that appeared to be a sunrise seen from Cloudsdale. “This painting I made after the weather manager of Cloudsdale successfully fixed a nearly disastrous storm system that got out of control. If you look, you can still see the faint traces of the storm in this portrait from where the team he led managed to tame the maelstrom.”

“I paint, Sabra, to preserve those fragments of joy. Of accomplishment. Of achievement.” The Diarch turned, striding back to her seat behind the desk once more. “To remember and preserve a small part of the pride, the joy, that each of my subjects felt on that day. To remind myself of their accomplishments, their trials, and their successes. To remind myself what we each strive for each day.”

“You ask me what life is. To that, I answer this: life is triumph. It is facing that which challenges us every day, every step up our entire lives, and overcoming it, growing in strength to become better.” Her voice was firm yet soft, but Sabra found himself leaning forward as the Princess continued.

“Life is a triumph, Sabra. We learn. We grow. We love. We gain knowledge to understand ourselves. Patience to endure and overcome trials and challenges that we dream are insurmountable. We learn to hope, or even to have faith in that which we thought impossible. Sometimes we are humbled. Sometimes—” her voice grew quiet, “—we fall. Sometimes we make mistakes. That’s when we learn to forgive, and even to love.”

“Life is triumph, Sabra,” she said again, her voice still soft. “With every passing of the sun and moon, ponies learn, grow, laugh, and care. We build strengths we never knew we had, overcome challenges that will be gone the next. But one thing remains the same. One thing that I strive to capture every time I put my brush to the canvas.” She looked directly at him now. “That sense of triumph, that feeling of contentment, of joy, and of pride as we accomplish something, no matter how small, that makes us better.”

“That, Sabra, is life. Triumph. The triumph of becoming more than we were.”

More than we were… The Princess's words echoed inside the void as he replayed the events of the previous day. The armor. Sky Bolt’s tired but determined actions. The surge of power that had swept over his body when he’d activated the E.E.S. The crack of the training post as it had broken in two under his hoof.

More than we were. A curious choice of words. He mulled the words over in his head, casually shifting his weight to his other leg as he thought. The triumph of becoming more than we were.

But which is it? he thought, rolling his body forwards and exchanging his rear right hoof for his left forward one. He arched his body back and up, pushing out with his foreleg and curving his body in the air above him. He flanks tickled as his tail brushed across them. I need to get that cut, he thought, letting the momentary distraction pull him away.

He felt like his mind was buzzing, burning with questions that he couldn’t answer. Questions that set his mind aflame like a sun-burnt field of grass after a long drought. Questions that pulled at his consciousness, distracted him. Questions that made meditation difficult, transforming the peace and serenity of the void into one of overlapping thoughts and ideas that rippled the surface of the lake like strong winds.

Life is a gift. The intrusion of the Solar Diarch’s words was not unexpected, and he shifted his position again, pushing himself upward in a brief hop and switching to his left hoof. Both answers had been satisfying—no, almost edifying in their simplicity and directness. Both had been unexpected, but enlightening. And yet…

He took a deep breath and pulled himself away from the chaos of his thoughts for a moment, his senses turning outward to the world around him. Birds were singing in the nearby castle gardens, their songs carrying over the garden walls and across the Guard grounds. There was a detachment of Royal Guard coming down the path towards their barracks, their hooves ringing out against the stone, and he could make out the faint lack of precision in their steps. One of them stopped, and he heard him call out to his fellows. The hoofsteps slowed, and Sabra could almost feel their eyes on him.

Perhaps the roof of the barracks was not the best place to choose to practice my motions this morning, he thought as the voices of the Guard rose in excitement. He could hear the change in tone, make out the whispered excitement and disbelief as one of Guard began to relate a version of the events of the previous day, complete with hoof gestures.

Captain Song had been a little less excited about the results of the test than Sky Bolt had, mostly as a result of being informed that the replacement training post would come out of the team’s budget. But aside from suggesting that future tests be done elsewhere until Sky Bolt was certain that said tests wouldn’t do any additional damage to equipment that wasn’t technically their own to destroy, he’d seemed impressed with her work.

At the very least he seemed slightly less … abrasive? He twitched as he began to fold his rear legs. What is the word in Equestrian? He shook his head ever so slightly. Gruff? It sounded right. Perhaps that was it. Yes, less gruff than usual. It still felt slightly unfamiliar, thinking in Equestrian rather than Zebra, although his time with the Dusk Guard had certainly made it much easier.

He twisted once again, his body coming into the final position of the exercise. Across the field, the guard’s interest waned, and their hoofsteps once again became regular as they moved towards the barracks, although his ears didn’t fail to pick up the soft pause in their cadence every so often as one of them turned to look back.

He made one final twist and then dropped from his staff, his hooves ringing out against the barrack's roof. His staff fell across his outstretched hoof, the metal warm from the sun, and he flipped it around in one swift motion, air whistling past the tip as it spun into his other hoof. He gave the center of the staff a quick, hard twist—and both ends collapsed inward with a sharp snap, cutting the length of the staff in half. Now reduced in length, it continued on its journey, rolling around his other hoof and flipping back towards his back, where it slid into place above his saddlebags. The well-practiced motion complete, he sat back on his haunches, let out a deep breath, and at last opened his eyes.

For a moment the light of the sun was blinding but his eyes adjusted quickly, the brilliant green of the grass field around the barracks giving way to the sharp clarity of the relatively simple buildings that stood in it. From his position on the roof of the Dusk Guard barracks, he could not only see the barracks of the Royal and Night Guard, but past them in both directions into the Castle gardens or the Guard’s training grounds.

It was cooler today than it had been the day before, a subtle reminder that at long last the summer was reaching its final weeks. Not cooler by any large amount—the Guard were still seen drinking water at their posts, and the weather overhead could hardly be called cool by Equestrian standards—but noticeably cooler nonetheless. Autumn would be coming soon, a time Sabra both enjoyed and dreaded. Enjoyed for the beautiful colors that it presented, the trees lighting up in swathes of deep red and golden yellow, so like the silks of the cities back home. Dreaded for the shift to cold that it would bring, and the admittedly beautiful but freezing snow that would come soon after. He’d experienced snow before leaving the Plainslands, of course. Several monasteries were built in high mountains, although thankfully not the one he had lived in, and he had visited them as the occasion had called for it.

His first experience with snow had been equal parts excitement and wonder, followed by absolute astonishment that anyone would even touch the cold substance willingly. The monks at that particular monastery had found it quite amusing.

Still, he’d learned to live with it. His first winter away from the Plainslands had been a learning experience, but thankfully there had been those around him to offer advice. He shook his head as he dropped from the roof of the barracks, his hooves dragging against the side to slow his descent. He landed on the grass a few moments later, crouching to absorb a bit of the impact.

And then there had been his first Equestrian winter, in the already cool Unicorn Range. The memory gave him a chill just thinking about it. Thankfully, the Rangers had elected to assist him, but it had still been harsh. Far harsher than he had expected.

And now I’ll be spending the winter here, he thought as he opened the door to the barracks and walked in, his hooves ringing out against the wooden floor. It almost feels… His thoughts trailed off as he took in the empty common room with its comfortable couches, the kitchen area in its immaculate cleanliness. The steps leading up to Captain Song’s office.

Like home? He shook his head again as he trotted down the hall towards the workshop, his hooves already feeling the faint vibrations that signified Sky Bolt was hard at work. Is it?

The workshop was still in the same chaotic state that it had been the prior morning, at least to his eyes. Sky Bolt was hovering over a workbench, her face screwed up in concentration, her tongue sticking out as she deftly manipulated a thin, narrow tool with her hooves. Music pounded from the shop's speakers, a heavy, pulsing beat that made his coat quiver. He took a few careful steps into the workshop, waiting until it was clear that the sound of his hoofsteps wouldn’t disturb her. When she didn’t look up, he increased his pace.

“Hey Sabra,” she said as he drew closer, and he paused in surprise. Apparently, the sudden lack of motion wasn’t lost on her either. “I can still see you, you know,” she said, setting the tool down on the workbench. She looked up at him, her muzzle melting into a grin as she flipped a bit of blue mane back. “I might be busy, but even I can see the door opening out of the corner of my eye if I’m looking at it.”


“Oh relax, Sabra,” she said, her grin growing wider. “I’m not mad at you. Really,” she said as she rolled her eyes, “you’re too easy to tease.”

“You look more alert today,” he said as he saw the sparkle in her eyes. “Are you feeling better?”

She nodded. “I was talking with the boss last night, about stuff, and … and I slept a lot better.” Her grin faded to a hopeful looking smile, and her eyes seemed to widen as she looked at him. “It wasn’t a full night … I mean I still stayed up a little late working, but it beats, well, you know.” Her wings began to twitch again, the feathers shifting as she unconsciously ruffled them. “I don’t want to be the one who bothers everypony at night, you know?” The smile was still on her face, her tone playful, but he knew it was a mask. An act for his benefit.

Hunter asked me to help, he thought, watching her wings twitch with discomfort. And even if he hadn’t I … I want to.

“Sky Bolt,” he asked, shaking his head. “May I tell you something? Before we start?”

“Sure,” she said, turning back towards the workbench and once again deftly plucking the thin, metal tool from the workbench. “As long as you can do it while I make these modifications,” she said, her mane slipping back over her face as she looked back down at the complex pattern of crystals in front of her. “Go ahead.”

