A Pony Displaced: Another Path

by NoLongerSober

First published

Legend has it that on the longest day of the thousandth year, the stars will aid in her escape. There once was a stallion who faced Nightmare Moon and was sealed away with her. Now he returns in the modern age, hoping to find a new path.

Legend has it that on the longest day of the thousandth year, the stars will aid in her escape.

After one-thousand years of being bound in the celestial body, Nightmare Moon is free! Right alongside the poor sap that got bound with her.

Thrust into an unfamiliar world, with scars and memories that are now drastically out of place, this is the story of the former guard captain, Magic Barrier.


Do the words above sound familiar? If they do, then you've probably read my other story, A Pony Displaced. This tale isn't a sequel. It isn't a rewrite, though you might consider it a re-imagining of sorts. It is a tale of progression, one that I hope will show my development as a writer in both skill and quality. But more importantly, it is a story that offers exploration into one simple question. What if Magic Barrier had trotted down another path?

As always, thanks go out to everyone who helped me get to this point. In particular, thank you to Alticron, for editing, proofreading, co-writing, being my idea-wall, and arguably the single biggest reason this story saw the light the day, and thank you to Word Worthy, formerly Izanagi, who also edited, proofread, and threw ideas around with us. It wouldn't be possible without these two. In addition to those two I'd like to thank the newest member of the group Omnicron25 for his efforts in proofing/editing as well. Damn glad to have you on board mate.

Additional thanks to Wing for keeping me company late nights and for being a wordsmith when I needed one.

Prologue

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The charcoal-coated stallion took several heavy breaths as he tugged his sword free from bone with a tired grunt.

A hammer clattered to the ground and a light-amber stallion fell onto his haunches, “Captain, I fear we cannot endure much longer!”

“Cursed sods, the timing of their attack was immaculate…” A cream colored pegasus drifted to the ground, wings falling limply to her sides.

The unicorn glanced around at the haggard ponies surrounding him; two pegasi, fatigued wings slack and brows matted with sweat, and a pair of earth ponies, eyes lidded ever-so-slightly and still working to catch their breath.

Almost directly in front of them were two-dozen or so thestrals remaining. The only thing keeping them alive was the narrow hallway that served as a choke-point between their location and the throne-room. Only four or so thestrals could fight comfortably in the cramped hallway with an equal amount able to take to the air, for all the good it did them.

“Ye honorless bastards, Sombra is a saint when cast in the shadow of your treachery!” Magic Barrier yelled out towards the bat-ponies. “Hear me: ye art damned monsters! Abominations!” Several of the thestrals snorted and another group moved forward, stepping over the corpses of their fallen comrades..

“Just had to taunt ’em and gall their hearts. huh Cap?” The amber earth-pony hefted himself upright, hauling the massive maul along with him. “Wrll, crmon yr bstrds!” The stallion yelled out around his mace, both of the pegasi - one cream colored with fiery orange mane, and the other a light-orange with a dark-blue mane - taking to the air. As things started again the walls and ground began to shake violently. No doubt caused by the literal embodiments of the sun and moon duking it out almost directly behind them.

Glancing uncertainly towards the throne-room behind him, Magic Barrier looked back to his ponies. “Can you warriors hold them here?”

“Tch, what manner of question is that?” the orange pegasus began. “Of course, we can hold them here. Render aid to the princess! Sooner this is concluded, the better!”

“Very good! Braeburn, procurest some rocks for me..”

In response, the amber pony slammed his warhammer into the wall, crumbling one of the large stones and leaving a noticeable dip where the weapon had stuck.

“Flash, Brae,” Magic Barrier began, driving his sword between the stones in favor of the hundreds of small rocks. “If I fail to emerge from this with mine heart still a-beating, look after little Sparkle and her father in my stead. Promise me that.” Sweat beaded on his brow as he struggled to concentrate on so many individual rocks at once as he sharpened them down into arrowheads.

“It will be done, sir,” both stallions stated firmly.

“Alright ponies, sunder these traitorous bastards!” As he yelled the order, he sent many of the arrowheads speeding forward, dropping his magic grip on them as they picked up to a dangerous speed and dropping a number of them as his magic failed him and the headache of overuse set in. Without waiting to see the results, the stallion turned and sprinted away.

With a grunt, Magic Barrier threw his shoulder into the throne-room door, forcing it open. The sight that met him was worrisome to say the least.

Standing over the regal form of the Sun Princess was the familiar twisted visage of Princess Luna - Nightmare Moon, as she had taken to being called - cackling madly, completely oblivious to his presence.

“And now, Sister,” she sneered, “for thine arrogance,” her horn flared to life, thrumming with unimaginable power, “I sentence thee to exe-” the psychotic lunar princess was silenced as Magic Barrier collided into her, throwing his full weight into her side.

“Why must you degenerates always make love to your own tongues?” Magic Barrier asked as he lept backwards in preparation of what was to come.

The lunar diarch, using the momentum of the wild charge and subsequent knockdown, rolled upright and set herself in a single fluid movement all before rapidly firing a beam of magic, warping the air and ground where the stallion had stood moments prior, violently bending and twisting the solid stones without actually breaking them.

Huh. Would hate to get hit by that… Barrier briefly thought, firing a beam of his own in retaliation and quickly regretting it as pain lanced through his skull, as well as Nightmare Moon simply letting it disperse across her chest, completely unphased.

“We shall slay thee slowly for that, Captain," the mare spat.

“Peradventure,” the Captain chuckled hollowly. “But fret not, I’ll ensure with all my being that it’s something worthy of memory.” The stallion rolled his neck and shoulders, stifling a groan of satisfaction as a particularly tight knot loosened.

“Hmph, we hope thou dost not disappoint.” The nightmare tapped the ground with her hoof, lowering her head ever-so-slightly, eyes remaining on the stallion who had assaulted her.

“My hope dwells in whatever plan thou might have, princess,” he mouthed softly towards the Solar Diarch as he lowered his own horn, eyes narrowing as magic began to charge at his horn-tip.

“Thou art a-jesting, surely?” the nightmare scoffed, magic building in her own horn. “Very well, if thou wishest to die like a fool, then so be it!” Another beam of magic, similar to the energy that had warped the stone moments prior, loosed itself.

In response, a beam of magic erupted out of the captain’s horn, nowhere near as impressive. As the two connected, the room burst into a blinding light as his own beam was obliterated and he vanished in a pop of magic, reappearing into space directly behind the lunar princess.

“No ill will, princess!” the stallion called out as he drove both of his front his hooves into the back of her legs, causing the princess to gasp out as she fell backwards onto her flanks and the stallion mounted her, climbing over her wings and wrapping one forehoof around her neck, bracing it with the other.

Nightmare scrabbled desperately at the vice-like grip, her eyes widening. As her horn lit up. the stallion rapidly freed his bracing hoof and struck her with it, the hard blow causing the magic to dissipate and the mare to cry out in pain as the energy forced itself back down her spear of a horn.

Oh, rutt me asunder with a well-rusted mace… The unicorn’s own eyes widened as the alicorn’s wings flared out and the pair left the ground.

As expected, the two got fairly well off the ground before the lunar diarch closed one wing and shifted, putting her back - and assailant - to the ground before going into freefall.

Making to flare his horn, the stallion yelped as the mare threw her head back, driving her skull in to muzzle and breaking his concentration.

The stallion didn’t even have the strength in him to grunt as he felt multiple bones through his back shift violently, his hooves falling limp from her throat. Accursed whorse is heavy… The stallion’s mind idly noted.

With a grunt, the alicorn rolled upright, staring down at him in contempt. “A valiant effort, Captain Barrier, but thou hast failed. Have thou any last words?” She raised a hoof over his face, tensing her muscles.

Magic Barrier winced as his sight was obscured by all the different shades of the rainbow. As it disappeared, there stood…empty air, and ten feet away, smoke roiling off her body, stood the intended target.

“Are you able, captain?” the regal voice of Princess Celestia asked, stepping protectively in front of him.

Glancing up at the mare - a solid head taller than him - he nodded, hissing as he rolled upright, loose bones shifting in his back.

“I shall be fine enough, Your Highness,” Magic Barrier glanced at Nightmare Moon who was staring at the pair, horn flared with magic. “Can you bring the Elements to bear against her, princess?”

“Mayhaps if she’d remain still long enough to charge them…” Celestia began, horn flaring as Nightmare Moon began to stalk towards the pair, her own horn charging.

“Well,” Barrier lit his own horn, wincing as lances of pain speared through his head once more, “Pray give them charge then, princess. And if it is no titanic burden to adjure of you, please, keep watch over my family.”

With a solemn nod, the elements once more began to circle around the solar princess as the unicorn trotted awkwardly forward, clearly favoring his right side.

Nightmare Moon flared both wings and took to the air; With a single hard flap, she launched herself out of range of the earthbound unicorn and focused her eyes on the charging artifacts.

Closing his eyes and ignoring the painful magical feedback, Magic Barrier’s horn faltered briefly before flaring to life. With a burst of magic, the stallion disappeared in a pop of light before, for the second time that morning, he mounted the lunar diarch. Winking into existence in the space directly above her, the weary stallion wrapped both hooves around her barrel and began to grunt with effort as the mare thrashed at the sudden weight unbalancing her.

The last thing the stallion felt was an unbearable burning sensation radiating from every ounce of his being, and a brief thought of Alack, this was not such a good idea, followed by darkness.

Chapter 1

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Magic Barrier groaned pitifully as the sound of a mare reached his ears, rousing him to consciousness.

“C’mon girls, we gotta hurry!”

“Hold up, AJ, what’s that?”

A number of hooves slid to a halt, which was followed by a pair of gasps.

With a particularly throaty heave, Barrier staggered upright and turned to address… five young mares without armor or weapons.

Have I taken leave of my senses…?

“Who the hay are you?”

Barrier blinked in surprise as the cyan pegasus set herself in front of him and eyed him warily; for some reason, it brought him great amusement. Barrier opened his mouth to reply, only for another burst of light to break through the dusty towers of the windows and light the courtyard.

All five of the mares gasped and took up their gallop once more, bolting right passed the confused stallion.

“Are you all mad?!” he shouted out, limping after the mares tiredly. “Blasted fools…” Barrier’s chest tightened slightly as he glanced at the giant spiral staircase the group had sprinted up. Reaching a hoof under his breastplate, the stallion pulled out a small brown sack, pulling several short and woody stems, shoving one in his mouth, quickly grinding it up and swallowing before sticking another stem in his mouth to chew on. Hopefully the rush would come sooner than later. He’d need all the help he could get for what was no doubt coming.

Taking a deep breath, the stallion started up the stairs, slight relief flowing through him as the roots did their work.

***

A familiar voice reached the unicorn’s ears as he finally reached the top of the tower, “I'm so sorry! I missed you so much, big sister!”

Princess Luna… With a final effort, the stallion stepped into the room, his eyes resting on six mares and both of the princesses. Almost subconsciously, a smile came to his face as he watched the two embrace, sagging against the ancient door-frame… which promptly gave way, sending the stallion to the ground with a painful crash and drew the attention of everyone in the room.

“Of course,” he snorted, “it simply wouldn’t do for our universe to bestow a break upon me.”

“I’m pleased to see you’re well, captain.” Celestia carefully removed her wing from her sister and made her way over to him, followed closely by the smaller blue alicorn.

“Doesn’t look all that well,” the cyan pegasus from earlier commented idly to her friends.

“Captain?” The purple unicorn glanced uncertainly at her mentor. “But Princess, I thought…” she fell silent as the princess raised her hoof and smiled reassuringly to the smaller pony.

“I believe introductions are in order, but perhaps it would be better if we did this elsewhere?” Her gaze once more drifted to Magic Barrier. “Are you able, Captain Barrier?”

Barrier glanced briefly at the six mares and Luna, who appeared to have shied behind her older sister when his gaze met hers and returned his back uncomfortably in kind. “I shall manage, Your Highness, though I may need to visit the infirmary whenever we reach our destination.”

***

“How are you even walking around?” A light amber unicorn was carefully pressing along Magic Barrier’s back and shoulders, his attentions gaining little more than an occasional flinch out of the stallion. “I really must recommend he be admitted, Princess.” The doctor turned around to face the alabaster mare, adjusting his glasses slightly. “He has notable fractures along his shoulders and hip, as well as several hairline fractures elsewhere. There are a number of poorly healed lacerations that could use some help as well. He should be hospitalized for at least a month.”

“That will not do, doctor,” Barrier spoke up as he moved out from behind the magically-charged x-ray screen.

“Doctor, could you give us a moment?” Celestia asked softly, receiving a nod from the doctor, who quickly departed, mumbling something about fetching casts and bandages.

“Captain, how aware are you of the current situation?”

Barrier opened his mouth to reply but found no words forthcoming as his mind ran rampant. “Not terribly, Princess…” he confessed, realizing he’d given the dilapidated state of the castle little to no thought before now.

Celestia took a deep breath. Such a thing was never easy to do, much less to a pony as undeserving as Magic Barrier. “As you may remember, you were blasted with the Elements of harmony, along with my sister.”

The stallion nodded.

“You and my sister have both been gone from Equestria for one thousand years, Captain Barrier. The Equestria you remember and the Equestria of today are very different animals.”

Barrier’s breath hitched in his throat almost immediately. As a captain, he’d always had a very analytical mind. Anytime a scenario was presented to him it was almost instinct to try and think of - and plan for - every possibility. “Then my team…?” Barrier began, “Braeburn, Flash, River…?”

“I’m sorry, captain…” Celestia gazed sadly at the floor before turning and departing, leaving Barrier alone.

***

Celestia glanced at the seven mares - the elements and her sister - before smiling weakly. “He’ll be fine, given time…” Celestia winced as a cracking sound reach her ears, followed by a loud swear from the stallion in question. Most of the mares, especially the Princess of the Night, shied back from the room.

***

Barrier was never quick-to-anger; patience and forethought had been beaten into him fairly early on in his career, but the sheer thought of one-thousand years’ displacement was overwhelming to the stallion’s normally analytic mind. His friends and family, his niece, everything he valued, lost to the ever-unforgiving sands of time. “Gods dammit!” the stallion swore, driving a hoof into the hospital floor. He was rewarded with the satisfying sound of tile cracking.

Several more times he drove his hoof into the shattered tile, reducing the tile and ground underneath to little more than broken fragments. After several moments of intense frustration at his helplessness - and several more shattered tiles - the stallion slumped to the ground, fatigue finally bringing him down. Drained, both physically and emotionally, the stallion departed the hospital room, giving little care to the damage he caused.

“Do you feel better?” Celestia asked, eyeing the small gashes lining his hooves.

“Nay, Your Highness, but I shall adapt.” Barrier quickly took in the appearance of the six somewhat new faces, mentally labeling them. Treekicker, He noted Applejack’s well-muscled hind-legs, Yellowquiet, He glanced at Fluttershy quietly cowering away from him and all but shivering at his gaze, Squiggletail, he eyed Rarity with mild disinterest before his eyes drifted to the grinning and bouncing pink pony. Almost immediately, he felt his muscles tense before he shifted his gaze elsewhere rather abruptly. Purplesmart… He could see the mare staring at him, obviously biting back dozens of questions. The look reminded him of young Sparkle, his niece. Almost absentmindedly his eyes drifted over her cutie-mark and his breath hitched in his throat for the second time that day. “Young maiden?”

Twilight jumped slightly, caught off guard at being addressed by the stallion in such a firm voice. It was nothing like the Captain of the Guard she was familiar with.

“What is your name?”

Twilight hesitated, glancing at her mentor who only nodded reassuringly, “Um, I’m Twilight. Twilight Sparkle, sir.” Twilight replied quickly, subconsciously straightening up and standing taller.

Sparkle… Barrier rolled the name over in his head several times before glancing at Celestia who simply nodded, a faint smile on her face.

“'Tis a pleasure to meet you, Dame Sparkle,” he inclined his head respectfully, “and you good mares…?”

***

Barrier eyed the ornate chariot that both of the princesses had boarded uncertainly before his gaze drifted towards the lunar princess that had begun to address him.

“Words will never do Us justice, captain…” Luna began, “what We have caused…what We put thou and everypony else through…”

“It matters not at this point, Your Highness,” Barrier quickly stated. “Nopony, even myself, would want thou to blame thyself for what has transpired. It would be best for the realm if ye’ were to focus on improving thyself. Do not forget thy mistake, but do not let it define thee either.” Barrier stated firmly. “Learn from this experience, and let it never happen again. Thou art far above it.”

Words left the slightly larger mare before a sad smile settled on her face. “We give you Our word, Captain, that we shall try our hardest.” There was little hesitation in the mare’s statement, causing Barrier to smile ever-so-slightly.

“So long as thou tryst thy hardest, nopony shall fault thee, princess.” Some traitorous part of the stallion’s mind began to start, She’s the reason you’re alone now… whereas another part argued that it was his job. He knew what he had signed on for, and as undesirable as his situation was, it was far from the worst-case-scenarios that his mind had long-since prepared for him.

“Captain, are you okay?” The soft voice of Princess Celestia broke him out of his thoughts.

“I am in a finer state, princess, I was simply absorbed in thought. I confess, I’ve little…” the stallion struggled to vocalize his feelings briefly, “idea what I should make my new profession. I imagine my time with the guard to be long expired, and I can't imagine they’ve much use for a stallion as old and out of date as meself…”

Celestia winced slightly, knowing he was right. A stallion such as Magic Barrier would have a hard time fitting in. He was far too accustomed to conflict for such a transition to be easy.

“However, I shall persevere and adapt... I always have and now shall be no exception…” Barrier glanced briefly at the mares who trailed the three. “Princess, is she…?” Barrier intentionally trailed off.

“She is,” Celestia began, “I kept a close eye on your family after the…” she hesitated slightly, “Conflict. You’re family is filled to the brim with extremely capable unicorns,” she admitted, “Twilight is perhaps the most impressive yet. Even her great grandmother, a former archmage, would be hard-pressed to match her potential.”

“It does this soldier’s heart good to hear that, princess. It’s good to know my family was taken care of.”

“It’s the least I could do, captain. I…” Celestia hesitated. “I know you seem to be taking it in stride, but Equestria and the world as a whole owes you a debt that can never be repaid…”

Luna remained silent during the exchange, feeling she had little place at this particular moment.

“It matters not, princess. I knew all too well what could happen when I first donned mine armor. It was never for glory or some misguided attempt for recognition, I assure you.” Barrier reassured even as thoughts of his team - more specifically their fates - ran rampant through his head and he loathed being unable to be there for them. “Princess, what happened to the thestrals?” he suddenly asked, causing Celestia to swallow silently, only barely noticeable by the stallion and now-attentive Princess Luna.

“I’m afraid not all of the thestrals surrendered when Nightmare Moon fell,” she spoke far too quietly for the six mares behind the trio to hear, “small battles dragged on for nearly five years after the banishment. The thestrals are…” Celestia hesitated slightly, “rare. Captain Sentry was very thorough in his search. I don’t believe he ever truly forgave the thestrals for their role in the conflict.”

Luna sniffled slightly, causing the alabaster mare to drape a wing over her comfortingly while Barrier remained silent.

“Are you certain you won’t come with us, Captain?”

“Most certain, m’lady,” Barrier glanced at Twilight and her friends watching them from afar, “I doubt I’ll find comfort in this new capital that my compatriots fought and died for in this… Canterlot,” If the princesses lived there, the nobility lived there, and that was reason enough to stay away. “Your Highnesses, it has been the highest honor serving you.” Barrier’s horn flared dimly to life as his armor began to unbuckle itself. “But I believe the time has come for me to resign from my position…”

Chapter 2

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“Thou hast my word, Doctor, I’ll not leave without permission again…” Barrier commented as the doctor from the previous day continued to wrap bandages around him. Thus far the stallion had half-casts around one of his forelegs and one of his hind-legs, as well as bandages around the majority of his hips, shoulders, and barrel. The stallion felt like a mummy.

“How did you even break bones in this manner?” Doctor Horse asked idly as he tied off the last of the bandages.

“A vile spirit had decided to defenestrate me. The kindly earth needed a fair amount of time before it could breaketh my fall,” Barrier deadpanned, “And despite their svelte appearances, alicorns weigh as if they were far more corpulent.”

“Is this treatment not somewhat extravagant?” Barrier shifted, flailing the casts around awkwardly.

“Well, you put your armor on and left the hospital yesterday,” the Doctor explained, “and when Miss Sparkle drug you back in you’d turned several of your fractures,” the doctor vaguely motioned towards Barrier’s hoofs, eyes mostly focusing on a clipboard, “into proper breaks. And since you refused admission to the hospital...” Doctor Horse pulled the door open with his magic, “well, here we are. Anyways, you’re free to go, Mr. Barrier, just come back in two weeks to have the casts removed.”

***

“And the princesses? What were they like?”

Barrier’s eye twitched unstably as Twilight asked yet another question despite them having been ‘done’ fifteen questions ago. “The princesses were most fair creatures, no matter how unforgiving they were to their foes,” he stated, “and now I believe I shall depart for a brisk walk!” Barrier stated as Twilight’s mouth opened yet again.

“Your legs are in a cast,” Twilight deadpanned.

“I need to maintain my strength, even with this miniscule exercise!” Barrier stated as he awkwardly lugged himself towards the door.

“The doctor said you should be on bedrest…” the mare continued,

“I am a stallion who is several years thy senior! I am capable of making mine own judgments, and I judge that I shall depart!” Barrier tugged the library door open in his magic.

“It’s raining out…” Twilight gave the stallion a flat stare, hoof pointing towards the window and the soft patter of rain outside.

“Perfect for thinking!” Barrier stated as he dragged himself from the library and into the rain, tugging the door shut behind him.

“You’re not supposed to get your casts,” Twilight tugged the door open with her magic, frowning when she saw the stallion had vanished, “wet…”

***

“Faust and Zacherle above, that wretched mare truly is the descendant of Radiant…” Barrier commented idly as he sat atop a hill on the outskirts of Ponyville, eyes closed as the rain dripped slowly off of his body. “I ponder on how swiftly that mare shall realise…” Barrier’s eyes drifted towards the his flanks and the bandages covering them, a melancholic smile finding its way onto his visage. Just as his thoughts began to drift away, his body alerted him that the rain had stopped and somepony was calling out to him. Mind snapping back to reality, he found himself face to face with Rainbow Dash.

“…out of your mind! You’ll be sick hangin’ out in weather like this!” The mare in question had opened a small hole in the clouds above him, stopping the rainfall and letting a ray of sunlight filter onto him.

“Thou hast made this downpour cease,” Barrier replied absentmindedly, “Why wouldst thou cease the rain?”

“You wanna sit in the rain?” the pegasus asked, drawing back slightly. “You’re nuts!”

“If I had wanted to escape from this shower, I would have simply risen above the layer of clouds,” Barrier replied with a deadpan.

“Wait, what? I thought only pegasi could stand on clouds?” The prismatic mare had drifted down towards the stallion, idly flapping her wings.

“The mystic arts,” Barrier replied simply, “I believe this explanation sufficient enough.”

“If you say so,” Rainbow Dash flew lazily around the stallion, “so what’re you doing hanging out in the rain?”

“I was pondering,” Until a certain somepony interrupted me… “Gods know I’ve plenty to ponder about.”

“Waddaya mean?” Dash asked, wings halting as she touched down on the damp soil.

“Everyone and everything I ever held dear is long-dead and gone and, I’m alone in a time far from my own,” Barrier deadpanned, “I have no career, no sense of security, and no means to comfortably attain either. Mine only skill lies in…” Barrier hesitated slightly, “being a guard, and my time in the Royal Guard is long past… I’m at a loss as to where to go next. I’ll not live with my niece forever, if I can help it.”

“Huh,” Dash stated dumbly as her mind worked to process the explanation, “I don’t know much about that. I always live one day a time; if I was busy worrying about tomorrow, I wouldn’t get anything done today. I figure that living in the moment is the way to do it. Hmm… how did that movie Fluttershy saw put it… The past is history, tomorrow’s a mystery, but today’s a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.”

Barrier felt a familiar thought drift into his mind as the mare spoke, Waste not fresh tears over old griefs… something his father, Magus Stone, had told him when he was younger. “Perhaps you’re right, Mistress Dash,” Barrier’s eyes drifted to the slowly closing clouds.

“Of course I’m right! I’m me!” The mare grinned. “Anyways, you should probably get inside. It’s scheduled to rain for the rest of the night and I can’t really keep a hole in the clouds open.”

“Gramercy, Mistress Dash. I’ll return to my lodgings shortly.”

“Sure thing! See ya’ around, Magic!” Dash commented, bending her legs slightly before bounding into the clouds with a surprising amount of speed and grace.

“Ever the sun traceth its path from horizon to horizon, and ever the moon followeth, and ever the days roll past without care for the lives they grind away, one by one…” Magic Barrier recited to himself as he made his way back towards town, mostly absorbed in his thoughts.

***

“What is it I have truly lost?” Barrier asked himself as he passed by the outskirts of Ponyville. “I lost the opportunity to see my niece become a fine young mare…” What was he really so upset about? “Nothing…” he sighed out. “My entire life and being became my duty to the guard. Things such as family and whatnot all became an afterthought…” That is what troubles thee so greatly, Barrier’s mind explained, Thou had not had a chance to bid farewell or mend things for thy distance or-- the voice halted. “Thou hast ceased the rain…” Barrier’s eye twitched slightly as his inner-thoughts were once more cut short, this time by an ornate purple umbrella floating above his head.

“Well of course I did, darling, you’ll catch a cold in this weather!” Rarity stated, “Come inside before you get your casts even wetter!” Even as she said that she was carefully levitating the stallion inside one of the most offensive-looking buildings he’d seen to date.

Calm yourself, Barrier. She has noble intentions in her heart… his inner mind stated.

“What ever were you doing out in that dreadful downpour?” Rarity levitated a towel over to the stallion, depositing it in his magic.

You ponies are nosy… Barrier sighed and roughly dried himself off. “I was pondering what I have lost, as well as how I shall proceed. I find myself at a bit of a loss.”

“I’m not certain how to help with what you’ve lost,” Rarity confessed, briefly departing to the kitchen where Barrier heard her rummaging around for a moment before she returned with a steaming teapot and a pair of cups floating in her magic. “But I may be able to help you decide where to go,” she sat everything down on a small table, “tea darling? You look dreadfully cold.”

Considering the offer for a brief moment, Barrier nodded, realizing he was in fact, shivering. “Tea would be most lovely. Many good thanks for thy kindness and generosity, kind mistress.” Barrier bowed his head in thanks before joining the mare at the table.

Pouring two even cups of the tea and placing a small bowl of sugar cubes on the table, Rarity carefully pressed her forehooves together. “Now then, Captain, stop me if I stray here, but am I correct in assuming that you’re worried about where you’ll go from here in the occupational and financial sense of the statement?”

Barrier nodded yes but remained otherwise silent.

“Well darling, have you ever considered modelling?”

“...modelling?” Barrier raised an eyebrow before carefully sipping the still-steaming tea, forgoing sugar. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the term, at least in the occupational sense. Pray tell, what exactly dictates being a model?”

Rarity’s eyes twinkled as she opened her mouth to explain…

***

“Do be careful on your way home, the rain is really picking up,” Rarity called to Barrier from the door of the boutique.

“I shall, fare thee well, Miss Rarity.” Barrier bowed forward slightly, mind registering the heavy patter of rain on his borrowed umbrella, which the mare insisted he take. Barrier turned, hearing the boutique door close behind him; once more he found himself walking along, this time towards the library, frown perched on his face as his mind continued to go over the possibilities. As seemed to be routine, another interruption surfaced, cutting his thoughts off before they could really begin. This one came in the form of a soaking-wet and bouncing wad of cotton-candy in the shape of a pony.

“Hi there, I’m Pinkie Pie and we didn’t get to meet until now because everything’s been really busy and I haven’t gotten to meet you until now and when I tried to meet you in the hospital they said I wasn’t allowed in the hospital because this one time I tried to throw a party for a bunch of sick ponies and…”

By this point Barrier’s instinctive mental-defense kicked in and his brain filtered the chatter out. For nearly five minutes, he slowly walked towards the library, the pink bundle of energy bouncing along behind him. As the library came into view her voice once more penetrated his inner ears.

“And I love to make ponies smile but you weren’t smiling so I thought,” the mare stopped and gasped animatedly, “I could make Barrier smile because he’s all sad and sad ponies make me sad, so I thought...”

“Have a pleasant evening, Miss Pie,” Barrier stated blandly,

“Oh, night!” Pinkie waved heartily as Barrier departed into the library and turned to bounce away as if nothing had happened.

***

Barrier folded the umbrella with a flick of his horn and glanced at the empty dark library, eyes settling on a clock mounted on the wall - Twilight had given him an explanation on how they worked his first day home when asked - and sighed. When had it gotten so late? With tired strides, Barrier drug himself towards the couch and plopped down on it, paying no mind to his damp coat, focusing only on not lying on his casts. “I shall not awaken Twilight by dragging myself up the stairs…” Barrier muttered to himself as he once more drifted into his thoughts, thankfully uninterrupted this time. Rarity had given him several ideas on what to do for a living, from the local spa that was looking for assistants - why they needed help in a town this small was beyond him - to helping the Apple family who was getting ready to start their harvest in only a couple of weeks, to modeling for her and a line of clothing. She had been particularly hopeful for the last suggestion, it seemed. He supposed he should try all of the above as soon as his cast was off.

With a final tired sigh, the stallion’s eyes slowly shut, sleep being quick to take him, as were the nightmares.

Chapter 3

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Barrier groaned in relief as his casts were split and removed, followed by the bandages. Experimentally, he tested his weight on each leg and did a few quick pushups before smiling in satisfaction. It had been a very long two weeks during which Twilight had grilled him on everything he knew, from the formations used by the guards one thousand years ago, to everything he knew about armor and weapon enchantments and the princesses. It had been tiring as he’d been able to do little else but sleep, eat, and be interrogated. Today however, things would change with the removal of his cast.

As the doctor droned on and on about being careful and other things, he mentally went over his schedule.

First and foremost would be a job-hunt.

Thinking back to Rarity’s suggestions, Barrier decided to stop by the bakery first. Of the jobs she suggested, the bakery had been the recommendation that most surprised him, since he knew little to nothing about cooking. He could bake bread or meats in a pinch, but that was about the extent of his culinary skills. Regardless, she had assured him that the Cakes would be more than glad to show him the ropes and hire him on.

***

“Oh no, that’s okay dearie, we can show ya’ what you need to know. It’s really simple once you get the hang of it!” Mrs. Cake reassured him.

“Gods yield to thee for this opportunity, Goodwife Cake. Thou wouldst not believe the importance this opportunity holdeth to me.” Barrier bowed his head in thanks, vaguely registering that the mare wasn’t staring him in the eye.

“It’s no problem, hun’,” the mare reassured, walking past the unicorn and towards the kitchen, her tail flicking upward and just missing his muzzle and unfortunately giving the unprepared stallion a peek at what lay below. Just an accident, he mentally prayed.

“Alrighty, we’ll start with our most basic treat, cupcakes.” Barrier felt a shiver run up his spine followed by him subconsciously readying his horn. “Now what you do is preheat the oven to three-hundred and seventy-five degrees. While that’s heating up, you want to take one of these muffin trays and line it with these papers here,” the mare went through the motions with practiced movements.

“After that’s done, you take your mixing bowl and cream butter and sugar together. Then you add your eggs one at a time,” the mare carefully cracked an egg into the bowl and began to beat it into the mixture with a whisk, “now let that set for a moment…” Mrs. Cake kneeled over, her tail flicking out of the way once more, causing Barrier to avert his gaze. “And this is our honeypot,” she pulled a metal jar out from under the counter.

“It’s a special mixture we put into all of our sweets.” She sat it on the stove and flicked the burner on. “Now, you take a pinch of salt, some baking powder and some flour,” as the plump mare spoke she poured the ingredients into a separate bowl, “and mix those up,” a quick whisking later she combined the two bowls, “and then you mix them up and add them to the muffin-tray.”

She poured the mixture into the pan and turned to stare at the stallion with half-lidded eyes. “After that, you check the honeypot…” there was a slight purr in her tone, causing Barrier to shift uncomfortably, “you want the honey pot to boil over just a little bit,” she spoke, tone lowering just slightly only to be cut off by the sound of the door opening.

“Don’t go anywhere,” she smiled at the stallion, shifting her gaze towards his backside once more, “when I get back, I’ll show you how to properly cover a cake in cream,” the mare stated lustily as she turned towards the kitchen door, tail rising to give Barrier the full view, until she departed the kitchen.

…run like the north wind! Barrier’s mind screamed at him. Glancing around the kitchen, he noted a large window and began to make his way towards it, only for another voice to stop him, this one a stallion.

“You must be Mr. Barrier,” the lanky yellow stallion called out. “Pinkie Pie’s told me and my wife a lot about you…uh, is everything okay?”

Barrier glanced back at Mr. Cake, one-hoof out the window. With a nervous chuckle, Barrier climbed back inside. “My apologies, Sir Cake. I simply…required some air…” Barrier shifted nervously as his prospective employer’s eyes roved over him with the same hungry expression as his wife.

“I apologize if I offend thee with this news, Sir Cake, but I believe thy wife is a-trying to…” Barrier hesitated slightly, unsure if this would cause offense, “seduce me. She hath been very open about her desire…”

“Is it working?” Mr. Cake smiled at the stallion, head craning to the side to better see his flank.

The situation’s dire, a full retreat is needed…

Magic Barrier vanished in a pop of magic, leaving behind only the faint smell of ozone.

“Now then, where were we… Barrier?” Mrs. Cake asked as she trotted back into the kitchen, noting that only her husband remained in the room.

“Shoot, and he had the perfect flank…” the stallion observed with a sigh. “Well, maybe Crescent will take his place for the night…”

***

Barrier appeared in the library with a loud crack, followed by him landing painfully on one of the reading-tables.

“Who’s there?” a voice yelled from upstairs, followed by the sound of hoofsteps.

“‘Tis simply I, Twilight. There was a…” he thought for a moment, “false alarm, and instincts drove me to teleport to a location I know to be safe.”

“Is everything okay?’ Twilight asked, worry lacing her voice,

“I am fine…however…” Barrier bit his lip, “canst thou inform Miss Pie that I would prefer the party she keepeth a-going on about to be anywhere but Sugarcube Corner?”

“Uh…sure, but why?” Twilight furrowed her brows in thought.

“I don’t believe I need to state a reason. Now then, if thou wilt excuse me, I’m off to the spa for mine interview.” Barrier vanished with another pop of magic before he could be questioned further.

***

The spa was surprisingly simple; a counter, a number of cushions and chairs along with a solitary bench and the light smell of lilac. Resting in a pair of chairs behind the counter, two mares were softly conversing with each other, falling silent as the bell rang, signalling they had a guest. The pair of them turned to greet Barrier at the exact same time, smiles perching on each of their faces.

“You must be Magic Barrier,” a light cerulean pony with a pink mane and tail and a lotus-blossom on her flank smiled warmly.

“Miss Rarity told us you were coming,” a near palette-swap of the first pony finished.

“My name is Lotus,” the first pony started,

“And I’m Aloe,” the second pony finished…that was a trip. “and it’s a pleasure to meet you,” both ponies stated in unison.

“Hail and well met, Mistress Lotus, Mistress Aloe” Barrier kneeled and gave each mare a quick peck on the hoof, getting a giggle from both of them.

“Come right this way and we can start your interview.” Aloe motioned towards a door in the back of the room.

“Miss Rarity said you had experience as a masseuse?” Lotus asked, walking behind Barrier with her sister in front. As Barrier started to respond, her eyes drifted from the back of his head towards his flank and the mare smiled slightly before returning her gaze to the unicorn.

“I trow. During my time in the guard, 'twas not uncommon for us to massage our comrades’ backs, shoulders, and legs,” Barrier explained, eyes roaming over the plain beige walls of the hallway, noting the locations of each door. “A long day of strenuous physical activity would often causeth knots and strains. Some of us became quite skilled at massages after a time.” The trio arrived at the end of the hall where Lotus nosed one of the many doors open, revealing a baby-blue room with a massage table in the center and a number of cushions scattered throughout the room.

"Part of your interview will be to give one of us a short massage. We have to test your capabilities, yes? Now then, which of us would you prefer to...massage," Aloe almost purred towards the end, causing Barrier to turn around and face the pink mare.

The purr in her voice set off a string of alarms in his mind, all relating to an event with another mare he had met earlier in the day who had a near-identical purr in her tone. There is no way out of this, but which one of them shall you anger…?

“Uh…” Barrier hesitated, chuckling nervously; both mares tittered in response.

“Why don’t you handle this one, Lotus?” Aloe offered, much to the stallion’s relief. “I’ll observe.”

The cerulean mare nodded and gracefully climbed onto the massage table, her head resting gently in the hole, hooves tucked neatly under her. “Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Barrier.”

This is beginning to seem like one of those poorly scrawled erotic novels I would frequently find the cadets reading…

Taking a deep breath, Barrier reared up onto his hind legs and balanced himself on the edge of the table. With practiced movements - by guard standards, anyways - Barrier lightly trailed his hooves along her back, pressing occasionally and noting how the muscles reacted. With his cursory exploration complete, he carefully placed both hooves on her withers and lit his horn; all at once, two hooves and two small balls of pressure set to work on her back and sides, with extra emphasis on the areas that had tensed up earlier. Barrier mostly lost himself to the monotony of the exercise until a groan broke him out of his trance. Slowing his hooves slightly, he noticed Lotus had both eyes closed and her mouth slightly parted. Thinking nothing more of it, he set back to work, carefully making his way down her back, utilizing his entire forelegs, occasionally earning another groan of satisfaction from the blue mare. Only now did he notice that she had begun to pant slightly.

“Miss Lotus, art thou in good standings?” Barrier asked, removing his hooves and magic.

“I’m fine,” the mare gasped out, “you’re doing great, just keep going,”

In the back of his mind, he heard Aloe titter softly as he went back to work, horn flaring once more.

Rather than settling into the routine, Barrier sniffed the air as a new smell tickled his nose. What is it that is causing that strong fragrance? I pray this is the scent of flowers… he asked himself almost absentmindedly as he began work on her hips and the base of her tail, being careful not to overstep his bounds with her flanks and cutie marks. By now, her groans had turned into muted moans and it began to dawn on Barrier what the smell most likely was. Eyes widening slightly, Barrier removed his hooves and his horn died out. “Apologies, Miss Lotus, however my foreleg is still somewhat sore. The cast that had covered it for many a day had been removed just hours ago.” You are a terrible liar…

As his hooves left, the mare groaned out in dissatisfaction and propped herself up on the table. “That’s okay, Barrier, you did wonderfully.” Lotus glanced at Aloe who was snickering into a hoof, before her gaze focused back on Magic Barrier.

“I hope your hoof can hold out just a little bit longer. You’ve got one final test. We need to know that you’re capable of massaging a stallion with more bulk and muscle than my sister and I. Aloe, be a darling and go fetch Bulk Biceps would you? I’m afraid I need to…use the facilities.”

Aloe smiled knowingly and yelled out loudly, “Bulk, come into massage room number two!”

Barrier winced slightly as the mare raised her voice and turned to watch Lotus walk awkwardly out of the room. As she left he found his eyes lingering on her tail. Had her tail always been that dark?

“Yeah...?” a deep, masculine voice replied.

Barrier’s eyes turned as another pony replaced Lotus in the room. Zacherel, give me strength… Barrier’s eyes widened as the massive pegasus walked in and joined them. Barrier was a big stallion, near-giant by unicorn standards, outclassed by the princesses and the occasional earth-pony, but Bulk Biceps was big.

“Would you be a dear and lie down on the table? We’re conducting an interview.”

Bulk Biceps nodded and did as asked, the table creaking slightly under his bulk.

“Alright Mr. Barrier, whenever you’re ready…” Aloe grinned lasciviously at the black stallion, eyes going half-lidded.

I believe that I shall partake in some powerful spirits after this concludes… Barrier thought as his hooves and magic once more got to work, applying significantly more pressure to the living muscle.

***

“Oh…” Bulk groaned out after a solid ten minutes of massage, “he’s good. You and Lotus are great, but he can really put some pressure on some spots.”

The only good thing to come out of this, Barrier reasoned, was that before where his magic had to keep pressure on Lotus as well as subdue his ‘inner barrier’, he had no such issue with Bulk Biceps. Almost immediately after the first groan, he had one less thing to worry about.

As they approached the fifteen minute mark, Bulk smiled slightly. “Go for the flanks.”

Glancing uncertainly at Aloe and back to Bulk, Barrier inwardly sighed and shifted his magic lower. As soon as he reached the area in question, a wet sound reached his ears; rather akin to a bottle of lotion squirting its contents. Almost dreading what he would find, Barrier’s backed up slightly, his gaze falling under the table.

“I do not believe this is the proper career for me, Mistress Aloe…”

Chapter 4

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The ponies in this town are absolutely mad… Barrier glanced at the apple orchard in the distance. are you sure? You are complaining because three mares have all but thrown themselves towards you. Do you simply prefer the company of stallions? If so, Bulk Biceps would probably be willing to take you…

“Silence yourself, mind…” Barrier grunted, “You are complicating matters to a fault” His eyes drifted back to the massage he had given Lotus. Both she and her sister were extremely attractive, and they had clearly come onto him. Perhaps this was a bit of a missed opportunity, but he had more important things to worry about then swiving.

“Uh, ya’ll okay?”

The familiar voice of Applejack called out to him.

This one has heard you talking to yourself, how wonderful. “I am fine, I was simply talking to myself.” Barrier chuckled awkwardly.

“Huh, well, alrighty then. Welcome ta Sweet Apple Acres.” Applejack smiled warmly. “Rarity said ya’ll were stoppin’ by about one of our temp’rary seasonal harvest jobs.”

“Yes, good mistress,” Barrier stated firmly, “in addition to that, I’m seeking to secure the bounty of a more lasting career. If thou knowest of anypony who is enlisting workers, I would be ever so grateful if thou couldest point me towards them.”

“Hm, well…” Applejack pressed a hoof to her chin, “Ah think Berry Punch was lookin’ fer somepony ta help her out at the bar, she might be able ta help ya.’” Applejack’s eyes lingered on his horn. “Ah gotta warn ya, we don’t use no magic 'ere on the farm.” she then eyed Barrier’s freshly healed hind-leg.

“That is fine by my lot. I am no stranger to a hard day’s toil,” Barrier assured her with a nod.

“Well, come on then, and we’ll see what ya can do. Got a couple o' early bloomers that’ll give ya a chance ta show yer stuff.” Applejack turned and started off into the orchard at a lazy walk, explaining how their trees were organized as they went.

After a short thirty-minute walk, Applejack slowed to a halt, motioning to a tree with ripe red apples dangling from the branches, a number of buckets resting around the base of the tree. “Now, jus’ give it a couple of bucks, and we’ll go from there.”

Rolling his shoulders and doing a few quick squats, Magic Barrier made his way over to the tree and backed up to it. Giving a few short practice bucks, Magic Barrier took a short breath and reared forward, bending his forelegs before he launched his hind legs backwards, thrusting them out at the same time as his forelegs shot him backwards. With a resounding crack, apples began to cascade from the tree; by the time they stopped, he glanced upward and saw that he’d only managed to get about half of them. It couldn’t be helped he supposed, he WAS a unicorn after all; they weren’t known for physical strength.

“Not bad there, partner,” Applejack observed.

Rearing forward once more, Barrier threw another hard buck, dropping the remainder of the apples.

“Yer certainly better than the last unicorn who tried ta work the farm.” Applejack moved forward to help the unicorn pick the apples up. “Ya’ll can use yer magic to haul the buckets, just not fer buckin’ and gatherin'.”

Applejack shook her head in amusement as he hefted the basket upright with his mouth rather than using his magic. “Well, Ah reckon ya’ll be alright ta help with the harvest. Come with me, and Ah’ll introduce ya ta the family.”

***

“Big Mac, Applebloom, come meet one of the temp workers!” Applejack shouted out as they approached the farmhouse, directing Barrier towards a barn to deposit the apples.

Barrier quickly deposited the basket in the barn, neatly stacking it amongst the others before he quickly moved to rejoin Applejack. By the time he got there, the second largest pony he’d seen that day was waiting alongside Applejack, standing at the exact same height as Bulk, though thankfully not as freakishly built. Ponyville appeareth to be a land of giants…

“Big Macintosh, Applebloom, this here is Magic Barrier, and he’s gonna be helpin’ us with the harvest this year.”

Magic Barrier smiled slightly and nodded to Big Macintosh, who maintained his silence and nodded in return; it wasn’t often either of the two found a pony that was eye-level with them.

“Woah, yer huge!”

Barrier blinked and glanced around for the voice before it spoke again, drawing his gaze to a small filly sitting in front of him.

“I’m Applebloom,” the filly grinned up at him. “So, yer here to help AJ with the plowin’ she needs?”

Barrier blinked, “I beg thy pardon?”

“Big Mac told Caramel that her fields needed a good plowin’,” the filly explained; Barrier coughed slightly, shifting his gaze to Applejack, who was redder than her cutie-mark, and then to Big Macintosh, who was biting back a chuckle.

“Dammit Mac, watch what’cha say around Apple Bloom,” Applejack finally got out,

“I’m here to assist Mistress Applejack with whatever she requires.” Barrier stated lightly, “If she needeth me to plow the fields, well…I shall do so,” Barrier chuckled as Applejack lowered her hat over her face.

“Don’t ferget the seedin’!” Applebloom stated helpfully.

“Eeyup,” Big Mac replied simply, not even trying to hide his grin.

“Alright! that’s enough’a that!” Applejack stomped the ground in embarrassment, “Why don’tcha come inside? I’ll introduce ya ta Granny Smith, and we can get the finer bits o' yer employment worked out.”

“Yes, good mistress,” Barrier quickly moved to follow.

***

I shall need to work greatly for the rest of the week to work off those abominable sweets… After meeting Granny Smith, she had insisted that Magic Barrier stay for dinner. When he tried to politely decline, she went on a spiel about how he should ‘listen to his elders’ and the sort. That had gotten a chuckle out of him as he was, to his knowledge, the third oldest pony on the planet at this point in time.

Tiredly nosing the library door open, Barrier’s eyes fell on the limp form of Twilight, slumped awkwardly over a book, blanket hanging loosely from her shoulders, likely thanks to Spike. With a dim flare of magic, Barrier lifted the unicorn mare and began to carefully transport her up the stairs before dropping her carefully on her bed, tucking the blankets snugly around the smaller mare.

Rest well, lass… Barrier turned to the door, departing with a silent sigh towards the couch once more, finding himself once more lost in his thoughts. On the morrow, she will most certainly see your mark… his mind commented as he plopped unceremoniously on the couch, rolling over so that a pair of his legs were almost perfectly vertical to the back of the couch, This probably wilt not matter, Barrier replied to himself, Surely, we are not too closely related. Barrier’s mind began to attempt the math; it didn’t take long for the numbers to lull him into a thankfully dreamless sleep.

***

Twilight’s voice was the first thing Barrier heard when he awoke.

“You don’t understand, Spike, this is incredible!”

“I didn’t think similar cutie-marks were that rare, Twilight,” Spike began, “I mean you and Shining have a sorta-similar cutie-mark and all of Applejack’s family have them. I just don’t see what the big deal about his cutie mark is.”

“Yes, Spike, but this means he’s almost assuredly related to me! This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, to be able to question an ancestor! I knew he looked similar to Shining!” Twilight squealed in excitement, clapping her forehooves together.

“I guess he sorta does. He’s a little taller and the streaks in his mane are thicker though,” Spike stated the observations as he went about preparing the table.

Stayasleepstayasleepstayasleep… Barrier’s mind chanted to him,

“Barrier, breakfast is ready!” the familiar voice of Twilight called out, much to the stallion’s consternation.

You are still very much asleep… Barrier hummed silently to himself, only for his stomach to betray him with a threatening growl.

Curse thee and thy dame, traitorous stomach… Barrier thought as he rolled upright with a grunt, eyes opening to the wide grin of his purple host.

“Dost thou require mine assistance in some manner…?” Barrier hesitated, taking a few steps backwards as his innate fight-or-flight kicked in, for whatever reason.

“I have some questions.” Twilight’s grin widened just slightly.

“I’m afraid that thine inquiries shall have to wait.” Barrier smiled sedately in return. “I require to journey to the Everfree Forest today, and I shall likely not return until late this e'ening. Also, I start work on Mistress Applejack’s farm on the morrow.”

Twilight’s smile vanished in favor of a raised eyebrow at the mention of the Everfree. “The Everfree? Why would you go back there?”

“It was where I was last with my team…my friends…” Barrier stated almost bitterly. My family… his mind commented, helpfully reminding him that he’d been closer and more familiar with them than his actual kin.

Twilight’s ears pinned themselves to her skull apologetically. “Oh…sorry,” she replied lamely, uncertain how to reply to such a statement.

“‘Tis no fault of yours, Twilight, I shall eventually move on,” Barrier stated with closed eyes, feeling guilty at having brought the subject up. “Mayhaps, I shall answer a few queries over breakfast before I depart,” he offered, receiving a high-pitched squeal in response followed by dozens of questions crammed into the span of thirty minutes.

***

“And if you’re not back by tomorrow morning, I’ll contact the princess,” Twilight prattled as she levitated the supply-laden saddlebags onto the stallion’s back, the weight pressing his scabbard further into his side. He’d planned on taking only his scabbard, but Twilight had insisted he should be ready for anything

“Aye, my mother,” Barrier commented sarcastically, “and I shall promise to brush my teeth and mane when I awake in the morning. May I bring a friend back home from my trip?”

Twilight just stared at him with a disapproving gaze that Barrier found conjured up images of his father for some reason. “It’s not a joke, Barrier,” she started with a serious tone. “It’s bad enough you won't let me go with you. The Everfree Forest is dangerous. According to my books, there’s everything from a manticore, to cragodiles, and even a hydra…”

“And I have been trained to survive in hostile wilderness, move silently as well as cull wild beasts if the situation calleth for it. Thou needest not worry, Twilight. Besides that, this is a task I need to accomplish alone.” If only because, I do not know if I will be able to keep myself stable yet…

Twilight let out a resigned sigh and shook her head in defeat. “Just…be careful. It’d be a shame for something to happen after everything you’ve been through.” An uncomfortable silence settled in before Twilight jolted slightly at the feeling of Barrier nuzzling her.

“I know this is not ideal, but gods yield thee for caring, Twilight.” Barrier smiled. “I promise to answer all of thy questions upon my return.” Barrier vanished with a pop and the smell of burnt ozone before the mare could so much as open her mouth in response.

***

With a snort, the stallion shook his head in an effort to clear up the disorientation of his flash-teleportation. “It would appear I am not quite back to full strength as I had previously thought,” Barrier commented to himself as he plunged into the depths of the forest he’d teleported to.

It was more ominous than one-thousand years ago…eerily silent. Even though his magic could detect the wildlife, no sounds seemed to escape, to say nothing of how the forest seemed to actively absorb light. Thanks to all of the wild magic that had been thrown around, Barrier supposed, though that was of little care to the stallion as he took care to stick to the shadows provided and stay downwind of any predators, particularly the timberwolves and manticores he could feel. This had the benefit of keeping him out of any immediate danger and out of the purview of the wildlife, but in exchange made his trip to the worn rope-bridge nearly six hours on its own. Only when he’d crossed the bridge and was in sprinting distance to the castle did he throw caution to the wind and take to a casual stride.

Barrier glanced up at the open gates of the Castle of the Two Pony Sisters, a feeling he identified as apprehension building in his stomach. His last foray into the castle hadn’t ended under the greatest circumstances. Why are you so apprehensive? the familiar voice in his head asked. There is no mad mare within there now, the voice reassured. You shall be fine…

Chapter 5

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Barrier swallowed as he passed through the entryway into the outer courtyard, though the ground was physically cleared, the stallion could still see the bodies of thestrals and ponies alike piled on top of each other as their comrades fought and died on top of them. His mind registered back to something Twilight had told him she experienced when walking through here; a chill. Like an icy-cold hoof softly trailing down her spine, so she had said.

How he’d missed it his first time through, Barrier had no idea. How many ponies were felled here to defend Equestria? the stallion wondered as he began to move forward absentmindedly, eyes fixating on the inner gatehouse and courtyard beyond.

“Soon…” he all but whispered as he continued, the chill leaving as he passed over the threshold and into the courtyard itself. His eyes fixated on the large crystal pillar as well as the thick layer of dust on it. The pillar itself was a simple structure, nearly thrice as tall as the stallion and almost as wide, making it more of a large rectangle he supposed. The entire monument was clear, with the exception of the large white heart situated in the center of the obelisk, hundreds of names etched across it.

“Fleetfeather…” he spoke softly, eyes noting the dim glow that lit up under the dust and grime of centuries past. “Wind Whistler…” another name lit up faintly.

"Mother, may I acquire a memento whilst in the empire?"

Barrier once again found his thoughts drifting, a filly’s voice resonating through his skull.

"Of course." an older mare’s voice responded.

"I look forward to seeing you both return. Take care of the captain’s cadets, dearest." This time it was a stallion’s voice.

“Calm yourself, Flash. This is not the first time she’s done this…” Barrier replied out loud as he came back to the present. “…they’ll be just fine,” the stallion finished,

"Captain, art thou certain we will be safe during our stay in the empire?"

Barrier held his jaw as the memory played out, all too aware of the tears forming in the corners of his eyes. "Verily, Cadet Range, all it will be is some cold-weather training before thy squad is sent back here as privates. You will all be fine."

You sent them all to their deaths… Barrier’s mind cut in as the stallion snapped fully back to the present. Not a single one of those young cadets had even turned twenty, some were not even nineteen yet.

“I shall return.” Barrier stared up at the memorial. “Most of Equestria may have forgotten, but I have not.”

With visible effort, Barrier jerked his head away and moved towards the inner gatehouse, glancing briefly at the overgrowth of trees and foliage. With a half-smile his eyes raised themselves to the window the Nightmare had thrown him from, causing him to shake his head ruefully.

I should be dead. As the thought entered his mind he actually chuckled at the luck of it all as he made his way through a nearby door and the subsequent stairway leading up to the hallway and throne room. “This place always did have such a strange layout…” Barrier commented to himself to drive away the silence.

It made sense, he supposed. It served as an exceptionally effective choke-point. Normally, it’d be a bad idea to box your rulers in, but when they had unfathomable amounts of power and could teleport with little to no effort, he supposed there were some allowances.

“The museum is gonna pay a fortune for this…”

Barrier’s ears swiveled forward as a mare’s voice broke the silence for him. Almost immediately, the stallion found himself walking slower and crouching low, being careful not to let his hooves clop.

“Can’t believe it’s in such great condition…” the voice continued with a giggle, “wonder how powerful the enchantments really are…”

A treasure hunter daring to steal from this war-torn castle? I shall put an end to this thievery. Barrier told himself as he carefully stalked forward, finally coming into view of the pegasus mare, illuminated by a lantern resting on the ground next to her.

Biting his bottom lip, he stalked even closer, eyes taking in the light-gold coat and the many shades of black and grey that composed her mane. Finally, his eyes fell to her flank, noting the compass as well as the fact that she was clearly a capable mare, judging by the faint muscle tone; built for agility and bursts rather than the endurance and strength of his own build. A build one earned through experience.

So caught up in her task, Barrier was all but on top of her before he finally spoke, silently taking a deep breath before bellowing out, “Intruder! Intruder in the hall!”

The reaction was almost instantaneous, the pegasus flaring her wings, jerking around, and leaping backward all in a single fluid movement, coming to a halt several lengths away, hunched forward with her wings flared out.

“I understand it is natural to attempt a-looking intimidating,” Barrier eyed her outstretched wings as he spoke casually, “but 'tis probably one of the least effective things to use against one such as meself.”

With a flare of his magic, Barrier jerked the thirty-five inches of iron with a hard screeching-sound as it separated from its millennium of stone imprisonment. A single eye carefully looked over the thin chisels and brushes that the mare had been using.

“Are you out of your mind?” the mare screeched, making to move forward only for the floating sword to cut her off. “You’ll damage it doing something like that!”

Barrier raised an eyebrow in amusement as he removed the blade from her path in favor of depositing it in his scabbard, causing the mare’s eyes to widen when a series of symbols etched in Old-Equestrian runes running the entire length of the scabbard lit up briefly as the sword was returned home once more.

“I would think that I am aware of what my sword canneth handle. Even after one-thousand years, the princesses’ enchantments have not failed.”

“Your sword?” the golden pegasus seemed to snap back to reality. “You can’t take that sword! It belongs in a museum!” she hunched forward again, preparing to launch herself forward again.

“That would be a very poor decision, mare…” Barrier trailed off, giving her a chance to introduce herself as he tapped into his body's internal magic reservoir, horn flaring to life.

“Hah, you don’t scare me, hornhead!” the pegasus stated confidently.

After a brief moment, Barrier jerked his horn, causing his opponent to shoot forward at a speed that would impress any pegasus…only for Barrier to fall slightly to the side and drive his hoof into the underside of her right-wing, causing the appendage to slam shut and sending her spiraling off of the walls like a ball.

To the stallion’s surprise, she forced her wing back out with a clenched jaw and rebounded off the walls, launching herself right back at the unicorn, colliding with him with the speed of a charging minotaur.

Barrier smiled for a split-second as the mare shot towards him; rather than standing firm or trying to avoid the oncoming pony, Barrier hopped just slightly and let the mare collide with him, her momentum lifting him up bodily and his weight, courtesy of him latching onto her, brought the pair crashing down in a tangle of limbs, finally ending up with a coughing pegasus resting on top of a stunned-but-amused unicorn, her hoof gripped tightly on his horn.

“You…give up?” she managed to gasp out from the feeling of hitting and transporting a wall of pony-shaped bricks.

“Surely, thou jestest.” Barrier raised an eyebrow in amusement. “I could have slain thee three times over by now, if I’d so chosen. If the princess hath not ordered me not to harm anypony, I likely would have.”

“Hey, I can take you no problem!” she huffed out, jerking his horn and causing him to wince.

“Thou hast not what it taketh to handle my blade…” Barrier grinned inwardly. “Neither the spatha on my side, nor the longsword ‘neath thy belly.”

Her expression erupted into a full blush and she lifted herself with a flap…and dropped her entire weight back down, causing Barrier to grunt and bite back the perfectly-stallionly-yelp that started to escape.

“I ask that thou wouldst at least purchase a meal for me before a-trying such actions,” he managed. “Have the mares of this era no shame?” His mind thought back to Aloe and Lotus and answered his own question.

“I will end you…” the pegasus mare hissed angrily, only to screech out in pain when sparks erupted across her hoof and arced up her chest, barrel, and wings. With several violent spasms her eyes rolled back as she slipped into unconscious and collapsed on top of him.

“There are no mad mares in the castle,” Barrier mocked idly to himself as he shifted the unconscious pony off him, wincing at his aching sheath. “Thou shalt be fine,” he huffed, eyes shifting from his once-adversary and then to the area where his sword had rested. With that out of the way, the unicorn found his thoughts drifting to the past once again.

Had all of his ponies survived? His eyes drifting to the remnants of the stone Braeburn had crumbled for him, the sounds of the tiny, sharpened rocks punching through anything unfortunate enough to be in their path, followed by the ghostly echoes of his squad’s assurances that they could hold the thestrals here.

“What ever happened to the treacherous thestrals who survived Flash’s hunt…” Barrier wondered idly as he glanced around the hallway one final time before his gaze fell on the unconscious pegasus once more. With a heavy sigh, Barrier flared his magic, gathering the chisels and brushes and stuffing them unceremoniously in his saddlebags before snuffing the lantern and doing the same with it. “And now, to take care of thee,” Barrier commented, nosing his muzzle under the mare’s forelegs and hefting her onto his withers with a grunt.

“Thou art much denser than thou appears. Peradventure, thou shouldst steer clear of confections,” Barrier commented, arching his back slightly as he made for the stairwell once more, heading towards the courtyard. He still had one more item to retrieve.

***

“Welcome back to the waking world,” Barrier commented without turning to face the stirring pegasus.

“Ugh, feels like I’m back in the academy… What the hay happ…” the pegasus trailed off as she sluggishly got upright and her eyes rested on the unicorn. “You!” she suddenly hissed, eyes narrowing.

“Quite down, pegasus,” Barrier hissed right back. “I do not want to make any errors with this...”

Daring growled slightly but otherwise acquiesced, shifting her focus instead to the crystal pillar in the courtyard that the stallion was pacing around. As her eyes skimmed over the details, she noticed that the entire front of the pillar had been dusted off, the names all clearly readable now. Daring had seen the memorial of course, and she’d had plans to request permits for an expedition, but that would all take time.

“What’re you doing?” she finally asked when the stallion broke away from the pillar.

“I suggest you move back,” Barrier instructed absentmindedly.

Daring’s frown intensified but she did as asked, noting how sluggish and sore her body and muscles felt and mentally forming plans for getting away from the larger pony.

With a deep breath, Barrier set himself firmly and tightened his jaw as his horn flared to life.

“What in the hay are you doing?” Daring asked as the stallion’s horn grew brighter and brighter, forcing her gaze downward where she only now noticed the complex array of runes carved into the soft ground around the memorial. Daring began to backpedal slightly as the ground shook and her eyes widened as the memorial, composed of solid crystal and stone by appearance, began to levitate.

I could have slain thee three times over… a little voice in her head called out mockingly as she watched the display of magic.

With a final twist of head and horn, the pillar began to float lazily in the air, still in a single, pristine piece save for the triangular base, which still had damp soil clinging on for dear life.

“This shall make the return to Ponyville much longer…” Barrier commented more to himself than his companion. “But it shall easily be worth it to keep this close.” Barrier turned to the mare one final time. “It hath been a pleasure, good mare…” he hesitated for a moment, “pegasus,” he finally settled on, “I bid thee farewell.”

And true to his word, he tilted the memorial on its side and made for the outer gatehouse, vaguely aware of the ranting pegasus chasing after him slowly.

“Hey, you can’t just leave with those! They’re not yours!”

“Oh, my sincerest apologies.” Barrier’s magic split off, levitating the brushes and chisels as well as the lantern from his bags. “I forgot I had taken those. Good day, good mare peg-” he was cut off by the mare growling,

“My name’s Do, dammit! Daring Do! And you know those aren’t what I’m talking about!”

“Well, Good Mare Do,” Barrier adopted a harder tone, “the sword is, in fact, mine own personal blade, and I believe I’ve more right to the memorial than most ponies in this age due to the fact that I know every name on it by heart.”

“And how would you know? It’s over one-thousand years old!”

“So am I, now be silent. Thou becomest less tolerable every time thou openest thy mouth.”

“Fuck you!” Daring shot back, continuing to follow the unicorn weakly even as he started into the forest.

Barrier contemplated feeding her to a manticore.

***

Twilight jolted awake as the library shook slightly. In a panic, the mare bolted from her bed, scrambled down the stairs, and threw the front door open. What awaited her was not what she expected. Her houseguest and a golden pegasus were standing next to an imposing crystal pillar that was buried in the front yard of the library. The pegasus was yelling, causing several lights to flicker to life as Twilight’s neighbors were disturbed awake as well.

“And I keep telling you, a museum would be the best place for it! Ponies will appreciate it! Why are you so damn stubborn?”

Barrier, ignoring the pegasus, turned to his niece. “I found this beast in the woods. May I keep her as a pet?”

Chapter 6

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Barrier could just make out his breath in front of him as he cautiously walked through the lightless streets of the Empire, eyes glancing at the bodies littering the ground. Swallowing heavily, the stallion turned his eyes forward, not noticing how nondescript the majority of the ponies were.

They died because of you… a haunting voice teased him in the back of his mind. You should have seen it coming, seen him coming… the voice continued. “Fie me! I did not know…” Barrier argued with himself out loud, eyes shifting to the empire looming in the distance.

You promised them it was safe… Barrier opened his mouth to speak again before he stumbled forward, tripping over a corpse. Too weak to save them, the voice mocked with a chilling laugh,

“Verdant…” Barrier swallowed once more, meeting the dead, icy-blue eyes of the still body; they were attached to the shattered carcass of a dark-green earth-pony, his brown mane tattered and bloody, limbs bent at random angles and partly buried under rubble.

Barrier grimaced, eyes trailing down to the faded-white muzzle of the former cadet, noting how a thin trickle of dried blood clung to the pony’s jaw. You might as well have killed them yourself…

“Get thy rest, soldier…” Barrier whispered softly as he reached out with his forehoof, gently closing the pony’s eyes. “Thou ear-”

“Thou didst this!” The green stallion’s eyes suddenly shot open, his blue irises replaced with a crimson-red, the whites surrounding them darker than Barrier’s coat.

Barrier, his own eyes widening, leapt backwards just as the green pony’s hoof made to shoot out at him, instead only swinging side-to-side in a sickly fashion. “How could I have known, Verdant…?”

Barrier began to backpedal, nearly tripping over another corpse as Verdant’s form dragged itself upright, bones snapping loosely into place but doing nothing for the stallion’s appearance.

“Thou saidst we would be safe!” the stallion all but roared as he moved forward slowly.

No, no, no… Barrier could feel his breaths quicken as he glanced around, picking out six more familiar ponies, all slowly picking their broken and battered forms off of the ground.

“I will never lay eyes upon my kin again…” the lithe white mare looked to be in better shape than the others, save for the hole in the mare’s barrel, staining her once-pristine coat red. “They’ll be all alone.” She tilted her head forward, the once lustrous blonde mane now framing her eyes.

“I was a-going to be a blacksmith…”

Barrier whipped around, putting the ponies on either side of him as his eyes rested on the dark blue unicorn, noting the long-sword that had been run through his barrel and out his back.

“I was going to start a family,” another corpse spoke, driving Barrier further backwards into what he now identified as a narrow alley. A purple pegasus stallion dragged himself forward, missing his hind legs and wings.

“Thou destroyed my clan.” A light blue unicorn mare stumbled forth, blood still gushing from a large tear in her neck.

“Thou sent my daughter unto her death.”

Barrier’s pupils shrunk and his breath hitched completely in his throat as the last line of dialogue ran itself through his skull. Anypony but her, Faust please… Even as Barrier silently prayed to whatever deity would listen, his eyes fell on the powder-blue pegasus mare, noting the dull shades of her once-vibrant pink mane and tail. Finally, his gaze rested on the puncture wound in her throat, his mind naturally comparing it to the hole in Winter Gem’s chest.

“I did not know, Fleetfeather, thou must believest me…” Barrier began to desperately glance around the alleyway for any kind of escape, even as the ponies continued to taunt him.

That’s right, flee… the dark voice laughed again, It won’t be the first time you’ve left them to die!

“Swiftsword, Winter, Verdant…” Barrier’s gaze traveled across each pony, naming them as he went, “Iron Forge, Hat Trick...Fleet…” The stallion stopped, horn flaring slightly as he caught a door leading into one the buildings that comprised the alley, “I am sorry…I thought you would all be safe…” Barrier turned towards the doors, preparing to lunge through it, hopefully to safety and sanity. With a jerk of his magic, he received a reply from the pony he’d least hoped to hear.

“Thou thoughtest wrong,” the voice of a filly screeched as she lunged from the door, her bloody pink mane trailing wildly behind her.

***

“Wake! Up!”

Barrier’s eye opened wide, his pupils little more than than pinpricks as they scanned his surroundings wildly. Only after several minutes of hyperventilation did he realize that the pegasus from the previous night was straddling him and, judging by the sudden pain in his jaw, had smacked him. Ears swiveling, Barrier jerked his head around just in time to see Twilight sprint into the main room of the library, her eyes almost immediately falling on the scene before her.

Twilight hadn’t given it much thought last night when she let the pair into the library. Her brain had been on autopilot and hadn’t registered anything more than the additional houseguest. Now however, panicked awake by the shouting and loud smacks, her brain was mostly running…or so she thought. She wasn’t entirely certain how to process Daring Do straddling her uncle. A mare she thought was a fictional character until last night was straddling her uncle.

“Twilight, is everything okay?” a childish voice called from the second floor, followed by Spike poking his head over the edge of the stairs.

“Uh…I think she’s broken?” Daring Do offered.

***

Barrier rolled the pancake around his plate, appetite nonexistent. The dream had briefly faded into the background while Twilight freaked out and jumped around chanting ‘yes’ repeatedly, but it soon had found it’s way back to the front.

“I’m talking to you, horn-head!”

Barrier was jolted out of his thoughts when the pegasus mare smacked him in the back of the head.

“Apologies, Good Mare Do,” Barrier replied sedately. “What didst thou say?”

“I asked what the hay happened to you this morning that had you thrashing like a madpony.”

“I’d like to know that as well,” Twilight chirped in. “It’s not every morning you wake up and find your uncle sleeping with a fictional character, to say nothing of the shouting.”

“'Tis of a very personal nature,” Barrier replied heavily, causing Twilight to flinch back slightly and Daring Do to harden her expression; neither mare inquired further.

“Just…don’t do that in the public section next time, okay? That’d be hard to explain to somepony who decided to visit the library. If you two really need alone time, just…use the guest bedroom and give me a heads up.”

Barrier’s and Daring attained their wide-eyes at the same time, though Barrier was the first to speak. “Thou believed we were a-fornicating? Not if I were locked away for another millennium!”

Daring Do reeled as if struck. “Excuse you! You think I’m not good enough or something? It’s the other way around, buddy!”

“Twilight?” Spike gave the mare several light tugs, drawing her attention away from the bickering pair,

“Yes, Spike?”

“What’s fornicate mean?”

***

“So you mean to tell me that he actually is over a thousand years old?”

Twilight nodded firmly.

Barrier became distinctly aware that there were now two ponies eyeing him hungrily, and not in a good way.

“I have a few questions.” The pegasus grinned an almost predatory smile.

“That will have to wait.” Barrier smiled right back. “The time hath come for me to begin work on Mistress Applejack’s farm.” Barrier hefted himself up from the table, horn flaring to life to fetch quill and parchment. “And before I forget...” He quickly inked a letter, giving it a quick proofread before offering to Spike, “If thou wouldst not mind, Spike?”

Spike happily obliged, blowing a stream of the magical fire, sending the letter to ash.

“What’d you write?” Daring Do asked as she too stood up from the table.

“I wrote a formal request to Princess Celestia requesting permission to keep the memorial.”

Daring’s eye twitched dangerously as Barrier stalked out the door, paying her not so much as a second glance.

***

“And you say there are no additional effects on your body or mind?”

Faust above, their number is two now, Barrier thought tiredly as he gave a backwards glance at the cloaked pegasus trailing closely behind him.

“None that I am aware of thus far. Wouldst thou cease in thy trailing after me now?” The stallion received no response, his tail flicking irritably at the lack of a reply.

“You should really work on your speech. It’s kind of funny at first, but it gets old quick. It makes me wanna kick cats at this point.”

Barrier’s mind slowed slightly as he tried to process the erratic statement before finally forming a reply, “What in the Tartarus is the matter with thee? Why wouldst thou kick cats? Have they wronged thee in some way?”

The pair left the town proper and transitioned onto the empty dirt path leading to the Sweet Apple Acres.

“You’ve got no idea!” Daring stated with a hearty chuckle and a shake of her head.

Barrier didn’t reply, allowing the pair to walk in silence for all of ten minutes before Daring struck up conversation once again, drawing the stallion’s attention with how somber her tone was this time.

“So, wanna talk about it?”

“About what, Good Mare Do?” Barrier asked, eyebrows raised in askance.

“Don’t play stupid, Barrier. I was next to you. You nearly took my head off with a couple of those swings.”

“I have already stated that this is a personal matter,” Barrier reiterated the statement from earlier that morning.

“Just…look, I know we don’t get along, but if you need to talk…” her words tapered off temporarily before picking up once more, “I’m not like a lot of other ponies. I’ve seen some pretty nasty stuff travelling as much as I do. I can at least promise I won’t freak out, okay?”

Barrier remained silent at first, though he soon found his mouth moving of it’s own volition, “The memorial thou art so insistent on acquiring,” he started, even as his mind told him to stop talking, “On it are the names of two-hundred and forty-seven ponies and one civilian, at my insistence. All, save the civilian, were stationed at the Crystal Empire a-during the time of its disappearance.”

“Wait,” Daring Do cut the stallion off, “the Crystal Empire? The Crystal Empire of the Frozen North?” Her eyes almost sparkled with untold excitement.

“The very one.” Barrier nodded sadly, his expression sucking Daring Do’s excitement right out of her. “Of those ponies, there are several that have long since haunted me.” Barrier became aware of the tears trying to escape and quickly blinked them back, careful to keep his tone neutral. “Five of those ponies were cadets, not a single one over the threshold of twenty.”

The stallion’s tone cracked slightly. “Verdant Range, one of the cadets, specifically questioned the safety of their assignment.” A humorless chuckle escaped Barrier as he continued, “I gave him my word that they would be fine, and that it was just standard training. I assured him and the others.”

Barrier’s voice cracked even further, a muffled half-sob escaping him. “And Fleetfeather…gods, Fleetfeather…” The stallion’s mind flashed back to the dream. “Faust above, I approved her daughter accompanying her to the Empire.”

Wind Whistler’s last words rang in the unicorn’s head once more, “Her daughter, Wind Whistler…my goddaughter. I remember her last words as her father and I saw them off. She was all but shaking with excitement when she asked her mother if she would be permitted to purchase a memento.” Barrier pressed a hoof to his eye and realized at some point that his tears had begun to flow freely. “I sent those ponies to their deaths. Every one of them.”

Daring wanted to reply that it wasn’t his fault and he couldn’t have known, but her gut told her it was a bad idea.

“And almost every night since then, I’ve had a similar dream. I’m in the Crystal Empire once more, corpses scattered all around me. At the top of the pile rest my cadets and my best friend’s wife and daughter. For the entirety of the dream, their voices taunt me and blame me. They lash out…and I deserve every moment of it. I sen-”

Barrier fell silent as a resounding smack echoed through the apple orchard. Eyes wide, he slowly craned his head forward realizing Daring Do had slapped the ever-living tar out of him. Before he could open his mouth in inquiry, Daring threw both of her forehooves around him, causing the stallion to flinch.

He was glad that they were alone, because as she hugged him, the dam decided that was a good time to burst.

Chapter 7

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Daring pawed idly at the damp cloth resting against her shoulder. After the nightmare she’d known the stallion had unresolved issues, but that had been more than she had expected.

“What would happen if he lost control of his emotions in a worse way?” Daring asked herself aloud, glancing at the stallion in the distance, on his way to work. An emotionally unstable military unicorn from one of Equestria’s worst periods with enough raw power to move that memorial…

***

“Well howdy Barrier, I see ya made it.”

Barrier turned to face the mare, putting on a smile. “Mine apologies, Mistress Applejack. I would have arrived sooner, but I experienced…delays.”

“Just call me Applejack.” The mare chuckled, taking in the stallion’s appearance for a brief moment before finally settling on his eyes, her smile fading slightly. “Ya doin’ okay? Yer eyes are awfully red an' puffy.”

Barrier reached up and pawed his eyes before nodding affirmation to the mare. “I am well, I just recently began…a-taking care of something personal in nature.”

“Well, if ya say so.” Applejack shrugged, finding no deceit in the stallion’s statement. “Well, come on this way, and I’ll get ya started in the fields.” As she spoke she moved along the side of the farmhouse, glancing back to make sure the unicorn was following.

“While it is still fresh in mine mind, Mis...err, apologies, Applejack, couldst thou please define the word ‘fuck’ for me? An acquaintance used it recently, but I believe the parlance is different from what I’m accustomed to.”

***

“Welcome to Golden Oaks Li…” Twilight trailed off as the cloaked Daring Do made her way into the library again. “Oh, you’re back!” The mare giddily clapped her forehooves together. “I ha…” the words died in Twilight’s mouth when the pegasus raised a hoof.

“First, I need to ask you something.”

Twilight frowned slightly but nodded her agreement.

“How well do you know Magic Barrier?”

“Um…not very,” Twilight admitted honestly. “He said my great grandfather several times over was his brother, so I guess he’s my uncle times…” Twilight ran the numbers briefly, “twelve or so generations back I think, why?”

“Has he talked to anypony about his return or how he’s dealing with the change?” Daring pressed, glancing around the room, eyes settling on the desk that Barrier had attained paper and quill from earlier that morn.

“Uh, not that I know of? The day he got out of his casts, he went job-hunting. Why, what’s going on?”

“And what would you say he rates in power as a unicorn?” Daring Do moved to the desk, fishing out quill, ink, and parchment, making to scribble something down.

“Uh a seven or eight maybe?” Twilight offered weakly. “He’s a Sparkle and was a captain in the guard so he’s certainly capable of some power I guess, but again, why?”

“You’re the princess’s student, one of the most powerful unicorns of our time. What happens when you lose control of your emotions, or have a breakdown?” Daring asked as she continued to pen the letter.

Twilight’s ears drew back. “My mane and tail burst into flame, I get manic, and I usually destroy my surroundings.” She remembered all but leveling one of the castle’s many rooms some years back. “But I’ve been taught how to reign that all in. I’d imagine Barrier was too, as a captain.”

“A captain during one of the bloodiest periods of Equestrian history and constantly warring with the Griffins,” Daring pointed out, “where he had tons of opportunities to vent physically and magically? A pony whose magic is probably geared almost exclusively for combat?”

“Okay, so it’s dangerous to have him not deal with everything, but we can’t really force him to, can we? I don’t think he’s going to talk to us about it if he doesn’t really want to.” Twilight knew him well enough to know the stallion was accustomed to dealing with things alone; there was no way he’d intentionally come to them for help. “What’re you writing?”

“A letter to the princess.” As Daring spoke, she fished a ribbon out of her saddlebags. “She needs to know that he could be dangerous. Better safe than sorry, after all.” Rolling the letter and wrapping the ribbon around it, Daring watched as it turned into ash and vanished.

“You have ribbons enchanted by the princess?" Twilight asked, interest sparkling once more in her purple eyes.

“You’re not the only one she gets and sends important letters from and to.” Daring chuckled slightly. “I only spend most of my time hunting dangerous, possibly world-ending artifacts, y’know.”

“So…not to sound rude, but why are you so worried about it?” Twilight quirked her eyebrow, trying to puzzle the mare out; only that morning she’d been ranting about how he was ‘insufferable’, and it was ‘no surprise he’d never been married’ and various other things.

“Because he’s not a bad pony, but he’s capable of doing some really bad things, intentionally or unintentionally,” Daring confessed quietly. “I’m not doing it for his sake or anything, but I don’t want anypony around him getting hurt or anything if they don’t have to.”

A soft smile worked its way onto Twilight's muzzle before she shifted the subject, “So you said that you really hunt artifacts for the princess. Tell me everything.” The smile turned almost-creepy, quill and parchment floating from somewhere to write everything down.

***

Barrier felt good for the first time in the weeks since his return. Sure, he’d been content before, but it felt great to do something physically demanding again. It also felt good to feel the soft shifting of the bit-bag dangling from his neck. The Apples paid based on how much work the laborers did each day, and he’d worked like an animal, venting his frustrations on the trees. He’d not broken down like that since he was a foal, much less in front of a mare as frustrating as Daring Do. Though he’d never admit it, it’d felt good to talk about it, even as little as he had.

You are becoming weak in this peaceful era, his mind started in. You broke down before a mare you barely knew after years of constant fortitude. What kind of captain are you?

“I am a Captain no more,” Barrier replied to himself aloud, dejectedly.

Your comrades would be disappointed and ashamed of you… the voice responded before fading out; only then did Barrier realize he’d made it back to the library.

“I have returned!” Barrier called, out nosing the library open. The sight that awaited him was not what he’d been hoping to see; Daring Do sat at the center-table of the library with a number of quills, parchment, and inkwells resting on the table.

“We’re gonna learn you some modern Equish.” The mare grinned an almost predatory smile, driving a slight chill up Barrier’s spine; whether it was abstract fear or excitement, the stallion wasn’t entirely certain.

***

“Daring, wake up… th... err you are drooling upon me again…” Barrier frowned as he tried to recall the endless hours of torment.

“Dammit pillow…stop it. Why you’s movin’?” a sleepy voice responded, followed by the mare shifting, removing her wing from the stallion’s side and sitting up, only vaguely noting the thin trail of drool connecting her lower jaw to his shoulder.

“Honestly, have th… you no dignity?” Barrier hefted himself upright, leaving the half-awake pegasus on the couch, “Did you know that you tend to gnaw in your sleep, in addition to drooling?”

“Seriously, how do you both keep ending up on the couch? I set the spare bed up weeks ago!” Twilight huffed from the doorway to the kitchen with Spike right next to her, watching the spectacle.

“Wait, there’s a spare bed?” Daring shot a glare at the unicorn who was still cleaning scrubbing his shoulder with a damp cloth.

“Aye, there is indeed a spare bed. Forsoothly, I simply find the couch more desireable.”

Daring’s eye twitched slightly. “I swear, with speech like that, you belong in a museum display case. Seriously.”

“Fair Applejack has already taught me the modern meaning of the word ‘fuck’, I shall learn more with time, if your teaching last night was any indicator.”

“Don’t swear in front of Spike!” Twilight chastised, “and what do you mean ‘teaching last night’?” Twilight’s eyes widened slightly.

“I gave him a crash course in the use of modern speech.” Daring rolled off of the couch, stretching her wings out and arching her back like a cat. “Guess next I should try to fix all of those innuendos he’s throwing around.”

“…breakfast is done.” Twilight shook her head in resignation before turning and disappearing into the kitchen once more, soon returning with plates of pancakes.

“Oh!” Spike raised his hand sharply, suddenly making his presence more known. “That reminds me! The princess sent both of you a letter!” The dragon sprinted up the stairs on his stubby legs.

Barrier glanced curiously at the pegasus, raising his eyebrow in silent questioning.

“Why does everypony give me that look when they find out I write to Princess Celestia and she
writes back?” Daring asked with a stamp of her hoof.
“Th-you are not the company she would typically keep. Princess Luna would seem the more likely one,” Barrier stated bluntly with a shrug. “Though, I am curious as to the subject of thy message.”

“I spend my time hunting dangerous artifacts and magical items,” Daring reiterated yesterday’s statement. “Is it so hard to believe she’d be interested in stuff that could harm Equestria, or worse?”

“I see,” Barrier said simply as he took up his usual seat at the table across from Twilight. “It seems I owe you some degree of apology, Miss Do.”

“Yeah, that’s gotta stop. Firstly, don’t call me Miss Do. I’m not that old. Just call me Daring or something. And secondly, what? Apologize for shocking the ever-loving Tartarus out of me? Kind of a jerk-move, I agree.”

“I shan't apologize for that,” Barrier responded with a flat stare. “After what thou didst unto my siring staff, methinks I should have done worse. However, rules are rules, and Princess Celestia informed me of hers. No, I apologize for assuming thou wert a common bandit and graverobber. Nothing more, nothing less,” Barrier said, turning back to the table and glass of orange-juice.

“You were asking for damage there and you know it,” Daring snorted as she too turned back to her breakfast.

“So, Daring, how long do you think you’ll be around?” Twilight cut in, trying to ease the mood.

“Until horn-head here,” she motioned to Barrier, “agrees to give me that memorial for the museum.”

“I would recommend buying land then,” Barrier responded as his eyes drifted towards Spike, who was fumbling back down the stairs, a scroll in each claw.

“For you, and…you.” He handed the scrolls to their respective owners. Daring dropped her silverware while Barrier simply took the scroll in his magic and continued to eat as he read in silence, Daring doing the same.

“So what did yours say?” Daring asked as she rolled her scroll back up and tossed it to Twilight, who quickly opened it and began reading it herself.

“It was simply Her Highness granting me permission to keep the monument.” Barrier smiled smugly at the pegasus before he also gave his letter to Twilight. Like Daring Do, he too had seen the curiosity in his fellow unicorn’s eyes.

“So, you’ve got permission to keep the monument,” Daring began at a surprisingly soft tone rather than the scratchy voice Barrier was accustomed to, drawing his eyes to hers.

“Indeed…” Barrier started hesitantly.

“So I guess there’s no chance of me convincing you to give it to a museum?”

Why are you so insistent on keeping it? Barrier mentally asked himself, You are angry that the princess left it there to rot, but that can’t be the only reason…

Daring Do casually poked the stallion in the shoulder, garnering no response. “He always do that?” she asked Twilight uncertainly.

“I’ve seen him do it once or twice when he gets caught up in his thoughts,” Twilight said with a shrug, going back to her pancakes. “Just give him a bit, he’ll probably come out of it.”

It is a tether to your past, his mind finally settled on the idea You have latched onto it…like some morbid reminder of where you came from. Sooner or later, you will have to let go of your past. Now may be a good time to begin.

“Very well, Miss Do,” Barrier sighed, “I shall give thee the monument, but I wish to personally accompany it to the museum. If I find that its new home is not satisfactory, mine offer shall be retracted. Do we have a deal?”

Daring grinned widely. “Deal.”

The pair were torn from their thoughts as Spike belched out a stream of flame.

“Am I the only one who worries about frequent open flames in a library… in a tree?” Daring asked, eyeing the scroll curiously.

