A Shadow of Resolve

by Wing

First published

After the battle in Manehattan, we bathed in the light. We soaked up the tranquility, believing that our jobs as Bolts were bound to get easier. But the shadows don't go away. They just wait until you're ready to play again. The night will last...

The only currency in war is life, but at the end of it all, what matters is having friends at your side. That is what was spoken in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Manehattan. We had forged a new peace with the griffons. We had prevented a war, but who could have imagined the game of targets that lurked just over the horizon? A Shadow of Resolve is the second trilogy of the A State of Darkness series -- the ongoing tale of the Wonderbolt DarkOps unit as it protects Equestria from threats, both foreign and domestic.

Note: Reading the prequel story is recommended.
Note 2: Currently on hiatus for reasons explained here.

First Featured on 2016-01-19 thanks to your awesome support.

A State of Darkness - Installment 30 - A Bolted Wing

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Nearly four months had passed since the dubbed Battle of Manehattan, and the world constantly changed within the spirals of its wake. On one front, my home had been rather unceremoniously rebuilt – and by unceremoniously, I mean under the constant surveillance of Magic Barrier’s company. The charcoal-colored captain had been feeling more than a bit guilty when it came to his circumstantial absence, and he had made sure that the debt would be repaid by overseeing the installation of every bolt and screw.

To be honest, it was a bit comical watching a member of the Mavericks’ Wild spending his time breathing down the necks of construction workers. Though, that is exactly how the stallion behaved – serious, with a chuckle. May Luna bless those mares and stallions; the builders dealt with it far better than I would have if I had been micromanaged by an old-school officer on a misplaced mission.

Nonetheless, thinking about Barrier’s efforts made me reflect upon the other front lingering in the winds. My friends had valiantly struggled to help iron things out. They had made my transition back from the shade and storm far easier than I had imagined possible. They had saved me, and everypony else for that matter, from a lurking danger – a lurking nightmare – that flirted with myth. Yet, there were still some things that just could not be touched. There were still demons locked in the details that I kept from everyone – Mozy, Amora, Trigger, Ambrosia…

Blinding lights simply cast sharper shadows, and that all-consuming void known as oblivion chills my thoughts with its emptiness. It reminds me of the disaster that could have been – the disaster that they prevented – the one that I nearly caused – the one that would have purged friendship, love, and dream. None of those things can survive in an endless night. And though I did not fail, the possibility that I could usher in such a calamity again terrifies me to the core. It’s a scar that may never heal – a scar from which I may never escape.

The crack of my legs striking my desk snapped my attention back from the mental deep. Ruffled powder blue griffon feathers and crimson eyes greeted me with their shock, and I released a long, exasperated sigh upon recognizing that my office had indeed been infiltrated at some point during my daze. “Sorry about that, Azure. I just had another one of those…”

“I understand, Colonel. We all have moments,” she answered as the tension fled her limbs and as her expression considerably softened. “As a friend, might I recommend that you listen to your doctor more thoroughly? I know she has been suggesting therapy routinely throughout the semester.”

I shuddered. “I don’t recall eavesdropping on medical conversations being culturally accepted in the Republic, Ms. Sky.” My response came paired with a flat chill that remarkably made the lieutenant scoff. “It isn’t accepted here either.”

“Any expectation of privacy goes out the window when you’re shouting. I don’t even have to be up against the door when you get into a mood like that. Just pick a nearby spot in the corridor and give it a shot. Look, I know you came clean about a lot of stuff, but I’m a soldier. I know when there is still a battle going on right in front of my face. You’re hurting, and we all can see it because we’re adjusting too.”

My brow furrowed immediately and I rose up out of my desk chair. The wheels squeaked as they traversed the wooden grains, and my joints cracked to the weight that settled upon my stiffened forelegs. “No pony – or griff – can speak to my adjusting!” I winced at my own volume and recoiled. Perhaps Amora and I had been yelling after all. “I appreciate your sentiment. I really do. Your heart’s in the right place. I’m not trying to take away from that, but no therapist is going to give me what I need.

“You witnessed the incredible power that even weak connections to the nightmare were able to generate. We live in a world with numerous applications of magic and science, but there are things I experienced during those fifteen months that challenge everything we know. I have to think about those things. It’s in my nature think about all of it, but how can I? We’re talking about a type of corruption in which the thoughts alone are dangerous. What if they trigger a relapse? What if they push me back over the edge? It’s like dying with a partial thought or an incomplete dream.” Like dying without an answer.

“Then figure out a way, Professor. Figure out how to do it right, and find what it is that you’re missing. You obviously want to. You’re rambling about it, and there are plenty of folks around who want to help you. If I’m being honest, I find your stubborn stance towards professional therapy a little strange, especially considering your position in academia. As a soldier though, I get that it’s a different story…

“You are a great teacher, Wing. You bring life and energy to the class, and being there has been enlightening. But I saw another side of you when you leapt for Artemis. You certainly thrive in the light, but you fight in the dark.” The night will last forever. “It's just my opinion, but I think you’re looking for a confidante to tell you that it’s okay to keep fighting – that it’s okay to seek something more.”

The memories of worthless foalhood treatments coalesced in my mind along with those clutches of shadow. That stubborn stance Azure had alluded to had nothing to do with my positions or assignments. It had everything to do with then. I didn’t need that kind of analysis. I didn’t need a witch-hunt for things that might have been missing. I didn't need those figurative razors stabbing and cutting up things better left alone. I couldn't stand the scrutiny!

A gentle knock upon my door abruptly swept away the swirling anxieties. It grabbed me from the turmoil and allowed a deep, calming breath to fill my lungs. I peered upon a laser lemon highlight that meandered through a fuchsia blue mane, the lilac coat that prodded my heart with its subtly pinkish tint, and a set alluring aquamarine eyes that surprisingly forged a path through the expanding crack between entrance and frame. “Hey Wing.” Her sweet southern charm repudiated my disbelief as it grazed my ears, though I still struggled not to fall back into my chair from the shock-driven shiver that dashed down my spine and raked away my woes.

“Amby,” I squeaked gleefully and stumbled out from behind my desk. Azure stifled a chuckle at the embarrassingly clumsy display, and Ambrosia’s face blossomed into a smile that I had loved at first sight. “I thought you were due out on a shift a few hours ago. Did something happen?”

She nodded and stepped inside. “There were some maintenance problems with the locomotive. Hopefully it will be fixed soon, but it does give me some extra time to spend with my special somepony and... maybe hear what he’s been working on.”

“Oh honey, you know I’ll teach you some physics if you show me some chemistry.” I lifted my eyebrows and winked in the most mockingly seductive way imaginable. The maneuver drove Azure Sky to a prompt sidestep and exit, leaving the tender sounds of an Ambrosia giggle to conquer what would have been the resulting awkward silence. At least the griffon had remembered to leave her completed homework on my desk. “Well, you can hear all about the annoying classroom antics of Twilight Sparkle, but since it’s lunchtime, I wouldn’t mind grabbing a bite with my favorite mare. Perhaps a little homemade pizza and a stroll through the park?”

“Actually,” she replied, simultaneously flicking her tail, “I was hoping you would be up for giving me a tour. You’re honestly enthusiastic about what you do. Since we taste each other’s cooking all the time, I thought it might be fun to try something different and see how a certain pegasus thinks on the job.”

Laughter burst from my lungs as I affectionately brushed my muzzle against Ambrosia. “Giving up a shot at homemade pizza!? Who are you, and what in Equestria have you done to my mare?”

A teasing gasp and a chortle later – and her teeth were pressed gently against my ear. My fur stood on end to the sudden sensation before her sultry whisper buried its way into one of my other senses. “There’s your bite. Now is it so wrong for me to want to explore the sciences?”

I flicked free from the confines of her nibble and sauntered to the entrance. A toothy grin flashed from my face as I pressed my hoof against the varnished door and pushed it closed. A snap from the gate’s metal wedge poked my perception, cuing my motion to the deadbolt latch. My heart thumped, and I turned to affix my gaze upon the brushed aluminum surface. This was it. This was the moment. Click.

“Heh, you should know that I’m always up for some education in the physical sciences, but…” I spun around after my brow had descended to build a frigid leer. “I wasn’t joking when I asked the question. I know the local engineers. There’s no way they would let that train be in maintenance for even an hour. Who are you, and what have you done with Ambrosia?”

The mare stepped back and held still as her sights briefly examined my frame. “I see, very perceptive, Professor. I’ve done nothing with your mare and will not attempt to do anything so long as you keep your voice down. Wouldn’t want all that information regarding the poor soundproofing in this establishment to go to waste.”

Her timbre shifted into something far more commanding than I had expected. Green flames burst from her body, burning away the lilac contours and amethyst locks until a towering black creature stood in the center of my office. Her irides captured the same iridescent hue of her magical fire; long, blue raspberry locks cascaded beneath the pinnacle of a jagged horn; and holes, yes holes, pierced the mare’s legs and translucent wings.

My jaw had fallen before the spectacle, and the pressure around my eyes made it feel as though they would leap from their sockets in an instant. My heart had sped to the possibility, but this went well beyond the realm of reason. This wasn’t some student pulling a dumb Magic 501 prank on me. It wasn’t even a wandering drone. The queen of the changelings was in my office. She had set those pointed fangs into my ear. She had played with my emotions for the one who had earned my heart and soul.

“Don’t even think about it,” Chrysalis spoke as her stare fell upon my leg. “Our little… foreplay… gave me more than enough time to read you like a book, pony. Your mind’s at work – probably calculating the odds of an attack rendering me powerless. I bested Celestia, and reading emotions is my specialty. You would have no chance if we met opposed on the fields of conquest. Thankfully for you, this visit concerns a different type of business altogether. I’ve come here seeking an ally.”