“When I was nine years old,” he said, stepping forward so that she would hear him over the thumping of the electronic beat, “I left my family for the first time to join a monastery. I did this because I wanted to learn about the world around me in a more intense capacity than the teachers or the elders of my home could supply. The monastery was hundreds of miles away, far from my home, but I wanted to go, and my father and mother were honored by my acceptance. My father brought me the full distance, said his farewells, and left.”

“I was alone,” he said, Sky Bolt’s tool clicking against the crystal as he spoke. He stared at the small array, watching the glint of the small, crystalline components, his mind sinking back to when he had been a young colt. “I had arrived at an unusual time for the monastery. There were no other foals my age. No one to make friends with. I was given my own room.” Another clink as a piece of crystal moved.

“I was alone,” he said, the words coming out a little quicker. “For the first time in my life, I was away from everypony that I’d ever known, in a place I barely understood. I wanted to be there, even with my limited understanding I knew how valuable my chance to be there was to me, but…” The chime of crystal touching metal stopped as Sky Bolt turned to look at him.

“I was scared, and alone,” he said, giving his words all the calm he could muster. “The nights were different. I spent the first few nights worried and alone. One night, it became too much, and I started crying. Unknown to me, however, one of the elders at the monastery had suspected what I was feeling. The night I cried, he heard me. He came and spoke with me, helped me feel better. He came every night after that, to talk with me and help me feel more welcome, until my … my home sickness had passed.”

“I would be a shameful student indeed if I did not pass on all the knowledge I learned in my stay there,” he said, giving her a faint smile. “If you ever feel bothered at night, if I can help…”

“Thanks, Sabra,” Sky Bolt said, her cheeks flushing a pale pink against her grey coat. “I … I will if I need to. I promise.”

For a moment they stared at one another, and Sabra found himself feeling a faint sense of unease alongside the accomplishment. Should I do something else? Say something? Then Sky Bolt turned her attention back towards the array, a smile on her face, and the moment was gone.

“So!” Sky Bolt said as she bent down close, eyeing the delicate work, “should we go ahead and get this test underway?” The cheer was back in her voice now, he could hear it. Not the strained cheer she’d given him moments ago, but real, solid mirth. “Go ahead and gear up like you were yesterday, helmet and everything.” Her left wing snapped out, pointing towards a nearby workbench, where the helmet he’d tested the day before sat on the bare wood. “I should have this finished up by the time you get back, and then we can go test this stuff again. Alright?”

“Alright,” he said, still feeling a slight sense of accomplishment as he turned back towards the workshop entrance. “I will return in a moment.” And then, he thought as he headed for the armory, we can see if I can understand again what strength truly is.

* * *

“So, no egg today?” Sabra asked as Sky Bolt held up what he assumed was the E.E.S. from the day before.

“Nope,” she said, shaking the small device in her hooves. “I spent some time yesterday tightening down the design since you got it to work—”

“Once,” he said, shaking his head. “Just once.”

“Good enough for me,” she said. “Now hold still while I attach this.” She flapped her wings and rose into the air, the downdraft rippling blades of grass underneath her. “I wanted to make it a bit more compact as well as simplify a few circuits, and since I didn’t want it to be called an egg…” Her words trailed off as she moved behind him, and there was a moment of pressure at the base of his shoulder blades, followed by a click as the device snapped into place.

“What is it called then?” he asked as she dropped back to the ground, a satisfied look on her face.

“Actually, Hunter called it a ‘mod’ last night, and I kind of like the name,” she said as he twisted back to look at it. “It’s certainly better than ‘egg.’ Plus, it’s easy enough to describe. Strength mod, speed mod, invisibility mod…” she gave him a shrug. “I think it’ll work enough for our purposes.”

“So ‘mod,’ then?” he asked, twisting the strange word around in his mouth.

“Short from modification.”

“Ah, modification. Mod.” The word still felt odd in his mouth, but that would fade with time. “And this is it?”

“Yeah,” Sky Bolt said. “That’s it.”

The device sitting on his back was less than half the size of what she’d placed on him the day before as well as shaped far differently. While the other had been almost half the length of his back and shaped like a flattened egg, this was far shorter and shaped like a rectangle. It ran lengthwise down his back, although it was small enough that it barely extended past the tip of his shoulderblades, and it was barely wider than one of his own hooves.

“You know,” Sky Bolt said, her voice taking on a somewhat absent tone, “I think I could make it smaller. Maybe make it face the other way, too.”

“Later,” Sabra said, holding back a chuckle at how quickly the pegasus could find ways to improve her own creations. “So, are we testing the device here today?” he asked, looking out over the scene in front of them.

Here was the Guard’s Capture-the-Flag field, a massive, sunken space reserved for a more intense version of a game similar to one he’d played as a foal. According to what he’d understood from the Guard who’d given them the history of the place when they’d used it once before, the field had once been a hoofball field, but had fallen to disuse until somepony had suggested using it for a combination of fun and training. Some extensive modifications earlier, and the field was now home to trees, wooden buildings, walls, and even large ditches and fields of small shrubs that ponies could hide themselves in.

“‘old out ‘our ‘ight ‘oof,” Sky Bolt said, stepping up next to him with something clutched in her mouth. He complied, extending the armor clad-hoof as he ran his eyes over the field. There was a faint tearing sound, and he looked down to see Sky Bolt wrapping what appeared to be tape around something attached to his fetlock.

“What’s this?” he asked as he eyed it the small device. It was a dial of some kind behind glass, with a needle that was currently sitting to the left side of the display. Two wires extended from the bottom of the dial’s small case, and Sky Bolt was currently taping them above and below the joint of his leg.

“Don’t move, please,” she said, her words slightly muffled by the roll of tape in her mouth. “It’s a magic reader. It’s designed to detect and measure magical energies, kind of like a horn light test.” He nodded, although he had no idea what a “horn light test” was. Something to do with unicorn horns and a light, he would guess.

“I’m connecting it to the mod on your back,” she said as she moved to his shoulder, wrapping the clear tape between the plates of his armor against the black underlayer. “This way, you’ll be able to accurately see how much of the crystals enchantment you’ve used as well as judge how quickly it recharges.”

“Will it go quickly?” he asked as she tugged against the wires. The needle on the device sprang to life, snapping itself to the right as it detected the charge.

“I’m not really sure,” she said, shrugging. “Yesterday it was already mostly charged by the time I got the thing off your back and hooked up again, but that did take a bit with all the screaming and yelling from the Guard so ... As long as you don’t rip the wires out or something, we’ll find out.” She gave him a wide grin, one that he was beginning to recognize was one she made when she wasn’t quite as knowledgeable about something as she was pretending to be. The difference was in the eyes, those flame-red eyes…

You’re staring, some small part of him warned, and he snapped his head back down to the reader strapped to his foreleg. “So keep an eye on this—”

“—and let me know what the rate is like,” Sky Bolt said with a nod. “Now, do you remember how you got it to activate yesterday?”

“Ah, not really, no,” he said, picking his helmet up in his hooves and sliding it over his head. It took a moment to get it to slide on right, and he was thankful for whatever magic its creators had worked that allowed his mane to slide through the opening made for it without catching on anything. “I was trying a lot of different things,” he said as the visor settled in front of his eyes. Sky Bolt stepped up alongside him as he tapped the underside of his jaw, his armored hooves tapping against the helmet.

“Here,” she said, grabbing the straps and tightening them down. He gave her a thankful nod as the helmet locked itself in place. “It’ll take some getting used to, I know,” she said as the final strap cinched tight against his jaw. “I may design a better way of getting the helmet on before long…” She cocked her head to one side and for a moment he thought that he was going to have to snap her out of planning something new once again. Then she laughed and shook her head.

“Anyway,” she said, winking at him as if she knew what he had been thinking, “let’s get this armor tested.”

“Alright,” Sabra said, looking down at the reader on his foreleg. He could barely feel its weight, but he knew it was there. He would have to keep a close eye on the needle, especially if he was to lift something heavy. “What do you want me to do?”

“Well, we’re going to start off simple,” Sky Bolt said, jumping into the air and gliding down into the field. “Come on down here.”

“Alright,” he said, turning for the stairs. A short trot later, and he was down on the field.

“Ok, now,” Sky Bolt said, her sky-blue tail fanning out behind her as she flew back up to where they had just been, “jump up here.”

“What?” Sabra said in surprise eyeing the embankment. It stretched overhead, a rising mass of dirt overgrown with untrimmed grass and held back by thick, heavy boards. “Do you mean climb?” He eyed the spaces between the boards. It would be a tight fit, but he’d climbed harder before.

“No, I mean jump,” she said, tapping her hoof on the edge of the embankment and kicking off a small avalanche of dirt. “Use the strength mod. And make sure to keep an eye on the needle when you land. I want to know exactly how much energy it takes.”

Ah, of course, he thought, his eyes darting down to the reader, then back up at the wall before him. It wasn’t that tall, only about six times his height. Just use the strength enchantment. It’s a test. He took a step forward, coiled his legs underneath him—think of strength—pushed up and—

He left the ground, soaring upwards, but he could already see that he wasn’t going to come anywhere close to the top of the wall. He put out his hooves as he reached the apex of his leap, pushing himself away from the wall as he began to descend back down. The motion was fluid, natural, and he landed on his hooves with complete ease. The armor was still working exactly as it was intended to, enhancing his own inner magic to grant him a tiny increase to his own abilities.