“It’s for you two.” Spike held the scroll out to them, Barrier popping it open his magic and glancing it over before an expression of confusion settled on his face.

“Well, what’s it say?” Daring asked, moving to lean over his shoulder.

“I have not the faintest idea. It would appear that written Equestrian has changed to become unrecognisable. The previous messages I have received were written in the language of my time.” Barrier passed the letter off to Daring.

“You can’t read modern Equestrian? If you want, I could teach you,” Twilight offered with her usual soft smile.

“Afraid that’ll have to wait. The letter is a summons to Canterlot.”

Chapter 8

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Daring furrowed her brow in confusion as the stallion pressed himself to the wall, drawing heavy breaths for several long minutes before he calmed down again...right as the train shifted again with only the slightest of thumps, and the stallion put his back to the wall once more.

“I don’t get you,” Daring finally observed, receiving no response. “You run through the Everfree Forest twice without so much as a second thought, but you’re scared of trains?”

“The noise of this infernal contraption is akin to an angry dragon! In addition to that, we are moving at speeds few pegasi can hope to match! How canst thou be so calm onboard this…monstrosity?!” The stallion’s breath slowly returned to normal, as did his posture.

Daring shook her head with a slight chuckle. “I go all over the world. I’ve been on everything from airships, to trains, to giant tamed sand-worms, you big baby. Now that you’re not hyperventilating again, back to it.”

Barrier frowned as his horn flared to life and he once again began to recite the lines on the paper Daring had so kindly thrust onto him.

***

“You are most detestable, and your glasses are vastly oversized for your face.”

“You’re,” Daring groaned. “There’s no reason to say ‘you are’, just use the contraction, dammit. Besides that, the only ponies that use ‘detestable’ these days are nobles.”

Barrier’s expression soured at the comparison. While he had technically been a noble, they’d never been a particularly enjoyable bunch, and he doubted they were any better in this peaceful time.

“Now, again.”

“You’re a bitch,” Barrier stated flatly, “and your glasses make your look like an idiot.”

Daring snorted, adjusting the glasses in question as well as her grey hat. “Just stop talking and come on, we gotta go around to the back of the museum.”

“And why would we not simply enter through the main entrance of this establishment? If thou desirest for the memorial to beeth displayed within, I shall require to see all that this place containeth.”

Daring growled slightly, “I know you’re talking like that on purpose.” She grit her teeth. “There’s no way somepony this stupid could be a Captain of the Guard.”

“I will not give confirmation unto thy claim that I may or may not have been been a-paying the utmost attention unto thyr lessons on the differentiations between ancient and modern Equestrian speech patterns.”

Daring’s eye twitched slightly and she let out a throaty sigh. “Just shut up…” As Daring spoke, she grabbed the handle of the large metal door and jerked it open.

“So,” Barrier repeated the question the mare had blatantly ignored, “why did we not just go through the front?”

“Because that costs bits, and it’s what normal ponies do.”

Barrier raised an eyebrow but otherwise stayed silent, following behind the pegasus, eyes drifting downward towards flank once more.

“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” she shot to him as she came to a stop and rapped sharply on a door.

“I will see if I can find an artist who is speedy,” the unicorn replied casually, shifting his gaze from her flank to the plaque next to the door. “Curator,” he recited aloud, gaze drifting once more as the door opened and revealed a bright green mare with a curly blue mane.

Thy coloration is offensive to the point of inducing vomit, Barrier thought idly as he shifted his head, taking in the open-book cutie mark on the older mare’s flank.

“Miss Yearling.” The mare smiled warmly. “You’re late! We were all afraid something had happened to you! Come in, come in!” She quickly ushered the pair into her room, the door clicking shut before her gaze rested on the unicorn in the room, “I wasn’t aware you were bringing a friend, Miss Ye...” the earth pony fell silent when Daring raised her hoof.

“No need for that, Dusty, he knows who I am.” Daring sat down on a cushion, Barrier following suit.

“Ah, I see. In that case,” she turned to the stallion and thrust her hoof out, “I’m Dusty Tome, Curator of the Canterlot Museum of Equestrian History.”

Barrier took the smaller mare’s hoof and shook lightly. “Magic Barrier, former Captain of the Equestrian Royal Guard.”

The mare’s expression shifted several times rapidly before her eyes finally widened. “That’s not possible.” Her eyes darted around the unicorn's flank.

“Uh…you okay Dusty?” Daring asked, noting the critical eye and outright silence of her long-time friend.

“If you’re Captain Barrier, then I’m descended from King Charlatan and Princess Porcina!”

“…well, I guess you’re descended from a penguin and a pig then, because as hard as it is to believe, he’s the real deal. But how would you know him? I don’t remember seeing him in the history books or anything.”

“Well of course not, he’s not in the history books,” Dusty snorted, the earth pony retreating around her desk and pulling a drawer opened. “I know about him because he was mentioned in Legends of the Lost Empire by Sage Greens.” The mare shut the drawer with a click and sat a cracked tome on her desk.

“Your book is in modern Equestrian,” Barrier motioned to the title on the cover, “Miss Greens would not have been versed in modern Equestrian.”

Dusty flipped the dusty tome open, carefully flipping through it. “It’s a modern translation…sort of. Not many copies are floating around these days.”

“Figures,” Daring groaned. “I didn’t even believe in the Empire until a couple days ago.”

“Anyways, you can’t be Captain Magic Barrier. He died fighting Nightmare Moon!” Dusty turned the book around to the pair, pointing out one line in particular, detailing the description of the conflict by a pony named Flash Sentry.

“Why would that be in there if it’s about the Crystal Empire?” Daring asked the obvious.

“Because Captain Barrier sent her brother to the Empire, where he met his death.”

Daring inhaled sharply and the temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees.

“Apparently, he became somewhat of a family friend after the incident.” Dusty continued, oblivious to the utter silence of her guests.

“…his mother never forgave me,” Barrier finally stated, his voice empty. “His sisters, father and aunts did, but his mother blamed me at every opportunity she had.” Taking a slow breath, Barrier raised himself off of the cushion and turned towards the door. “I’ll wait outside for the tour, Miss Do.”

Daring winced as the unicorn tugged the door open with his magic and walked stiffly out, door clicking shut behind him.

“You have no idea how much you just screwed up,” Daring finally stated, tiredly pressing a hoof to her face as she too climbed upright. “I need you to set aside a room for a new relic. It details the names of over two-hundred ponies who died in the Crystal Empire. Ponies that Captain Barrier,” Daring hissed, “who recently returned one-thousand years away from home with Princess Luna, sent to the Empire – as well as their deaths.” Daring tugged the door open. “And a pony that you pretty much just spit on.” The door shut with a slam.

“You okay?” Daring glanced at the unicorn sitting outside of the room, noting how his body seemed to sag.

“I shall endure, Miss Do. Let’s get this over with.”

“Sure thing. Come on, I’ll show the area where they’re gonna set up the Nightmare Moon exhibit.”

***

Some two hours later, Barrier found himself smiling; these guards were adorable.

“Halt!” One of the palace guards held up a hoof, bringing the pair to a halt. “State your business.”

“Oh, hold on! I’ve got our summons right here.” Daring buried her muzzle in her saddlebag, fishing around for the letter in question.

Barrier eyed the guard and his companion critically, approaching the guard that had spoken, eyes hard as he took in his appearance with a scrutinizing gaze. Reaching out with a hoof, Barrier placed it under the guards chin, paying no attention to how the grip on his spear tightened.

“Chin up, chest out!” Barrier stated loudly, his usual tone shifting to a noticeably harder, no-nonsense tone. “Forehooves together!” Barrier sharply tapped the stallion’s knees, causing the confused guard to pull his hooves in and stand up straighter.

“I know I had that letter, dammit!” Daring groaned and jerked her muzzle from the saddlebags, cloak fluttering slightly. “Don’t sup…” Daring’s mouth hung open in confusion, noting how both of the guards were standing stock-still, at perfect attention. The guards were by no means undisciplined, but it wasn’t uncommon or really even frowned upon for them to stand rather casually when stuck on guard-duty for lengthy periods of time.

“Come, they’ve given us permission to enter the castle,” Barrier stated casually as he walked by the pair, “Keep up your vigil ponies, your captain would be proud.”

Daring squinted her eyes before she quickly made to follow.

“Uh, Downpour…?” one of the guards finally inquired after the pair had departed. “The hay just happened?”

“Well Fox…” The guard Downpour sagged. “I think we just let two ponies in without any paperwork. Captain Armor is gonna have our flanks when he finds out…”

***

“Hah, found it!” Daring grinned triumphantly as she held the Royal Summons out in a hoof to the pair of guards standing in front of the throne-room.

“You may enter,” one of the guards replied imperiously, the two of them shifting their spears aside in perfect synchronization.

“That is adorable,” Barrier chuckled slightly as they walked past the pair. “You two are cute. Tell your captain I said good job.”

“Announcing Sir Barrier and Miss Yearling,” the seneschal called out as the two ponies in question made their way into the throne-room, suddenly becoming the center of attention for all the nobles in attendance.

“Ah, Barrier, Miss Yearling.” The familiar alabaster princess descended her throne wearing her usual motherly smile. “I trust your trip here was pleasant?”

“Just fine, thank you,” Daring bowed respectfully.

“Permission to speak freely, Your Highness?” Barrier asked stiffly, his own posture at attention.

“You know you don’t need to ask me that,” Celestia tittered slightly.

“The new national capital is an eyesore.”

There was an audible gasp from the assorted nobles while Celestia simply broke into a grin and chuckled loudly, much to everypony’s surprise.

“Ah, I was wondering what your thoughts would be,” Celestia smiled as she turned and ascended her throne once more, horn flaring to life as a scroll popped into existence. “Miss Yearling, I believe you know what’s on this parchment. I leave it in your capable hooves.”

Daring bowed deeply and took the scroll, tucking it in her saddlebags before she adjusted her glasses and took a few steps back from Barrier and the throne.

“Captain Barrier.”

Ponies in the audience began to whisper amongst themselves.

The charcoal-coated unicorn held his head slightly higher, hooves clopping slightly as they set themselves on the stone. “M’lady,” he replied firmly.

“It has recently come to my attention that you were never technically discharged in an official capacity. Something to do with the mess that followed Nightmare Moon.” The diarch of the sun started to grin as her horn flared to life once more, levitating a thin, dark-wood chest to the unicorn, who quickly took it in his own aura.

“Contained in that chest are your discharge papers, the medals you were to be awarded for your role in the banishment of Nightmare Moon, and a cheque for the Royal Treasury for your one-thousand years of service totaling sixteen million, two-hundred and thirty-two thousand, nine-hundred and fifty bits.”

The silence in the room was palpable. Celestia was grinning like a mad-pony.

“Good and many thanks, Your Highness! It hath been an honor and a privilege to serve under both you and your sister,” Barrier responded after only a short moment of surprised silence.

“The honor has been ours, captain,” Celestia said softly, her grin fading to a more subdued smile. “And before you go, my sister also requested a meeting with you."

"Captain Armor!” Celestia called out loudly, an impressively-sized unicorn that looked stunningly like a younger and white coated version of himself trotted out from the rooms behind the throne. “Show Magic Barrier to my sister’s chambers.”

The stallion saluted sharply and walked up to both Daring and Barrier, smiling faintly. “If you’ll follow me, Sir Barrier.”

“I shall,” Barrier nodded, following his younger counterpart.

“Well,” Daring started when they departed the throne-room, “I guess this is where we part ways, horn-head.”

Barrier felt a slight twinge in his chest, but responded none the less, “I suppose the time has come, Miss Yearling.”

“Keep up with your lessons in modern Equestrian, yeah?”

“You have my word. Should I assume somepony will come to retrieve the memorial?”

“Yeah, the museum should have ponies out there by the end of the week.”

The pair stood there in awkward silence until Shining Armor cleared his throat softly,

“Right uh…see ya when I see ya.” Daring nodded, and with slight effort turned her gaze and started off down the halls.

“One can only hope, Miss Do.”

Chapter 9

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“So,” Shining Armor spoke first, carefully eyeing the pony next to him, “You’re the unicorn that’s been staying with Twily.”

“Am I to assume you are Twilight Sparkle’s… sire?”

“What!” Shining coughed and spluttered awkwardly, “No! She’s my little sister! Do I honestly look old enough to be her father to you?”

“Nay…I simply assumed thee wert older based on rank. Unless the standards of the guard have fallen drastically, tho- you, never would have made captain at your apparent age. Howbeit that, I knew of several ponies who sired foals at the age of fourteen. 'Twould not be the most queer thing I've seen.”

Shining Armor’s jaw tightened but did not reply to the thinly-veiled insult, uncertain if it was intentional or not. “Well, what about you? You’re young, and you were a captain.”

Barrier snorted in amusement, glancing briefly at his side and flank. “I was not a captain until I was thirty, and a great deal of that was due to my superiors falling to the accursed Griffins. How old do I look to you, colt?”

Shining’s frowned deeply at being called a colt, but once again didn’t rise to the insult, “I didn’t think you were past thirty until just now, but…” Shining thought for a moment, eyes carefully taking in Barrier’s appearance, “thirty-one, thirty-two?”

“Hah!” Barrier chuckled and shook his head slightly. “Your assumption was close, but not quite. I am thirty-six years of age. You are...twenty-six, I presume?”

“Twenty-nine,” Shining corrected, “but I’ve been captain for four years now.”

“Hm, I suppose youthful appearances worked its way down the generations.” Barrier glanced sideways once more. “Apparently, flanks of high quality have done so as well.” A quick flick of his tail sent Shining Armor yelping slightly and taking several lengthy steps away.

The two walked in awkward silence and would have continued to do so had a pink alicorn not called out.

“Shiny!”

Both unicorns shifted their gaze down an adjacent hallway at the eagerly waving pink alicorn who was quickly making her way to the pair.

“A friend of yours, I presume?”

“Something like that.” Shining grinned. “Magic Barrier, this is Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. Cadance, this is Magic Barrier my uh…” Shining’s brow furrowed in concentration, “Great-uncle times a lot.”

“For the sake of simplicity, I believe uncle will suffice, or simply Barrier.” As Barrier spoke, he carefully circled the pink alicorn who simply gazed at him, head tilted slightly in curiosity.

Finally, Barrier stopped his observation and shrugged. “She appears to be quite…” Barrier pressed a hoof to his chin as he struggled to find the word.

“Beautiful?” Shining offered with a smile,

“To some, perhaps. I would describe her as more...frail in appearance. No offense.”

Shining’s eye twitched in irritation while Cadance simply tittered in amusement.

“I’m Princess Cadance, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Magic Barrier. Luna speaks quite highly of you.”

“The pleasure is mine, Your Highness.” Barrier tilted his head respectfully.

The two unicorns started their trip towards Luna’s chambers with their royal addition.

“So, Barrier,” Cadance started when neither Barrier or Shining talked, “would you mind telling me why you think I look frail?”

“Permission to speak freely?” Barrier asked out of habit. Cadance responded with a simple nod.

“Apologies in advance should I offend.” Barrier took a short breath before launching into his explanation. “You have very little muscle upon your frame. Your legs are thinner than the average mare of my era, as well as both of your fellow princesses. In addition to that, what muscle-tone you do have makes you appear…squishy, rather than firm. You would be considered rather unappealing in my era.”

Cadance simply nodded while Shining appeared to be gritting his teeth. “And tell me, what would a pony from your time find attractive?”

“Thus far, I have only witnessed two mares that would appeal to most stallions of my era. One of them is an earth pony farmer by the name of Applejack who tirelessly tends to her family’s farm and the other is a pegasus by the name of Rainbow Dash, a dedicated athlete. She would have made a fine guard.” Barrier pressed a hoof to his chin in thought, “Princess Luna would probably be the best example though.”

Daring Do is also a fine mare as well…

“Pray tell, what would We be an example of?”

All three ponies turned to face the Princess of the Night, who had somehow made her way behind them.

“Princess Luna.” Barrier bowed respectfully, rather than his usual nod. “I was simply explaining to Princess Cadenza,” the stallion rose at a wave from Luna’s hooves, “what stallions from mine…” Barrier stopped to correct himself, “our era, would find attractive in a mare.”

“Ah,” Luna nodded in understanding. “A stallion’s tastes were very different in our time, if mares these days are any indicator. No offense, young Cadance.”

Shining Armor glanced carefully between the two. He’d only seen the Princess of the Night a few times since her return, but now that he was looking carefully, he could see the appeal. Cadance was gorgeous, but so was Luna, in her own way. While one wouldn’t notice at a quick glance, Luna clearly had the build of a warrior, a thin wall of muscle was hidden just enough to give her a lithe and agile appearance yet still prominent enough to mark her as a warrior.

“I was informed you wished to speak with me, Princess?” Barrier inquired, sitting down on his flanks, posture straight, eyes facing forward.

“Ah, yes. Adjusting to this new era has been very…stressful for Us. We are certain it has been for thee as well.” The princess received a nod of affirmation. “We decided on a method that would help both of us to relieve stress.”

“Princess?” Barrier tilted his head curiously.

“We require a swiving.”

Shining tilted his head curiously while Cadance blushed and suddenly looked far more interested in the conversation.

“Psst,” Shining nudged Cadance slightly, “What’s a swiving?”

Barrier, like Cadance, was blushing, eyes-wide. “Surely you jest, Your Highness? Whilst I would most certainly enjoy such a thing, it is simply that…I…” Barrier could feel the gears in his head grinding to a halt.

“I jest not. Comest, Captain Barrier, there is much to discuss before we follow through. We shall bid thee farewell for now, Captain Armor, young Cadance.” Luna took the limp form of the charcoal unicorn in her magic and trotted off the down the hall, the non-responsive pony floating behind her. “Let us spend some time together before the main event…”

“I don’t get it…” Shining stated as the two disappeared around a corner. “What in the hay is a swiving?”

“It means that’s he’s gonna learn what Luna’s like inside,” Cadance spoke with obvious intonation, inwardly cheering when the white unicorn flared into a blush.

***

“Um, Your Highness?” Barrier questioned as his faculties were finally restored, only moments after Luna had deposited him on a plush, navy-blue cushion. “Are you certain on the subject of…swiving?” As he waited for an answer he dragged his eyes across the room, noting how dark everything seemed, despite the room being fairly well-lit…without any visible lights.

“We shall see, Barrier.” Luna smiled slyly, breaking the stallion from his thoughts, “Before that, however, We believe it would beeth most beneficial to seek friendship in one who hath gone through experiences similar to Us.”

Luna’s horn flared to life, a steaming pot of water and a pair of cups winking into existence. “Like Us, thou also were sealed away for over one-thousand years, and we are both a-trying to adjust to how much has changed in our homelands…as well as coping with the friends and loved ones we have lost.”

Luna and Barrier both lifted their tea-cups, taking a short drink. How convenient, to have fully prepared tea on-call.

“There are many things that surprised Us upon our return,” Luna began again, “Would you believe that the Griffins are now our most loyal allies? According to my sister, we have been at peace with them for almost as long as we have been gone.”

Barrier’s teacup vibrated slightly in his magic, causing the stallion to set it on the table. “After what happened to Gallopfrey, after all those helpless foals were eaten alive by those soulless beasts?” His voice took on a hard edge.

“We have met some modern Griffins,” Luna continued. “They are far more civil than those of the past. It seems Our…foray...as Nightmare Moon made them aware of the fact that we could either freeze or burn their country to a crisp, if we were so inclined.”

“You would have exterminated countless civilians by a-doing something like that. It would've never happened.”

“Apparently, Our sister was quite fed up with the conflict when all was said and done with Our banishment.”

“And what, pray tell, happened to the foal-eating monster that ordered the conquest and occupation of Gallopfrey?” Barrier asked, taking another sip of tea in an effort to calm his suddenly-riled nerves.

“The King was apparently not informed of the atrocities that Brigadier LeGrande had committed. Very few were the foal-devouring monsters that Grimhilde was. According to Our sister, most of their army was composed of starving workers, facing a dire famine.” Luna snorted in irritation of her own. “We wonder how many lives we could’ve saved had Our sister consented to such a threat earlier in the conflict.”

“You would have both been declared tyrants. Ponies, along with the rest of the world, might have even come to fear you.” No creature would take such a threat to the world as a whole lightly. “Or mayhaps, they would expect conquest of other lands or something along those lines…”

“Those were Our sister’s reasons as well. In any case,” the lunar diarch refocused, “Brigadier LeGrande was tried for her war crimes and executed by her own people. The city of Gallopfrey was reclaimed. ‘Tis known as Trottingham in these modern days. According to my sister, it was to help distance it from the tragedy that befell its former inhabitants.” Luna allowed the conversation to lapse into a brief silence before opening her mouth once more, “May I inquire to what Ponyville is like? Our sister toldeth Us you were staying with her student?”

“Aye,” Barrier confirmed, grateful for the change in subject. “Twilight Sparkle. She is a good young mare… not very social, but I know she will grow out of it. I plan on seeking new residence upon my return, however. It does not feel right to lay about her home while contributing very little.”

“Will you stay in Ponyville perhaps, or move elsewhere?”

“Elsewhere.” Barrier said with little hesitation. “Canterlot perhaps…I suppose having a house built is also within the realm of possibility.”

She would be the ideal pony to aid you with what haunts your soul. Barrier’s mind chimed in.

“I am not fully certain yet. Methinks I shall travel and see how Equestria hath changed.” The stallion shrugged noncommittally. “That aside, there is something I wish to ask you. I had not considered it before because I was accustomed to these, but upon recent events…” The stallion thought back to the nightmare and his physical reaction to the false events of his dream. Not uncommon, but there were rarely ponies around him in the past that he had to worry about unintentionally harming, “Methinks you can aid me with my problem.”

“Thou art referring to thy nightmare, yes?”

Barrier nodded, but otherwise stayed silent.

“I’m afraid I cannot solve this problem for thee, captain. "Tis something thou wilt have to comest to terms with thyself. The most I can do is prevent the nightmares.”

Barrier nodded once more, having expected the answer. “I will take what little is available to make my visions of the past stop haunting me. I wish I knew how to come to terms with this. I know in my mind that there is nothing for it and anguishing over it serves no purpose, and yet still the problem persists.”

“I wish I had an answer for thee, Barrier,” Luna said with complete honestly, “The most I can say is that without fail, the cadets nor sergeant Fleetfeather would not blame nor hold thee responsible for what happened. If anything, I would think they would be flattered that thou art so concerned over it, even after all these years.”

Luna gave the words a moment to sink in, “And with that aside…Our sister and I both believe the Crystal Empire will return one day. Should that cometh to pass, I hope to have you by Our side. The guard is not what it used to be.”

Barrier snorted slightly. They weren’t bad, he supposed, but the guard had certainly grown more lax in the perceived peace. There is no such thing as true peace, Barrier’s mind stated cynically.

“I suppose we should be happy they can afford to be so carefree. That reminds me,” Barrier clopped a hoof to the ground, “Princess Cadance? Is she Princess Celestia’s daughter or…?”

“Nay. 'Tis some complicated events involving a witch. We had to fay wakefulness when We were being informed.” Luna trailed off with a slight chuckle, voice dropping slightly, eyes suddenly going half-lidded. “Now then, captain. Would you like to accept our offer of…companionship?”

Barrier swallowed.

Chapter 10

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Barrier’s ears swiveled towards the door of his cabin as the sound of another door being slammed loudly reached his ears. ’Tis far too early for such noise… Perhaps he should have opted for a later train rather than his originally planned five o’clock morning trip.

“And you’re an inconsiderate slob!”

Barrier’s ear flicked at the sound of a mare’s voice. Despite the apparent anger, he could sense an undercurrent of sophistication. A noble mayhaps, his mind suggested. A short knock on the door to his cabin cut off any further speculation.

“‘Tis open,” Barrier replied in a level tone, horn flaring to slide his door open to reveal a light-grey mare with a dark-grey mane and a pair of soft, mulberry eyes.

“I apologize for interrupting you, sir,” the mare began politely, “but I’m having issues with my cabin-mate. Would you mind terribly if I joined you for the duration of our ride?”

Cute accent, Barrier thought as he nodded yes. “By all means, mist... good miss.”

The mare quirked an eyebrow at the odd manner of speech, but otherwise didn’t question it as she stepped into the cabin, tugging a large case behind her. “I’m terribly sorry for this,” she apologized as she hefted the instrument onto the bench opposite of the unicorn and clambered up alongside it. “I’m Octavia Melody.”

“Magic Barrier,” the unicorn returned. “Well met, miss.”

After a short awkward silence, Octavia opened her muzzle once again, this time with the slightest hint of hesitation. “I apologize if this comes across as rude, but your speech patterns are a bit peculiar. Not to seem nosy or anything, but…”

“‘Tis a…” Barrier stopped to think about it, “work in progress, I suppose. I am from a very different time. My speech patterns reflect my home. I’m making an effort to modernize my speech, but I seem to be making little progress. It’s not as simple as Miss. D-” the unicorn stopped himself again. “Miss Yearling, that is, made it seem.”

“You’ve met A.K. Yearling?” Octavia asked, Barrier noticing the surprise.

“We’ve crossed paths,” Barrier affirmed. “She’s a nice enough pony.” Once you get past the attitude.

“So where are you from if not Equestria?” Octavia tilted her head, curiosity rising at the archaic speech patterns and apparent acquaintance with one of the most hard-to-meet authors in Equestria.

“You wouldst not believe me if I told th...you.”

***

“'Tis been a pleasure, Miss Melody,” Barrier waved as the light-gray mare departed, case hefted upon her back. Nice mare. I might’ve pursued her once upon a time, Barrier mused as he departed the train platform, pondering the offer of dinner with Octavia and her roommate the following day. Methinks. it would do me some good… Barrier pressed a hoof to his chin, contemplating whether or not to accept. Peradventure, Applejack cou- the thought was cut short as the very familiar roar of a griffin pierced his thoughts. Almost on instinct, the stallion disappeared with a sharp pop of magic.

Barrier winked back into existence in the town square, narrowly avoiding Fluttershy as she bolted away, tears flowing freely down her face.

The griffins are allies, Barrier’s mind reminded him, flaring back to his discussion with Luna as his gaze fell on the brown-plumed Griffin standing in the market and giving any nearby ponies an aggressive stare.

Barrier set his icy eyes on the fierce-looking Griffin as she continued gazing around the market, slinking into the crowd with practiced movements as he carefully trailed behind, carefully watching how the muscles shifted ‘neath the fur.

Tail carefully snaking around another apple, Gilda tossed it forward, catching the fruit in a claw before burying the apple in a single bite, body doing a one-eighty as she did so. “Quit starin’!”

The hen jerked around to face Barrier; almost immediately, the small crowd he’d been apart of seemed to vanish. “I might be friends with a pony, but I’m sure as hell not taking one to bed, so if you wanna keep your teeth, piss off.”

“If thou keepest acting out, I’ll halve thee…” Barrier warned, eyes narrowing as he took several steps forward.

To the griffon’s credit, she stalked forward, coming close to Barrier before drawing and opening her beak wide as she took in a deep breath.

She’s a chick, nothing more. Barrier mind scoffed as the stallion’s hoof shot forward, wedging his hoof firmly past her beak and into her throat, the thick appendage preventing her from doing little more than drawing back with a gag and violent heave as her stomach trembled before ejecting its contents violently. As the chunks of apple spilled onto the ground, Gilda slowly began to recover, only for a charcoal-grey hoof to lash out, striking her square in the eye and sending her reeling once more.

“Art thou quite done, chick?” Barrier asked with a small amount of condescension apparent in his voice, coupled with the slightest hint of amusement.

“You’re dead!” Gilda squawked, even as she pressed a talon to her eye and continued to hiss in pain.

“Cute,” Barrier continued to goad, “I almost feel bad, picking on a hatchling.” He backpedaled, avoiding a wild swing. “Peradventure, Princess Luna was right. Mayhaps griffins really are helpless in this modern era,”

“Shut up!” Gilda roared, bodily lunging forward this time, “I’ll show you helpless when I claw your damned eye ou-” Gilda fell silent as the momentum of her lunge was redirected and she went head-over-talons into the ground, her breath departing her with a pained huff.

Wincing, she opened her eyes just in time for her to see a blast of magic charging up in the unicorn’s horn. With a shift of her claws and an erratic wave of her wings, the hen narrowly shifted, the magical energy charge impacting the ground with a violent burst of electricity, charring the ground a disgusting shade of black.

Barrier’s mind only vaguely registered a pony crying out as his horn flared to life, crackling with electricity. “Somebody get the guard!”

“Woah now,” Gilda thrust her wings forward once more, using the slight lift to right herself. “I’m all for a good scrap but that’s a bit much!” Her wings were half-flared, feathers splayed outward in an instinctual display.

“Thou initiated this with thine half-arsed threat,” Barrier stalked forward, slowly covering the distance Gilda was working to put between the two. “Thou thinkest us ponies weak? Little more than prey for thee to push around?”

Gilda made to lift off, only for Barrier to let loose his charged blast, striking her in the wing, arcs of electricity dancing throughout the brown plumage and making her twitch in pain as she was forcibly grounded, eyes searching desperately for an escape.

“I sho-” The stallion was cut off as a deafening boom split the air. With a grunt of pain, Barrier felt his hooves leave the ground as something struck his side. In a moment of panic, the stallion vanished in a pop of magic, only to reappear inside of a transparent bubble that raised itself around him during the transition. Eyes roaming in panic with the griffin completely forgotten, he finally settled his eyes on Pinkie Pie and her…contraption.

“Are you loco in the coco?!” The pony-shaped tuft of cotton-candy shot towards the bubble which the stallion hesitantly lowered, keeping his horn primed.

“I know Gilda was a big meanie-pants...”

pants…? the errant thought made itself known.

“...and a thief, but you can’t just kill her!” Pinkie thrust both of her forehooves out for emphasis.

“I hadn’t planned on killing her, only putting the fear of Faust into her.”

“Oh,” Pinkie stated dumbly. “Well, that’s still pretty darn mean.”

Barrier didn’t get a chance to respond as the electricity of a stun-spell caused his body to seize up as it danced along the cake batter, ending with the charcoal stallion collapsing in a twitching heap.

***

Barrier winced as the light filtered painfully through his eyes. “Gods, I feel like I went ten rounds with a manticore and lost…” Barrier hefted himself to his hooves, trying futilely to loosen his muscles up. Barrier glanced around to find where he was. He quickly saw that he was in a small holding cell with a wooden cot and a metal bucket that was mostly hidden behind a small divider. At least the cells hadn’t changed in his absence.

“Tch, not surprised. They hit you with that shock-spell and you lit up like the night sky on Gala Night.” Barrier heard Gilda sneer, the griffin hidden behind the divider in her cell across a small hallway from him.

Barrier whirled around at a speed that’d give most ponies whiplash, channeling magic to his horn…only for it to funnel right back down into his skull, setting his head to throbbing.

“Not so powerful without your magic, are you, horn-dog?” Gilda sneered from her cell.

“Dost thou wish to discover for thineself?” Barrier threatened, approaching the bars that separated the pair.

“Save it, dick-head,” Gilda huffed, “Neither of us are going anywhere any time soon.”

Barrier didn’t respond, instead flaring his horn slightly and grimacing as he began to work his magic around the dampening ring.

“So,” Gilda grunted slightly, “since we’re stuck in here, why don’t you tell me what I did to make attempted murder seem like a good idea?”

“If I’d planned on killing you, believe me, I would have. Unfortunately, Princess Luna expressly forbade me; I can take nary a a griffin soul.” Barrier closed his eyes as his magic struggled to move beyond the ring, very slowly encompassing the entirety of his horn.

Gilda only grunted in response.

Barrier groaned “Were thee, say… Sombra or Brigadier LeGrande, however… thou wouldst be akin to a fine paste this very moment.”

“LeGrande?” Gilda grunted yet again, “Do you mean Grimhilde,” another soft grunt, “LeGrande? Why the hell would you care about that?”

Barrier took a slow breath through his nose. “My reasons are mine own,” was his simple response.

“Yeah, and what are they?”

“Tales exist of her a-devouring live foals whole. I am skeptical of the claims, but,” Barrier was interrupted by a grunt, “…I know it to be a matter of fact that she did eat and kill many foals.”

“Oh yeah? And where’s your…” the griffin stopped to grunt yet again,

“Why in the blue blazes of High Elysium are you grunting?” Barrier asked, cutting the hen off.

“Don’t worry about it,” Gilda rasped out, seemingly out of breath. “So, where’s your proof?”

His brow furrowing slightly, Barrier responded, “She lead the assault upon Gallopfrey, leading to the conquest and destruction of the city. Countless civilians were slain.”

“Yeah, I know she was pretty much the nastiest bitch to ever come out of the Talone mountains, but that doesn’t explain why you know about her, and more importantly, why you care.”

Because I was one of the ponies who was tasked with dispensing news to the remaining families… to Iron Forge... “I have my reasons. Though, I am curious unto the circumstance of how and why thou knowest about her. The princess informed me that most Griffins long strived to distance themselves from LeGrande’s atrocities.”

“Hard to distance yourself from it when your entire family lives in poverty because of what their ancestor did,” Gilda all but hissed. “Grimhilde’s legacy made my life hell and we don’t even know what she looked like,” the hen started bitterly but fell off as a soft sigh escaped her, followed by the soft plop of something hitting the bottom of a bucket.

“What was that disgusting noise? What are you doing over there?” Barrier asked again, grinning slightly as the ring on his horn cracked and fell to the ground

“I was working on a crossword puzzle.” Gilda came into view across the hall, staring into Barrier’s cell, her eyes widening as she saw his unblemished horn.

“Guard!” she suddenly called out, backing up into her cell and out of his sight once more.

“Would you shut the hell up in there?” a mare yelled back, voice muffled by distance.

“This crazy bastard’s got his horn-ring off!”

“See, Soundwave? I told you we needed military-grade magic dampeners. I suggested those ever since Nightmare Moon attacked, but did you listen to me? Nooooo…”

“Be at ease, Griffin,” Barrier disregarded whatever the guards were discussing, “I admit unto disliking thee, as well as thine kind, but I’d not kill a hatchling without prudent reason.”

Spin another falsehood, why don’t you?

“Magic Barrier, your bail’s been paid,” an unnatural-sounding voice that Barrier could only be described as metallic interrupted any response Gilda had intended to make, followed by the sound of his cell-door sliding open on its own.

Stepping out of his cell, Barrier’s ears swiveled towards the stout wooden door in the distance.

“Hey, what about me?” Gilda suddenly pressed herself to the bars.

Barrier walked into the main room just in time to see the blue unicorn calling down the hall… despite the fact that his lips weren’t moving and his horn was thrumming with violet energy. “A Miss Dash and a Miss Pie are paying for your charges of petty theft and disturbing the peace. Your paperwork should be finished shortly.”

Barrier shifted his eyes to the other side of the stallion’s desk where Twilight was gazing at him with a disturbing intensity. “Please! I have to know how you do that with your voice! Tellmetellmetellme!”

The blue unicorn disregarded her, only lazily shifting his gaze when Twilight’s horn lit up and he began to levitate out of his chair.

“It’s for science!”

“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to put Corporal Soundwave down…”

Chapter 11

View Online

“So, assault,” Twilight stated, the question clear in her tone.

“‘Tis not important.” Barrier waved a hoof dismissively.

“It’s kind of important, since I had to pay your bail.”

She does raise a fair argument… Barrier thought to himself as his gaze drifted upwards towards the slowly-setting sun. “I do not get along with griffins. Miss Gilda was no exception.”

“You hit her in the face,” Twilight stated flatly.

“What is thy...your point?”

“Well, why specifically? I know you don’t like griffins…” Twilight thought back to what Daring Do had told her about the pony-griffin conflict being the most drawn-out and messy conflict in recorded history. “But surely you wouldn’t attack her without a reason?”

Not exactly… “It matters not. I made a mistake, nothing more.”

Twilight only frowned and gazed at the stallion pointedly.

“I am sorry, Twilight,” Barrier said quietly, “but this is not a subject I enjoy discussing. I doubt that I will ever be at peace with the griffins.”

“Is it because of that Grimhilde character you talked to Gilda about?” The lavender-mare noticed how Barrier tensed.

She will continue to hound you. If you refuse to tell her, she will simply ask the princess. “Have you heard of a city called Gallopfrey?”

“No…?” Twilight answered hesitantly as she flicked the library door open with a burst from her horn.

Taking a slow breath through his nose, Barrier exhaled slowly. “It is and shall forever be the single greatest reason I will never be able to forgive Griffins. Make no mistake, I shall tolerate them… Princess Luna has ordered me to, but I will never like them.” Barrier made his way into the library behind Twilight. “On a different matter, I should tell th...you I shall be leaving soon.”

“Leaving? Like going out or…?”

“More that I shall be a-seeking a new home away from Ponyville,” Barrier smiled apologetically. “I am immensely grateful for thee...you allowing me to stay here, Twilight, but I need to get out on my own if I’m ever to adapt to this strange new world. Besides that, I owe it to my ponies. To truly see what this new world is like, I should see this new world.”

Twilight nodded as her magic set to scanning the shelves, the mare talking as she searched. “That makes sense.” She couldn’t really fault him. “So where will you go?”

“I haven't the foggiest idea,” Barrier confessed sheepishly. “Mayhaps I shall throw a dart at a map and go wherever it lands.”

“When do you think you’ll leave?” Twilight began to tug books free from their positions, reading the titles before sliding them back into place.

“Mayhaps a day or two after the museum comes to retrieve the monument. Before that however, I need a shower. I was invited unto dinner tonight with an acquaintance and her friend at some place known as the Hayburger.” Barrier had seen the establishment on his treks through Ponyville thus far, but had never bothered to actually enter the establishment.

“That’s nice,” Twilight answered somewhat absentmindedly, her attention primarily focused on skimming through one of her books. “Do you need any bits, or…?”

“Hm, thank you but I’ll be fine.” Barrier began to make his way up the stairs and towards the bathroom, “I’ve a few million bits to spare after the trip to Canterlot. I can’t imagine I’ll spend too much at this Hayburger place.”

“Alrighty then…” Twilight said lamely as her magic cracked open another book, Barrier departing into the bathroom

Horn bringing the shower to life, Barrier stepped beneath the warm stream just in time to hear a heavy book crash to the floor…

“How the hay did you get so many bits?”

…followed by the mare throwing the bathroom door open in surprise… shortly before screaming at the sight before her.

***

“Does this situation seem odd to you, Twilight?” Barrier asked as he tugged the brush through his coat, wincing and regretting that he didn’t take better care of it.

“Does what seem odd?” Twilight asked from the book that her muzzle was all but buried in.

“I am going to a…’fast-food’ place at…” he eyed the clock on the wall, “nearly eight o’clock.”

“Not really,” Twilight droned.

“Very well, I shall return later, Twilight.”

The door to the library clicking shut behind him, Barrier drifted into his thoughts as his hooves began to move.

Where will you go first? Trottingham, perhaps? Perhaps I could lay rest to some of those memories. Barrier swallowed heavily at the thought of visiting the town once more. It would be nice to see how it’s recovered over the centuries. I could pay my respects to young Forge and his family as well. “As close as I can come to paying respects…” Barrier vocalized the last bit, completely unaware of the unicorn that had taken up stride alongside him.

“Hey there tall, dark, and flat-flanked, where ya headed?”

Well alright then, Barrier’s mind recalled the somber thoughts in favor of the cream-colored unicorn across from him.

“I’m heading forth to meet an acquaintance and her friend,” Barrier replied simply,

“That’s cool. Doin’ the same thing, actually. My marefriend said she was meetin’ somebody and I decided to tag along.” The mare nodded gently, as if she’d said something of great wisdom.

“I see,” Barrier responded simply. After several short moments of silence, Barrier spoke once more. “Tis a lovely night out.” Smooth, Barrier, you dunce…

“Yeah, it is,” the mare tilted her head upright as they walked, her two-tone blue mane bouncing messily. “It’s nice not to be trapped in a club or party for once.”

“A...club?” Barrier asked with genuine interest. This was something he’d not heard of, one of the wonders of the present, no doubt.

“Yeah. I play all over the place these days, but I always seem to end up coming back Ponyville. Usually for Pinkie-parties now that I think about it.” The mare pressed a hoof to her chin as if in thought.

“Ah, Miss Pie…” Barrier conjured an image of the pony-like manifestation of sugar; the mere thought of her never failed to give him chills.

“Heh, yeah. She’s a riot…” The mare chuckled. “but she can be a bit much.”

That mare startles me so much when she seems to appear from nowhere that I nearly strike her in the face… Barrier realized with some degree of shame that his first reflex -one he’d held back quite well- was to strike the mare when she seemingly appeared out of nowhere. “To be certain, she means well, however…”

“Yeah, she’s one of a kind.” The mare chuckled again. “Oh, I’m Vinyl Scratch by the way.” The cream-colored mare held a hoof out, halting her trek.

“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Scratch, I’m Magic Barrier.” Barrier stopped, thrusting his own hoof out to firmly shake the mare’s hoof.

“Nice to meetcha, Barrier.” Vinyl grinned and the duo started moving once more. “So…” Vinyl started with a curious undertone. “Magic Barrier…” she seemed to roll the name around briefly, “Does that mean you can like...magic up a condom or something?”

A condom? What on the ninth level of Tartarus is a condom? How am I to keep tally of all these strange modern terms? “I…suppose it’s possible,” Barrier stated hesitantly. “I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with these condoms, but my magic is fairly versatile, especially with conjuring spells of protection.”

“That’s gotta be a neat trick. Y’know, if you’re lucky, you might be a part of a foursome tonight. Bet I could talk ‘Tavi into it.”

You’ve already turned down the twins from the spa, will you turn down this mare as well? Barrier found his mind conjuring up images of the admittedly attractive mare across from him. …I’ve not the time for the likes of a relationship in these trying times. Barrier tried to argue with…himself. Yeah, she’s clearly looking for a relationship with an invitation like that. I’m not that stupid. “Perhaps,” Barrier finally replied with a nervous swallow.

“Heh, don’t worry, we’ll figure something out. So where’re you meeting this acquaintance of yours?” Vinyl stopped, the charcoal-unicorn following suit.

“Here, apparently.” Barrier glanced up at the ‘Hayburger’ sign that seemed to light up despite the last vestiges of sunlight quickly fading from the land.

“Oh, tight!~” Vinyl grinned. “Well, let’s go. I’ll introduce you to ‘Tavi. She might seem a little snooty at first, but she’s pretty cool once you get used to it.” Vinyl grabbed one of Barrier’s hooves and tugged him into the establishment behind her.

Tavi… That was the second time he’d heard the name from Vinyl. Why is that familiar… His eyes fell on the mane of the mare in question. Ah, Tavi, an affectionate nickname for Octavia… Barrier glanced at Vinyl who was still tugging him along. She appears to have an interesting taste in mares…

“Tavi! I brought a friend too!” Vinyl called out loudly with a grin, drawing the attention of the grey mare.

“A pleasure you see you again, Miss Melody.” A slight smile wormed its way onto the stallion’s face.

“Ah, Mr. Barrier. You’re a little earlier than expected!” Octavia turned around to greet the stallion, a pleasant smile on her face…which quickly faded when she saw who was dragging him along.

“Wait, you two know each other? Well crap, there goes my plans for a foursome…”

“Vinyl!” Octavia’s eyes widened, clearly appalled.

“Oh come on, you know I’m just fuckin’ with ya’.” Vinyl squinted her eyes in thought, “Well, not fuckin’ with ya right now, but you know what I mean.”

Octavia only groaned and face-hoofed sadly. “I’m so sorry, Barrier. I’d planned on having some time to explain Vinyl’s…eccentricities to you before you met her. Fate, however, seems to be against me.”

“It’s quite alright, Miss Melody. She is an interesting mare, if a little... unique.” Barrier carefully edged himself into the booth Octavia was seated at, Vinyl sliding in across the table alongside Octavia.

“Though it’s a bit unnecessary now, I would like to introduce you to Vinyl Scratch,” Octavia addressed the stallion across the table, “my marefriend. Vinyl, please meet Magic Barrier, the unicorn who was kind enough to tolerate my company after our small disagreement on the train.”

Small? Barrier thought back to the shouting and subsequent door-slamming. Mayhaps in the same way a tornado is an air current, but very well.

“Well then,” Vinyl interrupted, “Now that that’s out of the way, how about we get something to eat?”

“That sounds like an excellent idea,” Barrier said perhaps a little too quickly as he climbed out of the booth with Vinyl. “I was unable procure anything to eat before my arrest.”

“Wait, you were arrested?” Octavia joined them in departing the booth, “When? How?”

“I entered into a minor scrape with a griffin in the marketplace. The guards did not take kindly to it. I am fortunate my niece found out about it, else I may have missed our appointment tonight.”

“Wait, you assaulted a griffin? That’s kinda badass.” Vinyl cut in once more, shifting herself from the counter.

“She was youthful, bold and easily angered.” Barrier shrugged as he took up position alongside Vinyl at the counter, squinting slightly as his eyes roved the menu, trying to recall the new alphabet.

Turning back to the counter, the discussion about the griffin seemingly over, Vinyl hummed softly as her eyes roved across the menu. “Uh, I’ll just have a number four, I think. What do you want, Tavi?”

“Number seven,” the gray mare replied sedately, seemingly lost in thought.

“And you, sir?” the teenaged-pony behind the counter started boredly at Barrier.

“I shall have a number seven as well. I still cannot decipher the drivel ponies write with these days.”

“You can’t read?” Octavia and Vinyl asked in unison.

“I can read ancient Equestrian and…” Barrier hesitated, “I don’t know if the Griffins and Saddle Arabians still use the same alphabets and languages as they did one-thousand years ago, but assuming they do, I can read, write, and speak those, but fluent, modern Equestrian is beyond me at this moment.”

Barrier eyed the pale-blue pony at the counter as he slid a pair of food-laden trays towards them and promptly went back to looking completely disinterested. His movements and manner… they seem like an undead… Barrier idly noted as he took the trays in his magic and made to follow the mares back to the table only for a string of letters on the menu to catch his attention. “Excuse me, does that say vodka?”

Octavia and Vinyl both stopped and turned, Vinyl interjecting. “Ooh! If you’re gonna order booze you should let me choose for you!”

“I’m content with that, so long as it has as kick to it.” Barrier nodded amicably.

“Heh, you guys are gonna love this…” Vinyl went back to the counter.

“Oh gods,” Octavia groaned as they left Vinyl at the counter. “This can only end poorly.”

As the two slid into the booth, the mare shifted topics, “So, you can’t read?”

“I will be able to in due time, but I’ve yet to fully memorize the workings of it yet,” Barrier stopped to levitate a hooful of fries to his mouth, taking a moment to gratefully inhale the food, “but Miss Yearling was quite helpful, and I’ve no doubt I shall soon master it.”

“Well, if you ever need any assistance with it I would be honored to h-”

“Tavi!” Vinyl grinned as she returned to the table with a bottle of clear liquid rather than a drink.

Conversation forgotten, both Barrier and Octavia glanced up at her. Barrier only tilted his head curiously while Octavia groaned and pressed a hoof to her face.

“Oh come on, there’s no way this could be as bad as last time! Besides, we’ve got a new drinking buddy!”

Why do I have this odd sense of foreboding?

Chapter 12

View Online

“Ph’glui mglw’nafh,” Barrier mumbled unintelligently to the pony prodding his side.

“Barrier, wake up already…” Twilight groaned out, proceeding to swat him with a book.

“Stop movin’ the pillow…” a different voice mumbled out from beneath the covers.

“”Alright, you asked for this…” Twilight’s horn flared to life, conjuring up a wooden bucket.

***

Speedy Delivery chuckled nervously as the giant, sopping-wet rug grumbled angrily to himself, carefully drawing a circle in the dirt, stopping occasionally to draw intricate runes with the tip of his sword.

“No reason she couldn’t have done this…” Barrier huffed as he wiped the tip of his blade of the dirt and slid it into the sheath. “Alright, back-up…” Barrier waved a hoof idly at Speedy Delivery and the two burly earth ponies tethered to the cart. Taking a few steps back himself, Barrier sighed and flared his horn, wincing as his headache flared with it. That’ll teach you to get into a drinking contest with an earth pony…

With far less effort than before, the monument steadily floated into the air, surrounded by Barrier’s light-blue magic.

“Thy group are here a few days earlier than I expected…” Barrier commented tiredly as the monument was carefully laid to rest on its side in the back of the cart.

“Not sure why myself, really. Everything got bumped up last night for some reason,” the pegasus replied, fishing around in his saddlebags. “Normally, the museum wouldn’t purchase something like this without a lot more paperwork from you or even seeing something like this, but…” the pegasus pulled a cheque out of his saddlebags and handed it to the unicorn. “She said you had a colleague who vouched for you.”

“Aye,” Barrier replied sedately, glancing at the cheque before neatly folding it and letting it float lazily in his magic.

“Alrighty,” the stallion held out a clipboard and a pen, “just sign here and we’ll be out of your way.”

Scribbling his name in the flowing rune-like script that was ancient Equestrian, Barrier gave the monument one last glance before sighing and turning back towards the library.

“Have a nice day!” the pegasus called out loudly, accompanied by a wave; Barrier just groaned in pain as he tugged the library door closed behind him.

“See, don’t you feel better now that you’re awake?” Twilight smiled warmly at the tired and half-lidded expression on Barrier’s face. “Besides, consider it payback for waking Spike and I up last night when you came home drunk off your plot.”

Barrier continued to stare languidly at the younger mare, his horn still dimly lit to maintain his hold on the paper.

“Barrier?” Twilight waved a hoof back and forth across the stallion’s gaze. “Barrier, anybody ho-” Twilight’s words were replaced with a sound similar to that of a drowned cat as Barrier upturned the bucket of water he’d been stealthily acquiring over her back.

“Just fine, minus the headache and dehydration,” Barrier replied with a half-smile as he carefully walked past the smaller, wetter rug and towards the baby dragon standing in the kitchen doorway that was struggling not to laugh.

“Thanks for letting me use your shower, Twilight.” Another pony descended the stairs, stopping alongside Barrier. “Pinchy would’ve been mad if I’d come home smelling like booze again. Still, I bet she’ll be thrilled to have a new dad,” the mulberry-shaded pony hip-checked the unicorn, a grin on her face as his eyes widened.

“…” Barrier opened his mouth to reply, only for no words to come out. The silence lasted for all of ten seconds before the earth pony giggled and hip-checked him again.

“Relax, I’m just kidding! Still, last night was a blast. We should party again sometime. Who would’ve thought Octavia had such a wild-streak in her.” With a slight sashay, the mare headed towards the door. “See ya around, Captain.” The mare gave him a grin before disappearing through the doorway.

“Oh thank Faust…” Barrier released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “I’m terrible with children. The thought of helping to raise one is…” the stallion trailed off when his eyes met the unamused stare of Twilight. “It’s quite a lovely day out, isn’t it? I think I’ll go for a walk.”

A pair of clear squirt bottles floated into view, the purple aura signifying that Twilight had something in mind.

“In my defense, thou...you did the sa-” Barrier reared back as one of the bottles shot a stream of water directly into his face. “The Tartarus was th-” he was cut off again when another stream found its way down his throat.

“Turnabout is fair play,” Twilight stated simply as another pair of squirt-bottles flew into existence.

***

Two showers later, Barrier found himself staring at a map firmly tacked to the wall. “First, we will visit…” he drew a quill back in his magic before closing his eyes and launching it forward.

“Ow, dammit!” Twilight yelped out, jumping up from the table and her book, angrily eyeing the quill sticking out of her rump.

“That’s five bits in the swear-jar, Twilight,” Spike chimed out helpfully, not even bothering to look up from his comic book.

“My apologies, Twilight. It wasn’t my intent to strike you, but with how your flank has been expanding in recent weeks it was inevitable.”

“Are you calling me fat?” Twilight furrowed her eyebrows in annoyance, the adorableness of the act bringing a slight grin to Barrier’s face.

“Not fat, just more ample. In fact, I can think of a pony or two that would find thy...your flank stunning,” Barrier reasoned, unaware that Spike had stopped reading the comic in favor of the better entertainment.

“I’ll have you know I take excellent care of my figure! The princess even helped me set up an exercise routine so that I wouldn’t get fat from staying indoors too much.” Twilight’s horn flared to life, conjuring a piece of paper into existence.

“Twilight, you haven’t followed your workout schedule since we moved to Ponyville,” Spike offered helpfully. “Any time I brought it up, you’d say you’d figure it out after your friendship problems.”

“Uh…” Barrier glanced at the suddenly non-responsive Twilight. “Did you break her?”

“Nah, she’ll be okay in about four or five minutes. This happens any time she realizes she messed up her schedule. I use it to get out of chores sometimes.” Even as Spike talked he set about tidying up, replacing the books Twilight had pulled out throughout the night. One title in particular caught the stallion’s eye, his magic flaring to tug it from its spot at the top of Spike’s stack.

The Sacking of Gallopfrey… Barrier couldn’t help but frown at the poorly-yet-aptly named title as he flipped through the book, carefully skimming it, mind fighting to translate the text.

"...the griffins, desperately" Barrier squinted intensely at the text, trying to recall his short lessons with Daring Do. "trying to stave off...famine took the only course of option they saw: turn their enemies into prey. After a dozen bloody conflicts over the course of a year, the griffins finally managed to gain a foothold in Equestria by conquering the city of Gallopfrey. Lead by Brigadier Grimhilde LeGrande in 3058 A.D. In the dead of night, the entirety of the city guard was exterminated before the sun had risen. Estimates indicate that over eighty-one percent of the buildings were reduced to ash and rubble. The civilians were taken as prisoners of war, however, Brigadier LeGrande committed the first of her war-crimes by killing the bulk of the prisoners to be used as food. The act was kept hidden from King Alarick through a carefully-laid web of bribery and threats."

Barrier's mind was far too busy to realize that he was now reading the modern script with minimal effort.

"The city remained under griffin control until the twenty-third day of 1 P.N. when Princess Celestia personally led an attack into the city, killing several hundred griffins and freeing the surviving prisoners. Brigadier LeGrande survived the assault only to be dragged to King Alarick in chains, where Princess Celestia demanded an end to the conflict under the threat of personally becoming involved. A tentative peace-treaty was signed less than a week later, bringing to a close almost thirty years of sporadic-but-open conflict."

Licking his dry lips, Barrier snapped the book shut with a shaky breath, carefully levitating the book over to the young dragon.

“Thou art … You’re a good dragon, Spike,” Barrier stated softly as he turned towards the door. “When Twilight…” the stallion eyed his niece, “awakens, I suppose, tell her that I’m headed for the train-station to check departure times for my trip to … somewhere.” Barrier nosed the library door open, mind only vaguely registering Spike’s chirp of affirmation as the door swung shut behind him.

I should have been there… Barrier found himself drifting into thought as he walked, as seemed to be habit. How many foals died because of your lack of foresight? Barrier snorted angrily. Two-hundred and forty-seven confirmed with forty-some that were never found. Slavery or worse, no doubt. Barrier had personally compared the reports with the town registry and committed the numbers to memory.

“Barrreeey~”

The familiar singsong voice snapped Barrier out of the morbid speculation in favor of desperately glancing around for the source.

“Why so sad?”

Barrier lept backwards as Pinkie’s face - and accompanying creepy grin - seemed to wink into existence less than an inch away.

“I’m not sad, Miss Pie, just…tired.” Liar Barrier started forward once more, body sagging slightly as he became aware that his head was still sore from the previous night’s events.

“Hmm…” Pinkie hopped in front of the stallion and locked eyes, staring intently even as she continued to hop backwards. “Okey-dokey!” The mare grinned and hopped back into line alongside him. “So, where’ya’goooin?”

“To the train-station, Miss Pie,” he replied curtly, closing his eyes in a vain effort to ease his now-throbbing skull.

“Ooh, are we gonna play jump-the-tracks? I love to play in the train-tracks, but the train-ponies always get mad at me saying that I’m gonna get myself hurt or somepony else hurt or I’ll cause damage to the train and -”

“No, Miss Pie.” Barrier gnashed his teeth against each other in frustration. “I am going to purchase a train ticket before I depart tomorrow.”

“Depart? Whatever for?”

I wonder if Princess Celestia would understand if I turned these ponies to ash… the stallion wondered silently to himself as Rarity joined the pair.

“Miss Rarity,” Barrier bowed politely; hungover or not, decorum had been beaten into him, “I’m leaving town tomorrow in an effort to find somewhere I belong.”

“Ah,” understanding blossomed on the marshmallow’s face.

The two were prevented from further speech when Pinkie gasped loudly, shot up into the air, and hung there for all of three-seconds before disappearing in a comedic poof of air.

Don’t question it, don’t question it, don’t question it, Barrier desperately tried to shove the event to the back of his mind, only for the tuft of pink cotton to appear in front of him again, a bottle of water held out to him.

“For your hangover!” The mare grinned, “Now then,” she shoved the bottle into the stallion’s chest, “I, have a farewell party to plan!”

And with that, she was gone. Again.

“So, you’re leaving…” Rarity continued as if nothing had happened. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay?” Rarity fluttered her eyelashes and leaned in slightly, a soft and almost-alluring smile present as she awaited the response.

Is she…is she flirting with me? I think she’s flirting with me.

“I’m afraid not, mistress.” Barrier smiled in response, as etiquette dictated, “I’ve too much to see in this new world to consider a-settling down at the moment.” I must be almost twice your age, filly. “I owe it unto myself and the ponies that fought alongside me to see what we were fighting for.” To say nothing of this town steadily driving me to insanity.

“I see,” Rarity pouted very briefly. “Well, I can’t fault your reasoning, Sir Barrier.”

“So, what brings th...you to the train station at this time of day?” Barrier made his way up the steps and onto the platform, angling his stride towards the ticket-booth.

“My parents are coming into town with my little sister. I’m taking her for the duration of their vacation,” Rarity explained, joining him at the ticket counter.

“What trains run tomorrow?”

“Uh…” the brown-coated, brown-maned pony glanced down at his book before replying with a slight accent. “There’s a seven thirty to Manehattan, a twelve o’clock to Trottingham, and a seven-twenty to Appleloosa.”

“One ticket unto Appleloosa, please.” Barrier turned to fish the bits out of his saddlebags as well as watch the train roll into the station.

“Would you like to meet my parents and little sister?’ Rarity asked sweetly, fluttering her eyelashes once again.

Say no and apologize! “'Twould be a pleasure, Miss Rarity.” Have I become a gelding whilst I wasn’t looking?

Chapter 13

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Potential gelding aside, Barrier couldn’t help but eye the doors as the train rolled to a stop, admittedly curious as to the sorts of ponies that had raised the white mare. She must come from quite an impressive lineage based on her attitude and mannerisms.

“I must warn you, darling, they’re a bit…eccentric.”

“I’m certain it won’t be too much trouble,” Barrier reassured, eyes returning to the ponies now filtering out of the train. None of them seemed particularly stand-offish, much less carrying themselves with the grace Rarity seemed to.

“Ah, there they are now!” Rarity started forwards, Barrier following close behind. “Mother, Father!” Rarity waved to the pair of unicorns drawing theirs - and Barrier’s - attention.

They’re…not quite what I expected. True enough, neither unicorn appeared as he had expected. They seem like they’d be more at place with the Apple Family than Mistress Rarity,

Her father, he assumed, was a fairly standard-looking unicorn, a near-white gray coat accompanied by a brown mane and perhaps his most noticeable feature, a garish mustache, all topped off by a pair of cerulean eyes. Her mother on the other hoof, was composed of a pale fuchsia coat and an indigo mane shot through with streaks of what Barrier assumed was a lighter shade of purple. Her mane, like her husband's moustache, was almost impossible to miss, being folded up in a large something; Barrier could only compare her mane-style to a particularly large beehive; some small part of him almost wanted to poke at it with a stick just to test the comparison.

Mayhaps she’s adopted,

“Are you Rarity’s coltfriend?” a squeaky voice asked from behind the charcoal-grey stallion, causing him to jerk around and see the empty space in front of him.

The squeaky voice, it seemed, also drew the attention of the other three unicorns.

“Ah, Mother, Father, this is Magic Barrier, an...”

Rarity was cut off as her mother suddenly stalked over to the stallion with an appraising look on her as she sized him up with a disturbing intensity. “Hm…”

“Ma’am?” Barrier asked unsurely, standing stock-still. I feel like a fresh cadet for some reason.

“He’s a little flat in the flank,” the fuschia mare decided, “but the rest of him is pretty easy on the eyes.” she tapped Barrier on the shoulder a couple of times. “I approve!” she suddenly raised her voice in declaration.

“Mother?” Rarity asked in question, but received no answer.

“Well, I’ll be dropping off Sweetie Belle’s things before I go to see the Cakes! I’ll see you and Rarity back at her boutique, Hondo!” The mare’s horn flared to life, picking up several suitcases, each more stuffed than the last that the stallion somehow hadn’t noticed, before trotting off with a slight hop in her step.

Eccentric is certainly an apt word for her mother.

“Hm,” the mare’s father was eyeing Barrier carefully, hoof pressed to his chin. “He seems like a good pony. I’m glad ya’ finally got a coltfriend, Rarity, though I guess I owe your mother some bits now. So, when can we expect grandfoals?”

“With all due respect sir, we are simply fr-” Barrier felt something tugging at his foreleg and glanced down at a light-grey filly. Rarity’s little sister, his mind logged the nugget away.

“Can you be my coltfriend too?” the same squeaky voice from before asked finally drawing Barrier’s attention downward to a young blushing filly.

“I’m afraid not, lass,” Barrier replied gently despite the headache he could feel getting progressively worse. “I’m far too old for such a thing.”

“Aww...” The filly walked away dejectedly.

“Well, Miss Rarity, Sir…Hondo, I believe your mate said, young lady,” Barrier nodded his acknowledgement to the filly. “'Tis been a pleasure, but I need to return to the library to prepare for my departure tomorrow.”

“Well, hold on there, buddy.” Hondo moved alongside the large unicorn. “I think that since you’re courtin’ my daughter, we should get to know each other. Why don’t we catch a quick drink?”

For the love of everything under the sun, these ponies are a-going to drive me insane… “While I appreciate the offer, I’m no-” the stallion cut Barrier off with a wave of his hoof.

“No time for second guessing, come on.” Hondo nudged Barrier forward slightly. “Rarity, why don’t you and Sweetie Belle spend some time together while I go have a talk with your coltfriend?”

“If you would let one of us speak, we would tell you that we’re just friends…” Rarity tried to argue; Hondo didn’t seem to hear, instead continuing to nudge the darker stallion forward.

***

“Waddya mean yer not courtin’ my daughter?” Hondo slurred out semi-intelligently.

“Just as it soundeth,” Barrier responded in a flat and sober tone. “Thy daughter is a friend and acquaintance, nothing more and nothing less.”

“Wa, she ain’t good enough for you?” Hondo tried to sound upset; the effect was somewhat lessened by the fact that his chin was resting on the table.

“I must be over ten years her senior.” Barrier stopped to take another swig of his beer, his expression souring as he did so. “Bah! This beer, as it is called, is nothing more than honeyless mead. What did I drink last night that was so effective?” Barrier pushed the mug away with disinterest. “As I was saying, I’m at least ten years older, if not moreso. Beyond my circumstances not allowing for a relationship, it would be very inappropriate.”

“There’sh nothin’ wrong with an age differensh,” the stallion made for another drink, spilling more liquid than what made it into his mouth. “Cookie’s a good five er six years older than me…’sides you seem like a nice pony…” his chin found its way back to the table, this time accompanied by a soft snore.

Taking a lengthy, drawn-out sigh, Barrier turned towards the bar and waved the familiar cerise mare over, mentally noting that she didn’t look bad with an apron on.

“Miss Punch, could I get our bill and a bottle of your strongest liquor?”

“Sure thing, lessee…” Berry sifted around the front pockets of her apron before pulling out several wads of paper. “Here we are.” With a grin, she straightened the receipts out and put them on the table. “I’ll go get your bottle of moonshine ready and you can pay at the counter.”

“Right, let’s get you to your daughter…” With a combination of teeth and magic, Barrier soon had the drunken unicorn slung over his back. A short transaction later, he found himself walking through the darkened streets of Ponyville, the moon only now making its crawl into the sky, lost in thought yet again.

What’s my real reason for avoiding a relationship with her? Despite his denials, Rarity was a great mare. She wasn’t what he would consider terribly appealing by his standards, but he’d likely find very few mares that were. Beyond that, she seemed to be a kind and compassionate pony, in addition to being an Element Bearer. 'Tis not the age gap. Ten years is a bit much, but far from uncommon it would seem.

Even in his time, ten years wasn’t seen as that much of a gap, especially in arranged marriages. So, why ignore the opportunity being all but thrown at you? Once upon a time, you longed for such a commitment.

He’d entertained the thought of settling down with a mare and taking up a more managerial job within the guard; he'd even had a mare in mind. The princess had offered him several opportunities to do so, one of which he had sort-of taken by training the team of cadets. After that had ended so poorly, he didn’t even consider the idea.

“She deserveth better than what I could offer,” Barrier replied to himself aloud; luckily, no pony was around to hear the argument. “I’m a monster.”

You did what you had to, it was war.

“How many of them were children?” Barrier’s voice rose slightly.

When they pick up a sword with the intent to take lives, they’re no longer children.

“That doesn’t mean I’m not accountable for my actions…” Barrier almost growled as the argument with himself picked up steam.

They were the enemy. No griffin is born into innocence.

“Enough, dammit!” Barrier shouted, stopping his walk to take several shaky breaths.

During this moment of stillness, a statement from an old friend found its way to the forefront of his mind; As soon as we stop killing, we’ll have to stop and see what we’ve become. Face it, Barrier, we both know that deep down we’re monsters. Monsters that Equestria needed…but still monsters. “You’ve no idea how right you were, Crackle…”

“Wassat?” The unicorn on Barrier’s back slurred drunkenly, trying to lift his head up for all of three seconds before it fell back down. ‘Giyy up pony…” Hondo drunkenly chuckled, weakly swatting at Barrier’s flank, drawing a snort from Barrier who continued his stride towards Carousel Boutique, thoughts drifting to how appealing the bottle of moonshine had suddenly become.

***

“I’ll see you on my return, Twilight. Thank you again for all of your aide.” Departing the library, Barrier closed his eyes as the door clicked shut behind him. Finally, I’m leaving this land of crazy…

Barrier’s eyes bolted open as a familiar smell tickled his nose. The sight that met him was not Ponyville, but rather the somewhat familiar town of Gallopfrey. The town was as Barrier had last remembered hearing of it, burning and filled with the screams and crying of innocents. Griffins swarmed through the night sky, easily cutting down any resistance they faced.

“Exterminate the guards, but keep their meat in good condition! Come sunrise, we shall feast!” an armored griffin barked out she slashed through three Equestrian guards.

“No no no…” Barrier found his breathing picking up as he started to stumble backwards. ”This isn’t right, this already happened…this is the past!”

“The past has a nasty habit of creeping up on us, hm?” a meancing, teasing voice crept up behind Barrier, sending a chill down the stallion’s spine.

“Thou art dead…” Barrier spoke through clenched jaws as he slowly turned around to face the speaker. “Thou wert lost over a millennium ago, for the better.”

“So were thee, if thou wilt recall,” Sombra stated cooly, horn glowing as five familiar ponies levitated into sight, each tightly bound and some sobbing in agony, no doubt at the mangled stumps of wings and horns.

“Let them go, Sombra, they’re children…” Barrier half-pleaded, half-threatened.

“No, they’re not.” Sombra gave a fanged grin, horn glowing a sickly black as he engulfed the bound ponies in his magic.

Barrier took several steps forward before an invisible barrier halted him.

“Now, they are.” Sombra’s magic faded, revealing five very young and very scared foals, all looking to the unicorn with what he could only interpret as desperation.

“Gods dammit, Sombra, if thou hurtest them, I’ll flay thee alive!” Barrier lunged at the invisible wall, sinking through it almost halfway before it locked up again, sealing the stallion in place.

Sombra half-chuckled, “I have no intention of harming them. An old acquaintance of yours however..." Sombra gave another malicious smile as his horn flared to life once more. For several seconds nothing happened besides Barrier thrashing wildly in a vain attempt to break his bonds.

…ke…u...

Almost immediately, the ground began to shake before a weathered yet massive talon shot up out of the ground, grasping desperately at the dirt around it for several moments before a second talon joined in.

A pale red glow erupted from beneath the dirt as an absolutely massive Griffin rose from the depths, its size rivaled only by that of Princess Celestia.

“Ah, my favorite little plaything.” Its voice was similar to nails dragging along a chalkboard as flesh slowly began to knit itself across the nearly-skeletal frame. “Coming to pay me a visit after you and your ponies failed to retake Gallopfrey?” The harsh voice steadily grew smoother as flesh and magic trailed its way over the griffin’s throat. “And look at this! You’ve even brought me gifts!” The hen took a single stride, closing the distance between her and the foal-aged cadets.

“Dammit Grimhilde, I’ll gut thee!” Barrier roared, his horn igniting and sending off several successive blasts of magic, the griffin seeming to grin wider each time one broke uselessly across her black coat.

Plucking a single foal in her talons, Grimhilde opened her beak impossibly wide and put away the small green earth-pony colt in a single swallow.

wa...e...up….

“Mm,” she cooed, charcoal-feathers splaying outward in a display of pleasure as the slight bulge disappeared down her throat. “I love the way they kick and squirm going down…” she scooped two more up, the purple pegasus colt and the cobalt unicorn colt this time, throwing both back consecutively, moaning suggestively as the flailing bulges disappeared down her gullet.

Barrier couldn’t even reply anymore. All the stallion could do was desperately reach out, surrender evident in his eyes, coupled with guilt and self-loathing.

Finally the griffin grabbed the final two, the blue unicorn filly and the snow white earth pony filly and tossed both of them into her open beak at once. With this swallow, she actively groaned, wings extending to their full length in ecstasy as they went down. “Nothing gets me ready quite like a good snack,”

“How pathetic thou art, Captain.” Sombra locked irides, his green eyes sparkling with satisfaction at the broken stallion caught in his grasp.

“It’s cute, really,” Sombra grinned as his horn flared to life a final time. “To think thee thought thou could stand up to us. To me. Compared to our power, thou art but a mere child.”

Barrier winced as he felt the magic engulf his body, the mad king steadily growing taller as he was shrunk down.

“It’s so…amusing,” Sombra finished with relish as his magic faded away, leaving the now foal-sized Barrier suspended off the ground in the invisible wall. “Thinking thou ever stood a chance.”

The wall vanished, Barrier plummeting like a rock right into the giant griffin’s waiting claws.

“Don’t worry yourself, Captain,” Grimhilde sneered, “your precious cadets are still alive! Even now I can feel them struggling helplessly in my stomach. I can even hear their screams! Would you like to be reunited with them? Oh I promise you, it’ll happen soon.”

Barrier didn’t even flinch as her beak stretched impossibly wide, the light-grey fur of her upper half rippling slightly at the distortion.

The last thing the stallion saw were her golden eyes and her dangling uvula before he was tossed down her throat with a soft gulp. Despite the fact that he no longer desired to fight, his body instinctively thrashed as her throat convulsed around him.

WAKE UP!

***

Barrier began to thrash as he tried to sit upright, the blankets wrapping all the tighter as he did. With a loud thump, the stallion crashed to the floor, the blankets loosening enough for him to gain his freedom in the process.

It was a dream… Barrier’s mind almost instantly began to rationalize the nightmare. Just a dream, it was a dream… the stallion found his back pressed up against the couch. Breathe, it was just a nightmare. Taking shaky breaths, Barrier found his gaze drawn to the unopened bottle of moonshine from the previous night.

I failed them…

Chapter 14

View Online

“And I keep telling you alcohol is not a viable solution to your problems!”

The night’s former silence was broken as the two played tug-of-war with the bottle.

“And I keep telling thee I am an adult and more than capable of a-making decisions for mineself.” Barrier’s tone was low and maintained, a cold anger slowly creeping up in the stallion as Twilight continued to fight him over the bottle, Twilight putting in more visible effort.

“You’re not…” Twilight’s horn flared as she tugged harder at the bottle, sweat beading on her brow.

Right eye twitching slightly, Barrier’s own magic redoubled to counter Twilight’s. You’re fighting over a bottle of booze. Is this how far we’ve fallen?

“Six-thirty in the morning is too early for a drink!” Twilight braced herself against the floor and made to began to try and tug backwards futilely.

In any other time, Barrier would’ve been proud that the mare had so much raw energy, but for now it was only steadily feeding his growing irritation. “Twilight, I will tell thee one last time. Let. Go. Of. My. Bottle.”

It’s not even about the bottle anymore,

“No,” Twilight huffed in response, maintaining her magic.

“Thou wouldst need alcohol if thou dreamt of the deaths of the ponies that meant the most to thee constantly!” Barrier finally snapped, his horn flaring as a second layer of magic flared around the neck of the bottle. Unlike Twilight, whose magic was wrapped around the entire bottle, Barrier’s only had a small hold on the neck, something he knew how to easily use to his advantage. With a sharp sidewards swing of his horn, Barrier ripped the bottle from the mare’s magic, causing her to yelp at the magical backlash and stumble backwards onto her flank.

Gods dammit… Barrier threw the bottle onto the couch and made his way over to the lavender unicorn, frustrations leaving him almost immediately in favor of shame. She tries to prevent you from doing something stupid and you snap on her. Well done, Barrier.

“Why don’t we talk this out over tea?

Tea will not remedy what you just did.

***

“I’m sorry, Twilight.” Barrier sighed as he carefully held the steaming tea-kettle in his magic, filling up a pair of cups. “I’m not accustomed to my juniors trying to decide things for me.”

Twilight didn’t reply immediately, instead taking a moment to sip her tea, lifting it with her hooves rather than magic. “I’m sorry too,” she finally stated as she rested the glass on the table once more. “It wasn’t my place to try and decide for you, but I’m worried about you. You’ve tossed and turned almost every night that you’ve stayed here, and according to Daring Do, you were thrashing around when she woke you up. That’s not normal.” Twilight took a deep breath, not entirely certain if she wanted to cross the bridge he’d built moments earlier. “Earlier you said you lost those you cared about. Maybe talking about them and the good times you had with them would help?”

Barrier mentally berated himself when Twilight winced at her own statement, as if expecting him to lash out in anger. I owe her this much… Taking a deep breath of his own, Barrier finally nodded.

“Very well, but understand, these were very different times.” Stopping to sip his own tea as well as glance at the clock, wouldn’t do to miss his train after all, Barrier began his narrative.

“Things were very different a thousand years ago. Fighting with the griffins was pretty constant and it was getting to the point where we were just throwing bodies at each other. After…something,” Barrier took care not to elaborate on the something, “happened on a mission to the Griffin Empire and the princesses decided to reassign me temporarily. My team and I were good at what we did.”

I say that as if it’s something to be proud of.

“And Princess Luna wanted to try an experiment or something to try and make better soldiers by having them train under ponies with more…field experience than our drill sergeants. So, I got assigned a group of five new recruits ranging from sixteen to seventeen years old.”

Twilight almost made to interrupt but managed to hold her question back, allowing the unicorn to continue the thread.

“I spent the next two and a half years getting to know them, teaching them everything I could to help them survive the inevitable conflict they’d face. I made a mistake and I grew attached.” Barrier snorted angrily, eyes narrowing. “The last portion of their training was cold-weather survival. They had to go on-hoof from Canterlot to the Crystal Empire without any supplies. About a week after they left, a scout reported that a unicorn had turned to dark magic and enslaved the entire empire, killing the guards and raising the corpses to fight for him. We couldn’t do too much about it though. We were fighting the griffins all over the place, we didn’t have the ponies to send to the north. So the princesses and I along with a small group of select ponies headed north to confront him.”

Barrier stopped to sip his tea and take a shaky breath. “A number of the guards -probably the ones that resisted- were speared on poles and put on display as a threat to the population. I never saw my cadets again, and I’ve blamed myself for it ever since.”

Glancing idly at the clock and back at the bottle of booze on the couch, Barrier climbed up from the table. “In any case, I should go make my farewells.” Making his way to the door, horn flaring to life as his sword and saddlebags strapped themselves to his side, he levitated a thin slip of paper onto the table.

“Oh, and before I go...” Barrier turned to face the silent mare, finally drawing her from her thoughts. “Your magic is very impressive, but you’re using it very inefficiently. Instead of trying to maintain a pull on the entire bottle, you should focus on a specific point of it. Efficiency trumps quantity when it comes to magic.” The door tugged shut for all of ten seconds before Barrier returned. “Twilight, is there an event or something planned for today?”

“Uh…no?” Twilight asked, walking over to the door and sticking her head out. It didn’t take long for her to register the same thing Barrier had; it was a gorgeous day out and there wasn’t a pony to be seen. “Spike, keep an eye on the library.” Twilight didn’t actually wait for a response, departing the library, Barrier following closely behind.

“Perhaps some kind of holiday?” Barrier offered, eyes roaming almost nervously.

“Not that I know of.” Twilight stopped in the center of the marketplace, confused. “I don’t understand, where could everypony hav-

“Psst! Twilight! Barrier! Come here!”

Both of the ponies turned to Pinkie Pie, who was motioning them inside of Sugarcube Corner.

“Hurry! Before she gets you!”

“Who?” Barrier hesitantly stepped into the offensively decorated building as a bemused smile wormed its way on to his face. All of the ponies were hiding in the dark.

“Her!” Applejack thrust her hoof towards the window, drawing both Barrier and Twilight’s gaze.

The two stared at the window briefly until Apple Bloom strode over to the pair. “Didja see her, Twilight? Did you see… Zecora?

“Apple Bloom! I told you never to say that name,” Applejack chastised.

“Well, I saw her glance this way…”

“Glance evilly this way!” Pinkie interupted.

“Are you all truly this ignorant?” Barrier finally cut into the conversation.

“You all are acting ridiculous for no good reason,” Twilight stated afterwards.

“No good reason? You call protectin’ yer kin no good reason? Why, as soon as my sister saw Zecora ridin’ into town, she started shakin’ in her lil’ horseshoes.” Applejack began to shake the younger filly slightly.

“Di--d no--t” Apple Bloom managed to reply awkwardly.

“So I swept her up brought her here!” Applejack stated matter-of-factly.

“I walked here myself!”

Barrier turned towards the window and watched the cloaked individual once more. She’s a zebra, Barrier mentally noted as she raised her hoof to scuff at the ground, the zebra digging a small hole. But I’ve not seen a zebra in Ponyville before… Barrier vaguely registered Pinkie Pie singing a song, though at this point his mind filtered her out on reflex.

Barrier glanced down at Apple Bloom as she nosed the door open.

“Shh,” the filly pleaded, staring at the stallion with heart-melting eyes.

“I didn’t see a thing,” Barrier responded softly.

“Tell them, Barrier!” Twilight turned to the stallion.

Well, thou asked.

“You’re all absolute morons.” Twilight winced slightly. “She’s a Zebra. They have a country across the sea. They’re not common, but they’re still as intelligent as you or I, and you would treat them as some sort of monster?”

“She lives in the Everfree Forest!” Applejack argued with a stomp of her hoof. “That forest just ain’t natural… the plants grow,”

“And the animals care for themselves,” Fluttershy chimed in timidly,

“And the clouds move…” Rainbow Dash fell ominously silent before all three of the ponies spoke in unison.

“All on their own!”

My train cannot arrive soon enough.

“I’m sorry to burst your bubbles, but one thousand years ago we had an entire city situated there, built around the Castle of the Two Pony Sisters. It was our Capital City in my day. You’re all making absolute fools of yourselves.”

“Well I heard that Zecora eats hay! Pinkie stated dramatically, drawing an irritated snort from Twilight.

“Pinkie, I eat hay; you eat hay!”

“Yeah, but I heard that she eats hay evilly!”

“Hey!” Applejack suddenly cut in. “Where’s Apple Bloom?”

“She went to greet the zebra,” Barrier stated simply.

“And ya’ll didn’t stop her!” Applejack started towards the door. “I told her to stay put!” Applejack galloped out of the door, Twilight and the others following behind her, all of them almost immediately galloping towards the dark forest in the distance.

Should have brought the moonshine… Barrier mused as he, along with the six mares, galloped into the edge of the forest, all of them sliding to a halt as Apple Bloom turned to face them.

"Apple Bloom! Apple Bloom, you get back here right now!” Applejack started forward, only for a familiar cloaked hood to poke its head out of the darkness.

“Beware! Beware, you pony folk! Those leaves of blue are not a joke!”

“Ya’ll keep yer mumbo-jumbo to yerself, ya hear!”

“Oh brother,” Twilight sighed, pressing a hoof to her face and glancing helplessly at the large unicorn standing next to her.

“Your friends are idiots,” Barrier replied dully. “Well-intentioned, but idiots nonetheless.”

“Beware! Beware!” the zebra warned, amber eyes fading into the blackness as she did so, their gaze shifting downwards at the large patch of blue flowers the ponies were standing in.

“Yeah, back at ya, Zecora! You an' yer lame curse 're the ones who better beware! And you! ” Applejack wheeled around to face Apple Bloom. “Why couldn't ya jus listen ta yer big sister? Who knows what kind o’ nasty curse Zecora could've put on ya?”

“Just like in my song!” Pinkie grinned and opened her mouth to sing.

“You guys, there’s no such thing as curses!” Twilight interrupted, frustration clear in her voice.

“Well, that's interesting to hear coming from Miss Magic Pants herself.” Rainbow Dash took to the air, floating around the group.

Especially since there are such a thing as curses. Barrier sighed, pivoting around. “In any case, I’ve business to take care of before I leave. Applejack, I apologize that I’ll not be staying for the duration of your harvest, but I assure you I’ll find a way to express my gratitude. To the rest of you young ladies… good day.” With careful strides, Barrier departed, leaving both the patch of flowers and the mares behind as he made for town, intent on making sure he was fully packed and saying his goodbyes before his departure that evening.

Chapter 15

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“I’ll see you both upon my return,” Barrier promised the well-kept grey mare before he tugged the door shut with a flare of his horn. Unto the deathtrap once more… Barrier thought to himself as he made his way to the train station. Gods, I’ll be on the train overnight… Barrier realized with a nervous swallow as he hefted himself up onto the platform and moved towards the train that had just began to grind to a halt in the distance. It’s never too late to walk.

“All aboard!” somepony yelled out as the train slid to a halt and the doors pulled open.

One nervous breath later, Barrier found the doors closed behind him. Well, mayhaps a wee too late now…

“Oh, someone’s actually goin’ to Appleloosa?” Another pony had entered the carriage, mild surprise written across his face. “Think yer the first pony in months to visit!”

Barrier quickly took in the stallion’s appearance and cutie mark; he was a seemingly regular Earth Pony sporting a dark-gray mane almost the same shade as Barrier’s coat, and light-gray fur over the rest of his body, all brought together by three green clovers on his flank.

Barrier replied with a simple hum before settling into a booth, the stallion settling in across from him.

“So, what brings you to Appleloosa? Not many ponies go there for recreation.”

“I’m a-travelling all across Equestria. Appleloosa just happened to be the first stop of many, since it’s so far out of the way.”

“Huh, well alrighty then.” The stallion nodded as he spoke before his ears perked up, “Well, I’m Lucky Clover. Nice to meet you,” the stallion reached a hoof across the booth.

“Magic Barrier.” Barrier shook the stallion’s hoof firmly before settling back in the booth and letting the conversation lapse into silence.

“Well,” Lucky started awkwardly, glancing at the setting sun, “I’m gonna turn in for an early night. I’ll see ya in the morning, Barrier.” Lucky climbed up from the booth and departed into the room he’d initially come from.

Sleep doesn’t sound terribly unappealing. 'Twould aid to pass the time spent on this deathtrap…though when it crasheth, I will be less prepared… Even as Barrier mentally argued with himself, his eyelids began to droop. Can I even prepare for something like that beyond a quick reaction time? The stallion’s eyes closed, his lips parting slightly as he subconsciously nestled further into the booth, surrendering to the not-so-soft embrace of sleep.

***

“Captain Barrier,” Princess Luna called out imperiously, the stallion shooting up from his booth and to attention almost immediately, despite the fact that he was clearly still half-asleep, his eyes half-lidded and mane an absolute mess, as well as a thin line of dried drool contrasting his dark coat. “At ease, captain,” Luna said with well-concealed amusement, “We have come to bring thee thy latest assignment. Report unto the training grounds in thirty minutes.”

Barrier simply snapped another salute, brain slowly firing up. No sooner than the princess had departed the empty barracks, the stallion fell backwards onto his bed. A new assignment already? Things must be quite dire. With a yawn, the stallion hefted himself upright and made for the training grounds, stopping only to throw some cool water onto his face from the barracks basin.

“Reporting for duty, Your Highness!” Barrier snapped a sharp salute as the lunar princess turned to face him.

“At ease, captain,” Luna waited for the salute to drop before she continued. “Captain, allow me to introduce you to your newest assignment.” Luna turned her back to the Captain and raised her voice, “Cadets, front and center!” Nearly two-dozen ponies rushed to follow the command, all lining up neatly. “Step forward when We call your name!” Luna ordered, silence being the only reply.

“Cadet Verdant Range, Cadet Swiftsword, Cadet Hat Trick!”