The shadows never really go away. They just wait for you to be ready to play with them again.

A Game of Targets
A State of Darkness – Arc 4

A Game of Targets - Installment 31 - Arc IV

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“You’re here seeking an ally?” My question emerged sounding less like a genuine inquiry and a lot more like a sarcastic, disbelieving charge. A tension sat in the back of my neck as I stared down the leader of Equestria’s bug-like menace, and I was certain that had I been able to check, I would have found my coat standing on end.

She waved off my tone with her foreleg. “Common feelings, Professor; you’re radiating common feelings. Distrust, anger, fear – they are bleeding from you as you speak, and I have felt them all before. The distrust you hold for me is unsurprising. It’s fueled by the passion you carry for protecting your special somepony, and it just might be unparalleled in all of Equestria. Your anger and fear, though, require a rather unusual palate. They’re bittersweet, utterly unfocused flavors in search of a needed direction.”

“An enemy of the state just appeared in my office while impersonating my fiancée. I think that establishes my direction pretty well enough,” I retorted with a harsh whisper before raising my volume to its normal level. “I didn’t ask for your analysis of my emotions either. Those things are my business and my business alone. So quit the crap and tell me why you’re here.”

“Ugh, you ponies are always so dramatic with your declarations. It’s none of my business. Ohh, you’ll never get away with this. We’ll stop you…” Mockery might as well have condensed from her breath as she rolled her wrist. “You’re dodging my statement. Your common emotions have such an uncommon root, and you’re willingly ignoring it. Your anger and fear are being torn asunder, and you’re using my presence as a crutch to bury yourself. It’s quite fascinating really. And by the way, emotions are always my business. It’s kind of my thing, so, because your instability is hindering my negotiating process, why don’t we try this again by stirring that supposedly academic mind of yours?

“Do you know how many times I’ve been told that I would never get away with something? Do you know how many times I’ve gotten exactly what I was after? The cliché is simply ridiculous. I always get away with it, little one. I always get what I’m after.”

“Are you out of your mind!?” I abruptly snapped my muzzle shut to the turning cog that panged my thoughts. The changelings had been utterly defeated in Canterlot. Shining Armor’s love-backed barrier dispelled the invasion with complete success. Chrysalis had been crushed, so was her statement a ploy? Could she just really be that delusional? Or was it something else?

“Then suddenly, the anger washes away, and his fear gets drowned by the thrill of the quest. That’s spot on with what your student said before I entered, wasn’t it? You’re a stallion simply in need of another fight in the dark. Go on then. Find yourself. Ask me the question that yearns to jump from the tip of your tongue.”

I nervously tapped my hoof against the floorboards as the words arranged themselves in my head. The mere notion that I had the chance to even ask would have spiked Trigger with envious satisfaction. In truth, he had considered it already. The whole debacle never made any sense – unless of course… “You lost the invasion on purpose, didn’t you?”

Muffled squeals of delight poured around her shushing hoof. “Somepony finally understands. Of course we failed on purpose. The typical love of ponies is decent, but there’s always a cost with our usual tactics. Insertion carries the weights of tragedy and deceit, and eventually the consequences win the war of attrition. We’re always left with a pressing need to complete what is unfinished – to feast until we are full. Nothing satisfies the chirping gullets of drones more than the joyful celebration of a victory. Stir some trouble, razzle the masses, and then let the heroine of the hour save the day.

“We take a bit of a beating in the process, but chitin is strong and the harvest more than makes up for the pain of the scuffle. However, that only works for so long. Invasions are a once-in-a-generation affair. It’s as you said; after one attack, I’m an enemy of the state. Repeated engagements would risk having the hives hunted down. Yet one raid isn’t enough, and the population is outgrowing what it can gather without crossing lines that cannot be uncrossed. So what exactly is a queen to do?”

I watched as she held her breath for several seconds. It was as if she was just waiting for me to actually answer – waiting for me to fill in the blanks with my own suite of responses. Her statements certainly prodded the academic in me. They pushed me to dig deeper, to scour the sea of possibilities that brought the changeling to my chamber, and to ascertain the unknown afflictions that plagued her kind. She was earning my sympathy, and she had almost pulled me away from the only question that mattered. What the hell did she do with Ambrosia?

Dull aches spread throughout my clenched jaw, the muscles in my legs tensed, and my wings flared to the wildfire inquiry that I had set blazing about my skull. “Utterly hopeless,” Chrysalis commented after her eyelids crafted a harshly cut scowl. “You’re coping poorly, and it makes for a terrible emotional platter. I already told you that I didn’t do anything to your precious pony, but I guess I can’t expect even a scientist to get it all upfront.

“I only took her visage to gauge… your sensitivity – I guess is what you’d call it – and to get a sample of Equestria’s newest commodity, of course. You should really be proud. The taste was exceptional, a noteworthy achievement considering the minimal quantity that I was allowed to experience. But that’s not the point. The point is that your original assessment was effectively correct. Her train left on time, and no ‘ling will dare touch her unless it’s a fool seeking an abrupt end. Please tell me that’s enough for you to connect the dots. Monologuing when one is not playing a villainous role is rather boring, and I’d hate to resort to insults at your intelligence.”

She’s safe. I almost whispered the statement aloud as I leaned back against the closed door. Relief washed over my frame like the cool breeze off the ocean in Manehattan – like home. In that instant, I had decided to believe the monarch. I had set my distrust aside and hoped that she was telling the truth. I just did not believe that she had a reason to lie. “Wait, did you just call my love a commodity?”

Her wings buzzed as she cantered around the desk and plopped upon my chair. “You were a busy pony several months ago. Manehattan sent vibes that even a drone could pick up from afar. The terror, the hate, and the light – all wrapped up in one single event – but Canterlot was something truly special. It grabbed my interest the moment the subtle strands of lavender and cinnamon seduced my senses. The yield was far greater than what I’d expect from a pair of ponies, and my research began. It didn’t take long to make the trace. Spying and reconnaissance are the staple benefits of being a changeling, though the griffon idiot assisted immeasurably.” Her fangs appeared behind a broadening smile. “I’m here to bargain for your services. How would you like to save a race… and make those necessary scuffles a thing of the past?”

On the other side of the Las Pegasus campus, Ashen Mystic stood beside her office window. The History Department had been housed in a much older building compared to those of the STEM fields. Of course, the rose-colored unicorn mare had absolutely no problem with such a location. She found comfort in the antique panes and the weathered stone bricks, for history was the one language best spoken to the reforming archaeologist.

“What am I doing here?” she mumbled as she scanned over the university grounds. “I should be looking after Kinetic. No! I should be locked away with Erzsevine…” Her vermillion eyes watered while the clouds of maternal worry fogged her head. Her chest burned to the ghostly stabs that turned her sanity to tatters. Part of her had been robbed by that creature of reverie. Part of her had been taken, and she did not know if what remained was the core or the shell. “I have to take the punishment.” The tears fell freely. “I have to atone for the lives I ruined… but… was that me even me?”

“Whoa,” a masculine voice pulled Mystic’s snout towards the doorway, “you haven’t had a bad day in a while, Ashen.”

She stared in silence as a large navy-blue earth pony waved to the guard standing in the hall. He crossed the threshold with a smile – as he had always done since being assigned as her research associate – and it did nothing but irritate the elder mare. She struggled to maintain her composure – to not allow her expression to contort beneath the onslaught of that toothy grin.

Deev Factor had been nothing but nice to her. In fact, the stallion seemed to have no limits when it came to kindness and sympathy. They were two more facets of his personality that pushed her closer to the brink of self-loathing madness. She cringed to the overwhelming torrents of memories – those packets drenched in the hatred towards other races – and she shook in their terrifying wakes whenever she dared to compare her thoughts against his actions.

The brown-eyed pony gradually approached the quaking Ashen Mystic. He brushed back a lock of midnight blue mane and drew in a deep breath. “Heheh,” he continued calmly, “you know I don’t like it when cute mares cry.”

She choked back a laugh as another wave of tears streaked through the fur on her muzzle. “You know how much I hate your dumb quips. You should save the smiles and attitude for those more… stable.”

Deev sighed after shifting beneath the canvas saddlebag draped upon his back. “You can’t undo what was done, but you shouldn’t lose sight of what’s already been accomplished.”

He fell silent once Ashen winced and snapped her head to the side. With a swift motion, the mare turned her flank upon the colt and battled through her sniffles. “It doesn’t matter what’s been accomplished, not right now. I’ll never be able to look out at that classroom… I’ll never be able to look without seeing their faces – the ones that I killed! The ones that I ruined! How can these foals stand to look at me?” She shoved a forehoof into her grey mane and panted. “Why did I even do it!? The reasons were taken from me! Why did I have all that hate? What can I even do about it now?”

The towering stallion took another couple steps towards the crumbling, crying Mystic. He lifted his foreleg and hesitantly held it above her withers before allowing it to delicately drop upon her coat. “There are things that not even the princesses understand. Things happen, and time moves on. I don’t know why you had all that hate, but the only hate you have now is the grief you give yourself – and the grief you give me.” He chuckled at the little witticism. “The report Wing shared when I arrived made it clear that a third party manipulated your judgment.”

“I still had control!” she spat sobbingly. “I still… did what I did. It doesn’t matter if somepony led me astray – or if a griffon was involved. It doesn’t matter if the underlying seeds of my anger were plucked from me by that thing. I still acted! I still was the monster!”

“There aren’t any monsters in this room now though, and I should know. You’re trying. I can tell how hard you’re trying, and your students see it too. Behind all the tears and uncertainty is a pretty big light. I’ve told you that before, and I’m happy to tell you it again.”

She twitched to Factor’s cadence, but her breathing had at least settled somewhat. In the pit of her mind, a fraught voice still yearned for her to deny his statements, yet something about his gentlecolt tones held the internal anxiety at bay. “I guess I should try to get ready for office hours, huh? Did you pick up my mail as usual?”