But he already knew that the armor worked. What he needed was for the enchantment to work again.

What did I think yesterday that caused it to activate? he thought as he landed, his hooves kicking up clouds of dust from the hard-packed dirt service. He could remember the snap of the wood, the shock on his face as the training post had broken in two, but what had led him to that moment.

“No luck, huh?” Sky Bolt called down from above, and he shook his head as he turned to look up at her.

Hakuna. I will figure it out however,” he said, looking back down at his hooves and thinking back. “I have done it once before. I can do it again.” He gave his hoof an experimental tap against the ground, but it was no stronger or weaker than any other. What was I thinking about yesterday? He tapped his hoof against the soil again as he ran his mind over every moment of what had occurred.

I … I looked at Sky Bolt, he thought, his eyes widening. He turned his head upward, locking his eyes on the grey pegasus. Strength, he thought, crouching as he stared at her and pushed upwards. His body began to rise, rushing upward and—

Nothing. Again he pushed himself off of the wall, a shower of dirt falling in his wake as he landed on the ground once more, silently shaking his head. What was different?

“No luck yet, huh?” Sky Bolt called. She was laying along the edge now, her front hooves hanging over the edge of the berm. “I was talking to Dawn last night, and she said that it would probably be difficult for you to activate it at first if you don’t have any trained experience with magic.”

“Did she offer any suggestions?” Sabra replied, shaking his helmet and scattering small clumps of dirt to either side.

Sky Bolt shrugged, her mane bouncing against her shoulders. “She did say that it might be that you need to think of an emotion or an ideal that you associate with strength, not just the idea of strength itself. Then again, she said she’d never heard of anypony trying exactly what we’re doing, so we’re sort of in uncharted territory here.”

“An emotion?” He sank back on his armored haunches as he looked up at her. “What do you mean by emotion?”

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t quite understand all of it,” she said, shrugging again and giving her head a little shake. “Apparently unicorn magic can be influenced by the emotion of the caster. I guess that’s why the Elements of Harmony are what they are or something. But she suggested that if we were having trouble getting the crystal to work, then try associating an emotion with it. One that you would generally associate with strength.”

“Like what?”

“How would I know?” she said, her grin beaming down on him as she shrugged. “I’m not you. I guess I’d think of times I was strong and then go with whatever emotion I was feeling at the time?” She laughed, her voice echoing across the field. “I guess I’d go with triumph or something. You know, like you get after you’ve just finished tightening down the last bolt on a huge project?” She gave him another sheepish grin. “Well, maybe not.”

“Regardless, it may prove helpful,” Sabra said, shaking the last bits of dirt from his armor. “Did she specify exactly how one does what she referred to?”

“She said it had to do with bringing that emotion up within you and then mixing that with her magic. But,” she said, grimacing a little, “she also said she had no idea how that would feel for a non-unicorn. I mean, pegasi magic is just—” she held up her hooves and mimed a lightening bolt sparking between them, a little snap escaping her lips.

An emotion? he thought, twisting his head back to look at the mod nestled above his shoulders. But what was I feeling yesterday when I looked back at Sky Bo—no. Oh no. He turned his head back towards the mare, his stomach twisting inside of him. It couldn’t be that, could it?

No, it couldn’t be. Why would it be that? Sky Bolt was … different, unlike anypony he’d ever met, but…

I am I really associating an attraction with my own inner strength? It didn’t seem likely, but then again, he’d seen others his age do strange things in order to impress mares.

But is that how I truly think of my strength? As an extension of my own attraction? Not that she isn’t beautiful enough to inspire great strength but—

“Hey, you have an idea?” Sky Bolt’s voice pulled him from his thoughts. She was looking at him with a curious expression, and he realized that he had been staring at her.

“Um, perhaps,” he said, silently cursing the words as they slipped from his lips. “One moment.” I am never going to live this down if it works, he thought as he crouched. In fact, if it does, I’m going to lie if she asks me how. His mind wound back, searching for something that wouldn’t feel too odd to dwell on.

There, he thought as his mind came to a halt. The first flight of The Hummingbird, just before she—just before she kissed me. He remembered the feeling he’d felt then, the abstract joy at watching her smile as the ship had lifted off.

Now put that into strength, he thought, trying to mix the momentary happiness of that memory with the surge of power he’d felt in his muscles the day before. Mix those two feelings— he closed his eyes, —and push…

His head slammed into the side of the embankment and he tumbled back, the world spinning around him as he opened his eyes. His hooves slammed into the ground and he stumbled a few steps before he could halt his momentum. He shook his head, checking himself for injury and finding to his delight that the helmet Sky Bolt had designed had done it’s job. He shook his head, clumps of vision obscuring dirt falling away from in front of his visor as laughter began ringing through the air.

“Sorry,” Sky Bolt said, covering her mouth with one hoof but unable to stop her shoulders from shaking as she held back her laughter. “I take it whatever that was didn’t work?”

“No,” Sabra said, a chuckle of his own slipping out as he saw the imprint his head had left against the embankment. “In fact,” he said, as he noted how much further down the barricade the imprint of his head was from the hoofmarks he’d left earlier, “I think it was actually worse.”

“Well what were you thinking of?” Sky Bolt asked, her mirth subsiding as she looked down at him.

“Nothing,” he said. He could feel his cheeks growing hot under his coat, and for a moment he was infinitely relieved that the helmet hid his cheeks from view. “It apparently was a poor idea.”

“Yeah...” Sky Bolt said, her eyes narrowing a little. “What exactly were you thinking of though?” Her grin began to change, morphing into a knowing smirk. “Is that why you were looking at me?”

“No,” Sabra lied, looking down at his armor and making a show of brushing the freshly accumulated dirt from it.

“Are you sure?” she asked, dragging out her last word with a teasing tone. She tilted her head to one side, her smirk switching back to a grin. “I mean, it’s a bummer it didn’t work, but it’s flattering all the same.” She laughed again, although it sounded almost a tad forced. “I mean, wow, did you really?”

“I—” He shook his head. “If you you will pardon my rudeness, you are not helping me concentrate on what will work.”

“Sorry,” Sky Bolt said, still chuckling a little. “I think Nova’s been rubbing off on me.”

“It’s … Do not worry about it.” He shook his head again. “It would be something to discuss at another time, in any case.”

“Wait,” Sky Bolt said, eyes widening in apparent surprise. Real or mock, he wasn’t sure. “Do you mean about Nova or about … you know?”

“Can’t talk right now,” Sabra said, grinning under his helmet. “Thinking.” What was it we used to say as foals? he thought as he closed his eyes, Sky Bolt’s almost alarmed expression his last sight. What you plant, you harvest? He held back his own chuckle as he cut out Sky Bolt’s protests.

So if it wasn’t because of her, what was it? His brow furrowed as his mind raced, his ears folding back against the sun-warmed helmet as he ran over the scene from the day before again and again in his mind.

What was I feeling when I looked back at her? he asked himself. Was it frustration that I was failing? He gave his head a small shake, dismissing the thought. He had been frustrated, yes, but that wasn’t something he associated with strength.

But had it lead to something that was? What was I feeling when I looked at her? he thought, replaying the scene in his mind. I wanted … I wanted … to help her! Could that have been it? His eyes opened, and he once again looked up at the edge of the embankment, fixing his goal in his mind.

The desire to not just use my strength, he thought as he took a step forward, his muscles coiling underneath him, but to use my strength to help. There was a familiar surge, a rush of energy that took his breath away as he pushed down with all his might—and he was flying into the air, the ground falling away from him as he shot up past the top of the embankment. He kept climbing, the force of the leap carrying him several body lengths past the edge where Sky Bolt sat, her mouth open wide with astonishment.

Then his momentum was gone, and he began to arc back downward as gravity took over. The surge of power in his muscles faded and his eyes widened as he realized exactly how high up he was. he pulled his hooves under him, bracing himself as grassy surface of the embankment rushed up at him, and then he slammed into it, the force of the impact nearly knocking the breath from his body and reverberating up his legs.

He stood for a moment in absolute shock, his body locked as he considered what he had just done. I … I did it! he thought, his gaze slowly lowering down towards his hooves. They had sunk into the soil under the force of his impact, and he felt the ground pull against one of his hooves as he pulled it out. He had seen boxes that became giant golems, barely escaped from a collapsing building … but this? It had been like nothing he’d ever felt. Nothing he’d ever dreamed of doing.

“Sabra?” Sky Bolt’s hoof cut across his field of view as she tugged his helmet around. “Are you alright?” He could see equal parts glee and worry on her face.

“Did I … Did I just accomplish what I believe I did?” he asked, forcing the words from his mouth. It felt as if each word was a stone, dull and heavy. “Did I?”

“Just jump nearly thirty feet into the air?” Sky Bolt said, letting out a weak laugh. “Yeah, you did. You did!” Her voice was rising in pitch now as she began to shake with excitement. “You did! It worked! You totally did it! It works! It works!” She was hovering now, her wings flapping as her whole body shook with excitement. “Sun above it works!”

“It did,” Sabra said, looking down at his legs once again as his breath began to come back to him. “It did!” He let out another shaky breath as his sense caught up with what had just happened. “Jua juu ya,” he said, “if not that I had just done it, I would not have believed it!”

“What does the needle say? Can you do it again?” Sky Bolt grabbed at his foreleg before he could respond, pulling it from the ground. Sabra let out a grunt of surprise as she twisted the leg up in front of her eyes.

