No Longer Alone

by NoLongerSober

First published

Sass, science, and surviving shipping! Postage paid! The gruff captain put a certain pegasus professor to the test and learned that she just couldn’t quit. Now come the hard parts: an actual relationship and maybe a villain or two.

Sass, science, and surviving shipping! Postage paid! The gruff captain put a certain pegasus professor to the test and learned that she just couldn’t quit. Now come the hard parts: an actual relationship and maybe a villain or two.

There’s also still a lot to prove. A crafty princess may have guided Tail and Magic Barrier together for basic training, but the stallion has more lessons in mind for the inquisitive academic. Meanwhile, other currents hold sway over the tides. Old friends will play new parts, and new characters are set to step onto the stage. The chess pieces are settling into place, and the queen has her eyes on one state secret. 

Perhaps when they find resolve in the shadows, the physicist thriving in the world of guard service and the captain rediscovering happiness in the modern age will see that they’re no longer alone.

Folks, I know this has been a long time coming. Some of you have been poking me for almost four years, wondering when Sober and I (Wing) would get around to writing NLD’s sequel. I hope it doesn’t disappoint. 

Cover art by the amazing dream--chan, and special thanks to some old friends and a new editor who joined the fray. Max Redbridge, welcome to the circle of crazy! Neon/Fate, thank you for your squees, deaths, and fuck yeahs! And Amby!!! Alticron, for giving us Bonecrusher. Tea, you can't have Trigger without you! Thanks to Danger Noodle for the adorable Moon Glow. Word Worthy is sneaking around in the doc, too. We also got some Latin help from everyone's favorite Brasta, and what is an NL story without floof from Dr. Batsy?

Wing’s magical comments about the continuities and timelines can still be found here. The gist remains that NLD and NLA remain in a separate continuity from APD & Co. If you find any typos, please PM them to Wing. It keeps the comment section cleaner. Don’t forget to like, share, comment, and subscribe lol. And finally, reading No Longer Displaced is strongly recommended if you want to have any idea what the hell is actually happening.

Chapter 1 - Sass, Science, and Shipping!

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Barrier’s frosty eyes lazily followed the movements of his two cadets as they darted about the training yard of Canterlot Castle. The captain had allowed this round to go on longer than usual, and it became more apparent with each passing moment that those under his tutelage carried completely different fighting styles.

Though he was a cadet in Barrier’s court, the earthy-toned unicorn known as Indar had already achieved the rank of corporal in the Royal Guard—and was likely due for a promotion to sergeant if the powers that be were being honest. Even against the fury of his opponent, the younger stallion seamlessly produced shields in step with thrusts and pivots in a manner that, on the whole, looked an awful lot like choreography.

Indeed, Indar practically danced atop the green blades of grass, and the way he leapt to dodge inbound strikes made the yard seem like a stage. The stone archways bordering the pitch became drawn curtains. The performance became theatre, and the spectacle drew a smile to Barrier’s muzzle.

Bonecrusher, on-the-other-hoof, was an entirely different character. The lime-colored earth pony was the embodiment of full-throttle. She pounded away at anything Indar put in her path, shouted to the skies with every punch, and was relentless in her pursuit. Every motion chewed up the field and spewed clumps of dirt through the gritty grind, but all of that physical energy came with a less-than-reliable mental attitude. A few weeks ago, Barrier had been on the cusp of kicking her out of his class—

“Fucking shit…” The captain’s jovial demeanor quickly faded when he spotted one of Crusher’s hind legs dangerously slide out of position. “Your footwork is getting sloppy, Bonecrusher! Power without control is piss!”

She snorted in response, braced her stance, and lunged at Indar’s shields with renewed vigor.

“At least she’s not giving me lip anymore—” The phrase sent a sudden jolt along Barrier’s spine, and he drew a deep breath before gulping heavily. For a few seconds, he stoically stood, unwilling to add any more commentary to whatever was swirling in his head. At least, that was the case until the sounds of crunching grass pulled his attention rearward.

“Yard’s closed while I’m using it,” the captain grumbled, not even bothering to turn around to see whoever had decided to invade his camp. The steps came to an abrupt halt, yet no retreat followed. “I said the yard’s closed. If you’ve got a problem with it, take it up with the princesses.”

“Permission to fall in line, Captain?”

Barrier’s ears perked, and his tail twitched to the mare’s voice. Instinctively, his head snapped to the side to confirm what he already knew. Decked out in her full armor kit, Tail stood a few meters behind his post. The pegasus greeted the stallion with a beaming smile—an infectious grin that tugged on the corners of his own lips. “We don’t start again for another week, Colonel. You don’t have a reason to be here just yet.”

Tail sheepishly scuffed her hoof on the ground, and her beaming grin gradually morphed into a grimace that projected the seeds of her poorly hidden disappointment.