Three ponies stepped out of the line and stood at attention.

What does this have to do with mine assignment? Barrier gazed over the three ponies, mentally committing their appearances to memory. Verdant Range was a dark-green earth pony with a white muzzle and a brown mane and tail. On his flank were three droplets of water. A gardener, mayhaps? Barrier briefly met the stallion’s light-blue eyes before shifting his gaze to the next pony of note, this one being a mare he recognized. Swiftsword. Barrier remembered the unicorn from a sword fighting tournament from some time ago. She looked now as she had back then, minus the fact that her baby-blue coat was rough and her dark, cornflower-blue mane was unkempt and fairly messy. In addition, there were slight bags that were just noticeable under her eyes; the eyes of a cadet, to be certain.

“Cadet Winter Gem, Cadet Iron Forge!” Luna’s voice interrupted the stallion’s thoughts. “Everypony else may return to your exercises! You five!” She turned to face the ponies she had singled out. “Meet your new personal trainer.” Luna turned to face her Captain with a wide grin. “Captain Barrier, meetest thy new cadets.”

What in the ninth circle of Tartarus? “Princess?” Barrier scrunched his muzzle in thought. “With all due respect, th-”

“'Tis not something thou hast a say in, captain,” Luna responded in an almost apologetic voice. “We have seen thy dreams. We know what happened, and we know that thou art in no condition to be sent back into the field at present.”

Barrier’s jaw tightened and his posture stiffened.

“Until Our sister and I feel thou hast recovered sufficiently, thy new assignment will be to personally train these five ponies. In six months time, peradventure We might look about returning thee unto thy regular duties, but until then, thou hast thine orders.” Luna’s tone left no room for negotiation.

“As you command, princess.” Barrier’s tone was that of tired resignation.

“Cadets,” Luna turned towards the group of five ponies, still standing stock-still. “Henceforth, you five are squad nine-eight-two, under the direct command of Captain Magic Barrier. Any inquiries?”

When all five cadets remained silent, Luna nodded in satisfaction and turned towards Barrier, meeting eyes with him. “We look forward to a-spying the results, captain.” Luna turned and strode away with her usual air of regality, leaving Barrier alone in awkward silence with the five.

And just think, we’ve another eight years until you can even consider being discharged. Barrier allowed his gaze to drift to three ponies he’d yet to take in, his gaze falling first to the blonde-maned, white-coated earth pony; Barrier wasn’t sure why, but something about her seemed familiar. Meeting her green-eyes briefly, he allowed his gaze to shift towards her right side, his irides resting on the apple cutie mark. ...she’s a relative of Braeburn’s. I wager she’ll be interesting to train.

Next, he took in the blue-coated unicorn with the two-toned silver mane, noting the stallion’s well-built forelegs. Craning his head to the side once more, Barrier inwardly groaned. She’s given me a weaponsmith. The stallion’s cutie-mark was a pair of swords neatly crossed over a flame. Forsoothly, his talents would be better used elsewhere.

Lastly, Barrier’s gaze fell to fifth and final pony deposited into his care; a purple pegasus with a slicked-back indigo mane and matching tail and a pair of dark-blue eyes that seemed to twinkle with amusement. Shifting his gaze to check the stallion’s cutie-mark, Barrier was interrupted when the stallion spoke.

“You’ll have to buy me dinner first if you want my flank, Cap’n,” Hat Trick stated with a grin.

Fantastic, my recruits are a team of teenagers with at least one having an attitude. I’ll beat that out of him soon enough. Barrier took a deep, very audible breath through his nostrils. “Cadet Range, you all sleep exactly eight hours a night, correct?”

“Yes, sir, barring night-time exercises,” Verdant respond quickly.

“Well then, all of you can say thanks unto Cadet Hat Trick, because for the next week you get five hours of sleep. What will the three extra hours go to, you may ask? Well, once again, quoth your thanks unto Cadet Hat Trick. You’ll get to run extra laps around the castle.”

The grin on the pegasus’s face faded almost immediately.

“That aside, congratulations, recruits. The princess has volunteered you all to be put through Tartarus, and by the gods,” Barrier’s expression shifted, a slight grin settling on his muzzle, “I intend to deliver.”

***

Barrier was jolted awake as the train bounced slightly, his horn flaring up in anticipation to teleport anywhere besides the train. There is no way these monstrosities are safe. Magic fading, Barrier nestled into the booth once more as he closed his eyes once more, too tired to consider that the booth was suddenly less cramped than before.

Rather, he was busy thinking back to the dream he’d been having. They were so innocent, Barrier chuckled to himself as he thought back to the dream and the first week that had followed as well as the opinions the members of his own team had on the situation. A dull and strangely feminine chuckle later, Barrier lapsed back into a sleep, his dreams bringing the memories to life once more.

***

“Twelve bits sayeth that at least two o' thy cadets will be fornicating with each other in under two weeks.”

Less than thirty seconds after Barrier had informed his team of the indefinite hiatus, all five of them had began to make bets and predictions about Barrier and his new team.

“I’ll take the bet.” The tan pegasus replied with a distinct Gallopfreyan accent. “And, I’ll also bet thee that in under a month, Barrier will be a-fornificating with one o' the cadets.” The pegasus’ smile widened when she and Braeburn both shared a hoof-shake on their respective bets.

“Oh, would you two grow up?” Barrier huffed as he plopped angrily onto the bed.

“No,” both of the ponies replied at the same time.

“Is it really that bad, though?” an alabaster-unicorn asked, lazily turning his head towards his fellow unicorn, gun-metal grey ponytail flailing as he did so. “We could all use the break. Thou haven’t been a-sleeping hardly at all since it happened. Ember, Brae, and myself still don’t know what in Tartarus happened to cause it, and Flash hasn’t left his children’s sides for a week. He actually got permission to sit in the classrooms with them during their schooling. Besides that, we’re not getting any younger. I think it’s a good idea for you to be helping the next generation.” His piece said, the unicorn turned back towards his book.

“Mayhaps thou art right, Styx…” Barrier sighed as he rolled onto his back. “After what happened…honestly, I don’t know if I can keep a-doing this anyways. Peradventure I should ask the princess about being discharged early.”

“We can’t help ya if you don’t tell us what’s bothering you.” The tan mare joined the conversation, flapping her wings once and propelling herself onto Barrier’s bed, bouncing the stallion slightly. “So, wanna talk about?”

Barrier remained silent, paying the mare no mind.

“Barrrieeer,” she started in an almost sing-song voice. “If ya talk to us about it and let us help, ya can help me wash my wings in the bath…”

“We killed a child. A griffin cub…” Barrier replied with a flare of his horn that tugged Ember into his side, causing her to give a slight squeak before the unicorn wrapped his hooves around her, face buried in her shoulder as the stallion continued to speak, tone muffled by his current living pillow. “We thought it was a guard that found us. I just acted on impulse when I saw his shadow and… I put a dagger through his throat. He couldn’t have been more than five or six years old…he could not have been any older than my niece, and I killed him.”

Killed him slowly no less. Barrier’s mind stated helpfully, reminding him of the griffin had slowly perished.

“All I could do was hold his beak shut while he tried to cry out…I held him to the ground, muted until he stopped breathing.” Barrier choked slightly.

“Ah jeez,” Ember stopped squirming, resting her own hooves over the stallion’s shoulders. “Ya did what you had to, Barrier. How many ponies do ya think you saved by taking out his father?”

“To say nothing of the kind of life he’d have if he were left without his father,” the white unicorn snapped his book shut. “I think what Cac…”

***

Barrier shot upright with his horn primed as the train bounced him awake for the second time. Taking a calming breath, Barrier hefted himself from the booth, his internal clock informing him morning had come.

“Mornin’ Barrie…” Lucky’s voice died in his throat as he saw the unicorn stretching, back arched like a cat to elicit several satisfying pops.

“Good morning, Lucky,” Barrier answered almost on reflex. “Is there a bathroom on the train?”

“Uh, right there…” Lucky fell into silent confusion again as he pointed to a nearby door.

Barrier hummed his thanks as he headed through the door that Lucky’s hoof had been pointing out.

Lucky simply stood there, dumbstruck for nearly a full minute before a very feminine yell sounded through the train, followed by several less feminine swears and topped by a unicorn mare all but throwing the bathroom door open and muttering angrily as she stalked over to the booth.

“Faust curse it, this is the second time this has happened…blasted blue flowers…” Barrier opened her mouth to continue, but the screeching of the train's brakes broke her from her frustrations and drew her attention to the window.

“At least nopony here knows…”

Lucky swallowed; Barrier’s head whipped around to stare at him. “Thou. tellst. nopony. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am…sir, uh…” Lucky chuckled nervously.

Gods, I hope I don’t go into heat again…

Chapter 16

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For some reason, I sincerely doubt this town hath a cure for poison joke… Barrier thought idly to herself as she stepped of of the train, having allowed Lucky Clover to depart first. I’ll likely have to return to the madness that is Ponyville. Barrier’s tail twitched irritably. At least I know that it could be worse.

“Welcome ta AAAAAAAAppleeeoooosaaaa!”

“Case in point,” Barrier muttered irritably while looking at the pony who bore an uncanny resemblance to one of her former comrades. “Tellest me, stallion, where would I find alcohol in this town?”

“Well, the saloon in town serves liquor all day, but ain’t it a little early in the mornin’ fer booze, little lady?”

“Oh, shut up, Braeburn,” Barrier muttered on reflex as she departed the platform.

“Well ya don’t need to be ru…” the stallion trailed off, his voice descending into confusion. “Now, hold on there an apple-pickin' minute,” the stallion cut Barrier off, walking in front of her. “How’d ya know mah name? Ah never introduced mahself.”

Oh gods, thou art truly Braeburn… Barrier took a deep breath before slowly letting it out. “Mine … My apologies. Today has been…difficult, to be certain.”

“Well, alrighty then.” Braeburn nodded in understanding. “So how’d ya know my name?”

“I knew a pony a very long time ago with that name. Your appearance and behaviour is…similar to him. I mostly called you that on reflex. That your name is Braeburn is pure chance,” Barrier answered smoothly.

“Well, if ya need some help 'round these parts, Ah’d be glad ta help a pretty mare like yerself,” the stallion offered with a slight smile.

Gods, this is disconcerting, Barrier thought to herself, the awkward scenario of one of his best friends flirting with her…him setting itself in his mind. He’s not the same stallion and you’re currently a mare, Barrier reasoned before she verbally replied, “I’m not actually a mare, Braeburn. My current form is due to an accident involving a cursed plant. Normally, I’m a rather large stallion.”

Braeburn stood in stunned surprise for a brief moment before finally responding, “That don’t bother me none. Now, how about Ah show you around town? After all, there’s more ta ‘Aaaaaaappleloosa!’ than jus the saloon.”

Well, 'tis what I came here to do, I suppose a tour guide won’t hurt. “Very well, Braeburn, you lead, and I’ll follow.”

***

“And these 'ere are our horse-drawn carriages!” Braeburn thrust a hoof towards the carriages in question.

“And pray tell, what purpose do they serve?” Barrier asked, raising her eyebrow.

“They’ll be fer tourists, once we've some comin' in. We’re still a right small town right now though.”

“Fair enough, I suppose.” A wasted investment I imagine.

“Now, come on, and Ah’ll show ya the apple orchards. The trees ain’t quite ready ta bare fruit yet, but jus a few more months an' they’ll be ready ta feed the whole town.”

“I’m glad that the Apples managed to become successful farmers,” Barrier commented almost absentmindedly, eyes taking in the trees, a strange melancholy settling over him as he noticed small flower-buds here and there. “I knew at least one pony who was positive that the venture would end in failure.”

Braeburn stopped and turned to face the mare in curiosity. “Waddya mean by end in failure? The Apple family’ve been farmers as long as anypony can 'member.”

“Before your family were farmers, they were guards, same as mine,” Barrier explained. “Winter Gem was the youngest of the Apple family to join the guard that generation, following Braeburn Apple. I remember the Braeburn I knew talking about an argument they had regarding farming versus being a guard or continuing to run the trading post they had. Braeburn thought the family should shift to something other than the tradition of being a royal guard.” Can’t really blame him. she thought bitterly before continuing, “And Winter Gem thought he was an utter fool….” Barrier took a shaky breath all of a sudden. “That was the last time they saw each other, now that I think about it. Winter Gem perished in the line of duty before they had a chance to reconcile.” And it’s all my fault.

“Er…not ta be rude or anything, but how do ya know all that?”

“I’m far older than I appear.”

“Er, how old are ya? Ya don’t look that much older than me, and Ah know that mah great grandpappy was a farmer, so…”

“Really Braeburn, asking a lady her age?” Barrier let a slight smile drift onto her face, the depression of his realization fading into the background for the time being.

“Er, uh…” Braeburn chuckled nervously, “Ah didn’t me-”

“Relax, Braeburn, I was a stallion long before I was a mare.” Gods, that is awkward to say… “And to answer your question, you heard about the return of Princess Luna after one-thousand years, correct?”

Braeburn nodded.

“I was…guarding her for the one-thousand years she was away. I’m one-thousand and thirty-six years old.” Barrier waited several short seconds for the stallion to respond; when no response was forthcoming, he continued. “I wear my years quite well, I think. Now, how about that saloon you mentioned?”

***

Barrier groaned in relief as the burn of the whiskey warmly raced down her throat and settled in her stomach. That hit the spot… Barrier stared at the empty glass. “Bartender, another glass please,” Barrier called out to the blue-maned stallion behind the counter, receiving the requested drink in short order and throwing the drink back almost immediately. It was worth the visit here if only for the whiskey. Barrier became aware of a pony heading towards him. This should be good…

“Ya know,” the stallion started, “Yer the best-lookin’ thing in the bar.” The stallion dropped down onto the seat next to Barrier, “Bet ya’d look even better in mah bedroom.”

“And I think your head would look good on the mantle of a griffin fireplace,” Barrier responded with clear disinterest, swallowing the rest of his drink and waving it at the bartender who, like with the past four, handed another eight ounces of the golden nectar to the unicorn mare.

“Aw, don’t be like that.” The stallion smiled, now snaking a limb casually over her shoulders. “I’m just tryin’ to be extra friendly…”

“Don’t touch me,” Barrier responded flatly, shrugging the stallion’s leg off.

“Ooh, you’re a feisty one.” The stallion grinned lasciviously.

Only now did Barrier turn to face the dark-blue stallion that couldn’t seem to take no for an answer. Taking a slow breath to try and clear his alcohol-addled mind, Barrier stared into the stallion’s navy-blue eyes and spoke slowly, carefully enunciating his words.

“I am not interested in you, and ask you kindly to leave. Me. Alone.” Barrier turned back to her drink, tossing it back in one swallow and slamming a stack of bits on the bar with her magic. “Thanks, barkeep,” Barrier nodded to the stallion that had been feeding the bad-decision segment of her inhibitions for the last hour. With a huff, she climbed off of the bar stool and turned towards the door, only to feel something tug on her tail.

“Now, hold on,” the stallion mumbled through a mouthful of tail, “Ah wasn’t done y-”

Barrier tilted forward and threw both of her back legs out, hitting the pony in the chest with a resounding crack that sent him clear over the bar and into another pair of ponies, sending their drinks and meals tumbling to the floor.

That was probably a bad idea. Barrier thought hazily to herself before she sat back down at the bar and waved at the bar tender again. “I changed my mind. Can I get another couple of glasses? I don’t thin-” Barrier’s head snapped forward as a glass collided with it, drawing her attention to the dining area where all hell had broken loose, more specifically to the dark-blue pegasus that she’d sent flying across the room who was staring at her, wide-eyed that the bottle had done little more than piss the mare off.

“Clear thy schedule, pegasus. Thou hath just signed thyself into the infirmary.”

***

“We don’t know how it started,” Braeburn explained, wincing as Thunder Cracker, a dark-blue pegasus who had only moved into town a few months ago, came sailing through the window, skidding to a halt just in front of the pair, his muzzle clearly broken and a wing bent at an odd angle.

“Cobalt, think y'all can handle it?” a light-brown stallion with a silver star and an impressive mustache asked, walking over to Thunder Cracker. “Ah reckon Thunder 'ere needs a trip ta the doc.”

“I can handle it,” a deep voice replied with a sigh. “Somepony must’ve spilled their damn drink or something…” The large thestral stepped towards the saloon while muttering. “A bar-fight and it isn’t even friggin’ noon yet…” With a flick of the muzzle, the muscular batpony threw the doors open…just in time to see a charcoal-grey mare drop Bushel with an uppercut that threw the stallion to his back with a pained grunt.

“That’s enough of that!” Cobalt yelled out, slamming a hoof into the floorboard, halting the majority of the movement in the saloon with the resounding crack from where the hoof had broken through the floorboard.

Barrier, like everypony else, stopped what she was doing to see the newest arrival. A thestral. Barrier shook her head in a futile effort to clear the the blur up.

“Now, who started this mess?”

The thestral waited all of three seconds before her gaze followed the half-dozen hooves to the large unicorn mare, gazing at her with a disturbing intensity.

“Ma’am, I’m gonna have to ask you to come with me.”

Barrier blinked and shook her head again, moving forward with a stable gait that surprised the charcoal unicorn. The dregs of adrenaline, perhaps.

Turning towards the door, Cobalt nosed it open, stepping out into the noonday heat, one drunken unicorn following closely behind.

“Did everythin’ go okay, Miss Lancer?”

“Miss?” Barrier asked with a slight slur, her voice betraying her surprise. “Huh. Just when you thought you’ve seen it all, something comes along to surprise you.”

Braeburn winced; Cobalt took a deep breath, slowly exhaling it as more of a growl.

“This the pony that was causin’ the ruckus?”

Barrier and Cobalt both turned around to face the newest addition to their group, the returning sheriff.

“This is her, sir. How’s Thunder Cracker doing?”

“He’ll be okay, but he won’t be able to fly fer a couple of months.”

“Thunder Cracker? That the dark-blue pegasus?” Barrier asked with a surprising amount of venom.

“That’s him.” The sheriff walked over to the unicorn mare. “He said he wanted to sue ya fer his medical expenses.” As he spoke, the stallion fished around his bags, returning to face Barrier with a ring in his mouth.

“Might wanna use a military-grade inhibitor, Sheriff,” Cobalt interjected, causing Barrier to snort.

“And why’s that, bat?”

“That’s Miss Cobalt Lancer to you,” the giant of a thestral mare replied with a narrowed gaze.

“No, it isn’t,” Barrier replied with clear amusement as the sheriff fished another ring out of his bags, this one covered in runes and tiny rubies.

“Don’t disrespect mah deputy,” the sheriff warned with a flat tone as Barrier tilted her head forward, allowing the ring to be affixed to her horn.

“Your deputy will have to earn my respect, same as you sheriff, and being a thestral, she’s gonna have a much harder time of it.”

Cobalt frowned but didn’t respond, instead taking the time to digest the unicorn’s words. Most ponies didn’t know the proper term for them -they were usually just referred to as bat-ponies, or, as a racial slur, bats. Most ponies weren’t even really aware of their existence, much less had reason to be so hostile.

The sheriff only grunted in reply, tugging Barrier forward. “Come on. Some time in lockup will help ya’ clear yer head. Why dontcha take ‘er away, Cobalt?”

“Sure thing, Sheriff…” Cobalt put a foreleg over the mare’s shoulder and started to move her towards the town jail, briefly pausing to address Braeburn.

“So Braeburn, ya always seem to know the new ponies in town,”

“Erm yeah?” Braeburn replied, moving to follow the intimidating thestral and prisoner.

“Anything you can tell me about that mare?”

“Er, well. She’s actually a stallion...” Braeburn started.

Chapter 17

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“You have a lot of charges, you know,” Cobalt called out to the unicorn before she even pushed the door to the small jailhouse open, morning sun silhouetting the mare. “And not just for the assault that started the brawl. The saloon is going to end up sueing you for the food, drinks, and furniture damaged. Thunder Cracker will probably sue you for the medical bill and for the time he’ll have to take off of work…I hope you didn’t plan on leaving any time soon, no telling how long it’ll take to work all these bits off.”

Barrier snorted in amusement. “It won’t take anything to work it off. I’ll pay the saloon for the damages, but Thunder Cracker doesn’t have any case to sue me. He started the fight when he grabbed my tail and tried to prevent me from leaving. I defended myself and everything after that was circumstance.”

“You almost crippled Thunder Cracker. Self-defense will only get you so far,” Cobalt stated, her tone not quite argumentative.

“Self-defense will get me far enough. Thunder Cracker won’t even take it to court if I tell the ponies around town that he got hurt after trying to physically stop a mare from leaving.”

“That’d just get you a slander and defamation charge.”

Barrier snorted once more, a slight smile. “Let’s cut the crap, bat, are you here to charge me? I can’t imagine you’re able to hold me very long without doing so. Besides that, if you really want to make a big deal out of this, Princess Luna owes me a favor and I’d wager she could make this all go away.” After what she did to me that night at the castle, she owes me several favors…

“Ponies like you sicken me.” Cobalt Lancer frowned in irritation. “Thinking you can avoid justice by calling in a favour to someone powerful. You’re pathetic.”

A thin smile split Barrier’s muzzle. “Well, I guess we’re even then. Gods know I’m not terribly fond of you bats.”

“We’re not bats, dammit!” Cobalt half-growled out. “What in Tartarus is your problem with thestrals?”

“Not much aside from the part where your race betrayed Equestria and slaughtered hundreds if not thousands of innocents.” Barrier spoke with well-masked disgust, voice coming off as almost cheery.

“That was over a thousand years ago!” Cobalt shot back, “And the thestrals were hunted to near extinction by a mad-stallion before Celestia herself intervened! He exterminated almost ninety-percent of the entire thestral population! Captain Sentry was a genocidal monster!”

Outwardly, Barrier’s expression became flat and stoic; inwardly, she winced. Flash would never go that far.

“I suppose we shouldn’t worry about the thestrals turning traitor again then, do we?”

Cobalt stalked towards the bars, her eyes hard. “Mares, stallions, foals. None of it mattered to him. In his eyes, we were all guilty. To him, our entire species needed to die.”

Flash, what in blazes happened to you? Barrier maintained her plain, blank expression. “I don’t recall that in any of the historical texts I read since my return.”

It was Cobalt’s turn to snort. “Of course not. That era had Grimhilde LeGrande, Nightmare Moon and King Sombra. Flash Sentry and what happened to the thestrals wasn’t even an afterthought.” Cobalt Lancer huffed. “Some history books portray him as a bloody hero! Did the traitors deserve to die? I’d say so. Did the countless ones that had nothing to do with the betrayal have to die? Tartarus no!” She turned to glare at a brick wall, doing everything she could to keep from punching through it.

“You seem to be well-versed with history,” Barrier noted, trying to shift the subject; while she didn’t approve of what Flash had apparently done, the stallion was still her best friend. It wasn’t like she could really judge the stallion anyways; she hadn’t been there.

“Just military history,” Cobalt replied with a tired sigh. “I want to join the guard. I want to inspire young thestrals to see that we don’t have to be ponies...” Cobalt let another sigh escape her, seemingly far more relaxed. “I want them to see that we don’t have to be ponies that nopony cares about. I want them to see that we can be great heroes. I want us to be known all across Equestria. But that’s not an easy thing to do with history being written like it is. Nopony sees us as the victims of a maniac, everypony just sees the traitors.”

“If you want to be a hero, you’re going into the wrong profession.” Barrier’s neutral facade broke with a hollow laugh escaping her throat. “None of the guards were heroes back during the Griffin Wars or the Nightmare Moon incident. Monsters might be a more fitting term.”

“What the hay do you know about being a guard? You didn’t even know about Captain Sentry. By the looks of things so far, you’re just a washed up drunk.”

“I know more about being a guard of that era than anypony alive,” Barrier spoke with surprising intensity “save the princesses mayhaps.” Barrier sighed and fell back onto the bench, her shoulders suddenly feeling much heavier. “And I know more about Flash Sentry than anypony living or deceased. For example, I know he was wedded in the spring to Sergeant Fleetfeather. I also know he had six foals, his youngest a-being a filly named Wind Whistler. I also know both his wife and youngest daughter perished when King Sombra took over the Crystal Empire. He preferred asparagus to celery and absolutely detested carrots.” The mare half-sobbed, half-chuckled. “I never knew such a darkness had taken hold of him. I should have been there for him…” You couldn’t even help your bestfriend.

Cobalt didn’t reply immediately, instead mentally noting the slight tears working their way down the mare’s cheeks.

“I think I’m gonna have the doctor check you for a head injury…”

“Whatever,” Barrier rolled over, turning her back to the thestral. “Just leave me alone, Cobalt… and if it’s not too much, could thou bringest me some stationery? I need to scrawl the princess a letter. I wonder what other atrocities I missed out on in mine absence.” How else I failed.

“Uh…” Cobalt was at a slight loss actually from being addressed by name. “Well, you’re legally allowed one letter. I’ll see what I can scrounge up.”

The unicorn mare didn’t respond, instead just holding her pillow closer.

***

Barrier swallowed heavily, eyes resting on the gravestone in front of him. “Why didst thou do it, Flash?” The stallion addressed the grave, hoof reaching out to trail over the letters. “I suppose I’ll never know, will I?” Barrier fell backwards onto the grass, glancing up at the foggy night sky. “Everypony got to move on, yet I remain. The last of the Clippers.”

“Remember, Magic Barrier, no one is truly gone as long as they are remembered.”

Barrier shot upright, whipping around to face a ghostly apparition of two pink-maned ponies with matching powder-blue coats and a brilliant orange pegasus smiling at him, flanked by five familiar cadets. Anything the stallion had intended to say died in his throat.

“I am certain,” the seven ponies and filly all saluted, the filly tumbling forward as she unbalanced herself in her eagerness, “that they are thankful that you honor their memory.”

“Princess Luna,” Barrier finally bowed with a choked breath, the apparitions fading.

“Rise, Barrier. We believe our relationship is a bit beyond such formalities at this point.” Luna gripped the stallion’s shoulder, hefting him upright.

“Er...” Barrier blushed slightly. “Of course.” After a moment of awkward silence, Barrier turned to the gravestone once again. “I’ll never know what drove him to do what he did…”

“'Twas several things according to our sister,” Luna began, drawing the unicorn’s attention immediately.

“Was I one of them?”

Luna didn’t reply immediately, drawing a sigh from the smaller pony. “Thou wert apparently a factor in his decision, but not the only one. We spoke with Our sister shortly after Our return regarding the thestrals, and she explained Captain Sentry’s decisions. In addition to thee ‘perishing,’ thy second pegasus had left the guard within the two weeks that followed. She was no longer there to consult with him, and she died within a year.”

Ember. Barrier felt a pang of sadness in his chest; he hadn’t thought of her since his return. Of everypony he’d lost, she was the worst…and he’d forgotten her.

“Did the princess have any specifics on how she passed?” Barrier knew better than to think she was bested in a fair fight; the mare was hooves down the best combatant in the unit.

“We do not know the specifics, only that she was discharged from the guard shortly after Our banishment and died due to medical complications.” Luna let the silence reign for a moment before continuing. “That aside, from what we understand, after thy disappearance, Captain Sentry…lost himself unto a rage. According to Our sister, he greatly regretted his decision in the years that followed.”

“He’d be appalled if he knew that it was completely left out of history.” Barrier half-smiled.

“Not completely. There are some that damn him as a villain on par with King Sombra. Though not as common, they do exist.”

Barrier didn’t reply, instead reaching out to drag his hoof across the grave once again.

“So,” Luna tried to shift the conversation to something lighter. “How is thy vacation thus far?”

“Well, I’m in jail, so there’s that.”

“Again?” Amusement danced in Luna’s eyes. “What for this time? Are there griffins a-living in Appleloosa?”

“…no,” Barrier hesitated slightly, “'Tis a…wait, how do thou knowest where I am?”

“Our sister is following you to a small extent,” Luna admitted freely. “Thou art a product of a very different age, same as Us, except We are not travelling from town to town. We believe the phrase is ‘better safe than sorry.’ So, why art thou in jail this time?”

“I got drunk and started a brawl in the saloon.” Barrier groaned as Luna started to grin. “That aside,” the stallion tried to cut the subject off as quick as he could, “could thou checkest in on a thestral here in Appleloosa? He…er, she, seemed a little upset earlier today. Maybe offer her a spot in the guard? She hath potential. Forsoothly, she remindeth me of mineself when I first joined.”

Luna raised an eyebrow in surprise. “A pony recommended by thee? A thestral no less.” Luna smiled. “We shall see, but before that,” Luna’s grin returned in full force, “how didst this brawl start? Didst thou drunkenly proclaim that thou would swive with somepony’s dam?”

Barrier blushed and scuffed the ground, muttering softly. “A stallion tried 'a-picking me up'.”

Luna’s ears twitched, the low tone doing nothing to deter her hearing as her grin threatened to split her face.

“Because I… ran through poison joke yesterday…”

Luna’s muzzle finally failed her, giving away to a burst of giggles; Barrier could feel his image drifting to that of his real-world counterpart within the dreamscape.

“Just great,” the now-mare huffed with a much more feminine voice. “Anyways, can thou maybe seest about a-getting her a place in the guard?”

Luna struggled to stop the waves of laughter, “Didst, didst thou…” the mare heaved for air, “didst thou wish to embrace thy feminine side once more?”

“Oh for Zacherle’s sake…” Barrier resigned himself to waiting for the Lunar Diarch to collect herself.

Five long minutes later…

Luna, mostly having regained herself, finally stood upright, still grinning with the occasional twitch of contained amusement. “Dost thou require a stallion to sate thine urges?” Luna’s body shifted, filling out with more defined muscle and gaining an additional organ. “We would be more than willing to provide for thee…” the mare-turned-stallion finished with a sultry gaze.

“Can thou dost me the favor or not?” Barrier asked, mentally swearing as she fought to keep her tail from flagging. “And for the love of all under Faust, can you put that monstrosity away?!” She thrust a hoof vaguely at Princess Luna’s newest addition.

“Oh come now, Barrier, there’s nothing wrong with having some merriment. We must entertain ourselves somehow, since thou art not currently here to…” the alicorn licked his lips, “sate our free time.”

“Princess, I’m just tired.” Barrier shifted onto his haunches to definitively stop his traitorous tail. “Canest thou please just do me this favor an-” Barrier winced as a sudden wave of lightheadedness took him over.

“Ah, it appeareth thou art waking up.” Luna smiled warmly all of a sudden, “We shall see what we can do, Captain. We shall prepare an antidote for thine ailment…” her manure-eating grin returned almost immediately. “But thou wilt have to a-come hither to Canterlot to fetch it.”

Shit.

***

Barrier groaned at the sound of the cell door opening, letting the afternoon light filter in. How long was I out? It had been morning when she’d fallen asleep.

“Come on,” Cobalt grunted, nosing the door further open. “You’re staying in here until you sober up.”

“Cmmon…” a voice slurred drunkenly from Cobalt’s back. “I jus beatted up a tiger. You shuld at least…” the mare heaved, causing Cobalt to quickly whip the cell-door open and toss the pegasus inside. “least gimme a pillo…oh hey Barrier,” Daring grinned dumbly. “I musta drunk wayyyy...” the mare hiccupped, “...more than I thought.” The pegasus grinned a lascivious smile. “You look like a really perty mare…” Daring made to stumble forward, her front legs immediately sending her tumbling forward with a grunt, followed by a snore.

“So should I ask what she’s in for?” Barrier glanced at Cobalt, who was quickly scribbling something down at the desk.

“Public intoxication,” Cobalt commented idly. “I should probably see if throwing up on an officer counts as assault too, but before that I need a shower…and some mouthwash.” Cobalt Lancer shivered. “Crazy bitch thought I was a stallion and stuck her tongue down my throat right before she threw up again.”

“You have my condolences.” Despite the sympathetic tone, Barrier wore a smile.

Chapter 18

View Online

“How dost thou feel?”

Daring groaned in agony as she cracked her eyes open to reply to the mare across from her. “I’ve got a headache from Tartarus…”

“I’m sorry to hear that, but is there any chance thou couldst release me?” As she wiggled futilely in place, the mare became aware of the jailhouse door opening. “Daring, release me this instant!” Barrier tried to shift once more.

“Stop movin’ pillow, yer’ makin my head hurt…” the mare’s grip tightened.

“Maybe I should give you two some alone time.”

“Cobalt,” Barrier huffed out with no trace of amusement to be found.

“I hear that unicorns do some seriously freaky stuff with their horns when bored,” the thestral mare continued, however, her voice was filled with amusement.

“Art… Are you going to get this mare off of me or no-” Barrier suddenly squealed as a wave of cold water washed over Daring Do, and by extent, her as well.

With a loud swear, the pegasus mare shot upright, heaving for air as her eyes slowly fixated on the thestral.

“Oh don’t look at me like that, you needed a bath.” Cobalt moved over towards the desk. “Give me a sec and I’ll get your paperwork.”

“Damn right you will, and when you do I’m go…” Daring trailed off as a pencil fell to the ground and rolled under the desk, making the thestral bend over to try and retrieve it. “Holy crap, you’re a mare!”

Barrier snorted from her spot on the bed, finally drawing Daring’s attention.

“Great,” Barrier pressed a hoof to her face, “Here it cometh…” the stallion-turned-mare twirled her hoof. “Gost ahead, getteth it out of thy system.”

“Poison joke, huh?” Daring replied with an understanding nod. “That sucks.”

Barrier didn’t reply immediately, as she was still dumbfounded that Daring hadn’t had the same reaction as Princess Luna.

“Gotta say,” Daring approached the wet mare, craning her neck around to look at Barrier’s side and flank. “You make for a good-looking mare.”

Great, here come the jokes. “Thou knowest about poison joke?”

“Uh, duh?” The mare sounded almost offended. “I travel all around the world all the time. Can’t even count how many run-ins I’ve had with it. It makes me grow a fifth leg, if you know what I mean.” The earlier grin returned. “Maybe I can pick some up and we’ll experiment, huh?”

“No,” Barrier replied flatly before she suddenly began to whip her mane and shoulders, flinging the bulk of the water onto the pegasus.

“Alright, Miss Do. You’re free to go as long as you don’t get into anymore drunken shenanigans. Normally, I’d charge you with assault as well, but that’d take too long and I need to talk to the good Captain here.” Her gaze fixated on the unicorn mare as she approached the cell-door with a keyring in her mouth.

“Oh?” Daring raised an eyebrow curiously. “What could you possibly need to talk to this clown about?” She lazily pointed at the damp mare, paying no attention to her own dripping coat.

“None of your business.” Cobalt nosed the cell-door shut. “You’re free to go.”

“How long is Barrier gonna be locked up here?” Daring sat down by the door.

“She’ll be free to go as soon as I’m done talking to her and she either pays reparations or serves community service.”

“Then, I’ll just wait right here for him. Her. It. Whatever the Tartarus it qualifies as.”

“It’s a private conversation,” Cobalt reiterated with a slight bite in her voice, as her patience with the pegasus began to wear thin.

“Consider me her attorney, then. I don’t think Barrier’s too familiar with the laws these days, and nopony but me is gonna take advantage of that.”

Barrier’s muzzle twitched, half in annoyance and half in amusement. “'Tis alright, Daring. I don’t think she wanteth to discuss the legalities of me a-starting a brawl right now. No, I believe she hath something more personal on the mind. Isn’t that right, Miss Lancer?” Barrier’s tone hardened towards the end, becoming firmer and more authoritative.

The thestral didn’t reply.

“Go ahead and wait for me at the saloon, Daring. I’ll meet you there when I’m done and we can have a drink.”

Daring glanced hesitantly between the thestral and unicorn before finally nodding. “Alright, horn-head, but if you don’t show up in a few hours I’ll come back for ya.”

Barrier simply nodded in response, concealing her surprise at the mare’s reply. Daring hadn’t struck her as particularly protective in their previous encounters. Was it normal to be that protective of an acquaintance in this day and age? What qualifies as more than acquaintances?

“So, Princess Luna visited me in a dream last night,” Cobalt started as soon as the door had clicked shut behind Daring.

“And?” Barrier shifted focus from her rumination to the thestral.

“And she explained some things.” Cobalt took a steadying breath and sat down, locking eyes with the unicorn, a strange mixture of frustration and gratitude seeming to fight for individual dominance behind her gaze.

“Just get to the point, I’d like to be out of here sooner rather than later.” Barrier tapped a hoof on the wooden floor impatiently.

“Okay, fine. I’m sorry for thinking you were completely insane,” Cobalt raised her voice slightly. “And…thanks for what you said about me. I think.” The thestral opened the cell-door once more, stepping back as Barrier walked out.

Barrier coughed uncomfortably. “Was hoping Princess Luna would leave that part out.”

“One thing bothers me, though.” Cobalt reared up, balancing herself on Barrier’s shoulders as she began to carefully remove the inhibitor ring. “Yesterday, you said something about the guard being monsters. I didn’t give it any thought then on account of you seemingly being out of your mind.” The inhibitor clicked and slid free of the horn.

“What about it?”

“Did you mean it?” Cobalt went back to all fours and approached the desk again, depositing the inhibitor in the drawer and picking a lengthy pink slip out.

“To some degree, yes.” Barrier took the pink slip in her magic, carefully going over it as her mind worked doubly hard to decipher the text. “Times were different back then. We were hailed as heroes to the ponies that weren’t fighting, but I doubt too many of us felt that way. There are no heroes in war. The only heroes one would find were either dead or in prison.”

“You were a hero, weren’t you?” Cobalt asked, even though she already had a good idea as to what her response would be.

“I was just a pony that was good at what he did: killing.” Barrier levitated her saddlebags from where they had been hung after her arrest onto her back. “Here’s the fee for spending the night here,” Barrier removed a heavy bag of bits from her saddlebags, taking several of the shiny coins out and depositing them on the table with a slight ping. “Don’t expect a tip, though. Wasn’t exactly five-star service.” With a final flare of magic, the pink slip of paper folded itself up and fell into the bags. “I noticed Thunder Cracker’s hospital bills weren’t on there. Take it he changed his mind?”

“Yeah. I told him that we knew what happened and asked if he wanted to keep the charges.”

“Right,” Barrier flicked the door open with her magic, letting the morning light filter in once more. “I’ll take care of the other things on the list and with any luck th—you’ll not see me again. Have a good day, Cobalt,” Barrier began making her way out the door, only for Cobalt to call out to her once more.

“Did you really say what Luna told me you said? The line about swiving with their dams?”

Barrier’s eye twitched just slightly.

***

“And that’s how I got my hooves on the war-helm of Hei-Bei Kahn. Once I deliver that, I’ll have to flip a coin to see what I’m hunting next. It’ll either be the Wand of Magic Star or the Diamond Ray of Disappearance.”

“Neither of those sound particularly threatening.” Barrier nosed the door to the saloon open and quickly made her way to Daring Do.

“Don’t let that fool ya. They’re both dangerous artifacts, especially in the wrong hooves.”

Barrier levitated the bag of bits from her saddlebags once more, counting them out before depositing them on the bar for the bartender. “I apologize for the damage I caused yesterday morning. It was not one of my finer moments.”

The stallion behind the counter nodded silently before scooping the bits off of the counter.

“What happened yesterday, anyways?” Daring cocked her head curiously.

“A stallion didn’t know how to take no for an answer and grabbed my tail.” Barrier motioned for the bartender to bring her a glass of water.

“Well, I can see why that’d upset you, but don’t you think the reaction was a bit extreme? I can kinda understand the griffin in Ponyville but...”

“How dost thou know what happened in Ponyville?”

“I know ponies,” Daring responded, nonplussed, “but this was just a pony that’d had too much to drink. And seriously, are you still talking like that?”

“I shall speak as I please… and I suppose it may also beeth due to the hormones,” Barrier confessed. “'Tis not often I completely change gender, so my temper may have already been a bit frayed. That, coupled with the alcohol may have made me respond poorly.”

“How often do you find yourself drinking?” Daring asked with a slight tonal shift.

“I don’t need a psychologist,” Barrier replied flatly, throwing back her water and levitating another bit onto the bar before standing up to depart. “And I don’t have the time to have a drinking problem.”

“Fine, fine.” Daring made to follow. “So where are you headed next?”

“To the train station so that I can return to Ponyville and hopefully cure myself of this ailment,” she said flatly. And if they can’t help me, then I’ll have to go to Princess Luna… Barrier inwardly groaned. She wasn’t sure she would escape entirely unscathed if the Lunar Diarch got her hooves on her in this state. “And thyself?”

“Well, I’m going to Canterlot to give this artifact to Princess Celestia,” Daring patted her saddlebags, receiving a muted thud in response. “And then I’m probably going to the frozen north to hunt down the Diamond Ray. Before that though, I figure I might as well tag along with you to Ponyville. They’ve got some pretty good milkshakes at Sugarcube Corner.”

“Thou art a-carrying a potentially dangerous artifact, and thou art a-stopping for a milkshake? And speaking of that, thou got drunk and thrown in jail last night, with the artifact in thy possession.”

“Hey, it’s only dangerous because some crazy cult wanted it. And Ahuizotl. But they’ve all been dealt with, so there’s nothing to worry about!” Daring grinned triumphantly. “That aside,” Daring bumped into Barrier’s flank, “this isn’t your first time being a mare, is it?”

“Unfortunately not. I had the misfortune of encountering poison joke once before when I was training my cadets…” Barrier sagged visibly as the two of them made their way up the steps onto the train platform.

“Tell me about them. The cadets, I mean. Well that, and your first time as a chick. That had to be a fun. Man, if only you had a flank like that as a stallion.”

“There’s not much to tell. I took them to Butterfly Island for a few months of training. I was too busy trying to figure out my most recent financial loss and wasn’t paying attention. Due to my lack of foresight, we all woke up with varying effects.” Barrier half-giggled, half-snorted. “It made for an interesting first few weeks of training. Poor Verdant was shrunk to the size of a pea and we lost him for a bit.”

Daring chuckled. “How did you guys find him?”

“He bit me on the flank.” Barrier frowned at the thought. “Apparently I’d rolled onto him during the night. At first, I thought it was a tick or some other pest and nearly smashed him. That would’ve been difficult to explain.”

“What happened to the others?”

Barrier pressed a hoof to her chin in thought, “Winter Gem became excessively muscle-bound. She must have been nearly twice as large as I. It was amusing watching her try to adjust to the sudden size increase. Hat Trick lost all of his feathers. His wings were perhaps the most amusing thing I’d ever seen. Lastly, there was Iron Forge. He became a fairly impressive rug of sorts. He’d have made a wonderful pillow, as fluffy as he was.” Barrier actually cracked a wry smile. “Have th-you ever seen one of those dogs that has a coat so thick and long it hangs down past their feet?”

Daring nodded as she exchanged bits for tickets and lead the stallion over to the solitary bench on the platform.

“He looked akin to one of those. Gods, that was miserable for him. And then there was Swiftsword. As a unicorn I perhaps felt the worst for her. Her horn grew an obscene length. I’d estimate somewhere around fifteen feet. 'Twas far longer than her body, to be certain.”

“And you turned into a mare,” Daring finished for him. “So, what else happened?”

"I went into heat…" Barrier spoke with little more than a whisper.

Daring Do had no trouble hearing her if her face-splitting grin was any indication.

Chapter 19

View Online

“So,” Daring climbed into the seat across from Barrier as the train engine came to life and started dragging them down the tracks, slowly picking up speed. “Why don’t you tell me the story about the whole poison joke thing?”

“There’s not much else to tell. The only particularly interesting thing that happened was the poison joke. Well, that and Winter Gem and Hat Trick trying to fornicate while afflicted. They did not account for the additional weight of Winter Gem’s new muscles, as well as her increased strength. The breathless heaves that awoke us that night were quite amusing, as was the bruising his pelvis suffered.”

“I thought that kinda thing was a no-no in the guard?”

“It was, and I’d imagine still is. I had actually planned on dismissing Hat Trick to a different unit after their training was complete. Obviously it never came to that…” Barrier trailed off.

The pegasus’s ears folded back apologetically, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to remind you of it.”

“'Tis fine, Daring, I’m over it for the most part. It hurts, to be sure, but it’s done and I have to live it with, regardless of how long ago it happened.”

“So, you’d planned on separating them?” Daring asked, trying to spark the conversation once more.

“Mm, that was the plan. The rules are very clear about mixing relationships with work, especially in units such as mine or what theirs was to become. Had it come to that, I’d have been a hypocrite.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was in a relationship with Ember, a sergeant from my squad. Well, sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“We were sleeping together regularly and far more emotionally invested in each other than was professional, but to everyone, save our squad, we were nothing more than close friends and comrades.”

“Ah,” Daring nodded in understanding.

“I’d actually planned on taking a desk-job and a-trying to settle down with her.” Barrier laughed hollowly. “And then, the Crystal Empire was attacked.”

Daring silently climbed from her booth and into Barrier’s.

“After the Empire was gone… and the cadets… I grew too attached to them. I wasn’t in the greatest frame of mind after the Empire and before I knew it, my squad and I were back in the field almost constantly. Couldn’t bring myself to think about it, so I just kept fighting. Kept killing. Was dragging my ponies down with me.” Barrier reached out and tugged Daring closer almost on reflex, mind drawing back to when he would confide in Ember. If Daring minded, she didn’t say anything. “And then Nightmare Moon happened, and they were left to pick up the mess I left behind. Ember left the guard and died of medical issues and Flash Sentry became a genocidal monster. No telling what happened to the others, not that it matters anymore.” With slight reluctance, Barrier broke his embrace with Daring Do. “Apologies, it’s not like me to get all whiney and self-pitying.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for. We all need somepony to whine and bitch to from time to time. I’m just glad to see you’re not bottling it all up anymore.”

Barrier only grunted in response, a weariness settling over her despite that all she’d done was sleep the last couple of days.

“So, there’s not much else to tell about the poison joke, but what about the rest of the island? What were the cadets like when you had ’em out there?”

“Mm, it’d probably be best if I wait til’ we get to Ponyville to recite anymore of it. Twilight will no doubt want to hear it and I’d rather not have to recall the tale too many times if I can help it.”

“Fair enough.” Daring knew better than to push her to open up further. “You know how to play chess?”

***

Barrier’s hoof twitched and raised itself from the chessboard as the screeching of breaks resounded throughout the car. “Hm, it seems we’ve arrived, Miss Do.”

“Oh come on, I had you that time!” Daring grumbled as she gazed over the board intently.

“I doubt you had anymore this time than you did in our last three games.” Barrier deposited her saddlebags onto her back once more as she climbed out of the booth and stretched. “Now, I’m going to head to the library. I sorely miss my carrot and cabbages.”

“Fine, but you owe me a rematch,” the pegasus grumbled as she stuffed the chessboard back into her own saddlebag.

“Very well, we’ll have another match sometime or another. Perhaps on our next trip to Appleloosa. Gods know the train-ride is more than long enough for it.”

“Well, what did you expect, it’s a cargo-train. It’s supposed to be slow and carry craploads of stuff. I think they’re getting a more standard train before too much longer, but it is a new town, so priorities and all.”

“Even so, ten or so hours seems a bit much.”

“Oh stop your whining and let’s go get your junk back so I can go to Canterlot.”

“I don’t recall asking for an escort. Besides, I’ve every intent of staying the night in Ponyville.”

“Guess I’m staying too then. And you didn’t ask for an escort but a pretty little mare like you needs one,” Daring smiled suggestively as she hip-checked the unicorn, causing her to stumble off of the train and into the afternoon sun.

***

“I’m coming, hold your horses!” Twilight yelled at the front-door as she trotted down the stairs. “It’s a public building, dammit…” Twilight sighed to herself, jerking the door open. “Can I hel-” the words died in her throat at the fetching charcoal-coated mare before her.

“For the last time, Daring, I’m not staying a mare!” Barrier quickly turned to face Twilight. “Please tell me you have the cure for poison joke!”

***

Barrier groaned in relief as his head broke the warm water. “Gods, I needed this.”

“So, Barrier? How’d you know about Poison Joke?” Twilight inquired of the scrubbing stallion.

“Ah that’s right, you owe us a story!” Daring was swimming slow laps around the large tub.

“Fair enough, I did promise a story when Twilight was present…”

A multitude of paper and writing utensils winked into existence almost immediately.

“Please proceed whenever you’re ready.” Twilight was grinning like the terrifying pink mare.

“Very well. My cadets and I had just taken off from a chariot aboard the ESS Wave Dancer…”

***

“Attention!” Barrier’s voice rang out over the rushing wind, drawing the attention of the five ponies in the chariot with him. “Eyes forward, cadets, for we shall soon arrive upon Butterfly Island!” Barrier’s own gaze shifted forward, settling on the small island in the distance, eyes watching as the waves broke against the jagged rocks that surrounded it.

“This shall be home for the next five months. The only way on, and therefore off, of the island is by flight and most pegasi wings will give out long before they reach the mainlands. Hence, the necessity of launching from a frigate.” Barrier’s tone could almost be taken as happy as the chariot angled itself downwards, bringing them to a bumpy landing on the beach.

“Verily, we have arrived upon Butterfly Island.” The pegasus mare unhitched herself fro-

***

“Hey Barrier, sorry to interrupt, but could you drop the olden speech?”

“Yeah.” Pinkie nodded in agreement with Daring Do. “It’s kinda sucking me out of the moment.”

“Fine, if it’ll please my audience, I’ll modernize the story as best I can…” Barrier’s brow furrowed in exasperation as he glanced at the pink mare that had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Some things are better left lost to mystery…

“Now, as I was saying…”

***

“Here we are, Butterfly Island!” One of the two pegasi that had been pulling the chariot untethered herself and stretched out her back and wings. “Sure you don’t want me to stay and show the kids how it’s done?”

“I appreciate the offer, Ember, but we’ll be fine. Besides, I’m not sure I could handle both the cadets and you.” Barrier turned to the other pegasus that was tethered to the chariot. “I appreciate you and Ember flying us here, Flash. I don’t know if I’ll ever grow accustomed to flying, but I’ll return the favor upon my return.”

“Well, now that I think about it, I do need a favor.” Flash grinned almost apologetically.

Of course you do, “How long have you been planning for this and what do you need?”

“I’ve been trying to think of how to ask for two weeks and I need around one hundred and fifty to two hundred bits.”

Barrier and Ember took a sharp breath at the same tim-

***

“Two hundred bits?” It was Pinkie that interrupted this time. “That’s not that much money.”

“Well,” Twilight was the first to respond, “It’s not that much money now, but that’s to be expected after one thousand years of inflation. Back then, that was quite a healthy amount of bits.”

“Three or four grand at least,” Daring offered. “The hay did he need that kinda money for?”

“If you ponies would stop interrupting, I was getting to that part.” Barrier didn’t bother to hide his annoyance at the second interruption of of the day.

“Oh, sorry!” Pinkie grinned sheepishly, “Continue.”

***

“Okay, I know I owe you twelve bits over that bet on the cadets,” Barrier shot a harsh glance at both Hat Trick and Winter Gem, Couldn’t even wait another five blasted days… “But what the hay do you need the other one hundred and eighty bits for?”

“Well…” Flash chuckled nervously, drawing a groan from Ember.

“What, you’re having another kid?” the pegasus mare offered.

“No, we’re not having another kid. Believe me, I think we’re good at six. Fleetfeather nearly took my hoof off when she was having Wind Whistler, it’s just that Windy’s getting a little big to be sharing a room. I told her I’d see what I could do about getting her a room of her own, but-”

“In order to give her a room of her own, your house needs another extension.”

Flash Sentry only smiled apologetically.

“Dammit, Flash,” Barrier grumbled as his horn flared to life, cracking open the leather saddlebags draped across his back. “Were it anypony other than you…” Barrier retrieved a particularly decadent piece of parchment with a wax seal already stamped on the bottom, followed by a quill and inkwell. “Just…try not to sire anymore, yeah? As much as it may seem otherwise, I’m not made of bits and the crown doesn’t pay that well.”

“Heh,” Flash shuffled nervously, “Believe me, that won’t be a problem. Not after what happened last time…”

“Give this to my father and he’ll get you set up.” Barrier rolled the parchment up and carefully tucked it in his friend’s saddlebags. “Now, you and Ember get outta here before I change my mind.”

“I’ll pay you back as soon as I can,” Flash threw an appreciative grin. “Come on Ember, let’s leave the Captain to his children.”

“Aw, but what am I gonna do without my Barrier?” Ember grinned and threw a wing over the unicorn’s shoulders. “I need someone to help keep my bed warm,” the wing slowly slipped down to the stallion’s stomach, the feathers curving slightly.

Barrier’s cheeks turned a light shade of pink before he shrugged the pegasus off, swallowing. “Alright, that’s enough of that. We’re wasting daylight. Let’s go, cadets. Ember, Flash, I’ll see you both when I get back.”

“I’ll be waiting,” Ember called out with a teasing voice as the unicorn quickly ushered the cadets into the forest.

“Honestly,” Barrier grumbled to himself irritably as the cadets followed behind him, mind more intent on calming a certain part of himself down. “Of all the times she does it, right when I’m going to be gone for five months…”

“Uh, Captain?” Verdant sped up, taking up position just behind Barrier. “We just stepped through some plants. I think we should stop and see what kind they are.”

“And Flash…” Barrier paid the green earth pony no heed. “Of all the times he could ask me for a loan. What would he have done if I’d said no? Ah who the hell am I kidding, I couldn’t do that to Wind Whistler…” Barrier continued to trek forward, taking the occasional turn to carry them deeper into the jungle.

“Captain, watch out for that-”

Barrier sidestepped without so much as halting his whispered rant.

“Tree.” Swiftsword turned to the rest of the group. “Well, at least he reacted to Sergeant Ember’s advances responsibly. Unlike you two perverts,” she said as she glared back at the pegasus and earth mare.

“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with us having relations with one another,” Hat Trick replied defensively.

“There is when you fornicate in the communal bath.”

“When we were all in it no less,” Iron Forge added.

“Oh, it wasn’t that bad,” Winter Gem interjected this time.

“You were right beside me!” Verdant hissed.

“Disgusting,” Swiftsword made to continue, only for Barrier to cut them all off.

“There’s a river up ahead. That’s where we’ll make camp. We’ll get a little sleep before nightfall.”

“What’re we doing at nightfall, sir?”

“You’re going to learn some constellations and how to use them to navigate, and then once the sun starts to rise, we’re going to start small-unit tactics. Until then, get some sleep. It’s all you’ll get for the next couple of days. Cadet Range, Cadet Gem, fetch firewood. Cadet Swiftsword, Cadet Forge, you’re in charge of shelter. Whether you want to improvise an actual shelter or make your fellow cadets sleep on a pile of leaves is up to you.” Barrier turned to the purple pegasus and smiled almost endearingly. “Cadet Trick, you get to dig a latrine.”

***

“And 'tis all for now.” Barrier stretched tiredly in the water. “I’m getting hungry, and I’m starting to prune from being in the water for too long.”

“Aww, but you didn’t get to any of the good stuff! All we got was set-up!” Pinkie whined and splashed almost childishly in the water.

“Well now that I’ve reclaimed my siring staff, I’ll gladly tell the rest of my tale at the library.”

Chapter 20

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The four ponies sat around a table in the library, nibbling on sandwiches. Daring and Barrier sat on the two-pony couch while Twilight and Pinkie sat on the cushions across from them. Spike was about to sit as well when Barrier turned to him.

“Spike?” Barrier asked as he swallowed a mouthful of hay bacon, lettuce and tomato. “Would you mind a-going to purchase some drinks for us?” He then slid some bits in Spike’s direction.

“Sure thing!” the young drake happily replied before grabbing the bits and running off toward the door.

“So, you gonna continue?” Daring asked as the door slammed shut.

“Yeah, I wanna hear about the crazy shenanigans you and those cadets had on that island!” Pinkie bounced on her cushion

“Very well, I shall continue,” Barrier said with a nod. “I had awoken a few hours later and went to the stream to get a drink. When I saw my reflection, I was met with a horrifying sight.”

“You didn’t look that bad,” Daring cut in while Twilight was taking notes.

“As I was saying,” Barrier responded tersely. “When I saw my reflection in the water, my reaction was not… positive…”

***

“Oh gods dammit!”

All of the cadets bolted upright at the scream, eyes roving wildly to locate the source before they finally settled on the lithe and tight frame of their Captain standing next to the river, just slightly illuminated by the embers of their campfire and what little moonlight could filter through the trees.

“Ow, son of a bitch!” Swiftsword, in her haste to locate the scream, had smashed her horn into a tree branch. “What the hell…” she suddenly became aware of the additional weight tugging her head downward.

“My feathers!” Hat Trick began to shout, causing Swiftsword to jerk around again, cutting the stallion off as the fifteen-foot bone-spear clotheslined him. “All of my—”

“Cadets, at attention!” Barrier yelled out in a distinctly feminine voice, all of the cadets snapping upright and standing stockstill.

“Roll call!” The mare’s voice rang out clearly once more, horn still glowing.

“Swiftsword here!”

“Hat Trick here!”

The first two voices sounded fairly normal.

“Winter Gem here!” The blonde-maned mare sounded…heavier than usual, but still identifiable.

“Irn Frge hrre!” The voice sounded almost gagged. A spitting sound was heard before the voice returned. “Iron Forge here!”

Barrier waited fifteen seconds before opening her mouth and shouting out once more. “Cadet Range, sound off!”

The small clearing remained silent.

“Cadet Range, I said, ‘sound off’!”

Silence remained as Barrier’s voice echoed through the foliage.

“Damn it all…” A ball of light detached itself from Barrier’s horn and floated to the center of the clearing before flaring brightly, illuminating the clearing and revealing the various states of disarray.

Swiftsword’s horn had grown to an obscene length, settling at nearly ten times its normal length. Hat Trick was completely featherless and Iron Forge was a ball of fluff that looked like a blue haystack. Lastly there was Winter Gem, who now appeared to be little more than a mountain of standing muscle. She was a hulking beast taller than Princess Luna, whereas Verdant Range… he was still missing in action.

“Alright, we must’ve wandered through something, probably poison joke.” Barrier fell back onto her flanks, unaware of the miniscule grunt that accompanied the action. “I guess I should have listened to that colt when he brought it up,” Barrier muttered to herself.

“Cadets.” Barrier stood back up. “Swiftsword, I want you to b~” Barrier let loose a high-pitched squeal, bucking wildly several times. “Something’s biting me in the flank! Grab it! Kill it!” Barrier forced herself to stand still as Hat Trick rushed over to examine her flank.

“Found Verdant,” Hat Trick reached a hoof towards Barrier’s flank crack, carefully removing the shrunken stallion.

“Uh, Hat Trick?” Winter Gem interjected, pointing at his tail which was then resting in the embers of their fire and beginning to smolder.

“What’s wrong?” Hat Trick turned around to face Winter Gem, just glimpsing his now-smoking tail.

“Oh sweet Celestia’s teats, put it out!” Verdant was completely forgotten as the stallion began to buck wildly.

“Oh, gods dammit!” Barrier groaned again, lunging at Hat Trick and gripping his forehooves. With a grunt and a pivot, she chucked the stallion over her side and face-first into the formerly calm river.

“Right, now where’s Verdant?” Barrier frowned as her eyes carefully scanned the ground. “Try not to move ponies, it wouldn’t do for one of us to step on him. Verdant, if you can hear us I want you to call out as loudly as you can.”

The clearing fell deathly silent as they strained to hear the pea-sized stallion.

Iron Forge was the first to break it. “I think I hear him somewhere in my fur. He’s saying something about Hat Trick’s mother and his intelligence.”

Barrier nodded. “That sounds about right. Alright Verdant, perch yourself on Iron Forge’s…” Barrier scanned the stallion, trying to find something that wasn’t buried in fur. “try to reach the tip of his horn.” Barrier sat down once more.

“Alright, change of plans. Swiftsword, ga… try not to kill anypony with your horn and sit tight. Winter Gem, Hat Trick, gather firewood and get our fire going strong again. Iron Forge, you stay here with Swiftsword. There’s no telling what you’ll get caught in your coat if you try to move around too much.

Barrier noted the small green lump that had poked out from the forest of follicles. “Verdant Range, you’re with me.” The mare held a hoof out and transferred the micro-stallion to her hoof and then to her head. “We’re going to go gather the ingredients to cure poison joke. I just hope we can find the damn honey. Can’t usually find it this time of year…” Barrier’s horn lit up once more before the mare dove into the forest, vaguely aware of the earth-pony working his way down to her muzzle.

***

“So, when did the ‘other’ problems kick in?” Daring once again interrupted, shifting slightly as she leaned against Barrier on the library’s sofa.

“What other problems?” Twilight tilted her head curiously, parchment and quill tilting as well.

“Let’s just say the campfire wasn’t the only source of heat Barrier had to deal with on that trip.” Daring grinned as Barrier groaned and dove back into the story.

***

“There’s the moonbane we’ll need for the cure,” Verdant pointed his miniscule hoof at a deep purple and white flower that seemed to be drawing moonlight to it. “Sir?” Verdant turned around on her muzzle, seeing where his captain’s eyes were focused. “...sir? Sir, stop staring at my rear!”

“Gah!” Barrier bit her tongue to prevent her from shaking her head. “Apologies, Verdant. I don’t know why but my gaze keeps shifting to it. In addition to that my insides feel…” Barrier frowned; no words to describe the feeling really came to mind.

“Oh Zacherle…” Verdant groaned and pressed a hoof to his face. “You’re in heat.”

“And you’re certain of this how exactly?” Barrier’s horn flared, plucking the moonbane from the ground.

“I grew up in a household with ten mares. Believe me, I know when a mare is in heat.” The small stallion squeaked.

“Ten mares? How in the blazes does that work?”

“My father has four mates and he’s sired six fillies. He and I are the only males in the entire household.”

Barrier grimaced. “No wonder you joined the guard. That sounds miserable. I’ve a hard enough time putting up with just my brother… or with Ember when she’s in heat. I can’t imagine what that would be like, having to deal with that many mares, all crazed and hormonal.”

***

The three gathered around Barrier glared at him pointedly and Daring elbowed him roughly.

“Uh, current company withstanding.” Barrier smiled sheepishly before launching back into his tale.

***

“Damn, I was worried this would be the case.” Barrier grimaced at the husk of a beehive resting on the ground at her hooves.

“No honey means no cure.” Verdant commented.

“Indeed. And no cure means training will have to be shuffled around. Perhaps we can contact Princess Luna through our dreams for aid. Until then, I suppose I’ll just have to verbally teach you ponies rather than show you.”

***

Barrier stopped his narrative as Spike waddled back into the library with a sack in his claws.

“The only soda they had left in the store was that kind Moondancer used to drink. Tentacle Grape.”

Barrier simply nodded, gratefully taking the glass bottle from the baby dragon. “Gramercy, Spike.”

The dragon offered a smaller sack of bits.

“You can keep the change,” Barrier smiled and began to launch into the story once more. “Anyways, besides Winter Gem injuring Hat Trick’s pelvis, Swiftsword getting her horn stuck in a wasp nest and Verdant nearly getting eaten a few times, nothing terribly interesting happened until Princess Luna arrived with the cure.”

“Wait,” Twilight interjected with a frown. “You’re just going to skip over everything you taught them during that time?”

“I’d intended to, yes. Unless you want the specifics of me explaining how to hunt and trap animals, as well as how to properly gut and prepare them, or give you a verbal lecture regarding woodcraft and wilderness survival - all of which are better as hooves—on demonstrations, mind you—I think it the best course of action.”

Twilight and Pinkie had turned a little green while Daring and Spike had no visible reaction.

“Anyways, as I was saying…”

***

“Hat Trick, Winter Gem, head back to camp and dig a pit alongside the river and fill it with water. Princess Luna’s chariot is incoming.”

“Sir,” Winter Gem saluted awkwardly before turning and trekking into the foliage with the featherless pegasus.

The chariot hadn’t actually touched down before Princess Luna lept from it, spreading her wings and gliding onto the beach.

“At ease, Captain,” Luna spoke firmly; Barrier dropped the salute though remained at-attention as the princess eyed him carefully. “Thou art a-looking well. We rather enjoy thy new form. We also quite enjoy thy snout decoration.” Luna suddenly closed the distance and got right up in Barrier’s muzzle, smiling slightly at the small saluting stallion on the edge of the Captain’s snout. “At ease, Cadet.” Luna’s horn lit up, levitating a small vial of purplish liquid.

***

“I thought you said you’d drop the olden speak.” Daring reminded the stallion, once again shifting herself, using his side as a pillow while she sprawled out on the sofa.

“I can’t really picture Princess Luna speaking any other way. Even as archaic as my speech used to be, she always seemed to embody that manner of speaking. It’s just Luna.”

Daring hummed her acknowledgement as Barrier continued,

***

“Thank you for bringing this, Princess. It was foolish of me not to come fully prepared. I assumed we would be able to fully sustain ourselves on the island.” Barrier and the Princess still stood on the beach.

“Everypony hath slips now and again.”

Barrier started to smile in relief.

“However,”

The smile then packed up and left immediately.

“This was a major slip. Poison joke is wildly unpredictable and very well could have cost the lives of thee or thy cadets.”

Barrier’s ears shrunk back, though the captain still kept her gaze on the princess.

“We don’t need to impress upon thee how negligent this was. Thy reprimand will be decided upon thy return. Until then, thou art free to continue training thy cadets, but thou art to be far more careful hither forth. Are We understood, Captain?”

“Yes, ma’am!” Barrier saluted sharply, jostling Verdant. “It won’t happen again ma’a-” Barrier’s muzzle scrunched up and she took several short breaths through her nose.

“Captain? Art thou well—”

“Ah-ah-choo!” Barrier’s head snapped forward with a hard sneeze. “My apologies, Princess…” Barrier noted the lunar diarch’s cross-eyed expression. “Your Highness?” She asked as a small lump travelled down Luna’s throat.

“Captain, where is thy cadet? Please tell Us he is upon the sand.”

Barrier’s eyes widened as her eyes quickly began to scan the ground.

“Please tell Us he’s somewhere upon the sand.” Luna, like Barrier, was scanning the ground intently.

“I don’t see him, ma’am.” Barrier’s horn flared and a thin pulse of energy rolled across the sand. “I don’t feel him either, Your Highness…” Barrier’s stomach tightened; if she thought she was in trouble before, then now she was likely screwed.

“We were afraid of this.” Luna turned towards her chariot-pullers with a tight grimace. “Guard, We believe We feel the missing stallion a-pounding from within Our belly. Fetch us a laxative from the ship.”

“Ma’am? Can’t you just throw him up?” Barrier had to fight to keep her mind from racing, trying to discern all of the possible dangers of the stallion being eaten and passed.

“We have not had a gag reflex for nearly five-hundred years, Captain.”

“Why’s that?” Barrier inquired before she realized what she was asking.

“Dost thou wish to remain a mare?”

“I’ll… be silent…”

***

“Wait, did the cadet survive? What kind of damage did he suffer?” Twilight asked even though her muzzle was scrunched in disgust.

“Verdant survived with no injuries of note, miraculously. Only his pride was damaged. He also needed a very long bath afterwards.”

Daring took her turn and asked her own question. “Does Princess Luna really not have a gag reflex?”

“Impressively enough she does not, at least from what I’ve seen. I’m fairly certain that had we the means, we could have fished him from her stomach. In any case, the training resumed after we were cured and was fairly routine after the mess with the poison joke.” but what we learned right after… Barrier’s body sagged, tension abandoning it as his mind turned towards more morbid thoughts. Mayhaps, I’ll see them again on the other side. They were good kids… but me? I’m not so sure...

“Oi,” Daring elbowed him sharply. “I know that expression. Whatever you’re thinking, stop it.”

I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see. Barrier carefully draped his neck across Daring’s withers. “Yes ma’am.” Barrier then let out a yawn. “Today hath been a long day. I believe shall sleep on the couch for tonight. Do you need a room, Daring?”

“I think I’ll hit up the local inn. I don’t really wanna spend the night on the couch again.” She replied before sliding off of the couch and headed for the door. “Thanks for the meal, Twilight, Spike.” The mare tugged the door open before turning to face Barrier. “Train leaves at eight o’clock tomorrow, Barrier, don’t be late.” The door closed behind her.

“And I need to ready Mrs. Cake a ‘Congrats on Being Pregnant’ party! She’s gonna test herself any second now,” Pinkie happily said before bouncing away, somehow leaving without actually opening the door.

“Spike and I will probably do some reading upstairs,” Twilight spoke up before ushering Spike upstairs. “Goodnight, Barrier. Pleasant dreams.”

“Twilight, why wouldn’t Princess Luna have a gag reflex anymore?” Barrier could only smirk as he settled into the couch. After a few short moments, Barrier drifted off.

***

“Ahoy, Flash!” Barrier called out as the chariot landed on the Wave Breaker’s deck. Barrier soon saw a forlorn look upon his friend’s muzzle. “Flash? What’s wrong? What happened?” Only when Barrier was directly in front of him did Flash finally look at his long-time friend.

“I wish I didn’t have to say this, but I have grave news. Cadet Forge, thou mayest want to brace thineself.”

“Brace myself? Whatever for, good sir… um…Lieutenant?” The blue unicorn inquired worriedly. Flash deeply inhaled before letting out a sad sigh.

“Approximately a week ago, the griffins waged a surprise attack on Equestria, conquering a city and a-slaying the guard… I’m sorry, son… Gallopfrey hath fallen and everypony there is presumed dead. Our scouts last reported that a large portion of the city was set ablaze.” The words rocked the six arrivals to the core and gasps came from the young cadets, tears quickly forming in Forge’s eyes.

“My… mine home… my.. parents… I… I…” the stallion broke down crying as his friends and comrades rushed to his side, holding him and offering him what words of comfort they could. As the four tried to help him, Barrier regained his senses and placed a hoof on Flash’s withers.

“Flash… is…”

“Ember’s below deck,” Flash quickly cut his friend off, “Thou art the only one she wanteth to talk to, she quoth.”

“Cadets, consider yourselves on leave for the next two weeks.” Barrier stroked his chin tiredly with a hoof before turning to the gamboge pegasus. “Keep an eye on them for me, Flash,”

“Sir,” Flash saluted sharply as Barrier shot by him and down into the bowels of the ship.

Almost sliding into the officer’s barracks, a collection of rooms all divided and broken up by thin wooden barriers, allowing for a greater degree of privacy. Barrier’s eyes locked onto the room he had been assigned prior to his months on the island and shoved the door wide with his magic.

“Ember…” the stallion spoke just loud enough to wake the lump on the before his horn flared, lifting the covers and allowing him to crawl under them. “I’m so sorry…”

The pegasus rolled over and snaked her forehooves around him, burying her muzzle in his chest.

All Barrier could do was sit there and hold his best friend while she cried.

Chapter 21

View Online

Twilight came down the stairs that morning, spotting Barrier nervously reading a book and smelling ash and a strange salty aroma in the air; the first thing her eyes did were to lock on the empty area where her couch once was.

“Barrier,” Twilight tiredly addressed the stallion, “where’s my couch?”

Looking up from his book, the stallion cleared his throat. “Pray pardon, Twilight, I had a rather… intense dream about a mare I was passionate with in the past. The result was… Well, you would not have wanted to keep the couch.” I’m just glad Daring didst not decide to sleep on the couch with me. That would have been extremely awkward.

Twilight groaned and pressed a hoof to her slightly pinkened face. “I guess I’ll get a sofa with my quills today.”

“Mine apologies, Twilight. I’ll pay for the replacement of course.” Barrier’s horn flared, opening the saddlebags that were already secured on his back. “I had meant to leave this with you before I departed to Appleloosa, but it slipped my mind. Many apologies and many more thanks for tolerating me since my return.

“Hey guys,” The familiar pegasus poked her head in the door, hat and glasses already on. “What’s with the pile of ash outside?”

“The couch and I had an… altercation.” The stallion dangled the folded cheque in front of Twilight once more, causing the mare to take it in her own magic. “It did not survive, I’m afraid.”

Twilight’s shrill voice cut off further conversation about the demise of the couch. “I can’t take this much!”

“What’s going on now?” Daring continued into the library, leaving the door open.

“I’m leaving Twilight the cheque I received from the museum. Mayhaps, she’ll be able to put it to better use than I.”

“Ah.” Daring simply nodded.

“Barrier! I can’t take thirty-thousand bits for a couch!”

“Not just for the couch, Twilight. You opened your home unto me upon my return and aided in my physical recovery. Consider it a gratuity for everything you’ve done to help me along, such as preventing me from drowning myself in a bottle.”

“Barrier, I didn’t do any of that stuff for bits,” Twilight huffed, trying to hoof the cheque back to him.

“If you absolutely insist on not taking the cheque then perhaps donate it to the town of Ponyville or something of the sort. I’m certain there’s something in town that could make effective use of the bits.”

“Fine,” Twilight grumbled, depositing the slip of paper on the table.

“Besides, thirty-thousand is a drop in the bucket to this guy,” Daring offered, shooting Barrier her trademark grin. “Now, come on, we’re gonna miss our train and you still need a ticket.”

“Why are both of you going to Canterlot?” Twilight asked as she walked the pair to the door.

“I’ve gotta give the helm of Hei Bei Kahn to the princesses,” Daring offered, tightening the cloak she wore.

“And I’m passing through on my way to… Well, it matters not where I decide to visit, Canterlot isn’t really optional.”

“Wassat about hay bacon?” Spike grumbled sleepily as he stumbled down the stairs.

“Come on you, you still owe me a rematch.” Daring unceremoniously shoved the stallion forward.

“Good den, Twilight.” Barrier bowed his head respectfully before grunting as Daring shoved him in the backside once more. “Dammit mare, watchest where thou art a-shoving.”

***

Barrier stared intently at the chessboard, eyes locked tightly on his opponent’s queen. How had he managed to let himself be boxed in by her knights? The silence held for several more tense minutes before Barrier finally sighed. “I concede, Princess.”

“Holy crap,” Daring let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “I didn’t think a game of chess could be that intense.”

Both Barrier and Celestia snorted in amusement, looked at each other, and snorted in amusement again.

“You should see my sister play.” Celestia grinned. “She takes the game very seriously.”

“Princess Celestia and I used to play on occasion. We usually played to a standstill, but Princess Luna…I’ve never come close to beating her. Something about how she plays.” Barrier took a sip of the lukewarm tea as he glanced up at the taller mare, “So, what did you wish to talk to me about, Princess?”

“Ah, that’s right. Apologies, it’s been so long since I had a good game of chess that it slipped my mind.” The mare took a short sip of her own tea. “I would like you to accompany Daring Do on her next excursion.”

Daring was the first to reply. “Why?” The mare’s tone was somewhere between disbelief and upset. “I don’t like pon-” Celestia cut her off with a raised hoof.

“Let me finish, Miss Do.” Celestia turned to Barrier, aware that he seemed to have taken on a more rigid demeanor. “We’ve received reports of a powerful magical weapon from the frozen north. It’s believed that it may be the Diamond Ray of Disappearance.”

“Okay, but why does he have to come with me?” Daring rapped Barrier on the shoulder, drawing back slightly when she realized how tense he was.

“The reason is several-fold. First and foremost is that the frozen north is extremely unforgiving, and while I’ve no doubt you could traverse it on your own, Captain Barrier has a great deal of training for handling such extreme weather, to say nothing of the… remnants that still haunt the area. We’ve also received word Ahuizotl has been spotted heading in that direction.”

Daring nodded with a groan. “Alright, I’ll not fight it. What’s your choice on it, Barrier?”

“I don’t know yet,” Barrier answered honestly. “What remnants are you referring to, Princess?”

“You know better than any how much loose black magic Sombra threw around during our conflict in the Empire. While rare, there were side-effects. Most notably the wolves in the area, as well as the occasional wraith or malevolent spirits that are drawn to such lingering magic.”

Barrier simply gave a resigned sigh; vacation was on hold, he supposed. “Very well, Princess, but I’ll need to be outfitted. I’ve not kept a supply since my return.”

“Captain Armor will ensure that you have all of the provisions you require, though some of your usual fare is no longer available.”

“Such as?” Barrier drained the last of his tea and stood up.

“Mostly your stems and herbs. Most of what you used to use for prolonged awareness and stimulation have been outlawed due to their addictive properties and how the can negatively impact a pony’s health.”

Barrier snorted. “Very well, Princess. Can you tell me who this Ahuizotl is?”

Daring inhaled sharply. “I can tell you about him while we get whatever we’re taking with us.”

“Very well. I suppose my final question is where the Diamond Ray is expected to be. The Frozen North is far too vast for us to search aimlessly.”

“You’ll have a map with several locations to help indicate where you should look.” Celestia finished the last of her tea.

Barrier nodded but didn’t move, instead standing firmly still; Celestia smiled.

“You’re dismissed, Barrier.”

The unicorn blushed faintly. “Pray pardon, Princess, old habits. Daring, I’ll gather up the supplies we shall need and meet you at the train-station, say tomorrow at noon?”

“Sure thing. I’ll hit the library and see what I can figure out about that Diamond Ray.”

Both of the ponies nodded in synchronization before they departed Celestia’s room in unison, almost as if they’d practiced it; neither noticed the almost mischievous smile on the solar princess’s muzzle.

***

“Captain Armor,” a pegasus poked his head into the room. “Magic Barrier’s here to see you.”

“Go ahead and send him in.”

“Shining Armor,” Barrier spoke semi-formally as he made his way into the small office.

“Welcome back to Canterlot,” Shining motioned to the chair in front of his desk.

“Mm,” Barrier approached the chair, eyes roving the room. “Quite spartan for a captain’s office.” The room was composed of a desk, bookshelf, and a pair of chairs.

“Yeah, I don’t do much here except fill out paperwork and on occasion talk to a guard or civilian.”

“I see,” Barrier fell silent for a moment before continuing, “How are things going between you and Cadance?”

“Pretty good, actually. Think I might propose to her this coming Hearth's Warming.”

“Hm, well, if things fall through let me know so I can comfort you in your time of need.” A half-smile set itself on Barrier’s muzzle as Shiny blushed and let out an awkward cough.

“Uh, so,” the stallion tried to refocus the conversation. “How can I help you today?”

“The princess has me heading up north to try and track something down for her. She said you would be able to get me the gear I required.”

Realization dawned on Shining Armor’s face. “So, that’s why she gave me that blank, signed requisition form earlier.” The realization turned to confusion. “Why didn’t she just tell me what it was for? She made it sound really cryptic and everything. Said I’d know when the time to use it was right and whatnot.”

Barrier couldn’t help but chuckle. “She enjoys messing with ponies sometimes. I can’t even begin to count the number of times she pulled such things with me. The last of it was her informing me that I’d be undertaking the most dangerous and harrowing mission of my career and then she and Princess Luna saddled me with five fresh recruits.”

“Ouch,” Shiny chuckled as well. “Alright then, just fill this form out with what whatever you need and we can head down to the armory to get it.”

“Mm,” Barrier was already scanning over the paper, some part of his mind realizing that he was having no difficulty reading it; it took him all of fifteen minutes to make out the list and for them to be moving towards the armory.

“Looks like we’ve got all of this…” The pair were walking through the halls of the castle towards the armory, Shining Armor reading the list as they walked. “You’ll need to be sized for the cleated shoes though. And I don’t think we have any ‘resin-soaked torches’ either. I also don’t see any heating crystals on here…”

Barrier frowned slightly. How could they not have long-burning torches?

“You should probably take some flares with you as well.”

The pair stopped out of an intimidating steel door.

“I’ve no clue what either of those are. How can you not have any resin-soaked torches? What would you use if you’re exploring a cave and need to mark a trail or a source of heat?”

“Well, flares are enchanted crystals the give off a bright light, depending on the type of crystal used. You can either shake them or channel a bit of magic into them and they’ll light up for hours, and heating crystals are your source of heat. As long as you keep them in contact with your skin the enchantment will keep you comfortably warm. You could probably do without the coats and tent with enough heating crystals. They’d be lighter as well.”

Ponies have it easy these days. “Very well, replace the torches with the flares and…how long do the heating crystals last?”

“About a day.”

“Two-dozen heating crystals then.”

“And the tent and coats?” Shining’s horn flared, shoving the door open and revealing rows upon rows of various weapons and armor as well as other miscellaneous items.

“Keep them. I’m not familiar with your heating crystals and would prefer to have a backup if needed. Besides, I’d rather not be in an open blizzard, warm or not.”

“Fair enough,” Shining Armor made his way over to the counter, frowning at the dozing pony behind it. “Dammit, this is third time this week he’s been sleeping on the job…” The stallion reached out to shake the quartermaster awake.

“Hold, Shining.” Barrier’s own horn flared, an inkwell and quill floating by. “I have an idea.”

“Are… are you drawing a dick on the quartermasters face?”

“Aye. My cadets did this to me once. I arranged for the mess to serve nothing but spicy foods for the entirety of the week and gave them all latrine duty.”

***

One very ashamed quartermaster and several hours later, Barrier found himself departing the castle with a literal stack of stuff floating in his magic and his sword dangling loosely in the sheath on his side. Now, where are you staying tonight? Daring no doubt already has a place to stay, so I suppose I should find an inn…

Glancing around, Barrier’s eyes settled on Shining Armor, who was still beside him, having decided to leave early and visit his parents. “Shining, would you happen to know where the nearest inn is? My train doesn’t leave until tomorrow and I didn’t think to make prior arrangements…” The stallion trailed off slightly, looking behind him as if expecting somepony to be there.

“Well, there’re a couple of hotels around but they’re all kind of expensive.” Shining paid no attention to the stallion’s slowed movement. “I know money isn’t an issue for you but they’re really not worth it…” Shiny pressed a hoof to his chin it thought. “Why don’t you stay at my parents’ place? My dad’s pretty big into genealogy so I know he’d love to meet you. Plus I’m staying there tonight, so I doubt they’d mind if you did to.”

“I’d rather not impose, though it could be interesting to meet them.”

“You wouldn’t be. They’re the only ones really there anymore since Twily moved out. They wo-” Shiny stopped as they passed through the market, his hoof shooting out to stop Barrier as well. “Speaking of my parents,” Shining started towards a light-gray unicorn sifting through a stand of vegetables and fruits, gazing at each one with a frightening amount of scrutiny; even the pony working the stand looked nervous. “Hey, Mom!” Shiny shouted out, drawing the attention of several passerby and that of the unicorn as she recognized the voice.

“Hm… tell me Shining, does the Sparkle name come from your mother or your father?”

“The Sparkle was from Dad’s side, why?”

“Oh good.” Barrier breathed a sigh of relief. “I really didn’t want to find my distant niece attractive.”

Shining’s eye twitched slightly. “She’s happily married.”

“That doesn’t make her any less attractive, it just means I can only look.”

“You do realise I could toss you in the dungeon.”

“That won’t stop my fantasies,” Barrier teased.

Shining opened his mouth to retort, only for the unicorn mare to cut him off with a bone-breaking hug.

“Hey, Mom…” the stallion gasped out, patting her awkwardly on the back. “Magic Barrier, this is my mom, Twilight Velvet. Mom, this is-” the stallion was cut off again.

“Oh, so you’re Magic Barrier!” She glanced him over with the same scrutinizing eye she’d used for the vegetables. Disconcerting was too tame a word for it.

“Cadance told me that Shining had a new boyfriend and that they’d started a herd, but I never got the chance to meet you. I trust you’ll take good care of my son?”

Shining Armor’s jaw hung open limply, no response forthcoming.

Barrier hesitated slightly at first but, with a mental grin, nodded at the mare with clear determination in his eyes. “I give you my word, Miss Velvet, I shalt make your son the happiest stallion in Equestria.”

“Excellent.” Velvet nodded in satisfaction. “Now, c’mon. Night Light’s been dying to meet you ever since Cadance told us. I’ll make you two a dinner so big, you’ll be as stuffed as Shiny was last Wednesday night when Ca-”

“Mom, stop!” Shiny finally regained himself enough to speak. “You swore you’d never tell anypony!”

Chapter 22

View Online

“Mom, for the last time: We’re. Not. Dating!”

Barrier stared at the table, a downcast expression perched on his face. “It’s okay, Mrs. Velvet. Shiny doesn’t like to talk about our relationship. I think he’s ashamed of it…” Part of espionage was knowing how to act, and Barrier was quite capable.

“Shining, how could you! I raised you better than that!”

Shining Armor flinched back; Night Light shook his head wryly.

“So, what’s your relation?” Night Light asked, tuning out his wife who was now firmly lecturing their son.

“Shining would be my…” Barrier stopped for a moment, pressing a hoof to his chin. “My great grand-nephew twelve or so times back. The same goes you, assuming you carry the Sparkle name as Shining has told me.”

“Well I guess that means your distant enough of a relative to not make it incest. I approve.”
Night Light said with a nod.

“Daaaaaad!”

“At any rate, Shining, you can’t hide it from your parents. Your father and I have known you swung both ways ever since you first brought Gaffer and your other friends over to play Obilettes and Ogres. You’ve nothing to be ashamed of! You should be proud!”

“At least he chose a better-looking stallion than Gizmo. You and Cadance snagged a keeper, Shiny, and it’s okay to be a switch-hitter. We’re your parents and we’ll love no matter what.”