“Wow!” she said, her eyes widening. “That took a lot out of the crystal. It’s already down to two thirds of its reserve. But,” she said, tapping the reader with her hoof, “it does look like its recharging alright. In fact, it looks like it’s recharging faster than I expected!” She dropped his foreleg and looked at him, her eyes sparkling like a dancing flame. “Can you try it again? Maybe see if you can use a little less energy with a smaller jump?”

“Less?” he asked, blinking. “What do you mean?”

“Well, the enchantment can only do so much,” she said rapidly, “but it’ll deplete based on the level of exertion. So you should be able to do a lot of things if you don’t do too much. Go on! Try it! Can you?”

“I think so,” Sabra said, taking a few steps back. Alright, he thought, taking another deep breath. Just concentrate, focus… He gave an experimental hop. Nothing.

“Do not worry,” he said as Sky Bolt’s face fell. “I was testing an idea.” He bent his legs once more. Strength, he thought as he looked up at the sky. Strength to help those around me. The feeling was rising inside of him, the feeling that he would do everything he could. A burst of power was in him now, less intense than its first or second appearance, but surging through him all the same.

He pushed himself upwards once again, more lightly this time. He let go of the enchantment as soon as his hooves had left the ground, watching in amazement as the ground sank away beneath him. He landed in an easy crouch, his legs absorbing the impact of what would have normally been near the highest he could have jumped. He checked the needle on the reader. There was still a little bit of strength left in the enchantment.

“You did it!” Sky Bolt said again, clapping her front hooves together and darting backward through the air. “You did it!” Sabra watched as the needle slowly began to rise once more, making its way from left to right with almost infinite—but visible—slowness.

“I did,” he said, dropping his hoof once more and turning towards the edge of the embankment. There was a whole field down there. A whole field of makeshift buildings, walls, ditches, and other obstacles. “It was a bit like wearing the armor for the first time. At first,” he said, glancing at her, “it was a little strange, hard to get understood—no, used too.” He smiled as he turned back towards the embankment. “But with a little practice…”

He pushed forward with his rear legs, thundering towards the edge. Sky Bolt let out a yelp of surprise as he leapt from the edge, tucking his legs and head against his body as the world spun around him. He closed his eyes as the horizon shot past, trusting his body. He was dropping now, down into the field itself. The ground was coming closer ... closer … He opened his eyes and extended his legs, reaching inside himself and pulling forth the mod's power once again. It surged through his body, every muscle in his body swelling with power.

He barely even flexed his legs as he hit, the last of the mod’s enchantment soaking up the force of the impact. He felt the ground shake under his hooves as the full weight of his armored body crashed into it, dust rising underneath him in a swirling cloud. The feeling of power in his muscles vanished, and he looked down at the reader. The needle was all the way to the left. He’d drained the crystal. But even as he looked he could see the thin, metal sliver begin twitching towards the right.

“Sabra!” Sky Bolt called, gliding down next to him. “That. Was, Awesome!” She let out an excited whoop as her hooves touched the ground. “Look!” she said, her face beaming, “you even left imprints where you jumped!” She gestured at the four divots in the ground his hooves had carved with his first jump.

Ajabu,” Sabra said, placing one of his hooves in the divots. This … this is beyond anything I ever imagined when I first spoke with the captain, he thought as he looked up at Sky Bolt.

“Well?” she asked, her wings barely restrained behind her. He stared at her for a moment.

There has to be something I can do to thank her for— He paused. Of course.

“Help me with this,” he said, reaching up with one hoof and batting at the woven straps underneath his jaw. Her exuberance faded slightly, but she complied, her excitement fading to confusion as she helped loosen the straps.

Asante,” Sabra said as he pulled the helmet free, blinking in surprise at how much brighter the sun seemed without the visor.

“Are you okay?” Sky Bolt asked as he handed her the helmet. “You didn’t hit your head or anything, did you? Is the helmet making you feel funny?” Her voice began to pick up speed. “Did you—”

“No, no,” he said, raising his hoof and shaking his head. “I am fine, Sky Bolt. Usijali. It worked just as you intended.”

“So then why—” she began.

“Because I could not do this with it on,” he said, leaning forward and kissing her on the cheek. Sky Bolt froze, her mouth dropping open in shock.

That was permissible, was it not? he thought as he leaned back. Then a faint blush began to creep across her cheeks as her lips began to turn upwards in a smile.

“If I recall correctly,” he said as he plucked the helmet from her hooves, “I did … deni, deni, ah! Owe!” He slid the helmet back over his head as Sky Bolt lifted a hoof to her cheek. “ I did owe you? No, that is still not the right word. I … kwamba ni majibu yangu kwa wiki iliyopita!” he said at last with a shrug as he gave in, switching to zebra. “Mnaelewa?”

Her eyes narrowed for a moment, and then she nodded, smiling.

Nzuri,” he said, nodding at her as he caught one of the straps in his hooves and began to tighten it down. “Now, do you have any other tests in mind?”

Sky Bolt’s wide grin was all he needed to see to know the answer.

Part 3

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Nothing is so strong as gentleness, and nothing is so gentle as true strength.”

—Bright Socks

Sabra could feel his breath leaving his body in a slow, steady current as he relaxed. His chest began to deflate, every muscle tightening and then releasing in perfect synchronization as he closed his eyes. Around him, his quarters began to fade from his consciousness, the bright colors of the few hanging cloths and the bare, emptiness of the room vanishing from his mind as he once again sought the void.

It was harder than usual to find the void this time, but he wasn’t perturbed by the fact. Meditation could often be difficult after a day in which events beyond the ordinary had occurred, and the day’s events had indeed been, for lack of a better term, far beyond the expected. Master Taalib had once taught him that meditation was like a river, always flowing with the currents of life.

The river can be many things, Master Taalib had told him on repeated occasions. Mighty, weak. Fast, slow. Turbulent, or calm. Your life will be much the same way. But the water will always be there, waiting for those who wish so to drink it.

And so it is, Sabra thought as the void approached. Turbulence does not always imply illness. He let out another breath, easing his body into its meditative stance, his legs folded gently beneath him. Turbulence is often a sign that there is much to see under the water.

And after the events of today, the water would be turbulent indeed, he knew. The void began to form, endless and infinite yet contained all at once. With it came the lake, its surface splintered and cracked, ripples of thoughts spinning across its surface like dragonflies on a hot summer day. His body let out another, slow, even breath, and then that too was simply … no longer relevant. He could feel the grain of the floor beneath his flank, feel every burst of life with each beat of his heart, but such things were beyond his conscious mind. All that mattered was the void.

Once again he dropped into the lake, sinking below the surface. Ripples spread from his passing, and he had to force himself to focus, to still the lake, to calm raging thoughts until the lake was flat once more. Some were easy to resolve, but some were not, and it took longer than normal in this timeless expanse for the lake to calm. But calm it did, until once again it was a flat mirror stretching on forever with no end.

Sabra smiled, not knowing if his body in the physical world responded in kind. All that mattered now was the spiritual. Now, now that the lake was flat. Now he could begin. He could expose the turbulence underneath the river.

The surface of the lake began to roil, currents and eddies erupting from beneath the surface and making themselves known as memories began to surface. Recent memories, active ones, ones with great import. The surface of the lake began to boil, as if he’d set fire to its base, water roiling up in great, foaming gouts.

He felt every movement, knew every cause. His mind was still in a sense of elation after the events of that afternoon. His experiments with the armor. The effortless way he’d been able to propel his body up into the air. The ease with which he’d been able to lift weights no pony should have been able to lift, even toss them.

It hadn’t been a perfect test. More than once his focus had slipped, his understanding of how and why the enchantment worked slipping from his grasp, although luckily not in any way that could have caused him any harm. Now, looking back on when and where it had failed, the times and places where his mind had not been able to grasp the magic it was calling, now he understood.

It was not the desire to use his strength to help. He had realized this the second time the enchantment had slipped from his grasp. His strength, his emotion, it hadn’t arisen from his focusing on using his strength as a boon. It was not what he, subconsciously, held his strength to be.

But now … Now he had immersed himself in the events of the day, running them over from every angle, his mental state laid bare before him. And now, now he could see the true cause. Now, he knew without a doubt, how he could call upon the enchantment his armor held at any time, access its strength at a moments notice. It wasn’t out of a desire to help. No, that thought, although good and worthy of holding at all times, was not what his strength truly was. He knew that now. That desire was only a part, only a piece.

It had been loyalty. Loyalty to Sky Bolt. Loyalty to the team. It wasn’t just a desire to help. It was a desire to defend, assist, protect, encourage. Not because he could, although that was the reason he had joined them in the first place. And not because he should, although he knew that was a reason as well.

But because he wanted to. The surface of the lake began to calm, the billows of foam and heaving waves coming together, smoothing into a single, perfect ripple across the surface of the lake. A single, unified thought in pure form.

My strength is my loyalty. The thought swelled within him, the ripple rising, changing, spreading. Then all at once it split, five new ripples forming and spreading across the lake.

Loyalty to Hunter, Sabra thought, one of the ripples fading. Loyalty to Dawn Triage. Another ripple slowed, and then vanished. Loyalty to Captain Song. Even loyalty to Nova Beam. Two more ripples faded, leaving one, final ripple, strong and tall.

Loyalty to Sky Bolt, Sabra thought, and the last ripple slowed, then stopped, then faded. The surface of the lake was again smooth, featureless.