“But…” Barrier glanced back at the ponies who were wearing themselves out. “You’re here when the yard is mine. And if you’re here, you’re working. Twenty-five warm-up laps, get to it.”

The captain’s order returned Tail’s smile to its proper strength and place. She popped an enthusiastic salute that made Barrier snort, and he swiftly tightened the muscles in his muzzle to reform and maintain a neutral expression through his own saluting gesture.

The pegasus simply giggled at the stern display before she hopped off into her run. Her melody teased the unicorn, coaxing him to keep his sights set on the mare whose lips he had kissed—

“Make that thirty!” Barrier suddenly wailed, stomping his hoof for emphasis. “My cadets came here to get trained, not to listen to some vacationing colonel’s serenade.”

A crack popped from the tip of Tail’s namesake as she flicked it in response. Her legs ramped to a rediscovered beat, one that she had missed during her time away, and she thundered about the track to a vigorous cadence that carried one driving message. Vacation was over.

The wind lightly tugged at dampened clumps of lavender fur, and similarly-drenched locks cascaded like swept ink over Tail’s neck and golden armor. Heated breaths slipped through the mare’s slackened muzzle as she ran about the curved portion of the track. Whispered numbers drifted upon those gasps, reminding the entranced pegasus exactly how many laps remained until her goal would be achieved.

“Ten. Ten. Ten.” The hushed, staccato refrain plucked Tail’s ears when she entered the straightaway. Her stride lengthened, and her wings fluffed as a playful, fiery spark danced along her chocolate-colored iris.

I want you to propel yourself at me at full speed. The memory of Barrier’s first assessment echoed in her mind. She could practically picture the stallion standing in the distance, demanding that she do better. After all, that was his way—her captain, her colleague, her colt—

“We’re going to have to work on your zoning out,” Barrier commented idly while he kept pace at Tail’s side.

A squeak bubbled from the mare’s throat, and she promptly jumped into the adjacent lane before her head swiveled to face the grinning captain. Shock had utterly usurped the burning gaze. Laughter greeted her returned senses, and she scrunched her muzzle at the spectacle of one thoroughly amused charcoal unicorn.

“I’ve been shadowing you for two laps, Colonel, and you didn’t even notice. The whispers were cute though. Admittedly, they’re nowhere near as cute as that squeak and the ruffled feathers, but a captain’s got to do what a captain’s got to do. Now’s not the time for cute. Now’s the time for lessons learned.”

Once again, Tail cracked her namesake and wiped the contorted expression from her face with an audible huff. “And what lesson might that be?” she asked after taking a few seconds to stabilize the rhythm of her gallop.

Mischief crept along the stallion’s snout, producing a smirk that Tail’s sidelong glance did not miss. “This one’s pretty simple, Professor,” he answered in an atypically chipper tone that made the mare’s coat rise in anticipation. “Running is hard when three ponies make an effort to get in your way.”

Not enough time had passed for Tail’s brain to process that information before a transparent umber plane careened into her side and pushed her from the trodden track onto the grassy, inner pitch. Her reflexes and instincts, however, had been honed thanks to Barrier’s course, and her wings swiftly propelled her over Indar’s magical construct and back onto the path.

Upon landing, Tail shot a piercing glare at the captain, whose smug, knowing demeanor screamed to the pegasus that she was in for a long day. Amidst that thought, the thundering clamor of stomping hooves dripped into Tail’s awareness. The heavy steps grew louder through the following seconds, and Bonecrusher’s accompanying battle cry yanked the scientist’s attention to the charging earth pony.

An amethyst scowl was firmly plastered upon the lime mare’s countenance as she pressed on towards Tail.

Months before, the pegasus would have buckled before the behemoth, snorting Bonecrusher and the boisterous rumble that clung to the powerful stride. Today though, the familiar sight pulled Tail’s lips into a lopsided smile. She rolled to the right with a sharp stroke of her wings, planted her hooves back into the ground, and bolted into her sprint.

The ragged scratches of hooves scraping dirt and gravel raked Tail’s ears. The sounds, along with the thomp that followed, came from where Tail had passed Bonecrusher’s position, and the lavender mare did not waste the energy to confirm what she knew to be true: the earth pony had not given up her pursuit.

Tail picked up the pace, hoping to gain some distance between herself and the persistent heavy-hitter, and she was succeeding until a yelp rapidly fled her lungs. Her namesake had been tugged, and her coat bristled to the presence of a warming magic that laced around her hind legs and stopped her right in her tracks.

“Not as easy to dodge casts when there are other factors in play, is it, Colonel?” Barrier added with a snicker that forced a huff through Tail’s muzzle. He began to spin the pegasus with his spell, aiming to pin her armor-covered trunk to the dirt.