“Heh, we are getting pretty close to finals, so that’s probably a good idea.” Deev lifted his leg from its perch upon Ashen’s back and set it meandering about the saddlebag. “And, I sure did.” He retrieved a stack of envelopes from the trusted sack and promptly completed the delivery. “Anything for the cute mares.”

“Don’t push your luck, stallion. Your ability to calm me is infuriating.” She turned and dragged a leg across her muzzle to wipe away the staining trickles. A small smile was left in their steads, and the sight made Deev’s frame bounce with bit of joy. “Thank you,” Ashen continued, scooping the mail up before commencing the routine flip-through. “Garbage, garbage, gar.”

She froze, the smile on her face vanishing as quickly as it had appeared. The warming pep that had surged through the stallion’s body evaporated as worry gripped his beating heart. Ashen was trembling again, and her eyes appeared wider than he had ever seen them. “Ashen, what’s wrong? What is it?”

“Go get Wing,” she blurted fearfully before she let the pile fall from her hoof. “Go get him and bring him here. Please. Please do it now.” Her stare never drifted the upper-left corner of that envelope. It clung to the spot where she found two letters scribbled in place of a return address. W.W.

A Game of Targets - Installment 32 - Setting the Sights

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Her Royal Highness had thankfully opted to take a different disguise as we walked around the Las Pegasus campus. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked upon throwing her dark blue mane to the winds. “Even the Princess of Love would show a little green at the sight of this shimmering pink coat.” Her muzzle scrunched in a weak attempt to repress the giggle that inevitably followed.

“Is evoking the name of the princess whose wedding you exploited really the best idea?” I turned my head and caught the impish flicker that danced across her emerald iris.

“A marriage ceremony is one of the few times in an elder’s life when we have free reign to humiliate younger, more inexperienced individuals. I can assure you that I have collected suitable intel to compose a striking performance when you finally tie the knot.” She paused briefly to tap the bottom of her muzzle with her hoof. “Something about Batmare…”

Embarrassment set my brow twitching before a snort escaped my lungs. “You know, Chry- Excuse me! Aphrodite, I’ll happily invite you to my wedding to have your elderly fun – especially since you openly admitted that you’re an old nag.”

“Because I’ve never heard that one before…” Chrysalis scoffed. “We’ll need to work on your comebacks among ancients. But at least I have somepony to engage with in playful banter. You should have seen Captain Magic Barrier when he first came to the Hivelands to negotiate the post-invasion accord. It was like rolling the clock back a millennium. Thankfully, I had researched his wife, and that was sufficient to break the ice.”

“I am fairly certain that treaty also specified that you stay in the Badlands,” Barrier’s voice tugged our ears back – well, at least mine. “What are you doing here, and why are you harassing Wing?”

My assumption that Chrysalis remained unfazed proved correct the instant I saw her turn to face the scowling, protective stallion. “First, the Badlands is a name that holds no meaning to me, Captain. I am also here on a completely diplomatic pursuit, one that could facilitate a pre-emptive termination to any future hostilities. But as you decided to eagerly dig into our past in front of another, I will happily ask if you’ve lifted your wife’s namesake lately.”

Barrier grumbled audibly, and the scowl that had developed appeared to contort his expression even further. “Tail’s namesake is just fine. I am still waiting for a reason not to buck your ass back to the desert.”

Chrysalis gasped. “Why Barrier! It has been oh so long since you escorted me to dinner, and I hardly think your special somepony would appreciate the vulgar gesture. Now, please calm yourself. The only reason why you were even aware of my presence is because I made it happen. Not to mention, a couple of your princesses are already aware of this little soiree.

“Luna wanted it to be officially arranged, but that wouldn’t have been much fun at all. The poor dear spent a bit too much time on the moon…” The changeling queen pawed the walkway lightly. “That’s your hint that you should stop being such a stiff, too.”

I winced at that one, my inner voice wailing about the burn coming too soon, but the charcoal-coated stallion dropped his scowl and managed to shape a grin. “You are just as volatile as ever. Though given that Wing appears to be in sound condition and unperturbed, I shall simply stand in an observational role for now.”

“That’s his way of saying that he’s going to spy,” Chrysalis answered while flicking her hoof to enhance the word spy with air-quotes. “Anyway, as I was saying, my son’s brood views our repeated need to feast as a sign that our ancient laws need to be tossed aside. If we can de-weaponize your technology, particularly how you harness the magic that manifests between you and your special somepony, then I believe we can undermine his insurgency and mitigate the need to feast at all.”

The playful demeanor that had overtaken the guard departed as swiftly as it had arrived. Barrier’s brow descended, his lips tightened, and he crafted a stern countenance that made my serious stare pale in comparison. “You’re allowing her access to that?” he wailed incredulously. “That’s what’s going on here? We’re talking about the same stuff that made you endure my training just so Celestia and Luna would agree to your deal, right?”

“It’s not the same stuff,” I replied with a far quieter volume. “You know more than most what I’ve dealt with, Barrier, and you have to understand what this gives me. It’s like she said. They don’t need the weapons, but what they do need… I can help with that. It’s an opportunity to do some good – the right way.”

Barrier slipped a forehoof under his horn before a groan of reluctant sympathy dribbled from his throat. “I will get a confirmation from Luna that this unusual line of diplomacy garnered her approval. In the meantime, I will not interfere so long as Wing shows no signs that he is being manipulated into doing something that endangers himself or the State. Though, on another note, I am curious. Things were fine when I left the hive. Which son started an insurgency? What happened, and have you locked him up yet?”

“It was Duel,” Chrysalis responded while harshly whipping her tail. “I would have loved to let him experience the finer points of challenging my authority. Unfortunately, he already fled with his loyalists, which makes it even more imperative that toddler captains stay out of my way, especially those who can’t recognize diplomacy in action.”

“Enough,” Barrier retorted, “I’m not responsible for babysitting your son. In fact, that was your job, and it still is. Keep your quips to yourself. I have grown tired of them.”

I nodded. “Indeed, there’s no reason to angry Captain Barrier, Your Highness. In fact, it’s highly likely that I will need to enlist his assistance to make anything happen in the current political climate. I’m going to need to know more about this brood though. That could complicate things considerably. The dangers of my research are quite real, and the risks of improper proliferation are far from negligible.”

The changeling drew a long breath before releasing a marginally irritated sigh. “Duel is a shortsighted idiot. He challenged me after Canterlot, claiming that our rules were creating an undue burden on the hive. We debated the impacts of historical precedents, and I reminded him of the last child to break the taboo. Perhaps you remember it. It led to the fall of Griffonstone.

“Regardless, he managed to convince some of his brothers and sisters to repeat history. I understand where his feelings originate, but the only way to beat out the stupid is to mitigate the circumstances that have fostered those views.”

“Professor Wing!” Deev’s shout cut off the story. “Wing!” The blue stallion skidded to a halt in front of the three of us and huffed. Beads of sweat clung to his mane, which fell to the side in dampened, uncharacteristic clumps. “I need you to come to Ashen’s office. She was having another one of her…” He waved a foreleg. “…things. I thought she was doing better, but she just zoned out while flipping through her mail. I’ve never seen her like that before. She’s had a few breakdowns about what she did, but this seemed like something else entirely.”

I raised my hoof to silence the young researcher and glanced at the changeling queen. “Aph, if you don’t mind delaying your tale, I believe I have another pressing issue to deal with. I’ll be back shortly, Magic Barrier. If you wouldn’t mind keeping my guest company, I would appreciate it.”

The captain’s eye twitched midway through my final sentence, though at least he possessed the civility to wait until I was finished before uttering his retort. “Buck no,” he bit. “You’re not leaving me alone with your special guest. You’re not wandering into Ashen‘s office without me when there is a potential matter of concern either.”

Distrust radiated from Barrier, setting both Deev and the disguised Chrysalis into a state of recoil. “She’s not a bad pony,” the blue stallion mumbled, a maneuver that simply managed to draw more of Barrier’s ire.

“Yes, yes she is,” he snapped. “Her group nearly killed Wing. She launched a campaign of hatred across Equestria. She is far from a good pony.”

Factor stepped forward to confront the unicorn officer. Despite his role as an archaeology postdoc, Deev was not to be taken lightly in either the size or strength department. He stood just as tall as Barrier and had the muscle tone to boot. “She wouldn’t harm anypony anymore. She is redeeming herself.”

“Ha! She’s not bucking redeeming herself, Kid,” Barrier laughed, refusing to yield any ground. “Living with a punishment for one’s actions is not an act of redemption. Have you ever sent a foal to a timeout and called her sitting there redemption? Would you call a colt doing his homework the art of recovery? I don’t give a shit what you do on your own bits. If you trust Ashen Mystic, that’s good on you. I’ve got no say in how you spend your time. But if you come between my business of protecting one of Equestria’s greatest assets and me, then I will lay you the fuck out.”

I threw my foreleg between the two stallions after taking a step forward. “Boys, slow down. Deev, Barrier has a vested interest in my security. He was my DI. Luna knows he practically broke and rebuilt me along the way. It's a guard thing. They don't give that chip up easily, and I wouldn't expect him to do so.” Barrier’s chest puffed out at the perceived victory, which I took pride in quickly deflating. “As for your comments, Captain, I would call those things learning.

“I know the seriousness of the situation. I was there. You’re aware of the circumstances that led to the deal Ashen received. Yes, I agree that she has to overcome the consequences seeded by her past self. However, I also believe that she is capable of doing so. Since you won’t stay with Ms. Aphrodite, then we might as well end the needless bickering and all go see what is bothering Ashen.”