Loyalty to them all, he thought, and a single, shining ring exploded across the surface of the lake, a shimmering wave of water that seemed to glow with a golden, inner light as it rolled on into infinity. And from them all, strength. The lake began to smooth again as the ripple faded into the infinite, its surface once again still, but he could feel a difference in it, an inner glow that seemed to infuse the whole of its presence.

He was tempted to leave the lake now, in its serene, enlightened state. Such would be good for his meditation, an ideal end. But he could not. Would not. There was still one more cause of turbulence. One more rock hidden beneath the surface.

Perhaps the largest of all, he thought. Once again, as before, a single, solitary leaf began to drift from above. It wasn’t like he last memory he’d examined, native to Equestria. This was from his homeland. The leaf of a bamboo shaft, twirling and spinning as it drifted from the void towards the surface of the lake.

It touched, and once again memory began to ripple out…

“You may enter.” Sabra rose from his seat outside the doors to the monastery council chambers as Elder Fahim’s calm, cool voice resonated within. He paused for a moment, resting his hoof against the heavy wood as his mind raced.

This is it, he thought as he took a calming breath. This is the beginning of your journey. He took another deep breath, let it out, and pushed the door open.

The council chambers lay before him, a simple, rounded room with plain wooden furnishings. The elders of the monastery sat before him, arrayed by seniority around a wooden bench that ran the circumference of the room. Colorful tapestries of silk hung from the walls behind them, broad swathes of bright color that did nothing to disturb the friendly solemnity of the inhabitants.

At the apex of the room sat Master Taalib, a wide smile on his face as he looked across the room at him. To his left sat Master Jahi, a smile on his face as well, and to Tallib’s right, Shaman Dawa regarded Sabra with cool, collected eyes. None of them sat above the other, the whole bench being at the same level as the zebra standing at the floor. The window behind the the trio was open, the paper covering pulled to one side to let the afternoon sunlight in.

“Welcome, Sabra,” Master Taalib said, the words flowing from his mouth with a smoothness Sabra wished he held. Master Taalib was a sage of great talent as well as a noted orator, with the ability to make his words dance at his every intent as he spoke.

“Greetings, Master Taalib,” Sabra said, bowing his head and almost catching himself in fear that he had used the wrong greeting. “Greetings to you, Master Jahi,” he said, bowing to the aged master, who nodded in return, his long, grey mane bobbing.

“And greetings to you,” he said, bowing towards Shaman Dawa with his hooves spread wide and taking care not to use her name until allowed.

“Welcome, Sabra,” she said, returning his greeting in the proper method and using his name, giving him leave to use hers. “It is a pleasure to see you again, young one.” She chuckled as the words left her mouth, the beads in her mane clicking as she shook her head at her own joke. She was only two years older than Sabra, barely an adult save her revered position as Shaman. Some had suspected that she was interested in pursuing him with a marriage proposition someday, although he’d chosen to ignore dwelling on the theory.

“I thank you, Dawa” he said, rising from his bow. “Likewise.” He turned one by one to each of the elders, greeting them by name, with the proper greetings and with a respectful bow to each of them. Then, the stylized greeting that the occasion called for complete, he turned and faced Master Taalib, the one who had been elected to lead the council of Elders in their acceptance or denial of his pilgrimage.

He could barely believe it. A pilgrimage. To set hoof outside the province—no, outside the Plainslands in search of knowledge unheld by that of the monastery!

“Master Sabra,” Master Taalib began, and Sabra nodded in recognition of his full title, although he hardly ever used it. “We, the Elders, Shamans, and Masters of this monastery have gathered here today in order to discuss an event of great importance: your pilgrimage.”

“Master Sabra,” he continued, “in the short number of years that you have been here, you have proven both wise and knowledgeable, thoughtful yet insightful, skilled yet humble. Your thirst for knowledge as well as your love for it and higher thought has been an inspiration to all of us, myself included.” He leaned forward, resting his forehooves on the bench as he spoke. “It has been with utmost satisfaction and pride to have been witness to your remarkable growth from the young, complentative colt you came to us as just seven years ago to the young stallion you are today. In fact,” he said, giving him a gentle nod of his head, “I believe that the only ones who could be more proud of you at this moment are your parents.”

“You have learned during your time here, Sabra.” It was Master Jahi who spoke now, his ancient voice gravely and worn, but warm. “You have grown, surprising us with your talent and initiative. You are the youngest Master of the staff that we have record of in almost a thousand years. And now, unsurprising to many of us—well,” he admitted with a brief chuckle, “at least unsurprising to me—you wish to undergo a pilgrimage, to push yourself even further and achieve one of the highest and most renowned positions among our people.”

“You were first an Elder, and then a Master.” It was Dawa who spoke now, her calm voice cutting clearly across the room. “Now you wish to be more than a sage. You wish to go beyond the borders of our nation, to travel in search of new knowledge to bring back to us, to forever help the cause of our people. We give great reverence to those who undergo such a journey, who willingly walk away from that which they find familiarity in to search the unknown, far from home for our sake. To those who return from the journey, we grant the highest rank possible, that of Great Sage,” she smiled as she spoke, her braids clicking against one another as she cocked her head. “We call them legends.”

Sabra took in the words without much fanfare. He’d already known what was going to be said to him before he’d come in. The words that would be spoken, just as they had to every stallion or mare that had left the monastery before him, words that most elders heard every few years. He’d been on the other side of those benches numerous times despite his age, each time as an elder in council over another’s request to leave for a pilgrimage. Twice, the individuals had not left, for reasons that were not his own to hold in judgement. One had, traveling to the east in search of an answer to his own question of how the sun stayed alight. He had not returned.

Now it was his turn before the council, his request surprising no small number of them. They knew he had been asking questions, speaking with students and elders of all ranks, and despite that most were not supposed to question a student’s desire of pilgrimage, he knew many had. He was the youngest master in centuries, barely raised within the last year. And already, he was preparing to leave.

He looked at the circle of elders around him, taking in the expressions on many of their faces. Yes, they had expected this. Each and every one of them. But at the same time, many of them still looked somewhat stunned, their normally serene expressions still surprised by Sabra’s dedication of pilgrimage. The discussion the night before after he had left their counsel must have truly been spectacular.

“Master Sabra,” Master Taalib said, his voice pulling Sabra’s attention back towards the front of the room. “Last night you gathered us here, each of us, and asked of us permission to take up the path of pilgrimage.”

Sabra felt his heart begin to pound. No amount of breathing would calm it now. This was the culmination, the defining moment.

“We have counseled,” Master Taalib continued. Sabra could feel his legs beginning to shake as he leaned forward, every fiber of his being focused on the zebra’s words. “Now, we must ask you, do you have a question?”

“I do,” Sabra said, his voice sounding raspy to his ears. The moment had almost arrived.

“What is it?” Taalib asked. Sabra took a breath. This was to make certain that he had been thorough in his search, that each elder had been asked the exact same question.

“My question is: what is life?” His body felt as if it was going to melt around him. If turned away, he would have to begin all over, but his chances of ever departing on a pilgrimage were slim. If you did not go the first time, it was much harder to ever do so.

“An interesting question,” Dama mused, rubbing a hoof against her chin as she gave him a coy look. “And you have not found an acceptable answer in all the recordings of the monastery?” He shook his head, although he knew she already knew that. The question was rote.

“And among each and every one of us?” Master Jahi asked, leaning his ancient frame forward, his eyes narrowing as they focused on Sabra. “You have asked us all, and still yet feel there is knowledge unknown by us that you may seek?”

“Yes,” Sabra replied, nodding his head. Master Jahi leaned back, a wide smile cutting through the lines on his face. He had been the first one Sabra had asked, and he knew it.

“Elder Pasua?” Master Taalib asked, looking to the elder sitting closest by the door, “has Master Sabra inquired of you concerning his question?”

“He has,” she said.

“And did you answer him?”

“To the best I could,” she admitted, shaking her head. “And no, my answer was not to his satisfaction. I must admit, I was out of my element before he ever asked.” Her response drew a small circle of laughter from the other elders. “But no,” she finished, smiling as the laughter subsided, “I could not.”

“And you, Elder Ufanisi?” Master Taalib asked, repeating the question to the next elder in line. And so it went, each elder, master and even shaman being asked in turn, and each one replying that they had not been able to answer his question to his satisfaction. Then, at last, it was done, and Sabra held his breath as Master Taalib turned back towards him.

“Master Sabra,” he said, his words tight with either joy or pride, Sabra wasn’t sure, “it gives me great honor to inform you that this meeting of the council finds your pilgrimage of knowledge acceptable.”

Sabra legs went weak, almost giving out underneath him, but somehow they held. His breath was gone, it was all he could do to nod.

“You may leave as soon as you are ready,” Taalib said, his face falling somewhat, a sad tone coming into his voice as he spoke. “I would assume then, that you are already prepared to depart?”

“I am,” Sabra said, finding his voice. “I packed last night.”

“Then let our records show that Sabra, Master of the staff and Elder sage, did depart from our monastery on this date in search of knowledge, cast to the winds of the lands beyond our own. May the sun shine brightly always on his path.” He brought his hoof down on the bench with a heavy stomp that echoed around the room. “And on a more personal note, Sabra,” he said as the council began to rise, each making for the end of the bench so that they could congratulate him or otherwise speak with him, “Know that we will all miss you. I hope that one day, when you find your answer, you will return to us all.” He bowed, deep and low, a bow second only to the highest form of nonverbal respect. “Good luck, and safe journeys until you come home.”