To her credit, Tail didn’t fight the motion. She spread her wings, went with the flow, and greeted her captain’s cocky stare with a confident grin of her own. Static traced lines through her fur, and with a desperate flick of those feathery appendages, the mare guided enough electrical charge to disrupt Barrier’s grasp.

She slipped free and tumbled along the track before springing upright to resume her run. “Grabbing my thigh already, Barrier? That’s nowhere near second-date act—”

The flier was interrupted when Bonecrusher leapt between her withers and tackled her onto the grass. “Gotcha, Civvy!” she shouted with pride after jabbing her hoof against Tail’s armor. “And I don’t want to hear a word about your romantic crap. I’ve got enough of it at the Phoenix Fire to last a lifetime.”

Tail wriggled beneath the heavier Crusher and began to crawl towards sweet freedom when the cogs in her brain clicked. She thrust her forehooves into the grass and surprisingly pushed upward with enough strength to dislodge the earth pony from her perch. “You’ve heard?” Tail squeaked as a blush flooded her muzzle. Her sights darted from the shocked pouncer to the softly chuckling Indar—and finally to Barrier, whose gaze averted the probing stare.

“Cadets,” the captain’s response emerged in a raspy voice that barely exceeded the volume of a whisper, “now’s definitely not the time for that. There’s still work to be done and nine-and-a-half laps that need to be stopped. It’s not my fault Luna decided to, once again, be an insufferable brat.”

Tail gasped for air from her prone position upon the track. Her limbs ached. Her lungs yanked in breaths and ached, and her heart pounded with a ferocity that ached. In fact, everything ached, and yet, there could not be a more satisfied smirk etched onto her countenance.

Every scuff mark, dirt stain, and grassy smear that tarnished Tail’s kit and coat had been earned—as had her current position on the field. She had been challenged by Captain Barrier to finish thirty laps, and her right foreleg now stretched across that finish line.

Groaning, Tail turned to her left and eyed the collapsed Indar. The sandy-colored unicorn panted, and his horn glowed from the effects of magical overexertion. “Good show, Ms. Tail,” the stallion commented quietly after wearily brushing his sweat-drenched sunny mane. “It’s nice to have you with us again.”

A grunt burst from Bonecrusher’s throat that slowly dragged the attention of Indar and Tail to the seated mare. Her purplish irides glimmered while she looked upon the sprawled pegasus, and for a few seconds, the earth pony maintained a tentative silence.

From Tail’s perspective, Crusher appeared as a triumphant, towering mass of green that defied her body’s current logic. The contented grin that had controlled the colonel’s appearance yielded its ground to a sheepish smile. “Your stamina is really something. I’m not looking forward to picking myself up to go home. Everything hurts, but I guess that’s what I get for being gone a week, hm?”

Bonecrusher pursed her lips and aggressively swished her tail. Her sights never wavered from the flier’s frame, and she unloaded another short puff before replying, “Dumbass Civvy, I don’t give a shit about you being gone. It’s you coming back to the fight that bucking means something. I don’t care about you dragging your flank home either. I care about tomorrow being another interesting day.”

Deadpan demeanors swept over Tail, Indar, and the upright Barrier like an arctic breeze. They all blinked multiple times, and the pegasus threw in an additional ear flick for good measure.

The trio’s collective disbelief generated an awkward silence that lingered until the realization drew an atypical bout of laughter from the on-duty captain. “On that note, why don’t we call it a day? I’m pretty sure Tartarus just froze over, and I’d rather not be around for the thaw. Plus”—Barrier shifted his focus to Tail—“I have some personal business to attend to now that a certain scientist is in town.”

Bonecrusher recoiled, lifted one of her forelegs from the ground, and gagged. She craned her neck to boot and stuck out her tongue before leaping over Tail to hoist the exhausted Indar onto her back. “Let’s get out of here before they do something that gets us suckered into bar talk again.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Indar responded, lazily bobbing his hoof. “Hope to see you tomorrow, Colonel. As Bonecrusher less-than-subtly implied, today was quite interesting.”

“Dismissed, Cadets,” Barrier interjected with his frosty tone, prompting Bonecrusher to make a swift departure from the field with Indar still in tow. A firm stare followed the pair until they disappeared beneath the stone archways and into the castle.

Tail gingerly rolled over and glanced towards Barrier as he approached. The stern countenance that encapsulated his D.I. demeanor had faded. Instead, the shallow curvature of a tranquil smile took hold. It was one that Tail found infectious—one that spurred the muscles in her muzzle to overcome the pain. “Somepony looks happy…”

“I was thinking,” he replied as his horn illuminated, “that, with all the talk generated by a noisy princess and a bratty medic, it’d be nice to actually do something as opposed to just being the subject of all the conversation.”

A giggle bubbled from Tail’s lips, and she tenderly batted her hoof in his direction. “And what did you have in mind? Are we going for sweet reve—nge?” She squealed when the stallion’s magic enveloped her body and lifted her from the path, yet the only sound that emerged from the pegasus once Barrier carefully placed her upon his kit-clad barrel was a grateful sigh.