“Ugh, neither of you are listening to me!” Shining moaned as he slumped forward onto the table. “This day can’t possibly get any worse…”

Almost on cue, a familiar voice began to sing aloud, accompanied by the sounds of somebody opening the door. “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a…” the pink alicorn smiled when she saw the family from the front door she had just stepped through. “Hey Shiny!” Cadance beamed happily. “I see you’ve finally introduced our boyfriend to your parents.”

“Take a lesson from this, young Armor, such is the fate of those who tempt the irony of the gods.”

“Not you too!” Shining groaned and covered his head with both hooves, trying to block out the other ponies in the room; all of them had a good laugh at the stallion’s misfortune.

“I must say, your family is wonderful Shining Armor.” Barrier smiled at the dejected stallion.

“Can you guys possibly embarrass me any further?” He had actually started to slide out of his chair and slink under the table.

Velvet smiled almost endearingly at Shining and then Cadance, “Say Cadance, have you shown Barrier your special talent yet?”

Cadance looked slightly bewildered. “Do you mean the one where I use a stick of butter to-”

“Cadance!” Shining shouted, cheeks tinted red. “We swore that we’d never bring that up!”

Velvet tittered into a hoof, shaking her head. “Not that one, though I’ll need details later. I mean your other talent.”

“My love magic?”

“No, I mean the other one.”

“Love magic?” Barrier frowned in consternation, “Aren’t mind-altering spells a felony of the highest degree?”

“I’ll have you know that I know exactly how to use my love magic in ways that it are both legal and ethical,” Cadance humphed slightly. “And to answer your question Velvet, no, I’ve not burped the Equestrian National Anthem for him. Would you like to hear Barrier?”

“Certainly,” Barrier answered with genuine curiosity.

“I’ll get her a can of Tentacle Grape,” Night Light offered, standing and making his way into the kitchen; nopony paid any heed to the sad groan from Shining Armor.

***

“And your grandfather?” Night Light asked as his quill scratched furiously at the charts.

“We never knew him.” Barrier admitted truthfully. “He died to a griffin ambush when my father was a young colt.”

“Not even a name?” Night Light looked up from his papers hopefully.

“I’m afraid not. Many apologies, Night Light.” Barrier began to nibble idly on a carrot he’d snagged from the kitchen earlier. After they’d finished picking on Shining, Velvet and Cadance had both moved to the kitchen to start dinner while Night Light and Barrier sat down in the living room to discuss Night Light’s ancestry, though there was seemingly little for Barrier to add to it as Night Light already knew about him.

“Ah well.” Night Light sat the papers down and stretched out, falling onto his back. “So, anything in there that doesn’t belong?”

“No…” Barrier spoke through the carrot in his mouth as his eyes roamed the documents that littered the table. “At least not that I can see. Obviously I wasn’t around for more than maybe a half-generation of the family though. I’m sorry I can’t help you out more.”

“Eh, that’s okay. Truthfully, it’s just exhilarating to actually meet you in the flesh, even if you’re a bit different than what I expected.”

“Not what you expected?” Barrier also fell onto his back, stretching out on the floor.

“You seem…carefree. Sorta happy. All of the records I found depicted you as a serious stallion. Career soldier, no nonsense, that kinda stuff.”

“In that case, I suppose you’d be right. In truth, I don’t know how I should act, so I act many different ways.”

Night Light rolled onto his side with a grunt, facing his great granduncle. “What do you mean?”

“I was a serious stallion, for the most part. There were exceptions with certain ponies, but for the most part I had to be a no-nonsense pony. Lives depended on it. I spent almost twenty years stuck as a serious pony. It was all I knew. But then I woke up in this era where everything is peaceful. Truthfully, I don’t know how I’m supposed to act, so I just…act.”

Night Light didn’t reply, uncertain what words would suit the situation; Cadance’s voice saved him from the awkward silence.

“Dinner’s ready!”

Both stallions made their way to the kitchen in silence, Barrier’s carrot still dangling loosely from his mouth.

***

Dinner started as a quiet affair quiet affair consisting of a giant pot of vegetable stew and grilled cheese sandwiches, but still exceptional in its simplicity.

“So Barrier,” Night Light was the first to break the silence. “How long will you be in Canterlot?”

“Only for tonight,” the stallion confessed. “I leave tomorrow for the Frozen North.”

Shining was too focused on shoveling stew to give any input.

Cadance swallowed before joining the conversation, “The Frozen North?” Her right eyebrow raised itself. “Whatever for? It’s miserable up there, nothing but snow and ice.”

“I’m acting as an escort for a Miss A.K. Yearling.” Barrier tore off another piece of his sandwich and popped it into his mouth.

“Yearling?” Twilight Velvet joined the conversation with her eyes narrowed in confusion. “What the hay would she need to do in the Frozen North?”

“I’m uncertain,” Barrier lied smoothly, glancing briefly at Shining Armor who had decided to forgo his spoon and simply try to drink the stew. “I was simply asked to escort her by a friend who was aware of my experience. I agreed.”

“Well, tell her she needs work on her grammar. She keeps writing ‘stallion’s” instead of “stallions” for one thing. Also be sure to tell her that that love scene between Daring Do and the griffin prince may be a bit too risque for the teen rating she wants. Oh, and tell her she can’t use commas for crap either.”

Barrier thought back to Octavia mentioning the A.K. Yearling was an author. “I’ll tell her, though I’m afraid I don’t know the context.”

“It’s something from her latest book, but it’s not released yet.”

Shining sat his bowl down cleaner than the day it’d been bought and finally spoke. “I’m going to get an early night. Thanks for dinner, Mom, Cadance. I’ll see everypony in the morning.”

“I’ll be up in a minute, Shiny,” Cadance grinned lasciviously, “I hope you will be too.”

Night Light snorted in amusement when his son’s face erupted into a blush.

True to her word, Cadance departed as well, a noticeable hop in her step; as soon as she was gone, Twilight Velvet groaned.

“I love that my son’s dating a princess, but those innuendos...”

“Are just like the ones you spouted off when we were their age, dear.” Night Light before sipping on his stew, making Velvet glare at him.

“I suppose I should turn in as well,” Barrier yawned and said his good nights as well his thanks before he too departed the kitchen, leaving the couple alone in the kitchen.

“Oh, guest room’s the third door on your right, up the stairs.” Velvet stated, drawing an appreciative smile from the darker unicorn.

“Third door on the right…” Barrier muttered softly to himself, counting the doors as he went.

“Seriously, what kind of princess has belching a song as a talent?”

The unicorn’s ears perked as the soft whisper of Shining Armor reached his ears.

“The one who loves you,” Cadance’s voice replied with an equally soft tone. “The one you love, the one who holds you close on those cold winter nights…”

Barrier could almost hear Cadance grinning.

“The one that brought the Ultramare costume tonight…”

Nope, I don’t want to know.

***

Barrier almost shot upright when he felt a weight settle into the bed alongside him, but a soft shushing sound halted him.

“Easy, it’s just us.” Twilight Velvet whispered as she nestled under the covers.

“What are you do-” Barrier craned his head around as another weight settled on the other side of him.

Night Light answered as he too crawled underneath the covers, leaning lightly against the charcoal unicorn. “Shining and Cadance kept us awake the other night, this is payback. Just play along.”

With a tired nod, Barrier fell back onto the pillow, shifting to his side in an attempt to get more comfortable only to end up spooning the light-gray mare.

“Barrier, buy me dinner first.” Velvet teased as she felt the stallion’s hoof flop tiredly on her side.

“Make sure it’s not the Critic’s Special.” Night Light advised.

Barrier only grunted, already losing himself to sleep once more.

***

“Barrier,” Shining rapped sharply on the door before sticking his head in. “Cadance has breakfast…” Words left the younger stallion as he saw Barrier slowly waking up, as well as his mother and father whom were on either side of the charcoal stallion.

“Oh man,” Night Light was the first to speak. “You were fantastic last night Barrier, you really lucked out, Shiny.” the dark-blue unicorn rolled upright and made a show of departing the door tired and with a slight waddle.

“I’ll say,” Twilight Velvet was the second to speak and climb out of the bed. Unlike Night Light, who had left tiredly and with a waddle, she almost jumped up, seeming to practically thrum with energy and satisfaction. “I wish he had used protection, but honestly, it was so good that I don’t really mind. Besides, I think Twilight would like being a big sister anyways.” Velvet too departed, extra energy in all of her movements.

Shining Armor simply stood there in the doorway dumbstruck, his mouth moving similarly to that of a goldfish, only no words accompanied it.

Barrier climbed upright last and departed with nothing more than a pat on the back for his younger counterpart before heading down the stairs; Cadance’s voice was the first to reach his ears.

“So it turns out I bought the wrong comic book company. Still, Shiny did enjoy his birthday present, even if we ended up selling it to a film studio.”

“Mornin’” Barrier yawned out as he rounded the corner into the kitchen and came to see the most intense glare he’d seen in quite some time.

“Barrier, how could you!” Cadance suddenly shot up from the table, chair scraping loudly as she did so.

“...very carefully?” Barrier asked, muzzle scrunching up in confusion.

“We heard what they said, Barrier.” A.K. Yearling also frowned at him from her spot at the table.

“You’re here early, Miss Yearling.” Barrier ignored the fuming Cadance.

“How you could cheat on Shining and I with his parents!” Cadance stalked towards Barrier, gaze intense enough the unicorn actually tensed.

“I thought you were better than that, Barrier…” A.K. shook her head as if she were ashamed.

“I thought what we had was sp…” Cadance closed her mouth in an attempt to stop her snicker; it failed and she collapsed in a fit of giggles. “I can’t do it…I just can’t. They got Shiny too good. I bet he’s still up there standing in the doorway!” Further speech was lost amidst her laughter.

“Gotta say, I never took you for a prankster,” The pegasus dropped the false tone she used while in disguise. “Nice to know you’re not all doom and gloom.” She wore a genuine smile.

“It was his parents idea, but…” Barrier smiled softly, “it was…fun, I believe the modern term is.”

“Glad you had a good time,” Daring’s smile morphed into a grin. “Ready for the Frozen North?”

Chapter 23

View Online

“Hey, you listening?”

“Aye,” Barrier replied without tearing his gaze from the rolling landscape, noting how the ground slowly became more barren and gave way to ice the longer they went, and how every twenty or so seconds the train seemed to hit a slight bump.

“Are you paying attention?” Daring’s gaze narrowed.

The unicorn replied with a slight hum of acknowledgement, gaze remaining on the window.

“Barrier, my mane’s on fire.”

“You look great,” Barrier replied once more without turning to face her.

Daring groaned and pressed both of her forehooves to her face. After a brief period of suffering, the pegasus perked up, a smile settling itself on her features as she reached into her saddlebag and began to fish around. After much searching, Daring was rewarded with the sight of the object of her desire: a rubber band. With a smile, she caught the band on the very edge of her hoof and drew it back to the breaking point before taking careful aim…

“Ow, son of a bitch!” Barrier winced, pinning the stinging ear to his skull as he turned to face his travelling companion. “What is wrong with you?!”

“What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with you?! I’ve been talking for like fifteen minutes now and you’ve just been nodding occasionally.”

“Apologies,” Barrier let a throaty sigh escape him. “My mind was elsewhere. What were you saying?”

“I was asking if you knew anything about the Diamond Ray of Disappearance.”

“Only that is an artifact of the Crystal Empire.”

“Good thing one of us came prepared then.” Daring held up her worn journal. “Princess Celestia finally gave me access to a restricted section of the archives. I copied down what I could find about it.”

“And what does it say about our quarry?”

Daring opened the journal to a dog-eared page and began to read. “Myths say that the Diamond Ray of Disappearance was entrusted to the crystal ponies by a group of elders -race not disclosed- who foresaw that it would one day fall into the clutches of evil. Fearing what horrors such a weapon could cause, the Crystal Ponies hid it an ice-cavern, never to be seen again.”

“That sounds incredibly stupid.” Barrier deadpanned. “And quite useless. Its origins are meaningless to us, only its location and the abilities of it.”

Daring glared at the unicorn for a moment before she replied, “If you want to know what it can do, then don’t interrupt me!”

Barrier twirled his hoof at the mare, much to her irritation.

“It supposedly has the power to banish creatures to another dimension.”

“Do we know anything of this other dimension?”

Daring glared even harder. “Stop. Interrupting.”

The unicorn just smiled in amusement.

“Nothing’s known about the other dimension and the idea that it sends the victims to another dimension is based on what was said by the elders who gave the crystal ponies the Diamond. About the only other thing mentioned was that it would shoot out a beam whenever the box was opened.”

“And the Crystal Ponies abandoned it in a cave. Excellent.”

“In any case, all that we can say with certainty is that when you open it, the artifact fires off a beam and makes whatever the beam hits vanish. “ Daring snapped the journal shut. “So, now that I’ve told you what I know about the Diamond, why don’t you tell me what you know about the frozen north?”

“There’s little to tell,” Barrier winced as the train bounced harder than it previously had.

“Still afraid of trains?” Daring wore her trademark grin.

Barrier ignored the bait in favor of retrieving the map and unfolding it. “As I was saying, there’s little to tell. With the Empire gone, it’s just a frozen wasteland with some very unfriendly inhabitants. We’ll be avoiding most if not all of them. We’ll likely set up camp on the edge right here, alongside the train-tracks. It’s the only landmark besides the empire, and I’d rather avoid that if we can.”

Daring hopped over to Barrier’s bench, leaning against him to peer at the map.

“Though, unless it’s in one of the first two caves, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to do so.” Barrier found himself leaning into the warm mare.

“We could go around. It’d take a little more time, but-”

“I appreciate the thought Daring, but I’ll be fine. It’d take too long to try and skirt around an area as large as what the empire covered and you really don’t want to spend any more time in the cold than you have to. If you get caught out in the open at night, freezing to death is a very real possibility this far north.”

“We’ve got enough supplies for it though.” Daring pointed out, motioning to the stallion’s bulging travelpack and then to her own.

“I’ll be fine,” Barrier reassured his temporary body-pillow. “Now that the business portion of this trip is concluded, Mrs. Velvet asked me to pass along a message regarding your books.”

Daring perked up slightly, drawing her head back to meet the unicorn’s gaze; Velvet hadn’t mentioned anything to her when she was in the Sparkle Household that morning.

“She said to work on your grammar. Apparently you keep misusing ‘stallions’ and stallion’s’. She also said, I quote: “she can’t use commas for crap either”.”

Daring snorted in amusement. “Anything else my editor wanted you to pass along?”

“She mentioned something about a love scene between you and a Griffin prince that she thought would be better left out in favor of a rating.” Barrier drew his own head back to see the faint blush on Daring’s cheeks.

“Okay,” she admitted. “Yeah, that might need to be redone or cut.”

“Was it based on a real event?”

“Heh, yeah.” Daring rubbed her neck sheepishly. “What can I say? It was a party, and it’d been awhile.”

Barrier’s muzzle scrunched up and the stallion snorted. “I can’t picture a pony willingly coupling with a griffin.”

“Eh, it isn’t that bad once you get past the barbs. Not my best experience, bu-”

Barrier gagged slightly. “That’s not what I meant, Daring.”

“What else could you have meant?” The pair locked eyes briefly before realization dawned. “Ohhhhh! Right, right. Trust me, I’ve met a lot of griffins in my time. Most of them are as nice as any pony. There are a few rude ones, but they’re few and far between. I know that you had a lot of nasty griffins in your time but trust me, they’re way better now.”

“What kind of literature do you write?” Barrier asked, clearly trying to shift the subject.

“I technically write fiction, but they’re all based on my adventures. I just keep them as fiction so ponies don’t badger me. If everypony knew Daring Do was real, my trips would be a lot more troublesome.”

Barrier simply hummed his acknowledgement, unable to really argue the point.

“What about you? Ever write anything?”

A chuckle coupled with his mane tickling her neck was Daring’s only response.

“So is that a yes or a no?”

“No, I’ve never written anything. Well, nothing you’ll find published in a book. Perhaps the longest thing I’ve ever written was my report on the Gallopfreyan occupation.”

“Gallopfrey?” Daring took a moment to place the name. “Oh, the original name for Trottingham.” Daring hissed slightly at her casual delivery. “Sorry, I forgot.”

Barrier chuckled again, “It’s fine, Daring. You don’t have to treat me as if I’m made of glass. I admit I wasn’t handling my issues before but I’m working on them.”

“So…would you be willing to tell me about Gallopfrey?” The pegasus tried to draw her tone back, but the curiosity bled through regardless.

My second greatest failure. Barrier closed his eyes in thought; Daring had been a good friend, despite their disagreements. “Very well, Daring. I’ll tell you one of my experiences in Gallopfrey, but,” The screeching of the train’s brakes interrupted their conversation, drawing a smile from Barrier; couldn’t have timed it better. “It will have to wait until tonight. It appears we’ve reached our destination.”

“You planned that,” Daring didn’t bother to hide her annoyance as she turned her gaze to the window; it was frosted over and she couldn’t see out of it.

Barrier only hummed in response, nosing their cabin door open and calling out loudly to the engineer’s compartment: “We’re gone! Safe journeys, friends!”

Daring followed Barrier out of their cabin and then the train and onto the rickety wooden platform; almost immediately she began to shiver and dig around in her packs for a heating crystal; Barrier only grinned as he watched the train depart, slowly picking up speed; despite his worries of being near the empire, the whole situation felt more familiar to him than anything had in months.

***

“And…” Barrier dropped his hoof on the peg one final time, making sure it was more than secure in the ice beneath them. “done.”

“Just in time by the looks of it,” Daring turned just in time to watch the last vestiges of sunlight fade into the western horizon.

“Aye, we don’t want to be out in the open at night.” Despite the slight urgency in his voice, Barrier took several steps back to admire the tent, eyes tracing over the faux-fur that composed the lining and insulation. Hopefully it’d be as warm as the real thing. “We need to get a fire going as well.”

Daring nodded and reached into her saddlebag, pulling out a heavy bundle of hickory-wood and significantly lightening her pack before reaching over to the other side and doing the same for a second bundle. “Oh man, it feels so good to have those off of my back.” As she spoke she arched her back, eliciting a number of satisfying pops, each accompanied by a groan of relief.

“You’re the one who insisted on carrying them.” Barrier’s horn flared as the bundles stacked themselves under a corner of train platform, a short distance from the tent before his magic snipped the cables holding the wood together; within minutes the stallion had a campfire blazing less than a stone’s throw from the tent where both he and Daring sat, slightly leaning against each other to share body heat.

“So, earlier you-” a series of wolves howling interrupted the mare briefly; she waited for them to fall silent before continuing. “You said you’d tell me about Gallopfrey earlier.”

“So I did,” Barrier acknowledged and took a moment of silence to organize his thoughts. “Alright, I’ll tell you about the final time I saw Gallopfrey and the second biggest failure of my time in the guard.” Barrier’s horn flared, retrieving a pot of boiling water from the small fire, his magic making tea even as he spoke.

“It was probably about three months or so after my cadets and I returned from Butterfly Island. We’d finally managed to push the griffins assault away from Manehattan and regain some of the ground that Gallopfrey had cost us, and the princesses wanted us to try and use that momentum to retake the city. Our job was to get any ponies still alive in the city out and kill what griffins we could, Grimhilde being at the top of the list.” as Barrier continued his narrative he found the memories resurfacing…

***

Barrier winced slightly as he and five other ponies sunk knee-deep in the cold water, departing the relative warmth of their rowboats. “Alright soldiers, get the boats out of the water, quietly.” Letting a dim light flare to life on the tip of his horn, Barrier and his team quickly tugged the boats towards the tree-line, several more boats joining them, each carrying two ponies clad almost entirely in dark-brown cloaks and cloth armor. Like Barrier and his team, the new ponies quickly dragged their boats up onto the shore and into the treeline out of the sight of peering eyes; he’d have to remember to thank Princess Luna for darkening the moon for them.

“Alright, ye six.” Barrier turned to address the extras that had accompanied them, “Stay here with the boats, no fire, no noise. Anything shows up, kill it quietly.” Six nods quickly followed as Barrier’s attention shifted to five ponies he knew much better. “Alright soldiers, let’s go meet Lieutenant Star and get this over with.” Five sharp salutes went up from his team—much to Barrier’s irritation—and they were off.

***

Barrier stopped his tale to take a short sip of tea, Daring following suit.

“Sounds like everything started out smoothly,” Daring noted as she sat her cup down; Barrier snorted.

“Nothing ever goes exactly to plan,” Barrier shrugged. “That’s why they’re plans and not certainties. In hindsight, I should’ve known better. Everything was going too right. I should’ve seen it coming.”

***

“Alright soldiers…” His teammates and the newcomer, Lieutenant Star—a dark-grey pegasus with a dark purple mane and tail and a silver snake cutie-mark—huddled down around the rough map that Star had provided, detailing what he knew of the Griffin positions within Gallopfrey. “I want Braeburn and Ember to head to the holding cages,” Barrier pointed the spot out on the map, “and get those ponies out. Silver Dust, River Styx,” Barrier glanced to the earth pony and unicorn respectively, “I want you to start as many fires as you can right around here. That should draw the griffins’ attention long enough for Braeburn and Ember to get the prisoners out. Myself, Flash, and Star will go after Grimhilde and meet you back at the boats. Everybody clear on it?” A quick round of affirmatives saw the plan underway.

***

“So what went wrong?” Daring interrupted, receiving a glare from the unicorn, much to her silent delight.

“We infiltrated the city without any problems and everything was going fine until we got stabbed in the back.”

“Somepony on your team betrayed you?” Daring drew back in slight surprise.

“No, he was never on my team, unfortunately. If he had been, I’d have been a better spot to kill him myself. No, everything went fine until I went into Grimhilde’s tent…”

***

“Flash, Star, keep an eye out here. I’ll only be a moment.”

Both ponies nodded and took up position where two griffin corpses were now resting.

Damned monsters… Barrier felt his hackles rise as gaze rested on the sleeping form of Grimhilde LeGrande. From the neck down, she had a charcoal-colored coat, not entirely dissimilar of his own, save her front talons which were the more standard gold. Gripping the knife all the tighter in his magic, Barrier crept towards the hen, only now noting how large she was. Even lying down, he could see she was probably about a half-head taller than him, perhaps just above Princess Luna in height and, unlike a lot of griffins, she was pure muscle.

Good riddance. Barrier raised the dagger to strike, only for a pained grunt and crash come from where he’d left his companions. As he turned his head towards the entrance of the tent, stars exploded across his vision, the knife flying from his magical hold. Instinctively backpedaling, Barrier forced his head up just in time to see a talon flying at it. Almost in a panic, the stallion fell to the side, wincing as he felt his hide armor and side being cut through like paper.

Desperately back-peddling, Barrier felt his hindquarters crash into something. Making to turn around and confront it, he felt something close around his horn before his face went crashing into the ground, a set of talons wasting no time in slamming a magic-inhibitor to the base of his horn and locking it, causing his magical charge to be sent back into his skull, the effect leaving his head spinning wildly at the sudden shock.

“Well this was a surprise,” Grimhilde spoke with a cocky tone. “It seemeth thou wert right after all.” The hen gazed down at Barrier with a smirk as he glared up at her, blood trickling from his mouth where she had split his lip with the ground.

Drawing in a sharp breath, Barrier spat as hard as he could, the mixture of blood and spit striking Grimhilde directly in the face.

Grimhilde didn’t even bother wiping it; she just grinned a little wider, clenched her right talon and swung, driving it downward into his jaw; Barrier coughed and shook as he struggled to stay conscious.

“I had heard that one of Equestria’s finest captains would be sent to slay me, I was hoping such a foe would prove to be more of a challenge.” She picked Barrier up bodily before throwing him across the tent, the stallion’s form slamming face first into a chest. “Rise. I can see thou still hast some fight in thee, and I prefer to have my meals tenderised while they’re conscious. They should learn their place before they receive such an honour as becoming one with the perfection that is the griffin form.”

***

“Can I help you find something?” Barrier glanced flatly at Daring Do who had begun to rub her hooves through his fur as if looking for something. He actually shivered when her hoof found the three welts -reminders of that night- that were normally covered by fur.

“So what happened afterwards?” Daring’s hooves kept exploring, finding smaller, less noteworthy scars. Though they were usually hidden by fur, Barrier had no shortage.

“I got my flank handed to me. Admittedly, it was foolish to try and fight immediately after what the inhibitor did, but I didn’t have many options.”

***

Barrier shook his head in an effort to clear up his dizziness to no avail. Deciding it was probably there to stay, he backed up slightly, taking in the rest of the room as best he could; there was nothing more than a single table, a chest, and a cot. Perhaps the barest officer’s tent he’d ever seen.

“Come, I wish to be entertained,” Grimhilde’s smirk persisted.

Taking a deep breath, Barrier took an unsteady step forward, ignoring the flare of protest from his side. Gait steadying as he picked up speed, Barrier rushed Grimhilde, turning around at the last second and aiming a buck; much to his surprise the griffin reached out and snatched his hind legs before rearing up and bringing one of her own hindlegs crashing into his stomach, sending him bouncing across the room once more.

“Ah, you poor pathetic pony,” Grimhilde stalked forward with a grace afforded only to her species. “Thou wert so deluded that you thought thou couldst stand a chance against me…” She stood over the downed stallion as she spoke.

Barrier could only half-make out the speech, his ears having started ringing when he contacted the ground for the second time. With as much energy as he could muster, his forehooves shot out, Grimhilde smirking as she reared back and dropped down on both of his forehooves with practiced ease, talons closing tightly around them. “I’m stronger than thee,” Grimhilde heaved and sent the unicorn flying across the room once again, into the same chest as before, “faster,” before Barrier could even consider standing up, Grimhilde had closed the distance and bull-rushed him into the side of the chest once more, this time actually pushing him through the chest and scattering its contents. “Without your magic,” Grimhilde sneered at the bloody pony, “thou art not to me but a filling meal.”

Barrier staggered upright, leaning against one of the tent’s support-poles and glaring angrily at the grinning bird. Grimacing, he flared his magic angrily, pushing as much magic as he could, regardless of the inhibitor.

“Oh?” Grimhilde laughed as she saw the very base of his horn light up. “That’s jus-” She fell silent when a thin crack formed in the ring and the horn flared even brighter. Eyes widening, she rushed forward, claws shooting out and across the unicorn’s chest, his horn’s light dieing out almost immediately. “Now, that was impressive.” she praised as she hefted him up by his shoulders. “But I think it’s time to bring this to a close.” With the same persistent grin, Grimhilde drew her head back and slammed it forward; Barrier saw nothing but black.

***

“Hello there!” Barrier shifted away from Daring Do as she ran her hooves over his flanks.

“Oh, come on you big baby!” the pegasus teased with a jab to his flank. “Now, keep going. I want to know what happened.”

“Flash told me that over an hour had passed between his capture and my liberation, but I only remember what happened when I regained consciousness.”

***

The first sensation that Barrier felt was a burning pain in his side. With a pained cough, the unicorn opened both of his painfully swollen eyes and took in his surroundings; he was in the same tent he’d been beaten in, except now he dangled from a rope fitted to the ceiling-pole.

“Ah, thou hast awoken. Excellent.” Grimhilde sat up on her cot, drawing the unicorn’s attention; she looked surprisingly vibrant. “About time. Now, I believe I’ve had enough entertainment. Why don’t we get down to business so we can move on to the main event?” She then darkly chuckled, “Or should I say, main course?”

Barrier only grunted in response, maintaining eye contact with the larger creature.

“How were thee a-planning to get off of the island with my prisoners?” Grimhilde hefted herself from the bed and stalked over to the dangling captain.

“Magic Barrier, Captain of the Equestrian Royal Guard, two-three-eight-zero, thr-” Barrier was cut off when Grimhilde threw a clenched talon into his jaw, sending him swinging about helplessly.

“Now, now, that is not what I asked of you. How. we-”

“Magic Barrier, Captain of the Guard, two-three-” this time the stallion was cut off by a new voice.

“He won’t tell you anything like that. Thou wilt have to use somepony to make him talk. Rumors say he is very close to Sergeant Ember. Mayhaps threatening her could make him talk.”

Lieutenant Star… Barrier mentally noted, struggling uselessly in his bonds.

“When did I say you could interrupt me?” Grimhilde turned her focus from Barrier to the pony in question.

“I didn’t want thee to kill him before we got something useful out of him,” the lieutenant deadpanned, making an active effort not to tense as Grimhilde stalked over to him.

“Thou art a fool, Starscream!” She all but hissed, “What wouldst thou do if the prisoner escaped? Thou would beest useless to us, nothing more than feed, like the rest of thy race.”

“I trust that won’t happen.” The pegasus stood his ground defiantly. “‘Twould be a shame for the king to find out that thee did something so negligent, now wouldn’t it?”

Grimhilde held the pegasus’s gaze for several hard seconds before smiling. “See, why can’t more of ye ponies be like that?” Grimhilde turned back to her captive. “Why can’t more of ye show some backbone like Lieutenant Star here? Now he’s admittedly stupid, but at least he tries. He knows who is the right species to bow too.” Grimhilde shoved Barrier, setting him to swinging once more.

“Starscream, go fetch Sergeant Ember. Maybe she’ll be more cooperative.”

“Ma’am,” Starscream departed with a faint smile.

“So, how should we occupy ourselves while Lieutenant Star is away?” Grimhilde gave Barrier another light shove, sending him spinning once more.

“I know!” Grimhilde knocked a talon to the ground and grabbed Barrier’s foreleg, stopping his movement. “How about I let you ask some questions? It’s the least I can do before I honor you.”

“Honor me?” Barrier asked hesitantly, knowing he probably shouldn’t.

“Thou wilt have the great honor of being apart of my meals for the next week!” The griffin sounded almost cheery. “Becoming one with a griffin’s body is the highest honor a species as pathetic as thine can experience. It’s an honor shared with many stallions, mares, and foals here in Gallopfrey.”

Against his better judgement, Barrier asked another question; one he wasn’t sure he really wanted to know. “Why?”

“I’m a very generous griffin.” Grimhilde spread her talons wide as if she were going to hug him. “Hence my sharing this honor with as many of thy kind as I can.”

“I meant why the foals!” Barrier barked, trying to lunge forward as he did so, to no avail.

“Ah, that is a very simple one to answer. They have the best meat, to start. Young and not entirely developed, they’re very tender. Also, they’re small, which means there’s less effort involved in cleaning their bones. Besides, I’m sparing them from a prolonged existence as an inferior species. If anything, you ponies should be thanking me.”

Barrier didn’t reply, choosing instead to close his eyes and wait for an opportunity.

“It doesn’t seem like thou hast any other questions for me, so why don’t we go ahead and get started while we wait for Lieutenant Star to get back?” Grimhilde gave a single flap of her wings, bringing her face-to-face with the unicorn. With a single swipe of her talons, the stallion fell to the ground with a pained grunt as the rope suspending him was severed.

Barrier curled up into a ball of pain as the scabs that had begun to form over his ribs split open.

“So, anything thou wantest to tell me before I turn mine attentions on thy sergeant?” As Grimhilde spoke, she began to circle the unicorn like a wolf teasing his dinner.

“I’ll never talk,” Barrier managed a haggard smile up at his captor. “And neither will Ember.”

“Very well then, Magic Barrier. Thou wert an entertaining combatant and will make a very filling meal.” Grimhilde placed her talons under his shoulders and hoisted him up to face her. “I’ve decided that I don’t want to wait any longer. I’m certain anything thou knowest, we can extract from thy team.” Grimhilde’s expression was one of joy as she descended towards the unicorn’s throat, taking the time to lick his fur almost sensually, relishing the taste of his blood, even as dried as it was.

Guess this is it. Barrier found himself retreating into his thoughts even as he set his outward expression as neutral and stony. Mother, father, I’m sorry I failed to return to you. Ember, Flash… Barrier swallowed, closing his bruised eyes tightly. I don’t want to die…I’ve too many obligations to fulfill… The stallion was broken from his thoughts as Grimhilde began to nip at his throat, her wings fully erect as she drew her sick pleasure from the act. Forgive me. Barrier opened his eyes and watched limply as Grimhilde’s beak opened imposingly, slowly inching forward, drawing closer in preparation to snap shut and tear out his throat. Barrier could barely keep himself from shivering as he could only stare at her undulating uvula.

A soft popping sound interrupted the act followed by the tent flooding with smoke. Almost entirely on reflex, Barrier sucked in a breath of air as he saw something knock Grimhilde away. Move dammit! Barrier ordered his body, groaning in pain as he forced himself to stand.

“Hold on.”

Barrier felt his hooves leave the ground as he was hefted onto his savior’s back.

“The others…” Barrier managed to rasp out as the pony rushed him out of the tent.

“They’re not here, just stay conscious and hope they escaped.”

***

“Who was it that rescued you?” Daring interrupted again, laying her wing over Barrier’s back as she did so.

“Flash Sentry,” The unicorn answered with a yawn.

“So, what happened to the others?”

“We had managed to catch up with them. Flash started to tend to my wounds once we made it into the water…”

***

“Can thou holdest still Barrier?” Flash asked as he did his best to bandage the unicorn.

“I’m fine Flash, lay off me.” Barrier huffed in reply, trying to shake his nurse off.

“Barrier?” One of the few surviving prisoners in a boat adjacent to Barrier and Flash perked up. “Captain Magic Barrier?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Barrier replied tiredly, turning to face the pony that addressed him. The pony was a pegasus mare with a two-tone silver mane and a light gray coat; Barrier couldn’t quite place it but something about her seemed familiar. “Have we met before?”

“No, we’ve never met, but I’ve received letters from my son that mention thee.” The mare wore a faint smile now.

“Hopefully we can reunite thee with him, Mrs…”

“Silver Wind, and I certainly hope so after my husband…” She looked down and scuffed her hoof.

“Worry not, we should have thee safely in Canterlot by the week’s end,” he said before Flash finished wrapping him up and giving him a hard pat.

“That was too close,” he said as he gave Barrier a glare, “thou wert almost a Barrier sandwich.”

“Indeed”, he replied with a frightened gulp, “indeed...”

***

“So, how many did your squad manage to free?”

“We managed rescue a total of nine prisoners that night, out of twenty-eight that were in the cell we managed break into. The majority of them fell fighting their way out.”

“Damn… sorry to hear that… sounds like the mission was a bust for the most part.”

“Well, we did manage to kill at least thirty griffins, and there was something I was glad to see in Canterlot.”

“And what,” It was Daring’s turn to yawn, “was that?”

***

“Cadet Forge!” Barrier raised his voice, five cadets completing their laps before coming to a halt in front of their captain.

As usual, Hat Trick’s mouth fired up before his brain did. “Did Princess Celestia catch thou a-spying on her whilst she was bathing?“

Any other time and I’d volunteer thou to help the nurses wipe flanks… “I didn’t say for the rest of ye stop exercising, get back to it!” Barrier stated harshly, the cadets—with the exception of Forge- saluting before going back to their laps.

“Sir?” Forge asked cautiously, eyeing the pink bandages wrapped around the unicorn’s barrel. “Is everything good?”

“There’s somepony who wanteth to see thee. Normally, this wouldn’t be allowed until after thee completed all of thine training, but I’ve decided to make an exception.”

“Sir?” Iron Forge’s head tilted slightly in confusion.

“Mrs. Silver Wind, thou cannest come out now.” Barrier took several steps to the side revealing one of the few survivors they’d manage to spirit away from Gallopfrey.

“M-Mum…”

Barrier let a tired smile settle on his face as the two had a teary reunion and turned, departing back into the depths of the castle.

***

“And that’s all the story for tonight.” Barrier huddled a little closer to Daring Do as a cool breeze found its way past the fire and into the tent.

Daring only hummed tiredly in reply, shifting slightly to allow Barrier a little closer.

“Thank you, Daring.” Barrier smiled affectionately at the sleeping mare as his horn came to life and pulled the tent-flap shut as well as draped a thick blanket over them.

Chapter 24

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“Daring, wake up.” Barrier huffed, trying to roll away only for the mare’s hooves to draw him closer, forcing the wind out of him. “Daring…” Barrier tried to shift again only to find he could only slightly budge. Gods above, this mare hath an iron grip…

Daring mumbled unintelligibly, wing shifting slightly to further blanket the unicorn.

“Very well, thou brought this upon thyself.” The stallion’s horn flared to life, retrieving snow from outside of the tent. “Last chance, Daring.”

The pegasus began to chew weakly on the back of the unicorn’s head.

Barrier threw the snow with his magic, scattering the substances across her withers and the wing covering him; Daring shrieked.

***

Barrier winced as the sunlight filtered into his swollen eye - a reminder of the morning -, his good eye resting on the tan pegasus in front of him

“Cave number three.” Daring said with a slight yawn as she gazed down at the ‘cave’, a medium-sized hole at the base of the icy rock-wall they’d been following since that morning.

Barrier sighed and flared his magic, retrieving the still-glowing flares from the previous cave - the ones that Shining had suggested - from his significantly smaller saddlebags and passing one to the pegasus who took it wordlessly.

The two had left most of their supplies at the campsite, some of them buried in the snow, the others tucked away in the tent. Only some rope, his sword, and a few MRE’s—Shining had insisted they were the equivalent of the condensed hay-bricks from Barrier’s time—as well as an equal number of heating crystals and flares. Just enough to see them through the day while they searched the caverns.

“Rope.” Daring spoke from where she was staring down into the hole, squinting in a vain attempt to see the bottom.

Barrier levitated the thick coil to her, watching as she threw a rock into the hole, counting the time between its departure and the muted thud of it landing.

“We should have enough rope to get down there and back up. Sword.” Daring held out her hoof as she began to feed the rope into the hole.

“Excuse me?” Barrier rested a hoof on the blade that clung to his side, hesitant to acquiesce the pegasus.

“Sword. We need something to act as an anchor point.” Daring finished feeding the rope into the hole.

“Very well…” Barrier sighed and tugged the blade loose before reluctantly passing it to the mare.

Daring only hummed, taking the blade in hoof and driving it in the ground as hard as she could, the well-maintained blade biting into the hard surface of ice and stone effortlessly.

Barrier grumbled to himself as Daring tied the rope tightly onto the hilt and gave it several experimental tugs. “I’ll go down first.”

“What, trying to get a look at my flank by having me go down second?” Daring’s voice took a playful and teasing tone.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Barrier half-chuckled. “If something goes wrong on the way down I can teleport out. No way to know for sure if you’ll have space to fly out. Wait up here until I come back.” Barrier snatched the rope in hoof and jumped into the hole.

“Fair enough. Don’t take too long.” Daring watched the unicorn disappear before she sat down to wait.

***

Barrier grimaced as he reached the end of the rope but still not the bottom; as expected, the hole hadn’t widened enough to allow for proper flight. Dropping his heating crystal, Barrier waited for it to clatter on the ground, counting the seconds until it did so. Here goes. Barrier released his grip on the rope and began to fall downward towards the glow of his flare, counting as he fell before he disappeared with the tell-tale pop of teleportation and reappeared right next to his flare, momentum having vanished.

Taking a moment to reorient himself, Barrier took the flare in his magical hold once more and raised it, taking in the large cavern that the hole had opened up into, his eyes taking particular note of the sharp stalactites dangling from the ceiling, the slick appearance of the walls, and the stale air. “Wonder how deep I am…” Barrier almost immediately regretted the question when a deep rumble briefly wracked the cave for several frightening seconds before fading into silence once more. Silently making his way back to the hole he’d come in from, Barrier set his flare down and teleported once more.

***

“So,” Daring stared at the disoriented unicorn in front of her. “What’s the verdict horn-head?”

“It’s a death-trap.” Barrier replied honestly. “It’s about a thirty-foot drop from the end of the rope to the ground, but it opens up into a fairly big cavern after about fifteen. It’s also dangerous. Just my regular voice was enough to set the place shaking. I think we should probably skip this one but I know you’re going to refuse.”

Daring scoffed. “You said we should skip the second cave as well but that turned out fine, didn’t it?”

“You brought the ceiling down on us. Literally.”

“Eh, we got out of that one okay, we’ll get out of this one okay. In we go!” The pegasus didn’t wait for a reply, taking the rope in her hoof and diving down the hole.

“Of course,” Barrier deadpanned at the hole before leaping back down himself, taking the descent far more quickly this time.

***

“Wow…” Daring whispered in amazement as her eyes danced along the ceiling.

“Starest in wonderment when we’re a-leaving.” Barrier hissed, nudging Daring’s flank forward and glancing nervously at the ceiling, feeling as if an invisible weight were already pressing on him.

“Alright, I’m goin’, stop pushing.” Daring hissed back; a faint wave of dust fell from the ceiling with a faint rumble.

Before Daring could even tense, Barrier’s horn flared to life and an icy-blue shield sprung into life around them drowning out the rumbling sound as well as blocking out their view of the cave.

“Paranoid much?” Daring asked with an almost mischievous smile on her face.

Barrier didn’t reply immediately, instead taking a moment to get his breathing under control before dropping his shield and starting towards the far end of the cavern where another opening awaited with a tired frown.

“Oh come on,” Daring whispered as she caught up to the stallion. “I’m just messin’ with you. Consider it payback for this morning.”

The unicorn didn’t reply until they left the entrance and journeyed further into the vast cavern, hearing a strange noise echo throughout the chamber.

Daring’s ears twitched as they picked up something that sounded like a high pitched laughter.

“Nyeh-heh-heh-heh…”

Another blue shield wrapped around the pair in only a fraction of a second after the laughter caused another deep rumble.

Daring opened her mouth to comment, but lost her words when she realized the stallion was coiled tighter than a spring. Carefully approaching the unicorn, Daring dropped a hoof on his withers. “Alright, what’s got you so worked up?” Her voice has none of the jovial tone it usually carried.

Barrier hesitated, worried about how the statement would make him appear.

“Come on, talk to me,” Daring pressed. “You being this nervous and wound up could be a problem if anything goes wrong while we’re down here.”

“If a cave-in or something happens this far underground, I can’t teleport us both out. One of us maybe, but definitely not both of us, not that far.” Barrier’s barrier slowly faded revealing the drab grey walls faintly illuminated by their red crystal.

“Ah, jeez…” Daring rubbed the back of her head. “Alright, let’s get this over with and get out of here then. I promise I’ll be careful. Come on.” Daring rapped Barrier on the shoulder before moving forward through the tunnel.

Taking a deep breath to steel himself, Barrier followed along, ears swiveling forward as another echo reached them, once more of the high-pitched laughter. “Daring, does that voice sound like someone you’ve faced before?”

“No… and those prints don’t look like anything I’ve seen before either.” Daring held the crystal closer to the ground, illuminating a trail of prints in the thin layer of dust.

“Nor I.” Barrier replied softly as he carefully gazed at the trail. He couldn’t think of any bipedal races that could leave such a long and oddly shaped bootprint.

“Well, I guess we’ll find out when we get there.” Daring picked up the pace slightly, Barrier following suit until they were moving as fast as they safely could as the more sounds - these being the sounds of movement - rang through their tunnel.

“We were so close…who could’ve taken it?”

“I do recognize that voice though…” Daring grimaced as their tunnel opened up to a small circular room with a lone carved pedestal in the center…and a multitude of cats around it. “Ahuizotl.”

Barrier felt his gaze drawn to the tallest of the cats, exceptionally dark-blue with a lighter cerulean underbelly and paws, all topped off with deceptively sharp nails.

“Daring Do.” The cat spoke with well-concealed venom in his tone. “Of course you would be here.”

“I think he’s still mad at me.” Daring’s voice reverted to it’s usual, jovial self. “Nice to see you, Ahuizotl. I half expected you to be out here. Figured you’d recruit snow-leopards or such, but it looks like you’ve only got the usual gang of idiots.” Daring eyed the other cats; a panther, a tiger, a leopard, a lynx, and last but not least, a particularly fluffy white kitten with the eyes of a demon.

“They’re kind of cute. I don’t suppose we can keep them, can we?” Barrier eyed the kitten briefly before it drifted over the other, larger specimens.

“Nah, I don’t think Ahuizotl is litter-trained.” Daring glanced past the cat at the empty pedestal. “Looks like you were a little late, huh kitty-cat?”

Ahuizotl growled, lowering himself into a pouncing position. “Give me the diamond, Daring Do!”

“If I had it, don’t you think I’d be threatening to blast you with it?” Daring flared her wings and began to move to one side of the chamber, following her long-time enemy.

“Why would we do that? Cats are great survival-food, you know? They’re quite rich with protein.” Barrier moved to the opposite side of the chamber, the rest of the cats following him. “You know if we fight here, we risk bringing this entire cavern down on us, right?” All of the cats and Daring Do launched themselves at each other at almost the same time.

“Of course.” Barrier rushed forward, eyes settling on the tiger. They’re more instinct than intelligence. Barrier half-leapt, the tiger responding in kind with a full leap. One down.

Barrier squatted, thrusting his head up, the sharp tip of his horn burying itself in his opponent’s throat. Struggling to remain stable with the sudden addition of weight, the unicorn jerked hard to the side, weakly throwing the mass of muscle off of his horn just in time for something to barrel into his side and close its jaws around his shoulder.

Feeling his hooves begin to leave the ground, Barrier threw himself with the momentum as hard as he could, rolling almost completely in the air before his assailant—the panther, he could now see—crashed painfully into the ground, following by the bulky unicorn half-landing on top of him. Whether through luck or intention, the unicorn was rewarded with a sharp pop and crack as the awkward angle dislocated and cracked the panther’s jaw, releasing his shoulder with a messy tear.

Damn, that smarts… Barrier made to heft himself upward only for another weight to unbalance him, rolling him onto his back. With a vicious roar that sent the cavern—surprisingly stable up to this point—rumbling the cat sunk towards the unicorn’s throat only to find his progress impeded by a desperate forehoof.

Barrier growled in reply as his head tried to bury itself further into the ground, away from the slavering animal. With a grunt, Barrier managed to snake his hind legs beneath the lynx and shot them upwards. For several brief seconds the lynx experienced the miracle of flight, only for it to end with another sickening crunch as Barrier scrambled to his feet and caught the flightless cat on his horn, his neck barely shifting under the fifty pounds. Almost casually, Barrier threw the former predator from his horn and set his gaze on the two remaining opponents, the leopard and the kitten. “So,” Barrier could feel the blood slowly trickling down his horn and flared his magic, boiling and burning the blood off of the surface in an intimidating display. “Which one of you is nex-” the stallion was interrupted when his pegasus companion went flying by him, back into the tunnel they’d come from, crashing noisily to the floor.

Ahuizotl jerked his gaze towards the unicorn, absolute rage in his eyes as he saw the limp forms of his former allies. “You…” the cat’s voice was low, almost quivering with anger.

“Me.” Barrier replied flatly, carefully backing up towards the tunnel he and Daring had come through, ears twitching as the sounds of the pegasus moving reached them.

“YOU!” Ahuizotl’s voice jumped up several levels, the shout of rage bouncing around the chamber and turning the rumble into a crumbling ceiling, cracks spider-webbing throughout the walls and ceiling.

“Daring…” Barrier raised his own voice, calling out over the noise the collapsing cave.

“Run!” Was the pegasus’s reply and the only warning the unicorn needed as both of them turned tail and began to bolt back towards the entrance.

In a fraction of the time it’d taken them before, the pair galloped into the cavern they’d started in, stalactites and chunks of the ceiling crashing all around them.

“Move!” It was Barrier started their flight this time, an angled shield buzzing to life above the pair as they began their mad dash back towards the exit.

“How’re we getting to the rope!” Daring yelled out as they quickly approached their entry-point.

“Just keep running!” Barrier almost stumbled as a rock crashed into and slid down the side of his shield. Closing his eyes as a second layer of magic coated his horn, Barrier groaned as a shield in the shape of a ladder steadily started to snake its way up the wall and into the hole just as the formerly pony-sized chunks of rocks were replaced by rocks the size of carriages.

***

Daring coughed wildly as she desperately clawed her way out of the hole, followed shortly by a unicorn who was likewise coughing up dust.

“Do you think he’s dead?” Barrier managed to ask hoarsely.

“I wouldn’t count on it…” Daring wheezed out a reply. “Every time I think someone in my rogues gallery is dead, they seem to come back. I swear they’ve gotta be part cockroach.”

“We made it…” Barrier rolled on the icy ground before a final cloud of dust shot up out of the hole and the ground they were resting on began to shake faintly.

“Maybe…” Daring forced herself up on shaky legs. “Maybe we should get back to camp.”

Barrier silently agreed, magic ripping his sword from the ground and severing the rope before he and Daring both stumbled into the frozen wasteland once more, the unicorn stopping only briefly to bandage his shoulder.

“Well,” Daring waited until they were a safe distance from the collapsed cavern to begin speaking, “trying to get the diamond was a total bust, but at least Ahuizotl didn’t get it either. Can’t help but wonder who got their grubby little mitts on it though…”

“We should still consider checking the other caves the princess suggested, just to be absolutely certain. However slim the chance, it’s better safe than sorry.”

“Sure thing, but…” Daring stopped, taking a moment to catch her breath—they’d been almost running towards the camp. “Maybe we should wait until tomorrow morning.”

Sure enough, the sun had began it’s quick descent below the horizon.

“Yeah…yeah,” Barrier replied, equally out of breath. “Tomorrow…” the unicorn flopped uselessly onto his stomach, the campsite just visible in the distance. “Darrring…” the unicorn stretched the word out, holding his forehooves out. “Carry me the rest of the way?”

Daring turned and stared at the unicorn incredulously for a moment before she took both of his forehooves and hefted him onto her back with a groan. “Fine, but you owe me a fancy dinner when we get back to Canterlot.”

“I was joking!” Barrier tried to roll off of the mare only for her to spread her wings to stop him.

“Shaddup,” Daring huffed. “Maybe if you’re extremely lucky and play your cards right, this won’t be only time you’ll be on top of me.”

Barrier’s drew his head back in slight surprise before settling on the smaller mare’s back. “You shut up,” he replied childishly, ignoring what the mare had said despite the scenarios it’d planted in his head.

Chapter 25

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Daring Do stretched her wings out as she stepped out of the final cavern, seeing the orange sky. “I am so ready to get back to Canterlot. This cold weather isn’t really comfortable with feathers.”

Barrier didn’t reply, instead tightening his gaze on the direction of the former Crystal Empire.

“Oi.” Daring tapped the unicorn on the shoulder, following his gaze to the frozen wasteland. “You okay?” She knew what had once been in that direction, but the unicorn had been surprisingly comfortable when passing through the former empire.

“Yeah,” Barrier finally replied, slowly tugging his gaze towards his companion and rolling the injured shoulder. “Just…thinking is all.”

“Well, think on the way back to camp, I’m cold.” Daring didn’t look at the unicorn as she spoke, instead beginning the long trek back to camp, knowing he would follow suit. “So, what do you think I should look for first after this? The Wand of Magic Star, or the long-lost sword of the Falchion Clan?”

Barrier raised an eyebrow as his eyes drifted from Daring’s flanks to the back of her head. “I thought you went after dangerous artifacts? The sword of the Falchion Clan hardly qualifies.”

“I usually only deal with dangerous stuff when the princess has a specific request. Besides, the Falchion Clan was one of the most well-known noble-houses of the pre-Nightmare Moon era. Their sword was used in countless historical battles. Plus I have bills to pay and rare magical junk doesn’t come by often enough to make a living.”

“Fair enough,” Barrier conceded as his horn lit up in response to the snow that seemed to be picking up and working itself into a flurry. It was almost always snowing, but only on occasion did it become a full-blown blizzard. “At any rate, you won’t find the sword. It was lost in the Crystal Empire, along with the clan’s heir.”

The pegasus turned around and began walking backwards, eyes meeting with Barrier’s. “You sound pretty certain of that.”

“Swiftsword—heir of the Falchion Clan—was a cadet under my command.” Barrier’s met eyes with the pegasus rather than drifting downwards as was habit when discussing his former students.

“Ah,” Daring smiled apologetically. “Sorry, didn’t know.”

“‘Tis fine.” Barrier shrugged. “It still hurts to think about, but I can’t imagine any of them would be pleased if I kept dwelling on it.”

“What about the son of the Falchion Clan; Mars, I think his name was. I know there’s a bunch of trashy romance novels with him.”

Barrier shrugged, barely remembering the few times Swiftsword had talked about her younger brother.

Daring continued to walk backwards, eyes not leaving Barrier’s, the pair locked in a silent staring contest even as they spoke. “Well, I know that he never had any children. The Falchions died out after all.”

“I wouldn’t know. I didn’t really encourage sharing such things amongst the group whilst we were training.” Barrier’s horn died out, the bubble he’d surrounded them with vanishing and allowing the snow in.

Daring yelped, her gaze breaking away from the unicorn in favor of shaking the newly-placed snow off of her back.

“I did find out some other interesting things about those crazy kids though.” Barrier’s horn flared again, this time a thin dome covering their tent and tugging the flap open to permit the pair inside.

“Things such as?” Daring made her way into the tent before collapsing tiredly on the pile of blankets, shivering slightly as the small heating crystal fell from between the feathers of her wing where it’d been tucked.

“I’m not really certain what I can tell you. I was never actually given guidelines about what is and isn’t classified anymore.”

“Quit teasing me,” Daring huffed as she buried herself beneath the blankets, a wing unfurling to allow Barrier easy entry.

“Very well.” Barrier’s horn died out, the tent opening closing with the loss of magic. “I suppose Winter Gem would be the best place to start. She considered her father and cousin’s—her cousin being Sergeant Braeburn, a member of my team—suggestions of leaving the guard and becoming farmers as idiotic. I remember overhearing the argument. She was certain it would lead her family into financial ruin.” The unicorn wiggled his way beneath the covers, his own heating crystal separating from his body with a brief flare of magic.

Daring Do draped her wing over the unicorn’s withers, the two shifting closer together in favor of shared body-heat.

“Then there was Swiftsword. She insisted on replacing her pillow with a pillowcase of cobblestone. ‘Twas about as effective as it sounds. At least she tried to stick with it for about two weeks,” Barrier chuckled, resting his head on his forehooves. “I never knew very much about Hat Trick. He was an orphan, but I recall hearing that his parents owned a game-store of sorts before they passed away.” Barrier’s tone fell slightly, his expression becoming a bittersweet smile.

“Iron Forge was the pony I knew the most about, mostly on account of meeting his mother and reuniting the pair. Even after he disappeared with the empire, his mother and I remained close friends. I don’t remember why, but Flash Sentry woke me up one morning and told me I had to discipline Iron Forge. Come to find out he’d attempted to set the water in the castle courtyard’s fountain aflame… and succeeded. To this day, I’m still not sure how he did it.” Barrier’s lips parted to let a small chuckle escape. “They were all one of a kind. I was far more attached than I should have been, especially in such a short time.”

“Wasn’t there a fifth cadet?” The pegasus asked with a yawn. “Verdant Range, right?”

Barrier hummed his affirmation and briefly remained silent, taking a moment to organize his thoughts. “I actually met Verdant years before any of the other cadets, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was twenty-seven at the time, heading home on leave when a flower cart came barreling down the street. This little green blur I thought was a filly was sprinting behind it, yelling to get out of the way.” Barrier let a happy laugh escape him, starkly contrasting the former chuckles. “I wasn’t in armor at the time and ended up with a broken leg. Naturally the ‘filly’ ran off before anypony could say anything.” Barrier let the words settle before continuing, “Years later, I found out who I thought was a little filly was actually Verdant Range. He was thirteen at the time and had just started working as an apprentice. When he found out it was me he hit, he apologized for over an hour. Didn’t stop me from giving him latrine duty for a week though.”

Daring let loose a laugh of her own before the tent lapsed into a comfortable silence, broken only by the sound of the two occasionally shifting.

“So,” Barrier finally broke it. “What do you plan on doing when we get back to Canterlot?”

“Not sure,” Daring confessed. “I’ve got a couple of leads I can follow up on if the princess doesn’t have another job for me, but I’ll probably take a bit of a vacation. All work and no play, y’know?”

The unicorn thought back to all of his accumulated leave and chuckled. “Not quite. I had close to six months of leave saved up before the Nightmare Moon incident.”

“Yeesh,” Daring flinched slightly. “You really need some R&R.”

Barrier only looked at her questioningly.

“R&R?” Daring reiterated. “Rest and relaxation?”

“Ah,” Understanding dawned on the unicorn. “I’ve been doing that almost constantly since my return. I don’t think it’s quite for me. A nap and a good book are all I can really see myself needing.”

“Really?” Daring asked skeptically. “Nothing else?”

“Well, my… I believe the term is marefriend is long gone, and even one-thousand years ago, we didn’t really have that much free time.” Barrier’s voice fell slightly towards the end.

“Well, I guess you’d know what you’d like best. Still, you should check out Canterlot a bit more. I know you’ve seen it in the daytime, but you should really see the night-life. Check out some of the restaurants, see a movie, hit a club, something like that. You’ve got all the free time in the world, why not use it?”

“Mm, perhaps,” Barrier yawned, “If you accompany me.”

“Heh,” The yawn proved contagious, Daring following suit. “It’s a date…”

Silence quickly took the reins once more as both ponies drifted to sleep, Barrier’s dreams once more gripping him.

***

“Barrier,”

The unicorn’s eyes opened tiredly as his lover sat down on the bed and gazed down at him, amber irides meeting Barrier’s own icy-blues.

“How art thou fairing?” Her hoof trailed lightly along the unicorn’s heavily bandaged sides, wincing when Barrier did.

“I’ve been worse.” Barrier smiled weakly, forcing back another flinch as her hoof reached his shoulder.

“No, thou hast not.” Ember’s eyes twinkled with amusement as she carefully laid down on her side, draping the unicorn’s hoof over her shoulders. “Thou shan’t try to lie to me, Barrier. I can tell thou feelest wretched. This is about those cadets and the empire, isn’t it?”

“Aye,” Barrier confessed. “That and Emerald Hills a-having a strong right hook.”

“She wath angry.” Ember backed up further into the charcoal ponies embrace. “You can’t blame thyself for her loss though. No pony could’ve seen that a-coming. Nopony could see Sombra falling as far as he did.”

Barrier didn’t reply, instead flaring his horn to tug Ember even closer, wrapping his hooves around her and hugging her like a teddy bear.

“Barrier…” Ember hesitated, taking a breath before continuing, “I’ve been thinking a lot lately—about us I mean. I know we can’t let ponies know about us while we’re in the guard, but in three years my contract will be up, and I was wondering about whether or not I should sign up for another four years. I don’t think I’m a-going to. If I weren’t in the guard, we could be in an open relationship. We could have a family.” Ember couldn’t keep the hope out of her voice.

“Ember… if we have foals… could we name them after my cadets?”

The pegasus mare smiled warmly. “Well, I was thinking of maybe naming one after my parents, but sure. What was the name of that unicorn colt in thy squad? Fireball?”

“Nay,” Barrier’s voice dropped as he buried himself in Ember’s mane. “We’ll talk about it in the morn.” The stallion took a deep breath, smiling at the mare’s scent.

“Very well, Barrier.” Ember squirmed slightly in the stallion’s embrace, rubbing her back against his chest in an attempt to get more comfortable. “I love thee, Barrier.”

“I love thee too…” the stallion’s voice drooped as he nuzzled her mane, but he kept speaking. “Why doth thy mane smell like strawberries…?”

***

The stallion’s eyes fluttered several times in rapid succession before he realized the fiery orange had been replace with black-and-grey.

“Mornin’,” Daring let loose a wide yawn. “Barrier.” Daring craned her head around to stare flatly at the unicorn. “Did you drool in my mane?”

“Aye, I believe I did.” Barrier separated from the pegasus, snaking his way out of the blankets and into the cold air of the tent. “We’re nearly even now. I need only to drool on you once more.”

The pegasus rolled her eyes as she too separated herself from the warm pile of blankets.

“I suppose it’s time to pack. The train will be here today to return us to Canterlot before noon. I-” Barrier fell silent as a wave of pure magic washed over the pair, both of them bolting from the tent and staring off in the distance.

Horn alight with magic, the unicorn turned to his companion. “Thou felt that, correct?”

“How could I not? What was that?” Daring’s wings had flared out slightly, becoming partially erect as another, lighter pulse of magic ran over the pair.

“That was pure magic,” Barrier replied almost shakily, intentionally neglecting that it was a feeling he’d felt once before.

“Well, you’re the horn-head, should we investigate?”

“No…” Barrier swallowed and turned towards the train-platform a short distance away, a distant gaze in his eyes. “No, we need to get to Canterlot as soon as possible. Princess Celestia must be informed immediately.”

“Informed of what? Don’t leave me in the dark here!” Daring didn’t bother to hide the irritation in her voice.

“She needs to know that the Crystal Empire…may be returning…”

Chapter 26

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Barrier idly scuffed his hind-hooves across the floor and fidgeted with his bandaged shoulder as the tan pegasus sat across from him, scribbling something down on a napkin.

“Stop it.” Daring didn’t even look up as she continued to write, occasionally stopping to dip her quill in the ink well.

Barrier’s hooves fell idle…for nearly an entire minute before they were back to anxiously scuffing the floor of the train.

The pegasus tolerated the sound for another thirty seconds before she finally wadded the napkin up and tossed the quill at the unicorn, capping her inkwell and huffing as she adjusted herself to be more comfortable on the bench.

“My apologies, Daring. I’m…nervous.” Barrier’s tone was low, apologetic.

“You don’t say?” Daring snorted, half in amusement and half in irritation.

“The energy I felt earlier…I’m worried about what that could mean for the empire and Equestria. Princess Luna told me that she and her sister believed the Empire would return, but I assumed she was only saying that for my benefit.”

Daring didn’t reply immediately, instead taking a moment to reign in her previous agitation.

“But earlier I felt a pulse of magic akin to Sombra’s…” Barrier fell silent, his hooves moving to scrape at the floor again only for the unicorn to catch himself and shift, tucking all four legs beneath him on his side of the room.

“Yeah, I don’t think Princess Luna is a pony to lie about something like that. She strikes me as more of a…brutally-honest, no-nonsense type of pony.”

“She is. Was…I don’t really know any more. The princesses and I never talked when I was in the guard. It was strictly a business relationship.” Barrier’s frown turned into a slight smile as a memory came to life. “Except this one time, on the first of April…”

Daring tilted her head in curiosity, ears twitching slightly. “What’d she do on April Fools’ day?”

Barrier opened his mouth to respond before the unfamiliar name hit him. “April Fools’ day?”

“April first?” Daring asked in response. “Y’know, April Fools’ Day? Everypony playing pranks on each other, having a good time?”

“Pranks…” Barrier thought back to what his companion had called him the previous week, before their departure. “Like what Shining Armor’s parents and I did to him?”

The mare confirmed it with a simple nod.

One of Barrier’s hooves found it’s way out from underneath him and pressed itself to his chin. “Interesting. A day dedicated to simple tomfoolery. Ponies could have used something like that when I was growing up, though I wager my father wouldn’t have let me partake.”

“So,” Daring refocused on the original subject. “What did Princess Luna do?”

Barrier chuckled, the smile from earlier returning. “My cadets somehow managed to get ahold of my mother and with her assistance played a prank on me.” One that cost them quite dearly. Barrier remembered Princess Luna’s suggested retaliation, which he’d followed up on, as well as his own retaliation where he made them run laps until they were throwing up. “I was in my office going over the latest leave requests - a duty I was given on account of suddenly being in Canterlot more often - when I heard ponies shuffling around outside of my door…”

***

“My friends, whatever happens, we can not let Captain Barrier learn what Hat Trick has done this time! He’d skin him alive!” Verdant whispered harshly, warily eyeing the thick wooden door into the unicorn’s office before jumping slightly when a familiar magical aura jerked it open, one tired unicorn staring down at them.

“And praytell what did he do this time?”

Swiftsword was the first to reply, chuckling nervously. “Ah-ha, uh. Captain, most humble of welcomes.” She swallowed the lump in her throat before continuing, “Do you remember when you punished Hat Trick for breaking Princess Celestia’s window?”

Barrier’s eyes narrowed dangerously. An event such as that was hard to forget, given Princess Luna had argued to have him removed from under Barrier’s command and put back into the regular guard. “What did he do?”

This time it was the pristine white earth-pony that answered, running a hoof idly through her blonde mane. “Well, it’s partially my fault since I gave him permission, but…”

“What.” Barrier’s tone dropped, the day’s fatigue making it known through frustration at his cadets dragging their hooves and dancing around the issue.

“Well,” Iron Forge chimed in, “Hat Trick decided to get even with you by sleeping with somepony to infuriate you…”

Great, he’s caused more trouble. Barrier internally groaned at the thought of having another problem to deal with. “Very well,” Only through sheer willpower was the unicorn able to keep his tone level and mostly conversational. “Who did he sleep with?”

Nopony answered this time, all of them looking nervously at the floor, ears pressed against their skulls.

The unicorn finally snapped, slamming a hoof into the ground and startling all four of the ponies; he seldom lost his temper but the week had not been kind. “Cadets, I want an answer now!” Cracks spider-webbed along the stone floor.

“Sir…” Verdant finally mustered the nerve to reply. “The mare he slept with was…Star Arcana…”

***

“Star Arcana was your…mom?” The pegasus guessed.

“Aye,” Barrier replied simply before launching into his narrative once more.

***

Barrier let a tired sigh escape and rubbed his temples with a hoof, eyes closed in perturbation. “Cadets, do you really think that I would fall for that pathetic lie? That my mother, a fifty-year old married mare, would lay with with a seventeen year old, especially one with Hat Trick’s looks?”

“Hey!” Winter Gem half-growled.

“Tis true, Captain.” Swiftsword interjected before Winter Gem could continue. “He is meeting with her in the courtyard as we speak.”

***

“Was your mom actually in the courtyard with Hat Trick?”

“Aye. When I arrived in the courtyard I saw something that terrified me almost as much as Grimhilde did. Hat Trick and my mother were kissing, and my mother was giving as good as she got.”

Daring sucked in air through her teeth as the unicorn began again.

***

“Cadets.” The stallion stated icily, not even turning to acknowledge his mother who seemed to have notice him. “Take Hat Trick and leave.”

Swiftsword took several steps back at the tone he used, but nonetheless replied. “Sir?”

“Get him out of the castle. Now.” Barrier’s right eye twitched dangerously and he began to paw idly at the ground. All four of the ponies rushed to obey when his horn flared to life, all but dragging Hat Trick away before Barrier pointed his horn to the ground and discharged the energy violently into the ground a short distance away, leaving a smoking crater in the courtyard and drawing guards to the courtyard to inspect the disturbance.

“Now that’s quite enough of that!”

Barrier’s ears almost immediately pinned themselves to his skull as the familiar tone entered his ears.

The violet unicorn had left the cadets, all of whom were now staring at their trainer quite nervously, and made her way over to him smoothing out her two-tone blue mane and tail with her magic before stopping and looking up at her son.

“Mother…” Barrier started hesitantly, unsure of where to really start, but soon he found his eyes drifting behind her to Hat Trick, who smiled weakly and waved a hoof at him; the charcoal unicorn snorted as his hackles began to rise once more.

“Barrier!” Star Arcana raised her voice again, reaching up and smacking her son top of his head. “I said enough and I meant it! I’ll not have you harming my lover or the father of your coming sibling.”

“I…we’re…you…mother, why?” The unicorn shook his head, suddenly feeling light-headed.

“A mare has needs, Barrier, even at my age. Your father certainly isn’t up to filling the holes in my life…” softly under her breath she finished the sentence, “not a single damned one of them.”

The unicorn stallion fell into a heap as darkness took him.

***

“Holy crap…” Daring had abandoned her bench to join Barrier on his some time during the story. “So what happened after you woke up?”

“I awoke to my mother slapping me…” the stallion didn’t notice the mare sidling closer to him as he continued.

***

“Barrier!” Another smack. “Come on, up and at’em.” The pony took to shaking him slightly.

“Wgah’nagl?” Barrier asked unintelligently as light began to filter into his eyes.

“About time you woke up. I was about to have one of the cadets fetch a pail of water to throw on you.”

Barrier didn’t reply, instead sitting upright onto his flanks, his mother moving to sit in front of him.

“Now then, there’s something very important your cadets and I need to tell you.” A grin slowly began to work its way onto the older mare’s muzzle, Barrier swallowing nervously as the cadets all moved closer and his mother’s grin began to unsettle him.

“Got you!” They all said in almost perfect synchronization, his mother accompanying the line with a soft boop to his nose and a giggle.

Barrier’s brain stopped as it tried - and failed - to process the sudden shift in tone. At some point, he snapped back to reality when his mother slapped again.

“So, what’d ya’ think?” Winter Gem smiled at the officer. “We all played our roles pretty good, right?” The unicorn simply stared at the group with a blank expression, drawing more laughs.

Stifling herself with a hoof, Arcana stood upright and backed away from her son. “This has been the most entertaining day in months.”

Swiftsword also wore a wry grin, though she wasn’t openly laughing like the others. “This April first will be one remembered through the ages.”

Barrier didn’t reply to any of them, instead climbing to his hooves and turning his back to the group, moving back into the castle in complete silence; Verdant Range noticed.

“Uh, guys? I know this was all most entertaining, but should we not be worried about the Captain getting back at us?”

Hat Trick scoffed and waved a hoof dismissively. “It was just a harmless practical joke. What’s the worst he could do in retaliation, make us exercise or study, like he’s already going to do?”

***

Daring was struggling to contain her own chuckles at the situation, a snicker occasionally slipping out.

“When I re-entered the castle, Princess Luna was waiting for me, the guards having alerted her to me apparently destroying the garden. When I explained why I was angry, she put a plan into motion and showed a side of herself nopony knew she had up to that point. It was quite the stark change in character.”

***

“It was a practical joke…” Verdant mocked the pegasus. “What’s the worst he can do?” The stallion fell silent as the noose was fitted over his neck.

“How was I supposed to know he’d take it this far?!” Hat Trick argued, shifting uncomfortably in his own rope-tie. Even now the stallion could hear Star Arcana yelling at and berating her son for taking things too far, as she’d been doing since the guards had arrested Hat Trick and the others.

“This is ridiculous!”

Hat Trick frowned; Swiftsword was yelling as well.

“We have broken no laws! I am the heir to the Falchion clan and demand we have a trial to prove our innocence!”

”Silence!" Luna’s booming voice cut over top of Swiftsword and Star Arcana alike.

“Thou have all been accused of assaulting a superior officer! Normally, thou have be given a trial, however, due to unique circumstances, this will not be the case!” Luna let the words settle over the cadets and the slowly growing crowd of ponies that had taken notice of the event. “My sister and I have both spoken with the guards that witnessed the scene, as well as the victim and have found thee guilty! For the assault of your superior officer, We sentence thou all to hang from the neck until bread!”

Verdant was the first to catch on, just before the platform beneath them gave way, dropping them into a tub of thick bread-batter, their nooses going with them; Luna began to guffaw as one by one they all managed to climb to the surface of the batter and make their way to the edge of the container; one by one they filtered out from beneath the wooden structure and into the clear view of the hundreds of ponies that had gathered to watch; Star Arcana dry-heaving with laughter while Barrier only wore a smug grin.

“Captain…” Swiftsword growled as the five of them lined up before him.

“Cadets,” Barrier’s smug grin turned into an almost warm smile. “Go wait for me at the track. You’re all going to be running laps for the remainder of the day.”

All five cadets made varying sounds, some grumbling, others swearing, but all of them moving towards the training grounds, batter still dripping from them.

“And the first one of you to throw up while running laps gets the night-shift for guard-duty!”

“Barrier, while that was most amusing, did you really need to go that far? They thought they were going to die…”

“Cadets should have a healthy amount of respect and fear for their superiors. They were starting to get too comfortable around me and that has the potential to hinder them.” Barrier fell silent very briefly before he addressed his mother in a soft voice. “I must ask…are you really pregnant with Hat Trick’s foal?”

The older mare rolled her eyes and scoffed. “No Barrier, I’ve never slept with your purple cadet. Besides that, I’m too old to have a foal. Then there’s the fact that he’s not exactly appealing to the eye…”

“Oh thank Zacherle…” Barrier released a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.

“Now the green one on the other hoof…”

“Wait, what?!” Barrier stared at his mother as she turned to leave. “Mother! What were you talking about?” The stallion moved to follow before remembering he was due at the training field. “Mother!”

“Good night, Barrier.” Star Arcana waved at the unicorn, not turning around to show him her grin.

***

Daring spent several minutes laughing before finally regaining her composure and exchanging it for the occasional chuckle as she retrieved another napkin from her saddlebags as well as another quill and inkwell.

“You never did tell me what you’re writing.” Barrier looked over the mare’s shoulder at the blank napkin.

“Two questions. First, do you care if I use your likeness in my book, and second, are you okay if the book has us fighting a skeleton-monster for the diamond?”

Chapter 27

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“No,” Barrier answered flatly as he stepped from the train onto the platform, the tan pegasus following closely behind.

“Come on, it’d be hilarious!” Daring whined, jabbing the unicorn in his bandaged shoulder, causing the stallion to flinch. “Imagine Princess Celestia’s reaction if she woke up with you in her bed. I bet Princess Luna would be down for it.”

“No,” the unicorn answered flatly once more, his eyes scanning the late-evening crowds of Canterlot, finally settling his gaze upon a quickly approaching white unicorn. “Odd,” he mused aloud, “I didn’t expect anyone to meet us here, much less Shin-” Barrier was silent as the white unicorn reached them and without hesitation slugged the unicorn in the jaw, causing his head to jerk hard to the side.

“Are you out of your mind?!” Daring suddenly shouted at the younger unicorn, immediately drawing the attention of several nearby ponies.

“Shining Armor,” Barrier’s voice was level as he nursed the inside of his jaw with his tongue. “If you don’t have a very good reason for striking me, I’m going to paint Canterlot with your face.”

“You made me think you slept with my parents!” The unicorn shouted, drawing the attention of any ponies that weren’t already watching to them.

Barrier didn’t reply, instead staring at the unicorn for a moment before his gaze slowly drifted off to the side; after a short moment, the white unicorn’s gaze followed. As it did, Barrier threw a left hoof of his own, connecting neatly with the underside of the unicorn’s jaw, driving him backwards in surprise. “It was a joke,” Barrier spat a glob of thick red saliva to the ground. “And your parents’ idea for that matter.”

Daring just stood there, mouth moving but no words coming out.

“Now, did you come here for any reason other than to strike me?”

Shining nursed his own jaw for a moment before responding, “The princess sent me to take you both to her for whatever reason.”

“Then what are we waiting for, let’s go.”

***

“Announcing Sir Barrier and Miss Yearling!” a guard announced loudly before ushering both Barrier and the disguised pegasus into the throne-room.

“Your Highness,” the disguised pegasus bowed low while Barrier inclined his head respectfully, eyes staying forward as they always did when he bowed his head.

“How did your trip go? Any luck with the Diamond Ray?” Celestia asked softly, eyes resting on the pegasus.

“It could have been better,” Daring admitted. “It wasn’t there when we arrived.” The pony kept her statement intentionally vague.

Celestia simply nodded in understanding. “Very well. There are no pressing requests at this time so you may consider yourself on vacation for the time-being.”

“Yes, Princess.” Daring bowed once more before taking several steps back.

“And have you anything to report, Barrier?” Celestia directed her gaze at the unicorn this time, smiling fondly, much to his surprise.

“Ma’am, I must inform you tha-”

“Other than the magic of the empire, Captain.” Celestia tittered slightly; she and her sister had both felt the pulse clear in Canterlot.

“Nothing else particularly worthy of note ma’am, though I could write a report if you’d like. Princess, I have to know, what do you intend to do about the empire if it returns?”

“I already have plans in motion for it, I assure you.” Her tone then became much sterner, “I will not allow history to repeat itself. Our mages believe we have approximately one month before the empire returns. Until then, we shall be making careful plans and preparations.”

“Princess,” Barrier bowed his head once more before taking several steps back, a hard edge present in his gaze as both he and Daring departed the throne-room and made their way onto the streets of Canterlot once more.

“So,” Daring glanced up at the slowly darkening sky. “How about after I drop this revised scene off with Velvet, we go out and get something to eat somewhere nice? Think I’ve got a suit in your size.”

Barrier raised a curious eyebrow before voicing his agreement. “I don’t mind, but why do you have a suit in my size?”

“You’re not the only pony I’ve had to work with.” The disguised pegasus continued towards the Sparkle household, a slight hop in her step, not noticing the slight shiver that ran down her companion’s spine.

“Fair enough. I have to go take care of some business.” The unicorn continued to follow her even as he looked over his shoulder before turning forward once more. “Where would you like me to meet you?”

“Oh,” It was Daring’s turn to gaze curiously at the unicorn, but when no explanation was forthcoming, she simply smiled, “I’m staying at the Canterlot Suites, in room three-thirty-seven. Just come up whenever you finish whatever you’re doing.”

Barrier nodded but didn’t reply otherwise, instead separating with Daring at the first intersection available to them, turning into the first narrow alley available to him, turning to face the mouth, his expression set in a narrow line.

“You’re good,” A black stallion with a silver mane and a seven-pointed star on his flank stepped into the mouth of the alley, a grin clear on his muzzle.

“You’ve been following me. Probably since the train station.” Barrier sat down on his flanks and took a deep breath, eyes narrowing. “Why?”

“Shadows don’t go away, Captain. They just wait. I’ve been watchin’ because you’ve got the skills to deal with shadows. And because I’m in need of a drinking buddy.”

“Not interested.” Barrier stated before stalking towards the mouth of the alley, bypassing the stallion completely with the soft pop of teleportation. “I’ve spent enough time in the shadows.”

The stallion just chuckled before adjusting the brown colston atop his head before pivoting to follow the charcoal unicorn. “Says the pony that went trotting down a dark alley.”

Barrier snorted in slight irritation. “There’s a difference between using the shadows and living in them. Believe me, I know the difference. Now, what do you want?”

“I read your file, Captain Barrier. We wouldn’t miss an officer showing up a thousand years after his last rodeo. I came to see if you wanted to get back in the game, but I think you’ve made it clear that you’re tired of that bullshit. That’s fair enough, but as far as I can tell, drinks are still fair game. Besides that, I’d wager you’d appreciate talking to somepony that actually knows.

Magic Barrier’s expression fell slightly as the thoughts ran through his mind. The stranger wasn’t wrong; he’d felt lost since his return. The unicorn didn’t know how to act in this new world and there wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t feel overwhelmed in some way. “Alright,” he finally replied. “I have a little time to burn. You have somewhere in mind for the drinks?”

“This city is full of uptight fuckers, but yeah, I know a place. There’s a nice little tea-house that serves the hardest booze inside the walls. Low-key too, so it’s unlikely we’ll have any unwanted interruptions.”

“Lead the way, unicorn.” Barrier made a sweeping motion with a forehoof, eyes carefully watching the stallion.

A grin spread across the pony’s muzzle as he stepped around Barrier. “Congratulations, you’re the third pony to actually catch that, and by the way, the name’s Trigger.”

“A shame,” Barrier sighed, his voice melancholic. “Once upon a time, a lot more ponies would have noticed.” He followed carefully behind his new acquaintance, eyes resting more on the cobblestone than the pony leading him.

“A shame in some ways, but not so much in others. The same things just rest on far fewer ponies today than they used to.” Trigger trotted on, weaving his way through the streets with practiced ease until he finally stopped at their destination.

“Success breeds complacency and complacency breeds failure.” Barrier recited the quote with ease as he gazed over the small teahouse and realized he’d passed by it several times but never taken note of it. A shame since the rustic, homey feel it seemed to give off was certainly something he could enjoy. “There’s no such thing as true peace, and I worry for when this peace is shattered.”

Trigger pushed the door open and both ponies quickly shuffled through the door. “That’s why some of us took up the call, Captain. There’s peace here, but it isn’t everywhere.”

Barrier followed the unicorn to a booth, sliding into the seat across from him. “I take it your group isn’t exactly official?”

“We were once upon a time,” Trigger replied with a shrug. “Maybe we will be again someday. It’s not an easy thing to when it’s all done off the books. Not like we’re cutting checks on this. Just a few smart ponies who know when shit has to be done.”

“So what do you guys do? Same thing that I used to do just without the princesses’ command or…?”

“Not really on the same scale as your day, but pretty much. There are still some unfriendly things out there that need to be put in their respective places.”

Barrier glanced briefly at the menu before sliding it away. He knew better than to drink too much with the upcoming date; it’d be rude to Daring. “You know, if you guys had asked me when I first returned, I’d probably have joined in a heartbeat. The first few weeks here weren’t the greatest. If I’d been able to jump back into my old job, I would’ve, if only to avoid coping.”

“That’s exactly the reason we didn’t.” Trigger explained. “Not even gonna pretend to understand the shit a one-thousand year skip brings. Though, I did get assigned to tag you because Princess Luna is likely the only one who gets it better than I do. For what it’s worth, I didn’t make any preconceived expectations. Right now, you’re just a stallion sitting in a teahouse with me. I’m about to throw back a drink and you’re going to pussy out of one and order something safe for that marefriend of yours.”

“Double-shot of plain vodka if you have it, if not then a double of something with a burn.” Barrier half-smiled at the unicorn across from him. “She’s not my marefriend, and I think she probably drinks more than I do. Plus, I like to think I can hold my booze pretty well. I am glad they sent you though. At the very least you’ve not run off knowing some of the crazy shit I’ve done.”

Trigger grinned wide and looked over to the staff. “Two Artillery Punches! Give it some kick please, I have a guest.” He turned back to Barrier. “At least Luna isn’t a desk-warrior. The guard these days is a joke. It’s easy for ponies to weasel in, and you don’t even want to know half the shit I dug up in the Badlands. But enough about me, it’s terrible first date material. I’m sure you have some stuff on your mind, so vent away.”

“Luna was always in the thick of it with the ponies, but at the end of the day she was still our princess. She was still the one giving orders.” Barrier fell silent for a moment, contemplating the intelligence of spilling his problems to someone that was still quite the stranger.

His contemplation came to an end as his mouth started moving of it’s own volition. “I don’t know what the hell to do. Up until a few months ago for me, I was killing griffins and ponies -thestrals specifically- in droves. Then, all of a sudden, I’m in a damned utopia. I don’t know how to act around ponies anymore. I can’t tell them why I’m jumpy or why I have scars. I…Faust, I killed for so damned long because I had to. I became the captain my team needed me to be, but I ground so much of myself away doing it I feel like I lost myself in the process. I don’t know how the hell to act in a world where every day isn’t life and death.”

The stallion played with the brim of his hat for a moment. “Understandable, but I think you’re forgetting the obvious, Captain. The only currency in war is life. Once the war is over, what matters is friends, and despite your misgivings, you look like you’re on way to gaining some.”

“Ponies these days aren’t really friend-material for a pony like me. If any of them knew half of the stuff I’ve done, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me. Maybe Daring would be okay, but most other ponies…”

Trigger nodded as the drink were set on their table. “One thing doesn’t define us though. You took up the burden and became something else, but if not you, then what? Even with your situation now, if you hadn’t been sealed with Nightmare Moon, you would have had the same transition of navigating peace. I think you’ve handled yourself better than most.”

“Maybe,” Barrier conceded, staring down at his drink. “But at least that transition would have been gradual rather than just shoved onto me.” Magic Barrier threw his drink back, not so much as flinching as it burned it’s way down and gave his stomach a pleasant tingling sensation. “There’s also trying to come to terms with everything I left behind. All the loose ends I didn’t think I had. Ah well,” the unicorn levitated several bits out of his saddlebags and stacked them neatly on the table. “That’ll be a conversation for a later time. I’ve gotta go meet my date, after all. And thanks for the drinks, Trigger. Maybe I’ll see you around sometime. Maybe back here at the teahouse.”

The stallion cocked a grin. “We’ll be keeping an eye on you, Barrier. Shadows have a way of finding those that dabbled. If you need us, we’ll be around.” He paused for a few seconds to let the grin spread. “And that unicorn thing, you were only half right, but that’s my story for another time.”

Chapter 28

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Having finished his chat with the strange unicorn, Barrier made his way to the room Daring had informed him of earlier; room three-thirty-seven, Canterlot Suites. Looking up at the overly decadent building, the unicorn groaned and put a hoof to his face. It seemed like everything in this city -barring a few exceptions- was designed to be offensive to the stallion.

I hope this goes well Barrier nosed his way through the revolving door and into the lobby. Who knows what’s considered good etiquette these days. As the stallion followed the signs to the stairs, he found his thoughts drifting back towards the dinner he’d had at the Sparkle household; it was his only real experience with modern-age dining, aside from the meals with Twilight and the ‘fast-food’ he’d enjoyed with Vinyl and Octavia. At least belching after a meal’s still a compliment to the chef, based on Velvet’s reaction.

The unicorn’s ears flicked as he approached the room in question, a soft thumping sound reaching his inner ears in a rhythm. Taking a deep breath, the unicorn raised his hoof to the door and gave it several sharp knocks, hoping once he made it into the room the infernal thumping would vanish. Barrier’s eye twitched as Daring tugged the door open and the racket grew even louder, now accompanied by previously muted words. “...got what it takes, and I’m on the attack,” Barrier’s horn flared as he set about raising a shield to block out sounds. “going after the prize, and nothing’s gonna hold me bac-” the lyrics and musical accompaniment vanished with the dome raised, much to his relief.

“Barrier?” The pegasus was waving a hoof in front of his face but stopped as the noises of the outside world vanished, replaced by the translucent glow of his shield. “Why the hay did you kill my music? It was getting to the best part.”