“Return to us all…” The waters of the lake once again smoothed as the memory faded, and Sabra began to pull himself from the void, back to the physical realm. He remembered the last words of Master Taalib, the long walk out the doors of the monastery, past the fields of roots around what had been his home as he had headed down the road towards his family, and then on past that towards the Griffon Empire.

...when you find your answer, you will return to us all,” Taalib had said. “...until you come home.

Sabra opened his eyes and let out a sigh as he looked around the colorful room. The wall hangings were small and light, easy to put up and to take down. His bed was simple, unadorned. The drawers of his dresser were all, save one, empty. He was still traveling. Searching.

Or was he?

He sighed as he rose from his position, unfolding his legs. It was a simple matter to cross the space across the floor to his dresser, to open the top drawer. A few moments more to find what he was looking for, to pull the twin halves of the bamboo staff from the his drawer and set them, ever so gently, on the top of the dresser.

Then he pushed the drawer shut and turned for the door. He needed to speak with Captain Song.

* * *

“Enter.” Sabra stepped into the captain’s office at the command, his head held up straight. Captain Song was sitting behind his desk, his blue eyes staring down at a stack of papers that had been spread before him.

“Good evening, Sabra,” he said without looking up. He shook his head as if he’d seen something he didn’t like and shoved a paper towards one edge of the desk. “Take a seat.”

“You knew it was me, captain,” Sabra said as he trotted forward. Two, plain wooden chairs sat in front of the captain’s desk, each with a small bit of padding on the seat. He took the left one. “How?”

“Easy,” the olive-green stallion said with a faint grin. “You knock, then you wait for me to tell you to enter, and then you wait for me to tell you to sit.” Another sheet of paper slid across the desk with a faint rasp, a shimmer of sound that rang in Sabra’s ears, and at last the captain looked up, his eyes locking with Sabra’s. “Next to Dawn, you’re the most precise pony on this team.”

A glimmer of curiosity entered his mind, and Sabra spoke, letting a faint thread of his amusement enter his voice. “As compared to?”

“As compared to a toss-up between Sky Bolt and Nova,” the Captain said, a rare grin sliding onto his face. “Hunter usually waits for me to tell him to enter before coming in, but Sky Bolt usually can’t wait. She’s getting better,” he admitted with a shrug, the grin still on his face. “Usually she’ll catch herself, turn around and knock, but…” He spread his hooves in front of him. “With everything new she’s getting used to, I don’t hold it against her.”

“And Nova?” Sabra asked. The captain shook his head, letting out a sound that was halfway between a chuckle of amusement and groan of annoyance.

“Nova,” the aged stallion said, his close-cropped grey mane bouncing as he shook his head. “Nova, on the other hoof, knocks, walks in without waiting for my command, and then drops to the floor and gives me fifty push-ups.”

“That does sound like … like what he would do,” Sabra admitted with a slight smile. For all of Nova’s roughness, the stallion certainly had a charm about him, a system of dealing with things.

“Yeah, well, sometimes I get the last laugh,” the captain said, grinning. “I wait until he’s finished, and then I tell him that I wanted sit-ups instead. He chuckled and shook his head. “Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. What can I do for you, spec? Is the testing going well?”

“It is,” Sabra said, nodding and glad for the brief distraction. He was glad he was sitting. His legs felt weak, shaky. Like they had when he had been before the council. “It’s been a bit of a…” he paused, searching his mind for the correct word.

“A trial,” he said. “It’s been … different, getting used to how the armor works with the modifications.”

“But you’ve been able to make it work?” Captain Song asked. Sabra nodded.

“Of course,” he said, managing to keep his smile from erupting into a grin.

“And?” Captain Song prompted.

“It is incredible,” Sabra admitted, his grin breaking free as he leaned forward. A bit of strength seemed to come back into his limbs. “Nothing I have ever experienced. Like nothing,” he corrected, shaking his head. “Like nothing I have ever experienced.”

“Well that’s good to hear, especially coming from you,” the captain said, nodding as he leaned back. “Is it easy to use? Will it be useful in the field?”

“It takes a bit of getting used to,” he admitted. “Although Dawn apparently believes that I would have had the most difficulty in having it—making it work, due to the nature of the activation. However, with practice, any member of our team should be able to make great use of these enhancements.”

“You’re not one to exaggerate, Sabra,” the captain said, leaning forward once more and placing both hooves on the desk. “Is it really that marked an improvement?”

“It is … less an improvement, and more a burst,” he said, shaking his head at his inability to vocalize his description. “Haijalishi, the armor is excellent.”

“Well, that’s good to hear.” The captain nodded, but didn’t ask any further questions, and for a moment silence reigned in the office.

“There is … something else that I wish to discuss, captain,” Sabra said as the green stallion began to look at him expectantly.

“I thought there was.” Sabra nodded as Captain Song’s face grew serious once more. “Is this about your pilgrimage?”

“It is, sir,” Sabra said, giving him a quick nod. He was still nervous, more than he would ever admit out loud, but at the same time there was a comforting feel to his decision, a finality to it that he hadn’t expected.

“And?” Captain Song prompted.

“Good luck, and safe journeys,” Master Taalib had said. “...until you return home.”

“I haven’t found my answer yet,” he said, shaking his head. “I do not honestly know if I ever will. But until then, captain, I’d like to remain here, as a member of the Dusk Guard.” A warmth began to burn inside his chest as the captain began to smile, and he smiled back as Captain Song stood, extending one of his hooves.

“Sabra,” the old, olive-green stallion said as they shook hooves, “you have no idea how glad I am to hear that. Not that I don’t hope you’ll find that answer you’re looking for, but—”

Naelawa, captain. I understand,” Sabra said, giving him another nod. “I may yet find that answer, but for now…” He straightened his shoulders as he looked the captain in the eyes.

“For now, this is where I’ll be.”

* * *

The workshop was much the same as it had been the day before, although it didn’t seem quite so chaotic to his senses anymore. The music was still pounding and loud, the lyrics all but indecipherable to him without focus, but he was starting to see the patterns in the way the workbenches were laid out, the positioning of the various projects that covered them. There was a pattern to it, one that eluded him still, but he could sense its presence all the same.

“Sky Bolt?” he called out as he trotted further into the workshop, heading straight for the vast curve of The Hummingbird, “Jambo? Wewe ni hapa?”

Maybe she is not here, he thought as the envelope of The Hummingbird began to swell overhead, all but blocking his view of the roof. Then again, it is very possible that she merely could not hear me. The music was pounding from the workshop's speakers, far louder than it normally was.

“Sky Bolt?” he called again, raising his voice slightly. Again, nothing. No response. Then his ears twitched as he heard something. A faint clicking sound, like the noise of a bird but not quite. It was almost metallic. He closed his eyes, shutting out the workshop and focusing his attention on the single, repeated noise. Then he smiled. Of course.

“Sky Bolt?” he called again as he pulled open the airship hatch. “Jambo?

“Sabra?” came a distant call from inside the airship. “Is that you?”

Ndiyo,” he said, his eyes widening as he stepped inside the ship. The last time he had been inside The Hummingbird, the access door had opened into a single, large, solitary room, empty save for a few hastily assembled couches and bare lights overhead.

Now however, the hatch opened into a hallway that headed both towards the front and back of the airship. Sabra stepped inside, looking down in surprise as he felt the deck under his hooves give slightly. Instead of hardened metal, the floor was covered in some sort of spongy material that looked and felt quite a bit like the undersuit from the team's armor, but stiffer and with circular holes cut through it to the metal deck beneath. He took a few experimental steps towards the front of the ship, feeling the give in the strange material.

“Oh, there you are,” Sky Bolt said, her head poking around the end of the hallway, the rest of her body following moments later. “What do you think?”

“When did you do this?” he asked, running his eyes along the new wall and up towards the now covered rows of what he assumed were magilights.

“Over the last week,” Sky Bolt said, shrugging. “Like I said, I work when I think, and this was supposed to be done a while ago.” She turned and waved him forwards with a wing. “Come take a look. It’s not done yet, but I’ve gotten most of the easy stuff done. Another week, and the inside will finally be finished.”

Sabra followed her as she stepped out of the hallway and into a room that looked somewhat familiar. He stared at it for a moment before recognizing it as the front half of the space that had once made up the whole interior of the ship. The couches had been moved as well as reinforced with straps, and the walls had been padded, but it was still recognizable.

“This is the most complete room so far,” Sky Bolt said, waving her hoof as she walked into the center. “I’ve still got to get the padding underhoof secured so that I can finish the deployment doors, and the lockers that will sit along the back wall aren’t here yet, but the rest of it’s pretty good.

“What about the back rooms?” Sabra asked as his eye caught the two open doorways leading towards the back of the ship.

“One’s a bathroom, the other just a room,” Sky Bolt said with a shrug. “I’ll probably just fill it with lockers and make it some sort of storage.” She turned towards him, an expectant smile on her face. “Well, what do you think?”

“I think it is impressive how much you accomplish when you work,” Sabra said, running his eyes over the room once more. “Truthfully, I do.”

“Yeah, well once I’m done training for the day, I tend to spend most of my time back here,” Sky Bolt said, her wings spreading slightly. She brought her hoof up, pulling another strand of dirty sky-blue mane back into place. “It’s my job after all, and lately—”

“Are you open to doing anything else this evening?” Sabra said, surprising himself with his own forwardness. Sky Bolt’s ears stood straight up, her wings freezing for a moment.