“Once upon a time, a sassy mare carted a passed-out captain across Canterlot because an equally bratty bartender decided to do that thing that he does. Frankly, I owe this sassy mare a lot of things, and while she’s been away, I’ve been thinking about what I could do. At first, I was going to probably embarrass myself trying to return that kiss she gave me at the end of our first date, but now, I had better start by offering her a ride home.”

“Such a charmer,” Tail answered through a chain of melodious laughter. She lifted her draping forelimbs and wrapped them around the unicorn’s neck. Her gleeful bursts subsided, and she naturally transitioned to a happy hum. “Though, if you’d like a mare’s intuition on the matter, you could always be bold and do both. This sassy pony might have missed you too, Barrier.”

Chapter 2 - The Insufferables

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Barrier climbed the stairs that led from the landing to Tail and Amora’s living room. The former rested comfortably on the stallion’s back as she quietly hummed a melody that occasionally made the unicorn’s charcoal-colored ear swivel. The carpeted steps joined in as well, adding their own rhythm to the score with light crunches that accompanied the motions of Barrier’s hooves.

Aside from the impact of their presence, the flat was still. Only the light of the setting sun drifting through the windowpanes illuminated the space, and Tail released a relieved sigh at the find. “If Amora were here for this, she would probably have a field day.”

The captain chuckled his agreement as he rounded the corner at the top of the stairwell. “Yeah, she’d—” He immediately froze, prompting the lavender pegasus to curiously lift her head at the abrupt silence.

There, sitting on the couch, basking in the twilight, was Amora. Like a foal set to receive Hearth’s Warming gifts, the white, brown-maned unicorn beamed with an exuberance that quickly drew a vibrant redness to Tail’s muzzle.

“That is not creepy at all, Amora,” Tail commented before she twitched one of her flushed ears, “and aren’t you supposed to be at work?”

The mare’s joyful expression shifted as the sly contours of mischief crafted a half-lidded gaze. “Well, I was,” Amora replied while absentmindedly rolling her hoof. “Then a friend popped into my office and said that she saw something interesting happen at the training grounds today. Upon inquiring, I was told to go home right away. She was kind enough to relieve me of my rounds for the evening. Friends in high places, right?”

Barrier let out a rumbling growl. “Luna…”

Amora snapped her foreleg towards the captain. “Quick on the draw, as always. It’s no wonder why Tail fell for you.” She giggled as her words stoked Tail’s blush. “And, in this case, it seems she took quite the literal interpretation.”

“I’m going to have some words with that alicorn about privacy,” Barrier grumbled. He shot Amora an icy scowl. “After I smother you with damn pancakes…”

A sparkle flashed across Amora’s cobalt eyes, and she popped off the couch and onto her hooves before either Barrier or Tail could blink. She bowed dramatically and gestured around the space. “For your delicious sorcery, I will gladly go for a walk.” The medic snickered as she trotted by the couple, and she took a few seconds to lightly brush her roommate’s mane. “Try not to leave a mess. Biology is my thing, after all.”

“Ams!” Tail squealed, swinging her head around to toss a disapproving glare at the chipper unicorn.

“I’m kidding. I’m kidding.” She retreated a few paces after Barrier set his scrutinous sights on the mare as well. “But you two are cute in that weird, awkward pair kind of way that just works. I can’t help but ship it. Though, as a respectable roomie and lifelong best friend, I’m torn…”

Tail’s curiosity was coaxed out by the natural trailing in Amora’s volume. Her brow lifted, sculpting a quizzical arch, and the corner of her lip briefly tugged at the beginnings of a professorial grin.

On-the-other-hoof, Barrier confronted the developing exchange with dry skepticism. His officer persona had taken hold with its flat, stonewall facade.

“I mean,” the medic continued with a drawl, “I expect Captain Barrier to be the perfect gentlecolt—especially given all of this going on right here—but I can’t help but wonder if I should advise you to leave a sock on the door. And that just opens up the possibility of me dropping the knowledge that Tail really likes silk.”

“Out!” the pegasus squeaked again. Her feathers fanned this time, and she began to lift herself from her perch upon Barrier until her muscles opted to tell her otherwise. She huffed to the aches—and to the antics of her roommate—before mumbling something about sixth date information.

Amora chortled victoriously as she scampered towards the door. She glanced over her shoulder upon reaching the landing to find the watchful eye of Magic Barrier trained on her figure. “Making sure I leave? Clever colt, but just so you know, I won’t be gone long.” With that, the brunette flipped her mane and departed for the streets of Canterlot.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” the stallion added moments after the door was closed, “but I do not envy your living situation.”