“I’m uncertain one can even call that music.” The pair moved further into the hotel room, the shield following them.

“Oh, it’s not that bad.” Daring rapped sharply on the bubble.“Drop this, and I’ll turn it off.”

The unicorn acquiesced, the bubble fading from existence and letting the music loose once more for all of ten brief seconds before the pegasus muted it.

“There, you happy now?”

“Very much so.” The unicorn smiled appreciatively.

“Good, then get showered. You look like a shag rug.” The mare unceremoniously shoved the unicorn into the spacious bathroom before leaving him, door being tugged closed behind her.

***

I needed that. Barrier stared at himself in the mirror, horn flaring before his fur erupted into a wave of steam and fluffed up almost comically. The unicorn hadn’t realized it until seeing himself in the mirror before his shower, but he had looked almost haggard, bags beneath his eyes and filthy fur.

“You done in here?” The familiar scratchy voice was accompanied by the sound of the door opening and the pony sticking her head into the bathroom, eyes settling almost immediately on the black ball of fluff staring at her.

“I will be momentarily.” The unicorn pointedly ignored the slow grin that was creeping onto the pegasus’s face.

A cracked laugh escaped the pegasus.

“Just get it out…” Barrier huffed, turning back to the mirror and levitating a brush, forcing his fluffed fur back to normal, followed by his mane.

***

A short bout of laughter later, Barrier found himself back in the room with a recovering pegasus.

“Your suit,” Daring tried and failed to hide another short burst of laughter, “Your suit’s on the bed.” The tan mare departed into the bathroom, still giggling as she left him alone.

Why does she even have a suit my size in a hotel room? Where does she even live…? Even as the thoughts ruled his mind, Barrier went through the practiced motions, slipping into the white undershirt and the dark jacket jacket, buttoning it up and straightening out the collar before his eyes finally settled misshapen length of red cloth. Rotating it in his magic, the stallion studied it before, with a shrug, tossing it back on the bed.

Daring reemerged from the bathroom only a few moments later on three hooves, her fourth manipulating her mane into a neat ponytail. “Hey, you ready?” Besides her working on her mane, she had donned a simple form-fitting red dress that ran from her withers along her back -with two neat holes for her wings- and finally settling just above her hocks.

“I’m…uncertain,” The stallion confessed, lifting the tie in his magic once more and turning to face her, swallowing slightly once he saw her outfit. For as simple as it was, she looked good in it. As the unicorn examined her, he realized her normally multi-tone gray tail was now two-tone teal and icy blue, while her mane remained the trademark gray. After staring in silence, Barrier finally found his words once more. “What is the purpose of this red length of cloth?”

“Ah right, you guys didn’t have ties back then, did ya? Just give me a sec to get my contacts in and my wig on and I’ll explain.” As Daring spoke, she approached the bedside dressed and tugged a drawer open, fishing around for several moments before drawing out a circular container -roughly as large as a pony’s eyes—and a wig matched to her tail, already done up in a ponytail similar to her own, “Right,” popping the container open and promptly jabbing a hoof into each of her eyes, turning each of them a deep shade of emerald, she started towards the unicorn, tossing the wig overtop of her own mane and carefully arranging it, she took the tie in her hooves and hefted herself upright on the unicorn once more.

“Stand still,” Daring instructed as she went through motions with a practiced ease, soon leaving the unicorn with a neat tie dangling from his neck; with direction from the mare, he tucked it neatly against beneath the black jacket but overtop of the undershirt.

“This suit is miserable by the way.” Barrier stretched a forehoof out, frowning at how constricting the sleeves were.

“Yeah, it’s not as good as one tailor-made for you, but you look okay in it.” The pegasus grinned, locking eyes with the unicorn. “Right, come on. Don’t wanna miss our reservation at L’anus Serré.”

“Very well, I’ll follow your lead Miss...is it Yearling tonight, or Do?”

“Neither.” The pegasus grinned almost mischievously. “Call me Masquerade.”

***

“Masquerade, party of two.” A beige unicorn with a styled brown mane and green eyes called out from his podium, looking around until his eyes settled on both ‘Masquerade’ and the charcoal-coated unicorn accompanying her. “Your table is ready.” the pony wasted no time motioning them both into the depths of the restaurant, both ponies following close behind.

“May I get you two a drink?” A pair of menus levitated their way over to the table, setting themselves neatly in front of the pair.

“Just a glass of cabernet sauvignon,” she replied quickly and clearly as if she’d rehearsed it.

“Uh, just a water for now, thank you.” Barrier focused his gaze on the menu, deciphering the flowing and pointlessly fancy text.

The waiter departed silently with no more than a nod.

“Water, huh? No wine?” The pegasus’s menu was still facedown on the table.

“Not just yet. I had a particularly heavy drink with an acquaintance earlier. While I’m fairly certain it’s been long enough for it to work out of my system.” The unicorn had pissed like a racehorse in the shower earlier, he was fairly certain it was gone. “I’ll wait just a little bit longer.”

“An acquaintance?” Her eyebrow show up in silent askance.

“Aye, a pony I met only today. He’s not from Equestria,” Aye, lie to her. You’re good at that. “and has seen some stuff very…similar to what I have, on a less grand scale. It was good to have someone I could talk to about such things.”

“What, I’m not good enough for you?” Daring drew her face back, almost as if insulted; Barrier only gave her a flat stare. “You’re no fun.” The pegasus huffed, briefly glancing around for their waiter.

“It’s nothing personal, D-” the unicorn caught himself. “Masquerade, but there are certain things I can’t just talk to anypony about, even you. It’s…hard to explain, but the mindset needed for such a thing is something one only gains through experience with those situations. At the risk of sounding rude, you’ll never—at least I hope—know what it’s like.”

“Relax horn-head, I was just joking with ya.” Daring smiled weakly. “I get that there are some things you can’t talk to just anypony about and that I’ll probably never understand what it’s like to do what you did. I’m okay with that.” Their drinks were placed neatly in front of them and Daring took a moment to sip her wine before turning to face the waiter who had seemingly appeared out of thin air.

“Your drinks,” he tilted his head forward slightly. “Have you decided what you will be having this evening?”

Daring held her menu out to the beige unicorn, “I’ll have the flamiche,”

“I’ll have the chicken cordon bleu.” Barrier’s menu joined hers in the tan aura of their waiters magic.

“Very good. I’ll have them out in around twenty minutes.” The waiter’s head dipped forward once more.

“Ah,” Barrier raised a hoof, “bring a glass of wine with mine if you wouldn’t mind. Same as hers.”

The waiter nodded again before, like before, departing silently.

“So.” The pair met eyes once more, Daring picking the conversation back up, “As I was saying, I’m okay with that, as long as you promise not to bottle all that stuff up. Nopony can be an island.” The pegasus’s smile warmed slightly. “Even if only a little, you gotta let someone in. Whether it’s me or not doesn’t matter, as long as you’re not trying to do it all yourself.”

Barrier felt a slight warmth in his chest as it finally dawned on him the extent that Daring seemed to care; besides his family, there had only ever been a single pony that had seemed as invested in his well-being. Finally, a genuine smile—one of the very few in recent months—settled on the charcoal ponies muzzle. “Thank you, Daring. I assure you I’ll do my best.”

“Good,” was the mare’s simple reply as she once more focused on her wine. “So, with that out of the way, what’re your plans now? What’ll you do from here? I know I’m gonna take a vacation from treasure-hunting for a little bit. At least until the princess needs me again.”

Barrier thought about it for several long moments before shrugging. “Likely I’ll do nothing until the empire returns. The princess seemed quite sure, so I assume she has something in mind. I simply have to wait and see. I will be staying in Canterlot until I know something though. I want to be as close as possible whenever it returns.”

“Makes sense I guess, but I meant what’re you gonna do besides work? I still plan on taking you out for a night on the town to show you some of Canterlot’s night-life, but even that won’t last forever.”

“I…don’t know, honestly.” Barrier confessed. “I’ve not thought that far ahead. Ironic considering it used to be a part of my job to do so, but…what should I do? I had planned on visiting more cities across Equestria, but with the Empire, it’ll not happen.”

“Why not find a part-time job or something to whittle away the time? Add a little more money to what you’ve got.” The pegasus’s eyes shone slightly as a thought seemed to cross her mind.

“You seem like you have something in mind.” Barrier took a deep breath as their plates were levitated to the table; how long had it been since he’d had meat of any kind? While ponies weren’t carnivorous, they could eat meat, in moderation, and ever since basic training he’d taken a bit of a taste to the white meat. Perhaps some subconscious link to Griffins? They were both birds after all. Sort of.

“I think I know a pony who’ll hire you, but you have to promise to at least give it a try.” Daring quickly turned to the waiter and raised the wine-glass she had emptied at some point. “Can I get a bottle of Chartreuse green and a couple of wine-glasses?”

The waiter once more nodded silently before departing; must’ve been protocol. “So, if I can get a job will you promise to at least try it?”

Barrier hesitantly nodded, despite every alarm in his head warning him not to.

“Good, now then-” a tall glass bottle with a green liquor in it planted itself on the table, as well as a pair of glasses, followed by the waiter tilting his head respectfully yet again; Daring wasted no time pouring two glasses and setting the green liquor next to Barrier’s still untouched wine. “the day after tomorrow, we’ll meet my friend Fleur Dis Lee. She’ll be the one to decide if you get the job or not.”

Daring threw back the green liquid and refilled her glass, motioning to Barrier’s own; he quickly replicated the act, though he seemed to savor the taste longer, rolling the fluid around his mouth for a moment before swallowing and sighing in satisfaction at the sweet liquid as well as the excellent burn it provided; Daring poured them both another glass and grinned.

***

“No…” Daring slurred slightly, moving to thrust her hoof out to him only to have it flop uselessly onto the table, their plates rattling slightly, “it’s…” Daring scrunched her muzzle up slightly as she hiccupped. “y’see, allll the schtuff under Mount St. Hillary over in Griffin Rock, it’s…it’s like a Faust-damned shi-gi movie…” Daring stopped to take another drink, drinking directly from the bottle this time before sliding it over to the listening unicorn who drank directly from the bottle as well.

“Y’me-” Barrier hiccupped, “mean Griffonstone?” Barrier’s muzzle scrunched up this time, “An’ what’s shi-gi, what’s a movie, and d’ya mean Griffinstone, not Griffin Rock?”

“Nah, yer thinkin’ bout that shithole on the mainland.” Neither of the ponies noticed the dirty stares being thrown their way from the fellow restaurant patrons. “Griffin Rock’s an island and…ah crap, Fowler said I wasn’t shupposed to talk about it…” the pegasus seemed to think for a moment before staring at the near-empty bottle of chartreuse and an accompanying, completely empty bottle of wine. “Eh, screw’em, so Gr-” Daring was interrupted by a familiar beige unicorn loudly clearing his throat. “W’you want?” Daring eyed the waiter lazily.

“My apologies, mademoiselle, but our manager has seen fit to cease serving you alcohol after your third bottle of Chartreuse and the noise you’ve caused. He kindly asks that you pay your bill and leave.”

“Eh…” Daring glanced at the bottle that Barrier was now taking the courtesy of emptying. “Might ‘s well. You gotta point ‘bout the booze too. C’mon Barrier, let’sh git back to the hotel PDQ…good as the food is, I don’t wanna taste it a second time…” Daring hiccupped and stood up only to fall forward, stumbling face-first into the floor.

Barrier hefted himself upright as well, managing to stay upright with only a slight stumble. Slow deep breaths… his mind counseled as his horn flared to life, levitating a stack of bits from…where do we store things whenever we’ve no saddlebags…? Ah well, figure it out when I’m sober… and dropping them to the table before picking the pegasus up and dropping her carefully on his back before stumbling his way out of the restaurant and back towards her hotel room.

***

With a tired flap of her wings, Daring managed to awkwardly propel herself from the unicorn’s back and onto the bed, sending his head spinning as he struggled to stay upright.

From the bed, the mare’s voice drunkenly slurred out, “Shay Barrier, I’m not tired and I can still mostly shee, how ‘bout you?”

“I’d shay about the same…” Barrier’s speech was slower and more measured, but equally slurred.

“In that case…” Daring grunted as she propped her hips up. “Wanna go diving into the Cave of Wondersh?”

Barrier’s vision seemed to straighten as he eyed the mare’s wiggling rump, as well another part of his anatomy straightening. “Alright, but I’m sure we’ll both enjoy what thish cave’s gon’a have…” With a drunken hop, the unicorn joined her on the bed…

And it was glorious … and sloppy.

Chapter 29

View Online

With a crash, Barrier rolled off of the bed in a mess of limbs and blankets as a loud blaring rang throughout the hotel room. In a panic, he flared his horn…just in time for the splitting headache and dry mouth to set in. Rather than the intended teleport, he found himself groaning as he stared upright at the familiar pegasus, a pair of earmuffs clamped tightly over her ears and a strange object (that he would later learn was an air horn) in her mouth.

“Morning.” The pegasus grinned down at him, amusement dancing in her eyes.

With a tired sigh, Barrier’s head fell backwards, bouncing slightly off of the carpet.

***

“Do you wake everypony up that way or just me?” Barrier held a bag of ice to his temple and sipped a glass of water.

“That was for not pulling out last night, Captain Super-Soaker. You’re damned lucky I’m on the pill.”

“You had my hips in a death-grip! I couldn’t even move.”

“That’s bull and you know it! You were on top!”

The pair stared at each other intensely for a brief moment before half-smiles broke out on both of their muzzles.

“So,” Daring sipped her own water, nursing a far less intense headache than her counterpart.

“So…” Barrier glanced up, his eyes locking with hers. “Apologies if this comes out weird, I’m new this sort of thing, but what did last night mean? To us I mean.” Barrier wasn’t entirely a stranger to one-night stands—even he had needs—but for the longest time, he’d had Ember. What even were he and Daring to each other at this point? Acquaintances? Friends? Something more? You could do far worse than her, you know. The irritating little voice in his mind made it’s presence known.

Daring stayed in silent thought for a moment before shrugging. “I don’t really know. I know how I seem sometimes, but I don’t take that many to bed. Usually too busy for any of that really. Maybe we’re friends with benefits, maybe we’re something more. Why don’t we just play it by ear for now and see where we end up, hm?”

Barrier nodded silently, eyes closing as he took another long drink of his water. “So, what’s on the agenda for the day?”

“Well, you will probably have a job interview.”

Barrier’s eyes opened to Daring’s grin.

“You agreed to meet with a friend of mine last night for potential modelling, assuming you suit her needs.”

Crap.

“Buuuut, since you probably need some time to sort out that hangover and clean up, how about we go see the sights? I can put the Masquerade outfit on, fake cutie-mark included in under two minutes.”

“Let me shower first, and we’ll go from there.” Barrier slowly pulled himself off of the bed, draining the last of his water as he did so.

“Fair enough. I’m gonna order some breakfast. Want anything?”

“I’ll have whatever you’re having.” The unicorn arched his back, eliciting several sharp cracks and a groan of relief. “And Daring?”

The pegasus tilted her head slightly.

“Thank you,” Barrier nuzzled her gently before stepping past her and into the bathroom. “For everything you’ve done for me. Were it not for you…well, thank you, in any case.”

Daring’s smile softened slightly and she simply nodded as the unicorn’s magic shut the bathroom door behind him.

***

“The museum?” It was Barrier’s turn to tilt his head in curiosity.

“Yeah. There’ve been a lot of new exhibits set up since you were last here, thought you might want to check a few of them out. There’s one in particular I personally put a fair amount of time and effort into. Just try not to turn it into ash, okay?” ‘Masquerade’ nosed her way through the front doors, her companion following closely behind, his horn absently flaring to pay for the tickets.

Within minutes, the unicorn found his gaze drawn upwards to the dark purple lettering and surprisingly foreboding wing of the museum done up in equally dark-themed colors.

“Welcome...” Daring swept a hoof extravagantly. “...to The Nightmare War exhibit.”

“One week in Tartarus.” Barrier took several steps forward, crossing into the exhibit, eyes almost immediately settling on a life-sized statue of Nightmare Moon.

The disguised pegasus nodded. “That’s what the exhibit says.”

Barrier did a complete three-sixty, trying to take in the entire exhibit before stopping at the statue of Nightmare Moon once more, as well as the thestrals standing around her, or strung up from the ceiling as if in flight. Across the room stood a similar statue of the solar diarch, her body covered in form-fitting battle-armor. Even as nothing more than a statue, the Princess’s form and armor seemed to inspire confidence in the unicorn. Slowly, his eyes drifted to her side and his breath hitched in his throat when his gaze rested on a strikingly lifelike representation of himself, as well as ponies that were clearly modeled after his former comrades-in-arms.

Barrier opened his mouth in an attempt to speak, but words escaped the unicorn, so instead he just stood there, taking in the statues until a tan hoof rested on his withers.

“Hey, you okay?” Daring’s fake eyes met his briefly before he nodded.

“Aye, just…astonished. I wasn’t expecting anything like this.” Barrier moved forward, phantom pains running through his limbs as his mind flashed back to the fight with Nightmare Moon and subsequent banishment.

“I did what I could to make sure your sculpture look as much like you as possible. We had to cheap out on the armor though. We ended up getting it from a Nightmare Night costume store. Still, I think it looks pretty good, and it’s definitely period-accurate.”

“It looks spectacular. And it’s good to see them,” he motioned to his comrades. “Even if only as statues.”

“We didn’t really have any period of reference for them beyond an old painting of Captain Sentry and there’s surprisingly little documentation on any of them, even in the castle library.

Aye, most of what we did was never documented. “Is there anything here about the atrocities Flash Sentry committed after the war?”

“You mean the attempted genocide.” Daring replied, but it wasn’t really a question. “There’s not here. Schools take field-trips here. The ponies designing the exhibit thought it best if certain things were omitted. It’s not really a secret or anything, but the stuff they have about Captain” Daring emphasized the rank, “Sentry is pretty much just for ponies studying history in late high-school or college.”

Barrier only hummed slightly in response before staring intently at the statue of his long-deceased best friend. “You know, he still owed me quite a lot of bits.” Barrier reached out and pressed a hoof to the cool plaster. “Well, not so much this day I suppose.” Taking a deep breath, Barrier slowly exhaled before removing his hoof. “Goodbye Flash,” his gaze shifted to the other side and fell on the rough recreation of Ember. “Goodbye Ember.” He looked to the back row. “Styx, Braeburn, Silver…it was an honor.” Blinking back the tears before they could start, Barrier gave a hard salute before turning and leaving the exhibit, his companion following close behind.

Neither pony spoke, instead simply walking throughout the museum. At some point Daring had leaned into him and locked his gaze once more. “You okay?”

Barrier seemed to roll the question around for a moment before nodding and slightly leaning his own weight into her; a show of trust among ponies, indicating they trusted each other not to let them fall. “Yes. It…it felt good to really say goodbye to them. Well, the best goodbye I can give unto them anyways.” Barrier took another deep breath, a smile forming on his muzzle as he exhaled. “It feeleth like a weight hath been lifted. I-”

Barrier’s words fell short as his gaze fell on another sign, each word striking him like a hammerblow. “The Fall and Return of Gallopfrey.” Entirely of its own volition the unicorn’s body moved forward, though no sooner than he’d entered the room did his body tense tighter than a coiled spring as his eyes fixated on the exceptionally well-made statue of one of his most-hated enemies, from the sharp golden eyes to the black feathers and her massive size.

“Easy, she’s just a statue,” Daring’s voice calmly stated. “Her skull’s locked up right there in that case.” The tan pegasus nodded towards a display-case next to the statue.

“I know, it’s just… very life-like. She’s one of the very few things that truly scares me. She was the closest I ever came to death, save my fight with Nightmare Moon. She was quite literally seconds away from killing me. Had she not wanted to toy with me, I wouldn’t be here. She levelled me. I’ve never been so powerless.”

“You were betrayed,” the pegasus counselled. “You didn’t have any magic, you were fighting with a magic-inhibitor on.”

“That’s no excuse.” Barrier shook his head in annoyance. “I should have been expecting it. I should have been ready for everything, but I was too trusting. I was trained for years to kill Griffins in almost every way fathomable.” Barrier snorted as Daring draped herself over his back, her weight strangely comforting to the unicorn.

“I lost.” Barrier shrugged and snaked his head around to the pegasus he was now supporting the weight of almost entirely. “I fared better against a dark alicorn with complete control over the night. Nightmare Moon was tapped into the darkest magics known to ponykind, and even she didn’t beat me as badly as Grimhilde.” Barrier gazed balefully at the statue. “But so long as Grimhilde is gone, I’ll cope. I’ll not let her drag me down. Had she survived the war though…”

Barrier found his mind drifting to a dark place, almost wondering how he’d have reacted if they’d had to surrender to the griffins because of the Nightmare Moon incident; he didn’t like where the thoughts took him, and luckily, a sharp hoof to the back of his head snapped him out of them.

“No brooding. You’re supposed to be having a good time. Come on, why don’t we go meet Fleur and see if we can’t land you a job?”

Barrier glanced at the statue once more, his gaze following Grimhilde from top to bottom before his eyes fell on the pony beneath her claws, the curly grey hair and rust-colored coat sticking with him. He glanced briefly at the plaque. Time Turner the Third. The final mayor of Gallopfrey. The unicorn tore his gaze away and departed, his companion freeing him of her weight as she took up stride alongside him. “Did any good come from Grimhilde historically?”

“Uh…” Daring thought for a moment before nodding. “Yeah, her daughter, Varia, ended up becoming an ambassador to Equestria and a big peace advocate during the rule of Queen Farica if I remember correctly.”

“A shame I’d never the opportunity to meet her. She sounds like a more agreeable griffin than her mother.” Barrier’s ear twitched and he found himself staring intently down a nearby hallway. The feeling of being watched seemed to be becoming a regular thing. “Right, let’s go meet your friend and see what she has to say before I find something else to brood on.”

***

I wonder who is thinner, this mare or Cadance?

“Ah, Masquerade!” A light-gray mare with a heavy Prench accent began. “It’s so good to see you again!” The mare hugged ‘Masquerade’ lightly before turning her gaze to the charcoal unicorn in the room and her eyes almost seemed to light up. “This is the stallion you mentioned to moi?”

“This is him. Magic Barrier, meet Fleur Dis Lee. Fleur, this is my good friend Magic Barrier. He’s looking for work and I figured he might suit your needs.”

“Hm…” Fleur walked towards her fellow unicorn and stared at him intently, her eyes tracing every curve of his body, occasionally poking or prodding his siders or shoulder.

Why do I feel like a piece of food on display for a starving crowd?

“Hm...we will need to allow some makeup to draw attention away from the flank. Is terribly flat, no? Perhaps a little magic…”

“Trust me, with what he’s got downstairs, you won’t need to worry about the pancake-plot.”

Fleur clopped a hoof to the floor in satisfaction. “Very well, come Monsieur Barrier. I hope you don’t have problems with all of Equestria seeing you wear a tight lace ensemble.”

Barrier swallowed nervously as both Daring and Fleur began to tug him towards the back room; what had he gotten himself in to?

Chapter 30

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Barrier didn’t speak as he and Daring stepped out into the afternoon sun.

“Gotta say, that was a really good shoot.” Daring hip-checked her companion and grinned up at him.

“...I don’t believe I’ll be doing that again. The garments were far too tight and translucent. I might as well have just flaunted my siring staff.”

Daring’s grin faded just slightly. “To be fair, you kinda did flaunt your siring staff.”

Barrier scoffed, “That was the accursed fabric rubbing me!”

Daring chuckled, “Yeah, you definitely weren’t checking Slipstream and Fleur out or anything. Still, not like they minded. I saw them staring, you know?” Daring hip-checked the unicorn a second time as she shifted the topic slightly. “So, why did you keep choosing the pink clothes?”

“I felt the mares who view this sort of thing would want to see something with masculine colors.”

Daring’s chuckle intensified to a full-blown laugh. “Masculine?! You do know that pink’s considered a really feminine color these days, right?”

Barrier’s right eye twitched ever-so-slightly. “I suppose that explains the appeal of Cadance, to some extent.”

“So, what do you wanna do now? We’ve got a few more hours until the clubs open. We could grab some dinner and see a movie?”

The charcoal stallion shrugged almost absently, “That’s fine by me, as long as my pelvis can get some rest.” Barrier’s gait slowed to a halt as his mind seemed to register the alien term. “Movie?”

“They’re like moving pictures. Don’t worry, you’ll like them. Come on.” Daring nudged the stallion’s side before wrapping her foreleg around his own and tugging him forward at a far quicker pace than before. “They’ve got a showing of Filly and Tiff’s Most Excellent Adventure soon. I think you’ll like it. It’s the third in the series.”

“Third? Do I need familiarity with the other two?”

“Nah, the last two Filly and Tiff stand alone really well. This one’s about a time-travelling villain summoning history’s greatest villains to help him. Porcina, Charlatan, Lavan, Discord, Sombra, Nightmare Moon, even Grimhilde. It’s going to be great.”

Barrier’s expression tightened slightly at the mention of his former adversaries but nodded. “I assume this shall be a grim story.”

“Nah, it’s a comedy starring a pair of stoner musicians.”

Barrier’s eyes crossed slightly in confusion but he quickly shook it away. “Very well, let’s go see this ‘movie’ of yours.”

***

Grimhilde’s voice—or an imitation of it—followed the unicorn and pegasus as they departed the theatre, the massive screen playing back a reel of bloopers from the movie during the credits.


Even with his back turned, Barrier knew the scene and found it drawing another grin out of him.

The actress portraying Grimhilde was stalking towards the porcine princess, a mad glint in her eyes. “Say…”

Barrier stopped to listen to the scene again in its entirety, Daring following suit with a matching grin.

“She looks kinda like a foal…” The sound of talons clicking on tile hinted at the actress’s movements. “C’mere, I’m gonna eat ya! I’m bigger than you, I’m higher in the food chain!” The griffin quickly chased the pig off screen, ranting as she went. “Get in ma’ bellaay~!” The hen’s voice shifted to an almost comically high pitch, followed by the sounds of a crash, falling equipment and a rapid ‘My bad!’ from her.

Barrier’s grin got just a little wider and a choked cough escaped him as he poorly stifled his laughter.

A short snapping sound announced the scene had shifted as the credits continued to roll by.

“Of all history’s greatest monsters, you are by far the most evil thing I have encountered.” A very Sombra-esque character was speaking to a penguin only half his height. “Offer your soul to me dark one…”

Several penguin-like quacks were heard before Sombra’s voice returned. “What? No! You can’t have my soul! I don’t even... Look, just… just get in here.” A sound akin to a tornado filled Barrier and Daring’s ears before it was silenced by a noisy slap from the penguin.

“Keep your crummy so-” the actor’s voice was replaced by a shocked gasp followed by the sound of a pony kicking something.

“What the hell, dude!” The voice of a non-actor called out.

“Oh Celestia, I’m so sorry!” The Sombra character broke almost immediately, “I didn’t mean to actually hit him! Is he hurt?”

“So,” Daring cut off further bloopers by shoving Barrier forward. “Have a good time?”

Barrier’s reply was brief laughter followed by him wiping the tears from his eyes. “Their historical portrayals…they were so damned bad that they were hilarious!”

Daring laughed with him, a hoof making its way to her eyes as well. “My favorite part was when Filly and Tiff challenged Lavan and Discord to a rock off.”

“Though,” Barrier took several deep breaths as he tried to regulate his breathing, “I can’t understand why they used candy to defeat Nightmare Moon. A spear would have been far more effective, or even striking her with their strange guitars.”

The tan pegasus snorted. “I guess this means I’ve gotta teach you about Nightmare Night. Why don’t we head back to the hotel and get some room service and I’ll give you a rundown?”

“Room service?” Barrier’s head tilted in askance.

“Yeah, we’ll call down to the hotel kitchens, order food, and they’ll deliver it. Plus the princess is fronting the bill for my stay right now, so might as well milk it.”

Now it was Barrier’s turn to snort. “Fair enough. By your lead, Masquerade.”

“Hm, but what should we order…?” Daring was more speaking to herself as they headed back, hoof pressed to her chin in deep thought. “I’ve got it!” The hoof moved from her chin to the ground with a solid clop. “You’ve never had pizza, right? Well prepare to have your mind blown!”

“Pizza?” As seemed to be normal for the day, Barrier’s head was cocked to the side once more. “Is that anything like chicken?”

“Uh, no? Why would you even think that?” Daring asked in bewilderment.

“It simply makes me think of chicken for some reason,” Barrier shrugged before taking another guess, “Ah. Is it related to that singer you like?”

The disguised pegasus groaned out her reply, “I said pizza, not Pizzazz.”

“Well, what does it entail?”

The mare just grinned. “Just wait, you’ll see. And trust me, you’ll like it.”

***

"Oh Faust…” Barrier groaned from his spot on the bed, a hoof rubbing his sore stomach as the stallion further sprawled out on the bed, his hooves brushing against Daring’s side as he did so. “Ugh, how many slices did I have?”

A slightly less-bloated Daring Do shifted on the bed, draping a hoof over the unicorn. “Ten. Plus four cheesy garlic breadsticks.”

Barrier groaned again and began to rock himself back and forth until he had enough momentum to shift onto his side and rest against the pegasus, his head resting on her forelegs. “I regret nothing. The taste of such a wonderous food is well worth this discomfort. Tell me, do all pizzas have cheese stuffed into the crusts?”

“Nah. Most aren’t stuffed with anything, but they can stuff all kinds of stuff into the crusts. Everything from cheese to meats to peppers to veggies.”

Barrier groaned in a mixture of satisfaction and pain.

“So what new foods have you tried since your return? Bet you splurged a bit.”

“Not really,” Barrier admitted. “I have mostly kept to foods that are familiar to me, save for what’s called a hayburger and prench fries. I suppose I ate regularly while I was with Twilight in Ponyville, but during my time in Appleloosa I didn’t really eat anything. It wasn’t until my return to Canterlot and then the frozen north that I began to eat regularly again.”

“Wait, that’s…” Daring began to count in her head. “You were in jail for one or two days, plus there was the trip to Appleloosa and the day-long trip back to Ponyville, but we ate at Twilight's…three days? You didn’t eat for…two days?”

“I was preoccupied. Besides, you’re an adventurer, surely you’re accustomed to missing meals?”

“Well yeah, but you weren’t out in the middle of nowhere. When I missed meals, I either didn’t have a choice or was stuck rationing what little I had. You were in a town with plenty of food to spare. Better believe I don’t miss a meal when I don’t have to.”

Barrier yawned and allowed his eyes to close. “I’ll try not to make it a habit. I suppose I was just accustomed to it at the time.” The unicorn further scooted over, draping a hoof across the pegasus’s barrel. “But I’ll try not to worry you about it and eat regularly.”

“Good…” Daring’s voice held a slight strain. “Might wanna keep back a bit…” the pegasus belched, “I feel like I’m gonna puke.”

The tired unicorn nuzzled the mare beneath her chin before resting his head beneath hers, his hoof gently rubbing circles along her belly. “I’ll risk it.”

“That was sappy…” Daring commented drowsily, even as she moved to embrace the pony as they drifted to sleep.

***

“Ph’glui?” Barrier mumbled nonsensically as his eyes half-opened to focus on the tan pegasus that was insistently jabbing him in the side.

“You mumble stuff like that all the time when I wake you up.” Daring stared down at him, unamused. “What does it even mean?”

Barrier yawned widely and sat up, eyes still half-lidded as he replied. “Classified. If I told you, it’d melt your brain. Then the brains of everypony else that happened to hear. Damned Old Ones…” The unicorn glanced at the bedside clock. “So, why are we up at twenty-thirty?”

“Clubbing.” Daring stated as she began going through the motions of her disguise once more. “You did say you’d go with me. I can’t wait to see you dance.”

“I don’t dance.” Barrier deadpanned before stretching out like a cat and hopping from the bed.

Daring only smiled self-assuredly,“Not yet you don’t, but don’t worry, I’ll fix that.”

“I seriously doubt that.” Barrier’s horn flared to life as he straightened his mane out and proceeded to do several quick stretches, eyes drifting to the pegasus as she began to slip into the same tight dress she’d worn to dinner the other night. Damn, you look good in that… Barrier stood, his gazing remaining fixed on her flank.

Daring turned around with her trademark grin. “Ready to go or do you wanna stare at my flank a little longer?”

“A bit of column A and a bit of column B,” Barrier’s lips curved upward slightly. “I propose a compromise. We can go, and I’ll walk behind you to enjoy the view.”

“Hah!” Daring turned towards the door and flicked her tail so hard that is audibly snapped. “Good to see you coming a little further out of that shell. Come on, horny colt.”

“Right behind you.” Barrier assured her, eyes ever-downward. “Very few places I’d rather be.”

***

This music is going to drive me crazy… The pair hadn’t even entered the establishment that a sign said was called, ‘The Prancing Pony’ yet and already it was grating on his nerves.

“Come on,” Daring moved into the building as the mass of muscle with a head moved aside to grant them entry.

“Do I have to?” Barrier’s voice shot up slightly to be heard over the noise.

“Oh quit your whining, it’s not that bad!” Daring shouted back as the pair made their way towards the bar. “So, are you going to dance with me or am I going to have to plaster you with booze until you’re too drunk to say no?”

Barrier eyed the impressive array of bottles lining the wall behind the bar. “Perhaps you should dance so that I can learn some modern dance? I can get us some drinks in the meantime.”

“Hm…” Daring appeared to be considering it for a moment before an ear-splitting grin settled on her face. “Alright, but mark my words: you will dance with me before this night is out.”

The unicorn swallowed nervously at the certainty in her voice but nodded nonetheless. As she walked away, the unicorn let a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding escape him before turning to the bar and flagging down the light-green unicorn bartender down. “I need the hardest thing you have and a…” The hell does Daring drink? “Something for my friend. I don’t actually know what she’d prefer.”

“Right, one Negroni and…why not get her a long-island iced tea? Hard to go wrong with’em.”

Barrier hummed in response and turned away from the bar, choosing to watch the dance floor rather than the drink-mixing. He had to admit, watching Daring and the other ponies dance, he found himself envious. They seem so carefree. So… happy. Was this what we fought so hard for? The unicorn watched his companion perform several crazy half-flips as well as twists and turns that had him in awe of just how flexible Daring truly was.

Despite his efforts to watch and memorize her movements, his gaze always seemed to find itself drawn to the part of the dress that clung tightly to her flank until finally he jerked his gaze away and swung back to the bar just in time to see a reddish-orange drink be placed in front of him, followed shortly by a murky-white glass with a single slice of lemon floating atop it. Horn flaring to slide the bits across the bar, Barrier quickly took a swallow of his drink as he spun around on the bar-stool just in time to see Daring break away from the crowd, a slight sheen of sweat visible even from there as well as her heavier breathing.

“Hey,” Daring breathlessly took a seat next to the unicorn and tipping her own drink backwards…and holding it.

That’s impressive, Barrier’s mind stated as Daring emptied the glass in a single, continuous swallow.

“Alright, time to get you out on the dance floor. You got to see me shake my plot, now it’s my turn!”

Barrier shifted his gaze from Daring to the dance floor, back to Daring, and then to his drink. Horn flaring, he quickly drained his own glass, savoring the bitter taste and brief rush to his head. “Very well, but I take no responsibility if my flailing injures somepony.”

Barrier hopped from the barstool and carefully made his way towards the mass of bodies that was on the dance floor. Almost as an afterthought, he glanced to the source of the abominable noise and was met with a pale, yellowish-white mare who grinned widely at him as the beat picked up abruptly.

Well I know for certain which of the two roommates’ musical tastes I prefer…

***

Daring launched herself into the air and performed an impossibly tight loop before landing back-first on the bed. “Feels good to be out of that dress.” She stretched her limbs to their utmost limit. “I love how good I look in it, but man, it’s tight.” The mare relaxed and patted the bed several times. “Hey Barrier, c’mere.”

The charcoal stallion ran a hoof through his sweat-dried mane before joining Daring on the bed, laying limply next to her. “What’s on your mind?”

The mare rolled over all of a sudden, resting atop Barrier before jerking to the side and rolling once more, this time taking the unicorn with her and depositing him on top. Grinning at the seeming bewilderment in Barrier’s eyes, Daring darted her muzzle forward, pressing her lips to his and using his surprise to let her tongue explore his mouth. After several long seconds of tongue-wrestling, Daring broke away. “You know, I’ve had a really great last few days with you.” Her eyes went half-lidded and she flashed a seductive smile. “Want to make tonight even greater?”

Barrier hesitated slightly, licking his gums and noting the slight taste of alcohol that had been left behind. “That depends. Are you sober? You had more than a couple of drinks.” It was one thing when they’d both been drunk off their plots, but Barrier’s mind was still clear.

“I think I am...” Daring seemed to think for a moment before clearing her throat, “Z, Y, X, W, V, U, T, S, R, Q, P, O, N, M, L, K, J, I, H, G, F, E, D, C, B, A. Yeah, pretty sure I’m sober.”

I can’t do that on the best of days… Barrier flashed a sultry smile of his own. “Very well, let’s take the great night, and make it…” the stallion held his tongue briefly, “...glorious.”

Chapter 31

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“Barrier…” Daring groaned from beneath the pillow she had draped over her. “Get th’ door.”

“You get the door.” Barrier was also buried beneath a pillow, trying to ignore the incessant pounding.

“Please open up!” The muffled voice called out. “I have a message for a Mr. Barrier from Princess Celestia!”

“Barrier…” Daring groaned out once more, rolling over to face the stallion.

“Don’t care, go awa-” Barrier yelped as Daring’s pillow suddenly collided with his face, driving the stallion off of the bed in the brief panic.

“Get the door.” Daring stuffed the pillow over her ears once more and buried herself into the mattress.

“Don’t wanna.” The unicorn whined from the floor before climbing upright with a huff. “Get the damn door…” As he mutted to himself in irritation, the unicorn’s horn flared, jerking the door open and revealing a thestral stallion; in his dazed state, Barrier’s horn flared a second time before noticing this stallion was wearing the armor of the day guard. Taking a shaky breath as the adrenaline settled, Barrier’s horn died out and he met the bat-pony’s light-purple gaze. “What do you want this early?” The unicorn kept his tone neutral.

“I have a letter for you from Princess Celestia.” The guard held out his hoof, a wax-sealed roll of parchment resting in the crook.

“Right, thanks.” Barrier snagged the scroll in his magic and shoved the door shut. “Too damn early for this…” He glanced briefly at the clock which read ten-thirty. Too early. Unceremoniously throwing himself on the bed—much to his companion’s annoyance—he broke the seal and unfurled the scroll, reading aloud.

“Dear Magic Barrier,” the unicorn nudged his companion, smiling at the groan he received. “You are requested to aid Captain Shining Armor in this morning’s guard training regiment. I believe your advice and criticism will be highly valuable. Should you choose to accept, this letter will provide you access to the training grounds. Her Royal Highness, Princess Celestia.”

The lump in the pillows shifted. “Mm, well, go on then. Go play guard and lemme sleep.”

“You’re going to continue to sleep? This late in the morning?”

“Screw you, I’ve been getting up at dawn for over a week. I deserve this,” the lump shot back. “Besides, my hips are kinda sore.”

Aye, and ‘tis your own fault. Barrier smiled as he lifted himself from the bed and made his way to the bathroom. Might as well look the part if I’m to play instructor.

***

Barrier took a deep breath as he set eyes on the training field, a nostalgic smile working its way onto his face as he saw twenty or so stallions and mares running laps, Shining Armor directing them from the front of the pack, running with them. Exhaling slowly, Barrier waited until the white unicorn called a halt and joined him.

Shining swallowed a mouthful of water from his bottle. “Was wondering if you’d show up. Princess Celestia said you would be to judge and advise on these guards.”

“Aye. I’m not entirely certain what she expects me to do with you softies, but I had no reason to say no.”

Shining’s gaze narrowed slightly, until he saw Barrier’s grin. “While we may not be in a constant state of war like in your days, I assure you my guards are not softies.” The unicorn groaned when he realized the grin his elder was wearing. “Anyways, why don’t you train with us for the day? Show you how outclassed you are at your age.”

Barrier’s smile only tightened. “Why don’t you let me lead training for today? I’ll show you how outclassed you are by somepony my age.”

The two ponies stared off for a moment, fully aware of the cadets watching them with curiosity.

“Alright Barrier, you’re on, but why don’t we make it interesting?” Now it was Shining’s turn to grin.

Barrier’s eyebrow tilted upward. “What did you have in mind?”

“If my guards do a satisfactory job, or you mess up in any way, you have to polish not only my armor, but the armor for all of these troops.”

“Very well,” Barrier nodded. “And when I win, you will have to pay for new armor for me, and eat five ruby reapers.”

It was Shining’s turn to cock an eyebrow. “Ruby reapers?”

“How could you not know about…” Realization dawned on the unicorn’s face. “Ah, right… it was a pepper from the Crystal Empire. Okay, instead you can pay the bill the next time Miss Yearling and I go out to dinner.”

“You’re going to dinner with A.K Yearling?” Shining Armor asked with an almost-childish grin.

Barrier ignored the question entirely, instead stepping past the modern captain and addressing the assembled ponies who were still waiting for their instructor. “Good morning, cadets!” Barrier’s tone took a hard edge and his eyes seemed to narrow as his face set itself in a scowl “You likely heard the bet your captain and I just made. Those of you who don’t know who I am, I’m Magic Barrier. I returned with Princess Luna, and I did your captain’s job for her one-thousand years ago. And today…” Barrier’s scowl broke in favor of a terrifying smile, “I’m going to run you ponies into the ground. Ready Captain Armor?”

Shining swallowed at the gaze Barrier shot him, but nodded his affirmation. “They’re all yours.”

“Alright ponies, thirty laps, keep up with me! If you lag behind, you get five extra laps when the rest of us are done!” Doing a few short squats to loosen his legs, Barrier took off at a heavy gallop, Shining Armor staying close to him.

“Thirty laps? The unicorn asked in between breathes, taking care to pace his speech with his breathing. “Isn’t that a bit much? They just finished their laps when you showed up.”

“Stamina was the single most important thing back in the day,” Barrier replied in a similar fashion, his speech broken up by breaths. “Some fights could last for over a full day and ponies had to be able to go as long as equinely possible. After this it’ll be sparring, probably followed by other exercises. Since I only have them for a day, I can’t give them the full experience. A shame.”

***

Shining Armor and Barrier both fell to their flanks, sucking in huge gasps of air along with the cadets, who were in a pile of heaving bodies at this point. To Barrier’s great surprise and Shining Armor’s joy, none of them had fallen behind the group enough to warrant extra laps.

“Alright ponies!” Barrier’s voice rang out again, the stallion seemingly having caught his breath. “Five-minute break and then pair off for sparring!” He turned to Shining Armor. “Wanna have a quick sword match to show them how it’s done?”

“Sure, I can smack you around for a bit,” Shining Armor replied with a shrug that added the unspoken, ‘why the hell not.’ “Somepony please give Barrier a sword,” he requested as he drew his blade.

“Sir,” A familiar mass of thestral stepped out of line and threw a hasty salute before holding her practice sword—35-inches on blunt-edged steel—out to the charcoal-grey stallion.

“Thank you, Cobalt,” Barrier smiled as he took the blade and gave it several practice swings. “I’m glad to see you here. I hope you’ll do great things.”

“Sir.” Cobalt threw a salute and flashed a slight smile before stepping back into line.

Bringing both their swords to bear with their magic, the stallions assumed combative stances.

Intending to get the jump on him, Barrier was the first to lunge forward with a downward slash to Shining’s right. Shining’s eyes widened slightly as his brain and reflexes went into overtime to meet the attack in time.

Barrier’s slash was parried by Shining just a few inches from his muzzle, having just made the time window to defend himself. Momentum forced Shining backward and both stallions gritted their teeth as they each attempted to power through the other’s blade.

A flaring of Shining’s horn brought the brief power struggle to an end as Barrier was forced back by a telekinetic blast. Shining smirked for a moment, which prompted an arched brow from Barrier as tactical space was opened up for the moment between them. The white stallion saw openings as Barrier was forced back by his spell.

Seizing one of them, Shining lunged forward this time with a horizontal stroke of his blade that was met by Barrier’s crossguard. Through the ringing of metal from steel against steel, the whirring of magic sounded for a second time as Barrier now ignited his own horn.

Whatever remnants of a smirk Shining had quickly evaporated into a gawking ‘o’ as Barrier vanished with a pop of air and magical energy. A second and a half later, the black stallion appeared first to Shining’s left, and then right, delivering one swing each that Shining was barely able to fend off.

A third pop of magic and a ringing of steel that came from his rear left Shining beginning to feel the first signs of fatigue as he spun about to parry. The smirk had since migrated from his muzzle to Barrier’s own.

It was clear to Barrier that Shining was just one final well-placed attack away from forfeiting, thus securing Barrier eternal glory. Barrier promptly seized the moment as Shining’s sudden bout of drawn out breaths left openings in his defences.

Even despite nearly being worn out, Shining was still able to think tactically. Barrier had chosen his would-be victory attack to be a stroke that came in low and ended in an upward slash to—once again—Shining’s right.

“You’ve still got a lot to learn. There’s no way you can defeat me.” Barrier’s voice rang out, a hint of amusement clear in the tone.

Shining adopted a blank expression as he made a feint parry to the right while slugging Barrier in the muzzle with his left hoof. While Barrier reeled back slightly from the blow, Shining prepped another spell and his aura encircled Barrier’s neck.

Shining added a tiny amount of extra force to the spell and held Barrier in place, with just enough force for it to be extremely uncomfortable for his combatant.

“I find your lack of faith disturbing.” Shining’s spell tightened even further, just enough to limit his opponent’s breathing. “Say uncle,” Shining Armor said, a grin now gracing his lips.

“Shiny, I am you uncle!” Barrier wheezed between gasps as Shining Armor drew closer.

“What do y-” Shining’s head snapped forward as something smacked him in the back of the skull. Only through training did he manage to hold his concentration and maintain the spell on his opponent, though the feeling of something cold resting along the side of his throat had his gaze drifting downward as the stars faded.

“Draw?” Barrier offered with the same grin as before, his face notably paler from the reduced oxygen.

“Draw.” Shining agreed as his magic died out and he rubbed the back of the head, wincing at the already-forming knot.

None of the cadets uttered so much as a squeak when Barrier returned the blade to Cobalt Lancer’s side with his thanks.

“Alright ponies, pair off!” Barrier’s voice called out. “Captain Armor and I are going to evaluate you all as you spar!”

***

Shining Armor and Barrier had followed the cadets to the barracks after the day's practice.

“Hey Barrier, want to see something cool that you guys didn’t have one-thousand years ago?”

“Sure.” Barrier kept careful pace alongside the younger stallion, his coat still glistening with sweat from where he’d followed the cadets on their last run of the day, a run Shining had opted out of.

“Come on, I wanna show you our flashbangs.” Shining’s horn flared to open the door across from the barracks, revealing a room stocked to the brim with gear and -once again- a sleeping quartermaster. Shining took a deep breath and very slowly exhaled.

“He seems like a keeper.” Barrier offered with a smile.

“He seems like he’s going to be out of a job. And no, we can’t draw dicks on his face again.” Shining tore his gaze from the dozing pony to a rack behind him, a half-dozen small metal capsules resting along the wall. “A mixture of earth-pony engineering and unicorn magic.” The alabaster unicorn explained as he removed from the wall and transferred it over to his counterpart.

“What do they do?” Barrier asked as he examined the small capsule, his magic testing the small circular clip near the top.

“Th-” Shining fell silent as the soft clink of a pin being removed reached his ears. He had just enough time to make a small ‘o’ with his muzzle before the room exploded into a painfully bright light and set his ears to ringing.

“Oh Faust!” Barrier was the first to speak. “It burns! Why does it burn?!”

“It’s a flash-bang grenade.” Shining’s much calmer voice replied, his eyes and ears having been covered by one of his shields. “It’s supposed to temporarily blind and deafen.”

“WHAT?!” Barrier yelled out, ears still ringing painfully.

“It should wear off soon!” Shining called out even louder.

“WHAT?!” Barrier asked again, even louder than before.

Shining got a slight smile as his bubble faded. “An idiot who pulls the pin out of a grenade and holds onto it says what!”

“WHAT?!”

***

“So,” Shining took a sip from the thick glass, savoring the burn of the amber liquid. “What did you think of my recruits?”

“They’re good. Much better than I expected.” Barrier took a drink from his own glass. “I don’t think I’d pit them against my own though. Wouldn’t be pretty.”

“Is there really such a big difference between your guards and mine?” Shining drained the last of his glass.

“Yeah, but it’s not a bad thing.” Barrier also swallowed the last of his drink and quickly moved to fill both of their glasses once more. “Your guards don’t have the same…intensity as mine. They lack of the anger my ponies had. Anger at their enemies, the drive to return to their loved ones no matter what they had to do. The drive to do whatever they had for Equestria. For their loved ones. No matter how much blood they needed to shed to do it.” Barrier quickly drained his glass. “But times have changed…and what Equestria needs changed with it.”

Shining didn’t reply, instead simply sipping the bitter liquid from behind his desk. “This is good whiskey. Where’d you get it?”

“Princess Celestia’s private stash. She always kept a bottle in the bookcase when I served under her. We’d share a drink from time to time, usually over a game of chess. Seems she still keeps it there.”

Shining’s nodded before the statement caught up with his brain. “Did I ever tell you that you’re out of mind?”

“No.” Barrier shrugged. “But plenty of other ponies do.”

“Well, at any rate.” Shining reached into his desk-drawer and retrieved a worn-out rag which he then threw at Barrier, who caught it with a hoof. “Start polishing, Captain.”

“Tch,” Barrier shook his head and threw back the last of his drink before taking the rag in his magic. “Dammit.”

Chapter 32

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Barrier moaned as his body fell onto the motel bed, his bed partner bouncing slightly at the sudden weight.

The tan pegasus cracked an eyelid open and glanced at her fellow lump. “You look like crap.”

“Spent the day exercising with a bunch’a kids.” the stallion grumbled wearily.

“A throwback to the old days for you, huh? Well, with less griffin killing I guess.” Daring draped a wing lazily over him and sidled a little closer.

“Not as young as I once was I guess.” He curled further into the feathery pillow. “Gonna take a nap.”

“It’s…” the lump fell silent very briefly. “Like eleven-thirty. S’past bedtime.”

“Nap…” Barrier’s voice drifted off as his eyes fluttered closed.

“Night, horn-head…” Daring’s own voice drifted off.

“Good night, Ember…” came the half-reply.

***

Not even a year after her death and you’re already with another mare…

The unicorn snapped into a semi-aware state as the words sunk into him.

The tone of the voice shifted to a more condescending tone. It certainly didn’t take much effort to replace Ember…

“Am I using her to replace Ember?” The unicorn asked himself, having suddenly found his voice within the vice of the dream.

Not even a year… the voice repeated tauntingly.

Barrier fell to his haunches within the dreamstate, taking a shaky breath to steady himself as his mind seemed to fight with itself. Relax, it’s a dream… The stallion’s assurances did little for him.

Thrown away, as if she never mattered at all. You didn’t even really think of her until months into your return.

“I didn’t want to think about what I’d lost…” Barrier continued to try and weakly justify himself.

“I was running away…” The stallion’s gaze drifted towards the ground, though like everything else it was merely more inky blackness.

“Even when we were together, there was always something you thought you could’ve done better. Always looking at your failures…” The soft thud of a pegasus landing reached the unicorn’s ears followed by a hoof resting briefly on his withers.

The unicorn turned around, his icy eyes meeting with the familiar burnt-orange irides of the tan pegasus.

“You mustn’t be so hard on yourself, dear Barrier.” A tan hoof brushed her orange bangs from her face before finding a resting spot beneath Barrier’s chin. “I want you to move on. I love you, and I do not want you to suffer for something out of our hooves.”

Barrier swallowed the knot in his throat before responding, “It feels like I’m betraying you, even though I know in my mind you’re gone.”

“You are free to find a mate in these modern times, love.” Ember’s hoof fell from his chin and she smiled faintly. “After all, I’m long gone.”

“Are you truly Ember?” Barrier raised his tone slightly. “Or Princess Luna?”

“Does it truly matter?” The mare’s smile faltered ever-so-slightly. “You were and still are a pony I care deeply about. I have long-since left this world, but you live on. If you care about her, truly care, then be with her. I love you, so I set you free.”

The unicorn didn’t reply, prompting the dream-mare to continue.

“We had a magnificent time in the past, but more than anything I want to see you happy, and you can’t be that if you try to remain faithful to me, not truly. I’ve been gone for a millennium.”

Barrier didn’t reply, instead shifting his gaze back towards the ground in uncertainty.

“Barrier,” the mare’s hoof reached his chin once more, lifting his gaze to hers as she closed the distance. “Wake up…” the mare pressed her muzzle to his before shoving the stallion backwards…

***

“Up!” Daring called out as she snaked both of her hooves beneath the bedsheets and tugged, sending the unicorn rolling off of the bed into a heap.

“Daring…” Barrier’s voice was muffled, courtesy of the floor.

“Morning.” The mare grinned before settling back onto the linen-free bed.

“Morning…” the unicorn huffed his reply before pushing himself upright and stretching.

“Another letter came for you.” The tan pegasus motioned to the nightstand. “And I have a question.”

“And what question would that be?” The unicorn flopped back onto the bed, horn flaring to retrieve the letter.

“Well,” Daring watched him unfurl his scroll. “Yesterday, I got a letter from the palace while you were off playing drill-instructor. They’re some reports about some really powerful artifacts being located somewhere in Neighpon. If I were a betting mare, I’d wager it’s either the Talismans of Shendu or the Oni Masks of Tarakudo.”

“I see.” Barrier looked from his letter to Daring, giving her his undivided attention.

“I ship out tomorrow. I was…” Daring mumbled something and turned away from the unicorn.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” The unicorn focused his hearing.

“I asked if you wanted to come with me. I usually go alone on these kinds of things, but I kinda enjoyed our trip to the north. It was…nice to have the company I guess.”

Barrier felt a slight flare of warmth in his chest, “How long would we be gone?”

Daring’s voice sounded almost-sad as she replied. “Probably a few weeks…”

Ah. “Were this any other time, I’d say yes in a heartbeat.” Now it was Barrier’s turn to seem sad as his expression fell ever-so-slightly. “But I can’t. If the empire is due to return, I have to be on hoof. This letter,” he held up the scroll he’d been reading. “Is actually from Princess Celestia asking me to come and give an evaluation on what I observed yesterday…as well as to help plan for the return of the Empire, which according to the letter is ‘inevitable’. I’m sorry, Daring.” The unicorn almost immediately found himself giving his justifications. “The Empire has haunted me for almost four years. To have a chance to end it and attain some closure…”

“Relax,” Daring’s usual smile returned. “I get it. Don’t forget, I saw you when you broke down and cried like a foal on the way to Sweet Apple Acres.”

Barrier winced at the memory; not his finest moment.

Daring jabbed the unicorn in his still-bruised shoulder. “Do what you’ve gotta do with the Empire.”

“I give you my word that after the Empire, I’ll accompany you on whatever mad venture you desire.” The unicorn promised, followed by a flinch at the now-throbbing joint.

“Sounds like a deal. Now, you should probably go see what Princess Celestia wants. I’ve gotta get ready for my own trip.”

The unicorn’s eyes rested on the bathroom before glancing back to the letter. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

***

“Right through here, sir.” The guard’s horn flared, the thick, wooden-door to the dining room sliding silently open and revealing the rooms occupants: two princesses, one wide-awake and well-groomed, the other looks like she’d flown through a hurricane.

“Thank you.” Barrier tugged the door shut behind him before standing stock-straight and raised a hoof to his forehead. “Princess Celestia, Princess Luna.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow in amusement at the salute whereas Luna just looked over at him tiredly.

“At ease, Barrier. Come, sit.”

The unicorn’s hoof fell and he hesitantly glanced around the room, noting how small and barren it was. Even the princesses only sat at a plain wooden table surrounded by four cushions. A more personal dining room for the pair, he supposed. His back straight and eyes forward, the stallion approached the table and confidently took a seat next to Princess Celestia.

“Would you care for lunch, Magic?” Celestia asked, glancing down at him.

“Just a salad perhaps. I didn’t have time to eat before I left yesterday. Shining Armor had me here polishing armor all night.”

Celestia tittered and took a sip of a teacup the unicorn hadn’t noticed before. “I heard about that. Something about a duel and a lost bet?”

Barrier glanced at Luna who appeared to be asleep, head resting still on the table and then back to Celestia. “Something like that, yes.”

“You two fought to a standstill. Getting rusty perhaps?”

“No ma’am. A duel is very different from a fight to death, after all.”

“Of course.” Celestia’s magic flared, opening the door Barrier had entered through to permit a half-dozen ponies into the room, all carrying various trays. Within minutes, the three had descended on their respective meals, eating in silence, save the sound of Barrier and Celestia’s silverware. Luna seemed content to drink her soup directly from the bowl.

Princess Celestia was the first to finish, followed shortly by Barrier, and then Luna. “So,” the solar diarch was the first to break the silence, “to skip to the point of this meeting, what is your opinion on the Royal Guard, Barrier?”

“They are…passable, I suppose. Physically, they’re passable, but I find the method of fighting they seem to be learning fairly useless in a war scenario in my opinion.”

Celestia pursed her lips before sighing. “Would you take them with you against Sombra?”

“No ma’am. I’d take some of the flashbangs Shining Armor showed me before I would a bunch of battle-virgins.”

Luna finally interjected herself into the conversation, though less on-topic. “We empathise with thee over the flashbang incident from yesterday. We made the same mistake upon our return.”

“Which led to you yelling so loudly that I had to replace thirty-seven windows.” Celestia snorted in amusement at the memory.

“At any rate,” Luna steered them back on topic. “What wouldst you say about the element bearers? Sister seems rather insistent on sending them.”

Barrier winced at the thought of Twilight squaring off with Sombra, doubly so with her thirst for knowledge. “I wouldn’t take them if I could help it, but…they bear the elements. They are perhaps the only force that could allow to us to put Sombra down for good. I would take them and perhaps a small handful of guards, provided I was able to choose the guards.”

Celestia and Luna both nodded and silence reigned for several moments until once more, Celestia broke it. “Our estimates leave us less than a month until the return of the empire. I would like you to accompany Captain Armor and the element bearers.”

“Of course.” It wasn’t even a question for the unicorn; he would have walked to the Empire by hoof if he’d had to. “Though we’ll need some more ponies to act as guards if we do. Shining and I can’t watch all of the element bearers on our own.”

“Of course,” Luna nodded. “Though you can’t take too many. Having too many ponies would draw Sombra’s attention. Beyond that, we need as many soldiers as we can here in the capital. Should you fail at the Empire, then Sombra will most certainly march here next. We must be prepared.”

“On that note,” It was Celestia that spoke this time. “I have a favor to ask.”

Barrier raised an eyebrow. Why request a favor when she knew she could still give him orders? “Princess?”

“I want you help several ponies learn the…older way of fighting, while we wait for the empire. If Sombra escapes the Empire or emerges from your mission victorious, I want as many ponies ready for his brutality as possible.”

“Of course. It’ll give me a chance to get back in shape anyways.” Barrier poked his stomach, noting the slightest layer of squish that had begun to form. “What are your instructions for Sombra though? Subdue and capture, or-”

“Kill him.” Celestia stated with a surprising amount of venom in her voice. “No matter what, take the very first opportunity you can and put him down, Captain.”

Barrier drew back slightly at the tone. Even one-thousand years ago, Celestia hadn’t seemed so angry. Even when discussing fiends such as Grimhilde, it hadn’t been such outright hatred.

“Princess, are you okay?”

“I’m fine, I assure you.” Celestia replied with her usual tone this time, further disturbing both of her conversation partners.

Luna interjected before Barrier could comment this time. “Sister, couldn’t we simply use the elements to cleanse him?”

Celestia shook her head negative. “You said it yourself during our first battle with him, Luna. He’s more dark magic than pony now. Even if the elements are used successfully on him, I don’t believe he would survive.”

“But when I-” Luna tried to argue but was cut off.

“When you fell, you still had a mind. As misguided as it was, you still had it. Sombra, by your own words, was little more than a rabid beast.”

“Sister, We thought thou hated the idea of taking any life.” Luna slipped slightly into her older speech patterns.

“And I do,” Celestia remained perfectly composed. “However, I’ve had over a thousand years to think about things, Luna. How many ponies died because I…we, refused to take a few lives? How many were killed because I ignored your warning about Sombra? How many would have been saved if we’d personally intervened during the Griffin War and retaken Gallopfrey the day after it was seized?”

Luna fell silent.

“I read a book a while ago…” Celestia sighed, and for the first time in ages, looked truly tired. “It said that ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’. If the price I have to pay for peace is to order the death of a tyrant…” she seemed to hesitate slightly, but trudged on regardless, “or even take his life myself, the life of one that we know won’t change his ways, and that I live with a guilty conscious for the rest of my life…” The mare took a deep breath and finished with far more certainty than she’d previously displayed, “then I would call that a bargain.”

Barrier finally managed to insert himself into the conversation with a cough. “Princess…is there something more to this?”

Celestia waited several long seconds before responding, “It was my fault, Barrier.”

The unicorn furrowed his brows. “Pardon?”

“While many ponies in both the past and current time say ‘who could have seen Sombra coming’, there was somepony who did see him coming. There was a pony who was concerned about what Sombra was preparing…and I ignored her.”

“Sister…” Luna stood and walked around the table, sitting on the other side of the solar princess.

“I ignored my sister’s warning. I brushed it aside. I was so certain that Sombra was trustworthy that I didn’t even give it any thought. My foolishness caused all of those deaths…and quite possibly lead to the creation of Nightmare Moon…” Celestia stopped to catch her breath before finishing her speech. “If it weren’t for me, you would still have had your cadets, Barrier…and perhaps Flash wouldn’t have taken the actions he did…I… I will not make the same mistake again.”

The trio fell silent very briefly, though Luna did wrap her sister in a tight hug, hiding the Princess of the Sun’s tears from the stallion.

Barrier nodded resolutely, and stood up. “Very well, Princess. Thy will be done.”

Chapter 33

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Barrier stared into the mug of mead, rolling his most recent near-death experience in his head. Almost entirely absorbed in his thoughts, he didn’t notice that he had company until the stallion’s mug thudded to a rest on the bar. The unicorn’s disinterest turned into a sharp salute that sent his chair wobbling backwards.

“At ease, Barrier.” the stallion’s gruff voice motioned back to the bar, waiting until Barrier took a seat to continue. “Honestly, almost ten years as my student and you still do that.” The stallion took a drink and sat the mug back down. “Thy first time back in this tavern in years and thou lookest like a dead pony. Didst thee get caught spying on the princesses whilst they were bathing?”

“No sir.” Barrier glanced at the stallion and then back to his mug before draining his own cup with a sigh and motioning to the bartender for a refill.

“Then pray tell, what’s bothering you?” The older stallion turned and faced his former student, his sap-green eyes seeming to see right through the normally-hard stallion.

“I was thinking about my most recent near-death experience.” Barrier confessed without hesitation, his tone remaining respectful even as his gaze was fixated on the bar, rather than his mentor. “Literal inches away, courtesy of the Conqueror of Gallopfrey.” Barrier’s empty mug was returned with a full one and he wasted no time in beginning to drain it.

“Ah yes, the accursed Griffins…” the pony took another swig of his drink and clicked his teeth. “This has been a problem for far too long, hasn’t it, Barrier? Luckily, I believe that I can change that. End it.”

Barrier found his gaze torn from his drink with an almost hopeful stare. “How’s that, sir?” If anypony could end the war, it’d be him.

“I can’t say just yet. My research must remain as secret as possible. Once I reach the Crystal Empire, however…if all goes well, my efforts will end this destructive conflict and bring the world some much needed order.”

Barrier saluted again, though remained seated this time. “I look forward to the results, sir.”

“You’ve been my student for many years, Barrier. I believe you’ve earned the right to call me by name.” The pony stood up from his barstool. “Please, let me hear it from you once more before I leave.”

Barrier noted the slightest hint of melancholy in his teacher’s voice, but acquiesced regardless. “As you wish. Farewell, Sombra.”

Barrier watched as the dark-gray stallion strode from the bar before fixing his gaze on his mug once more…

***

Luna tapped the table sharply, drawing Barrier’s attention from his thoughts. “Captain? Thou appears to be distracted.”

The dishes from lunch had been cleared away and the trio had begun to make arrangements for Barrier’s temporary reinstatement when the stallion drifted into his memories.

“My apologies, Princess. I was…” Barrier hesitated slightly, “I was thinking about the last time I saw my mentor,” Luna pursed her lips slightly. “The last time I saw him as a pony and not a dark beast. Worry not however, I’ve long put that behind me. When the time comes, I will put him down.”

“There was never any doubt, Barrier.” Celestia reassured the stallion with a nod. “Well, I believe everything is concluded. I should head back to my duties. I’ll see both bright and early tomorrow?”

“Yes ma’am.” Barrier stood up and saluted as Celestia and Luna shared a quick hug and the solar princess departed.

“Your highness,” Barrier bowed to Luna and slowly backed up to take his leave as well, before the princess cut him off.

“Barrier, may We speak to thee in private?” Luna’s speech slipped slightly. “We wish to discuss something…personal.”

“Ma’am,” Barrier returned to his seat.

“We…I, that is, am worried. I feel bad that my sister blames herself. I’m worried about where her new self, her anger, could lead her…could lead Equestria.”

Barrier didn’t respond, deciding to simply listen for the time being; Luna continued.

“While We did believe Sombra was plotting something nefarious, and We were furious that Our sister was so disbelieving...now that We have the benefit of hindsight, We see that Our accusations had very little to truly go on. I had heard his words, but while they were suspicious, they were not enough for her. To my sister, I was blaming one of our most loyal officers. He had served faithfully for over twenty years. Had I been in my sister’s place, We believe we would have made the same decisions.”


Rolling the words around, Barrier waited in silence until it was clear Luna had finished to respond. “Permission to speak freely?”

Luna nodded.

“Hindsight isn’t exclusive, Princess Luna.” Barrier rubbed his jaw wearily with a hoof. “Your sister is looking at things in hindsight, same as you. One of the reasons you fell was because you felt ignored by everypony. Celestia feels that by ignoring you, she not only cost countless lives and hurt an unfathomable amount of ponies, but that it also cost her the single most important pony in her life. As for her sudden change of tone and ordering Sombra to be put to death without trial…I’m not worried.”

Luna drew back in a mixture of surprise and disgust. “Our sister just ordered the death of a pony with more anger than I possessed as Nightmare Moon! She was furious enough with herself that I was worried, and you say you’re perfectly fine with it, knowing what I did to the world when I fell?”

“Princess Celestia won’t fall,”

Luna opened her mouth to speak, but the unicorn cut her off.

“Not because she’s above it or more aware or anything such as that.”

Luna’s mouth closed and she returned to staring at the stallion.

“But because you’re here, and you won’t let her.” Barrier hefted himself up from the table once more. “It’ll be okay, Princess. I truly believe that after today, I’ve seen you and Princess Celestia at or near your worst, and I don’t think there’s anything for me to worry about.”

Luna stayed silent as Barrier approached the door.

“You’ve both made mistakes, but you’ve both learned from them. Besides that, I think the only reason she’s really okay with this is because you both have battled Sombra before. You know what he’s capable, and more importantly,” Barrier paused for needless dramatic flare, “you know his state of mind, that he can’t be reasoned with, that he’s almost feral. We all know he is beyond help or redemption. Killing him is more a kindness than anything.”

Luna sighed and also lifted herself from the table. “Very well, Captain. However, We shall still speak to Our sister. I do not wish her to become…as We did.”

“Ma’am.” Barrier’s magic opened the door, but the stallion stopped, releasing his hold. “Princess, I apologize for this, but I must know…last night, I had a dream where a pony very important to me was present. I must know, was that you?”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “Was your dream of being buried under our sister’s corpulent flank?”

“Uh…no?” Not this time at least.

“Then We believe that answer should satisfy thee.” Luna strode past the slightly smaller unicorn and out the door. “Now, we suggest thou should make preparations either for combat, or how to spend the night with thy paramour.”

Barrier sighed when he was finally alone and sat down on the cool stone floor. “I’m getting too old for this shit.”

***

“Alright ponies, get a move on!” Shining watched as the cadets filtered into the castle, some of them greeting Barrier as they passed him.

“Captain Armor.” Barrier smiled slightly as he approached his distant sorta-nephew.

“Captain Barrier.” Shining also smiled. “How’s it feel to be a guard again?”

“I already miss retirement.” The charcoal unicorn rolled his shoulders and earning several satisfying pops for the motion. “That aside, I figured I should come and give you an idea of what the Princesses expect us to go up against.”

Shining shook his head negative. “They’ve already briefed me on Sombra. I know what’s at stake.”

“I suppose they did, but…” Barrier fell silent as his inner voice interjected itself. Don’t tell him anything else about Sombra. It’s harder to kill a pony you know or feel sorry for. “Nevermind. I’m sure they told you everything you’ll need to know. I came to discuss a plan of attack for when we actually get to the returned Empire. Why don’t we discuss it over you showing me some of the more modern gear the guards has these days?”

“Uh, sure.” Shining bit back the urge to question Barrier about his initial conversational plans. “Come on, let’s go see the armory.”

After a short trip, Barrier was disappointed to see the quartermaster was not asleep…and was a new pony.

“Who’s the new guy?” Barrier didn’t actually address the Quartermaster who had both saluted and stood up nervously, since the Captain of the Guard had dropped in for an unexpected visit.

“His name’s Golden Hammer.” Shining returned the salute, both ponies dropping them in unison.

Barrier grinned. “You fired the last guy, didn’t you?”

“We gave him a different job.” The alabaster unicorn explained. “He gets to help the new recruits with latrine duty.”

Barrier grinned in response. You’re definitely related to me.

Shining moved to a wall loaded with flashbangs and other similar objects with different colors. “Right, let me show you what other toys we have…”

“More flashbangs?” Barrier strode forward with his younger counterpart.

“Not exactly. These ones are much more dangerous. These ones destroy nearly everything in a twenty-foot radius…they’re also brand new. Princess Celestia only okayed them for training a week ago.”

“They look like silver apples.” Barrier noted as he took one in his magic, being careful not to assert any excess or undue pressure on the small explosive.

“You’ll have to take that up with Corporal Magnum Gala over in research and development.” Shining motioned to the apple stem. “You pull this out and you have seven seconds to throw it or get the hay away from it.”

“Far more convenient than what we had one-thousand years ago it would seem. We had small bags of various ingredients. You pulled the string holding the bag shut hard enough to cause friction and ran like hell. You had about two seconds at most to get out of range before it made a small crater.”

“The hay would you guys be able to do with those?” Shining asked with a flinch.

“Nothing, after you’d pulled it. Even if you dropped it from the air, the explosive radius would still melt the skin off of you. We used them for more…drastic solutions. Run into the target, pull the string, and go to meet your ancestors. Use of them was obviously very rare but…well, you get the picture.”

Shining sucked in air through his teeth. “Grisly.”

“Weapons of a last resort.” Barrier held the newer grenade at eye level. “Where can we safely set these off? I need to know exactly what I’m working with.”

***

Barrier shuffled tiredly into Daring’s hotel room, where she was sitting stomach-down on the bed, scribbling away in a notebook.

“Welcome back.” The mare didn’t look up from her writing. “You smell like gunpowder.”

“Never before have I seen such glorious explosive carnage.” Barrier flopped tiredly onto the bed, finally prompting Daring Do to look over at him.

“You’d probably like movies by Michael Hay or Firecracker Burst.” The pegasus went back to scribbling in her notebook.

“Perhaps, though both of those names leave me feeling…” Barrier thought for a moment, “strangely let down. How odd.”

Daring snorted in response. “Hah! Don’t worry, that’s perfectly natural.”

“So,” Barrier rolled over on top of the mare, getting a grunt as his weight settled on her back. “what are you writing?”

“Get off of me.” Daring shifted slightly, but the weight held her fairly firmly in place. “Unless you want your carrot and cabbages kicked.”

Barrier rolled off almost immediately. “You leave tomorrow, correct?”

“Well, that was the plan, but I managed to get an earlier train, so I actually leave in a couple of hours.” The mare blew on her notebook to dry the ink and snapped it shut. “So I should probably get going. You too, if you plan to see me off.”

“Ah.” What I would give to accompany you… “Very well, shall we go?” Barrier hefted himself upright.

“I suppose so.” Daring hefted herself up as well, sighing sadly. “Whenever I get back, you have to come with me wherever I say, alright?”

“Of course.”

Daring’s trademark grin broke through. “Good, it’s a promise. That means you can’t die up in there the Empire.”

Barrier also smiled before swallowing nervously and speaking once more. “Daring, do you think that…”

“Barrier,” Daring smiled at him incredulously. “I’m not gonna do it in the shower. I don’t want to cut my train too close.”

Barrier groaned and facehoofed, much to Daring’s amusement. “I was going to ask if after our coming trials, if we…I’d like to…” The unicorn fumbled his words several more times before finally saying something coherent. “I was wondering if we could attempt a more…formal relationship?”

Daring’s grin softened slightly and she nodded. “Buck it, why not? Whenever we get back, we can give it a go, see where it lands us.” Daring sauntered past the unicorn towards the bedroom door, flicking her tail as she lead him from the room.

***

“So, I suppose this is it…” Barrier glanced at the garishly decorated train that would transport Daring Do -disguised with her cloak, hat, and glasses, as always- to the coast.

“I guess so.” Daring turned to face the unicorn. “Hey, I know I sorta said it back at the hotel but…don’t die, okay? Faust only knows why but I’ve really grown to kinda like you. And…sorry if I seem a little awkward with our whole weird…whatever it is we have. I don’t have tons of practice with romance and what not. Never been one for tying myself down. Always been a ‘buck for a night or two and head out for the next adventure’ type of mare. But you…I don’t know, some part of me wants to spend more time with you.” Daring half-smiled. “Surprisingly, it’s not my hind-end.”

The unicorn didn’t have an immediate response.

Daring began to back up towards the train but stopped. “Oh, almost forgot.” The mare reached forward and snagged Barrier by the chin before tugging him forcefully into a kiss that he wasted no time in returning. “See you when I get back, Captain.”

Barrier nuzzled the pegasus as the kiss broke and nodded. “I look forward to it.” The stallion took a deep breath as he watched the pegasus board the train and waited several long minutes until it finally broke away from the station and left him standing alone on the platform in the late evening sun.

Chapter 34

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“Barrier! You up?”

Barrier didn’t reply, instead tugging the door open with his horn. He appeared to be sitting on his cot perfectly still, horn glowing brightly and seeming to drip excess mana which spread out and dissipated on the ground.

“I gathered all of the guards most eligible out in the yard for you.” Shining winced as Barrier’s horn died down and left the spear of bone glowing almost white hot. The unicorns in the guards were required to build their mana-reserves to a certain point, but Barrier’s had been somewhat extreme at a glance.

“I’ll be along shortly.” The unicorn finally spoke, seemingly out of breath.

“Uh, right.” Shining Armor tugged the door close, teleporting to the training yard…to see Magic Barrier already there, having appeared just before him, and appearing almost exhausted. “Uh, Barrier? You want an espresso or something? I could get you one from the mess hall…”

The charcoal stallion didn’t reply, instead gazing out at the hundred or so assembled ponies. These were the most eligible? He almost scoffed. They’re not bad, they’re just not what you’re used to.

“Barrier, did you hear me?” Shining jabbed the unicorn in the side. “Do you want an espresso or something? You look like you’re dead on your hooves.”

“An espresso?” The pony’s head tilted curiously. “Is that the modern term for cocaine? Why would you keep cocaine in the mess hall instead of the infirmary? Nevermind that; if it is, then yes. I was unable to sleep last night and am exhausted after my magical exercise.”

“Uh, cocaine’s illegal, Barrier. Like really illegal.” Shining pressed a hoof to his muzzle; for some reason, he was beginning to feel tired.

“Yes, the princess said something along those lines on my return, but if cocaine is illegal, then what do you use to energize troops in extended combat, or to numb pains?”

“Just wait here.” The younger unicorn groaned and disappeared with another teleport.

“Right, while he’s doing that, do any of you ponies know why you’re here?”

All of the ponies held their silence initially until finally a mint-green earth-pony mare stepped forward out of the front row. “Sir, we’re here to see if we’re the right ponies for a secret mission to the north!”

“Gold star.” Barrier perked up slightly and began to pace along the front row of ponies. “Three of you will be selected. One unicorn, one earth-pony and one pegasus…” he spotted Cobalt a row back, her height making her stick out. “Or thestral will be selected for this. It will be dangerous. There is a very good possibility you won’t be coming back from it.” Barrier’s gaze hardened as some of the ponies swallowed nervously. “So,” Barrier’s put an edge into his tone and threw on his usual hard stare. “Those among you willing to sacrifice everything for Equestria, take two steps forward. The rest of you, go back to your duties.”

Much to the unicorn’s surprise, almost everypony took two steps forward. I can respect that, at the very least. Barrier turned his back to the group as the familiar smell of ozone reached his nose, followed by Shining Armor winking into existence across from him, a solitary white cup floating across him. “Drink this,” he thrust it into his companion’s magic. “It’ll perk you right up. Probably not as good as cocaine, but it’ll do the job with less harmful side effects.”

Barrier did as instructed, taking a sip and hissing as the bitter liquid ran across his tongue. “It certainly isn’t as smooth as cocaine. Still, if it doesn’t have the low then I’ll not complain. Now then,” his gaze shifted back to the guards. “Take two steps apart from each other!” Barrier waited until they did so to start perusing the rows. For ten long minutes, the unicorn sipped his coffee - most certainly enjoying the rush - and eyeing each of the guards with as soul-crushing a gaze as he could muster while drinking said coffee.

“So,” Shining started as soon as Barrier had separated himself from the group. “Got some ponies in mind?”

“Mint-green earth-pony and the female unicorn with the rainbow-mane and tail.” Barrier drained the last of his coffee and regretfully disposed of the empty cup with his magic; Princess Celestia would not be happy to find trash lying about.

Shining nodded and yelled out.“Ensign Moonstone, Lieutenant Spearmint, step to the front!”

Barrier watched as mint-green earth-pony mare stepped forward and saluted sharply. Mint-green coat, four-tone green mane composed of lime green, pine-green, forest-green and a single stripe of white. Green fleur-de-lis with three white sparkles for a cutie mark. Barrier committed her appearance to memory before shifting to the unicorn that had joined her. ...Rainbow Dash…? Barrier had almost wondered if his eyes had been playing tricks on him earlier, but now that she was apart from the rainbow of ponies, he could tell that it was, in fact, not. The mare was almost identical to Rainbow Dash, save for the fact that she had a horn poking out of her prismatic mane rather than wings and a pink bow attached to the base of her tail. The only other difference was her cutie mark, composed of several blue and silver planets, a ring wrapped around the larger planet in the center.

“And the third pony?” Shining Armor asked, glancing back at his distant relative.

“Cobalt Lancer.” Barrier replied without hesitation and went back to eyeing the two ponies he’d chosen once more.

Shining Armor reiterated the name. “Cadet Cobalt Lancer, step forward!”

As the familiar mass of thestral broke from the ranks, Shining Armor took a deep breath and boomed out: “Everypony else, dismissed! Go back to your regular duties!” Almost immediately the guards began to file back into the castle, muttering amongst themselves. “Do you need anything else, Barrier? If not, I’ve gotta go start the paperwork on these three being reassigned.”

“No, you’re good to go, Captain. Thank you for the assistance.”

Barrier and Shining shared a salute before the white unicorn also made his way back into the castle, forgoing teleportation for whatever reason.

“All three of you report to the training yard at zero-five-hundred tomorrow morning. From now until the conclusion of the mission, your flanks belong to me.” And I swear I’ll not let you down…not like the others.

“Aren’t you gonna buy us dinner first?” Moonstone asked with the slightest hint of a grin. “Seriously, our mission better not be just being your damned herd. I know I can do way better than you.”

Both Spearmint and Cobalt looked at the mare like she was insane.

By Faust, you even sound like Rainbow Dash, “Don’t flatter yourself, bastard twin; I’m out of your league. You three have the rest of the day off. Get your affairs in order because starting tomorrow, from sun up to sun down, you begin your training and tuition under me. You’ll either die, or get good enough to be a part of the mission.” Barrier left no room in his tone for a response. “Dismissed.”

***

Barrier’s eyes snapped open almost immediately as the alarm clock began to ring. With practiced movements, his hoof fell onto the switch and the stallion rolled out of his cot. The room was little more than a plain stone room with a cot the stallion had commandeered from the barracks, a nightstand he’d taken from a storage closet, and the alarm clock which he had ‘borrowed’ from the princess of the night. Letting loose a deep yawn, the unicorn rubbed the crust from his eyes and stumbled towards the door, willing his body to take him to the single luxury he’d been afforded - by his own choice - in the twenty-five days that Daring Do had been gone; the royal bathing area.

Twenty-five days with the perfect bathing area…normally, one wouldn’t even consider bathing in the princesses’ bathtub, but Princess Luna had insisted after she realized Barrier was once more staying at the castle and that his schedule somewhat lined up with her own; she had insisted that the company would be nice.

“Tis open,” the familiar voice of Princess Luna rang out, the large stone door tugging itself open as it was encased in the princess’s magic.

“Ma’am.” Barrier gave a sharp salute as he met the gaze of the lunar diarch.

“We’ve told thee every day for the last three weeks that you don’t have to salute Us, Barrier. We believe we’re past such formalities at this particular point.” Luna’s magic tugged her mane straight and twisted it tightly, wringing the water from it.

“Apologies, Luna. Old habits die hard.” The unicorn slipped into the water himself, inwardly groaning as relief rolled through him. Wasting no time, his magic flared and set about washing him as he and Luna shared a brief exchange.

“We take it thou art going out to exercise before the rest of the guard?” Luna’s horn died out as she approached the edge of the pool and hefted herself up, paying no mind to her dripping.

“Yes ma’am.” Barrier had already lathered his coat and mane up. “And then I’ll run through their drills with them, along with Captain Armor.” He took a deep breath and submerged himself entirely in the water.

“We see.” Luna sighed, having already expected the response. Barrier, like Celestia, seemed to have been overtaken by a single focus since the departure of his pegasus companion; the Empire, or more specifically, preparation for it. “Why not take a day off? It wouldn’t do for you to burn yourself out, now would it?”

The unicorn resurfaced and took a quick gasp of air. “With all due respect Princess, I’ll be fine. I need to be as ready as I can be, physically and mentally. Since my return, I’ve not kept up with exercise or my meals.”

Luna sighed and nodded her head as the conversation went the exact same way it had before. “Very well, Barrier. We will see you when you return to bathe for the night.”

“Princess.” The unicorn waited until the mare had left to start swimming laps around the pool-sized bathtub, the only real reason he’d agreed to use the princesses’ tub rather than the servants’; surprisingly, the castle didn’t have any dedicated swimming pools.

***

“Cadet Cobalt, Lieutenant Spearmint.” Barrier tilted his head in acknowledgement of the two mares as he stepped out onto the training field in a full set of armor, sword and shield dangling off of his left and right side.

“Barrier.” Cobalt nodded in return and gave a slight smile, shifting her spear to the other hoof.

“Captain Barrier.” Spearmint saluted sharply with one hoof while balancing herself on the spear held firmly in the other.

“Just Barrier, Lieutenant.” Barrier fixed his gaze on the mint-green earth-pony mare as he repeated the line he’d used four times before. “I’ve not yet been officially reinstated. Also, tie your mane up.”

Spearmint’s salute dropped and she moved a hoof up to her mane to do as instructed.

“Where’s Moonstone?” The unicorn glanced to the side of Cobalt, seeming to try and peer behind her, drawing a deadpan stare from the large thestral.

“Sorry!” The mare in question slid into the training field, helm held firmly in her magic and her rainbow-colored mane shaking as she tried to collect her breath from her mad sprint. “I overslept since I was up late checking out Orion’s Comet last night.”

“That makes the third time in just over three weeks.” Barrier gave her a flat stare. “Mayhaps I made the wrong choice in choosing you for this assignment.”

“Oh don’t be like that, the whole reason I joined the guard was to help me keep in shape and get bits for college. This will help me get both.” The mare tried to smooth her coat out in her magic. “Besides that, I can’t lose the bet I have with Spearmint no matter what.”

The earth-pony didn’t reply.

“Right, now that Rainbow Dash the unicorn is here, let’s get started. Assuming you’ve all already limbered up,” Barrier took a deep breath and stretched his forelegs out. “One-hundred and fifty push-ups.”

The three ponies all followed the order, dropping into position and beginning their push-ups; only Moonstone groaned as she did so.

“Why does he keep comparing to that shopaholic earth pony?” Moonstone took everypony’s silence as an opportunity to talk. “Other than colors, what do we even have in common?”

“You always dress in style?” Cobalt Lancer offered, “What with that bow on the base of your tail.”

“Hey, it’s also a really good improvised weapon!” Moonstone started to argue only for Barrier to cut them off.

“If you can talk, you can do an extra thirty pushups!” Barrier’s statement received a groan and silence.