“Well,” she said, one ear twitching as she gave him a curious look, “I was planning on trying to finish up some of the modifications to the back room, but I’ve put in my time for the day and already written up my report for Steel. Why?”

“I was wondering if you wished to accompany me to the market district,” he said, his voice level. “I was just speaking with Captain Song, and we—I mean, I—have decided that I will be staying with the team for a time still—”

“Wait,” Sky Bolt said, cutting him off as she stepped up close. “You were going to leave?”

“No.” He shook his head. “I simply did not know how long I was going to stay, and had permission to continue my pilgrimage when I wished.” Sky Bolt’s wings were sticking straight out, and he could hear her breath coming through clenched teeth, faster and faster. “I did not wish to leave,” he said, shaking his head, “nor do I plan to anytime soon. The captain gave me the option. I told him that I would not need it.”

“Oh,” the grey pegasus said, her wings slowly settling against her sides and her breathing slowing. “Ok, I thought for a moment…” she shook her head, her mane rolling around her shoulders like an angry sky. “Never mind.”

“It’s fine,” he said, shaking his head. That was foolish, Sabra, he thought. She’s already under enough pressure, and you make her worry that you’re going to leave. “I should have chosen my words more careful—” he frowned, “—carefully?”

“Carefully,” Sky Bolt said, her face softening somewhat as she corrected his Equestrian. “Sorry about getting a little tense there, I—”

“The fault was mine,” Sabra said, shaking his head. “I should have composed my words more carefully. I should not have given cause for you to be alarmed. It was not my intent. Samahani.

“It’s alright, Sabra,” she said, shaking her head again. He felt a chill in his stomach as she said his name. “I just jumped to conclusions, that’s all. I’ll accept your apology if you accept mine?” she held out her hoof and cocked her head to one side, waiting.

“Ah,” he said, reaching for her own. “Deal, as Nova says.” Their hooves met with a soft tap, and then Sky Bolt pulled hers away.

“So,” she said, smiling as she landed on the deck once more. “The market district?”

“I … Yes, the market district,” Sabra said, switching his mind back.

“Just to look?” Sky Bolt asked. “Or was there something that you wanted to do?”

“Well,” he said, “it has come to my attention that I am being paid quite well, by Equestrian standards. And my room here is very basic. I would like to spend some of my … earnings?” He paused, waiting for Sky Bolt’s nod before he continued. “Earnings … on some things to make my room more welcome.” He smiled. “For instance, I need a stand to display what’s left of my old fimbo. Something to … to remind me of the Plainslands.”

“Sounds like fun to me,” Sky Bolt said, flicking her tail as she turned towards the back room and giving him a perhaps purposeful view of her cutie mark. “Give me a second to put away my stuff back here and turn the lights out.” There was a clatter from the room that she’d identified as the bathroom, followed by a soft groan.

“Are you alright?” There was another clatter from the bathroom and then Sky Bolt poked her head out, an annoyed look on her face.

“I’m fine,” she said, her eyes almost crossing as she glared at the tuft of mane hanging in front of her face. “I just didn’t realize how dirty my mane had gotten while I was in here. Do you mind if I clean it?”

“You can,” Sabra said, and the grey pegasus began to duck back. “But you don’t have to.”

Sky Bolt came to a stop and then turned back towards him, a curious look on her face. “You’d be fine with my going out with a dirty mane?”

“I actually like it,” he said. “Your mane, it is blue like the sky. And when it gets dirty, I am reminded of clouds in the sky over the Plainslands. Or smoke above the fires that are your eyes. You can clean it, but if you do not wish to, I will not mind. Anyone who does simply does not see what I see.” His words seemed to have stunned Sky Bolt into silence, and for a moment she stared at him. Then she smiled, giving her head a soft shake.

“Sabra,” she said, stepping out of the bathroom, a pair of toolbags slung over her back. “That’s both the cutest and the oddest compliment I’ve ever received. But,” she said, stepping up to him and bumping her shoulder against his own, “I liked it. So,” she said with a small bounce in her step as she headed for the hatch, “let’s go get some stuff to make your quarters more like home!”

“Right,” he said as he followed her out of the hatch. Home…

“...until you return home,” Master Taalib had said. At the time, those words had been lost in the shuffle of events, part of the rhetoric of well-meaning phrases that had swept him away. Now? Now they felt sincere, but misplaced.

Sabra watched as Sky Bolt took wing across the workshop, dropping her toolbags on one of the benches and shutting off the music. She did a corkscrew as she flew, twisting back into a loop and soaring over the open interior of shop. He smiled.

He didn’t have his answer yet. No, not yet, for some strange reason he couldn’t quite put his hoof on. Perhaps it was experience. A year ago, either of the Diarch’s answers would have been more than enough to send him back, to return him from the world to the Plainslands he had left behind, to the monastery he had known as home.

But now? Now, their answers felt like all of the others. Incomplete. Brilliant, yes. True, even.

But something was missing all the same, he thought as Sky Bolt looped in front of him and landed with all four hooves on the ground.

“Well,” she said, eyeing him with a smile on her face, “are you ready to get out of here or what?”

“Of course,” he answered with a smile, but it wasn’t the answer in his mind.

A year ago I would have been, he thought as they walked towards the barracks entrance, stopping only to grab his saddlebags from his room. But now? He smiled as he turned out of his room, and Sky Bolt laughed. He thought about the armor he’d tested earlier, about the strength he’d brought to bear, inspired only by the ponies he’d spent the last few months working with.

He hadn’t found his answer. Not yet. One day, if he found it, he would return to Master Taalib, Jahi, and the other masters of the monastery. And, if he did, he would make his report.

But when I do, I will not stay, he thought as he and Sky Bolt walked out onto the grass of the Guard field, the late afternoon sun just beginning to cool. I cannot.

Because here, he thought as they walked side by side towards the city of Canterlot. Here I am something stronger than I ever was.

Here, I am home.


View Online

“Hey, you ready?”

Ndiyo,” Sabra said, giving Sky Bolt a nod as he lifted the helmet in his hooves. The polished, light grey crystal glinted in the sun, rivulets of light sparkling across the seams. “Are you?”

“I think so,” Sky Bolt said, adjusting her wings as she looked up at the stands behind her. Various members of the other Guard divisions had already begun to arrive, mostly high-ranking officials who had clearance or had been invited by Captain Song. Sabra could already make out the space where Princess Celestia and Princess Luna were meant to sit, mostly because palace staff had already arrived and set up some light coverings for the wooden benches.

Kupumzika,” Sabra said as Sky Bolt unfolded and folded her wings again, the motion making the crystal of her own armor glimmer under the light. “Relax.”

“I know,” she said, shaking her head as she looked back at him, but her wings stayed folded against her sides. “I’m fine. Just nervous energy. Are you sure you’re good to go?”

Kamwe bora,” he said, smiling again as he lifted the helmet over his head. Never better. And he meant too. Waking up to his newly decorated room this morning had felt right, like he’d scratched an itch he’d never known he had. Sky Bolt had done an impressive job helping him find things from his homelands to buy, so much so that he’d actually had to turn some things away. It felt nice to be waking up alongside a traditional wallpaper, as well as the tapestry they’d found in one of the markets. He’d gotten a discount for that one, although he hadn’t intended to. The zebra mare at the stall they’d found had been from his home province and recognized his name. She’d then refused to let him pay full price upon realizing that she was speaking to a Master Sage. Fortuitously, he’d been speaking his native tongue and hadn’t had to explain to Sky Bolt exactly why he’d been given the discount.

“Alright,” Sky Bolt said, taking one of the straps in hoof as his helmet slid into place and pulling it tight. “If you deplete the charge by accident, just let me know, and I’ll switch the demonstration over.”

“I will,” Sabra said, smiling at her under the helmet although he knew she couldn’t see it. Behind her, in the stands, he could see Captain Song speaking with the Captain of the Royal Guard. The Princesses would be arriving any moment now, and then the demonstration would begin.

Sky Bolt had chosen to hold the demonstration in the same location where they he had tested the armor the day before: the Guard’s Capture-the-Flag field. Unlike the obstacle course built in the training building, the field had seating rather than a single observation platform accessible to only a few ponies. Additionally, the training building was full of navigable, small scale obstacles. Sky Bolt hadn’t considered seeing an armored pony scale a wall most other ponies in the Guard had already conquered an effective demonstration of the new armor’s capabilities, especially when it would be done by such a large degree of ease with the new armor. She’d wanted some actual space to show off the armor’s capacity rather than the cramped hallways and small arenas of the obstacle course. It was a decision he’d agreed with, seeing as how he and Nova had made such short work of the obstacle course weeks earlier without any of the benefits the armor now provided. The field however, was massive, with plenty of space to demonstrate the armor’s capacities.

The last strap tightened, Sabra gave his head an experimental shake, checking for any looseness or discomfort. Then he nodded at Sky Bolt, watching as her smile widened.

“Well,” she said, taking a quick look back at the mostly empty stands, “I’ve definitely presented before larger audiences before.” She let out a laugh and then looked back at him, her eyes shining. “Guess that’s to be expected when what you’re presenting is top secret. I’ve never officially presented to a Princess either, much less both of them.”