“Ashen,” Deev spoke as he stepped inside the office, “I found Professor Wing.” After a few seconds, he looked back at me with a concerned grimace that focused my attention on the elder mare. The pony had made no effort to acknowledge our arrival, and aside from the fluctuations in her figure from breathing, she stood perfectly still.

“Mystic, what’s going on?” Again, there was no response. “Ashen?” Nothing… The resulting groan that fled my muzzle drew the defensive Barrier to my flank, but my thoughts sat centered upon the task at hoof. I’ve never seen her this spooked. Deev said it started while she was checking her mail. Is that what has got her completely out of it? Is that the tell? Her eyes… They had not blinked. They had not moved. They had remained thoroughly transfixed on the clutter of envelopes dumped upon the floor. Now, which one?

The charcoal-colored unicorn at my side twitched while I performed my analysis. One of his hooves scraped the floor, measuring out the lull in the conversation with grating scratches that reflected his remerging agitation. “Hey, you called him here. Are you going to answer him, or are you just going to stand there?”

Aphrodite sprung into the room after it was blessed with several Barrier huffs. “Leave it to the stallions to lack the necessary scrutiny.” She pivoted on one of her legs, scooped a single letter from the pile, and set her sights upon Ashen. “It’s this one, is it not? The one with the two W’s?”

Clarity popped in my brain as though it were a wintered cabin that had just had its windows opened to a warm, refreshing breeze. The memories of all those reports regarding the EHVM incident surged forward, and Ashen’s fright suddenly made sense. “Wire Wise…”

The name snapped Mystic back to reality. Her senses rapidly took in the visitors before her, and the pace of her breath quickened considerably before a gentle pat from Deev appeared to reduce the unicorn’s worries.

“Isn’t that the name of your former intelligence operative?” Barrier questioned flatly. He stared coldly at the mare, who simply responded with a nod. “Wing, wasn’t he the one with ties to Conrad as well?”

“Yes, he was. The stallion is definitely a repeat offender.” I paused, taking a second to pluck the letter from the grasp of Chrysalis. “Ashen, thank you – for calling us here. Given the history, I think we should look at the contents of this envelope together. Are you okay with this?”

The mare had not even completed her agreeing answer before Barrier’s magic took hold of the correspondence. “No enchantments,” he continued in his cool, brusque military tenor. Having delivered the all-clear himself, the captain tore open the envelope with a rheostatic spell and lifted the note from its pouch.

Two distinct sections leapt from the page as I scanned the document. The bottom half of the script had been written in a completely foreign language that was undoubtedly meant for Ashen’s eyes only. The top part, however, was a personal memo written in Equestrian. While it addressed the mare personally, the wording had certainly been chosen with a larger audience in mind. He knew we would be watching…

Dearest Ashen,

Your slavers have done to you exactly what you predicted when standing before the followers of our great cause. Have they made you forget? Have they erased your memory like they did with me? They killed you. They turned you into nothing more than a husk of a unicorn that just so sadly happens to fester in the shadow of her once great self. Hate them for it, Ashen. The words they made you speak – the words the Crowns rammed into your throat – touched many in our ranks with a treacherous brand of poison. But fear not, for they did not touch all. We can save you. We can save poor Erzse and salvage the soul of Kinetic Haze. We can bring you back into the light and give you the love and strength that you genuinely need. Your captors have given you counterfeits. Do not believe them. They’ve stood beside you to merely feed empty promises that have eroded your message. When the time is right, we will save you. Mark the words. We will come...

A fresh wave of tears soaked Ashen’s muzzle as she absorbed every hate-drenched phrase. She choked back a hiccup as the violent stab at her identity sank in, and I knew that this was a terror that would be faced sooner or later.

Barrier coughed, obviously less swayed by the display of raw emotion that had contorted the mare’s visage. “What does the rest say?”

“I… I’m not sure. It’s definitely… a Neighlic style script, but I haven’t seen this specific language before.” Ashen hesitated a moment as though she expected a scolding from the captain. “However, Wire did leave a clue. His statement to mark the words – that’s not meant to reinforce his intent. It’s a tag that I should use my special talent to analyze his writing.”

“Please proceed,” I affirmed her conclusion and watched as her horn flared to life. Cerise tendrils mixed with the aura of Barrier’s light, prompting the unicorn stallion to rapidly retract his magical hold from the intimate contact.

After roughly a minute of probing the page, the glow faded and the note dropped to the ground. “The ink has a rather unique composition,” she informed the group. “It has a pigment that comes from a soil found only in the southeastern portion of the Badlands. This is likely more in your court, Mr. Factor. It’s likely that it’s a changeling writing style. If you could begin researching translation possibilities, it would be appreciated.”

My head gradually swiveled to face Chrysalis. Barrier’s reaction, the ongoing chatter between Ashen and Deev, and even the ambiance of the chamber itself fell away as I sought to extract some knowledge from the ruler. Visible wrinkles had formed around her eyes, and her mouth rested agape. I realized in that instant that we would not have to wait for Deev’s translation. She knew. And whatever it was – was far from good.

Calculated steps moved the changeling monarch from her position until she was close enough to press her muzzle to my ear, and three words emerged with an anxious strain that besmirched her typical confidence. “Your lab, now.”

A Game of Targets - Installment 33 - A Pony Marked

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I threw open the heavy door to my lab and stepped inside the wonderful realm. A few graduate students had congregated at the table set up by the all-wall chalkboard. Normally, this was where I would outline a plan of attack for a research proposal – or just shoot the shit with my underlings. Unfortunately, in this instance, my newest research associate – Princess Twilight Sparkle – was busy putting my enthusiastic workhorses to sleep.

“Newbies, Code Black.” My voice broke them from their stupors, and each of them knew the ramifications of that phrase. DarkOps business was going down, and they needed to get the hell out. Chrysalis had obviously been thorough in her scouting. The lab walls were thicker. There was more privacy here. It was the perfect place to have a candid discussion, and she had been aware of that fact.

The students left without raising a fuss, and I gave an appreciative nod to each of them before the persona known as Aphrodite, with Captain Magic Barrier in tow, guided Twilight back into the room. “Not you,” she chirped. “We’re going to need you. The timetable on this plan just got moved up.”

“Huh?” Twilight moaned. Her tilted head and splayed ears betrayed her confusion, and she blinked a few times at the sight of the pink earth pony closing and locking the entrance after Barrier had cleared the breach. “What do you need me for?” She paused a moment, allowing time for her eyes to scrutinize the stranger. “You do look a bit downtrodden. Are you having a friendship problem? I can really help with those! I was just explaining to Wing’s students about the magic of friendship and all of the wonders it can bring Equestria.”

“Sparkleface,” Chrysalis deadpanned, “you’re absolutely insufferable. Adults are about to talk, and we are both going to need you to listen. You’re good at that, right? Celestia always praised you for it. Just consider this to be the ultimate organizational task…” The changeling hesitated and dropped her magical façade. “… because I have lost the luxuries of time.”

The Princess of Friendship squeaked and leapt onto the table in a frantic retreat. Her barrel heaved with panicked breaths as a purplish light danced around her horn. “Changelings!” The squeal pinned my ears to my head. “And you!” Her tone took on an aggressive demeanor as she crouched – a spring ready to unload. “You will pay for what you did to my brother! And you will pay for what you did to my friends!”

Castfire erupted from her forehead and rocketed towards the changeling queen until Barrier’s quickly erected shield absorbed the attack. Her gaze flickered between the unicorn stallion and myself – the ramifications of the event obviously dripping through her thought processes. “Yes, Twilight,” I interjected. “That means what you think it does. Barrier is actually Captain Barrier, and I am the real Wing.”

A smirk practically crawled along Chrysalis’s midnight muzzle. “The poor dear looks like she’s quivering. Would you like me to walk you through this one, Princess? You seem a little lost, and frankly, it’s a bit cringe-worthy to watch in real time.”

“Not helping,” I chided the taunting royal. Twilight visibly strained to make sense of what was transpiring before her. The Princess of Friendship was notorious for overthinking problems – if the twenty page report I read on the Smarty Pants incident made any indication – and I feared that she would do it again.

“She must be controlling your minds!” the mare exclaimed. Her hoof gesticulated with what I dubbed the academic flair, whereas my hoof promptly found my face.

“Twilight, just scan me so we can get this shit over with. We seriously don’t have time for this. I’m in control of my own actions – kind of like the time I booted you out of my class for the endless question disruption.”

“What difference would that make? Either way, you’re aiding Chrysalis. She nearly ruined my brother’s wedding. She controlled his mind and sent both Cadance and me into the caves beneath Canterlot! You’re either being controlled, or you’re actively assisting someone who poses a danger to all of Equestria!”

Chrysalis unleashed a dramatic groan. “Child, shut your muzzle and think. Why would I send the one pony who saw through my disguise to the one pony that could reveal my presence to the masses? Do you honestly believe that Celestia, a bona fide goddess with the power to move heavenly objects, could be bested in a single, pathetically brief exchange of magic with another regal entity? I have other things to discuss with these stallions that are far more troubling, so I’ll just spoil the ending. The invasion was theater – nothing more, nothing less.”

“You still imprisoned Cadance, used your magic to hurt Shining Armor, and took advantage of their–”

“Love cannot be faked!” Chrysalis roared back, finally silencing Twilight Sparkle’s outbursts. “Yes! I used your brother. It was done for the good of an entire race, and your rulers were in on the act. Where do you think Luna was that whole time – pissing the hours away? I’ll give you a hint, Princess. She was orchestrating your special forces so the assets actually capable of killing would be out of the way. Would you rather have me hoof-deliver an apology and grovel before your sister-in-law instead of saving my kind? We are all standing in the room with the pony whose technology could end the need for raids, and you’re griping about a parlor trick. Think about what happened in both Canterlot and Manehattan and put the pieces together. Now ask yourself if you still want to bitch or if you would rather learn about the maggots who want to screw up my plan.”