“As soon as we finish here, we’re going to do one-hundred and twenty sit-ups, fifteen pull-ups and then we’re going to the royal washroom to swim laps!”

That statement got him three groans, allowing the stallion to grin inwardly.

“Captain Barrier.”

All of the ponies snapped to attention as the regal voice of Princess Luna graced their ears. Looking up, they realized they had an audience in both princesses.

“I didn’t say stop, ponies!” Barrier snapped harshly at the cadets who all quickly went back to the exercise.

“Princess Celestia, Princess Luna,” Barrier’s salute held even as the ponies continued to do their push-ups. “How can I be of assistance?”

Luna was the first to answer, waving Barrier’s salute away. “We have just received word that the Crystal Empire has returned, Captain. Your train leaves at fourteen-hundred hours today.”

Chapter 35

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“Twily and her friends are already in the throne room, meeting with the princesses.” Shining smiled almost fondly. “I wish the circumstances were better, but it’ll be good to see her again.” The alabaster unicorn flared his horn and set the throne-room doors to slowly opening, the solar diarch’s voice ringing out.

“...not lie to you. This mission will almost assuredly end in Sombra’s death.” Celestia’s face was hard but apologetic as the six element bearers and the young drake stared up at her in surprise.

“Grim, but true.” Barrier made his and Shining’s presence known. “Luckily, you girls should not have to be the ones to deal the killing blow. That will likely fall to myself, Shining Armor, or your escort.”

Celestia nodded firmly at the charcoal unicorn before turning to the elements once more. “Magic Barrier, Shining Armor, and three ponies of their choosing will be accompanying all of you to the Empire.”

“Hey Twi, check out this guard.” Rainbow Dash grinned at the lavender unicorn and flitted over to Shining Armor, seeming to circle him with a buyer’s eye. “He’s pretty hot.”

“I would have to agree, darling.” Rarity intervened before Twilight could reply. “Some…intimate time with a handsome stallion such as him would do you a world of good.” Spike bit his lip to keep from chuckling.

“Girls, stop! He’s-”

Applejack cut her off this time, nudging her in a friendly manner. “Shoot Twi, there’s nothing wrong with takin’ a hot piece of stallion fer a roll in the hay once in awhile. Well, long as you don’t do it in mah barn.”

“Seriously girls, st-”

“Wait, Twilight!” Pinkie pressed herself right up next to Twilight. “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this!” Pinkie fished a small plastic package from her mane and held it out to the lavender unicorn.

“GIRLS, HE’S MY BROTHER!” Twilight finally yelled out, almost hyperventilating.

“Ohhhh…” Four of the elements stated collectively as understanding dawned on them as Spike collapsed on the floor, laughing.

“Um…” another voice called out, this one a legitimate whisper. “Can...can I have him?”

Nopony had a chance to comment as another voice made itself known. “Auntie!” An obscenely pink alicorn made her way into the throne room. “I should go as well! I may not be as powerful as you or Aunt Luna, but my magic is nearly as strong as Shining Armor’s and I’ve been practicing some of his shield spells.”

Everypony turned to greet the new arrival, five ponies bowing and Twilight breaking out into a big grin as she rushed forward, embracing the larger mare before the two broke away into a little dance, much to everypony’s amusement, complete with a little chant.

“As much as I’m sure we all appreciate the show, ladies,” Barrier cut in with a poorly concealed smile of his own as the pair broke apart and blushed. “I believe we still have business to attend to.”

“Very well, Cadance.” Celestia sighed, seeming to have missed the entire exchange. “But be very careful. I mean this for all of you. Sombra has taken the lives of a lot of ponies. I don’t want him to take anymore, especially yours.”

The element bearers and Spike all seemed to stand more resolutely at the statement, save Fluttershy who seemed to shrink further into herself.

“Right,” Barrier interjected again as silence began to settle over them. “We should probably introduce the other ponies accompanying us.” The unicorn gave two hard stomps with his forehoof. “Squad, fall in!”

Immediately, three additional ponies filtered into the throne room.

“These are the personal escorts for your group.” Barrier pointed to the mares and introduced them each in turn. “Lieutenant Spearmint,” despite not being in armor, the mare gave a sharp salute and seemed to radiate presence as Barrier moved on to the thestral. “Cadet Cobalt Lancer, who is elevated to a Private for the duration of this mission,”

“That’s a big stallion…” Spike commented softly.

“And lastly,” Barrier continued regardless of the quiet interruption. “Rainbow Dash the Unicorn, or Ensign Moonstone as she prefers to be known.”

Rainbow Dash’s ears perked up as she only now seemed to notice her near carbon-copy.

“Woah…” Both she and Moonstone stared in a brief moment of surprise before they set to circling each other, heads tilted curiously.

“Alright Squad, you’ve met your charges, now go get your gear and head to the train station.” Barrier watched as both Cobalt and Spearmint saluted and moved towards the door but Moonstone and Rainbow Dash kept circling each other. “Ensign!” Barrier snapped slightly, causing the unicorn mare to eep and rush to follow the other two guards.

“So, not that ah’m complaining,” Applejack watched the three leave, “but shouldn’t they be wearing armor?”

“Normally yes, but for this mission, no. The armor would be painfully cold that far north, in addition to painting large targets over their heads for Sombra. Nopony will be in armor for this mission, minus the basic cold-weather gear. Not even myself and Captain Armor.”

“The train leaves in an hour.” Princess Celestia’s voice rang out once more. “Why don’t all of you go and get ready? I’ll speak to you all before your departure.” All of the ponies moved to follow the suggestion, but a soft cough stopped them. “Captain Barrier? A moment of your time before you go?”

“Princess.” Barrier sat on his flank, his posture straight as the rest of the ponies filtered out.

“Apologies Captain, I simply wanted to ask how you want to deal with Sombra.” Celestia’s eyes met with the unicorn’s own hard gaze.

“I’ll carry out your orders, Princess, of that there should be no doubt.”

Celestia sighed and pressed a hoof to her forehead. “That’s not what I asked, Captain. Luna has been quite insistent that I reevaluate my…opinion on this subject. Take a hard look at it once more. What do you think we should do about Sombra? Not what would Captain Barrier do, what would Magic Barrier, the unicorn do?”

Barrier swallowed slightly as he once more thought back to the last conversation he’d shared with the stallion in question. After a heavy silence, Barrier let a sigh of his own escape. “...it doesn’t matter, I don’t think...” The stallion rubbed his chin and shook his head in resignation. “Princess Luna may be right in regards to future situations of this sort, but Sombra…it would be more of a mercy to kill him at this point. The stallion we once knew is no longer in there, just a mad beast. Magic Barrier the unicorn would kill him. It would eat him up for the rest of his days, but for Sombra’s sake, and his own, he would kill him. And Captain Barrier intends to do the same.” Barrier gave a sharp salute to the solar diarch before turning and departing the throne room, leaving a silent princess in his wake.

***

“Barrier?” Cadance’s voice stopped the stallion as he approached the gates of the castle. “Who is this Sombra? Who is he really?”

Barrier gave his head several sharp twists, motioning towards the front door of the castle and the streets beyond before continuing his stride, this time with accompaniment.

“I heard what Aunt Celestia asked you and I couldn’t help but be curious.” Cadance hesitated slightly, but her statement continued. “That and the fact that I can feel the uncertainty in you where normally there’s none…”

“Sombra was…” Barrier thought the question over for several more seconds before finally answering. “He was Princess Celestia’s and Princess Luna’s most trusted general. He was my mentor for most of my time in the guard, especially when I was taken out of regular rotation for more…clandestine jobs.” Barrier’s horn flared and a thin silver flask separated itself from his saddlebags. The stallion unscrewed the top and took a short drink of whatever was inside. “And he’s a remorseless killer. The biggest mass murderer there is. He’s a traitor to the crown, a mad-stallion, a practitioner of dark magic.”

Cadance’s expression remained neutral even as Barrier’s voice grew harder. “And what is he to you?”

“He was my friend.” Barrier’s shoulders slumped. “Hopefully he’ll be the last friend I have to put down.”

Cadance looked as if she had something else to say but the sight of the train station and the familiar ponies on the platform silenced her.

Shining Armor greeted the two as they climbed onto the platform. “You two were the last we were waiting for. Ready to go?”

Barrier glanced at the ponies assembled. “Yeah, let’s get this over with.” The unicorn stepped onto the steel-gray train that had ferried him to the north only a month or so prior and glanced around at the same barren interior. Utilitarian. He could certainly appreciate it more than the lavish trains most ponies were used to.

***

Even on the train, Moonstone and Rainbow Dash continued to eye each other. “This is pretty freaky…”

Rainbow Dash nodded, “No kidding. I’m starting to think my dad cheated on my mom. Did you know your dad?”

Moonstone shook her head.“My mom did say that my dad was a stallion she met at the bar…”

“I doubt you two are related.” Twilight offered. “Statistically speaking, the chances are slimmer than one-in-a-million. The chances that any of us have any illegitimate siblings are actually pretty slim, if not impossible.”

Meanwhile, in Las Pegasus…

“Now, watch in Ahh...ahhh...ahh-choo!” Trixie sneezed loudly. “Excuse me. Now, watch in awe as the Great and Powerful…wait, come back! Trixie needs money for food!”

Back on the train

“Egghead.” Both Moonstone and Rainbow Dash spoke almost in perfect unison.

“So, Barrier,” Shining Armor’s voice drew everypony’s attention. “What can you tell us about Sombra? Is there anything we should be on the lookout for when we encounter him?”

“Aye,” Barrier responded, though his voice seemed distant. “He has a habit of turning his body in a thick black smoke. Whenever he does so, take care not to breath if he is close to you. If you inhale any of it…well, suffice to say most ponies wish for death at that point. He is also very powerful in terms of traditional magic. He is easily as strong as you or Twilight and without a doubt far more brutal with his magic than you or Twilight.”

“What about you?” Twilight asked. “You’re about on par with us as well, aren’t you?”

“Aye, in terms of sheer power.” Barrier nodded. “But the way I was taught to use my magic and the way you’ve both seen me use my magic aren’t the same thing. Even I can’t go horn-to-horn with Sombra for any period of time, but between Shining, Cadance and I, we should be able to buy you all enough time to utilize the elements.”

“And that should…kill him…” Twilight’s voice tapered off and the element bearers all seemed to fall silent; Barrier shook his head.

“The elements won’t kill him. Weaken him, perhaps, cleanse him, perhaps, but not kill. In all the time I served the princesses, one thing that was made clear to all of us in a position of command was that the elements never killed. Weakened, imprisoned in stone, purified, and more, but they do not kill. Now, we should try to get some sleep.” Barrier leaned further back into his seat. “There’s no guarantee when we’ll be able to sleep peacefully again.” Even as Barrier’s eyes drifted shut, he knew better than to think his sleep would be peaceful.

***

Barrier grunted as he was thrown harshly to the floor by a pair of cloaked ponies, his horn and body bound in iron chains, lit runes etched into them. Tiredly, the stallion shifted his gaze upward, resting on the dark tyrant above him.

“You put up and admirable fight, Barrier.” The tyrant’s tone was almost endearing. “For this, I shall grant you some gifts.” His horn flared a sickly, bubbly, black. “First, we have a fine blade…” The familiar sword - Swiftsword’s pride and her family’s heirloom - winked into existence and was thrown at Barrier’s chained hooves in two separated pieces. “A swords-mare, dead,” a splintered green bow joined the blade. “A gardener…dead,” the next item was a two-hooved warhammer. “A smith, dead.” Sombra’s voice grew more joyful with each item that joined the growing pile. “A performer…” a top-hat with a question mark was added to the pile. “Dead,” a pendant in the shape of an apple was next on the list, “a field medic, dead.” Two more items flared into existence that found the formerly submissive Barrier straining futilely against his chains. “Your sergeant,” a pair of wingblades clattered onto the pile, followed by a bloody doll. “And her daughter. Dead. But it doesn’t have to be that way for you.” Sombra’s voice was once more endearing, almost friendly. “Those fools chose to suffer and die, but I am willing to spare you, my old apprentice, if you…” Sombra fell silent as his body half-shifted into smoke and he shot forward at a blinding pace, body solidifying less than an inch from Barrier’s face, his fangs beared in a malicious grin. “Bow to me!”

Despite the pain, Barrier actually smiled up at the madpony. “I would never bow to you, you twisted monster. Nopony ever will!”

Sombra chuckled and took several steps back and turned away from his former student. “Are you so certain?”

Barrier followed the stallion’s gaze, watching as the bloodied undead forms of his cadets drug the element bearers into the throne room, Fleetfeather following behind them with both Shining Armor and Twilight.

“Would you bow to me to spare their lives?”

Barrier tightened his jaw and tried to move, only to find his body entirely unresponsive. “I…can’t move!”

“Then I suppose I have some new things to add to my collection. A farmer...”

The corpse of Winter Gem snapped Applejack’s neck like a carrot.

“Dead. A baker…”

Verdant Range, like Winter Gem, twisted his hooves rapidly in opposite direction, Pinkie Pie’s form going limp almost immediately after the snap.

“Dead.”

Every muscle in Barrier’s body burned as he tried in desperation to move. “Dammit Sombra, stop!”

“A seamstress!” Sombra yelled out over the unicorn, Swiftsword impaling the mare in question on a blade and letting her fall to the ground where she proceeded to gasped futilely for air. “Dead.”

“A lover of animals,” in response to Sombra’s statement, the corpse of Hat Trick slowly drew a wing blade along the pegasus’s throat. “Dead. An athlete,” Iron Forge brought his hammer down on Rainbow Dash’s skull, a spray of blood and her limp form his reward. “Dead. An apprentice mage, a young guard captain…”

“Dammit Sombra, kill me! Let them go!”

Fleetfeather’s wings moved in perfect unison, the blades mounted on their edge cutting into the pairs’ throats like a hot knife through butter.

“Dead.”

Barrier’s mouth closed into a tight grimace as Cadance appeared in front of him, her back to Sombra as she gazed sadly at the unicorn. She struggled to rise onto her forelegs before Sombra shattered the silence.

“A princess...” Sombra rushed forward, skewering the alicorn on his horn, flaring it brightly, causing the mare to convulse as her body was violently reduced to ash. “Dead! Now then…” Sombra once again gazed down at his one-time student. “You have nothing left.” Sombra casually backhoofed him, sending him sailing backward and embedding him in the palace wall. “Bow to me!”

***

“Barrier!”

The unicorn in question bolted upright, muscles tensed tighter than a coiled spring.

“We’re here. We’ve reached the empire.”

Barrier winced slightly as Shining Armor’s hoof rested on his withers. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Barrier took a deep breath. “Alright…one last time.”

Chapter 36

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“Alright ponies, get your scarves and goggles on. It’s coming down hard out there.” Shining Armor was wrapping his own scarf around his neck as he spoke.

Barrier didn’t respond, instead looking through the window of the train at the blizzard that awaited them. You’ll fail again… The familiar voice in his head taunted. You’ll let them down. You’ll- It was Cadance’s voice that snapped the unicorn out of it.

“Barrier.” The pink mare flared her magic, wrapping the charcoal pony’s scarf around him.

“I’ll be fine, Princess.” You’ll fail. Barrier’s horn flared as well, snapping the goggles tightly to his head before he looked back to the group. “The weather should abate somewhat when we reach the empire.” The door to the train slid open, allowing the dull roar of wind into the compartment, forcing Barrier to raise his voice over it. “Until then, keep your scarves and goggles on! If Shining or I say anything, you do it!” Barrier was taking the first to step into the blizzard that awaited them. The chill that ran through him was something even the small heating crystals couldn’t help stave off. Let’s go!”

***

“Stay quiet and stay low, ponies.” Barrier raised a hoof to his goggles and tugged them off as they passed through a farm on the outskirts of the empire, the blizzard being reduced to heavy winds as if by magic.

“Faust…” Cobalt Lancer hissed silently and rubbed at her nose. “What is that smell?” She glanced up at the dark crystal buildings they were approaching, swallowing as a strange sense of foreboding washed over her.

“Ash,” Barrier replied simply, his eyes constantly scanning the path they were taking, Shining Armor doing the same at the rear of the group. “It took us just over a week to hear of Sombra’s treachery and almost as long to mobilize a small group to make the trip here. By then, those still struggling against Sombra had begun to burn corpses.”

“Pestilence control at its most basic…” Shining grimaced as the scent grew stronger and moved his scarf so that it also covered his nostrils.

Barrier’s expression tightened as he elaborated. “It was as much to prevent plague as it was to prevent Sombra raising the ponies as undead servants.”

“Z-z-zombies?” Spike asked shakily from his spot on Twilight’s withers.

“Precisely. You may need to face former ponies while here. Remember to aim for the heads as well as to burn the bodies if at all possible.”

“Oh, why couldn’t I have just stayed in Canterlot?” Spike buried himself into Twilight’s mane, shaking just slightly.

“You’re our communications officer, Spike. We need you to send letters to the princesses to keep them updated on what’s happening here.” Shining tried to give the drake a reassuring smile, though he couldn’t see it through Twilight’s mane.

“Alright ponies, silence from here on out.” Barrier turned back to the group, mentally noting how Twilight and her friends, as well as their escorts had been almost entirely silent since their departure from the train. They’re too green for this sort of thing. You’re going to get them all killed, just like in your dream.

“That alley up there looks good, Barrier.” Shining Armor thrust a hoof out in guidance.

Barrier carefully poked his head around the corner and peered into the alley, mentally noting the open door at the end of the alley. “Alright,” the group filtered into the alley. “Shining Armor and I are going to scout deeper into the city and get the feel of things. We haven’t seen any corpses or fires yet, which has me worried.”

“I’ll come with you.” Cadance volunteered, raising her hoof to silence Barrier as he began to make his objections. “We’re more likely to encounter Sombra further into the city rather than here on the outskirts, and if you do, then you’ll need me.”

“She’s got a point, Barrier.” Shining Armor interjected, bringing a small smile to the princess’s face. “Her magic is pretty strong, and I’ve seen her practicing her shield spell. She’s really good. Besides, a third set of eyes should help us find a good place to make camp before nightfall.” He then pointed west, towards the sun as it started to set.

Barrier glanced at his alabaster counterpart in silent askance, only sighing when the pony in question gave him a nod. “Very well. Shining, Cadance, and myself, will scout further into the city and try to find somewhere to set up something of a temporary base. Spike, while we’re gone, write to Princess Celestia and tell her that we’ve arrived and that we’re looking for a place to set up shop. The rest of you, catch your breath, but keep your eyes and ears open.” Barrier approached the mouth of the alley, Cadance and Shining Armor following suit after saying their goodbyes.

***

“I’m sure she had a good reason for it, Twilight.” Applejack was flat on her stomach, hat resting on the cool ground beside her. “She wouldn’t have kept it a secret fer no reason.”

“I know Applejack, I just wish I knew the reason. There was never a single mention of the Crystal Empire in any of the history books I read. I can understand keeping certain things a secret, but the entire story of the Crystal Empire? It’s important ponies know about their history. It’s how we learn from our mistakes.”

“I think it was a good idea for the princess to keep hush about it all.” Rarity offered. “If ponies had known about it, they would have tried to locate it for one reason or another, and what would happen if a group of ponies searching for the empire were here when it returned? Somepony could have been injured…or killed, judging by what we’ve heard of this Sombra fellow.”

“Eh, this Sombra guy sounds overrated.” Rainbow Dash flew lazily around her friends. “I mean, he’s just another unicorn at the end of the day, right?”

“A unicorn that managed to fight off both princesses.” Applejack pointed out.

“And hid an entire empire for over one-thousand years.” Rarity reminded the group.

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Eh, I could take him.”

“Not to mention,” Applejack made eye-contact with the prismatic pegasus. “That we haven’t seen a single guard or sign’a life since we got here, meanin’ they were likely all…”

“...killed.” Fluttershy finished the thought with a heavy whimper.

“And turned into z-zombies…” Spike glanced around nervously before once more seeking solace in Twilight.

Spearmint glanced at the element bearers and then around the corner of the alley. “Cobalt, can you smell anything?”

“No ma’am.” Cobalt replied promptly. “The smell of death and ash in the air…I can’t smell anything. It’s far too strong.”

Rainbow Dash chimed in as silence began to settle. “Can you do that echo…thingy to tell if anypony is coming near? Fluttershy gave me a lecture last week on how bats can do that sorta thing.”

“Echo-location…” Fluttershy whispered softly.

“First of all,” Cobalt huffed, “I’m not a bat. I’m a twenty-six year old mare.”

“That’s a mare?” Spike whispered softly in askance to Rarity.

“I heard that.” Cobalt half-hissed. “And while thestrals can use echolocation, it’s something that takes a lot of practice. It’s mainly used in the dark and I’ve done pretty much everything in the daylight for all of my life, so I never developed the skill. While my hearing’s not good enough for echolocation, it’s still probably the best we’ve got. In any case, I don’t hear anypony, so I think we’re fine.”

“Just keep your eyes and ears open, everypony. I have a bad feeling about this whole thing.”

Unbeknownst to the group, five cloaked figures watched them from a distance, each of them gazing at the element bearers through spyglasses.

“What are thy orders, commander?” One of the bulkier ponies asked, collapsing his spyglass and tucking it beneath his cloak.

“Make thy way onto the roofs beside them. I shalt lure them unto the streets. Should they prove to be our allies, we shalt welcome them with open forelegs. Should they prove to be hostile, then thou art to use thy darts on the three trained for combat. After that, we shall each capture a pony, save the for the plump mare and the small demon. With their allies captured, they should hopefully surrender. Our leaders would not desire us to spill their blood if possible, but if such a choice is forced upon us…do not hesitate.”

All of the ponies gave a sharp salute before silently moving to follow their orders.

***

“Faust, I can’t believe this…” Cadance struggled to keep the contents of her stomach down as the main street came into sight and her gaze found the heads of ponies mounted on long poles that had been driven into the ground as examples.

“This is worrisome.” Barrier paid no heed to the mounted heads, instead focusing on the piles of charred of remains lining the road. “We should have seen something by now.”

“Well, I’m not complaining…” Shining Armor winced at the mangled remains of a pony that dangled limply from a shop window.

“We need to get back to the rest of the group. Somepony has already been here to clean up in some capacity.” Barrier motioned to the charred corpses. “They didn’t finish their work, but this close to the palace, I’m not surprised.”

“Do you think Twilight and the others could be in danger?” Cadance asked as she moved to follow the pony.

“Of course they’re in danger.” Barrier snorted. “We’ve all been in danger since we got off of the train. That we’ve yet to encounter anything is a gift from Faust.”

***

Cobalt’s ears flicked and her hoof snapped to the spear that had been resting on her shoulder. “Heads up, we’ve got company.”

“Ponies in the alleyway, step forth and identify thyself or taste my wrath!” A mare’s voice called out, her tone firm and unyielding.

“Wait here.” Spearmint directed the element bearers with her hoof before motioning to Cobalt and Moonstone. “Both of you, let’s go.”

The three carefully crept around the corner, eyes falling on the darkly cloaked mare that had addressed them.

Cobalt, eyes widening as she saw the dark cloak, lunged forward almost immediately.

“A poor decision.” The cloaked mare spoke almost idly as a soft whistling reached her ears, followed by the mass of thestral collapsing to the ground, perfectly still.

Spearmint’s eyes widened and she quickly barked out, not hearing the second whistling. “Moonstone, back into the alley!” As she began to backpedal, she saw the prismatic unicorn collapse, followed by a sharp stinging pain in the back of her neck before her world spun and she too, collapsed, her mind vaguely noting the element bearers rushing out to see what was going on before darkness overtook her.

“Girls, get out of here!” Rainbow Dash quickly took charge. “I’ll hold her off and catch up with you!” Rainbow Dash made to dive for the mare, only to jerk around as several thuds sounded from behind her.

Four ponies had dropped down from the rooftops as soon as Rainbow Dash had turned around, each of them landing on one of her friends, save Applejack who was grappling with her opponent.

“One thing ah’ know for sure’s that an Apple won’t go down easily!”

The mare wrestling with her seemed to grin beneath her hood. “I agree!” The cloaked pony delivered a rapid headbutt followed by a hard uppercut that sent Applejack to her back where she soon found a hoof to her throat.

Rainbow Dash’s mouth opened to say something only for a cry of agony to escape it as a blast of magic dispersed across her back, sending her to the ground where she, like her friends save for Applejack, soon found a blade pressed against her throat.

“Thou hast been bested.” The mare that had orchestrated the entire event stared down at Rainbow Dash, almost daring her to move. “Now…” she turned her gaze towards Rarity and Spike, noting their horrified expressions at the sight of their friends held at knifepoint and Applejack who was starting to turn a lovely shade of blue as she continued to struggle against her captor.

***

Despite the urgency, the trio continued to walk silently, ears perked as they carefully listened for sign of danger.

“Aaaaahhhhh!”

Sounds like that… No words needed to be spoken as all three of them threw caution to the wind and bolted towards the source of the shout; the sight that met them was less than desireable, and three horns flared to life in anticipation.

“Foul cur, you and your demon-spawn shall surrender, lest you desire to see your compatriots’ blood spilt upon the crystalline soil!” the cloaked figure standing over Rainbow Dash yelled out, her blade pressing closer to the pegasus’s neck.

That voice… Barrier’s heart almost stopped in his chest. is that…?

“What is your answer, plump one?” The cloaked mare once again demanded. “Shall they meet their end in a dungeon long from now, or shall they depart for Elysium immediately?”

“All of you, stand down immediately!”

Shining Armor found his horn dieing out almost on reflex as Barrier used a tone he’d yet to hear from the stallion.

Like Shining Armor, all of the cloaked ponies also followed the order, taking several steps back and standing at attention.

Applejack coughed and scrambled backwards before climbing to her hooves. “Why’d they listen tah yah, Captain?”

“Because they’re our soldiers.” Barrier replied matter of factly. “Their cloaks were standard-issue for cold-combat missions in my time.” Barrier’s tone grew harsh once more, “What are your names soldiers?”

“Sir,” the mare that had pinned Rainbow Dash threw back her hood and saluted in the same movement, the other four following suit.

“It can’t be…” Barrier stared in disbelief at the blue-coated unicorn saluting him, and then to the four that were following her example.

“Acting field commander Swiftsword and squad nine-eight-two, reporting for duty, sir!”

Barrier half-choked, half-grinned. “They’re my soldiers.”

Chapter 37

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Barrier motioned all of the cadets close with a hoof. “Gather up, cadets…” The unicorn waited until they had all huddled around him, curiosity written on their faces…and with a brief burst of magic and both forehooves pulled them in close, initiating an awkward hug; to his surprise, none of them complained. “By Faust, I thought all of you were dead…”

“Not yet, sir…” Swiftsword responded, her voice cracking just slightly before she seemed to catch herself. “But if we don’t return to camp soon, we may all be.”

The large embrace broke after several more seconds, Barrier sighing as he straightened up and slightly altered his tone. “Right, we mustn’t doddle. What’s the situation here in the Empire? We got here as soon as we could, but obviously,” he motioned at the assortment of ponies he’d brought with him, “our resources are limited.”

“I don’t really know yet, sir.” Swiftsword responded firmly, her posture subconsciously straightening. “This last day has been eerily quiet. We’ve not seen hide nor hair of Sombra or any of his abominations. These ponies,” she motioned to the immobilized guards, “were the first ones we’ve seen in awhile. Before that, we were burning corpses.”

Barrier pressed a hoof to his chin in thought before nodding. “Alright, take us to wherever your base is. We can all get caught up more there. We don’t wanna be out in the open any longer than we have to.”

“Sir.” Swiftsword gave a brief salute before turning to the other cadets. “Verdant, Winter, Forge,”

The three ponies faced the mare expectantly.

“Gather those three up,” she motioned to the paralyzed guards. “We’ll take them to the ghoul to have them treated.”

The first of the element bearers finally commented; Fluttershy speaking as soft as ever, spotting the darts still embedded into the three guards. “Um…are they going to die?”

“Nay.” the green earth pony explained as he hefted Cobalt onto his back. “The poison is mostly composed of the stunning spore of a plant known as the Vile Plume. Had we wanted them dead, I would have used the toxin of the Nuptup plant or simply shot them with arrows.”

“It...burns…” Spearmint hissed through clenched teeth as Iron Forge lifted her from the ground with careful movement.

“Though I mayhaps had added a little ground up ruby reaper for additional pain.” Verdant confessed almost sheepishly.

“So, uh…” Shining Armor was the one to speak up this time. “Who’s the ghoul you mentioned?”

Swiftsword eyed the unicorn critically for a moment before answering. “Doctor Black Harvest.”

Barrier frowned just slightly but didn’t comment.

Swiftsword continued without pause. “We do not wish to speak of the horrors the mad doctor hast performed.”

“Right, talk as we walk.” Barrier tapped his hoof sharply on the crystalline ground.

“Right. Come along, ponies and drake.” Swiftsword motioned with her hoof and began to make her way further into the city, the small caravan following behind her.

“Barrier,” Rarity started almost sweetly, though her voice was tinged with annoyance. “Could you please explain who these ruffians are exactly? They did assault us, and you seem very familiar with them.”

“Lower thy voice, plump one.” Swiftsword shot the mare a hard gaze. “We do not wish to give away our position.”

Rather than Barrier, Twilight was the one to answer; her voice notably softer and less annoyed than Rarity’s. “They’re your cadets, aren’t they? The ones from the story.”

“Story? What story are you talking about?” Rarity sped her pace up slightly to walk alongside Twilight.

Rainbow Dash also made her way closer to Twilight, though rather than speaking she just shot Swiftsword an aggravated look to which she received a flat stare.

“Barrier told Pinkie, Spike, and myself a story about a group of cadets he trained.” The lavender unicorn explained.

“Well, those cadets he trained were ready to kill us all just a few minutes ago. How do we know we can trust ’em?” Rainbow Dash also kept her voice fairly quiet.

“I told thy group to identify themselves,” Swiftsword glanced at Cobalt who was still limp on Verdant’s back. “Thy thestral chose to attack, so we swiftly incapacitated them. We then subdued those of you we deemed the most dangerous and demanded the plump one and drake to surrender.”

Rarity huffed and glared at Swiftsword. “Stop calling me ‘Plump One’. My name is Rarity, and I do not enjoy being insulted.”

Swiftsword didn’t even look at the mare. “At any rate, had thy thestral not rushed in to attack, thou would not have faced thy predicament.”

“Duly noted,” Barrier interjected, “I’ll be sure to talk to her about it when the time for it comes.”

“Good. Now then,” Swiftsword’s horn flared and a formerly invisible disc of crystal separated itself from the center of the street. “The time has come for us to go underground.”

The ponies filtered into the hole, Barrier and Shining Armor’s horns lighting up as the lid to the outside was closed once again.

Verdant Range had waited until they had all oriented themselves to ask his question. “Sir, may I enquire as to why there are so many ponies who are clearly civilians with us?”

Barrier sighed, but answered regardless. “It’s a long story, but the short version is that these six are the current wielders of the Elements of Harmony. We’ll need them to help us if we want to have any chance of dealing with Sombra.”

Swiftsword snorted and the group lapsed into a brief silence, until a certain pony drew everyone’s attention as it dawned on her just what they were walking through.

“Yeugh, a sewer?” Rarity huffed. “Honestly, have you no tact?”

“Wouldst thou prefer if we were to remain above ground, leaving us out in the open and easily spotted by Sombra? Only a fool wouldst remain above ground as we travel such a distance.”

“Still, for a lady such as myself to tra-” Rarity was cut off by an irate Swiftsword.

“Speak not of thy standing to me. I am born of a noble clan and raised as such. I have been raised to lead by example, honing mine body and skills to serve our kingdom as a worth noble should. Thou…” Swiftsword snorted with derision. “Thou would be the first to be picked off by griffins due to plumpness and thy clear lack of combat skill.”

Rarity raised a hoof to her chest in apparent offense. “How dare you! I-”

Swiftsword cut the mare off as she spun around, magic flaring as she drew her sword and pinned Rarity to the wall, blade held dangerously close to the mare’s muzzle. “Mine recollection indicates that one dost not require thy tongue to use one of the Elements of Harmony. Cease thy worthless prattling, lest I cut thy tongue out and feed it to thee!”

Rainbow Dash made to lunge only for a sharp voice to cut her off.

“Swiftsword, that’s enough!” Barrier’s voice bounced almost painfully off of the walls, followed by the sound of the stallion slamming his hoof into the ground.

Verdant Range, quick as his burden would allow, quickly moved forward and wrapped a hoof around Swiftsword’s withers, pulling her away.

Barrier waited until Rarity was on her own four hooves again to speak once more. “By me, Swiftsword.”

The mare fell back to Barrier’s side without question, having heard the tone only a few times before.

“I apologize for the field commander’s actions, Miss…Rarity, I believe thy name was. She hast been burdened with the duties of command and…well, we used to have far more ponies to our group.”

“So,” Applejack spoke up, trying to alleviate the tension. “You were sayin somethin’ about a story?”

“Yeah!” Pinkie chirped up happily, drawing a glare from every standing soldier present to which she sheepishly smiled. “Plucked pegasus,” she pointed at Hat Trick, “Mountain o’ muscle,” she grinned at Winter Gem, “haystack-horsey,” Iron Forge stared flatly at the energetic mare. “wasp-nest warrior,” Swiftsword didn’t acknowledge the mare at all. “And snack-sized stallion.” Pinkie finished by looking at Verdant. “They’re-”

The green stallion, like his companions, didn’t show any outward emotion in particular, though he did reply. “Mayhaps we should save the storytelling, introductions, and other intelligence for when we are safely back at our base?”

“Okey-dokey-lokey then!” Pinkie fell to the back of the group where she followed via hopping.

“So…” Barrier glanced back briefly at Swiftsword. “How many ponies are at the base? Did any of the other guards survive?”

“Most of the Crystal Ponies still cower in their homes. As for our guards, only Thunder Aegis remains in fighting shape. We have twenty-one additional guards, though they’re injured and tended to by the ghoul and Nurse Lifeline.” Swiftsword answered. “Thunder Aegis is guarding the entrance to our base at the moment…” Swiftsword fell silent and motioned to upwards to another ponyhole cover.

***

The crystal pony-cover shifted just slightly before Hat Trick rose from the ground, his eyes glancing around nervously before sinking back into the hole and giving the all-clear.

“Quickly, head towards those stairs!” The pegasus climbed from the hole and reached in, helping his fellow ponies to the surface and directed them to a flight of stairs that led underground once again, these attached to the side of what appeared to be a restaurant. “Knock three times. The password is ‘Majesty’s Son’.”

One by one, the ponies climbed out of the sewer and followed Hat Trick’s orders, with Barrier and Swiftsword being the last to enter, taking care to replace the sewer-cover.

Barrier glanced around the entrance to the stairs one final time before tugging the door shut behind him and turned around to greet the haggard-looking doorpony.

“Captain Barrier.” The pony at the door gave a tired salute.

“Private Aegis,” Barrier gave a friendly smile, throwing the stallion off just slightly; Captain Barrier wasn’t known for being terribly friendly to most ponies.

The light violet-unicorn known as Thunder Aegis glanced behind him where the ponies were heading deeper into the makeshift base. “Sir, the starved-looking pink one is an-”

“I’ll explain in a bit, Aegis. Just…give us a moment.” Barrier let a shaky breath escape him as the adrenaline he hadn’t realized was running through him began to fade. Idly, his mind took note of the wild golden, red-tipped mane and tail that Thunder Aegis sported. How long has it been since any of these ponies got any real sleep?

Swiftsword finally broke away from Barrier’s side and stood in front of him almost at attention. “We hast commandeered the wine cellar of this restaurant for use as our headquarters, for the time being. Tis large enough to hold the ponies we have, and we make use of food from the restaurant above. We have kept careful track of what we have commandeered, so that the crown shall be able to compensate them.”

Barrier nodded. “Was there anything else you’ve had to commandeer?”

“Medical supplies.” Verdant Range supplied as he stepped out of what appeared to be a backroom of sorts. “We take supplies from the hospital whenever we can.”

Rainbow Dash peered around Verdant into the room behind him, wincing at the injured ponies that lined the walls; some of them were missing limbs. “So why aren’t you guys in a bunker or something?”

“Sombra was one of the highest ranking ponies in the guard. He would know exactly where to look for us had we hid in a bunker, so we hid here.”

“Good call.” Barrier praised, resting a hoof on Swiftsword’s shoulder. “You’ve done an admirable job, Swiftsword; especially so given the circumstances. For the time being, consider yourself relieved of your command and go get some sleep. All five of you, go get some sleep. You as well, Aegis. We shall take up vigil until you wake.”

Swiftsword gave a sharp salute before her body visibly sagged and turned back to the other cadets. “You heard the Captain, we shall soon prepare for bed. And Captain…make sure the ghoul doesn’t do anything to us whilst we sleep. I do not trust her or her sick mind.”

“I’ll remember that the next time you need somepony to patch you up.” A dry voice retorted, coming from the backroom, belonging to a lavender mare with dark, solid-purple mane -held back by a hairband- and piercing amber eyes, the image of a lone scalpel resting on her flank with a single drop of red on the tip. “So,” she eyed the ponies that Forge, Verdant, and Winter Gem were still carrying. “It seems we have some new faces for my table. Tell me, what ailments or injuries have they sustained?”

“They were all struck with a dart coated in Vile Plume spore and ground ruby reaper.” Verdant explained.

“Bah, and I thought you may have had something worthy of my efforts. Just place them on an empty cot and have Lifeline take care of them. I already have preparations made in case any of you foals accidentally stuck yourselves with your darts.”

“Dammit, I said I’m fine!”

Barrier’s eyes widened slightly as the scratchy voice reached his ears and he found himself pushing past Doctor Black Harvest into the backroom. The walls were lined with closed bins and sealed casks as well as dozens of makeshift cots, but Barrier had eyes for none of it.

“Mother, I beg of thee! Thou art missing thy left eye and are very injured! Please, listen to Nurse Lifeline!”

Barrier found a smile creeping onto his muzzle despite the battered form of his friend. “Listen to your nurse, Sergeant Fleetfeather.”

The mare whipped around, breaking away from the nurse and her daughter. “About time you got here.” The mare made to limp forward, a tired smile on her muzzle.

Barrier met the powder-blue pegasus mare half-way and embracing her in a hug...during which he pivoted sharply, drawing the mare to the side and positioning himself so that she fell onto him, rather than the floor. “Bedrest, Sergeant.”

“Oh for Faust’s sake, I’m fine!” The mare argued but allowed the unicorn to place her back on her cot regardless.

“Flash would’ve had my hide if I’d let you do anything looking as rough as you do. What kind of damage does she have, Nu-” Barrier stumbled backwards as his vision went black and something latched itself to his face.

“Heh…” Rainbow Dash held a hoof to her muzzle to stifle the laughter even as the rest of the girls giggled at the sight.

“Wind Whistler…” Barrier’s voice was muted as he gave several sharp tugs with his magic before the filly finally surrendered herself to his magic, smiling apologetically as she dangled upside down in the blue aura. “It’s good to see you well.” Barrier nuzzled the filly, ignoring the further laughs it drew from both the element bearers who were watching from the doorway to the other room.

“Uncle,” the filly tilted her head at him curiously, causing her to slowly begin to rotate in the gravity-free magical hold. “Pray tell, what is the reason for thy strange manner of speech?”

Barrier’s smile faltered slightly. “That…is a very long story that I’ll tell both you and your mother whenever we get back home to…” Barrier winced, remembering the former capital was no more. “Well, I’ll tell you both when we get home. Now, go keep your mother warm, Windy.”

“Barrier,” Fleetfeather lifted her wing to allow his magic to deposit the filly beneath it. “What is our current status? Who are all of those ponies in the other room? And why is there a dragon still allowed to breath in our midst?”

“That is a story more suited to when everypony is awake, the cadets included.” Barrier smiled apologetically to the mare and glanced at Shining Armor. “Captain Armor, can you take the first shift for guarding the entry-room? I still have some things to sort out here.”

“Sure thing.” Shining Armor nodded and backpedaled towards the door.

“I’ll come with you, Shiny.” Cadance moved to follow.

“Tell the girls they might as well try to catch a few hours of shuteye. Once everypony has rested a bit, we’ll get everything out in the open.” Barrier waited until Shining Armor had departed and the element bearers had found beds to turn to the one-eyed mare on the bed and ask a question that had been on his mind for some time now. “Now, there’s something I have to know, Fleet. Why don’t the cadets trust Doctor Harvest? What did she do?”

“I saved lives.” The curt voice of the doctor rang out from behind the unicorn. “They don’t trust me, however, because of my methods.”

“You’re a diseased maniac.” Fleetfeather scoffed from the bed.

“What were your methods?” Barrier glanced critically at the smaller mare, inwardly noting that she didn’t flinch in the slightest.

“We had many ponies that were injured beyond what conventional medicine could save. Their organs were beyond salvation…but not beyond my ability to replace. I studied the notes of my old teacher, before he was…” the mare hesitated just slightly. “Well, I studied my old teacher’s notes. Most fools believe Dr. Flankenstein wished to raise the dead by cobbling together a collection of pieces from dead bodies, but what he really wished was to take the working organs of freshly dead ponies and use to aid those who needed them. His experiments failed because he could not find a way to keep the body from rejecting the foreign parts. His skills as a surgeon were rather crude as well, but as for I…well, aside from having far greater skills with a scalpel, I found what my patients needed.” The mare’s horn flared, levitating a vial of green liquid from somewhere and transferring it to Barrier’s magical hold. “By taking this daily, my patients can live with the new organs. They call me a ghoul for taking apart the dead to save the living, but these ponies will continue to live, thanks to me.” The mare stopped and took several heavy breaths, the speech having been far more long-winded than she’d intended.

“Organ transplants one-thousand years ago?” Twilight’s voice called up from her bed. “It’s astonishing that you’re able to pull such a thing off! They’re common now, but all of my research into history said they were hardly even thought of until maybe five-hundred years ago!”

Fleetfeather, sharp as ever, glanced at Barrier. “One-thousand years? What’s she talking about Barrier?”

Barrier sucked in a sharp breath through his teeth, glancing at Twilight who smiled apologetically…before flinching as Doctor Harvest was suddenly in her face, feeling her skull with a hoof and waving a hoof in front of her eyes. “No signs to indicate she has a concussion…is she simply mad?”

“Pfft,” Fleetfeather snorted again from her cot. “As if thou are one to talk. That aside, Barrier,” Fleetfeather gave the unicorn a hard gaze, which the stallion was reluctant to return.

“...when the Empire is secure again, Fleetfeather. Until then, just get some sleep. For Windy’s sake…” Barrier tugged Doctor Harvest’s tail sharply, drawing her attention. “Doctor Harvest, I need information. How severe their injuries are, how we are on supplies, I need everything you can tell me.”

Black Harvest raised an eyebrow. “You’re not going to declare me an affront to nature and threaten to have me executed?”

“Once upon a time, I might have, but…times have changed. For now, I’m just grateful you kept everypony alive.”

Black Harvest seemed taken by surprise but ultimately nodded. “Alright, I’ll check up on the injured guards…”

Chapter 38

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“I apologize for waking you so early, Spike, but I need you to send a letter to the princess.” In truth, it had only been five or so hours since Barrier had sent everyone to bed. It’s probably around… three-thirty hours now, give or take? In that time, the unicorn had sat down with the doctor and made out a list of everything he knew, from the supplies they had, to the ponies the doctor had treated to the apparent lack of Sombra and his magic.

“S’okay…” Spike yawned deeply before taking the scroll from the charcoal pony and with a deep breath, sent it on its way. “So what was it?” Spike sat back on his bed.

“Just a status report.” Barrier explained. “Just telling her the princess what the situation here is like as well as listing the supplies and ponies we have and their condition.”

Spike nodded, “So…what do we do now?”

“We wait.” Barrier sighed and sat next to Spike on his cot. “Sombra will return, that much is certain. Until then, we prepare. We rest up and we plan.”

Spike tilted his head curiously. “How will you know when Sombra comes back?”

A third voice was the one to answer. “We’ll feel it.”

Swiftsword shifted off of her makeshift bed. “Sombra’s magic is like having a blanket thrown over you that no matter how hard you try, you can not get off. Tis smothering.”

“Yeah…” Barrier sighed and lit his horn, pulling a thin silver flask from the saddlebags he still wore. “His magical presence is very tangible.” He threw back a mouthful of the liquid before holding it out to Swiftsword in his magic, who also took a swallow of it, before handing it back to the captain, who offered it to Spike.

“That sounds kinda scary.” Spike sniffed the steel flask before turning his head away in apparent disgust. “Yeugh, what’s in that?”

Barrier half-smiled. “Whiskey, from Princess Celestia’s private stash.”

“So, Captain.” Iron Forge’s voice joined, followed by the rest of the ponies silently gathering around Spike’s bed. “What’s the plan?”

“Hold on…” Rainbow Dash called from her own bed as she lazily stretched out. “Gimme a minute to wake up before we talk about plans…”

“Wouldst any of thee wish to partake in some cocaine?” The white-coated, blue-maned pegasus nurse offered to Rainbow Dash as if it were the most normal thing ever, her hoof outstretched with a small pile of the powder.

“Hm…” Pinkie tiredly climbed out of her cot and groggily approached the nurse’s outstretched hoof only for another pony to panic and bolt from her bed.

“Pinkie Pie, no!” Rarity tugged the pink earth pony away, eyes wide at the near-miss.

“Good call.” Barrier praised, having gone wide-eyed from his spot as well. “I don’t even want to imagine what she would be like if we gave her an upgrade from sugar.”

“Captain.” Verdant Range spoke this time. “The plan?”

“Even if we defeat Sombra, we shalt have to somehow hold the city until reinforcements arrive. The griffins will no doubt see the city in its weakened state as a prime target for attack.” Swiftsword chimed in.

Rarity paid no heed to the discussion of a plan. “Honestly, why do you have cocaine here of all places?”

“Why not? Tis a medicine one can acquire from any pharmacy.” The nurse returned the powder to its box when it seemed none of the ponies were going to partake.

“Wait until the others wake up.” Barrier hefted himself from Spike’s bed, replacing the flask in his saddlebags. “They’re as involved in this as we are. As for the griffins, they’ll no longer be a worry. Things have changed drastically during the time you’ve spent in the Empire.”

“How much could have changed in a fortnight, Captain?”

“I’ll tell you all when this whole ordeal is settled, I promise, but until then I need all of you focused and your minds here. Can you do that for me? Keep your curiosity at bay just a little longer?”

The cadets frowned, but one-by-one they gave nods of acknowledgement.

“Good.” Barrier glanced past the group and saw that the element bearers all seemed to have awoken, as well as the Captain and Princess joining them in the main room.

“Barrier.” Cadance drew the stallion’s attention. “There’s something pulsing through the empire. It’s far fainter than most anypony would notice, but it’s certainly there.”

Barrier grimaced but nodded. “You heard the princess, it sounds like things are getting started. Gather ‘round so I can go over our plan.” The unicorn waited until they had done so to continue. “The pulse that the Princess is feeling is likely Sombra’s magic gathering for his return. I have some theories as to why he didn’t return with the empire, but they’re irrelevant now. Our best chance to bring him down will be to catch him as he reforms.”

Shining Armor raised a hoof, waiting until Barrier nodded in his direction to speak. “How do we know where he’ll reform at?”

Barrier wasted no time in answering. “By all rights, he should reappear where he disappeared, which would be where the princesses last encountered him. The throne-room of the Crystal Palace.”

Swiftsword raised her hoof this time. “And the potential for a griffin attack? You said they’re no longer a worry.”

Barrier smiled at the mare. “There’s no chance of that. The griffins surrendered after Princess Celestia personally reclaimed Gallopfrey.”

“Faust…” Iron Forge had a smile of his own. “I may yet live to see my mother again.”

Barrier didn’t continue his speech, instead inwardly cursing himself. Forgive me, Forge…

Twilight took the moment of silence to speak. “We need to figure out what to do after Sombra as well. Judging by the growing cold in the Empire, Sombra’s probably removed the Crystal Heart. If we can’t find it fast enough, then we’ll need to evacuate the Empire. A lot of ponies won’t have the fortitude to survive the blizzard if it manages to engulf the Empire.”

“And how will we do that?” Verdant asked the lavender unicorn. “We have far too many ponies, many of which are sick or injured,”

“Or both,” Hat Trick offered helpfully.

“And there’s no way we could transport them to safety from here.” Verdant finished, completely disregarding Hat Trick’s addendum.

“We have a type of vehicle roughly a mile from the city called a train.” Barrier took over the discussion again. “It can transport up to one-hundred ponies comfortably and reach the center of Equestria in less than a day. Worse comes to worse, we put those in the worst condition on the train and send them further into Equestria. Hopefully it won’t come to that.”

“So,” Cadance tapped a hoof on the floor, drawing attention to her. “What’s the actual plan for Sombra?”

“The elements are our only real hope of combating him. One-on-one, none of us stand a chance. Faust, even if all of us were all to empty our magical reserves on him, we wouldn’t do little more than irritate him.”

“Is he really that strong?” Rainbow Dash asked almost incredulously.

“He fought both Princess Celestia and Princess Luna to a stand-still and managed to survive, Rainbow Dash.” Cobalt Lancer offered to the prismatic mare along with a deadpan stare.

“This is a bit off-topic,” Hat Trick chimed in, “But why don’t we introduce ourselves? We haven’t actually done that yet.”

“Right, apologies.” Barrier cleared his throat. “I forgot about that. Right, starting with the element bearers,” Barrier began to point to the ponies as he named them. “Rainbow Dash, Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Fluttershy, Rarity, Pink Devil,” he didn’t react to the almost-horrifying grin Pinkie gave him, “Cadet Cobalt Lancer, Ensign Moonstone, Lieutenant Spearmint, Honorary Communications Officer Spike, Captain Shining Armor,” Barrier took a deep breath. “And finally,”

“Sir?” Swiftsword raised her hoof and interrupted the stallion. “Apologies for interrupting, but I thought Princess Celestia and Luna wielded the Elements of Harmony?”

“The Elements chose them as the new bearers shortly before these six defeated Nightmare Moon.”

“Nightmare…Moon?” Winter Gem asked, her intonation clearly a question.

Rainbow Dash answered before Barrier could. “Long story short, Princess Luna turned evil, we kicked her flank, now we’re the bearers of the Elements of Harmony.”

“There’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist of it.” Barrier waited to see if there were any further further interruptions. “Now that that’s out of the way, the last member of the group is Princess Glutei a Forma di Cuore.” Barrier’s tone shifted to a slightly Bitalian accent towards the end. All save two ponies looked at him in slight confusion; Cadance had a slightly amused expression on her face while Swiftsword had a deadpan one.

“Sir, dost thou really believe us to be fools? None of us would believe for even an instant that a princess would have a name meaning ‘heart-shaped buttocks’.”

Verdant chuckled nervously and his eyes shifted back and forth. “Yes, that would be most ridiculous.”

“Are you insulting my name?” Cadance asked with mock-offense, doing well to hide her grin; almost immediately all five of the cadets fell to the ground in a full-bow.

“Apologies, Princess. Please forgive my foolishness.” Swiftsword didn’t meet Cadance’s gaze; if she had, she’d have seen the grin.

“I’m kidding,” Cadance’s grin broke into laughter. “My actual name and title is Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, but everypony calls me Cadance. Only Shining Armor gets to call me Heartbutt.”

Swiftsword’s eye twitched as her head shifted just slightly, allowing her to gaze up at Barrier, who was sporting a grin of his own. Shining Armor was blushing while Twilight’s jaw dropped.

“Sir, with all due respect,” Hat Trick spoke from the ground, “this is not the time for jest.”

Iron Forge snorted. “Tis most rich coming from thou, Hat Trick.”

Barrier ignored Hat Trick’s statement and turned to address the element-bearer’s. “And these are my cadets,”

“Privates now, actually.” Fleetfeather offered from the back of the group where she’d been entirely silent beforehoof. “I field-commissioned all of them when things went south.”

Barrier nodded in response. “I see. In that case, as some of you may’ve guessed, these are my privates; The group I personally trained at the princesses’ request. Iron Forge, Verdant Range, Hat Trick,” Like the others, Barrier pointed them out. “Swiftsword, and Winter Gem. The mare out of her bed there,” He eyed Fleetfeather with a frown. “Is Sergeant Fleetfeather, a close friend.”

“So uh…” Shining raised his hoof again. “How long will they stay like that?” He motioned to the cadets.

Barrier smiled at the bowing soldiers. “Until Cadance gives them permission to rise. Right, with introductions out of the way, we should get on to the plan. Shining, the element bearers, and myself will be confronting Sombra. I want all of you,” he glanced at the privates that Cadance had given permission to stand. “Right outside of the throne room. When Sombra comes back, his undead are likely to come back with him. If we have to deal with them as well as Sombra, then we’re as good as sunk. Doctor Harvest,” Barrier raised his voice slightly, drawing the mare’s attention from where she hovered over a patient. “I want you there as well.”

The mare frowned and approached the group. “I’m a doctor, not a fighter.”

“I’ve seen the way you move.” Barrier stared hard at the mare. “And there are none better than a doctor to take apart a pony, living or dead.”

The mare returned the hard stare, but finally broke for a slight smile. “I took an oath of ‘do no harm’ Captain, I shall treat thy forces should they become injured,” Barrier made to nod but the mare cut him off. “but I will not fight.”

Barrier frowned but nodded; she technically wasn’t under his command and unless he forcibly commissioned her, she could tell him no outright.

“And what about me? Where am I supposed to be?”

Barrier turned to Cadance. “You…will be here, along with Moonstone, Spearmint, Cobalt and Spike.”

Cadance was quick to object. “Barrier, I can help! So can the others.”

“Sir,” Spearmint offered as well. “My squad can fight. We’ve recovered from the poisoning. We only have a slight itch.”

“I don’t doubt that, but if things go wrong I need all of you here to help move ponies to the train and order it back to Equestria. You’ll also be responsible for reporting our failure to the Princesses.”

Cadance looked like she wanted to further argue, but nodded to the charcoal pony, “Fine,” she turned to Shining Armor, “but before you go…” The mare turned to Shining Armor and shoved her muzzle to his, her tongue poking out in his cheek, much to the unicorn’s surprise. “You had better come back to me, Shiny.” She turned to Barrier. “I’m holding you responsible if he doesn’t.”

Barrier didn’t reply to Cadance. “With any luck, the elements should completely drain him of his power. We only have to hold him until they can be charged.”

“If that happens, then we won’t have to kill him.” Fluttershy added hopefully.

Swiftsword scoffed. “Even if we take him alive, he shalt be executed for his many crimes.”

“And at any rate, we have orders to kill Sombra at the first opportunity, but we can worry about that when we get there.” The stallion sighed and retrieved the flask from his saddlebags again. “Gear up, privates; we leave at dawn for the palace and I want everypony ready. It’s time to end this war.”

Chapter 39

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As the ponies geared up, Barrier’s eyes settled on Private Range for a brief moment before narrowing at the almost invisible bulges beneath his cloak. “Private Range,” Barrier’s tone caused the pony in question to snap to attention and turn away from his group who continued to gather their gear. “What are you wearing under your cloak?”

Verdant Range didn’t reply immediately, instead eyeing the ground nervously.

“What’s going on, Barrier?” Shining asked, quickly gazing over the situation.

“Verdant, remove your cloak.” It wasn’t a request.

“Sir.” Verdant whipped his forehoof to his throat and tugged the cloak free revealing a series of straps and small holsters, each one containing a small bag and all of them seemingly linked together with a thread that ran through the mouths of the bags.

Shining Armor recalled the conversation he and Barrier had shared in the armory and hissed sharply before taking several steps back.

Barrier’s gaze hardened and the unicorn let only a single word escaped him. “Why?”

“Tis most logical that I carry this burden.” Verdant quickly explained. “The bombs require no special skill. The others have skills I don’t. Greater hoof-to-hoof combat, expert swordplay, medical skills, magic, flight. Besides that, Winter Gem and Hat Trick are engaged, Swiftsword has the Falchion clan to lead and Iron Forge has a promising career as a smith ahead of him. But me?” Verdant smiled almost sadly. “I’m only a gardener. Tis not a question that I’m the most expendable of the five of us. Should attacking Sombra head on fail… it would be best to sacrifice myself for Equestria and the empire.”

Barrier sighed and pressed a hoof to his forehead. He couldn’t be mad at this. It was thinking he had taught them.

Rather than Barrier, Cadance was the first one to comment. “Are you crazy? That’s in-”

Barrier rested a hoof on Cadance’s shoulder and sighed.

“The other privates and I discussed this for an age and though they despise it…the squad and I are in accord. Tis the most logical course of action. The needs of the many,”

“Outweigh that of the few.” Barrier finished. “Your plan is pragmatic, and I applaud you for it. I couldn’t be any prouder of all of you than I am at this moment,” the Captain’s voice dropped almost threateningly, “but there is no way in hell I’ll let any of you do it.”

“Sir?” Verdant tilted his head in uncertainty.

“Captain…” Swiftsword hesitated to speak up. “Why? We do not like it either, but we know it may be required to ensure our victory against Sombra! Surely you would not risk Sombra escaping the Empire!”

“If any of you attempt to sacrifice yourself going forward, I’ll personally break you.” Barrier gazed at each of them in turn.

Verdant Range shook his head and took several steps closer to the captain. “Captain, I don’t like this anymore than you do. Believe me when I say I don’t, but if it’s required of me…than so be it. I’m ready for it. This is what thou hast trained us for. What you prepared us to do.”

Barrier’s lips tightened slightly, knowing he couldn’t refute the statement.

“I don’t want to die, but this is our duty. Thou wouldst do the exact same thing in my position. Thou wouldst fulfil thy duty no matter what…so let me do the same.”

“You’re really willing to die for this city?” Rarity asked almost in awe.

“We all swore that we would gladly gives our lives in the line of duty. Tis what we were trained to do.” Swiftsword shot a pointed glance at Barrier. “We’ll do whatever is required to ensure Equestria’s safety.”

The soft sound of Barrier taking another swallow of the flask drew the group’s attention to him once more. “I nearly lost all of five you forever what seems like a lifetime ago.” He once again replaced the flask in his saddlebags. “I will not lose my kids again. Not so long as I draw breath.” Barrier’s tone softened towards the end, becoming almost melancholic.

“Sir?” Swiftsword gazed at him with uncertainty.

“My… my cadets.” Barrier corrected himself before flaring his horn and carefully removing the makeshift suicide-vest from Verdant Range. “You five have your whole lives ahead of you. Regardless of what I taught you to do or what you’re willing to do, you do not die today. Not so long as I can help it.”

“Sir,” Swiftsword made to argue again. “Thou art a captain and the most-”

“It’s not up for debate, Private.” Barrier stated bluntly. “Now gear up, ponies. Shining Armor has something to show you before we go.”

Swiftsword saluted sharply before she and the others turned to finish strapping on their weapons.

“Alright ponies, gather around.” Shining’s horn flared and began emptying out his saddlebags as the ponies put on the last of their gear. “Normally I wouldn’t do this on such short notice, but we don’t have much time. We have to stop Sombra ASAP.” The stallion laid three-dozen small metal capsules and half as many silver apples. “These,” he motioned to the first of the objects, “are called flash-bangs. What you do with this is pull this pin…” Shining Armor’s magic tugged the pin in question slightly. “And then,” he glanced at Barrier, “you throw it at your target.” He shifted back to the cadets when Barrier snorted. “This makes an explosion that temporarily blinds, deafens, and severely disorients. We don’t know for sure if it’ll work on Sombra, but it’s what we’ve got. Hopefully it’ll buy us a few seconds.”

Shining Armor returned the flashbang to the row. “And these little babies…” he tossed one of the silver apples in his magic. “Are the more standard grenades. They’re like the little bagged explosives you guys use, only safer. The explosion isn’t as big, it’s way more controlled and they don’t shoot bits of metal like some of our other grenades, but when they go off they turn anything caught in the blast into chunks. What really sets them apart from your explosives though is that they have a five-second timer and won’t turn you into ash, so long as you throw them. Explosion radius is about five meters.”

Verdant Range raised a hoof. “The tartarus is a meter?”

“Five meters is about thirty-two hooves.” Barrier clarified before glancing at Shining Armor in silent askance to which he received a nod. “Right, with that out of the way,” Barrier’s magic began to divide the explosives up between the cadets before removing more of them from his own bags and dividing those up between himself and Shining Armor. “Cadance, if one of us isn’t back in ten hours with news, then I want you to make sure everypony gets out safely.”

The mare in question nodded.

“Alright ponies. Move out.”

***

“This is more the state I expected the empire to be in.” As the group had gotten closer to palace in the center of the city, whole corpses had begun to turn up, some of them horribly disfigured with others being near pristine.

“We didn’t have time to burn all of them. We weren’t certain where Sombra was, so we burned the ones closest to the base.” Swiftsword explained, nervously glancing at the ponies they passed.

“By Faust…” Rarity’s gaze fixated on a particularly messy corpse dangling from a jagged piece of crystal sticking out of the side of the palace. Had she anything left in her to throw up, she would have.

“What kind of pony would do this?” Twilight blinked back tears as she spotted the upper half of a foal amidst the dozens of bodies, most of them armored.

“Sombra wasn’t a pony when he took over the Empire. He didn’t take it over in the conventional sense. He just killed everything he saw.” Swiftsword explained. “The bastard went mad, likely from meddling with forbidden magics.”

“Sombra is akin to a more violent and feral Nightmare Moon. What he’s become is not who he was.” Barrier weakly defended. “He meddled in things he shouldn’t have, but he did it with good intentions. He once told me he was doing research to end the war with the griffins.”

“The road to Tartarus was paved with good intentions.” Shining offered.

“There’s a road leading to Tartarus?” Verdant asked. “Faust, why wouldst thou build such a thing? Also, how couldst anypony turn good intentions into a building material?”

Shining Armor ignored the green stallion. “So, do any of you know anything that could help us against him?”

“There was a rumor once that stated he and Princess Celestia were lovers at some point. Possibly even just before he turned.” Hat Trick offered unhelpfully.

“There’s nothing I’ve not already told you. Sombra is strong and extremely fast. His feral state has effectively reduced his training to raw instinct. He doesn’t think, he simply does. And like me, he was trained and built to kill as efficiently and cleanly as possible.”

Shining nodded.“How strong is he compared to you?”

“A whole different level.” The charcoal pony admitted, stopping as they turned down a long hallway with two massive crystal doors at the end. “Even as a regular unicorn, he probably could’ve been a threat to the princesses in a one-on-one fight.”

“And we get to fight that.” Rainbow Dash chipped in, surprisingly somber.

“No, Shining and I get to fight that.” Barrier clarified. “My ponies will be outside of the throne room ensuring nothing gets in. You,” he stared pointedly at Rainbow Dash but addressed the element bearers in general. “Are to charge the elements the moment he shows up. We’ll be hard-pressed to hold him long enough for you to do that, to say nothing of immobilizing him long enough for you to hit him.”

“So, why exactly am I here?” Black Harvest asked from the back of the group, having been silent in favor of staring at the corpses and wondering how many organs were wasted.

“Because I don’t want anypony dying and I don’t think you’ll let that happen. I also don’t think you’ll let yourself die.” Barrier didn’t turn around to address her, but instead stopped and stared at the palace doors, shivering at the pulses of black magic radiating from it. “Well, we all know our roles.”

Barrier’s horn flared and shoved the doors open to the throne room…or what was left of it. The single strip of red carpet was charred and torn and a huge chunk had been torn from the crystal throne. The walls were covered with ash and some parts warped violently while others appeared to have been ripped apart and strewn throughout the room. The unicorn didn’t even want to think about the princesses fighting such a monster to a standstill.

“Right, you six.” he glanced at the element bearers. “Hide behind something…” he glanced at the throne. Even with a portion of it missing, it was still impressively large. “Maybe even behind the throne.”

“But dare not sit upon it.” Swiftsword warned, a hoof resting on the hilt of her sword. “To sit upon the throne is to claim ownership of the empire.”

“And you six,” Barrier turned to the cadets-turned-privates and the doctor. “Wait outside the throne room. Nothing gets in. Period.”

Barrier waited until his orders had been followed to fall to his flanks and glance at Shining Armor. “Shining Armor, I want you to focus primarily on keeping the element bearers safe while they charge up. Help where you can, but they’re your priority. Your shields are stronger than mine.”

Shining Armor nodded. “Just don’t do anything stupid or reckless. I doubt Daring Do would be pleased if I bought you back in pieces.”

“If something happens to you, Cadance will send me back in pieces. I don’t eve-.” Barrier visibly shivered as another, heavier pulse of magic pulsed through the room, causing him to drop his speech and stand up and Shining Armor to swallow nervously as he scanned the room.

“Look alive, ponies!” Barrier yelled out as the magic began to condense in the center of the throne room, taking off at a sprint even before the magic had condensed into a solid form. Pivoting, Barrier raised himself on his forehooves and swung around, his hindlegs impacting with the freshly formed body of Sombra. With nothing more than a grunt, Sombra was lifted bodily into the air before his body vanished into smoke and shot forward at a blinding pace, solidifying again just before impacting with the grey unicorn.

Faust dammit… Barrier swore to himself as he felt something in his chest crack slightly and he was sent hurtling through the air. Glancing behind him, his eyes widened as a sharpened spire of black crystal raised itself to meet him at his grisly end. Horn flaring to teleport, he instead grunted when his back hit something. Shining Armor’s shield had caught him and another shield erected itself around Sombra.

Bouncing off of the shield, Barrier touched the ground just in time to hear Shining Armor cry out as Sombra brute-forced his way through the shield. The evil unicorn turned his attention on the alabaster one and with an otherworldly roar, shot forward, plowing through each shield Shining Armor erected in an attempt to stop him, each shield appearing weaker than the last.

With a flare of his horn Barrier reappeared in front of the sweating unicorn, watching Shining through the younger ponies own shield before taking off at a charge towards Sombra. Barrier’s horn retrieving a grenade from his saddlebags as the two closed the distance.

Yanking the pin, the unicorn began to count as the two cleared the massive throne room rapidly. Five, four… He could see the reds of his former mentor’s eyes. Three, two… Barrier dropped the grenade just as the pair collided...or would have, had Sombra not turned to smoke once again.


Disappearing in another burst of magic, Barrier reappeared behind Shining Armor’s shield just as the explosion went off, the gaseous pony letting loose a bone chilling scream before solidifying once more, the smoke of the explosion seeming to cascade off of his body, contrasting sharply to the sickly purple glow of his blood-red horn.

Oh shit… “Shiny, move!” Barrier’s own horn flared, conjuring up a half-dozen tiny reflective shields as the white unicorn dove to the side. Shining’s shield dissipating just as Sombra’s horn fired a beam of pure energy. Setting himself as firmly as he could, the sweat-matted charcoal unicorn tilted his horn forward slightly as the magic over it doubled and then tripled, the bit-sized mirrors seeming to grow brighter each second.

Barrier would’ve sworn he felt something in his horn snap as the first shield caught the beam of energy and began to bounce it back and forth between its companions before finally launching it back at Sombra, who was ready to counter it with another beam.

“Shiny, give it everything you’ve got!” Barrier yelled out before lurching forward, just catching himself on bent forelegs. Coils of smoke rolled from the white-hot spear of bone atop his head. Stay conscious, stay conscious… Even as Barrier mentally chanted to himself, he could feel his world spinning.

Shining tried to fight back as he took over the spell from Barrier, feeding the redirected beam with whatever energy he could spare, his eyes clamped shut as the two directed energies collided.

“Well, shit…” Shining stumbled backwards as the magic from his horn began to taper off and Sombra’s energy began to shove his own aside…only for Sombra’s face to erupt into flame as an arrow connect with his jaw, exploding as the grenade tied to the shaft timed out, sending the stallion’s head -and beam- jerking wildly.

“Oh Faust…” Verdant’s eyes widened as Sombra’s head snapped sidewards and Shining Armor’s energies connected with the unicorn, sending him -and his magical energies- spiraling wildly through the room. Almost on instinct, the green stallion’s legs vanished from beneath as he ducked, yelling out in agony as the dying stream of energy from Sombra just clipped his back, burning off some skin on and around his withers while simultaneously cauterizing the wound.

“Shiny, now!” The familiar voice of Twilight finally joined the madness, the shield around the mare-in-question dying out as Shining Armor released his magic. The Elements of Harmony struck the tyrant king and the rainbow light engulfed his body, starting from his horn, a rainbow-like fire burned away the corruption, marring his physical form. As the fire spread, the look of rage and hatred melted to one of fear, and then regretful acceptance. The myriad of colors swirled, filling the room with bright light before Shining Armor fell to his haunches in exhaustion, eyes falling tiredly on the form of Sombra who was laying smoking on the floor.

“We got him…” Shining Armor huffed, only now realizing how heavily he was breathing. “Barrier, we got him…” Shining Armor craned his head around to the charcoal unicorn, a smile beginning to form on his muzzle.

“The undead have fell! Has Sombra been…” Swiftsword’s gaze fell on Sombra’s almost deflated form. “Faust…” the mare bit back a gag.

“Is it over?” Black Harvest shot into the throne room, sliding to a halt before staring at everypony in turn, lingering slightly on Barrier and then Sombra, before approaching the latter.

“Art thou out of thy mind?” Swiftsword took several steps forward. “Don’t help him!”

Harvest whipped around with an almost dangerous stare. “I’m a doctor! I must save lives whenever I can, no matter how vile the pony.” She turned back to Sombra who only stared weakly at her in return, his eyes no longer the brilliant scarlet they once were, instead having faded to a dull green.

“Can he be saved, Doctor?” Barrier stumbled unsteadily towards the two ponies, shaking his head in a futile effort to clear his double-vision.

“He’s…” Black Harvest hesitated slightly, her horn dimming and her hoof moving from Sombra’s side. “He’s experiencing organ failure all over. Dear Faust, his insides are like tissue-paper, his bones are severely degraded…there’s nothing I can do, Captain. Sombra is going to die within the next few minutes, and it shall be the most agonizing thing imaginable.”

Barrier all but fell forward, his forehoof lightly grazing Sombra’s ear.

“Barrier…”

Everypony’s ears twitched slightly as their attention was drawn to the grating, raspy voice of the black unicorn. “I’m…so sorry…”

“I know, Sombra…” Barrier stared down at the one-time ruler almost fondly, his hoof resting on Sombra’s chin.

“Please-” Sombra’s already-hagged speech was cut off as a coughing fit over took him, droplets of blood being expelled in the process.

“A lung just collapsed…” Harvest stated sadly.

“End... the... war…” Sombra managed to grab the hoof Barrier had on his jaw. “And…tell... Celestia…I’m sorry…”

“The war’s over, Sombra. We won.” Barrier took a shaky breath, blinking several times to keep control of his emotions. “And I’ll tell her. Now, I’m going to end your pain…”

“Thank…”

Sombra never finished the statement as Barrier threw his entire weight behind the hoof, snapping Sombra’s head sharply to the side, the already-weakened bones giving way under the sudden movements and setting the stallion into his final sleep.

“Right…” Barrier forced himself upright and around, gazing at the Elements of Harmony who looked like they were going to be sick and then to the cadets who looked on with simple resignation. “Private Forge, cremate the body.”

“Doctor Harvest,” Barrier glanced at the mare who was now going over the injured earth-pony. “How is Private Range?”

“Well, he’ll have a scar and the fur’s certainly not coming back, but he’ll live. I believe I have some ointment for his burn.” Doctor Harvest patted the earth-pony on the side, careful to avoid the burn before standing up and staring at Barrier.

“Alright, you six…” Barrier turned to the element bearers, drawing the attention of all save Fluttershy, who was crying, and Rainbow Dash, who was trying to comfort her. “I need you to start searching for the Crystal Heart.” he turned to Swiftsword and Shining Armor. “Swiftsword, Shining Armor, I want you both to go with them. Don’t let anything happen to them.”

“Sir.” Swiftsword saluted sharply.

“Hat Trick, Winter Gem, I want you two to go back to the wine cellar and then escort Cadance here to the palace.”

Both ponies saluted. “Alright ponies, get to it!” Barrier raised his voice slightly, inwardly wincing as the louder tone sent pain lancing through his head.

“So…” Doctor Harvest tapped her hoof lightly on the ground.

“Yes?” Barrier raised an eyebrow, only now realizing the mare had been staring at him the entire time.

The Doctor gave him a flat stare. “Art thou going to allow me to take a look at thy horn?”

“...what’s wrong with my horn?” Barrier’s eyes crossed as he tried to stare upward.

“For starters, tis still smoking…”

Chapter 40

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“Doctor, I’m fine!” Barrier argued, but the mare gave his horn a slight tug with her magic, causing the pony to yelp like a filly and fall silent..

“That’s what I thought. Now stand there and be quiet…”

“How bad’s the damage?” Verdant eyed the deep crack that ran the length of Barrier’s horn, wincing in both sympathy and agony as his own burns were tightly bandaged.

Black Harvest released a breathy sigh and released her magical hold on Verdant’s bandages before turning and focusing entirely on Barrier’s horn, her hooves snaking around his head to jerk his horn to eye-level. “It’s bad.” She stated bluntly. “It’s a miracle we can’t see the core with a fracture that deep.” The mare gave Barrier a hard stare and released him. “No magic for the foreseeable future, assuming you even have the capability to muster it. If you try to use magic with a crack that deep, you may lose your horn entirely, that’s assuming it heals properly at all.” The doctor lit her horn and retrieved a clean white bandage from her saddlebags and set about wrapping the unicorn’s horn tightly, regardless of his hisses of pain.

“Captain?” Verdant Range stepped in front of the grey unicorn and saluted, a wince crossing his face as he did so. “What should I do?”

“Just rest for the moment, Private Range.” Barrier sat down and glanced over his shoulder at the smoldering ashes of Sombra. “Faust knows we’ve all earned it. Now all we can do is wait for the others to return, hopefully with the Crystal Heart.”

Verdant nodded before adding with slight hesitation, “And if they don’t?”

“Then I say we give them about sixteen hours before we fully evacuate the Empire.” Cadance strode into the throne room at a brisk pace, Hat Trick, Winter Gem and Spike following close behind.

“Winter Gem, Hat Trick,” Barrier nodded at the pair. “I want you to head to the library and assist Twilight. No doubt she’s doing research and could use the assistance translating. I’ll explain why later, just for now, please don’t question it.”

“Where’s Sombra?” Cadance asked with a slight head tilt.

Barrier only motioned to the pile of smoldering ash behind him.

“Um…can I stay outside of this room? I really don’t like being in the same room as a…” Spike swallowed and glanced at the vaguely pony-shaped pile of ashes from behind Cadance where he’d been hiding. “dead body…”

“Tell you what, let me write a quick status report…” Barrier made to light his horn, only for the Doctor to smack his hoof.

Black Harvest gazed hard at the pony. “No. Magic.”

“Right, right. If you can take a letter for me Spike, you can go with Winter Gem and Hat Trick to the library.” Barrier craned his neck around to dig through his saddlebags only for Spike to pull a quill and parchment from…somewhere.

“Fire away.” The dragon pressed quill to parchment.

“To Princess Celestia,” Barrier paused briefly, “Sombra has been... neutralized. We sustained injuries, but are in no immediate danger. We are currently searching for the Crystal Heart. If we don’t find it in sixteen hours, we will attempt to evacuate the city before it freezes.” Barrier waited again until the dragon had stopped scratching at the paper. “I request that you have medical staff and guards on standby for the train’s arrival and be prepared to send it back as soon as possible. Signed, Magic Barrier.”

Spike etched out the last few words before taking a deep breath and blowing his usual stream of emerald fire on the parchment, sending it away.

“Right, Winter Gem, Hat Trick, take Spike with you and get moving.” Barrier waited until the ponies had departed to turn to Verdant, Black Harvest, and Cadance. “Doctor Harvest, does Private Range have full functionality?”

The mare frowned. “He does, but to flex or shift his back would be very agonizing.”

Barrier ignored the frown entirely. “Will it cause any lasting damage?”

Harvest took a deep breath through her nose. “No, it won’t.”

“Good. Private Range, I want you and Princess Cadance to scour the city. Try to coax ponies out of their homes and bring them here. Tell them Sombra’s dead and bring them to the city-center. If we manage to find the heart, then we’ll need them to power it. If we don’t find it, then we need them to be ready to help us evacuate the injured.”

Verdant Range saluted sharply, before a slight smile crossed his muzzle as Cadance tried to do the same.

“And what am I to do, Captain?” Black Harvest asked as Verdant and Cadance departed.

“I would like you to accompany me to the dungeons, Doctor. I don’t want anypony to be there any longer than they have to.”

***

“So,” Black Harvest had waited until she and Barrier had begun to descend down the stairwell. “What hast truly happened to the empire? The young lavender mare earlier spoke of one-thousand years passing, and thou described too many events occurring to possibly have happened within a fortnight..”

Barrier, leaning against the wall for support began to reply only for the mare to cut him off.

Black Harvest gave the stallion a no-nonsense stare, despite the fact that he couldn’t see it. “I am not one of your soldiers that you can shrug it off to. What hast really happened?”

Barrier sighed and stopped at the bottom of the stairwell before turning to face the mare. “The Empire disappeared one-thousand or so years ago. You and everybody here, Sombra included, have been gone from Equestria for a very long time.” Barrier turned with a slight huff and stared at the keys dangling from the a hook before snagging them in the crook of a hoof and moving slowly onward.

“That dost not make sense.” Black Harvest followed him through the door and down the narrow stone hallway, a built-in choke point in the case of the prisoners breaking out. “Thou weren’t in the Empire with us, thou would have to be over one-thousand years old, and thou art no alicorn.”

“Circumstances dictated that Princess Luna and I spend one-thousand years sealed in the moon. I returned less than a year ago.” The unicorn jammed the key into the door and almost retched at the stench that emanated from the freely unlocked room; Doctor Harvest wasn’t quite as lucky, gagging just slightly at the stench of decay.

“Faust above, how many dead are here?” Barrier had stopped at only the first cell and saw a dozen ponies in varying states of decay, though his eyes seemed to focus on the body of a mare in the back, half of her face missing and an eye dangling freely from the socket. “Captain Pathway.”

“Tis most likely black putrefaction hast begun for many of these dead ponies.” The Doctor was also staring at the corpse of a mare. “Nurse Merry Sunspot.” The Doctor kneeled down slightly to get a better look. “Glass foreign bodies, multiple lacerations all across her, bruising pattern doesn’t match the lividity on her other side…thrown from a window perhaps? A shame, she was a good mare.”

“Commander Chocolate Day, Ensign Hairy Chin…” The grey stallion let a deep sigh escape him before quickly pacing down the hallway and peering into each cell to quickly check for survivors; it soon became apparent that there was none, he began to head for the door once more. “We should leave before we risk something. I’ll send Iron Forge down here later to burn these bodies as well.”

Doctor Harvest didn’t argue and even waited until they were halfway up the stairwell again to strike up conversation. “When dost thou intend to tell the others of how much time hast passed, Captain?”

“I’ll probably tell them as soon as either the Crystal Heart is found or we evacuate. I’d like to tell them sooner, but I need them all focused on the mission right now.”

Black Harvest raised an eyebrow. “And you don’t think they’re focused on trying to figure out why you won’t explain everything to them?”

“More focused than they’d be if they knew everypony they’ve ever loved or held dear is long dead and they’re not.” Barrier answered bluntly.

“You don’t seem to-” Black Harvest jumped slightly when Barrier raised his voice unexpectedly and craned his head around to face her.

“I get that you’re a doctor and your interest is in everypony’s wellbeing, but don’t try telling me how to handle my soldiers, doctor. Put it in a report to the princesses if you must, but do not try to preach to me.”

The doctor looked like she wanted to argue the point she’d been trying to make but the sound of hooves on stone drew both their attentions to the top of the stairwell where the door had just been slammed open.

“Sir,” Hat Trick was panting heavily, his mane shifting with the weight of each breath. “Tower…heart…stairs…slide…”

“Deep breaths, Hatty,” Barrier took several deep breaths of his own to stem the sudden flow of adrenaline. “Count to ten, then try again.”

Hat Trick did as instructed. “We have the Crystal Heart…huge stairwell, gravity spell…we slid up the stairs and found the heart…everypony’s in the throne room…”

Barrier allowed a smile to break on his muzzle. Twilight works extremely fast… It hadn’t been more than an hour or two since she’d left for the palace library. “Good, good. Now, I want you to head into the city and locate Cadance and Private Range. Direct them and any ponies you come across to the balcony nearest the throne room. The one that looks out into the city.”

Hat Trick saluted sharply before turning off and disappearing around the door with a gallop.

Barrier turned to the mare behind him, smile persisting. “Doctor Harvest, would you accompany me to throne room?”

“I have a choice in the matter?” The mare only wore her slight frown. “You’ve ordered me around since you got here, what’s changed now?”

Barrier continued to limp up the stairs, beginning the lengthy trek back to the throne room. “The Empire’s safety is all but assured, and history is about to be made.”

***

Nearly an hour after his departure from the dungeons -he found himself having to take frequent breaks to catch his breath, much to the doctor’s annoyance when he shrugged off her assistance- Barrier could hear the dull sounds of ponies whispering to each other from within the palace even with the throne room -and likely the balcony inside of it as well- sealed off, though perhaps more noteworthy was the soft voice of Rarity as Barrier threw his shoulder into the large, crystalline doors.

“Not my finest work, but considering that I had only curtains, a small sewing supply kit, some fine golden thread that I somehow packed and a massive time crunch, I think it looks quite nice.” Rarity stepped away from Cadance, allowing her into view of the ponies that had been watching so she could show off the elegant blue dress, though all of them instead found their attention drawn to the throne-room doors slowly aching as they were opened rather than the new ruler’s appearance.

Iron Forge was the first to get a hoof up in salute, the other cadets following suit, while the element bearers just gave him a mixture of tired smiles, and in the case of Pinkie Pie, one eerily enthusiastic one.

“At ease,” Barrier saluted his ponies briefly before letting his hoof drop back to the ground. “Not that it’s not nice, but what’s the occasion, Princess?”

Cadance smiled and twirled with practiced ease, the deep-blue curtain billowing neatly around her. “Rarity insisted that if I’m to be ruling the Empire, I should look the part as much as I can.”

“And she was right.” Barrier nodded in agreement. “Appearance is important, especially in a situation such as this. I assume this was Princess Celestia’s idea?”

It was Cadance’s turn to nod. “I sent a letter to inform her about the heart being found and she asked me in her reply to run the empire. I accepted since I believe these ponies would be more willing to accept a modern alicorn as a leader with all the changes I intend to implement to get the empire running smoothly. There were some other things, but I’ll bring them up later.”

“Well then, it sounds like your ponies have gathered so we should probably get started. Do you have a speech prepared?”

Cadance swallowed and giggled nervously. “I think I’ll be okay to improvise. Auntie Celestia has sort of been grooming me for a role like this ever since I got this horn.”

“Very well.” Barrier glanced where Sombra’s ashes had been earlier in the day, now swept up into a bucket.

“Captain.” Swiftsword tapped her hoof on the floor to draw the ponies attention. “We wish for answers. We have all discussed much of what has happened and have decided that far too much has happened for it to be within a fortnight. The element bearers, Captain Armor, and Princess Cadance have all refused to answer our questions.”

Barrier hesitated slightly before Cadance’s voice joined Swiftsword’s.

“Barrier…tell them.” The princess laid a hoof comfortingly on Barrier’s withers. “They’ve fought long and hard. They deserve to know the truth. I’ll be telling the rest of the empire about it in my speech, but they deserve to hear it from you.” Cadance dropped her hoof and took the Crystal Heart from it’s resting spot next to the throne and made her way onto the balcony, Shining Armor, Spike and the element bearers joining her, leaving Barrier and privates to share the throne room with Doctor Harvest, who appeared to be more focused on Cadance than them.

“The short explanation is this:” Barrier started without ceremony. “Sombra did something that caused the Empire to vanish for over one-thousand years. As far as I and anypony else knew, you were all dead for three years.” Barrier took a breath and made an effort to meet each of his ponies eyes. “Princess Luna and Princess Celestia had a falling out that caused Princess Luna and I to spend one-thousand years in the moon. I returned with Princess Luna. The Empire, and you ponies, returned several months after us.”

All five of them stared at him like he was insane; it wasn’t until Cadance’s speech began that their expressions began to fail.

“Citizens of the Crystal Empire!” The mare’s voice, amplified by magic, boomed out. “Lendeth me thy ears!” She waited until the dull ponies all turned to face her in silent askance. “I am Princess Mi Amore Cadenza and I am here to bring you much news, both joyous and tragic! King Sombra…” Cadance waited for the shiver to pass through the crowd. “Has been defeated and slain!” Cadance smiled widely at the looks of disbelief that shot across the ponies faces before the bucket containing his ashes levitated itself to the balcony and upturned itself. “This is all that remains! Ashes, scattered to the winds.” The silence was tangible. “Now, for less fortunate news. As Empress Galaxy had no living heirs, by request of Princess Celestia of Equestria, I shall be taking the place as your new ruler.”