The straight delivery brought a playful smirk to Tail’s face, and she swished her namesake as various counterpoints swirled in her thoughts. After a few seconds, she curled her lower lip into her mouth and lightly bit down once she settled on her answer. “Well, Captain, if you’re aiming for a change of scenery, then I might just take that as an invitation to come to your place.”

Barrier jolted, causing the pegasus to briefly bounce atop the unicorn, and his pupils dilated instantly. “Mistakes were made! Your place is just fine. Mine”—he paused and released a sigh—“is in need of a lot of cleaning.”

“Could also use a door that didn’t shock the stars out of anypony that tried to touch it.”

The captain’s ears briefly dropped as another sigh emerged. “Why do I get the feeling that’s a thing that I’m never going to live down?”

“Mm, probably because you never will. Though, carrying me home definitely makes up for it.” She lazily waved her foreleg. “Now, if you’ll please sally forth, my noble steed. I’d like to actually get out of Sally. Feel free to take your load off too, Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Spiky.”

Barrier nodded and ventured deeper into the abode. He carried Tail to her room and nosed open the entrance to reveal the endless sea of papers, books, and more papers—and, oh yeah, the bed. “There are even more this time!” he exclaimed at the towering stacks. “How’s that even possible?”

A soft, embarrassed whine seeped from the mare when Barrier crossed the threshold. “Well, most of my week in Las Pegasus was spent arguing with the Board about my continued sabbatical. The whole princess thing helps, but there are still politics to be navigated. In this case, I got dumped with the task of writing the retakes for the written qualification exams.”

Both ponies shuddered after glancing at the piles again, but the discomfort was short-lived. Barrier swept her up in his magic and gently moved the pegasus to her bed. “Well then, you should probably get to work. I know it’s not much of a second date, but I can always make dinner—”

Tail abruptly straightened her posture. Her wings flared behind her, and she shot Barrier a wide-eyed stare. “No! No, I should be the one making dinner. You’ve been training all day—”

Barrier lightly booped Tail’s muzzle with his metal-covered hoof, causing the mare to perk her ears and scrunch her snout in that adorable way that made the captain grin. “I know your armor polishing habits,” he added before moving to lift the helmet from her head. “You’re going to need all the time you can get. Just leave dinner to me. Besides, I owe Amora pancakes anyway.”

“Mhmm,” Tail hummed as the stallion guided the headgear over her unruly, cascading mane and onto her mattress. Her lip curled, fashioning a mischievous expression that halted Barrier the instant he caught sight of it. She could see the subtle quivering of his pupils—a sign that his mind was at work—but she didn’t give him the time to respond.

Her hooves pressed against the dark metal of his archaic helm, and she lifted the heavy piece before setting it beside her own. She eyed the equipment while her namesake fell over the edge of the bed. “I’ll just have to polish your armor too,” she continued, tilting her head back towards the stallion. “I know telling you to take it off isn’t much of a second-date activity either, but—”

Warmth flooded Tail’s muzzle. Marked with a bright flush, it drowned her senses and perceptions. Her bedroom faded into something more akin to a white fuzz, and for several seconds, she might as well have been floating atop a cloud. His lips found hers, and she could make out the delicate tingle produced as his forehoof trailed along an edge of her wing.

Is this what a fairy tale is like? Her heart thumped. Some mix of elation and bliss coursed through her body with each beat, and she drew a methodically slow breath when she felt his ever-so-small retreat. “Mm, Sweety,” she purred, “I don’t think you lost a step in a thousand years.”

“You told me to be bold.” A spark flashed along the rim of his blue iris, and he leaned forward to tap the tip of his muzzle against the mare. “Besides, it was my turn to thank you for everything, Ms. Tail. I wouldn’t be representing my house well if I let you do all the honors.”

As laughter poured from Tail’s freshly kissed muzzle, Barrier neatly removed his armor kit in a flurry of magical activity that placed the bits in a sorted pile by the bed. “Leave dinner to me. I’ll leave the polishing and test making to you.” The stallion snickered and pivoted towards the door—though Barrier held his cocky gaze on the mare.

The pegasus suddenly stiffened the instant Barrier’s blue tail dragged along the underside of her muzzle. Again, her heart pounded with a heavy beat, for the maneuver silenced the mare’s laughter at the behest of cherished memories.

“I’ll be ready in thirty minutes,” he spoke in a calm, quiet voice. “I would say be ready in fifteen, but I know that’d just make for a shoddy job. My armor can be really picky.”

Barrier eyed his work and released a contented hum at the delightful assortment placed on the counter. He had sculpted flour, salt, sugar, milk, egg, and cinnamon into the delicious decadence that was expected of him. However, it was finding the cherries and the rice cooker that sent things right over the edge of the known frontier.

Atop a trio of plates, cherry-filled, puffy pancake pastries awaited Tail and him—as well as The Pancake Witch Medic whenever she opted to return from her walk. “If they taste as good as they look,” he commented idly as his tail flicked, “I’ll call tonight a success.”