Both Barrier and I angled our snouts towards Chrysalis. Her last sentence reverberated within my thoughts, and based upon the expression dotting my colleague’s countenance, I made the assumption that he was thinking the same thing I was. “You were able to read that shit on the bottom, were you not?” He beat me to the punch.

The monarch’s muzzle descended briefly while she gave a curt nod. “I know that my son is involved with the pony who sent that letter. He’s the only rogueling with knowledge of my royal language. It is inconceivable that he would share something that personal with an outsider, but alas, it is merely a trivial concern compared to the content. This pony is aware of Wing’s technology, yes? This means that Duel is also now in the know.”

Twilight’s irritation lessened as she listened to the explanation from the changeling queen. The drive to fight that had shaped her expressions had morphed into something that teetered far closer to genuine concern. “And what does this have to do with me?” she interrupted with a voice laden by anxiety-induced inflexions.

“Time is in short supply, Twilight Sparkle. Your status as the Princess of Friendship provides a voice that can move others to action. It may very well be needed to set a proper pace.” Her head swiveled to face me. “Duel has skewed beliefs, idiotic beliefs, but the nymph actually has a brain. He will piece together the rationale that inevitably led me here – if he has not done so already. That alone places you, and all the things you care about, at risk.”

“Protection details then.” Barrier’s gaze matched his tone – focused, steady, and commanding. “I’ll start grabbing those I trust to tend to your research staff. You should probably consider calling in your ponies to handle the tech, Wing. And then…” The lights of the lab flickered off the surface of his eyes. They were quivering; he was hesitating, and Barrier was never one to hesitate. “A security team should be assigned to Ambrosia.”

A gasp arose from Twilight that pulled our collective attention. Quills were already hovering around the mare as they set their tips upon multiple scrolls. “I’ll send word to Celestia and Luna right away. The Royal Guard can be dispatched to look after Ambrosia, and notice can be forwarded to those in Professor Wing’s department.”

“Don’t send guards to Amby,” I countered before shuffling a bit over the tile floor. “I don’t want to disrupt her life with problems that I caused. Send the order to Manehattan instead, Ms. Sparkle, specifically to the Chain of Blossoms flower shop on the corner of Bridleway and Trotter. Trigger will keep an eye on her, and he is practically family.”

“And please do mention that one of mine is already keeping tabs on the subject of interest.” Chrysalis paused to receive the glare that I thrust her way. “What? I told you that I came to bargain for your services. She is definitely part of that service. I am not having anyone get in the way of the most promising endeavor I have seen in centuries. How do you think I collected all that intel, and why do you think I told you that any ‘ling would be eviscerated if harm was brought to her?”

I inhaled sharply and stared upon the imposing creature – a perplexing mix of smugness, concern, distress, and genius. “I’m both a bit creeped out and flattered.”

“That’s the best way to deal with those unfathomably younger than oneself. Consider that your first lesson in properly constructing enjoyable conversations with ancient beings, but there will be time for that later. I believe Princess Twilight should get on with the correspondence.”

The purplish alicorn hummed and commenced with the appropriate dictation. There actually were certain circumstances in which the zealous academic’s brute tenacity paid dividends, and the distribution of information was one of those cases – provided, of course, that the recipient could tolerate the verbose text. With a flicker of her magical aura, the scribed letters vanished, leaving in their wakes a contented Twilight who basked in the glow of the finished task.

“Company,” Chrysalis huffed before her muzzle furrowed. Her gaze, following the fluid pivot of her head, shifted to the abruptly unlocked and opened door. The royal's ears perked to the squeak that radiated from the mouth of a tumbling orange unicorn, and her tail flicked aggressively once Mosaic Breeze stepped through the yawning entrance.

The white pegasus brandished a scowl while she leered at the sprawled mare. “Code Black, huh?” she sputtered. “I caught two trying to listen in. One bailed, but I chased this one down.” Her yellow eyes briefly glanced to Queen Chrysalis before she shrugged. “Wreaking havoc again, Wing?”

Chrysalis did not yield a moment for me to answer. She stepped forward and slammed her hoof down in front of the startled, prone pony. “I don’t sense your emotions, child.” She glared at the unicorn’s reddish irides and sun-kissed mane. “Drop the act, and tell me exactly what you are doing here.”

“Queen Chrysalis,” the unidentified eavesdropper whimpered, “y-you’re too late. King Duel will learn the details of your plan. He will respond. He will move us forward. He will–”

“Insolent brat,” the monarch shouted, slamming her hoof down again as her countenance contorted to air her disgust. “King Duel!? King? Nymph, you do not know the meaning of king! A king would not cast aside the rules that have kept our hive intact for millennia. Duel is no king; he is but a prince in his pod, and he will not stop me from ending his delusions. My plan is already in motion! Look at these ponies! Look at how they have set aside their hatred and trepidations to help us!”

I see, I pondered as my ears corralled Chrysalis’s words. The mare is a changeling, too. I shifted my focus towards Mozy and quickly flicked my hoof. “Mosaic Breeze, Queen Chrysalis, and likewise. I’m sure you're capable of connecting the dots on this one. We’ll be aiding the hive by constructing a civilian well of the A&W shell type. You’ll be in charge of all student and associate handling.”

Scraping her hooves against the floor, the disguised changeling drew my attention with the percussive rumblings. However Mozy had responded, her acknowledgement of my decree fell upon deaf ears. I was studying the peculiarities of our confounded and uninvited observer. Anguish tugged at her muscles while she alternated her focus between the still-looming queen and me, and I did not need superequine powers to determine that a debate waged war across her mind. A jolt ran through my limbs at this realization. Cornered warriors do not make good company...

When the gulp of air filled her lungs, my wings unfurled instinctively. The deafening scream that followed pinged the reflexes of those around me, but I had already raised my leg and primed my hoof. “I’ll kill you!” she wailed upon springing into a charge. Her disguise dissolved in the rush, revealing a black horn that emitted daggers of green fire. Rage had blossomed beneath her pony mask, and that resolution remained etched upon her glare. “Then nothing will stand in the way of our king!”

Horns flared into action, and Mozy’s frame crouched in anticipation of the tackle she felt destined to execute. Wisps of vapor spiraled around my leg and compressed into a small sphere in the time it took the changeling to take another stride. Before my comrades could engage, I threw my hoof forward, guiding the ever-darkening tuft, and unloaded the garnered electric charge into the bug’s carapace.

Her eyes widened. The determination in her efforts had been immediately replaced by dread. The scream that had so excellently startled the room collapsed into a whimper that paired well with her crumbling figure. “I have other plans. I’m not going to leave her like that, and I am certainly not going to let your king endanger Equestria.” I rendered my own resolute leer for the panting changeling.

“I’ll scramble my squad to be on the lookout for the other one. Maybe we can catch up and intercept before the bug makes it home.”

Barrier’s assertion was met with nod from Chrysalis, who had taken a few moments to glance over my frame before stepping towards her downed objector. She set her leg upon the nymph’s charred shell and pressed downward with enough force to yank a pained squeal from the creature’s muzzle. “Set your sights upon the Macintosh Den, Captain. That’s where Number Two will be heading.” The words sent the pinned captive squirming. “Your archaeologist revealed another exciting clue, Professor. My forsaken son has started his campaign with diamond dogs. Isn’t that right, Dear?”

A Game of Targets - Installment 34 - The First of Many

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“I asked you a question!” Chrysalis roared as she brought her hoof down upon the smaller changeling once more. The bug squeaked but otherwise remained defiant. The sovereign would clearly have nothing to do with this resistance. Her tail flicked. Her leg tensed, and she bashed away until a sound akin to a splintering drumstick sent a shiver along my spine. My ears pinned back after the percussive barrage, and my eyes quickly caught sight of the crack that formed on the nymph’s carapace. “Confirm it!”

We endured yet another agonized screech as the queen went about demanding further information. For some reason, my attention slid to Twilight Sparkle, whose body had been gripped by the shakes. “Enough,” she wailed, having gathered enough resolve to challenge the monarch. “I don’t know how you deal with your subjects, Chrysalis, but that is not how we deal with things here.”

Chrysalis snapped her head upward and glared at Twilight. “This ingrate has betrayed my rule and has forsaken our ancient law. You don’t maintain a hive by breaking the rules at whim!” A breath rapidly filled her lungs before an exasperated sigh rose above the diminished whimperings of the injured spy. “However, you have agreed to help us despite previous circumstances, so… I will comply with your request for now.”

“Thank you,” the Princess of Friendship answered before releasing a sigh of her own – this one of a far more relieved variety. “I believe we have enough information to handle the immediate situation. Captain Barrier, as stated, the guard business is up to you. Please proceed.”

“If I can’t use these, then stop me now.” The unicorn quickly snatched his own set of papers and utensils from the lab stash before beginning to ink his orders. He did not wait for my input, and in some senses, it was almost as if I were staring at some distant relative of my overeager research associate. “Las Pegasus Reserve to active sentry duty, and Las Pegasus 1st to combat alert.

“Unicorns with teleportation abilities can establish a parameter before the Badlands. Pegasi will pursue the target and either apprehend the suspect or pin it to the barricade. Wing, the command of the flight team will be up to you and Mosaic. Leaving these two alone with Princess Sparkle is not an option. Oath and all… And I’m pretty sure her brother would get really upset with me.”

“Because upsetting Prince Shining Armor is clearly a threat to all of Equestrian society,” I responded with a chortle before waving down the ruffled Twilight. “Mozy, let’s get flying; and Chrysalis, make sure the toddler behaves. You’re trusting me with your problem, and I’m trusting you with them.”