“Hail Empress Mi Amore Cadenza!” Somepony in the crowd yelled out, followed shortly by another pony, and before long, the entire crowd. As if in reaction to the ponies apparent joy at their liberation, the Crystal heart began to glow before ripping itself from Cadance’s magic and shooting out of sight before a wave of warmth washed over the empire and the bleak, snow-laden skies vanished from sight, replacing the harsh chill with a comfortable warmth.

“My little ponies, I ask that you hold off on your reverie for I have much more to inform thee of.” Cadance waited for the silence to continue. “Due to Sombra’s dark magics, the Crystal Empire was sealed away for over one-thousand years.” Cadance took a quick breath and followed the statement up before it could really sink fully into the crowd and potentially devolve into a panic or depression. “I know this news is both sad and very frightening, but this new world has much to offer. We are now in an age that is prosperous and peaceful, the wars and threats of your era having long past. I swear to all of you, I shall do everything within my power to help you adjust and to help this Empire shine brighter than ever before!”

Cadance speech finished to a silence before giving way to the steady sound of hooves pounding the ground in applause; neither Barrier nor his cadets were focused on that.

Swiftsword fell onto her flanks as Cadance further verified what Barrier had stated. “Sir, why are thou and the princess telling us this? Please, I beg of thee… say this is a horrible lie.”

Winter Gem let loose a sob before the dam broke and she began to cry, Hat Trick quickly wrapping her up in a hug while Iron Forge moved to comfort Verdant as the green stallion stumbled backwards in shock.

“Ponies,” Barrier couldn’t meet his ponies gaze as his tone fell into the commanding presence once again. “I know I’ve just dropped incredibly difficult news on all of you, but I need you all to focus just a little longer…”

The cadets took far longer than usual, but one by one, straightened up, albeit clearly depressed.

“Right,” Barrier eyed Cadance, Shining Armor, Spike, and the element bearers as they returned from the balcony. “I’m splitting all of you up into teams of two. I need all of you to help kickstart the Empire’s relief efforts. Swiftsword, Rarity,” he waited until the two had stepped out of line. “I want you both to set up a med tent in front of the palace. Winter Gem, Fluttershy, I need both of you to act as medics. Just do what you can. Doctor Harvest, if you could find a way to requisition supplies and join them in treating the civilians, it would be greatly appreciated.” Barrier got a silent nod from the mare. “Verdant Range, Applejack, I need both of you directing anypony that’s injured to the medical tent.” He received a pair of affirmatives and turned to the four remaining ponies. “Iron Forge, Rainbow Dash, I hate to do this, but I need you both on disposal duty. There are…a lot of corpses in the dungeons, as well as scattered around the city. It’s a plague waiting to happen.” Iron Forge nodded resolutely while Rainbow Dash nodded with a slightly green tint to her face. “Hat Trick, Pinkie Pie, do what you two do best: cheer ponies up. Do whatever you can to raise the morale of the ponies in the Empire. Shining Armor, Cadance, Twilight, Spike,” Barrier motioned to the ponies he’d already addressed to go about their jobs; they all did so without argument. “You four, and myself, need to take stock of what supplies the Empire has and we need to coordinate with Princess Celestia about getting whatever we don’t have. We’ve managed to save the Empire, but our work’s far from over.”

“I assume there was a reason for pairing your cadets with the element bearers?” Cadance asked with a knowing smile far too similar to Celestia’s.

“Yeah.” Barrier admitted with a shrug. “They’ve just had a huge shock and found out all of their loved ones are dead and that they’re one-thousand years out of time. They…need somepony that knows what the new Equestria’s like. Somepony who could lend a sympathetic ear.”

“Why not you?” Shining Armor asked. “You’ve been here for quite awhile now.”

“I’m their captain first and foremost. They won’t open up to me about that kinda thing. Not in this situation, anyways. No, they need to be around ponies that they can be ponies around, not soldiers.”

When it became apparent nopony had anything else to add, Barrier tapped a hoof sharply on the ground. “Right, let’s get to it ponies. We’ve got ponies to help.”

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Swiftsword and Rarity both worked at an impressive pace to strip the fifth bedroom they’d entered, Rarity working to scavenge the usable cloth and Swiftsword the wood, both being needed to set up the required medical tent. For the first fifteen minutes, the two worked in silence, but with a tired huff, Swiftsword’s magic died out and she turned to face her fellow unicorn. “Lady Rarity.” Swiftsword drew the mare’s attention before continuing. “I must apologize for my earlier behaviour. Twas unbecoming of a soldier, a noblemare, and a mare of the Falchion clan.”

Rarity smiled softly and nodded. “Why thank you, Swi…” Rarity’s voice died out as realization seemed to shoot across her face. “Wait, did you say the Falchion clan?”

“...yes?” Swiftsword took a step back at the sudden zeal in the mare’s expression.

Rarity’s grin widened to Pinkie Pie-levels. “Are you of any relation to Mars Falchion?”

“He is…” Swiftsword hesitated and looked to the ground momentarily. “He was, my younger brother. How dost thou know of him? Art thou a historian?”

Rarity let out a poorly muffled squeal of excitement. “Apologies, this is extremely surprising. To answer your question, no, I’m a seamstress and fashion designer. I know of Mars partially from history but more so from his role as the main character in my favorite historical romance novel trilogy, Flame Crest: The Falchion Chronicles.” Rarity went back to scavenging cloth from the curtains and bed, stitching everything she found into a single piece of cloth. “It tells of the many adventures and romances of Mars Falchion and his faithful lieutenant, Fireball.”

“What of his children?” Even as she asked, Swiftsword took Rarity’s silent suggestion and went back to breaking down the thick wooden bedframe and carefully splitting it with her magic into more suitable supports for the medical tent.

“Um…” Rarity hesitated just slightly, but answered regardless. “Sadly, it said that Mars never had any children. Based on the books I read, he was infertile.” Rarity bit her lip when Swiftsword’s expression fell. “But I’m not certain how historically accurate the books are. Honestly, Twilight would be a much better pony to ask.”

Swiftsword didn’t reply, instead turning her focus back to her work, her lips pulled into a slight frown.

Swallowing slightly, Rarity asked another question that had begun to weigh on her mind. “How…how many did you lose?”

Swiftsword didn’t appear to hear her at first, but as Rarity opened her mouth to apologize for the insensitive question, the mare responded. “Too many, Rarity. Far too many. I…I had hoped that upon Sombra’s death, that maybe I would feel victorious, that I would feel accomplished for having avenged my fallen brethren, but with all that we’ve lost…victory feels hollow.” The final wooden beam of the bed split down the center and set itself into a neat pile in the corner. “It feels as if we still lost the war.”

Rarity nodded with some semblance of understanding and recited with what seemed practiced ease, “A wise warrior once said that, ‘War is something horrible for all involved. There are no true victors, only survivors. The only comfort a soldier can take is in the solace that they have done all they could to protect their country and those who dwell within.’”

Swiftsword stared in genuine surprise and after the momentary shock had worn off, asked, “Who said that?”

Rarity smiled sadly at her. “Mars Falchion in Flame Crest: The Dragon of Shadows.”

“At any rate,” Swiftsword hefted the stack of makeshift supports in her magic as a whole and began towards the bedroom door. “I deeply apologize for my rudeness towards thee, for threatening thee, and for insulting thy appearance.”

“Apology accepted.” Rarity followed with a thick roll of cloth, stitched from the bedding and curtains. “Though…” Rarity glanced at her own flank and then back at Swiftsword’s, eyes briefly covering the mare’s tight form. “Would I really be considered fat in your era?”

Swiftsword nodded. “In my era, very much so. To most anypony, a warrior’s build was considered the most beautiful and desired. For example, thy companion Rainbow Dash would likely be declared the most beautiful mare in her home-town. Typically, a pony of thy build would most likely be a wealthy layabout. They wouldst mostly be sought only by those so desperate for money that they would remove gold fillings from the buried dead.” Swiftsword continued almost as if the speech were practiced. “Ours was a time of war. Strong mates were sought to ensure our successors would be able to survive the griffins and succeed us.”

“So, if I would be considered fat to your era…” Rarity’s eyes twinkled just slightly. “What do you think of Princess Cadance?”

“It would be improper to speak ill of the appearance of the Empress, especially in her new palace. I also ask that thou refer to her by her proper title. Tis disrespectful not to do so.”

“Sorry, I will, but could you please tell me?” Rarity fluttered her eyelashes cutely. “I’m fascinated by your perspective. It’s so very different from my own.”

Swiftsword glanced at the empty hallway behind them and then in front of them. “This never leaves the two of us?”

“As Pinkie Pie would say,” Rarity began to motion several gestures while she spoke. “Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.”

Disregarding the weird chant, Swiftsword leaned in to Rarity. “In that case…she appears almost skeletal. It appears as if she may collapse from hunger at any moment. This, combined with her pink coloration, contrasting the blue dress thou made for her, gave her the appearance of a starving stallion in drag.”

Rarity’s muzzle scrunched up in confusion. “What’s wrong with her being pink?”

“Tis a most masculine color,” Swiftsword stated matter-of-factly. “Tis not meant for a princess. Had she been blue like Princess Luna or myself, then she would appear far more feminine.”

Rarity shook her head in wonderment. “My, how things have changed. Pink’s now considered a very feminine colour.”

“Still, the mention of a dress hast made me think of something. Rarity, mayest I hire thou for something? I may lack funds now, but I shalt generously reimburse thee for thy services.”

Rarity drew back slightly in surprise, but quickly responded. “Of course, darling; whatever you need.”

“Excellent. I shalt explain later, but for now we should take these to the plaza. No doubt Hat Trick is filling the streets with his particular brand of gayety.”

The statement caught Rarity completely off guard and the bundle of cloth faltering slightly in her magical hold. “Wait, what?”

“Hat Trick is often the bringer of mirth and gayness within our squad, commonly through a witty remark or a well-timed practical joke. Surely he hast spread his gayness to the empire’s citizens with Lady Pie’s aide.”

“Ah, that makes more sense.” Rarity reaffirmed her grip on the bundle. “Just so you’re aware, ‘gay’ has a very different meaning these days.”

It was Swiftsword’s turn to wear the face of confusion. “How so?”

“Well, in modern times ‘gay’ refers to a homosexual. A mare or stallion that prefers only ponies of their own gender for their more…intimate affairs.”

“Ah.” Swiftsword smiled as understanding dawned. “So in modern terms, Hat Trick would not be the gay one of our squad, but Iron Forge.”

“Wait, Iron Forge is gay? Oh poo…” Rarity closed her eyes slightly as they left the dim interior of the palace for the plaza just outside.

Swiftsword carefully dropped the wood to the ground. “Art thou upset?”

“Well…” the bundle of cloth joined the stack of wood. “He seemed quite nice and is a fairly attractive stallion. I was hoping perhaps I may have had a chance with him…oh well, c'est la vie.”

“Ah. Well, in any case,” Swiftsword began to spread her wood out by hoof. “Shall we now proceed with building this medical tent?”

Chapter 42

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“Hatty, you okay?” Pinkie asked with her usual cheer as she shoved the boxes together with a frightening amount of ease given their weight.

“…I guess.” Hat Trick removed his shoulder from the box he’d been moving to the makeshift stage. “I mean, I lost some of my fellow soldiers, but I didn’t know any of them all that well.” Hat Trick moved to another box that the pair had gathered in front of the Crystal Heart. “The ones I did know were hurt, but at least the gh… Dr. Harvest, was able to save them.” Hat Trick began to shove another crate along. “I didn’t really have anypony back home to come back to, so the one-thousand years doesn’t really bother me so far. The only thing I’m really worried about are Winter Gem and the others. I love Winter Gem.” Hat Trick took a deep breath as the crate lined up with the others composing the small stage before hopping onto the crate to rest. “My squad’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to brothers and sisters. I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. I’ll be fine so long as I have Winter Gem…I assume Lady Applejack is a member of the Apple clan?”

“Yeppers!” Pinkie confirmed as she hopped onto the crate alongside Hat Trick.

“That is good to hear. Applejack will no doubt be able to liven her spirits by showing her she still has family.” Hat Trick scratched the back of his head with a hoof. “I find it interesting the Captain assigned us all to you and thy fellow element bearers though rather than pairing us amongst each other.”

Pinkie hummed slightly and drummed her forelegs on the side of the crate. “Well, it’s obvious why he did, isn’t it? He did it so all of you would be able to chat with someone who’s used to the world the way it is and could lend a sympathetic ear!” Pinkie stated it as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

Hat Trick didn’t reply immediately, instead seeming to sit in his thoughts. It wasn’t until he felt the pink mare poking him in the side that he seemed to leave his thoughts and gaze down at her.

Pinkie stopped jabbing him and grinned. “You alright?”

“Yes, I’m fine.” Hat Trick couldn’t help but smile in return, the mare’s happiness almost contagious. “Come,” Hatty hopped off of the crate. “The sooner we get this stage built, the sooner we can make everypony smile.”

Hat Trick drifted into silence as Pinkie continued to ramble on about anything and everything, only vaguely paying attention to the over-energetic mare as he found himself falling back into his thoughts. Swiftsword…no doubt she’ll want to see how her family hast done over the millennium. Another crate found itself neatly lined up with the rest. Verdant Range…sweet Faust, he had a half-dozen sisters and both of his parents, along with his herd aunts…no doubt that is tearing him apart inside. The stallion began to shove another crate forward, vaguely making a note about this ‘Sugarcube Corner’ as Pinkie continued to talk…without stopping for breath. Winter Gem…she’ll handle it better than the others, and I’ll do whatever I can to make sure she continues to smile… The crate slid home as Hat Trick’s thoughts fell to the last of the group, his breath hitching in his throat almost immediately. Iron Forge lost all of his family to the griffins, save his mother who is now lost to time…his biggest reason for staying in the military was his hatred for them… Hat Trick turned and pressed a hoof to Pinkie’s muzzle, silencing the mare who tilted her head curiously in response. “Lady Pinkie Pie, what dost thou know of Equestria’s relationship with the griffins?”

“Oh, they’re our friends! I think…I’ve only met one griffin so far and…okay, she was kind of a meanie-pants, but things got way better after I helped bail her out of jail.” Pinkie continued to shove the crates along. “Twilight actually said something about it months and months ago, now that I think about it! She said that we’d been friends with the griffins ever since the Pony-Griffin Concordat! Why do ya ask?”

Hat Trick frowned and realized that they had finished building their makeshift stage. Assembled in front of the Crystal Heart were dozens of thick wooden crates stacked two-high and four wide. The chore had taken much of the morning and drawn a lot of attention. “Iron Forge.” He finally stated. “He has a deep-seated hatred of griffins. They took his father’s life and conquered his hometown. His mother managed to escape due in part to Captain Barrier, but now…she’s gone before he really had a chance to spend much time with her. I would worry to even have him in the same room as a griffin. They were known to slaughter foals to feast upon their bodies. The Captain said that when he had asked a griffin why, they stated it was because of how tender the meat was…how they found living as a pony was a fate worse than death, and that becoming fat on their disgusting forms should be something we should be honored about.”

Pinkie’s mane drooped just slightly before she set about digging a hoof through her mane.

“My squad and I were trained for years to kill them, and all of a sudden we’re at peace with them... I worry about how Iron Forge will handle this knowledge.”

“Here we are!” Pinkie tugged a book free from her mane and began to flip through it before stopping on a dog-earred page. “Right here it says that the treaty was signed by Princess Celestia and Queen Farica. Much of it was drafted by…Word Worthy and Varia LeGrande.” Pinkie stuffed the book back into her mane. “LeGrande…that sounds kinda familiar.”

Hat Trick actually hissed upon hearing the name. “Grimhilde LeGrande was the Butcher of Gallopfrey. She was the monster who lead the invasion and occupation. She was also the most notorious for eating foals.” Hat Trick took a deep breath to calm himself. “Honestly, I think all of the ponies from my era hate the griffins for what they’ve done, the foal eating abominations. I do not know how the Crystal Empire will react to this news any more than Iron Forge.” Hat Trick jumped onto stage in a single leap and offered a hoof to help Pinkie Pie up. “In any case,” he flicked his wrist, a top hat with a red-and-white checkered rim and a yellow question-mark on it appeared in the hoof, before doing the same with the other, a thin green cape billowing into existence in that hoof. “Shall we get started?”

“Wow!” Pinkie snagged one of Hat Tricks arms and briefly inspected it as if it held the secrets to his trade. “That was a pretty neat-o trick, but…”

Hat Trick tilted his head in confusion as the mare grinned at him. “But?”

Pinkie Pie giggle-snorted. “You said butt. Anyways, I think I can top it.”

“Oh?” Hat Trick returned her wide grin with a smile of his own. “That, I would most like to see.”

“Well alrighty, but you asked for it.” Pinkie reared back onto her hind-legs and dug both of her forehooves into her mane, whipping out a magician’s-box used for sawing ponies in half, a pony-sized saw, a trio of party cannons, a deck of cards, and a red bunny-outfit…all at once.

Hat Trick’s mouth opened and closed slowly several times before he finally found his speech. “Sweet Faust’s flank, art thou certain I should be the lead performer for this act?”

“Hmm…” Pinkie put a hoof to her chin and appeared to genuinely contemplate it for all of a half-second. “Probably. After all, magician’s are supposed to have a lovely” She spun around in a circle so fast that her outline actually blurred, before stopping almost immediately, now donning the bunny-outfit. “Assistant.”

Hat Trick’s eyes narrowed as absolute confusion overtook him.

“Hatty?” Pinkie tapped the purple pegasus on the side of the head. “Hatty, you in there?”

The stallion sighed and shook his head. “I shall enjoy sawing thou in half.”

“That’s the spirit! Let’s get this party started!”

Chapter 43

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“Right in front of the Crystal Heart, thou shalt not likely need further aid finding it.” Verdant Range directed the pony towards the city center before turning back to Applejack who had also been directing a pair of ponies.

“Ya’ll okay?” The orange mare asked as she noticed Verdant’s gaze on her.

“Aye, just thinking.” The green earth pony turned away and once more began the slow trek further away from the palace, eyes scanning regularly to look for ponies that were still hiding in their homes or injured.

“No, yer not.” Applejack stated matter-of-factly. “You’re hurtin…and I can’t rightly blame ya.”

Verdant Range didn’t reply to her, instead knocking sharply on a crystalline door to draw the attention of the ponies inside.

“Ah have an inklin’ of how you feel.” Applejack waited until the ponies had opened the door and Verdant Range had given them the explanation of events before continuing. “Well… not exactly, but I know what it’s like to lose yer loved ones. To feel like everythin’ you hold dear has been ripped out from under ya.”

Verdant Range turned and gave the mare a long, hard stare before swallowing back the knot in his throat. “Does…does the pain ever go away?”

“Not really.” Applejack answered honestly. “The pain will always be there, but it gets easier. S’just important to remember the good times. Remember when they held yah close and loved yah…try not to remember when they went away.”

The stallion nodded sadly before asking, “If I may, who’ve you lost?”

“Mah folks.” Applejack’s voice dropped just slightly. “One day everything’s just fine and the next... they’re just gone. Ah don’t wanna go into details about it so I’ll just say it was…sudden. Kinda like what yer goin’ through. That shock yah felt, the stumblin’ back…ah did the exact same thing.”

“How didst thou come to terms with it?” Verdant Range began to knock sharply on another door.

“Ah had my family tah help. My brother and granny especially.”

“Tis more than just my parents.” Verdant Range blinked back tears long enough to direct the pony that answered the door before turning to Applejack. “My aunts…and most especially my sisters.” Tears began to work their ways out of the stallion’s eyes even as he tried to hold them in. “Star Hopper, Gold Leaf, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme…” the dam broke and the earth pony collapsed onto his stomach as half-sobs began to escape him. “They’re all gone.” The breakdown was very shortlived as Verdant forced himself upright and tried to swallow the emotions back down. “I’ve lost my whole family.”

“No yah haven’t. Ah’m sure you have some family still, even if ya don’t yet know it.”

“Well, tis almost a certainty at least one of my sisters had children… but I assume thou art referring to my squadmates.” Verdant stepped just slightly away to allow Applejack unrestricted access to the door.

“That ain’t what Ah meant.” Applejack knocked on the door several times in quick succession before turning to face him once more. “Them and Magic Barrier.”

Verdant Range didn’t reply immediately, instead rolling the statement over in his mind as Applejack explained to the crystal ponies what had happened.

“That King Sombra fella’s gone fer good. If ya’ll head to the Crystal Palace, y’can see the Crystal Heart and get medical attention if’n ya need any.” Applejack waited until the dispirited, depressed crystal mare had departed her home to turn back to Verdant, who appeared to have an answer to her statement.

“My squadmates would no doubt be willing to aid me, and they are family, brothers and sisters in arms, but they all have to cope with this, same as I. It would be unfair for me to burden them with my grief when they have so much of their own. As for Captain Barrier…” A moment of uncertainty flashed across the stallion’s face. “He is an excellent Captain, but I don’t think he sees us in that regard. We art soldiers to him first and foremost.”

Applejack shook her head and held out a hoof to stop Verdant from knocking on another door. “Yah don’t remember what he called ya’ll back in the basement?”

Verdant Range’s head tilted just slightly.

“He called yah his kids. Now Ah don’t think he meant to say it out loud, but I know he honestly meant it. He cried for y'all, y’know?”

Verdant Range’s eyes narrowed in confusion. Now that she had brought it up, he remembered Barrier’s slip of tongue, but he’d almost reflexively assumed it to be that; a slip of tongue.

“I don’t think he knew I was there and I wasn’t ever gonna bring it up cuz it ain’t none of my business, but he broke down just outside my farm when he told this one pegasus about you ponies, and don’t ferget how mad he was when he saw those bombs you’d strapped tah yah.”

Verdant Range’s first instinct was to shrug the statement off, but when coupled with the seeming slip of tongue and the Captain’s seemingly odd behaviour…it didn’t seem quite as far fetched.

“In any case, yer not alone.” Applejack made to rest a hoof on the stallion’s withers before remembering his injury. “And yah can’t think about yer family like that. Y’all need tah be there for each other. Share yer grief with one another, support each other. It’s part of what family does.”

Silence settled over the two, save the occasional break to explain everything to the ponies they spoke to.

“Lady Applejack…” Verdant finally spoke up, his voice slightly more upbeat than it had been, though not by much. “I thank you… At any rate, The Captain said the war with the griffins ended when Princess Celestia reclaimed Gallopfrey…dost thou know how long ago that was, mayhaps?”

“That?” Applejack whistled. “Shoot, it’s gotta be darn near a thousand years by mah reckonin’. Why do yah ask?”

“I was simply wondering if it was a lasting peace. If it has been going for so long…then it is most assuredly genuine. Mayhaps I should be willing to treat the griffins accordingly.” The stallion sighed and shook his head. “What a strange world this new age is. What could possibly be next? A device that opens those annoying food-holding tin cylinders?”

Applejack chuckled. “Yah mean a can-opener? Yah can get one of those practically anywhere.”

Verdant stared incredulously at Applejack. “Thou means we non-unicorns no longer have to suffer to open those infernal things?” A chuckle escaped the stallion, “Truly this is a blessed age. If only my sisters were here to enjoy it as well…”

“So…” Applejack tried to shift topics before silence and depression could set in once again. “What did Pinkie Pie mean by the whole ‘snack-sized stallion’ thing earlier?”

The green stallion’s eyes widened and almost comically quickly replied: “That is classified. I am bound by a non-disclosure agreement.”

Chapter 44

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Rainbow Dash dry-heaved as they left the dungeon and the smell of burning flesh behind and stepped into the hallway once more.

“Art thou well?” Iron Forge looked at her with raised eyebrow when she nodded.

“Yeah, just…glad I didn’t eat breakfast.” The mare’s muzzle scrunched up but some of her color began to return.

“Thou lookest greener than the stripe in thy mane.” Iron Forge hesitantly tapped the mare on her withers.

“I’m okay, just gimme a second…” Rainbow Dash spat at a wall to clear her mouth and took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m good now. Just…didn’t expect it to be that bad. I mean, I saw dead bodies on the way here, but to see literal piles…”

“Sombra was very…thorough in eliminating what he saw as a threat, even when little more than a feral monster.” Iron Forge gave the mare several seconds to finish gathering herself before he began to move forward, the cyan pegasus following close behind when she noticed.

“I don’t get it though. We saw Sombra when he was fighting Shining Armor and Barrier and he was completely crazy. Like…out of his mind, wild beast crazy. Why would he take some of them to the dungeon instead of just leaving them where they were?”

Iron Forge shrugged. “One can only speculate upon what happens in a mind consumed by madness and darkness. If anypony could guess, it would probably be the Captain.”

“Well…we should go outside.” Rainbow Dash offered, shifting topics. “More bodies to…” Dash hesitated in an uncharacteristic manner, “dispose of. Plus we could do with the fresh air.”

Iron Forge nodded almost absently, his gaze drifting downward as he seemed to head towards the palace doors on autopilot.

“Hey,” Rainbow Dash nudged him before he could completely lose himself to his mind. “Watcha thinking about?”

“Change, Lady Dash.” Iron Forge answered.

Rainbow blanched slightly. “Just Rainbow or Dash, kay? Calling me ‘Lady’ makes me seem uptight, like Rarity. I’m not really a fancy mare. I like getting dirty and doing awesome stunts more than stuff like spa trips and frilly dresses.”

“Very well,” Iron Forge acquiesced, paying little heed to the rest of her statement. “I am thinking about change, Rainbow Dash. One-thousand years have passed. Now is as good a time as any to think about those changes. Tell me,” Iron Forge stopped just as the open sky of the Empire came into view, signalling their departure from the Crystal Palace. “What were the years following the Griffin Kingdom’s surrender like?”

“Uh…” Dash shrugged. “I have no clue. I’m definitely not the right pony to ask about egghead stuff like that. That’s more Twilight’s thing. I mean, I can tell you about some of the more recent stuff, but history really isn’t my thing.”

Iron Forge continued his questions, undeterred by the mare’s lack of historical knowledge. “Hast thou heard of Gallopfrey?”

“I…don’t think so?” Her statement came out as more of a question; the term held some familiarity, but she couldn’t place it for the life of her.

“Twas an island town, between Equestria and the Griffin Kingdom. It was where we held the griffins at bay for many a year. The ponies there have an accent quite similar to mine. Or…should. I suppose that may have faded with history as well.”

“Oh!” Rainbow Dash clopped a hoof and smiled. “Now that rings some bells. You’re probably talking about Trottingham. I think I do remember that it used to have a different name.”

Iron Forge nodded. “Mayhaps I’ll pay it a visit when I am free of my duties.” Silence settled between the two as they walked through the Empire, Iron Forge occasionally stopping to stream a gout of fire from his horn onto a body while Rainbow Dash blanched.

“Hast thou ever met a griffin? I’ve only seen a few myself, and never outside of the palace dungeons. The Captain insisted we be familiar with our enemies. I remember when he showed us how to best take one apart…”

Rainbow Dash winced at the tone Iron Forge had used to described taking apart a griffin, but answered regardless. “Yeah, I know this one griffin. Her name’s Gilda.”

Iron Forge frowned almost imperceptibly. “And what wouldst thy assessment of her be?”

“Well, she can be a bit of a jerk…and she steals stuff sometimes, but she’s not too bad I guess. She was my best friend during my time in the Junior Speedsters.”

“Friends?!” Iron Forge’s voice rose several decibels. “How couldst thou be a friend to one of those monsters?!”

“Hey, cool your jets!” Rainbow Dash’s voice rose as well and to Iron Forge’s minor surprise, she didn’t back up or balk in the slightest. “Things are a lot different from your time. The worst stuff Gilda’s done is stealing some apples and maybe being a bit too hot-headed and a jerk sometimes. I’m no history expert so I don’t know how things were between ponies and griffins back in your time, but things are way different now!”

Iron Forge and Rainbow Dash stared hard at each other, until Iron Forge finally broke eye contact and turned his back to the mare with a snort. “That dost not change them from monsters to me. They conquered my hometown, killed my friends and family…” Iron Forge sighed as his anger faded. “I don’t believe I will ever forgive the griffins.”

Rainbow Dash grimaced at the resignation in the stallion’s voice.

“And now, Sombra has taken the one thing I had left…” Iron Forge’s voice cracked. “Thanks to him, I’ve lost even my mum…” Iron Forge closed his eyes tightly as hot tears worked their way out of the corner of his eyes. “She was the only family I had left…”

Ah crap… Rainbow Dash awkwardly stepped forward and pulled the stallion into a hug, patting him on the back when he returned the embrace. “Look, I know things seem like they suck right now, and I guess they do, but there’re tons of ponies who want to help you, y’know? Your squad’ll be there for you, Barrier will be there for you, my friends will all be there if you need us, and so will I.” Rainbow Dash patted his withers again, still awkwardly glancing around for ponies that may be watching the scene.

The tears were short lived as Iron Forge tried to get his emotions in check and broke away, wiping his eyes with a fetlock. “Thank you, Rainbow Dash. Thou art as kind as they are beautiful.. for a mare, from what I can tell.”

Rainbow Dash tilted her head in slight confusion after the stallion broke away and addressed her.

Iron Forge turned back to the street and started on another corpse as he spoke. “Mayhaps I should think of something to take my mind off of these things…”

Rainbow Dash nodded, even though Forge wasn’t facing her to see it. “Long as you don’t do it all the time. I know it sucks, but there’s a difference between running away from something hard and coming to terms with it…believe me, I know.”

“Worry not, I’ll come to terms with it eventually. Just…not yet. We’ve too much to do.” Iron Forge fell silent until the corpse-fire was self-sustaining. “Tell me, what is this train vehicle that Captain Barrier spoke of?”

“Uh, what’s a good way to explain this…” Rainbow Dash put a hoof to her chin and absentmindedly began to fly several inches off of the ground. “Think of it like a bunch of really big minecarts that are all chained together and pulled by this big engine-machine-thing that runs off of coal. It can hold tons of ponies and cargo and goes pretty fast. Not as fast as yours truly,” Rainbow Dash puffed out her chest slightly. “But it’s still pretty good.”

“A machine you say? I’ve always been fascinated by machinery,” Iron Forge confessed. “Tell me, what other wondrous machines hast this modern era brought forth?”

“Uh, well…oh!” Rainbow Dash touched back down on the ground and struck a hoof to the crystalline pavement. “There are some really cool speed-boats that compete in the Griffin Isles Grand Prix. The race always starts in Trottingham. Every now and then I’ll go and watch it when it’s shown in theatres. You should go and see it some time, it’s great.”

“Hm…I think I’d like that.” He began to stream fire onto another cold body. “Mayhaps I’ll visit Trottingham around the time of this race.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Rainbow Dash choked as the fumes of burning fur and flesh assaulted her nostrils and turned away to dry-heave once more.

“Wait,” Iron Forge continued, woefully unaware of his companion’s predicament. “How wouldst they show a boat race in a theatre?”

Chapter 45

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Winter Gem tiredly ran a forehoof across her forehead before stepping out of the tent and falling onto her flanks. Surprisingly, there weren’t many particularly serious injuries to speak of, save those of the ponies in the cellar. The worst of it was a few broken bones that were easy enough to splint and bandage.

“Are you okay?”

Winter Gem tensed slightly as a soft voice spoke from next to her, but managed to keep her composure as she turned to stare at the quiet yellow pegasus.

“I am fine.” Winter Gem stated plainly as she turned back to the city, staring at the crystal ponies, many of whom appeared to be in far better spirits than when she and Fluttershy had started. “No, that is a lie.” Winter Gem stated with a sigh. “I am not fine. I’m scared.”

Fluttershy just nodded, despite that Winter Gem wasn’t looking at her.

“Everything I ever knew has been ripped out from beneath me and changed drastically before being shoved back into place…and I can’t think of any of it. All I can think of is that damned argument I had with my cousin and father. Twas the last time we saw each other.”

Fluttershy hummed softly to show she was listening, but didn’t speak, instead observing the ponies as they passed.

“I called them both fools.” Winter Gem sighed. “Told them that their efforts would fail and that they would drag our family name down with them.”

“Um,” Fluttershy turned to face Winter Gem who continued to look away. “What was the argument about? Um… that is if you don’t mind telling me that is.”

The snow-white mare thought for a moment before shrugging. “My cousin and father had decided that the family should become farmers. They wanted to give up the family tradition of joining the military.”

The two sat in silence for a short moment before Winter Gem continued. “Lady Applejack…based on what she said whilst we were grappling, is a member of the Apple family, correct?”

“Um, yes?” Fluttershy turned her head to face Winter Gem in curiosity at the change in subject,

“Tell me,” Winter Gem kept her gaze away from the yellow pegasus. “What dost she do for a living? What is her family most known for in your opinion?”

“Oh, she runs Sweet Apple Acres, a wonderful farm in Ponyville. Her family’s known as some of the greatest farmers in…” Fluttershy fell silent as her mind connected the dots.

“Not only did I berate them and call them fools…” Winter Gem shifted her cloak to reveal her cutie mark, a bright-red apple, “they were right.”

“Um…” Fluttershy began as hesitantly as ever, “pardon my asking, but if you aren’t a farmer, why is your cutie mark an apple?”

“Our family owned a small apple orchard. Nothing on a noteworthy scale, just big enough to keep us fed. Most all of us had apple-related cutie marks. Braeburn and father wanted to expand the orchard, to make a living out of it. To me, they were throwing away countless generations of tradition and financial security; I loathed them for it, but now it seems they were safeguarding our family’s future. ”

“I see.” Fluttershy said softly, waiting for Winter Gem to continue.

“I suppose I’ll have to apologize to Lady Applejack when I see her again. Still, I’ve no doubt most of the Apple family will want nothing to do with me.”

“Of course they will,” Fluttershy managed to draw Winter Gem’s gaze with the statement, “The Apples hold family in the absolute highest regard. They’ll be ecstatic to meet you.”

“I sincerely doubt that. I’m not a farmer, Lady Fluttershy. Not even a little. My whole life has been the Royal Guard. To add to that, I attacked Applejack…and would have killed her if the order had been given…”

Fluttershy winced and drew back in surprise at how matter-of-factly Winter Gem had stated that.

“The last things I ever said to my family…to the family I knew, was nothing but insults and shaming.” Winter Gem’s eyes began to leak, though her tone didn’t shift in the slightest. “I feel like I betrayed my family. Family was everything to us, and I spat on that because it was something I did-” Winter Gem was cut off when Fluttershy pulled her into a hug.

“Stop thinking like that.” Fluttershy carefully stroked Winter Gem’s withers. “Everypony makes mistakes and gets into arguments with their families, but that doesn’t change anything. They’re still family and they’ll still love you.” Fluttershy pulled out of the hug and put her hoof to Winter Gem’s chin, tilting the mare’s head upward so they could meet eyes. “I know Applejack very well, and I know that once she finds out you’re an Apple that she’ll pull you into a great big hug and invite you to come home with her. Trust me.” Fluttershy maintained the stare for several more seconds until releasing Winter Gem’s chin and settling into an awkward silence for Fluttershy and a stunned silence for Winter Gem.

Finally, Winter Gem seemed to reclaim herself. “That was…surprisingly assertive. I fear I may have misjudged you, Lady Fluttershy.”

Fluttershy eeped slightly and shrunk down a bit, before explaining. “Normally I’m not, but today…I guess I’m just out of sorts. So much has happened and I just said what I thought. I’m terribly sorry if I upset you, it’s just…I’m upset because… I’m a killer now… I feel all… wrong inside”

Winter Gem frowned. “A killer? How so?”

Fluttershy responded with little more than a whisper, Winter Gem drawing closer to catch the statement. “I helped blast Sombra with the elements…I just don’t know why it all had to happen…”

“I do not know.” Winter answered honestly. “The captain seemed to think it wouldst not kill him. Though, from what little I know of him, he would have much prefered to die a sane pony than live as the monster he had become.”

“That…doesn’t really make me feel better.” Fluttershy sighed.

“Then maybe they will.” It was Winter Gem’s turn to put a hoof on Fluttershy’s chin and pull her gaze up, directing her to the ponies milling about, some of them having just been treated by the pair. “Look at them all, Lady Fluttershy. They’re all alive thanks to you and your friends. They no longer have to live in constant fear because of your part in removing Sombra from power. Thou helped make this possible, gave them a future.”

“I… Thank you… That does help me feel… well, a little better.”

“Fluttershy, look out!” Twilight’s voice shouted out.

Fluttershy’s eyes widened as she turned to the familiar voice, eyes fixating on a glowing stone as it soared towards her. Awkwardly reaching out, Fluttershy managed to snag the stone and fumble it several times in her hooves before finally securing her grip on it, just as the stone stopped glowing. “Oh my, did I break it?” Fluttershy asked nervously as Twilight approached, receiving a silent nod from Winter Gem.

“Um…” Twilight took the stone in her magic and deposited in on a nearby stand that somepony was setting up for the festival. “Well…I’ll explain why it stopped glowing later. Barrier and I need to go break the hard news to his sergeant.”

Winter Gem inhaled sharply. “Good luck, Captain.”

Chapter 46

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“Tell me something, young Sparkle.” Barrier commented as the two of them walked out of the palace, eyeing the ponies that had begun to set up stands as a festival slowly began to bloom. “What I must do to Fleet… It’ll be a great ordeal… Could you tell me something to take my mind off it as we travel?”

“Um, okay?” Twilight eyed him curiously. “Uh, well, it’ll be great for researchers now that the Empire’s back. It’s probably got tons of things that modern Equestria’s never seen. Like…” Twilight looked around before noticing a row of smooth, polished stones resting on a makeshift wooden stand. “Like this stone!” Twilight grabbed one, the stone lighting up in response. “It looks like it’s some sort of touch-activated portable light source. It’s like…” Twilight fell silent at Barrier’s muffled snicker.

“Twilight, that’s something from my era called a Maiden Stone. It lights up when it’s being held by a virgin.” Barrier grinned at the intense blush that crossed the mare’s face as she fumbled the stone and ended up sending it sailing through the air with a shout. “For what it’s worth, I’m not terribly surprised.”

Twilight wasn’t listening, instead following the Maiden Stone with wide eyes as she saw where it was headed. “Fluttershy, look out!” The lavender mare yelled, quickly trotting towards the butter-colored mare as she caught the stone.

Fluttershy held the stone up as it faded. “Oh my, did I break it?”

Barrier’s eyes widened just slightly in surprise.

“Um, well…” Twilight chuckled nervously. “I’ll explain why is stopped glowing later.” She retrieved the stone in her magic causing it to glow once more before depositing it on the pony’s stand. “Barrier and I need to go break the hard news to his sergeant.”

Winter Gem inhaled sharply. “Good luck, Captain.”

***

Barrier licked his lips in a pointless effort to moisten them, desperately wishing he’d brought something other than a flask of hard liquor. Deep breaths, Barrier…

“Barrier?” Twilight tapped the charcoal pony gently on the withers, drawing his gaze. “Are you going to be alright? I can tell them if you’d like…”

Twilight chewed on her lip pensively. Ever since they’d gotten the bare essentials worked out, Barrier had been uncharacteristically quiet, sitting by himself in one of the bedrooms and seemingly doing nothing.

“I’m fine, Twilight. No offense, but Fleetfeather and Wind Whistler deserve to hear it from me. I owe them that much and more.” Dry-swallowing, Barrier raised his hoof and gave the cellar door three sharp knocks before calling out clearly. “Majesty’s Son.”

Almost immediately, the door creaked open and a familiar blonde mane with red tips poked through the door before waving them in, quickly closing the door behind them.

“Twilight, can you explain things to Thunder Aegis and Nurse Lifeline for me? I’m going to pull Fleetfeather and Wind Whistler outside for this…”

Even as he awaited confirmation, he headed further into the cellar and motioned for the two.

“Sure,” Twilight quickly acquiesced, pulling the unicorn in question a short ways to the side as Fleetfeather stalked past her and through the door, Barrier following close behind with a ball of fluff and feathers dangling from his jaw in determination.

***

“Barrier… Please tell us what hast happened. Apparently, thy cadets returned whilst Wind Whistler and I slept. It would seem that Private Thunder Aegis didst not question why they had returned to spirit away with Princess Cadance and thy new guards.” Fleetfeather hadn’t wasted any time asking the question, the door to the wine cellar having just clicked shut.

Barrier’s eyes crossed in an effort to stare at the filly doggedly attempting to climb up his muzzle. “Very well, Fleet.” Spots erupted across the stallion’s vision as he instinctively tried to flare his horn to remove the filly and he stumbled backwards onto his flank. “Faust d-” He cut himself off when Wind Whistler slipped from his jaw. “By Celestia, this is going to get take some getting used to…” Barrier clenched his eyes shut and slowly exhaled…before a blue-furred forehoof snagged his jaw and sharply tugged him downward, eyeing the bandaged horn with her one eye.

“Courtesy of Sombra, I assume?”

“Aye…” Barrier massaged the hinge of his lower jaw gingerly. “But that’s a story for another time. You’re gonna want to sit down for this.”

“Dost this mean Sombra is vanquished and we can all go home?” Wind Whistler gave a sharp flap of her wings, generating just enough lift to allow her to scramble onto her mother’s back where she settled between her wings. “I can’t wait to see Father again!”

“That must certainly be the case.” Fleetfeather turned and nuzzled the filly. “Uncle Barrier being in one piece is clearly a sign that Sombra is most assuredly dead. We should see your father and siblings again in a week's time, at most.”

“Fleet…”

Barrier’s tone was empty in a way the mare had only heard on one occasion; when he’d returned from Gallopfrey after the failed mission with less than a fraction of the prisoners. It was a tone that indicated he had -in his opinion- failed himself and those he held dear to the utmost.

“The reason everything’s been so odd here in the Empire…why Sombra wasn’t there on your return and why the princesses and I weren’t here…” Barrier swallowed again. “Sombra caused the Empire to disappear for a millennium. The Castle of the Two Sisters and the city surrounding it…they don’t exist anymore, Fleet. They’ve been abandoned for over nine centuries.” Barrier looked away from the powder-blue mare as the expression of shock settled on her countenance. Wind Whistler only tilted her head in confusion as several key words went over her head entirely.

“...Barrier…” It was Fleet’s turn to utilize a hollow, emotionless voice her legs nearly buckled, only remaining straight for the sake of the filly on her back.

“You, me, the cadets…the ponies of the Empire and the princesses…” Barrier hesitantly faced the mare once more, despite her gaze being fixed on the ground. “We’re all that’s left, Fleet. We’re-” Barrier was cut off as his head snapped to the side, followed immediately by Fleetfeather burying her face in his chest to muffle her cries. Whether for her sake, or Wind Whistler’s, Barrier didn’t know, but regardless of which, he leaned into the mare and embraced her, awkwardly patting her on the withers.

“Uncle Barrier?”

Barrier met eyes with the filly that was still clinging to her mother’s back. “Dost… dost this mean… my father... and brothers and sisters... are all dead?” The small filly choked out between sniffles, tears start to form in her eyes.

“I’m sorry, Windy…” Barrier closed his eyes and reached a hoof further down Swift’s back, nearly buckling and crying himself when the filly took the hoof and began to let out choked sobs into it.

Twenty minutes later…

Wind Whistler had cried herself to sleep and was curled up between Fleetfeather’s wings, leaving the adults to lie down on their stomachs a short distance from each other.

“Barrier…” Fleetfeather pointedly ignored the damp chest of her friend. “How art thou still alive after one-thousand years? Thou were not in the empire when…”

Barrier gently cut the mare off. “Princess Luna fell into madness, becoming a twisted version of herself called Nightmare Moon. Princess Celestia and I tried to combat her in what’s now the old palace. In the end, Princess Celestia had to seal us away using the Elements of Harmony. One thousand years passed before the seal broke and Twilight Sparkle and her friends bested Nightmare Moon, restoring Princess Luna to us.”

“So thou returned with Princess Luna then?”

Barrier nodded his affirmation.

Silence began to settle over the pair before an awkward cough shattered it.

“Barrier…” Fleetfeather began by locking eyes with the unicorn. “Did Flash ever remarry?”

After an extremely brief internal struggle, Barrier nodded. “Yeah. About a year and a half after the Empire’s disappearance, he married Silver Wind.”

Fleetfeather nodded sadly. “Iron Forge’s mother, right?”

“Yeah.” Barrier sighed softly. “They were…as happy as they could be, given their individual circumstances.”

Fleetfeather nodded in understanding. “I suppose that’s for the best. At least the foals had somepony to call their mother. No doubt after thy disappearance, Flash turned his rage on Equestria’s enemies. None would escape his furious campaign.”

Barrier began to chew just slightly on his lower lip; the mare narrowed her eye as he did so, recognizing the reaction as one of the stallion’s very few tells.

“Fleet, about that…” Barrier looked away from her. “Captain Flash Sentry…when Princess Celestia left to grieve, he…took his anger out on the thestrals. Unfortunately, he didn’t limit himself only to the ones that sided with Nightmare Moon. He tried wiping out the entire race. I…Faust, mares and foals included. Flash…lost himself.”

Fleetfeather nodded somberly and stood up. “Tell me Barrier, where art the privates now?”

“They’re likely around the front of the palace, doing what they can help the populace. When I left, the crystal ponies were setting up stands and preparing for their festival.”

“Let us go see how the civilians are doing. Mayhaps seeing some smiling ponies will help better my mood. Help to affirm the knowledge that our sacrifice… and those we lost… was worth it in the end.”

Barrier nodded and turned back to the cellar. “Just give me a moment to tell Twilight, then we can see Cadance’s new empire.” Barrier disappeared behind the door for several moments before returning with a silent and contemplative lavender mare.

Barrier motioned with a hoof and the three of them started towards the palace.

“Barrier?” Twilight was the first to break the silence. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course. What’s on your mind, young Sparkle?” Barrier’s dialect shifted just slightly towards olden speak.

“Why did the elements leave Sombra in such a terrible state? I…I never thought the elements would kill a pony.”

“I do not know, Twilight, but I don’t think the elements killed him. The best I can think of is that he was so consumed by dark magic that when the elements purged it, his body couldn’t keep up. When the elements cleansed him, he simply couldn’t keep going. Make no mistake, you and your friends didn’t kill Sombra. If anything, you saved him from a fate far worse than death. Beyond that…who can really say?”

Twilight sighed as they approached the entrance to the palace which was absolutely swarmed with crystal ponies.

“I suppose you’re probably right. What caused Sombra to end up like that is likely one of those mysteries that has no real answer, like, ‘how did ponies come into being?’ ‘Was there really a strange guardian creature named Megan in ancient times?’ or ‘why was I banned from an ice-cream store I’d never been to before?’. The world just may never know.”

An…odd choice of comparisons… Barrier noted.

Fleetfeather tensed as a wave of magic suddenly washed over them. Glancing around for the source, Fleetfeather saw that the source was a beautiful sight: the symbol of the empire, the Crystal Heart, had been returned to its proper place.

“This is good.”: Fleetfeather’s lips curled just slightly into a smile. “Tis good to see things starting to improve.” The mare turned to Barrier and gave him a brief hug which the unicorn returned. “Thank you, Barrier.”

Barrier pulled away with a smile of his own. “Don’t thank me. I served as little more than a distraction. In anypony deserves thanks, it’s Twilight and her friends.”

Twilight blushed as she found both soldiers’ gazes. “Barrier, stop…” the mare stated bashfully, much to the stallion’s amusement.

“Twilight, you and your friends stopped Sombra. Hay, you stopped Nightmare Moon as well. I owe you my thanks, and so do many others. Do not be afraid of praise well earned.”

“Barrier, Segreant Fleetfeather, Twilight!” Cadance gave her wings several hard flaps and flew over the crowd between the trio and the heart. As she landed, the former cadets also congregated around the charcoal-coated unicorn. “How are you all doing?”

“As well as can be expected, Empress.” Fleetfeather bowed as best she could without jostling Wind Whistler.

“I’m okay, Empress. A bit sore in the horn, but otherwise fine. Now then…” he turned to Verdant Range. “We need to discuss Private Range’s disregard of my previous orders.”

Verdant Range swallowed and stepped forward, followed by Swiftsword who began before he could.

“Sir, I ordered Private Range to disregard thy orders. We had the situation well in hoof and he was better aiding thou than us, due to him primarily being a ranged combatant. The undead and narrow hallway rendered his arrows ineffectual. I believe I made the best tactical decision available to me at the time.”

Barrier gave them both a hard stare and a harder tone. “Regardless, you’re both responsible. You for ordering him to ignore my orders, and him for doing so. That said, I am immensely grateful for your assistance, Private Range…regardless of my feeling on the matter however, you disregarded my orders to remain in the hall.” Barrier paced in front of the two, aware of the dumbfounded expression that both Cadance and Twilight wore.

“Are you crazy?” Twilight began, “Your punishing them after everyth…” The lavender mare was silenced by Fleetfoot closing her mouth for her and giving her a hard stare that told her not to interfere.

“Were it up to me, you’d both be awarded medals…hell, you’ll likely still be awarded medals if I can help it, but the fact remains that you disobeyed orders, however justified it was. As punishment…” Barrier stopped to think before a moment before tapping the ground with a hoof as he reached a decision. “You’re both to chew a Ruby Reaper for thirty seconds and swallow.” Swiftsword and Verdant Range paled, but nodded without hesitation. “I intend for your punishment to be carried out upon our return to the Capital. Until then, consider yourself relieved of duty. Enjoy yourself at the festival while you can.”

“Uhm, Barrier?” Cadance raised her hoof as if she were in a classroom.

Barrier stared at her with one eyebrow raised in amusement. “Yes, Empress?”

Cadance blushed at the title. “Spike and I just got a letter from Princess Celestia. She and Princess Luna are going to be arriving on the train tomorrow. They’re bringing guards, doctors, food and medicine, in addition to a bunch of other stuff, all charitably donated by several big companies. She’s also bringing somepony else you know. Professor A.K. Yearling.”

Barrier smiled and just as quickly it was gone…everypony present noticed it regardless.

“That aside, Barrier; there’s something very important I need to address.”

“And what is that, Empress?”

“Gonna take forever to get used to that…” Cadance muttered to herself before clearing her throat and explaining. “When the Empire was lost, it was allied with Equestria and thus at war with the Griffin Kingdom. The war between the Crystal Empire and the Griffin Kingdom was never officially ended, for obvious reasons. Queen Leena Imperator of the Griffin Kingdom will be coming with Princess Celestia and Princess Luna on the train so we can sign a peace treaty. They’ll all be here fairly early tomorrow morning.”

All of the soldiers present save Barrier tensed as Cadance’s speech tapered off.

“…very well, Empress.”

“One more thing. Princess Celestia has been keeping the Queen informed of the situation since her forces came to help defend Equestria’s northern border, just in case Sombra escaped. Queen Leena wishes to shake the hooves of everypony who helped to save the Empire…” she glanced at the privates. “Which includes all of you.”

That drew silence from the stallion, his lips set in a narrow frown.

“That said, I’m not going to force any of you to do that. I’m asking for volunteers.”

“I’m sure all of my friends would love to meet her.” Twilight offered.

“Excellent. Right,” Cadance addressed the soldiers again, this time with a much more authoritative tone. “If you wish shake hooves with her, I ask you to take a step forward. If you don’t, please take a step back.”

The ponies separated without hesitation; Verdant Range, Swiftsword, and Magic Barrier stepped forward while Forge, Gem, Hat Trick and Fleetfeather took a step back.

Three soldiers were going to meet the queen.

Chapter 47

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Barrier groaned as his eyes fluttered open, directly into the morning sunlight. “Dammit Celestia....” Barrier flailed aimlessly for several seconds. “Turn it off…”

“Well, I’m not waking him up! He’d make me run laps around the entire city!” A hushed tone managed to slip past the thick crystalline door.

How do they even put a hinge on crystal…? Barrier closed his eyes and focused his hearing.

“Better you than me!” The voice belonged to Hat Trick. “He likes you more than the rest of us.”

“You know that isn’t the case…” Verdant Range replied firmly. “You know the Captain doesn’t play favorites.”

“No, I don’t.” Barrier finally called out, silencing the ponies as he sat up, almost lighting his horn on reflex. Just managing to stop himself, the charcoal pony sighed and flopped back onto the bed with a sigh. “Door’s open. Get in here.”

“A good morning to thee, sir.” Four ponies chorused as they stepped through the door in an almost-practiced fashion in full armor and carrying their respective weapons.

“What’s happening this early that requires all…” Barrier’s gaze narrowed. “where’s Swiftsword?”

“We thought it best to let her sleep in.” Verdant answered with a raised hoof. “She went to sleep at seventeen-hundred hours yesterday and hast been sleeping since.”

Winter Gem raised a hoof and took over for the green pony. “She had not slept for four days prior to the nap thou ordered. We thought it best she be allowed to sleep in.”

“Very well.” Barrier nodded his agreement but maintained the narrow gaze, somehow managing to catch all four of them in it. “So, what purpose are you all have to be up and bothering me this early?”

“Tis dawn, sir. Thou trained us to be awake and fully in armor with our weapons.”

“I suppose I did.” Faust above, how will I break them of what I programmed them to do? “Very well.” The unicorn hefted himself upright. “But if I recall, I stated yesterday to consider yourself on leave.”

“Yes sir, we’re here at the behest of Lady Pinkie Pie.” Hat Trick picked up, hoof raised as the others had done.

“The Pink Devil.” Barrier threw his hindlegs over the side of the bed. “Is everypony else awake then?”

“Yes, sir.” Verdant’s hoof rose as he spoke, “Lady Sparkle seemed quite irritable when Lady Pie awoke her, but said she would feel better after having some ‘kawphy’, whatever that is.”

Iron Forge’s hoof went up. “Lady Pinkie Pie said she hast prepared a large amount of what she calls ‘pan-cakes’ and ‘dough-nuts’.”

Barrier’s eyes widened slightly and he smiled. “Very well. Where are Cobalt, Spearmint, and Moonstone?”

“Patrolling the grounds, sir.” Verdant Range stated. “Captain Armor’s orders, I believe.”

“Well, they are his soldiers at the end of the day. Come on, let’s go to the kitchen before the donuts disappear. You’ll quite enjoy them, I believe.”

The cadets fell into a neat line behind the charcoal pony, going two-by-two, Verdant Range striking up conversation. “Lady Twilight Sparkle hast also informed us that thou misinformed us on Lady Pie’s name during our introduction, for apparently comedic purposes.”

“I don’t have a sense of humor, Range.” Barrier stated flatly and without turning around.

“So sayeth the pony who tried to convince his soldiers that a princess had a name meaning Heart-shaped buttocks.” Iron Forge said with a quick roll of his eyes.

“Everypony has a sense of humor…” Hat Trick argued softly. “Even you, Captain.”

“The Captain is not a normal pony.” Winter Gem half-smiled. “What is the squad’s pool up to?”

“One-hundred and thirty bits.” Verdant answered automatically.

“Wait,” Barrier stopped and turned around to face them. “You have a pool on me? What the hay for?”

It was Winter Gem that offered. “What thou art made of, outworking ponies half your age and the sort, to say nothing of you being so active before taking us under your training.”

Barrier snorted and turned once again, beginning towards the dining room. “And what do ponies think I’m made of?”

Winter Gem answered again. “The most common guess is that the princesses assembled you out of the spare parts of the most accomplished ponies to fall in the war.”

Barrier actually snorted in amusement.

Iron Forge’s expression shifted as something dawned on him. “It would explain the Captain’s willingness to work with the Ghoul.”

Barrier snorted again. “I’m not made out of spare pony-parts, you all know that. Faust, you’ve met my mother.”

“Yes, we all remember how well that went…” Verdant grumbled, remembering the fear at potentially being hung.

“You learned a valuable lesson.” Barrier pushed his shoulder into the large doors to the dining room, inwardly glad that he’d been to the palace before on more than one occasion.

“That thou hast no sense of humor.” The four answered in unison with a roll of their eyes that the unicorn couldn’t see.

“That I have no sense of humor.” Barrier repeated as he shoved into the dining room.

A soft squeal and the sight of his Captain side-stepping was the only warning Verdant Range had as a fuzzy blue blur latched on his face, drowning his vision in darkness.

“Oh Faust!” Verdant stumbled back in panic at the unexpected darkness and weight. “Get it off of me!”

Barrier simply continued into the dining room, nodding to each of the Element Bearers and Cadance before his eyes fell on Swiftsword. I should’ve known she wouldn’t sleep in even if the cadets tried to let her. The unicorn fell into the chair next to Fleetfeather. “I wish I had half of that foal’s energy.” Barrier set about serving himself with his hooves as the rest of the element bearers continued to eat, half asleep with the exceptions of Applejack and Pinkie Pie.

“Thou and I both. Though I guess tis especially bad for thou.” Fleetfeather elbowed him. “Thou must be nearing retirement at this point. What is thy age, thirty-six?”

“Thirty seven.” Barrier shrugged. “And technically, I’m already retired. Even if I hadn’t, three years isn’t much to serve.”

“Wait,” Twilight interjected, having overheard their conversation from where she’d been staring into her coffee. “Ponies retired at forty in your time?”

“Not exactly.” Barrier took a moment of silence to scarf down a plain, unglazed donut. “For a soldier, forty tended to be when we were taken out of the field. Those of us with rank would serve five to ten more years behind a desk whereas the others would retire to live their last few years in relative peace.”

Fleetfeather took a sip of her crystalberry juice.“Do ponies no longer retire at forty in this modern era?”

“Uh, no.” Twilight chuckled slightly. “Most ponies don’t retire until sixty to sixty-five years old.”

Fleetfeather and the cadets all looked at the lavender mare in surprise.

“Ponies were lucky if they lived that long in our time.” Barrier offered as he choked down a plain pancake.

“Well,” Cadance started as their conversation lulled. “The princesses, Queen Leena, and Professor Yearling should be here around ten o’clock. Barrier, would you, Swiftsword, and Verdant Range, accompany the elements bearers, Shining Armor, and myself, to the edge of the Empire to greet them?”

“Of course. We already volunteered to meet with Queen Leena, so we might as well meet her at the border.” Barrier nodded. “Besides, I look forward to seeing Daring again.”

“Daring?” Cadance tilted her head curiously.

Shit. Daring will skin me alive if I blow her cover before she even arrives.


Iron Forge saved Barrier with an irritated snort. “I don’t know why the three of you are so willing to shake hooves with the queen of the griffins.”

Swiftsword swallowed the last piece of her donut before responding. “I believe myself to be the last of my noble clan. If this truly is the case, then the duty to bring the Falchions into the modern era falls upon me. If these times say peace with the griffins is what we have, then I shall act accordingly. Besides that, a viscountess should put on a good show for visiting royalty, regardless of her personal thoughts or opinions.”

“And why has thou volunteered, Verdant?” Hat Trick nudged the green stallion.

“From what Lady Applejack told me,” Verdant fell silent when Applejack tapped the table, drawing his attention.

The mare in question stopped eating for a moment. “Just Applejack, sugarcube.”

“Apologies. From what Applejack has told me, Equestria and the griffins have been at peace for centuries now. In addition to that, from the Empress had said earlier, we know that Queen Leena chose to aid in reinforcing the northern Equestria border, in order to assist against Sombra had we failed. Centuries of peace, followed by clear willingness to provide aid leads me to believe her actions are for a true show of kindness and a genuine desire for peace.”

Nopony reacted when Iron Forge sighed and rolled his eyes in annoyance.

Cadance nodded at those who had agreed before addressing those that hadn’t. “May I ask why some of you turned down the honor of shaking hooves with the queen of the griffins?”

“With all due respect your majesty…” Iron Forge was the first to answer, his tone low and tired. “My homeland was ravaged by the griffins of my era and I only recently learned of my mother’s death. Honestly, I do not believe I could act peaceably around those…” Forge bit his tongue before continuing. “Beasts. I believe it would be better if I simply kept away from them as much as possible.”

Cadance nodded sadly, understanding the stallion’s motivations.

Winter Gem was the next to address the pink alicorn. “I may not despise the griffins with the same intensity as my brother-in-arms, but I am very far from fond of them. This, coupled with recent stresses has lead me to believe I would be…less than cordial to the Queen. I believe I will attempt to stay away from them at the festival.”

Cadance nodded and turned to Hat Trick who responded first by draping a wing over Winter Gem.

“Where she goes, I go.” The answer was simple and drew a smile from Cadance at the implication.

“Very well, I understand and respect your decisions.” Cadance turned to Fleetfeather and flashed her the same soft smile.

Fleetfeather sighed and met eyes with the larger pony, actually causing her to wince at the pain and uncharacteristic age reflected within.

“There are two primary reasons I will avoid them. First and foremost, I don’t feel my child would be safe within one-hundred hooves of one. In addition to that, I will not be spending any unnecessary time away from her.” Fleetfeather broke their stare to nuzzle the filly. “She’s all I have left.”

Cadance took a slow breath and nodded, regretful at having indirectly brought the topic to the forefront.

After a brief silence, Cadance clopped her hooves together. “Well then, we should probably start getting ready. I’ll meet you all at the border.”

Barrier sighed and swallowed another donut without actually chewing before sitting up, both Swiftsword and Verdant following suit.

“Ah, Mr. Range,” Rarity stood up and approached the stallion in question. “If I may borrow you for a moment…?”

***

Barrier tapped his hoof impatiently against the crystal pavement as he gazed at his companions as they stared into the snowy tundra just beyond the Empire’s barrier. The element bearers were all in conversation with one another while Verdant Range and Swiftsword were waiting silently, the former now donning a greenish-yellow vest that served well to hide the bulk of his bandages and eventual scarring, made by Rarity at Swiftsword’s request.

“Sir?” Verdant Range turned to face the grey unicorn. “Shouldst we wait here for their arrival, or shouldst we travel towards this train thou mentioned before?”

“We’ll wait here.” Barrier turned his gaze to the shield. “No reason for us to conduct introductions in the snow.”

“They should be here any moment.” Shining Armor offered.

Almost as if in response, a loud train whistle just reached them, Swiftsword and Verdant Range both tensing at the shrill noise.

“Speak and ye shall receive.” Barrier commented as the locomotive was finally coming into view. “That,” Barrier turned to face his two ponies. “Is a train. They are…safe enough, I suppose.”

Verdant Range shook his head. “I…hope I don’t have to get used to them. They do not strike me as safe. It fills me with a sense of foreboding.”

Barrier squinted at the slight outline of the train platform before a familiar tapping drew his attention to Swiftsword.

“Sir, dost thou wish to use my spyglass?” Swiftsword offered the instrument, though quickly retracted her hoof when Barrier shook his head.

“Nah, I can wait. They should be-” Barrier was drowned out by the loud crackle of teleportation before four griffins and three ponies appeared in a flash of golden light.

The first thing the group heard was a hacking cough, followed by a soft feminine voice. “Ugh, a little warning next time, Princess?”

“I second that…” A scratchier female voice agreed. “I really don’t wanna taste my breakfast again.”

“Oh Faust…” Verdant groaned. “It’s almost as bad as a flashbang…”

“Princess…” Barrier wasn’t in quite as much pain as the others, but his eyes were held tightly shut regardless. “Mayhaps you should try to tone down the energy in your teleportation. I can taste burnt magic…”

“Apologies,” Celestia smiled sheepishly. “I didn’t realize I was so out of practice. Rest assured, I plan to rectify this.”

“We had offered to cast the spell for thee,” Luna sighed. “But thou insisted on testing thy ability.”

Swiftsword and Verdant had bowed almost immediately on their recovery, though they found their gazes following tan hooves as they made a bee-line for Magic Barrier.

“I leave you alone for a month and you hurt you horn.” The disguised explorer snagged Barrier’s ear in a hoof and tugged him down to her level to examine the bandaged horn.

“Faust above,” Barrier squinted in pain. “What is it with ponies and yanking my head around lately?” Barrier’s eyes fell down to the mare’s chest as he noticed the bandages running from her barrel to her throat. “And like you’re one to talk.” Barrier snaked a hoof under the hem of her cloak and lifted it up slightly, eyes fixating on her heavily-casted wing.

“Barrier!” Rarity chastised, swatting his hoof away from the cloak. “A stallion does not simply look under a mare’s cloak!”

Daring answered before he could. “What? Why not? We’re pretty much always naked.”

“That’s not the point…” Rarity tried to weakly argue before a snicker from Rainbow Dash drew her attention.

“Looks like we’ll have to trade stories later.” Daring smiled at the unicorn before surprising him with a hug. “Glad you’re okay. Kinda expected to get here and find you a cripple.”

Barrier returned the hug, drawing a slight smile from Twilight, a devilish grin from Rarity, and silence from the other element bearers.

Verdant and Swiftsword both just stared in surprised awe at the exchange between the two. They’d seen a handful of interactions between Barrier and Ember, but they’d never been quite so tender with the other in their public, usually trading barbs, even when one was injured.

“Eh-hem.” One of the griffins cleared his throat. “Announcing her royal majesty, Queen Leena Imperator of Das Greifen Königreich.”

Several sets of eyebrows were raised.

“Thank you for the introduction, Lieutenant Panzeron. I shall handle things from here. As to the likely question of what Das Greifen Königreich means, it means ‘The Griffin Kingdom’ in my native tongue.” The well-groomed golden griffin in the center stated, her dark-orange eyes scanning the assembled group.

The gathered crowd’s gaze shifted to the tall griffoness, roughly as tall as Princess Luna, minus her horn.

“My ancestors were many things. Brave, bold, powerful, intimidating, cunning…” Leena paused. “Creative was not one of them.” Leena motioned a leg towards her guards. “These are my most trusted griffins, Brigadier Kristopher Kramurx, Lieutenant Ian Panzerson, and Lieutenant Louis Lavados. My advisor, Conrad Lohgock, was unable to make it, unfortunately.”

“It’s an honor, your majesty.” Barrier, Swiftsword, and Verdant Range had spoken and bowed almost as one.

“Rise,” Leena motioned with a claw. “The honor is entirely mine, Magic Barrier. Forgive me if I seem rude, but I was under the impression there were more soldiers than this. I hope nothing unfortunate befell them.”

“I apologize, your highness.” Cadance strode forward. “Equestria’s war with the Griffin Kingdom was far more recent for them than us. I allowed them to volunteer to meet you.”

“One of my soldiers, Iron Forge, was from Gallopfrey. He was…less than thrilled to hear of your visit.”

“Ah,” Leena nodded in understanding. “I understand. It was never my aim to make anyone uncomfortable. In any case,” Queen Leena held a leg out. “It is my pleasure to meet the heroes of the Crystal Empire.”

“The honor is ours,” Barrier, Verdant Range, and Swiftsword each shook the hen’s proffered claw before she went down the line of gathered ponies, eventually ending with Cadance.

As Cadance released the claw, she smiled warmly at her fellow ruler. “It’s an honor to have you here, Queen Leena.”

Barrier’s ear twitched at a clicking sound and the stallion turned around to see Daring holding a camera, one of the contraptions he was still mostly unfamiliar with. “Really, Daring? Pictures?”

“What?” Daring shrugged. “It’s a historic moment. When am I gonna get to see something like this,” she motioned to everypony and the griffins. “Again?”

“Perhaps we should head to the Crystal Palace?” Cadance offered to everyone present.

“Of course, but first,” Leena motioned to her griffin escorts. Queen Leena stood back and cleared her throat, ready to say something dramatic. “It is long past time we end this war on all fronts. Your Imperial Majesty, as Queen of The Griffin Kingdom, I come seeking peace between our nations. Long ago, my ancestor, King Alarick, declared war upon Equestria. As Equestria's ally, Empress Galaxy declared war upon my kingdom. While The Griffin Kingdom's war with Equestria ended so very long ago, our two nations were unable to declare peace. As I extend my talons in friendship,” The Queen held a leg out to Cadance once more, “I ask for peace between our kingdoms. Please, let us end this war."

Without missing a beat, Cadance took the extended talon once more. “I, Empress Mi Amore Cadenza, humbly accept your offer of peace and friendship, Queen Leena Imperator. Welcome to the Crystal Empire. Please, step forward and be the first griffin to set paw upon its soil in centuries.”

A.K. Yearling’s camera was clicking like mad as the two exchanged their speeches.

Very impressive improvisation on Cadance’s part… Barrier rested his head atop Daring’s, slightly nuzzling her. “I’m glad you’re well, Daring.” He watched as everyone began to head further into the Empire. “We should go, lest we be left behind.”

Almost as if reading Barrier’s mind, Celestia raised her voice. “Princess Luna and I will be staying behind to accompany the doctors and guards into the Empire once they catch up to us.” Everyone nodded and hummed their affirmation.

“So are we.” Daring stated as she hooked a hoof around Barrier’s neck. “Barrier’s getting his horn checked by a doctor that’s not one-thousand years out of practice.”

“Well then,” Cadance smiled at her aunts. “I suppose we’ll see you soon.”

“While I’m thinking about it, Cadance; there’s uh…something I need to ask you after you’ve actually signed the treaty.” Shining Armor bumped into the Empress affectionately. “Nothing urgent, but it is important.”

“Of course,” Cadance returned the bump. “As soon as we finish.”

Barrier addressed both Verdant and Swiftsword’s questioning gaze. “I’ll be back soon. I hopefully shouldn’t be too long. Keep everyone safe.”

“Aye sir!” Both of them saluted sharply before doing an about-face and following the group that had decided not to wait for them.

Barrier smiled faintly as Swiftsword shoulder-checked Verdant and hissed softly. “Verdant, stop staring at the queen’s rump!”

“I’m not!” Verdant hissed back, not nearly as quiet as he seemed to think. “I’m looking at Fizzy Tower, my view is merely obstructed by her Majesty’s hindquarters.”

“Right, with that out of the way,” Daring tugged Barrier forward by a hoof. “Let’s go meet the medics and get you properly patched up. I’ll catch you up on me beating the stuffing out of Ahuizotl with the help of a cat spirit.”

“Wait, what?” Barrier allowed her to drag him along.

“Short version, I put some medals in a book, a song and a light show started, and a little cat in blue samurai armor popped out and helped me kick Ahuizotl’s face in. It’s just a shame I was the only one who could see him…”

“...mayhaps the doctors should look at your head while we’re there.”

The pegasus flared her good wing and checked the unicorn in the back of the head.

Chapter 48

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The disguised Daring Do winced as Barrier’s horn was inspected, seeing a slight glow within, signalling just how little remained between the core of his horn and the outside world. “So,” She began in an effort to take her mind off of the sight, “why was that one soldier wearing that vest? Didn’t really look like armor.”

“It was to cover the scar he received from Sombra.” Barrier winced as a cream of some sort was applied to his horn, sealing the crack. “It’s a gruesome reminder of his fight that I imagine he doesn’t care for. No doubt he’ll receive a Lavender Heart for his efforts.”

The doctor began to wrap a pristine white bandage around the length of Barrier’s horn.

“I can’t blame him. At least my wound will heal. Verdant will be lucky if he ever grows fur on his withers again. I suppose it is a small price to pay though, all things considered.” Barrier’s head was tugged to the side as the bandage was tied off. “Son of a bitch, that smarts!” Barrier swore as his bandaged horn was further coated in the same material as the crack had been.

“Oh, quit your whining.” The earth pony doctor stated sharply as the material began to harden under his hoof, encasing Barrier’s horn in a thick coat of plaster. “Now, drink this and don’t use your magic for the next month and a half and you should be fine.”

Barrier looked at the dark-brown bottle. The bottle was colored a dark shade of brown that allowed him to see the liquid within but not actually make any details beyond the syrupy consistency. Bottoms up… Barrier threw the bottle back and swallowed several mouthfuls before gagging. “Faust’s sweet teats, what is this foul substance?” The unicorn was scraping at his tongue with a hoof in a desperate attempt to remove the aftertaste.

“It’s skelegrow.” Doctor Bones stated plainly as he began to walk forward once more, Barrier following close behind. “And you need to finish that bottle. The crack in your horn was deep and you’ll need it.”

“This isn’t fair.” Barrier grimaced but tilted the bottle up once more, draining the last swallow and gagging again. “At least give it a bloody flavor or something.”

“It’s routine.” The doctor stated plainly.

“Thanks, Bones. Now, c’mon Barrier.” Daring nudged the stallion’s flank forward. “I want to know what happened and see the treaty signing.”

“Yes, I’d like to treat the civilians some time today.” Bones picked up his pace.

“Why not have the princess teleport you?”

Bones snorted air. “Not a chance in Tartarus. I’ve never trusted teleporting and never will. I’ll just hoof it, I think.”

“Fair enough. Princess Luna, is there any chance I could convince you to teleport Daring and I?”

The midnight-blue alicorn glanced at Celestia who nodded with a soft smile.

“Very well. All who art comfortable with teleportation, gather ‘round!” Luna waited several long moments until a multitude of nurses and doctors gathered around the princess, a cart of mixed supplies and the earth-pony tethered to it joining the mix. “Right, allow Us to show thee how a teleportation is meant to be done.”

Celestia subtly stuck her tongue out; Luna gave a confused shrug before grinning and with an extravagant flourish of her head, disappearing in a flash light and taking over two-dozen ponies with her.

“Okay, that was much smoother than Princess Celestia’s.” Daring Do stated as they reappeared almost directly in front of the Crystal Palace, much to the surprise of the crystal ponies that had gathered to observe the newly returned Crystal Heart.

“An envious display, Princess.” Barrier tilted his head at the lunar diarch. Several of the ponies murmured in agreeance that the experience was far more gentle in comparison to Celestia’s.

“Ah, you’re all back!” Cadance trotted out of the Crystal Palace with Queen Leena in tow. “Say Barrier, would you mind taking care of Queen Leena and her guards?” As if in response to Cadance’s question, three griffins quickly filtered out of the palace, seemingly out of breath.

“Uh…” Barrier glanced at Luna in silent askance and received a shrug. “Sure?”

“Thank you so much. Auntie Luna and I have something to take care of.” Even as Cadance was speaking, she was tugging Luna along into the palace, the mare seemingly too swept up in the moment to protest.

“Uh…” Barrier glanced at the queen and her guards.

“Queen Leena.” Daring smiled at the Queen and bowed slightly.

“It is good to finally have a peaceful moment with you, Daring Do.” Leena gave a sharp smile of her own.

“Wait, what?” Daring frowned and raised her glasses off of the bridge of her muzzle with a frown. “How did you recognize me?”

“As if I wouldn’t recognize the voice and scent of the mare who slept with my younger brother. I’ve actually been trying to find you for a few months now.” The queen fished a piece of paper from beneath her wing. “You didn’t exactly leave your mailing address, much to Prince Morton’s consternation.”

“Sorry to break his heart,” Daring draped her good wing over Barrier, surprising him with the appendages strength as she dragged him closer. “But I’m taken.”

“Apparently.” Barrier smiled wryly, realizing that thus far he’d had no apparent say in the situation. Well, he had been the one to suggest a relationship, so he supposed he had no leave to complain, not that he would want to.

“Break his heart?” Leena actually smiled a bit. “Hardly. I believe he simply hoped to lay with you again. My brother’s…looseness with females sickens me. No offense to you, but royalty should not be willing to mate with just anyone around like a teenaged rabbit. We have a dedicated harem of our kingdom’s finest for us to have as our mates.”

Barrier pursed his lips in just the slightest bit of annoyance. For some reason, the statement irked him.

“So, what do we do now?” Daring piped up before grabbing and turning over the piece of paper the queen extended to her. “SEVEN-HUNDRED AND FIFTY BITS?!”

“You and my brother damaged a very expensive rug and ruined an even more expensive couch. That’s half the cost of both, the rest being my brother’s responsibility.”

Daring groaned and removed her wing from Barrier in favor of sticking her muzzle into her saddlebag. “I’ll write a Faust-damned check for it.”

“Well,” Queen Leena turned to the unicorn. “Now that I’ve concluded my business with Ms. Do, may I ask you some questions about history, Captain? I’ve been interested in history ever since I was a young cub.”

“What would you like to know about first, your majesty?”

“Hmm…” Leena clicked a talon against the ground. “How about for a laugh, you help me confirm that Empress Cadance has a strange imagination and an even stranger sense of humor?”

“I can try?” The response came out as more of a question. “I don’t quite understand what Empress Cadance has to do with history though.”

“Well, Empress Cadance spun me a yarn that she apparently heard from Twilight Sparkle. She told me this absurd story about Princess Luna, you, and the green earth pony guard.”

“She told you about the time Verdant Range was shrunk and I was turned into a mare?” Barrier groaned and put a hoof to his face. “I’d honestly hoped it wouldn’t become common knowledge.”

“That actually happened?” Queen Leena and all of her guards stared in surprise.

“Unfortunately, yes. We were exposed to poison joke and those were the effects on Verdant and I. Princess Luna was delivering the cure and accidentally swallowed Verdant Range. She also apparently has no gag reflex.”

“Happened to Barrier twice now,” Daring elbowed him with a grin as she held a slip of paper to Leena. “He’s a helluva mare.” Daring grinned when the stallion groaned in response.

“I give up.” Leena sighed and threw her arms up in exasperation. “I’ll never understand all of the strange things you ponies get up to.”

“I don’t even understand half of the stuff ponies get up to these days.” Barrier responded. “That aside, is there anything else you would like to know regarding history your majesty?”

“Hmm...You were from the era of Grimhilde LeGrande, correct?”

“I was.” Barrier answered, his expression souring slightly at the thought.

“Did you ever do battle with her?” Leena either didn’t notice or care about Barrier’s subtle reluctance.

“No. At least, I don’t consider it a battle. A pony betrayed our mission and led to Grimhilde capturing my team and I unawares. Less of a battle and more of a beating for me.”

“Were you able to land a good blow on her?”

“Beyond spitting on her face, no. From the outset of the fight, I’d been violently fitted with a magic-inhibitor. The sudden loss of such a connection is…disorienting, to say the least. Honestly I’m surprised I was even conscious long enough to be beaten into unconsciousness.”

“A shame,” Leena sighed. “I had hoped someone would be able to tarnish her old title of ‘Grimhilde the untouchable’.”

“So, how about a tour or something?” Daring interjected as she once again draped her wing over the unicorn.

“Not at the moment, though I appreciate the offer. Would you two like to have drink and lunch with me? I’d rather like to try a glass of crystal-berry juice.”

Barrier nodded and swept a hoof towards the palace, waiting until the Queen had started to move to follow her and respond. “That sounds like an excellent idea. It has been far too long since I had any crystal-berry wine myself.”

“Save the boozing for later.” The disguised pegasus elbowed him. “Last thing I need is to be carrying your drunken flank around while the treaty is being signed.”

Barrier snorted. “The day I get drunk off a wine is the day the doors of Tartarus fall.”

Leena smiled at the interaction between the pair. “So, might I ask how long have you two been a couple?”

“About two hours?” Barrier offered, earning him a light jab from Daring’s wing.

“Not long. We discussed it before my departure to Neighpon, though we did get pretty close before.”

“It will be interesting to see how our relationship progresses. Until Daring, I’d had only one and it wasn’t exactly normal.”

“He was sleeping with one of his teammates and underlings.” The statement was accompanied by the soft laugh of Princess Celestia as she rounded the corner nearest them.

Barrier coughed as the group turned around.

“It was hardly a secret, Barrier.” Celestia smiled before nodding respectfully to Leena. “Empress Cadance has readied the treaty in accordance to what you and she agreed on. It’s ready to be signed, Queen Leena.”

“Drat.” Leena snapped her talon’s. “I was hoping we’d have to opportunity to sample a bit of the Crystal Empire’s cuisine. I’ve no doubt it’s starkly different from what we’re accustomed to.”

“I’ve only ever been here on business, but I did once eat at a small place on the eastern border. They had some impressive fish that I’d love to try again. Mayhaps after the treaty-signing, we could go and see if it still stands?”

Leena and her guards looked at the pony in mild surprise, but the Queen nodded. “That sounds lovely. I’m surprised they carry fish this far north.”

“Ice-fishing.” Barrier shrugged. “Mostly bluegill and perch from what I recall. Some select ponies went through a survival-training of sorts that consisted of a trip from the Everfree Forest to the Frozen North with no supplies. By necessity, they all had to learn to catch and prepare fish amongst other small game.”

“I’ve also talked to the Empress into having a ruby reaper eating contest. You’ll have the chance to eat a pepper that hasn’t been eaten since the Empire’s disappearance.”

Barrier winced at his first memory of the pepper. You have my sympathies, Queen Leena… I’d never thought I’d think that about a griffin.

“I do love peppers and other spicy foods.” Leena licked her beak in anticipation. “Very well, let’s go make history.”

Chapter 49

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Barrier kept pace with Daring Do as the two approached the crystal table that had been set up just outside the palace, in front of the Crystal Heart.

“That’s a lot of peppers. Zacherle almighty, my nose is already stinging.” Daring stared in awe at the dozens of plates stacked high with the crystalline red peppers.

“Aye, and a great deal of them will be eaten. You think your nostrils burn now, wait until you feel your mouth and throat doing the same.”

Daring snorted in amusement. “Pass. I’m not into spicy foods.”

“Citizens of the Crystal Empire!”

Silence slowly descended on the crowd of shimmering bodies as Cadance’s magically enhanced voice rang out over the masses.

“We ask that you once more lend us your ears!” Cadance waited several seconds to continue. “Long ago, before Sombra’s brutal reign, this great empire joined forces with Equestria to protect each other from those were our enemies at the time. I speak of course of the griffins.” Cadance paused again.

Dramatic silence… Barrier thought idly to himself as he carefully eyed some of the crystal ponies, gauging the responses which ranged from distaste to outright hate at the mention of the griffins.

“Since the time of the Empire’s disappearance, the violent war between Equestria and the Griffin Kingdom has long ended and the two become close allies and friends.” Cadance motioned with her hoof and was soon joined on the balcony by Queen Leena.

“We gather here today to officially end the hostilities between the Crystal Empire and the Griffin Kingdom. To that end, I would like to allow the leader of those who wish to be our friends, Queen Leena Imperator of the Griffin Kingdom, to speak to you all.”

A good speech, but wounds such as this heal slowly… Barrier began to stomp a hoof on the ground in applause, the effect slowly snowballing slightly and drawing a half-hearted round of applause from the assembled.

“Thank you, Empress Mi Amore Cadenza, for this great honor.” Leena’s voice was enhanced in a manner similar to Cadance’s, thanks to Celestia. “Citizens of the Crystal Empire, I know that you’ve known my people as your enemies for so very long. No doubt most of you associate griffins with the rule of my ancestor, King Alarick, and the brutal campaign of the now dishonoured Brigadier Grimhilde LeGrande.”

The mention of the name sent a ripple through the ponies who began to murmur amongst themselves.

“We wish to be allies and friends with you.” Leena continued, the crowd falling silence once more to listen. “To provide whatever relief and assistance we can to aid your homeland heal the scars left behind and to help lead us all to a brighter, more peaceful, future.”

Barrier raised a hoof to applaud once more, only for somepony else to beat him to it. Smiling, he joined in, bouncing a hoof hard off of the ground.

“I have extended my talon in friendship to your empress and your Empire, and she has accepted. I hope that one day there will be friendship between all ponies and griffins.”

Leena waited until the applause had died down to continue. “I thank you all for listening to me. Now, Empress Cadenza?” Leena stepped aside as a table was carried out onto the balcony in Celestia’s magic, a piece of paper held tight to its surface. “May we sign the treaty?”

Cadance beamed and stood opposite of Leena. In silence, the two signed their names before Cadance held the documents up in the air. “With this treaty, we now enter a new era of peace between our nations!”

The applause began once again; Barrier smiled.

***

Not even twenty minutes had passed since the signing and ponies had went back to celebrating, a hoofful of completing the grand table, loading it down with even more peppers and buckets of milk in preparation for the competition.

“Are you certain I can’t convince you to compete?” Barrier teased the tan pegasus.

“Nope.” the disguised mare shook her head vehemently. “Spicy foods and I don’t mix. Like, at all.”

“Fair enough I suppose. Though now that I think about it…” Barrier inwardly half-smiled to himself before spotting two ponies in the crowd and opening his mouth wide. “Private Swiftsword, Private Range!”

“Sir!” Both of the ponies in question fell into the practiced salutes after they dashed in front of the unicorn.

“I want both of you to enter this competition.” They swallowed, but nodded. “We may as well kill two birds with one stone by getting your punishment out of the way here instead of in Canterlot. And though I suppose it doesn’t mean much since I’m in the process of punishing you, but thank you for the assist. Now, go sign up before it starts.” Barrier shooed both of them away before they could really react to him thanking them.

“You sounded kinda awkward when you were thanking them.” Daring noted.

“It was harder than it looked.” Barrier leaned against the smaller mare. “In truth, I’m immensely grateful to them.”

Daring nodded. “But you can’t let them know that.”

“No. Well, not yet at least. After everything that’s happened...honestly, it’s hard just to keep from smiling around them.” Barrier sighed and pulled the familiar steel flask out, taking a long drag from it. “I never realized how much they meant to me until they were gone, and now that they’ve returned all I can see is how I conditioned them and taught them. They weren’t too far from children when we met…and I took that from them. I tore them down and rebuilt them in a way that I saw as more useful.”

“You make it sound pretty bad, but your world and theirs didn’t need kids.” Daring tugged the flask from Barrier and lifted it to her own lips emptying what remained in the eighteen-ounce container in a single impressive swallow.

“In hindsight, it is bad. Necessity doesn’t excuse cruelty.” Barrier stowed the flask once more. “Until the Empire disappeared, I had every intention of sending a bunch of kids to fight a war.”