“Barrier…” Tail’s voice crept from the hallway in a muffled tone. A steady rhythm of heavy clanks filled the air, and the noise drew closer and closer to the kitchen. “Barrier…” she droned again before poking her head around the corner and into the stallion’s line of sight.

His polished helmet sat awkwardly atop her crown. Only one of her ears appeared to comfortably fit through its designated slot in the metal, and the mare’s mane flowed from beneath the lopsided gear. “Your armor’s really heavy,” she remarked, taking another clang-accompanied step before lifting her foreleg to show off one of his loosely fitting gauntlets.

Barrier’s pupils dilated. His stare danced along the glimmering gunmetal edges, and the rapid shifts—along with the sudden slack in his jaw—drew a string of giggles from Tail. “Hot,” he added reflexively—before reflexively gasping as though he wished to suck the word back down into his lungs.

A brief silence followed in which Tail’s ear quivered in search of any sound. The joyful smile etched upon her countenance by the unfettered laughter morphed into a cheeky smirk while her eyes basked in the glow of memory. “Hm, I do recall you accusing me of being the one with the roleplay fetish, and yet, you’re the one who finds the reversal hot. Maybe I ought to have you try on my lab coat.”

The unicorn scrunched his muzzle as he rubbed the back of his head with a wandering hoof. “Maybe I could do that after we eat?” Barrier offered through a sheepish grimace. “Provided, of course, that Amora isn’t back by then. I can live with some things, but I’m not sure either of us would survive her reaction.”

The tension in Barrier’s face subsided the instant an amused snort grazed his senses. Warmth and playfulness radiated from the mare, and the infectious demeanor further coaxed the captain from the confines of his more reserved mood. His horn sparked, and two of the plates hovered in the officer’s magical aura. “You have returned from your quest with a relic, valiant knight. Would you care to join me for a feast?”

Across Canterlot, Luna sat upon her throne and awaited the business of her night court. The stern-looking alicorn typically handled affairs after sundown on her own, but tonight, Celestia remained at her side.

The guards that were normally stationed by the Doric columns that lined the marble-floored chamber had been dismissed, and an unsettling quiet loomed that made even Princess Celestia shuffle upon her elegant violet seat. “Sister, are you certain that now is the time?”

The Princess of the Night did not waver. Her composure did not drift from the flat, emotionless facade that faced the otherwise empty room. “Yes,” she spoke with a tone drenched in simmering anger, “there is a price to be paid for abusing one’s station.”

“Indeed there is,” Celestia calmly answered before raising her voice to a rarely used Traditional volume. “Send them in!”

A loud, reverberating clunk preceded the opening of the magnificent purple doors at the front of the hall. A light-blue earth pony entered first. Thin-framed spectacles sat atop the stallion’s muzzle, and his grey mane had been combed until a single, slick contour ran from his forehead all the way to the back of his neck.

“Hello, Your Highnesses,” he said as tranquility fashioned a lighthearted smile upon his countenance. His brown eyes held the distant forms of the sisters as best they could at that age, but despite the difficulty, the sparkles that popped along the old-timer’s irides were the telltale signs that the royal excitement did not fade with time.

The purple unicorn who followed his elder, however, did not seem nearly as thrilled. Proud Valiance scoffed during his approach. His golden sights sat beneath a scowl that cut into his visage with a mental blade meant solely for Princess Luna. The irritation spread to the captain’s tail, for pronounced thrashes of the jet-black appendage spontaneously sliced through the air.

“Gracious Waters,” Celestia addressed the Equestrian Army general. Her maternal softness shined as brightly as her heavenly body, and the timbre immediately encouraged the earth pony to stand a little taller. “It’s great to see you. Thank you for coming on such short notice.”

“Proud.” Luna’s interjection carried an icy bite that commandeered the attention of the two stallions and her sister. “We are not going to delay this discussion any longer. We want to know why you thought it was appropriate to exclude my sister and me from a meeting in which you deliberated the discharge of Colonel Tail. And We want to know now.”

Chapter 3 - Princesses, Pastries, and Poundings

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The chill in Luna’s voice caused Proud Valiance’s coat to bristle. On instinct, the purple unicorn retreated a step from the pair of thrones, and an uneasy stillness subsequently swept over the court while the stallion gritted his teeth. His chest swelled through a few deep breaths before he snapped his muzzle and his gaze towards the Princess of the Night. “My actions were more than appropriate and well within my rights, Your Highness.

“Equestria is not a dictatorship. The J.C. Staff exists to ensure that the branches of service have a fair say in driving the defense of the nation they protect. Ms. Tail is your pet project, Princess. I submitted a formal request for her to be discharged for her transgressions, which Captain Barrier incinerated. This was apparently an acceptable response in your eyes. Of course it would be. You should have recused yourself from the case from the start.”