A mischievous smile contorted the features of the monarch’s muzzle while she returned my gaze. With a slight shift of her imposing frame, she reasserted her grasp on the mutinous underling and held the pose for display. Soon, an exaggerated tapping radiated from her mouth. She stood tall. Self-satisfaction dripped from her demeanor, and she appeared to merely bask in our little, silent moment until I uncovered the subtle ploy. She was clicking off the seconds with her tongue. Oh, that cheeky changeling… Time was a-wasting.

Mozy pushed a hurried pace as we made our way to the exit. Venting huffs emerged from her snout with every breath, and every now and again, she shot me a determined scowl that left me waiting for the inevitable. “I should have bagged the second one!” she finally unloaded. “Do you have any idea how hard it is going to be to track down a changeling on the run!?”

“I’m afraid I don’t, and neither of us was in Canterlot during the invasion fiasco. However, I can definitely foresee the problems. I’m sure the disguise has been swapped by now. We’ve also got to put some hope in the perimeter holding, so there’s no way of knowing if our dragnet will work. Nonetheless, you threw a wrench into the bug’s plan. We’ll just have to play the odds that you unsettled her enough to make for an easy spot.”

“I’m more worried about the local guard. They’re good, but we’re going to be the only ones in the air that have done anything close to this. The two of us are going to have to get them on the page quickly if…”

The line of LP1 ponies that had gathered outside of the physics building forced Mozy to yield to a sheepish smile. “You got here fast,” I called to the saluting fliers after popping a quick salute of my own. “I’d expect nothing less from a squad that’s had to put up with Barrier for a few months. Should have seen him as a drill instructor.”

How proud my former captain would have been to see the shivers that raked their coats and rattled their armor. It was almost tragic that seconds were critical. “We’re flying east until we hit your unicorn mates. Mosaic and I will take up the flanks of the column – half-klick spacing and altitude, one klick per minute. Target is a changeling, so relying on visuals is fairly hopeless. Keep watch for unusual behavior and movement as we get over the desert. If something looks out of place, then do anything to spread the news down the formation.”

“Just in case, the subject was last seen as a tan earth mare with a short cut maroon mane.” Mozy took a look up and down the row. “We appreciate that you’re here. Just keep in mind that we don’t know the combat abilities of this adversary. Do not engage alone. Colonel Wing and I have more experience, so get us first and remember strength in numbers. Since this is a pursuit, if we reach the barricade without a spot, we'll double back and check again.”

I nodded and glanced over the group myself. With the number that heeded the call, we’d have a 6.5 kilometer spread of coverage. It wasn’t ideal. If the changeling took a wide path out of the city, then there was a significant chance we’d miss her. There was also the issue that all of these guards were green. None of them had seen combat, and each pony peered at me with loyal, yet utterly jumpy expressions.

Almost all, that is. My sights set upon a rather slender stallion. Gunmetal strands clouded the visible bits of his snowy mane, which happened to sit atop a very theme-appropriate light blue coat. For an instant, I eyed the bat-like wings folded about his barrel. It appeared that Barrier had pulled more than just pegasi into the Las Pegasus unit, and normally, the unique feature would be a significant draw. However, in this case, my attention affixed itself to the stallion’s frosty stare. Unlike his companions–

“What are you staring at? Never seen a thestral before?” the stallion asked in a strained tone that had been edged by irritation.

A chuckle swelled in my lungs and muzzle before I unleashed it upon the troops. “I have, actually – and quite a few times at that. No need to get defensive, Mister…”


“Mister Esamir, believe it or not, I was staring at you for a completely different reason. Namely, your demeanor carries a drive that your fellow guards could use as an example. So why don’t we just terminate that other subject before shit needlessly gets started? Rolling out sounds like a much better idea.” Not waiting for a response, I pivoted towards the east on one of my hind hooves and started to hover. “I’m taking the left. Hold my reference; now let’s go.”

“Where are you?” I asked aloud while scanning the wasteland. It had been quite some time since I had flown out this way, and once again, the occasion was far from ideal. The stillness of the desert managed to antagonize my wavering pulse. Just like before, there was danger lurking in the sands and crawling amongst the scattered crags. Just like before, there was a struggle against the unknown. Intelligence was everything – not really – but the point was semi-valid. Intercepting the second changeling would keep the roguelings in the dark. It would keep the upper hoof firmly in Chrysi’s court.

We were already halfway to where I expected the unicorn blockade to have established its line. My brow furrowed as the pains of discouragement began to trail behind my wandering thoughts. They were soon replaced by the pains of a different beast. My nearest neighbor had broken her spot in the formation. She was closing rapidly, and her screaming finally reached my ears over the backdrop of the winds.

“Colonel! Esamir dropped down! We think he engaged the target!” The guard winced to the scowl that undoubtedly obliterated my composure. Mosaic’s orders had been crystal clear; do not engage without us! “He fell out about two klicks back…” I had already spun around and set my bearings. The damn kid with the drive had been in the center of the row…

“Fall into the center and get away from me,” I barked at the mare, giving her a little time before pitching my wings to shift into threshold augmented flight. The rush of rapid acceleration swiftly permeated my frame, and drag forces yanked at my coat until my manipulation of the rainboom barrier was complete. Even in the arid climate, stormy trails brewed in my wake throughout the maneuver, which lasted for only the eight seconds it took to cover the required distance.

Quick breaths fled my snout and my heart pounded fervently throughout my deceleration and descent. The cacophonies of cries and screams dragged my focus over what appeared to be a rock farm. Finally, I caught sight of an earth pony leaning over Esamir’s sprawled figure. Even from this altitude, I could spot the red that marred his coat. Mosaic’s orders had been given for a reason. They had been given so this would not happen.

“I’m coming, Mister!” The wail of a filly pierced the air right when I landed. She scrambled forward, carrying a wad of bandages that nearly eclipsed her dark brown body. The grey-toned mare that knelt beside Esamir turned to the youngster and beckoned her with a frantically waving foreleg.

I choked down the desire to shout and stifled the tremors that made my muscles burn. I wanted to deliver the bitch-out of a lifetime to the unconscious guard who lay motionless beneath the caring grip of another. His tarnished breastplate had been removed and set aside. It was thoroughly destroyed by several penetrating impacts, and his helmet appeared as if it had taken a blunt blow on top of all that.

A scream built in me, but it had nothing to do with the broken orders or shattered armor. The sight of blood speckled about the child’s fur displaced that rage and pushed me to Esamir’s flank. “What happened here?” I asked, drawing the attention of the mares – both of whom looked towards me with relieved expressions.

The bandages promptly made the journey into my hooves, and I began to wrap the gouges that had torn into the thestral’s barrel. “My daughter screamed and a pair of diamond dogs suddenly attacked her. I tried to reach her, but I couldn’t….” Water distorted the blue hues of her irides as tears began to flow. “He swept out of the sky and saved her…”

“I saw a changeling,” the filly added quietly before shifting a bit closer to her mother’s side. She paused for a moment to examine the rise and fall of Esamir’s chest. “Is he going to be okay? He… Umm...”

She fell silent as the others arrived. They all stood with the same quiver in their legs, wondering why their comrade had ignored the standing command and if he’d be alright. “Get him back to Las Pegasus. Mosaic and I will finish the sweep on our own.” A momentary pause held while I took my own time to listen to the stallion’s breathing. “He’ll be okay, but I’m sure that when he wakes up, he’ll be asking about how you are.”

“Umm… I’m fine. He… Umm… He did a really good job fighting the mean dogs. He made them run off despite getting hurt.”

Before stepping back, I gave the filly a gentle pat and spoke in the warmest voice I could muster. “And I'm happy that you are safe. The nice guards are going to take Mr. Esi back to Las Pegasus now. Is that okay? They’re his friends, so they’ll treat him really well.” She smiled at that, and I took the small victory as the perfect opportunity to withdraw to Mozy’s position.

The alabaster pegasus repeatedly raked the dirt with an errant hoof. “What now?” she asked in a raspy whisper that had been laced with aggression.

“We go to the unicorns and escort them,” I replied after setting my gaze towards the Macintosh Hills. “A pair of diamond dogs attacked Esamir, which means our changeling has an evacuation team – a diamond dog evacuation team easily capable of underground transport. The getaway will likely impact us in a bad way, and I’m sure that both of us are primed to go all out. However, no matter how much we may try to delude ourselves, tight underground places are no spots for pegasi.” It had been quite a while since I had said it in such a defeated tone. “We’re going home.”

A Game of Targets - Installment 35 - Interlude for a Rival

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Regal, lumbering, and proud, King Bernard moved through the tunnels of the Macintosh Den with a swift speed that was uncommon for a dog of his size. His brown and white coat danced oddly with the crystal-backed lighting, and the pairing created an optical illusion that still managed to pull the attention of a few armored guards.

The forward-facing nature of his lime-kissed stare remained unwavering as his stride brought him ever closer to the large chamber that was his secure enclave. Bernard could already spot part of the group that had gathered around his gem-encrusted table. Self-satisfaction tugged at the corners of his lips as he watched his brethren. Leaning forward with anticipation plastered upon their masks, they waited for him. They yearned to hear his voice. They sought the full extent of his wisdom. When he had first arrived, the mutts had called him chief. Now, he made sure that they followed the example of those closest to him. Everyone called him king.

Sweet, alluring, and intoxicating, the saccharine scent of silent praise filled his nose. His pulse rushed to the elation that swelled from the sight of his innermost circle rising to greet him as he made his entrance. It was simply further evidence that he had been correct all along. If only Mother could understand. “Thank you for assembling on such short notice. We have urgent business that needs to be discussed.” His gaze slid beyond the council of diamond dogs to a tan unicorn seated adjacent to his spot. “Please seal the room, Wire, and I do mean completely.”