“Well, they were old enough to join the army.” Daring offered. “So it couldn’t have been that bad.”

“Swiftsword is the oldest amongst them at nineteen.” Barrier watched as some of the contestants began to take their seats at the table. “They were adults on paper only. You could actually be sent to combat at the age of seventeen, depending when you joined. Some went even younger by falsifying their age.”

"Wait a bucking second, are you saying my friends and I got our flanks kicked by ponies who aren't even old enough to buy some hard cider?” Moonstone groaned from her seat a restaurant table alongside her squadmates, a short distance from Barrier and Daring. “Man, I feel so lame after that."

Barrier just shrugged. “It happens. Don’t forget, I had far longer to train them than I did you.”

“We could have won if they hadn’t ambushed us.” Moonstone tried to argue.

“Just knock it off, Moonstone.” Spearmint interjected. “We were beaten, plain and simple. They had better training and a better lay of the land.”

“You’re only saying that because you’ve got the hots for Swiftsword.” Moonstone stuck her tongue out.

“They were trained to kill for years. I’m surprised we did as well as we did.” Cobalt Lancer tried to mediate between the two, ignoring Spearmint’s blush.

Barrier snorted. "You would have done better if somepony didn't charge in like an imbecile."

Cobalt Lancer glared at the unicorn but didn’t retort.

"Which reminds me, which would you prefer for your punishment, Cadet Lancer? Entering the contest, or having latrine duty for the week after our return?”

“Uh, I’ll take the peppers?” It came out as more of a question due to the mare’s surprise. “They can’t be as hot as a Hollow Shades Phantom Pepper.”

“Alright then.” Barrier let a half-grin cross his muzzle. “Best hurry up, I think it’s about to start.”

“I suppose you should join everypony at the table then, hm?” Celestia tapped Barrier lightly on the withers from behind. “I took the liberty of signing you up.”

Barrier jerkily turned his head to face the larger mare. “...you what?”

Celestia just smiled softly as she strode over to the table.

“Well, you heard the princess.” Daring Do nudged him forward. “Go on, wouldn’t want to disappoint her.”

Faust curse it… Barrier had never eaten the peppers himself, but he’d heard horror stories from others who had done so, and in this particular competition, chewing was mandatory. Reluctantly, the unicorn shuffled forward, taking a seat next to a mare in a guard’s uniform. She slowly took off her helmet, revealing a surprising sight.

Applejack? Barrier stared at the red-maned mare with the lighter-red coat. First a unicorn Rainbow Dash and now a red Applejack?

“Bonjour, Captain Barrier.” The mare shot him a smile as she spoke with a thick Neigh Orleans accent. “Captain Shining Armor’s told me an’ the others a great deal ‘bout ya. Name’s Pepperdance, Sergeant o’ the Guard.”

“A pleasure.” Barrier inclined his head politely before turning back to the table and letting his gaze fall over the rest of the participants.

Pinkie and Rainbow Dash sat next to each other chatting about something or another. Across from them Swiftsword and Verdant were staring in grim resignation at the peppers in front of them, while Fluttershy tried to hide behind her mane in between the cornflower-blue unicorn and Cobalt Lancer. At the head of the table were the royals, both Princess Celestia and Luna sitting on either side of Cadance, and Queen Leena on the other side of the lunar diarch.

“Everypony, may I have a moment of your attention?”

Barrier fixed his gaze on the crystal mare that had climbed onto a makeshift stage of crates.

“The contest shall soon begin and we need to go over a few rules before we do!” The pony waited until the chatter had died down to continue. “First, everypony must chew the peppers for ten seconds. Second, if you drink from your milk, you’re out. Thirdly, you must eat as the numbers are called. Eating before or after will result in disqualification. In addition, vomiting or leaving the table will also lead to disqualification.” The mare fell silent to let ponies soak in the rules. “With that said, everypony ready yourselves!” Everyone at the table picked up a pepper in their respective appendages. “Pepper 1!”

Everybody stuck a pepper in their mouth and chewed as the judge counted to ten.

Oh sweet Faust, it’s like a I’m being prench-kissed by an angry dragon… again! Barrier swallowed as the count reach ten, forcing back the urge to gag.

“Hot!”

Barrier turned and watched Pinkie Pie flip out.

“Hothothothot! WAY HOTTER THAN LIQUID RAINBOW!” The mare literally dunked her head in the milk, drowning out the sounds of her gulping in favor of bubbles.

“Disqualified!” The judge pointed at Pinkie Pie. “Pepper number two!”

Barrier closed his eyes and followed the command, dutifully chewing for ten seconds before swallowing. The sounds of milk being slurped announced another pony’s disqualification.

The noisy slurping stopped briefly, allowing Cobalt Lancer a moment of unbroken agony. “Oh gods, it still burns…” She went back to gulping down milk.

“P-” the announcer was cut off by Rainbow Dash loudly gagging and moving towards her bucket of milk…only to realize Pinkie had drunk both of their buckets.

The judge wasted no time. “Pepper three!”

I begin to wonder if I’ll survive this encounter… Barrier thought to himself as his mouth screamed in agony at the juices being rolled around it.

Nopony buckled that round, instead opting to sit in a steely silence.

“Pepper four!”

The judge began her count to ten but was interrupted at seven when Verdant Range cried out.

“Captain, I beg of thee! Release me from this torture!” He looked pleadingly at the charcoal unicorn who nodded to both him and Swiftsword before he promptly dunked himself in the bucket. Swiftsword simply nodded back as her body shook.

Pepper five rolled by, followed shortly by Swiftsword politely excusing herself…and taking her milk bucket with her into the depths of the palace.

“Pepper six!”

Barrier was silently weeping to himself at this point as he half-chewed the pepper…and finally spit it out before taking in a great heave of air and tilting the bucket to his lips before entering the crowd, where Daring and Verdant both patted him on the back.

“Pepper seven!”

After downing the seventh pepper, Celestia was looking positively green. Her cheeks bulged out before she teleported away in a bright flash. The sound of violent retching came from a nearby alleyway, followed by a shout of absolute agony, “Oh sweet mercy, it’s even hotter coming back up!”

Pepper eight passed by unimpeded.

Pepper nine saw Queen Leena politely backing away and sipping her milk, surprisingly composed given the ordeal she’d suffered through.

Pepper ten saw Princess Luna back out with as much dignity as a mare whose face was literally soaked in sweat could muster.

Pepper eleven had Fluttershy excuse herself as being full, taking only a short sip of milk before fading back in the crowd.

Only two remain… Barrier eyed Pepperdance and Cadance who shared a hard stare before sticking the twelfth pepper in their mouths and chewing.

Before the next pepper could be called, Pepperdance swallowed a large mouthful of milk. “My oh my, I do declare, I know when I’ve been beaten. Congratulations, your imperial highness.” She took several more swallows before excusing herself from the table.

“The winner is Empress Mi Amore Cadenza!” The judge declared loudly…and then stared in shock when Cadance chewed and swallowed a thirteenth pepper, along with everybody else in the crowd.

“Had…to see if I could do…one more…” Cadance gasped out in between mouthfuls of milk; she was almost entirely oblivious to wild applause of the crystal ponies.

Barrier didn’t join in the applause, caught up as he was in slowly drinking his milk, rather than chugging it as most ponies had been. Out of the corner of his eyes, he noticed Queen Leena and Princess Luna comforting Princess Celestia as she continued to uselessly scrub at her tongue.

“Excuse me for a moment, Daring. I need to check something.” Barrier wove his way through the crowd with ease before Daring could respond, stopping only when he reached the three royals. “Your majesty,” Barrier waited until Leena turned to face him. “May I ask you something in private?”

“Of course,” Leena didn’t even hesitate before following Barrier into the mouth of the Crystal Palace, out of easy earshot.

Barrier eyed the three griffin guards and the trio of his cadets that were watching them closely with some amusement before the Queen drew his attention.

“What is it you wanted to ask, Captain?”

“I was curious as to why you threw the pepper-eating competition.”

Leena drew back in well-feigned surprise. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I ate nearly ten of those horrendous peppers.”

“Your expression wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the others.” Barrier half-smiled. “You threw the competition…why?”

Leena clicked her beak several times before looking around more carefully. “If you must know, I did it to bring smiles to some of the Empire’s citizens. I’ve no doubt many still bear ill-will towards the griffins, and seeing the griffins triumph over all the ponies would most likely sour their mood. I thought it in the best interest of the empire that they see the leader of the griffins lose to ponies, even if only in a relatively harmless way.”

Barrier cocked an eyebrow in surprise. “Really?”

“Well…” Leena chuckled slightly. “I also wanted to save some room for fish with Princess Celestia. Could I have beaten Empress Cadance or Sergeant Pepperdance at the game? Perhaps. Should I have? I sincerely doubt so.”

“I see.” Barrier bowed deeply to the Queen, drawing shocked surprise from her, as well as Winter Gem, Hat Trick, and Iron Forge, who had all been watching the pair from within the crowd. “I thank you, your highness.”

“It has been an absolute pleasure, Captain Barrier. My train departs tomorrow morning, so I don’t think we’ll see each other again, but if you ever desire to visit the Griffin Kingdom, I would welcome you with open talons.” Leena turned and began back towards her bodyguards.

Never thought I’d hear a griffin say something like that… Barrier took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. “Come cadets,” Barrier motioned them over to him from where they had been observing him. “Let’s find Verdant and Swiftsword and then do as Pinkie Pie has instructed repeatedly and party!”

The looks of uncertainty on the cadets’ faces at his statement was more than amusing.

Chapter 50 pt.1

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Barrier subconsciously pushed himself deeper into the soft mattress that had come with his borrowed room, a soft smile working its way onto his features even as he slept…until the warm body next to his began to sing in her sleep and wrapped him in a vice-like grip in an attempt to hug the stuffing out of him.

Daring Do didn’t know what she was hugging, but it was warm and had just the right amount of give. “Oh, chica-chica-chica, when you're in a jam; chica-chica-chi, remember I'm your ham..." the mare sang out weakly before a particularly loud snore took over the song.

Barrier groaned but didn’t move to free himself. He knew better. Daring had a grip like iron and the more you struggled, the harder she held on.

“Sir,” a voice called from beyond the door to his bedroom, followed by several sharp taps of hooves on crystal. “The princesses and Empress Cadance have summoned for us. We art to report to the throne room as soon as possi-” Swiftsword had nosed the door open as her speech drew to a close, fully expecting to have to wake her superior up, only to find the life being strangled out of him as the tan pegasus held him like a giant teddy bear. Despite her efforts, one side of her mouth turned up very briefly in an amused grin.

“Alright,” Barrier didn’t so much as move to face Swiftsword. “It’s probably so she can have us all formally discharged. Tell her I’ll be along as soon as I can extricate myself from Death-Grip Do here.” Barrier carefully tried to wriggle away only for the mare to tug him closer, driving the wind out of him. “On second thought, tell her to give me a bit…”

***

“Art thou certain he is coming?” Luna frowned as she, Celestia, Cadance, the element bearers and all of the former cadets stared at the door.

“He said he would be along shortly, your highness.” Swiftsword replied dutifully. “Though the grip that Miss Yearling had on him…”

“I said I was sorry!” The pegasus-in-question’s voice was audible even before Barrier nosed the doors open. “How was I supposed to know you were about to pass out? I was asleep!”

Barrier took a deep breath through his nose and shook his head. “We can discuss it later. I’ve delayed the princesses long enough.”

Daring huffed but didn’t object, instead following the unicorn into the throne room where only two days prior one of the greatest threats to history had resided.

“Princess Celestia, Princess Luna,” Barrier bowed respectfully. “Empress Cadance,” Rather than the same deep bow he’d given the princesses, he gave a half-bow, his eyes focused upward the entire time. “Captain Armor.” Shining Armor gave a quick nod as Barrier spared the element bearers a brief glance and a smile from their location off to the side of the room.

Celestia nodded at the unicorn before speaking… “Good morning, Captain. I assume you’ve puzzled out why you’re here?”

Barrier winced at the hoarse, gravelly tone the mare had. He’d heard throwing up ruby reapers was bad, but Celestia sounded like she’d been swallowing glass.

Barrier nodded and kept his thoughts to himself as he replied. “I assume we’re all to be formally discharged, your highness?”

Celestia and Luna nodded simultaneously, though Luna picked up the narrative to save her sister the pain.

“We would have liked to do this at a later date, however We also doubt any of thee would wish to stay in the Empire any longer than is required. Rest assured, all of thy valiant efforts will be rewarded, but for now…” Luna stood up and strode forward, suddenly seeming to project a heavy air around her. Barrier and the cadets all snapped to attention almost autonomously as Luna began to approach them one by one.

“Private Verdant Range, Private Swiftsword, Private Hat Trick,” She met the eyes of each pony as she moved, her eyes seeming to bore into each of them. “Private Winter Gem, and Private Iron Forge. Thou art all hereby honorably discharged from the Equestrian Royal Guard. Thy discharge papers shalt be delivered to thee upon settling on an address.” All five of the ponies saluted sharply but otherwise didn’t speak.

Luna turned her attention to Magic Barrier. “Captain Barrier…” The two stared hard at one another, unspoken words seeming to pass between them. “We would ask thou to stay on, given recently risen circumstances…” Luna glanced back briefly at Empress Cadance and the alabaster unicorn by her side. “But We know thou would not consent to such a thing at this point in time.”

Barrier nodded, eyes shifting to his freshly discharged privates.

“With that out of the way.” Celestia smiled and nudged the smaller pink alicorn with a wing. “I believe Empress Cadance has an announcement some ponies will find quite nice, given recent circumstances.”

Cadance blushed slightly, eyes twinkling with excitement as she took a deep breath. “Twilight,” Cadance stated in a surprisingly composed manner. “You may want to sit down for what I’m about to say.” Twilight hesitantly did so and Cadance’s willpower seemed to give out as she all but squealed. “Shiny and I are getting married!”
A squeal of joy rang out as six mares rushed the blushing empress. The cadets looked on as they all snapped to attention. Celestia and Luna looked on with proud smiles.

“Congratulations Captain Armor, sir!” The privates all stated in chorus.

“Congratulations, BBBFF!” Twilight squealed as she seemed to hop around in place. “I’m so happy for you! And Cadance, I’ll love having you for a sister.

“Congratulations, young Armor.” Barrier gave him a solid nod while Daring looked to be stroking her chin with the smile of a planner.

“When is the wedding?” Twilight asked as she approached the throne and gave both of them a tight hug.

“It’ll be a while, unfortunately.” Shining was the one to answer. “Sub-captain Onyx has been reassigned to the Empire as the Guard Captain. I’ll have to go back to Equestria and train another pony to take my job.”

“It’s not ideal,” Cadance confessed, “But we have to put our responsibilities to Equestria and the Empire first.”

“Well, you know the old saying,” Shining Armor leaned into Cadance and nuzzled her. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

“Oh gag me.” Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes and made a gagging face.

“On note of the wedding’s postponement,” Luna drew everyone’s attention once more. “There art a few more issues of import we need to disclose. Firstly, we expect thou and thy ponies,” she glanced at Barrier and the newly-discharged civilians. “Will be leaving the Empire at the first opportunity?”

Barrier glanced in silent askance at the five, receiving simultaneous nods.

“We will.” He answered Luna firmly. “No offense, but I think they’ve had enough of the Empire for one lifetime and I certainly know I have.”

Luna nodded in understanding. “Hast thou any inkling of where thou might settle for their rehabilitation into civilian life?”

“Ooh, ooh!” Pinkie squealed and jumped with her hoof in the air. “You could all move to Ponyville!”

No, no, no, no, no, no, no. The little Barrier in his head was panicking.

“As nice as it would to be near the element bearers, I understand that things have become somewhat…hectic in Ponyville, as of late. I believe my ponies would benefit from someplace more...calm. Oh, that reminds me, what will happen to all of the soldiers who were in Dr. Harvest’s care?”

“They were sent out on a train to Canterlot.” Celestia answered hoarsely. “They’ll be treated at the Rosedust Memorial Hospital for both their treatment and rehabilitation into modern life. Private Thunder Aegis chose to accompany them so he may take classes.”

“It’s good to hear they’re in good hooves. I confess, I wasn’t certain where to even begin with them.Though with that in mind, where should we send you five?” Barrier turned to them. “I know you’re unfamiliar with modern Equestria, but you have a multitude of options, aside from joining the others at Rosedust Memorial if you’d like.”

“Sir,” Swiftsword stepped forward, seeming to speak for the group. “We may no longer be thy soldiers, but we believe we should follow you. Thou hast already partially acclimated to modern Equestria. Having thou with us would greatly aid us.”

“Would do’em more good than if we sent’em to the hospital.” Daring chipped in. “The ponies there do good work, but they just got a bunch of new patients, each with a unique problem. They’ll be stretched thin. Besides, we both know you don’t want to be separated from them again so soon.”

“I confess, I’ve no desire to be parted from them, but am I really suited for their reentry to this world?” Hesitation was clear in his voice.

“You’ll be fine,” Daring hip-checked him. “Besides, I’ll be there to help. Someone’s gotta give them lessons in modern equish and it sure as hay won’t be you.”

“I’ve gotten better.” Barrier weakly argued.

“Sure you have.” Daring patted the stallion on the cheek as one would a foal. “Oh, what about the other pegasus?” Daring asked. “The blue one with the filly you told me about, Fleetfeather.”

“We discharged her in private this morning,” Luna confessed. “She seemed to have a great deal on her mind.”

“Yeah…” Barrier sighed and carefully sat down. “She just lost her husband and all save one of her children, in addition to all of her friends and family. All she has left is her youngest child.”

“Where did you last talk to her, Princess?” Daring asked, surprising the unicorn next to her.

“The palace gardens.” Luna answered with hesitation.

“I’ll go talk to her.” Daring smiled at the charcoal pony. “You finish figuring things out for you guys.” Daring quickly departed before the unicorn could raise any questions.

“Barrier?” Celestia’s hoarse voice drew his gaze. “May I give you a suggestion since you chose not to go to Ponyville for you and your former soldiers?”

“Of course, Princess. I would greatly appreciate any advice.” In truth, he had no clue where to go. He’d mostly wandered since his return and the only town he had any intimate knowledge of was Canterlot, which also happened to be the last place he wanted to be, on account of the nobles. “I know what they need, but not where to acquire it.”

“I assume you would prefer a location that’s neither a large city nor too far out of the way?” Celestia offered, receiving a nod of affirmation. “May I recommend Vanhoover? They have a peaceful atmosphere, a low crime rate, access to plenty of places to learn about modern life, and one of the best therapists in Equestria. I could easily arrange for you to meet with her.”

Barrier glanced back at the five whose future were being decided, receiving a nod from their silently elected spokespony, Swiftsword.

“Vanhoover sounds like the ideal place for their recovery.” Barrier bowed respectfully once more. “Thank you, Princess. If I may, when is the next train to Canterlot due?”

“Fairly soon, but it may be best if you waited until tomorrow, so you’ve time to properly prepare for your departure.”

Barrier nodded.

Luna gave a sharp salute as the privates and Barrier had done. “It has been a great honor having thou in our service. Thou art all dismissed.”

The ponies all gave a final salute before they slowly dispersed, as well as the element bearers. When it was only himself and the princesses, Barrier gave his own salute before he too departed, immediately making his way towards the palace gardens.

***

Fleetfeather sniffled, eye blinking in an effort to force back her tears.

Fleetfeather, Wind Whistler, and Daring Do were all seated at the edge of the palace gardens, overlooking one side of the city. Like her mother, Wind Whistler was fighting to hold back her tears. Daring fidgeted, clearly uncomfortable with the situation and apparently having had far less ground to aide them than she’d initially thought. Silently, Barrier approached and gave her several light taps before motioning towards the palace. The mare consented, and with a nod, left the three alone with Barrier taking her spot.

“Hey Fleet…” Barrier began somewhat awkwardly. “I’d ask how you’re feeling, but I know you always hated stupid questions.”

Fleetfeather’s only response was a half-choked sob.

“I won’t tell you it’s okay either, because we both know that’s a load of crap. Honestly, this is one of those things I don’t entirely think will ever fully heal.”

“How…” Fleetfeather spoke with a surprisingly steady voice considering the thinnest trail of tears fighting to make it’s way down her face. “How didst thou cope?”

Barrier sighed and sidled closer to the mare. “I didn’t, honestly. It wasn’t until I met Miss Yearling that I really started to allow myself to cope and it wasn’t until weeks later I allowed the first thoughts of Ember to enter my mind. I tried to forget the whole thing. Even now, I still don’t know how I’m supposed to act. I’ve been…erratic, since my return. I actually assaulted the first griffin I saw and got myself arrested.”

Fleetfeather snorted.

“I don’t really know what to say to help you here, Fleets. Just…don’t bottle it up, please. Talk to somepony. If not me, then Yearling or the Princess. I know they’d be more than willing to listen.” Barrier shifted so that he was in front of the mare before pulling her into a tight hug, joined shortly by Wind Whistler. Wind Whistler was the first to give, a half-sob turning into full-blown crying, followed shortly by her mother who put the unicorn and filly in a death grip as she bawled.

For nearly ten minutes, the trio sat there, Barrier paying no attention to how soaked his shoulder and side were getting before Fleetfeather finally seemed to cry herself out and pulled away. Wind Whistler, cried herself to sleep and the unicorn carefully lifted her by the scruff of her neck and deposited her on his withers.

“Just know you don’t have to stand this whole thing alone. I…” Barrier hesitated but shook his head vehemently and continued. “I have a hard time admitting this due to my upbringing and career choice, but the cadets…I love my cadets. Far more than I should. They’re like the children I never knew I wanted. When the Empire vanished, I felt like a lost a huge part of my family…but it wasn’t just them. I lost you and Wind Whistler as well. You two were as much family as Ember or my mother. Hell, you were more family than my father.” Barrier ran a hoof through his mane, surprising himself with how tired he was, given that he’d woken up less than four hours ago. “I’ve invited the cadets to come live with me until they’re ready to head out on their own. We plan on going to a nice little place called Vanhoover. Princess Celestia said it’d be a great place for us all. I’d like you and Windy to come along.”

Fleetfeather didn’t reply immediately. “Give it some thought. There are plenty of other options and I’ll personally help you with whatever you decide, but I know the cadets and I would love to have you with us.” Barrier gave the mare one last short hug. “I’ll see you soon, Fleet.” Barrier carefully deposited the sleeping filly with her mother again and turned towards the castle interior. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to find me.” Barrier didn’t turn around as he spoke the last line, instead departing the gardens.

“Sir,” Cobalt Lancer was waiting inside the palace, likely having witnessed the whole scene. “I have a message from Princess Celestia.”

Barrier nodded. “What’d she say Cobalt?”

“Sir, she said for your efforts in the Empire, she has pardoned you from your charges of assault and missing your court date.”

Barrier’s brow furrowed in confusion. “What court date?”

“Corporal Soundwave scheduled your court date for an assault charge two weeks from the day you made bail. Due to your duties in helping to prepare for the Crystal Empire, you weren’t in Ponyville for it. The warrant for arrest was only issued after the train had left for here.”

Barrier snorted in amusement.

Cobalt continued, “The princess also says, ‘Don’t expect me to bail you out every time you land yourself in hot water’.”

Barrier sighed “Very well, thank you for the message, Miss Lancer.”

“Sir,” The mare saluted before leaving into the palace.

“Barrier.” Fleetfeather spoke softly from behind the stallion. “I didst not have to think of it too long. Mayhaps…nay,” the mare corrected herself. “I believe we should accompany thee to Vanhoover. No doubt it will do the both of us a world of good to have a few familiar faces. Beyond that, I believe that Wind Whistler will wish to know her step-brother.”

“Wassat?” The filly sleepily poked her head up from her mother’s back. “I have a step-brother?”

Barrier smiled. “Something like that, young Whistler…”

Fleetfeather turned to nuzzle the filly. “The train departs tomorrow, correct?”

“Aye, I’ll be joining the cadets tomorrow morning at the train station for our departure.” As soon as I find a pony to deliver that message to them…

“Then we shall see you there. And…thank you, Magic. It was good to have a pony to lean on during…that.” Fleet motioned vaguely towards the gardens before departing, leaving the charcoal pony alone once more.

“How’re you holding up after that?” A familiar voice spoke as soon as the silence had settled.

“Tired.” Barrier turned to face his pegasus paramore.

“All things considered, she seems to be taking it pretty well.” Daring lightly hip-checked the unicorn before moving further into the palace, knowing the stallion would follow.

“I’ve known Fleetfeather a very long time.” Barrier began with a sigh. “She’s putting on a brave face for Wind Whistler… and herself.” You did much the same, burying your emotions. The voice in his head spoke up, reminding him that it was still there. “Still, she and Windy will both pull through.” For better or worse.

“I’ll take your word for it.” The pair walked in companionable silence for a moment before Daring started again. “So, Vanhoover huh?”

Barrier nodded. “The princess suggested it and I trust her.”

“It’s a good place for it.” Daring agreed. “Little more out of the way than I personally enjoy, but I think I could stand a place there. It’s got a really nice water park and some great food. Plus there’s the added bonus of you being there.”

Barrier nodded once more. “It will be interesting to learn the intricacies of modern courting.”

Daring snorted. “Courting. Man that’s weird to hear seriously. Ponies don’t really call it that any more. Plus I don’t think our relationship actually falls into standard dating, or courting if you want to call it that.”

Barrier hummed in acknowledgement, allowing them to slip into the same comfortable silence as before they turned a corner and saw Applejack with a hoof around Winter Gem’s shoulder and Pinkie Pie holding a camera.

We meet again, Pink Devil…

Pinkie Pie turned and stared at the charcoal unicorn with an almost frightening intensity, not breaking the stare as her camera clicked, taking several pictures.

It’s like she can see into my soul…

“Once ah get this developed, I’ll mail it out to Apple Family members all over Equestria, that way all our family will know yah when they see yah.” Applejack took the camera from Pinkie Pie, paying no attention to the staring contest she seemed to be locked into.

“I… thank you, Applejack.” Winter Gem gave the apple farmer a short hug before the two slowly departed together.

Barrier blinked. In that split second, Pinkie had crossed the distance between them and morphed her expression into a grin. “You blinked, I win!”

Barrier tilted his head slightly. “What?”

Pinkie Pie just grinned wider until she gasped, leaving the ground entirely. “Hey Barry, since we’re all gonna be going home tomorrow, we’re having a party just for us. Wanna come? We may not have cake or other snacks, but we do have a karaoke machine that I brought along.” Pinkie gasped again. “Oh and pin the tail on the pony, and a bunch of other games!” Another gasp. “AND fireworks!”

Don’t think about it. Barrier opened his mouth to politely decline but the pink mare cut him off again.

“Now that I think about it, I never did get to throw you a party back in Ponyville since you never showed up.” The mare’s gaze hardened and her posture straightened as she stared at the unicorn hard. “It would be awfully nice if you’d come to this one.” her voice was frighteningly saccharine.

Barrier swallowed nervously, something about Pinkie Pie telling him to say no would be the wrong move.

“Sorry, Pinks,” Daring interjected, “Barrier promised to show me the library.”

“Oh. Okeydokey then! Still, you should have this!” The mare shoved a slip of paper into Barrier’s hooves before literally vanishing, leaving behind afterimage of herself in the form of a dust cloud. Barrier glanced down at the paper and read its message.

I.O.U. one super awesome party at a time I think’s right. - Pinkamena Diane Pie

Almost subconsciously, Barrier found himself reaching towards his flask, only to remember it had been empty for quite some time.

“Thank you for that, Daring. I know she means well, but I really didn’t feel like going to a party. Though…what should we do to pass the time?”

“The library.” Daring replied as if it were obvious.

“Of course.” Barrier chuckled.

“Come on!” Daring groaned and nudged the stallion forward. “There’s gotta be tons of books that nopony has seen in literal centuries!”

“Well, it’s certainly preferable to the party, but I don’t understand why you need me to go to the library.”

“Well, we wouldn’t want me to have lied to Pinkie…annnnd I might be able to use your clearance to get into the more restrictive sections of the library.”

“I don’t think I have clearance any more. I was discharged less than twelve hours ago…”

“Not in Equestria, no,” Daring grinned. “But the Empire’s running on outdated paperwork. I bet you still have clearance here.

“I’m...fairly certain that’s highly illegal.”

“Oh come on, it’s all one-thousand year old books. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Chapter 50 pt. 2

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Barrier groaned as he lifted his head off the table, completely disregarding the soft, muffled voices nearby in favor of working his painfully stiff neck. Faust above…

“Good morn, Captain.” Verdant smiled and sat across from the stallion.

“...morning?” Barrier glanced out of a nearby window to confirm that it was indeed morning. “What the hell are you two doing here this morning?” Barrier nodded at Twilight who had taken a seat next to Verdant.

“Wouldst you like me to fetch me some ‘kawphy’ for you and the professor?”

Barrier frowned. “Dammit, don’t try to distract me Verdant. I’m not awake enough for it yet.”

Before the earth pony could reply, Twilight interjected herself into the conversation. “Well, Pinkie mentioned that the two of you were going to the library, and that lead me to think about all the ancient lost knowledge I could find here. I could barely sleep, so I woke Verdant up about an hour ago so he could translate for me while I transcribe.”

“Well, that’s not so…” Daring cut herself off with a yawn, but before she could pick the speech up, she stared at Barrier’s face blankly before breaking into a fit of laughter.

“What?” Barrier’s face frowned in confusion. “Is there something wrong with my face?”

“Well, sir…” Verdant began awkwardly. “Lady Dash was here earlier. She used a thing she called a ‘gold sharpie’ to draw some…rather crude things upon thy face, and from what Lady Twilight hast said, with rather sloppy penmanship.” The green earth pony recognized the slight twitch in his former captain’s eye but didn’t comment on it.

“Hat Trick said he’d be back with a wet towel and some soap as soon as he could.” Twilight offered.

Barrier just sighed, ignoring the still-laughing pegasus. “What time is it? How long until our train departs?”

“There’s about three more hours. It leaves at nine. I’m already packed. The others may take a tiny bit longer, but I’m sure they’ll all be ready by then.”

“I suppose I should go gather what little I brought with me.” Barrier pushed himself up from the table.

“Hey, hold on,” Daring tried to tug him back down. “You said you’d take me into the sealed-off part of the library before we fell asleep last night.”

“There’s a sealed-off part of the library?” Twilight’s voice was almost quivering with excitement as she turned to Verdant. “Why didn’t you tell me?! No, better yet, show me!”

Verdant eyed Barrier questioningly and the unicorn sighed. “We read books for six hours, Daring. I’ll personally bring you back another time, but for now there are things we need to do. Besides that, I can’t give you or Twilight permission to enter. I don’t want to risk getting in trouble for using expired clearance. Such a thing is a very grave offense.”

“Daring?” Verdant asked in curiosity, shifting the topic.

Daring groaned and shot the unicorn a weak glare. “Guess he was gonna find out sooner or later. Just…keep it to yourself for now, okay, Verdant? We’ll explain when we’re in Vanhoover.”

“Yes ma’am.” Verdant replied dutifully.

“Right, with that settled, shall we go prepare for departure?” Barrier offered his hoof to the tan pegasus.

Daring grumbled as she started towards the front of the massive library. “Yeah yeah, let’s get this over with. Biggest archaeological event of the century and I’m leaving it for Vanhoover…”

“I should probably go check on my friends and Spike. Thanks again for the help, Verdant. I’ll see you all at the train station.” Twilight followed Daring, both starting to discuss their findings.

Verdant glanced hesitantly at his captain’s face. “Do you want to wait for Hat Trick to arrive with your towel, sir, or…?”

Barrier’s eye twitched. “I’ll see you at the train station, Verdant.”

***

“I do not understand.” Verdant’s voice was the first Barrier heard as he approached the train station. “Why art these called ‘comic books’ if they are not comical?”

“Well, some are.” Spike explained. “But I prefer the superhero action stuff. Twilight says they’re pretty easy to read, so maybe some of them could help you learn how to read modern stuff.”

“Hmm…” Swiftsword’s voice joined the pair. “Dost thou have any recommendations?”

“Well, most are pretty good but my favorites are ones like the Power Ponies, the Mighty Morphin’ Pony Rangers, Batmare, Batmare Beyond…” Spike thought for a second. “Supermare and Supercolt. With any of those, you really can’t go wrong.”

“I could also recommend some good books for you that are easy to read if you’d like. The Shoobee-Doo mystery series in particular is really good. Also, if you’d like something comedic, there are The Misadventures of June & Shelly by Ink Blot.”

The shrill whistle of a train interrupted them, followed by the monstrosity pulling into the station.

“I’ll miss you, Cadance.” Shining Armor and his fiance shared a brief nuzzle and a kiss. “I promise I’ll do everything I can to make sure I’ve prepped my understudy as soon as possible.”

Cadance nodded sadly. “I’ll miss you.”

Barrier didn’t hear more of the conversation, distracted as he was by the filly clamboring onto his back and then onto his head -thankfully being careful to avoid his injured horn- to get a better vantage point of the train.

“My word…” Wind Whistler stared in awe as the mighty machine pulled in, the doors soon opening to let them on. “It’s gigantic! Uncle Barrier, art thou certain this is safe?”

Not even a little. Barrier hesitated to respond aloud.

“Come on, let’s get going.” Moonstone strode past them and into the train. “It’s so cold out here that I’m gonna freeze my horn off.”

Barrier followed in silence, carrying both himself and Wind Whistler onto the steel deathtrap, followed shortly by everyone else. No sooner than they had all piled on and found their seats, the train had started to move, steadily picking up speed as it ferried them back to Equestria.

“Barrier…” Fleetfeather tensed as the train bounced slightly. “Are you certain this is safe?”

Barrier didn’t reply, instead frowning as the cadets set about exploring every inch of the train they could reach.

“All of you, settle down!” Barrier called sharply. “This thing rocks and shakes enough as-is, I don’t need you helping it along. If it’s anything like my first trip, here you’ll all be screaming within the hour…”

Exactly one hour later…

Barrier settled on the floor next to the bench, wincing as one of the windows was opened.

“This is a most wonderful sensation, captain!” Verdant Range called out from his spot next to Fleetfeather.

“Most certainly!” Swiftsword thrust her head out of the window. “I have never felt more alive!”

“Sounds like you’re having fun!” Pinkie joined them in their excitement.

“Fun?” Iron Forge tilted his head at the mare curiously, entirely unaware of the look of horror that had dawned on her at his askance of the word.

Winter Gem also looked at the energetic pony in curiosity. “I am unfamiliar with that term as well.”

“Mayhaps it is a modern term we’re unfamiliar with?” Hat Trick suggested, having picked up on Pinkie Pie’s expression.

“Oh boy…” Rainbow Dash groaned. “This is gonna take awhile…”

“How about I give you all a brief lesson on modern Equestrian speech?” Twilight quickly interjected before Pinkie could explode. “I could probably save you from making some of the same accidental innuendos as Magic Barrier.”

Hat Trick’s eyes sparkled at the mentions of Barrier and innuendo.

“So…” Barrier turned to three ponies of the amongst them who were still soldiers. “What do you three have planned for when you return to Canterlot?”

Spearmint shrugged. “Not much, really. I’ll probably just go back to my routine.”

“I’ve got an astronomy test to take in a couple of weeks, so I’ll be studying! Well, studying in between my guard-shifts.” Moonstone stated chipperly.

“Man, you are wrong on so many levels…” Rainbow Dash shivered.

“It’s as if you, Twilight, and Pinkie Pie all had a weird lovechild.” Barrier commented reflexively. Almost immediately after he realized what he’d said, he felt several pairs of eyes on him.

“You have definitely changed since you got back.” Daring snickered slightly.

“As for me, I’ll probably just keep up with my guard training.” Cobalt thankfully spoke up, shifting the focus of the conversation; she smiled at the grateful look Barrier shot her. “I’ll probably also make a donation to the TRP when heat season comes around. Same stuff, new year.” Cobalt ended with a shrug akin to Spearmint.

“TRP?” Barrier inquired.

“Thestral Restoration Program.” Cobalt replied. “It’s a thing Princess Celestia set up a few years ago after they figured out this artificial impregnation…thing.”

“Artificial insemination?” Daring offered.

“Yeah, that.” Cobalt confirmed. “Basically, I get paid by giving away the eggs that I’m not using during every heat-cycle. In a nutshell, thestral mares and stallions get paid by the program really well for donating their baby-making stuff and to help increase the thestral population.”

“Baby making stuff?” Spearmint cocked an eyebrow. “Really? That’s what you’re going with?”

Cobalt Lancer snorted.

“Sue me, I sucked at health class in school.”

Barrier shoved the conversation to the back of his mind as the majority of the mare’s seemed to weigh-in on the appropriate terms, instead allowing himself to fade into the depths of his mind.

Several hours passed until Barrier was snapped back to the train by the sound of Twilight cheering loudly.

“Now, moving on to terms about modern library system terms,”

“Twily…” Shiny smiled at the mare when she turned to face and smiled at her bewildered expression. “We’re pulling into Canterlot.” As Shining Armor fell silent, the brakes squealed to life.

***

A few minutes had passed since the ponies and drake had disembarked from the train, waiting patiently for the announcements of their coming trains. Barrier and Fleetfeather glanced between the various conversations taking place between those gathered.

“Once you have a mailing address and you’ve learned to read modern Equestrian, I’ll have a bunch of questions to ask you about the past.” Twilight grinned widely at the green stallion.

Verdant Range nodded in understanding. “That sounds good to me, Lady Sparkle.”

Swiftsword and Rarity stood a short distance away from the two. “Once I receive my owed back pay, I swear to thee that I shalt compensate thee for Verdant’s garment, Miss Rarity.”

“Oh don’t worry about that, Dear.” Rarity waved a hoof in dismissal. “Consider it a gift.”

“Ya’ll try to keep in touch, Cousin. Since yer gonna be in Vanhoover, maybe you’ll meet up with Cousin Belmont Apple and his kids. Also, Ah fully expect ya to be at the next family reunion.”

“I swear I will be there, Cousin.” Winter Gem and Applejack shared a brief embrace.

“That’s the spirit!” Applejack patted her firmly on the back.

“And don’t you worry!” Pinkie grinned enthusiastically at Hat Trick. “I’ll be sure to send you a biiiiig book about magician’s tricks when you get your new place, that way you’ll make a great splash with your updated act!”

“I…” Hat Trick was speechless, partially by the mare’s enthusiasm and partially at how friendly she was. “Thank you, Lady Pie.”

“Silly Hat Trick, my name’s not Lady Pie, it’s Pinkie Pie!” The mare grinned for a half-second before the smile slipped in an expression of deep thought. “Well, I guess it’s actually Pinkamena Diane Pie, but Pinkie Pie’s faster.” The mare seemed to slip into the thought. The sudden silence was mildly offsetting.

“Good luck with your new life, Forge.” Rainbow Dash tapped the stallion hard in the shoulder, not even budging him.

“Thank you, Rainbow Dash. I shall try to make the most of it.”

“I hope that maybe one day…” Rainbow Dash hesitated just slightly. “Maybe one day you’ll find a griffin that you can see as a friend and not an enemy.”

Forge tensed, but his expression didn’t change. “I sincerely doubt that, but…I shall make an attempt.”

Daring quickly came up to Barrier from behind. “Alright, I just got the tickets for the trip to Vanhoover, so you’ll be paying for the hotel tonight.”

“Alright ponies, gather up!” Barrier called out loudly. “Our train is soon gonna arrive. Next stop, our new lives in Vanhoover!”

Daring waited for a moment before commenting. “Actually, we have to transfer again in Tall Tale, before we get to Vanhoover.”

Barrier’s brow furrowed slightly but he nodded. “Okay, first Tall Tale, and then our new lives in Vanhoover!”

A new voice rang out from somewhere.

“The train for Ponyville is now boarding at Platform 4!”

“Well,” Twilight and her friends grouped together. “Sounds like that’s us.”

“Goodbye, Twily.” Shining Armor pulled the smaller mare into a hug. “I hope to see you again soon.”

Twilight returned the embrace. “I’ll do what I can to make that happen, BBBFF.”

“Bye guys!” Pinkie waved from the window of the Ponyville bound train, having seemingly appeared there rather than actually boarding. “Come by Ponyville any time! I’ll throw you an awesome party!”

Barrier’s mind thought back to the piece of paper the pink mare had given him and he half-smiled, already thinking of a use for it as he, Fleetfeather, and Wind Whistler waited to board the train to Tall Tale.

“Ah, Spearmint,” Swiftsword quickly approached the mare as everypony began to disperse. “Before thou departs for the new palace,” Swiftsword briefly glanced upwards, taking in the large structure, “I wouldst know thy address.”

Spearmint tilted her head just slightly.“Uh, okay?”

“Thou art an impressive mare.” Swiftsword smiled. “I wish to know thee better through letters. It shalt no doubt be a long period of time before we may have intercourse in pony again.”

“Wait, what?!” Spearmint’s eyes widened. “But I’ve…we’ve never had…” Blush was showing through her minty coat.

“Nonsense,” Swiftsword cut her off. “We’ve had intercourse on a few occasions,” Swiftsword didn’t notice Moonstone nearly gagging from her attempts not to laugh. “We art having intercourse right now, even!”

Daring rested a hoof on Swiftsword’s withers and leaned in close, whispering something to her and grinning when she erupted into a full blush.

“We meant engaging with thee in conversation, not…that!” Swiftsword sighed and pressed a hoof tiredly to her forehead. “Modern Equestrian appears to have been crafted by perverts.”

“Barrier,” Shining Armor called out firmly, drawing the attention of everypony present.With the sharp clack of hooves on stone, Shining Armor stood at attention and threw a sharp salute. Cobalt Lancer, Spearmint, and Moonstone all followed suit. “It’s been an honor serving alongside side you. All of you.”

Barrier imitated the stance and salute, followed by his own former cadets. “The honor was ours, Captain Armor.”

The moment held for several short seconds before Barrier dropped the salute, followed by Shining Armor, and then their respective underlings. Shining Armor and his soldiers soon departed, heading towards the palace as the sun started to set.

“So…” Hat Trick had the decency to wait until Shining Armor and the other three were out of sight. “That thestral was a mare?

Barrier sighed and pressed a hoof to his eyes followed by the other cadets groaning or sighing as well.

“Well done, Kiddo,” Daring shook her head ruefully. “You ruined the moment.”

“What?” Hat Trick frowned. “Twas a valid question! She is as big as the Captain and he’s a rather large unicorn. Not to mention the shape of her damn muzzle.”

“The train for Tall Tale is now boarding at Platform 9!” The same announcer from earlier called out.

“Hat Trick, my dear,” Winter Gem patted him gently on the shoulder. “You should probably stop while you’re ahead.” Winter Gem tugged him towards the train to Tall Tale, everypony else moving to follow.

As the group and various others settled comfortably into a car, Barrier found himself staring out the window, pondering to himself. The last of my demons have finally been laid to rest. It was strange, Barrier decided, the feeling of lightness the thought left him with. Grimhilde is long dead, Gallopfrey… or Trottingham, I suppose, is once more a part of Equestria… we’re at peace. Even Sombra has been laid to rest… Barrier found his gaze drifting to the ponies around him, chatting amicably among one another. Even those I thought lost have returned. Mayhaps now I’ll finally be able to rest… The unicorn flinched as the train jerkily lurched forward, causing him to tense in his seat. Maybe… not just yet. With a deep breath, Barrier stood up from his bench, his ponies around him going silent and focusing on him as he did so.

“Captain?” Verdant asked, looking up from his bench.

“You don’t need to call me captain anymore, Verdant. We’re all civilians now, after so very long. Still, there are a few things I have to say.” Barrier rolled his shoulders. “I know you’ve all just survived a long and arduous ordeal. Faust knows it wasn’t easy, but we can’t rest just yet. We still have a few tasks ahead of us. The ponies we are now… we probably won’t be the same when we finish, but these will be about change. It’s something we all have to face at this point. There are countless new customs to master, new technologies to learn, new friends to make.” Barrier smiled warmingly at each of the cadets, surprising them slightly. “I can’t honestly think of a better group of ponies to go through all of this with.”

Hesitantly at first, Verdant returned the smile with a warm one of his own and like dominoes the others followed suit until the entire group was smiling at each other warmly. “Our new lives in Vanhoover await!”

A Week in Tartarus [Bonus Chapter 1]

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Verdant let loose a series of muted swears as he landed face-first, having gone head-over-hooves in the gust of wind that swept through their camp. Glancing around for his would be attacker, his eyes shrunk to pinpricks when he realized that the world was much bigger than he recalled it being. Poison joke.

He thought back to the warning he had given his Captain and how it had been ignored in the older stallion’s irritation. His ears pinned themselves to his skull as the familiar call of an owl cut the night. “I must awaken the captain.” Verdant took off at a sprint… and arrived nearly three minutes later, having had to climb or circumvent various sticks or rocks between the two.

“Captain!” Verdant raised his voice but still managed little more than a squeak. “Faust above…” the stallion muttered several more swears and leapt towards his Captain’s’ mane, only to slowly slide back down regardless of how he tried to adjust his grip. The mane was simply too slick with grease and sweat to get a good grasp.

Barrier muttered something, but otherwise didn’t react.

Verdant narrowed his gaze and stared at the greasy mane before him. “Thou desperately needs to wash thy mane, captain.” Verdant moved along the unicorn’s side, trailing a hoof behind him, looking for a place to start his ascent to reach the captain’s ear. It wasn’t until he reached the unicorn’s flank that two realizations dawned on him. The first was that his captain kept an incredibly short coat. Just enough fur to not appear bald. Secondly, his captain was now a mare.

Barrier’s tail flicked, sending the miniscule stallion stumbling backwards in surprise.

He growled slightly and stalked forward once more, his hard face slowly changing to something more distraught. “Sweet Faust, I never wanted to be this close to my Captain’s flank…” He gave the hair of Barrier’s tail a sharp tug, mentally noting how much dirtier it was than her mane, and how that afforded more grip.

“Captain!” He strained his lungs once more and waited with an empty hope before, with a sigh, he took the tail in hoof and began the arduous journey upward.

Fifteen minutes later…

Verdant could see the curve of the tail. “So close…” the stallion muttered with a tired breath. “Just…”

Barrier’s tail flicked again, forcing Verdant to hold on for dear life.

“Captain!” Verdant strained his lungs once more as the giant’s tail batted him against the mare’s still-muscled thighs and flank. “Cease thy flicking! I do not want…” The stallion’s lungs were emptied of air and his grip broken when the unicorn shifted and flicked him right in between her buttcheeks. “To be trapped in thy flank or newly-acquired foal-hole…” Verdant let a sigh escape him, the same sleepiness he’d awoken with starting to fall on him again. Straining his tired muscles, the stallion thought back to training. Specifically, he thought back to one the first things Barrier had started them on. He and the others had been forced to scale a cliff-face without rope or traditional climbing tools. Crack-climbing. Verdant’s mind mocked inwardly, remembering what Barrier had called one of the methods. How appropriate. With a grunt, the stallion wedged one hoof against the side of Barrier’s flank flesh and hefted himself upwards.

“Almost… there…” Verdant grunted as he hefted himself another few centimeters up and utterly froze as a feminine voice reached his ears.

“Faust dammit…” Barrier shifted back and forth before finally hefting herself upright, resting on her flank.

Verdant felt his breath leave him for the second time that morning as his world went black.

Barrier licked her dry lips and hefted herself upwards, making for the river that ran parallel to their camp, completely unaware of her tiny passenger.

Verdant took in several desperate lungfuls of air and held on for dear life once more, now realizing how substantial of a fall lay below him.

“Ah…” Barrier let out a groan of relief as she wet her parched throat and glanced down at the water and her distorted reflection. For nearly thirty seconds the stallion-turned-mare stared at herself… and then screamed.

***

The cadets were more than used to waking up to yelling and swearing by this point, so all of them shot up on reflex as soon as the scream and subsequent statement left Barrier’s’ mouth.

“Oh gods dammit!”

Bolting upright was not in the best interest of most of the ponies.

Swiftsword, in her haste to get to attention and locate the scream, bashed her horn into a low-hanging tree-branch, sending her head spinning. “Ow, son of a bitch! What the hell…”

Hat Trick almost immediately began to panic and yelp. “My feathers!” The feathers in question were missing in their entirety. “All of my fe-” Hat Trick was cut off by the same voice that had screamed them into wakefulness.

“Cadets, at attention!” Barrier roared as loud as she could with her newfound voice.

Though they didn’t recognize the voice, they recognized an order when they heard it.

“Roll call!” The voice repeated.

“Swiftsword here!” The mare called loudly as she tried to salute but found her new horn throwing her balance off.

“Hat Trick here!” The second pony called, saluting and awkwardly folding his bare wings to his side.

“Winter gem here!” The blonde-maned mare sounded… heavier than usual, but it was still most certainly her.”

“Irn Frge hrre!” Another pony called out, though it sounded like he was gargling fur as he spoke. He then spat and called out more clearly, “Iron Forge here!”

“Verdant Range here!” The earth pony called from where he desperately clung to his captain’s gargantuan glutes.

Barrier counted out fifteen seconds and then yelled again, even louder. “Cadet Range, I said ‘sound off’!”

“I’m right here dammit! I already sounded off!” Verdant ‘yelled’ once more.

When no reply was forthcoming, Barrier swore to herself and flared her horn, sending a small orb of light to the center of clearing where it brightly flared and illuminated the clearing.

The light had revealed the state of the everyone.

Swiftsword’s horn had grown to an obscene and unwieldy length, nearly ten times longer than it was supposed to be.

Hat Trick had shed his feathers, leaving him as the first-ever fully-plucked pegasus Barrier had witnessed.

Iron Forge was a literal mass of fluff, only the absolute tip of his horn clearing the mass of fur.

Winter Gem was now an absolute mass of thick, corded muscle, to the point of having to awkwardly spread her limbs to stand. She put any stallion Barrier had ever seen to absolute shame.

“Alright, we must have wandered through something…” Barrier thought back to the previous day and groaned. “Probably poison joke. I guess I should have listened to that colt when he brought it up,.” Barrier fell back onto her flanks, unaware she was nearly crushing her missing cadet.

“I do not care if I get court-martialed for this!” Verdant Range spat out. “I’m getting out of this nightmare!” Opening his jaws wide...

“Cadets,” Barrier stood back up yet again. “Swiftsword, I want you to b~” Barrier let loose an uncharacteristically high squeal and gave several wild bucks on reflex. “Something’s biting me in the flank! Grab it! Kill it!” The unicorn forced herself to stand still as Hat Trick approached and carefully inspected her flank.

“Found Verdant.” Hat Trick held up a hoof, a small, pea-sized Verdant Range resting on the edge of his frog.

“Oh thank you, Hat Trick.” Verdant desperately called. “This was not an experience I wish to relive.”

“Uh, Hat Trick?” Winter Gem called out with a nervous chuckle.

The pegasus craned his head around. “What’s wrong?”

Winter Gem motioned towards his tail which had flopped into the embers of their campfire and began to smolder.

Hat Trick formed an ‘o’ with his mouth before he began to buck wildly, Verdant Range completely forgotten in his panic.

“Oh sweet Celestia’s teats, put it out!” The stallion flailed.

“Oh, gods dammit!” Barrier swore once more as he lunged forward, grabbing Hat Trick out of a buck and heaving hard, chucking him overhead and into the previously calm river. “Right,” Barrier disregarded the sputtering Hat Trick. “Now where’s Verdant?” Everyone looked around for a moment. “Try not to move. It wouldn’t do for us to step on him. Verdant, if you can hear us, I want you to call out as loudly as you can.”

The clearing fell deathly silent, even Hat Trick falling silent in the river for the moment.

Iron Forge was the first to speak up. “I think I hear him somewhere in my fur…”

“Hat Trick, thou imbecilic swiver of thy dam!” Verdant swore loudly from wherever he had ended up.

“He’s saying something about Hat Trick’s mother and his intelligence, I believe.” Iron Forge offered.

“That sounds about right.” Barrier snorted. “Alright Verdant, perch yourself on Iron Forge’s…” Barrier scanned the stallion, trying to find something that wasn’t buried in fur. “try to reach the tip of his horn.”

Barrier sat down once more. “Alright, Swiftsword, ga…” Barrier winced when he saw the length of her horn again. “Just sit tight and try not to gore anypony with your horn for the time being. Verdant, try to reach the tip of Iron Forge’s horn. Winter Gem, Hat Trick, gather firewood and get our fire going strong once more. Iron Forge, stay here with Swiftsword. Faust knows what you’ll get caught in with that much fur.”

Winter Gem and Hat Trick both saluted and moved to follow the order. Barrier eyed the tip of Iron Forge’s horn and the hair surrounding it, gaze narrowing at the tiny speck of green. Reaching out with his hoof, he spoke. “Verdant Range, you’re with me.” She transferred the stallion from her hoof to her head. “We’re going to go gather the ingredients to cure poison joke. I just hope we can find the damn honey. Can’t usually find it this time of year….” Barrier’s horn lit with light once more as she dove into the forest, vaguely aware of the earth-pony making his way down the bridge of her forehead and to her muzzle.

***

Their quest for the ingredients to the cure had been woefully unsuccessful. Specifically, the honey they needed was nowhere to be found. Without said honey, they would be stuck in their cursed forms.

“The only option left is to attempt to contact Princess Luna in our dreams, otherwise training is going to grind to an absolute halt until our allotted pickup,” Barrier explained to the group.

For Cadet Range, this week had quickly become what he would forever call ‘The Week in Tartarus’ for all the misfortune that fell upon him.

From being lost in the Forest of Forge’s Fur for over four hours, spending far longer than desired stuck up Swiftsword’s nose, only narrowly avoiding Hat Trick urinating on him, had his pea-sized flank ogled by Barrier who had suddenly experience estrus for the first -and hopefully last- time, and an incident that both he and Winter Gem swore to secrecy, coupled with the countless encounters with the suddenly far more dangerous wildlife, the stallion was more than ready to put this week behind him when Princess Luna finally arrived with the cure.

It was not meant to be.

***

“Thank you for bringing this, Princess. It was foolish of me not to come fully prepared. I had assumed we would be fully able of sustaining ourselves here.” Barrier and the princess both stood on the beach, a short distance away from her chariot. Verdant was perched on the end of Barrier’s snout.

“Everypony hath a slip now and again.”

Barrier started to smile, only for Luna to continue.

“However, this was a major slip, Captain. Poison joke is wildly unpredictable and very well could have cost the lives of thee of thy cadets.”

The charcoal mare’s ears shrunk back, though she kept her gaze affixed on her princess.

“We don’t need to impress upon thee how negligent this was. Thy reprimand will be decided upon thy return. Until then, thou art to continue training thy cadets, but thou art to be far more careful hither forth. Are We understood, Captain?”

“Yes ma’am!” Barrier saluted sharply, jostling the small stallion still perched on her muzzle. The shifting of his fur on her muzzle caused her to take several short breaths.

“Captain?” Luna asked questioningly. “Art thou well-”

“Ah-ah-choo!” Barrier’s head snapped forward with the force of her sneeze. The sneeze sent the miniscule stallion flying forward at a fantastic speed. The world seemed to become a blur as everything zipped by.

Verdant soon felt himself crash into, thankfully, something fairly soft before he started to fall and then feel a crushing force all around him. The pressure was almost unbearable as he felt himself being forced downward. His screams were silenced by the sounds of a massive wind flowing and an explosive beating nearby. He was relieved for an instant when the great pressure ceased, but this was soon followed by him crashing face first into a strange black mush that he unfortunately learned tasted just like the fancy truffles Hat Trick once snuck away for them from the royal kitchens. Verdant tiredly dragged himself out of the foul muck and tried to gather his bearings. To his great horror, he found himself in a pulsating chamber of flesh, steaming juices and the muck he was standing in. He knew exactly where he was.

“No, no, no!” his screams echoed throughout the chamber, “I’m inside Princess Luna’s stomach!” Ignoring the muffled voices from outside that could penetrate the thick meaty walls of flesh, Verdant ran to the closest of the stomach’s edges and began striking for all he was worth, “LET ME OUT! FOR THE LOVE OF FAUST, LET ME OUT!” he screamed as he panickingly punched the princess’ body, tears flowing from his eyes as he continued to launch himself forward until he needed a moment to catch his breath and let out a scream, "This has been a week from Tartarus! How could this possibly get any worse?"

As he finished speaking, he then heard the words of the pony princess he was trapped within echoing louder than her Royal Canterlot Voice, “Guard, We believe We feel the missing stallion a-pounding from within Our belly. Fetch us a laxative from the ship.” Next came words from Barrier that were too muffled to decipher. Though Verdant could not tell what the captain had said, the princess responded in kind, “We have not had a gag reflex for nearly five-hundred years, Captain.” she explained, letting her potable prisoner know that of all the ways he could escape, the one he would be taking would be the most unpleasant one.

Anger reaching his peak, Verdant shouted out before striking with the force of ten mosquitoes once more. “What have I ever done to deserve this horrible fate?!” He let several more blows fly before the top on the stomach opened, covering him in a disgusting smelling laxative potion. His left eye twitched madly as he seethed under the foul brew. "I'd better get some damn good compensation for this."

After his return from the island months later, Cadet Range would be given two options for compensation from Princess Luna. He could have either a small fortune of two-hundred bits, or he may enter the princess in a much more pleasant manner.

The young stallion chose the latter and all was forgiven.

Through the Eyes of a Child [Bonus Chapter 2]

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In a cozy little tent, a small filly was awakened by the sounds of her mother rising up beside her. This filly, Wind Whistler, awoke with a slight yawn. “Good morrow, Mother.”

“Oh,” the mare glanced down at her child. Golden rays from the morning sunshine filtered through the linen canvas walls and spilled through the entrance, illuminating her smiling features. “My apologies, dear Wind Whistler. ‘Twas not my intention to wake thee this early.” After giving her child a brief nuzzle, the mare stretched out her legs and wings.

“I do not mind, Mother,” Wind Whistler cheerfully replied. “Shalt we see if the cadets have awakened?” she asked before gleefully hopping onto her mother’s back.

“They should already have awakened if they are worthy of their ranks.” The two then climbed out of their small tent, bringing them into a wide snowy field sparkling in the light of Celestia’s dawn. Close to their tent was the remains of the previous night’s campfire and a small igloo. “Cadets, report!”

At the shout, five ponies quickly rushed out before falling into a line. Their frozen breaths were visible in the crisp air as they sounded out, “Squad 982, reporting for duty, ma’am!” The five then followed up their unified response with a salute.

“At ease, cadets.” The mare gave the small group a quick visual inspection, checking to spot if even the tiniest misplaced hair crossed her eyes. She then stood in front of the squad pony in the middle and sharply looked her in the eyes. “Cadet Swiftsword, dost thou believe thy squad will need to hunt for food before we attempt departure?”

“Nay, Sergeant Fleetfeather!” the unicorn mare responded, throwing out another salute. “Our hunt the previous night was most bountiful. We shall be able to depart shortly.”

At this, Fleetfeather gave a simple nod. “Proceed. I shall disassemble my tent whilst thy squad prepares.” Turning away from the saluting squad, Fleetfeather then faced the filly on her back. “Now, wouldst thou like some bread before we depart, Wind Whistler?” In response, the filly quickly snapped her head back and forth.

“Nay, mother. I am strong. I can handle one morn without food. Also, I recall thou mentioning the Crystal Empire should only be a few hours’ walk from here.”

“Indeed, my dear.” Fleetfeather extended to allow Wind Whistler to slide down into the snow. “Thy memory serves thee well. Now, I ask that thou supervises the cadets whilst I disassemble our tent.”

“I shall, Mother!” she happily responded before giving a small hop and a salute. Fleetfeather simply let out a merry chortle as she went to work on the tent, leaving Wind Whistler to watch as a blue unicorn stallion and a white earth pony mare brought down the igloo with a combination of hoof strikes and magically conjured flames, while the remaining unicorn mare, pegasus stallion and earth pony stallion were burying the remains of their campfire in snow. Several uneventful moments passed as the adults worked before Fleetfeather called out, now carrying her saddlebags and a long sword.

“Come, cadets! If we move swiftly, we should hopefully arrive in the Crystal Empire before noon. Onwards!” At that command, Wind Whistler quickly scampered onto her mother’s back once more while the cadets fell into line and followed behind their sergeant.

***

The seven ponies journeyed on through the wind and snow, trotting forward for the taste of victory and relief from their trek. After the six previous days of walking from Canterlot, the young cadets desperately prayed this seventh day would be the final leg of their long journey. Eventually, the party grew joyous as they gazed upon a sight in the distance: the towering and beautiful spires of the Crystal Empire.

After more trekking forth, the band came to a point that was the clear border of the grand empire, where the snow suddenly stopped. As they approached this line, a group of ponies in turquoise armor came up to the border’s edge.

“Halt!” one of the armored ponies shouted boisterously, “Identify thyselves!”

Fleetfeather turned to the filly she carried, signalling her to jump off. With the filly’s graceful dismount that ended with her getting a face full of snow, her mother stepped forward.

“I am Sergeant Fleetfeather of the Equestrian Royal Guard, of squad eighty-two, service number one-nine-three-seven-six. I have come to deliver these cadets so they may receive the final training they need to complete their long journey to become royal guards. I have also brought my youngest daughter too on this long journey, to stay with me in my assigned quarters.”

The armored guards nodded at her response before stepping aside. “Welcome to the Crystal Empire. Captain Pathway hast been expecting thee. We shall escort thy band to her.”

With a pleased smile, the troupe started to step forward. As they crossed the threshold of the empire’s boundaries, they felt themselves being bathed in a warmth one would find in a spring afternoon. As they walked, Wind Whistler couldn’t help but gape at the marvelous sights of the crystalline towers that dominated the grand city’s skyline, most noticeably the main spire of the Crystal Palace.

“My word… I’ve never seen such beauty,” the filly spoke aloud, nearly wandering off before a blue hoof guided her back towards the marching line.

“Thou shalt most likely have many an opportunity to see the sights of this land on many a greater detail when thy mother is off duty, young one,” Swiftsword spoke as she aided the joyous bundle.


After a few short minutes of travel, the group arrived in a small field, where a red pegasus mare with a chestnut brown mane in a bun, stood. They saw that her cutie mark was a silver arrowhead with a pair of golden wings. From the stern look she was giving, Wind Whistler could not help but gulp from nervousness.

“Wind Whistler,” her mother whispered as they grew closer, “Step away from the cadets. Their inspection shall soon begin.”

At the quiet command, the small filly quickly scampered, catching up much closer to her mother just as the red mare arrived. Fleetfeather and the cadets all turned to face her, quickly tossing up salutes. Wind Whistler mimicked them, fearing how the red mare would react.

“At ease, soldiers,” she called out as she quickly scanned the gathered soldiers, who lowered their raised forelegs. When her eyes fell upon Wind Whistler, still holding her salute, her stern expression quickly shifted into a smile. “Thou hast nothing to fear, little one. I only wish to ensure these recruits are ready to best serve Equestria and her allies.” At that, Wind Whistler’s hoof lowered as she let out a sigh of relief.

“Captain Pathway,” Fleetfeather spoke up, causing the red mare’s expression to return to her previous one, “I have brought squad nine-eight-two for the final leg of their training. I believe that they shall be ready to begin shortly.” She then passed the captain a small scroll.

“I shalt be the judge of that, Sergeant,” Pathway replied before opening the scroll and quickly pouring over its contents. “Ensign Speedy,” she called to an orange crystal unicorn, “Take this to Commander Chocolate Day.” As the unicorn darted off with the message, Pathway once again sized up the five waiting cadets. “What is thy opinion of them, Shoulder Spider?” she asked of seemingly nothing as she looked to her right shoulder. Wind Whistler and Fleetfeather both briefly looked to each other in confusion before Pathway scowled at her shoulder and resumed speaking once more. “I am not eating Cadet Range, he looks more useful than Hairy.”

Verdant nervously swallowed before Fleetfeather spoke up again, drawing the captain’s attention. “Captain, shall we prepare the cadets for their final training?”

“Nay, Sergeant Fleetfeather. All of ye have undertaken a long and difficult journey here. Ensign Locket shall guide them to the mess hall before they settle into the barracks. Come with me, I have some questions for thee. Feel free to bring thy child along.”

The trio headed off one way while the five cadets went another, guided by a pink crystal pegasus. Their journey soon brought them to into a spacious, decorated military office that held several model ships and books upon crystalline shelves. In the middle was a large wooden desk that Pathway took a seat behind while Fleetfeather sat in the chair in front.

“Wouldst thou or thy daughter like a drink?” The pegasus mare inquired as she brought out a piece of parchment and an inkwell.

“I thank thee for thy offer, but I do not require a drink,” Fleetfeather retorted, “Wind Whistler?”

“Oh?” the filly’s attention was drawn away from some of the deeply intricate and detailed models and towards the conversing adults. “Nay. I am fine.”

“Very well, now I have several things I would like to know about this squad thou and Captain Barrier have trained.” Pathway said before plucking a loose feather to use as a quill. As Fleetfeather was met with question after question that she dutifully answered, Wind Whistler let her eyes wander all around the room before finally setting her sights on the large window behind the captain. Quietly going behind the desk and mare, the small filly gazed out at the sights of the empire, from the large training fields, to the many sparkling towers that radiated the light down to the sun-drenched grounds in vibrant colours, and the equally glittering ponies that called this wondrous city home.

This palace looks even more magnificent than the Castle of Two Sisters.

“Wind Whistler, our business is done here,” Fleetfeather called out, snapping the filly from her thoughts.

“Mother, may we see about purchasing a memento now?” the excited child asked as she skipped towards her mother.

“Nay, Wind Whistler,” she replied firmly. “We have too many things to attend to today. Mayhaps tomorrow, we shall be able to browse the shops for a fitting memento.”

“Thank you, Mother,” she begrudgingly accepted, though at least she knew that what she longed for was hopefully a mere day away.

“Chin up, dear. Now we no longer have to survive off field rations and whatever the cadets could scavenge. The mess hall should offer something far more palatable,” Fleetfeather said as she lowered her back for her child to climb aboard.

“It hast greatly improved after our previous chef met a… rather unfortunate accident. Some will miss him, but I prefer to have any chef other than one that even the filthy griffins would call Der Scheißkopf,” Pathway said with a nod, leading the pair out, “I hope thy stay in the empire is a pleasant one. I believe that thy child will enjoy crystal berry juice.”

***

The next morning came sooner than Wind Whistler felt was possible as she was awakened by the morning sun shining in her eyes. As she blearily glanced around the room her mother and her were assigned to, she saw that the mare was occupied with securing her helmet to complete her armor.

“Good morrow, Wind Whistler,” Fleetfeather spoke before giving Wind Whistler a gentle nuzzle.

“Good morrow, Mother,” the child replied with a yawn, “Art thou preparing for something?”

“First, we shall see the cadets one last time before Captain Pathway gives them their final tests. Then we shall proceed to the mess halls for a hearty meal. Shall we see to the cadets together?”

“Yes, Mother!” Wind Whistler jolted up before hopping onto her mother’s back. She wished to see the five she had become so close to over the past week; to see them take their final steps to becoming defenders of Equestria, like her parents and dear uncle before them.

“Very well, let us go to the training field,” Fleetfeather said with a nod as they headed out. A short walk brought them to the field near the barracks, where several soldiers were lined up, including the Squad 982. Captain Pathway stood before them, next to two crystal ponies.

“Welcome, my ponies. Today, we shall see if all of you cadets are ready to enter the illustrious ranks of either the Equestrian Royal Guard or the Crystal Imperial Guard. Based on the reports of thy past efforts and skills, I believe thou shalt not disappoint me. Those who do will-” Pathway’s speech was suddenly drowned out by the sound of a large explosion ringing loudly across the grounds. All the ponies gathered turned towards the source of the sounds before seeing a large, flaming hole and billows of smoke coming from the Crystal Palace.

“Cadets!” Pathway shouted out as she darted forward, “Return to the barracks and await further orders! Chocolate Day, Perish, Fleetfeather, come with me!”

“Wind Whistler,” Fleetfeather grabbed her child from her back before setting her on the ground, “Stay with the cadets. I shall hopefully return shortly.”

“Aye, Mother,” the frightened filly squeaked out before she she darted off with the various cadets towards the barracks, being picked up by Swiftsword to carry her to safety more quickly. The gaggle of cadets went to the windows to monitor the situation while murmuring amongst themselves, wondering what was the cause of all this.

“There there,” Wind Whistler heard as Hat Trick gently patted her on the back, “I am certain that whatever’s the cause of this commotion, the guards will be able to swiftly vanquish it.”

The young filly gave a nervous swallow. “C-c-couldst this be the work of the griffins?” her question causing a new wave of murmurs to spread amongst the cadets.

“Nay, I sincerely doubt this,” a light-blue crystal pegasus spoke up, attempting to take charge of the situation, “The Crystal Empire has some of the world’s greatest scouts, and the Crystal Heart’s barrier wouldst keep the foul beasts out…”

“This brings a rather disturbing prospect to mind, Sweet Pop,” Swiftsword spoke aloud, approaching the pegasus.

“What dost thou mean, your ladyship?” she responded, her question drawing the eyes of all the cadets upon Swiftsword.

“Whatever this threat is, it somehow slipped by the barrier around the empire. This means one of three possibilities. Either someone found a weakness or blind spot in the empire’s defences, that someone or something managed to gain enough power to overwhelm the barrier,” the last part of her hypothesis caused a great deal of mutterings and objections by the crystal ponies present, arguing either the barrier’s strength or that if the barrier had been overwhelmed, the empire would be starting to freeze by now.

Swiftsword raised a hoof, causing silence to eventually fall over the room before she resumed speaking, “If what is happening now is not because of those possibilities, than that narrows things down to one other grim possibility… that we have a traitor within the empire.”

More harsh mutterings spread through the room, the ponies shaken by the implication of what this all meant. Before somepony could attempt to restore order amongst the gathered guards-to-be, several loud explosions rang out and the ground around them rumbled. Several ponies dashed to the windows, seeing a strange mass that seemed to be a dark cloud-like entity in the sky near the palace, sending out magical volleys that were a strange combination of black, violet and green, blasting away chunks of buildings and ground wherever they struck.

As Wind Whistler looked on, she couldn’t draw attention away from the display before them, spotting several pegasi weaving around and trying dodge the magical strikes and retaliate at the thing before them. Is mother amongst those fighting that… that… thing? Wherever thou art, mother, please be safe… she worryingly thought as she thought she saw a pegasus being struck by one of the dark blasts.

“Incoming pegasus!” a pony with sharper eyes than her called out, spotting a winded pink crystal pegasus rapidly flying towards the barracks. The mare crossed the distance between the dark mass and the barracks in a matter of seconds, slamming the entrance open so hard it nearly broke its hinges. A cacophony rang out from the gathered cadets while the pegasus was gasping for breath. Once she could speak again, she shouted.

“Sombra hast gone mad!” the scream echoed out, silencing all those gathered, “He hast become a being of dark magic and shadows!”

“Ensign Locket,” a crystal cadet approached the winded pegasus, “What are we to do?”

“Before she was struck down, Captain Pathway gave her final order,” Locket spoke again, the cadets waiting on bated breath, “All of thee have been given emergency field commissions and promoted to privates. Thou art to scatter for now and attempt to regroup elsewhere. With Sombra our enemy now, no military installation will be safe. Quickly, flee from here and try to stay alive to fight another day! I shall attempt to send word to Canterlot, the princesses must be informed.” with that, Locket took to the skies, heading south as swiftly as her sore and sparkly wings could carry her.

With the entry way and their orders clear, the cadets started to flood their way out of the barracks, attempting to dodge some of the vollies of dark magic being launched every which way as they fled. Wind Whistler felt herself being grabbed and lifted up at a great speed. Looking behind her, she saw that the one who had grabbed her was Hat Trick.

“I will keep thou safe, Wind Whistler,” he said as he flew low to the ground, pumping his wings harder than he ever had before. As she was carried away, Wind Whistler looked up towards the aerial battle. Pegasi were trying to strike Sombra with lightning to no avail. She managed to see that her mother was among those trying to best the shadowy mass, but then her blood ran cold as a volley struck her mother in the head, sending her spiraling out of the sky.

“Mother, no!” the filly cried, screaming as Hat Trick weaved around panicking ponies and merchant stalls as he carried her into the city proper.

“I am most sorry, Wind Whistler,” he whispered as he climbed up to get a better view, “but we must remain strong and try to survive this,” he then felt his chest start to grow damp as the poor child buried her face into it and cried.

“I…” she quietly spoke between sniffles, “I will try… sir…” Faust… please don’t let my mother be dead… and please send Father, Uncle Barrier, and the princesses to save us… Wind Whistler felt Hat Trick slow down and come closer to the ground, finding an area that seemed to have been abandoned since the attack had begun. He quickly placed Wind Whistler down as he landed near a merchant’s stand that had been pressed against a building’s wall.

“Quickly, try to hide in there. I shall try to find something for additional cover,” he whispered to her before dashing off to find something. Wind Whistler nervously gulped as she was left to try to hide in the middle of was what once a safe haven, now a warzone.

Following Hat Trick’s orders, she quickly scampered into the stand, crouched down so she was hidden behind the stand’s counter, leaving her huddled next to some jars filled with what looked like beads in the shadows. Several moments passed before she heard the sounds of hoofsteps approaching her. Thankfully, the approaching pony turned out to be Hat Trick, who had brought a large board with him. He carefully placed the board on top of the counter to hide both of them from site, now leaving the only source of light being a small hole in the front of the stand. Several moments passed as the two sat there, cloaked in darkness and occasionally hearing the sounds of death and destruction around them.

“W-what shall we do now, Mr. Hat Trick?” Wind Whistler nervously inquired. Hat Trick let out a somewhat nervous and tired sigh.

“For now, it may be best to rest up and try to keep quiet. I believe we should head out after nightfall to try to find some of our comrades. Likely others will have found a safer place to camp than in a merchant's stand,” he whispered as he gave her a gentle pat on the head, “Until then, all we can do is wait.”

***

Wind Whistler awoke to Hat Trick nudging her. Groggily looking through the hole, she saw darkness and stars shimmering in the sky. I fell asleep? When didst that happen? The hours seem to blend together.

“Wind Whistler,” Hat Trick harshly whispered, “we must prepare to leave. Somepony approaches, and I know not if they be friend or foe.” Despite his best efforts to hide it, the young filly could hear the note of fear in the soldier’s voice.

“If...if they be foe?” she uttered with a nervous gulp.

“Then try to stay hidden in the shadows. I shall try to hold them off to the best of my ability,” he quietly spoke as he got into position to toss the board above them away, “On the count of three… Three!” he shouted as the board was shove aside, the two leaping into the open. Thankfully, the ones standing before them were a pair of crystal ponies and a blue unicorn, his horn alight with a fiery orange glow. Recognising their compatriot, the pair rushed over and gave him a warm embrace. “Oh, thank Zacherle. ‘Tis good to see a friendly face once more.”

“I am elated we hast found thee, my friend,” Iron Forge whispered as he returned the hug. Knowing time was of the essence, he quickly pulled back, “Come. We have established a makeshift base. We had best return quickly. There is no telling where Sombra could be.”

“Aye, my friend. Lead the way,” the pegasus stallion responded as the unicorn brought them to a pony hole cover. Shifting the cover aside, the group entered the sewer. With the cover replaced, the only light to the five came from Forge’s horn. Several moments passed as the group travelled through the darkness in silence before the tiniest voice amongst them spoke up.

“Mr. Iron Forge,” the blue pegasus spoke up, drawing the unicorn to a stop, “What hast happened to the others of thy squad?”

The stallion remained silent for a moment before taking a deep breath.

“Swiftsword is at our base, aiding Doctor Harvest in whatever way she can. Verdant went with another group of soldiers to try to find survivors just as we left,” he paused before turning to face Hat Trick, “Just before we left, Winter Gem came in, carrying Corporal Ironhide on her back.” This last statement brought a relieved sigh out of Hat Trick before a small smile graced his face.

“‘Tis good to hear that they have all survived… but… what of my mother?” Wind Whistler drew closer to Forge as they travelled through the dark tunnel. The stallion’s eyes briefly tried to shift away from her before he spoke.

“I am sorry, Wind Whistler, but we have not found Sergeant Fleetfeather yet. We will…” Forge was silenced by the sounds of several hurrying sets of hoofsteps ahead of them, followed by the clank of a pony hole cover being quickly pushed back into place.

“M-Mr. Forge…”

“I believe Verdant’s team hast either sustained an injury… or they found someone in need of medical attention. Quickly, move!” Forge whispered with a somewhat nervous and harsh edge before they scurried further down, coming to a halt by by ladder. “Wait here, I will scout ahead.” The cover moved away in a blazing glow as Forge ascended the rungs.

Quickly glancing around, he detected no signs of enemies and so climbed up to the street. He shot a hoof back down and wave at his compatriots to climb up. Hat Trick grabbed a hold of Wind Whistler’s sides before tossing her up into the air. Trying not to shout from the sudden movement, she soon found herself encompassed by the glow of Forge’s magic before she was placed on the ground in front of him. He then pointed to a set of nearby stairs heading downwards. “Make thy way down those stairs and wait for us by the door. We shall be with thee shortly.

“Right.” She tossed up a small salute before she dashed across the street.

Reaching the top of the stairs, she leapt and glided down to the door, recalling the lessons her parents had taught her about stealth. Within a few seconds, the other ponies were soon beside her. Forge then approached the door and gave three quick and quiet knocks.

“Majesty’s son,” he spoke aloud. A click came from the other side and the door opened, revealing a purple stallion who ushered them in. Once inside, Wind Whistler could see many a pony had filled up what looked like a wine cellar. As they came further in, they saw themselves being approached by two ponies; Winter Gem, who welcomed Hat Trick a strong embrace, and Verdant, who had a fair amount of blood on his back. Spotting his bloodied friend, Hat Trick broke the embrace and approached.

“Verdant, art thou harmed?” he asked as he, Forge and Wind Whistler approached him.

“Nay, Hat Trick. I am well,” he said before spotting Wind Whistler, then letting out a sigh, “The ponies I went were searching for other survivors when we found Sergeant Fleetfeather. She…” he brace himself before continuing, “Wind Whistler… she is rather hurt.” His words seemed to knock the wind out of the filly and bring tears to her eyes, “Doctor Harvest is doing what she can…”

“Please tell me my mother will live, Mr. Verdant…” she interrupted, “that is all I ask… please…”

Verdant bit his lower lip before waving a pegasus nurse over, motioning towards Wind Whistler. “I… I do not know, Wind Whistler. Thy mother is a very strong mare, but she took a magical blast to the face and fell from the sky. I am shocked she hast lived for this long.”

At this, the scared filly collapsed to her knees, crying out from sadness, fear, anger, and exhaustion. She felt several approach her and gently embrace her, but this was not enough to quell the scared child. Her eyes remained tightly shut until she felt a hoof gently tapping her muzzle.

“Please dear, thou must be brave and keep thy strength up. Please, drink this brew. Thou needs it greatly.” Opening her eyes, she saw the pegasus nurse from before, holding up a cup in front of her that had a strange yellow coloured liquid within. Doubting an Equestria doctor would harm her, she brought his lips and started to drink the brew down. She assumed this was likely some sort of medicine, judging by the foul taste. “Good child. Thou should feel the effects of the brew momentarily.”

“Praytell, what wa…” her question was cut off by her letting out a great yawn. Wind Whistler’s eyelids soon felt much heavier, “what was that brew? Was it some kind of medicine?” The nurse gave a somewhat sad nod.

“‘Twas a sleeping draught, dear. Please, get some rest. Hopefully, things will be better in the morning.”

“But, what of my mother?” Wind Whistler inquired as she felt herself start to lower to the floor and her eyelids coming down like lead weights.

“Dr. Harvest will do everything she can to help not only her, but all the other patients. After that…” Nurse Lifeline sighed sadly, “she will be in Faust’s hooves.”

“Mother…” Wind Whistler muttered before her eyes closed and the world to seemed to fade away around her.

***

When Wind Whistler felt wakefulness return to her, she felt that somepony was gently stroking her back. She did not open her eyes though, still tired and groggy from the potion.

“Wind Whistler, wake up,” a voice gently spoke. It sounded so close.

Was that voice a dream? Or was it really?

Wind Whistler’s eyes slowly opened, gasping at the sight before her. She was in a cot with a bruised, bloodied and bandaged blue mare before her that was stroking her back gently. Where her left eye would have been was instead a collection of bandages with a red spot in the center, contrasting with her pink mane. Even with all the clearly visible injuries upon her body, she still gave the filly a warm smile.

“Good morrow, my dear.”

“Mother!” she shouted out before giving Fleetfeather a joyful nuzzle, “You live!”

“Twas close for a while,” a voice behind Wind Whistler spoke out, drawing her eyes to a purple unicorn mare, “However, seems that the Elysium was not ready to receive thy mother quite yet. Save for her destroyed eye, I believe that the sergeant will make a recovery in a matter of weeks, provided she rest up.”

“I am certain my daughter greatly appreciates thy efforts, Dr. Black Harvest,” Fleetfeather spoke as she gave her filly another nuzzle.

“Where is everypony?” Wind Whistler inquired as she glanced around the room, only seeing a few other injured ponies in cots.

“Nearly all the able bodied soldiers all went to attempt to gather supplies and possibly mount some sort of counter attack. Some others are either watching the entrance or preparing some food for us in the kitchen above. If thou will excuse me, Nurse Lifeline and I must tend to our patients.” With that, Dr. Harvest went to tending to some of the others in the room, leaving the mother and daughter alone.

“I am sorry, Wind Whistler.” Fleetfeather drew her daughter’s attention back towards her, “I had not expected things to turn so horribly wrong. Had I expected this to go so horribly, I would have left thee to stay with thy father.”

“No need to apologize, Mother,” the filly gave her mother a happy nuzzle, “I am certain that help is on the way. The Princesses will be coming soon with Father, Uncle Barrier and an army of great warriors to battle Sombra!” Wind Whistler’s happy statement was met with a sad sigh from Fleetfeather.

“Darling, even if somepony managed to get out of the empire to warn Equestria, it will take seven days for them to reach Canterlot, and even longer for reinforcements to arrive.” The sergeant’s statement caused the filly to frown.

“Then what can we do, Mother?” she asked before she was brought into a gentle embrace.

“For now, we must do the only thing we can do under these circumstances, my dear. Survive.”

***

The days went by slowly for Wind Whistler, each day seeming to blur together to the young filly. Hope was starting to dwindle as each excursion into the empire lead to less soldiers either uninjured or alive. Now the injured Fleetfeather was the one commanding the uninjured ponies, which currently consisted of Dr. Black Harvest, Nurse Lifeline, Private Thunder Aegis and the five ponies that made up Squad 982. The remaining twenty-eight injured ponies did their best to try to hold onto life after their injuries, several of which included missing limbs.

Fleetfeather told Wind Whistler to stay away from the doctor that she and the others had started to refer to as The Ghoul. From what she could understand, she had used some sort of dark sorcery to save the injured ponies.

When will help finally arrive? she pondered from beside her mother’s cot. I am uncertain how much longer we can survive against Sombra… I miss thee, Father. I wish I never came here. I wish we could simply return home. The same filly rose up as she heard the entryway being opened. I pray that the empire will be safe enough to allow Swiftsword to sleep again. She hast not slept for days. Even an acting field commander from a noble house needs to rest.

“The Ghoul” then passed the thinking child, headed towards the entryway. Faust, please do not let any of our remaining soldiers fall. If we lose any more… her thoughts were disrupted as Fleetfeather rose from her cot, trying to head to meet with the other.

“I have rested for far too long,” she said and she tried to head forward, only to be stopped by Nurse Lifeline attempting to return her to the warn cot. “I must join my fellow guards.”

“Absolutely not!” the nurse retort, “thy injuries would leave thee an open target! Even a sickly griffin could pick thee off.” Lifeline tried to reason with her, only for the sergeant to give her a shove.

“Dammit, I said I’m fine!” she shouted before her daughter grabbed onto her hind leg to try to halt her.

“Mother, I beg of thee!” she cried out, her and the nurse struggling to stop her without harming her. “Thou art missing thy left eye and are very injured! Please, listen to Nurse Lifeline!”

“Listen to your nurse, Sergeant Fleetfeather,” a stallion’s voice called out, drawing the sergeant’s eye away from her struggle. A tired smile crossed her features as she limped towards the dark coated stallion.

“About time you got here,” she said before meeting him halfway, where he embraced her in a gentle hug. Wind Whistler could not agree with what her mother had said more. He pivoted Fleetfeather around so that she was now leaning against her as he tried to return her to the cot.

“Bedrest, Sergeant.” His tone indicated this was meant as an order.

“Oh for Faust’s sake, I’m fine!” she argued, but didn’t struggle as he returned her to the cot.


“Flash would have my hide if I’d let you do anything looking as rough as you do,” he said as he made sure she was comfortable as she could be in her cot. “What kind of damage does she have, Nu-”

Wind Whistler could not hold back her joy any longer at seeing him, launching herself directly at his face and giving him the strongest hug she could muster, sending him stumbling back.

Now I know everything will turn out for the best, now that Uncle Barrier’s here.