Luna ever-so-slightly pitched her nose higher. Her nostrils flared, and her eyes reflected a fiery light that made her scowl all the more piercing. “First, Captain, it is Colonel Tail, and she is far more than a pet project. Her research has strengthened our defensive capabilities in unfathomable ways—”

“An outsider shouldn’t have been trusted to dictate the course of unfathomable by herself!” Proud interrupted. His limbs visibly shook, and he craned his neck while anger tugged at the muscles upon his forehead.

“And she did nothing but prove herself over and over!” Luna quipped, dragging the focus of both Celestia and Gracious Waters with her words. “What more could you—”

“She did nothing but beat up her squadmate, and her perceived successes are nothing more than contrived fictions written by you.”

“Do not interrupt me again, Captain,” the princess sharply retorted. She inhaled slowly and repositioned her forelegs to stretch her height. “Colonel Tail’s accomplishments were the result of her hard work, initiative, and innovation. It’s not her fault that she is capable of dreaming, which is clearly something that you are incapable of doing on your own.”

Proud grunted in response. “Yes, of course, dreaming explains all of it.” He paused, rolling his eyes as he turned to face Celestia instead. “I’m not incompetent, Your Highness. The summoning of Gracious is a dead giveaway as to what this is, so I’ll just appeal to your sensibilities since you are the one who lived through it. Your sister has given the reins of the most important program in our military’s history to an unqualified mare because she simply believes in the power of dreams. You know where that got us—what it’s like when you’re one bad dream away from a nightmare.”

The lights in the hall were snuffed out by the oppressive weight of Luna’s unloaded magic. Her aura absolutely crashed upon the room, and the demonstration plastered worry upon the grimacing faces of both Gracious and Proud.

Celestia reached for her sister and gently set her regalia-adorned forehoof upon Luna’s shoulder. The dreadful magic vanished the instant the alicorn made contact with her incensed sibling, and a brief serenity settled in while a firmly pressed smile spread across Celestia’s muzzle. “Indeed, Proud, General Waters was summoned here for a reason,” the mare explained with a maternal tone that sent a ripple through Gracious’s coat. “You spoke of rights, and I am exercising mine to dissolve—”

“I resign,” Proud blurted, effectively cutting to the chase. He swiftly pivoted on one of his hind legs and concealed the harsh glare that bore into the exit. The captain trotted from the chamber without sparing a second glance for his superiors. The only thing he left them with before he departed was a whispered sentence that skirted under his breath. “One day, you’ll see…”

The door closed behind Proud, and the latch produced an echoing pop that preceded the sighs that fled Celestia’s and Luna’s slouched frames.

“That stallion is a piece of work,” Celestia spoke, maintaining a maternal cadence while her sights drifted to Gracious Waters. “General, I believe it’s time to nominate a replacement, and while I respect the Equestrian Army’s initiative to place an opinionated member in the Joint Chiefs—”

“Perhaps a douchebag should not be selected this time,” Luna interrupted. Her starry, ethereal mane flickered to accompany the anger that laced her voice. The other features of her visage remained flat and uncompromising—as though the stillness of the night itself had manifested to iron out any sign of grace and joy from her face and posture.

Gracious Waters lifted his forehoof and tapped the side of his muzzle. He took a few seconds to glance at each of the princesses, and short grunts followed his brief observations of their demeanors. “Um, yes, Your Highnesses. Unfortunately, Proud did not live up to my expectations for him in this instance, but I guess that is neither here nor there. The most qualified pony for the job is Trigger.

“Of course, we all know how that would develop. He’d do exactly what he always does when it comes to the prospect of being chained to a permanent bench assignment, or he’d just rant about his bar. His wife, though, would be an equally talented replacement, and Autumn Tea might actually be up for the task.”

Amora’s glare cut through Barrier and Tail like the proverbial hot knife through butter, and both ponies remained frozen under the medic’s scrutiny. The stallion was seated at the small, round oak table-for-four while a certain pegasus, still covered in the captain’s oversized armor, sat at his side and fed him what Amora perceived to be a large, pancake-esque pastry.

The alabaster mare’s eye twitched as her sights drifted across Barrier’s muzzle. “You are eating my cherries,” she muttered darkly before taking a heavy step in the pair’s direction. The red filling was, indeed, dripping from the captain’s mouth.

“But you wouldn’t know that. She”—Amora snapped her snout towards the jumpy Tail—“knows better, however. Don’t get me wrong. Part of me is really proud of you for all this. I have yet another reason to visit Princess Luna and regale her with details, but you took my beloved cherries and I don’t understand why.” She paused, twirled her forehoof a few times, and pointed at Tail. “After all, you have one to pluck right there, Captain.”

“Ams!” Tail chirped. The pegasus struggled to hold the sweet confection to Barrier’s mouth as her fluster manifested in a vibrant blush. “What is wrong with you?”