“You’ll be fine,” Sabra said, stepping alongside her and and looking at her.

“Yeah, I know,” she said, grinning at him as she spread her wings. “I’m going to get up there, the Princesses should arrive any minute.”

Bahati nzuri.”

Sky Bolt’s wings pushed down as she shot into the air, arcing towards the stands. Sabra tracked her with his head as she flew, noticing the extra little flourishes she put into her flight as she drew close to the stands. He watched just long enough to see her perform a final corkscrew before landing alongside the rest of the Dusk Guard, then he turned his attention back down to the field. There was little to do now but wait.

He twisted his head back, eyes settling on the long, angular rectangle that the mod had eventually become. It was somewhat triangular now along the top—although knowing Sky Bolt it could be almost anything the next time he used it—and just short enough that he could still arch his back backwards without the mod getting in his way. Technically, it wasn’t a rectangle from the side. The front of the mod sloped sharply up as it moved back from his neck, leveled into a small, flat space, and then angled downward towards the back. Somehow she’d found the time to completely redesign the mod in what little time she’d had after the markets the night before and after the morning’s workouts, as well as prepare a little something extra that she hadn’t told Captain Song about.

Although knowing the Captain, he’s already noticed it, Sabra thought as he turned his attention back towards the field, running his eyes over the large, split-level, three-story structure that Sky Bolt had chosen to center the demonstration around. And if Captain Song hasn’t, then Nova certainly has.

Up in the stands, the soft rumble of conversation faded as Princess Luna strode around the corner of the stands, her ethereal mane swirling gently in some summer breeze, real or unseen. Behind her came her sister, Princess Celestia, her bright white coat shining in the sun. The two sisters made their way across the stands, pausing to greet various ponies as they headed for their places.

The team, Sabra thought, a feeling of power swelling through him as he tested the mod one last time. He released it almost as quickly as it had come. They’d discovered yesterday that it wasn’t much of a drain on the enchantment to hold it active, but every little bit counted, and he didn’t want to run out partway through the demonstration. He’d spent enough time testing the device to have a rough idea of how much magic he could expend, although that had been before Sky Bolt had rebuilt it, and despite assurances that the new design was no different on the inside, he didn’t want to risk it.

“Alright!” Sabra snapped his attention back upwards as Sky Bolt’s voice carried across the field. She was standing in front of the stands now, her armor shining in the sun as she addressed the scattered crowd. The rest of the Dusk Guard were arrayed nearby, their own crystal armor gleaming in the sunlight.

“I’d like to welcome you all here—” Sky Bolt’s voice cut off as Dawn stepped up alongside her, whispering something in her ear. A moment later, the pink mare’s horn glowed, the air around Sky Bolt’s face lighting up in response.

“Thank you,” Sky Bolt said, her voice sounding much clearer and distinct, almost as if she was speaking right next to him rather than yelling. “I guess I should have thought to bring a megaphone, but I’ve been a little nervous. After all, I’ve never presented to a Princess before, let alone two.” There were a few scattered chuckles through the crowd, and Sabra imagined he could see a bit more confidence sneaking into her shoulders.

“In any case,” the pegasus continued, her voice growing more firm, “I’d like to welcome both of the Princesses who are with us today, without whose support this project would not be happening.” She paused for a moment and then continued. “Thank you for coming.”

“Now!” she said, spinning on her rear hooves as she turned to face the field. Sabra could see her grin now, the wide smile of exuberant success stretched across her features. “What you’re going to see today promises to completely revolutionize the Guard’s abilities. That might sound like hyperbole now,” she said, glancing back at the small assemblage, “but I guarantee you, after this demonstration, none of you are going to be able to disagree.”

“Most of you have seen the armor that the Dusk Guard wear by this point,” Sky Bolt continued, her voice flowing smoothly now. “Some of you have even had the luck to see it in action.”

She’s completely in her element, Sabra thought as he glanced at the audience. They are hanging on every word, and she enjoys it as much as a teacher watching their students learn.

“Well, today,” Sky Bolt said, her voice taking on a fever pitch. “You get to see what it’s like when it’s completed!” She raised one hoof and the audience applauded softly, their hooves shaking the stands.

That was his cue. Sabra began to trot forward towards the three-story structure as Sky Bolt drew the crowds attention to him.

“Our armor is made from carefully chosen sections of magically reactive crystal,” Sky Bolt said. “Not only does it provide a wide range of physical protection, it also acts as a reflective agent in the case of magic, allowing it to dampen, negate, or even outright reflect magical energies.” The audience was nodding now, and Sabra allowed himself to pick up speed.

“Most of you could probably have worked that out on your own,” Sky Bolt continued as Sabra began to trot. “But the armor also contains an inner layer designed to amplify, contain, and streamline a pony's own internal magic, giving them a significant boost to their physical and magical capacity.” A low wall was coming at him now, and he switched to a full run. He leapt, a simple, unassisted exertion that saw his body cutting through the air above the wall. He landed, still running towards the building as Sky Bolt continued speaking.

“But today, we’re going to demonstrate the true purpose of this armor. A supplementary enchantment system of my own design.” He could see the crowd in the corner of his eyes, leaning forward expectantly as he approached the base of the building. Forty feet to go.

“Something we call a ‘mod,’ designed to store and release magic spells at precise moments.”

Thirty feet. He could see Princess Luna leaning forward now, her focus intent on him. Twenty feet. He was coming at the building from the backside, its surface one solid wall that extended all the way to the flat rooftop. For any normal pony, the only options would have been to scale the building a floor at a time on the other side, use the stairs on the inside, or if they were a pegasus, fly.

Fifteen feet. The side of the building was stretching overhead now, a sheer wall of blank, unadorned plywood.

“I think you’ll agree,” Sky Bolt said as Sabra gathered his legs beneath him, “that the results are incredible.”

Sabra focused his mind and the familiar surge of power swept through his body as he pushed down, hard. The ground shot away beneath him as his magically enhanced body launched itself into the air. He twisted his body and stretched his legs as he shot past the lip of the building's roof, putting himself into a simple backflip. He could see faint, reddish-purple lines shining against the black of his suit’s lining as it funneled the magic through his body, lines that traced geometric patterns across his sides and under his armor until he let go of the enchantment. The lines vanished, and he landed on the roof, his hooves ringing out against the dry wood as he faced the audience.

For a moment, there was silence as the audience stared at him in complete shock. Then the stands erupted in applause as the Guard began stamping their hooves. Even the Princesses seemed impressed, applauding along with the crowd as they smiled at Sky Bolt, although Princess Luna seemed somewhat more enthused than her sister, and Sabra could have sworn he heard a sharp crack from her section of the stands.

“What you’ve just seen is what is commonly known as a strength enhancement spell,” Sky Bolt said as soon as the applause died down. She spoke firmly, her wings spread wide, unveiling the small boxy shape nestled between her own shoulder blades. He could hear the pride in her voice. “What I’ve done allows for it to be accessed not all at once, but as needed. So for instance, not only can he leap up onto the building…”

He took his cue as she turned towards him and jumped again, this time without the enhancement, but over the side of the building. The ground rushed up at him with frightening speed, and he focused his mind once more.

The ground shook beneath him as he hit, his hooves kicking up dirt as he sank to a crouch, but he barely felt it. His enhanced limbs flexed, but he felt that he could have safely jumped from another twenty feet up before risking injury. Maybe further. He let the magic go as he turned to face the crowd once more. Again the stunned Guard applauded, and Sabra smiled.

“But thanks to the enchantment, he can take falls that would normally injure a pony with ease,” Sky Bolt finished. “With this device, one pony is worth six.”

“Of course,” she said, tilting her head to one side, “this comes at a cost. While Sabra may have the strength of six or seven ponies down there, I assure you that what he’s wearing costs a lot more than that.” There were assorted chuckles from the crowd at her joke, and Sabra nodded. The joke was as much for their benefit as for his, to give the crystal time to build up its charge.

“But, costs aside,” Sky Bolt said, “the application is clear. Because with this system, strength isn’t the only spell we can cast.” She snapped her wings out and gave them a backwards thrust, pushing herself into the air. “The applications are limitless,” she said, gliding down onto the field. Her hooves touched the ground, and then her own suit lit up as his had, striking lines of reddish-yellow magic glowing all across her like molten gold.

Sky Bolt shot forward as if fired from a cannon, her hooves moving far faster than they had any right to as she covered the distance between her and Sabra in a fraction of the time it had taken him. She skidded to a halt next to him, her hooves digging into the hard-packed dirt and kicking up a cloud of dust as the glowing lines on her suit faded away.

“So,” she said, throwing him a wink as she turned, “while I’m sure that most of you can see the immediate applications of what I’ve created, we’re going to do our best to show off their capacity in a wide variety of situations. After all, like I said, these thing aren’t cheap. But by the time we’re done here today…” she let the words hang in the air as Sabra leapt again, landing on the roof once more. “We think you’ll agree that they’re worth the cost.” Her own suit lit up and she bolted back towards the audience, the speed spell on her mod letting her move with almost unbelievable speed, even if only for a few seconds.

Sky Bolt landed in front of the crowd once more, struck a quick bow as they applauded, and then turned towards him, her face smiling wide as she nodded at him.

Sabra returned the nod, crouched, summoned the enchantment's magic forth once more, and leapt.

As his body arced into the sunlight, twisting and turning in the air, Sabra smiled. He didn’t have his answer.

But for now, he didn’t need it.