The stallion quickly nodded to acknowledge the command – though his ears had immediately swiveled back. “There’s something about the way you talk, Your Highness,” he uttered after his horn crackled with emerald-tinted magic, “that reminds me that I am no longer amongst my own kind.”

Bernard dropped into the velvet plush of his seat and sat stoically until the distrusting pull of Wire’s spell could be felt from all directions. The constructed shield blacked out the entrance, nullified the transmission of sound, and ensured their privacy. “I haven’t met a pony that speaks as I do… However, the coarse grit that drips from this stupid mutt’s form is quite useful for effect.”

Green licks whisked away the furry façade, leaving behind a shimmering seafoam carapace and the glossy black body of the changeling prince. “Our excursion into Las Pegasus indeed yielded interesting results,” Duel informed the entourage, “and validated Wire Wise’s worth to our cause. My mother has gotten involved with this Wing pegasus.

“The events that took place in Canterlot and Manehattan earlier this year threaten to shape our world, and we simply cannot allow that. My mother has chosen to rely on the misguided fiction of old in her search for success. She seeks more love by lowering our species to the whims of others. Love is meaningless if we have to continue to belittle ourselves to obtain it! It is meaningless if we sacrifice all other emotions for one given with an asterisk and a hoofnote.

“Just look at what we have done here! We have usurped a nation by breaking the mold. We garnered all of the food we needed by slaughtering those in our way. We have opened ourselves to the wonderful nourishment provided by admiration, worship, fear, and chaos. Now my mother aims to take it away despite being ignorant of our progress. Think about how she firmly held onto history without seeing the present or future, and that in doing so, our ability as a species to harvest Equestria was damaged to the point that further hindrances upon us became necessary.

“If she had done her job as queen correctly, she would have learned centuries before I was born that there is no need to adhere to a tainted legacy of nomadic raids – and that there is certainly no need to restrict ourselves to inefficient farming. Now threatened by our independence movement, she’s masking her defeat by turning to an equine to save her ass!

“However–” The elevated eagerness in his tone subsided into a tranquil tenor. “We know her game. There is uncertainty lingering in her hive, and it is exploitable. Her stability is dependent upon the success of her new partnership. At all costs, we must ensure that it fails.”

Wire Wise leaned over the table. His muzzle scrunched, and his brow sculpted a firmly cut scowl. “We need to get Ashen out of that university and away from those that have brainwashed her! If she’s freed from her confines, then the EHVM will be restored. And it can lend its full assistance in your own battle against ignorance.”

Duel pressed his peppered forelegs against the tabletop and snapped his head towards Wire. “I’m not concerned with Ashen at the moment. She’s a valuable asset to you. I understand that, but she is not a valuable asset to me.” He flicked his tongue to feast upon the undulation of the unicorn’s emotions. “Calm yourself. I am not trying to be snide. I’m simply warning that the obsession with Ashen will undermine our broader goals. She isn’t needed to build an empire. You’re the one who wasn’t caught, after all.”

Another flick of the tongue followed the obvious softening of the pony’s stance. The stallion had settled back into his chair and attempted to relieve his frustration with a slowly drawn sigh. “Then what do you think our course of action should be, King Duel?”

The changeling retracted one of his legs and propped up his muzzle. His grin widened as the seconds passed, and his gaze drifted to a half-lidded, defocused stare. “It sounds to me as though you are itching for a direct conflict, Wire. You have history with Ashen, and my mother’s newest ally has a history with you.

“However, a direct engagement does not benefit either of our objectives. Our population had to be persuaded to send members of the tribe outside the Denlands, and those removed from this circle who were involved in the extraction weren’t particularly thrilled to have been in a fight with a pony. I need them to be inspired should a direct conflict become necessary, and the fact that they are not prepared to make that commitment could push the finish line beyond our reach. A premature assault also runs the risk of bringing the full weight of the Equestrian royals upon us.

“It also–” Duel took the time to turn his head to briefly face each member of his council before setting his sightline back onto the unicorn. “–does not fit your data mining skill sets. Those are best put to use elsewhere, and in fact, I find your participation to be central to mutual success. While our invasion was a farce, the overwhelming majority of equinity remains in the dark on the subject. The stupid, little treaty my mother brokered with Captain Barrier limited our reach in Equestria, but it did manage to alleviate the fear felt by ponies.

“I ask you all to consider this notion. What do you think would happen if newspapers in every major city printed reports that Queen Chrysalis had broken the accord by leaving the Hivelands? What if you were one of those ponies reading? How would you react to the news that one of your recent heroes was suddenly thrown into the discourse? What if your hero was actively supporting the species that last invaded your capital?”

Murmurs serenaded Duel as he happily allowed his stillness to propagate – to motivate his loyal subjects into thoughtful action. “I’d be furious,” one of them finally sharpened a tongue against the slur of legato notes. “I’d demand answers. I’d object with everything I am.”

“Good, good,” the changeling leader replied after waving his hoof toward his blue-eyed compatriot. “Now, imagine the masses acting like that. Imagine them rising up in a single wave of sociopolitical disharmony. It is unlikely Celestia or Luna would risk an open war with us when it would rile every tribe in Equestria. In the perfect scenario, the princesses would be driven to speak out against my mother’s plan. Her position would be greatly weakened. Her station would be ruined, and we’d likely take that… windrat… down a peg or two.”

Duel’s tongue emerged from his muzzle for a less-than-subtle taste of Wire’s emotions, and the changeling’s smile broadened to the fruity flavor that begged to overwhelm his senses. “Mmm, I see you’ve put it all together. In case there is any lingering doubt as to why I’ve kept an intelligent unicorn in my council, let this discussion point put an end to it. My business here is concluded. Go use those talents of yours and infest the media. Destroy my mother’s credibility. Destroy that pony’s credibility. Make the other equines remember the fear of Chrysalis and forget the heroism you despise. Leave their plan as an ash stain upon our world. Then, we’ll go claim your prize.”

~Las Pegasus~

“Colonel…” A hushed whisper filled my ear as a band of sunlight crept beneath the curtains of Esamir’s hospital room. “It’s morning, Hun. You’ve been here all night. It’s time to go home.” I stared groggily into the blue eyes of the attending nurse, and for a moment, I had to remind myself that – for once – it was not Amora with whom I had to argue.

“Nurse Redheart,” I groaned, still trying to shake the horrors of being woken up after spending the night in a chair decidedly not meant for sleeping. “I’m not leaving until he’s up. We don’t leave our own behind. He was under my command at the time, and Barrier would have my ass if I didn’t live up to his standards now. The only way you’re getting me out of here is if an army drags me out.”

The mare flipped her pink bangs away from her eyes and scrunched her snow-colored muzzle. “I wasn’t trying to be combative, Wing. I just don’t want to end up with two patients when one’s exhaustion can easily be prevented.” She leaned a bit closer to me, and I observed her eyes wandering over my frame. “Mm, I guess you’re okay for now, but don’t push your luck.”

“You don’t have to worry about me. All I’m concerned about right now is making sure he wakes up.” You don’t always get to wake up after all. Sometimes you find yourself trudging through the nightmare alone, and waking up alone in the dark–

“Wing!” she snapped a far harsher whisper into my ear. I jolted in the chair, huffed as my feathers ruffled, and slowly released the breath that had practically pierced by lungs. “You were frowning, Hun, and your pupils dilated considerably.”

“Sorry, I was – lost in thought a bit.” The muscles in my muzzle still sagged, and my pulse had yet to subside from the rapid descent into gloomy memories or the induced startle that had followed. “I just need to be here, Red, but I’m sorry if it gets annoying.”

Redheart pressed a hoof to her muzzle and stifled a giggle. Her eyes squinted as her cheeks burned with joy, and quick, happy puffs escaped her nostrils. “I do look after the hurt for a living. There is nothing annoying or wrong with looking after somepony you care for.” She let her hoof fall and drew a calmer breath. “But… I read what you did, and I know what he did. I honestly don’t think I’ll ever understand the type of dedication it takes to sacrifice health and life, but I think I’d like to learn because I find something noble in those sacrifices made.

“If you don’t mind me sticking around, I’ll stay and keep you company while you wait. My shift is about to end, so it’s not a bother. It seems like the least I can do for my most cooperative patient – and my least cooperative non-patient.”

I shrugged and rolled my eyes at the extraneous statement before nestling back into the flattened cushions. The need to counter with a shameless witticism brewed within the confines of my distracted imagination until Esamir’s raspy voice derailed that train of thought. “Colonel… is the filly okay?”

A Game of Targets - Installment 36 - Interlude for a Cowcolt

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A smirk settled upon Trigger’s visage as he escorted Midnight Star through bustling streets during a typical Manehattan afternoon. “Ya just have to get used to feeling them all out. It’ll click – just like it did when ya figured out how to build your dreamshell on your own. Think of it as an extension of the stuff that allowed you to find me.”

The filly scrunched her muzzle and aggressively flicked an ear downward. “It is nothing like either of those things,” she squeaked. “My friends helped boost my own magic. They gave me the purpose to find you, and they gave me the strength to make the shell. There’s no way I can just do what you can do. You’re much stronger than me–”

Another high-pitched peep shot above the ambient noise the instant Trigger dropped his hat upon Midnight’s head. She settled into the fabric’s protective touch and waited while hints of wondering tugged at the corners of her lips and upon the tips of her ears.

Trigger opted to maintain a momentary silence, giving them time to cross a gated threshold into one of the city’s community parks. The offered serenity made a far better backdrop for what he had to say, and admittedly, he had let a sigh of relief escape once one of his hooves left the realm of cement for that of dirt.

“Never sell yourself short, Squirt. Friends matter, and you’ll always need ‘em in the end. But when push comes to shove, there are times when you’re going to have to rely on yourself to break out of a tough spot. Just keep tryin’. When it comes, you’ll thank me. And it’ll come because you’re way ahead of where I was at your age.”

Her silvery tail lazily swished back and forth, and flushed cheeks dared to peek from beneath Midnight’s aptly matched coat. “Mm, is that another one of those flattery tricks the colts use?”

Laughter sputtered from the stallion as his head pivoted towards the sky. “I guess ya could say that, but it’s a mares’ world after all, and most see through that garbage. Though, I’ll give ya props for learning certain life lessons early.” For a moment, pride blossomed through Trigger’s paternal smile before a jolt rocketed along his spine. He grunted as his horn decloaked to another’s will, and bright blue sparks arced along its length until a note hovered within his reach.

Col. Trigger, a situation has arisen in Las Pegasus that requires immediate attention. We humbly ask that you provide an unobtrusive security solution for Ms. Ambrosia until instructed otherwise. I apologize for being short on details; however, key developments are still unfolding. Suffice it to say that changelings are involved and that some are foes while others are not. It is highly likely that you will encounter a friendly. Use discretion. – Twilight Sparkle

Ragged breaths pounded through flared nostrils while Trigger recovered from the grating intrusion. “Sorry about that, she says,” the unicorn groaned through clenched teeth after his amber gaze noticed a little addendum to the official memo. “Damn right, you’re sorry! But you were also correct. It is important enough… sadly.”

“Dad, was that – um – a spell of Aunt Laizzy’s?” She froze to the sudden perking of his ears and the subtle stiffening that had gripped his frame. Her breath hitched, her lips trembled, and she swiveled her muzzle away from the stallion. Her own ears drooped, and she fiddled with the hat atop her head in a pitiful effort to hide whatever concealed thought her body was betraying.

She sniffled as the push of Trigger’s draping foreleg drew her closer to his barrel. A gulp followed, one that struggled to force down a swelling sob that yearned for freedom. It could not be hidden from him, and Midnight wriggled slightly as her guardian’s squeeze grew more firm. He had already pulled her into his warmth, and it was in that warmth that she could let it out. “I-I don’t have to call you that if it bothers you.”

“I teach all the unicorns in my family how to cast that spell, M’étoile. The key word there would be family. It’d be the reason why it was the first spell I taught ya.” He felt the filly burrow into his vest and coat. “I love it when you call me dad, ya know?” he added with a far softer timbre. “It’s the best example of a dream becoming reality.”

“I think Autumn Tea would have something to say about that.” With her fears allayed, Midnight’s response blossomed with a teasing banter that moved to sweep away the loitering hints of her sorrow. Meanwhile, the stallion took a turn to wrinkle his snout. His brow furrowed as the waiting ear of the snuggling youngster picked up the elevated beat of his heart. “You get excited when you think of her…”

“Yeah, well, she’s quite the mare, but I’m afraid that’s a story and a lesson – probably several – for another time. Your uncle has managed to fly himself headfirst into trouble again. I’m–” He hesitated, tightening his hold on the filly. “–going to have to locate Ambrosia and take off for a while. I know it’s a crappy downer, especially with your progress.”

“Every pony knows that you’re going to help Uncle Wing if he’s in trouble.” She puffed her cheeks and gave a quick stir of her tail. “I know that too.”

“Of course ya do. I wasn’t claiming any different.” The stallion closed his eyes, relaxed his posture, and allowed his voice to drop into a subdued, raspy tenor. “You’re a smart girl. It’s just that ya spent a year or so clamoring for me to start your training. I’m sure ya get me here. Creatures of reverie don’t do well with disappointment.”

Midnight prodded his side, transforming her puffed cheeks into an all-out pout. “My dad is never disappointing. My dad is a hero, and no pony will dare think otherwise in my presence.” She added an exaggerated harrumph before continuing. “Do what you have to do.”

Trigger snorted while his limbs quivered with that paternal excitement once more. “Filly, one day you are going to be a dangerously effective mare. Since you were so insistent, why don’t we go find that future aunt of yours?”

The youngster scooted back and honed her sights upon her elder’s horn. She braced herself as the seconds passed, and swift breaths fought against her burning pulse to determine which feature would best encapsulate her elation. Her coat stood on end for the tendrils of his invisible, reveric magic that expanded farther and farther outward until they conquered the horizon.

“You always look so calm when you cast,” she uttered in a barely audible whisper. An abrupt internal breeze stoked the filly’s fiery pride. The driven tempo of staccato gasps that marked her childish delight deferred to the fermata of a single, tranquilizing draw. A wandering hoof ventured to lower the brim of the Coltston, and Midnight’s lilac irides glimmered to a newfound reverence and an admirable goal.

“It appears that Ms. Ambrosia is on her way here.” A sly grin parted Trigger’s muzzle as he opened his eyes and turned to gaze upon his daughter. “It looks like–” He spotted her stance – the way her forelegs were slightly spread as though she were about to take on the world; he traced the edge of his hat – how its tattered contours just revealed the cores of her blazing eyes. And he absorbed the determination that bled from her frame – determination just like his own. “I’m not going anywhere just yet.”

* * *

Trigger trotted slowly behind Ambrosia as the lilac mare navigated her way towards one of Manehattan’s many dining establishments. He stared intently at the earth pony – his eyebrow pushing downward to cut out some of the useless noise. It was easy for the stallion to keep his eyes on the task. His mouth, however, was another story entirely. It met her probing sidelong glance with a smug smirk saturated in the memories of Midnight’s giggle and Ambrosia’s shocked demeanor from when she saw them waiting for her upon the train platform.

He still hadn’t told her exactly why he was there, but when it became clear to him that she had plans, he delayed delivering the news and shamelessly invited himself to the party. “What are ya givin’ me that look for, Ms. Ambrosia? Dropping Middy off didn’t take that long, and Laizzy only asked you a single set of a dozen questions about whether she’ll get to do the arranging for her brother’s wedding.”

“Because I know my stallion,” she retorted, never altering the pace of her trot. “You never appear under random circumstances, Trigger, and since you’re avoiding whatever the issue is, it means my pegasus has gone and done something reckless again.”

The stallion, on-the-other-hoof, found his progress utterly halted by the mare’s blunt declaration. “Geeze, she’s buckin’ good,” he exhaled before resuming his walk. The pause, however brief, gave Ambrosia all the ammunition she needed.

“I took care of him when he was hurt and recovering. I’m not unaware of his struggles, and I’m certainly not unaware of his ethic. If something catches that colt’s attention, then he’ll gallop into it ten times out of ten.” She once again swung her head to shoot her aquamarine gaze at the midnight stallion of reverie. “So don’t lead me along. Is he in real trouble again? Is he hurt? Does he need me to come home?”

Trigger shook his head and closed the gap between himself and the earth pony. “My orders came from Princess Twilight. There wasn’t any mention of Wing’s condition, but if he was in that kind of trouble, the princess wouldn’t have kept that shit from me. All I know—” He pushed his muzzle closer to Amby’s ear. “—is that changelings are involved. I was asked to keep an eye on ya, so that’s what I’m doing.”

Ambrosia’s blue-violet tail swished about dramatically as she turned the corner. “How do I know that you’re not one of them then?” she asked as a grin stretched the contours of her muzzle. Her eyes sparkled with a playful glow as the shadows thrown by Manehattan’s towering skyscrapers failed to diminish her inner light.

A snort ripped through Trigger’s muzzle while he deftly moved to fiddle with the brim of his Coltston. “Because I know the dreams Amber Rose has for her pegasus.” He snickered at the reddish hue that infected Amby’s snout and ear tips. “Or perhaps ya’d like me to blurt the tales of what happens to said catty pegasus when he dares test earth pony tradition?”

The snorts and snickerings evolved into chuckles once Ambrosia’s coat bristled at the mention of a particularly pouncy pony. She shivered and released a contented sigh that pricked Trigger’s waiting ears. “Well, there is certainly no questioning that delivery.” Her tail flicked weakly in her wake, and after a few more steps, she came to a halt in front of the gilded entryway of their destination. “Though, I highly doubt you’ll be blurting any of those stories. Hard to know what you’ve never experienced, mm Trigs?”

“Is the cute lilac mare challenging her protector in public?” The stallion planted a hoof to his chest and feigned a deep, inner sorrow. “I’m crushed, Ms. Ambrosia, that you would have such doubts about my talents. I might not have been there, but fillies and colts tend to dream long after the dirty deeds are done. Ya shouldn’t be surprised that a little flash of fishnet or a snippet of spiked collar made it—”

Trigger suddenly snapped his head to the side. The playful demeanor that had shaped his countenance eroded at the behest of feelings far more serious, and the abrupt change had put Ambrosia on the defensive as well. He peered directly into the bright blue eyes of a teal-colored earth mare who stood on the other side of the street. The stranger jerked backwards but quickly resettled into a relaxed posture. She returned the stare while the colt took in the whitecap shades that composed her braided mane, tail, and fetlocks. He had scouted a follower amidst the swarm of the Manehattan buzz. “Dreams are powerful tools. They allow me to feel things that most keep buried. And in this case, it’s fantastic… because many overlook that even changelings have dreams.”

The stallion shifted his position to stand between Ambrosia and the now smirking mare. She crossed the road with a delicate-looking trot that seemed best suited for Canterlot’s elite society. The movements were fluid, and Trigger placed his focus upon catching any deviation that could signal a coming attack.

“Chill cowcolt,” her voice emerged like a melodic call over the ocean’s waves. “I’m here for the same reason you are.” The mare’s sights gradually drifted towards Ambrosia. “There’s hope to protect, after all, and this one’s love is absolutely magnetic. It’s pretty clear to me why it must be guarded.” She flicked her tongue out of her muzzle and twitched slightly. “Apologies if I have caused you any anxiety. My name is Fleetwing, and my services are yours on behalf of Her Highness.”