A grin crawled across Amora’s face as her angered facade fully crumbled. “I got bored wandering around town. This is the price you pay for stealing my cherries—and making pancakes without me! I inject discussions about your sex life in casual conversation with your coltfriend.”

Barrier gulped, swallowing his last bite, and pivoted his head towards Amora. “I’m sure in your addiction-rattled brain that seems appropriate, but we didn’t steal your cherries. In fact”—his horn illuminated and a third plate subsequently hovered in front of the unicorn mare—“I made you dinner.”

Amora’s cobalt eyes glimmered upon examination of the delicacy that floated within her reach. The dish was topped with a puffy pancake that had, thanks to the rice cooker, swelled to be even taller than the thickness of her muzzle. Powdered sugar covered the flaky treat, and the aroma of her cherries lingered.

“You sweet, beautiful angel!” Amora squealed as she all but shoved the dinner into her mouth. “Nnngh! Cherries! Pancake!” She munched and hummed in delight before exclaiming with a volume that the neighbors could probably hear, “Forget what I said! I’m not even mad! Fuck whenever you want. They’re your love lives!”

Left, rear, above… Tail’s thoughts darted about her consciousness, and her body swiftly responded to keep her out of the way of Crusher’s and Indar’s strikes. They were aiming to kick the tar out of her. Though, that was fairly standard fare for the lime mare—whose thunderous right hook Tail had, coincidentally, just avoided.

“You have to counterattack!” Barrier roared from his spot ten paces to Tail’s left. “The deck is stacked against you! Running away all day is not going to get you anywhere!”

Easier said than done. The pegasus jerked her frame to the side, dodging another shield plane that Indar had tried to ram into her face. They were like gnats, swarming with their attacks. Except, unlike gnats, they weren’t small, couldn’t be brushed off, packed a punch, and knew her well.

Each time Tail attempted to move to keep Bonecrusher in Indar’s sightline, the stallion would shift and close the gap between himself and the aggressive earth pony. Instead of gaining a brief window to jab at Crusher without worry, Tail was exposed to the constant frenzy of avoiding both physical and magical blows.

The realization actually drew a smile to the surface, even as Tail craned her neck to avoid a blitzing cast that accompanied Indar’s snipe attempt. They’ve grown just as much as you. In the weeks leading up to Tail’s B.C.T. examination, all three of them had been pushed, and the pegasus could now see the benefits of this first-hoof. Her squadmates were thinking on the fly. They had adapted to her techniques. They had excelled, and she would have to get better.

Tail ducked beneath a vicious swing from Bonecrusher. Her forelegs spread wide, digging into the pitch and tearing up the turf, and her barrel brushed against the blades of grass that reached to kiss her armor’s golden sky. The pegasus hurled her wings and spun beneath the looming Bonecrusher. Tail corkscrewed, and her hind leg rocketed out of the snapping shot right into Crusher’s muzzle.

Or so she thought. Her hoof had encountered something that felt remarkably sticky. It gripped her limb, drained the momentum from her lunge, and encouraged a wide-eyed stare the instant it clicked that the magic was decidedly not Barrier’s.

That warming embrace quickly arrived in the second that followed. “Time!” the captain wailed, freezing the trio in their tracks with a bluish glow that rippled over their coats like the surface of a rain-perturbed pond. The captain pulled his flask to his lips after the lid’s popping clink betrayed its opened state and drew the brunt of Tail’s gaze.

Barrier’s coat bristled moments after he gulped down more than the normal stallion’s share. He brushed his face with his armored pastern, and in the seconds that followed, his stare appeared to harden at the behest of his brow’s tightening muscles. “Colonel!” His gruff D.I. tone was unmistakable. “In this case, a delay is defeat. It took you way too long to strike back.

“Bonecrusher, some of your strikes are still too wild, but you and Indar paired well.” He glanced at the other stallion. “And speaking of you, congratulations for pulling off that spell, but I can tell that you’re at your limit.”

“Yes, sir,” Indar replied in an atypically raspy voice.

Tail’s ears flicked to the exhausted sounds, and she grimaced as hindsight poured its cocky edge upon her internal analysis. “Crusher kept me too busy,” she whispered before quickly pushing the lesson to the realm of next time. The scientist within her didn’t need to dwell on something that could be saved for another day. She had learned that one the hard way once before—when the burdens of doubt and failure weighed too heavily upon her mind.

An amber glow ensnared Tail’s iris as her active curiosity picked at the magic that still clung to her hind leg. This was something new to Indar’s repertoire, and the fact that her colleague had developed that while she was away made her heart race with excitement.

“Hey!” Barrier blurted, dragging the pegasus right out of the tufts of mental reverie and back to concrete reality. “I know that look. Save it. They still need to finish this course, and I’m not satisfied.” The unicorn straightened his posture, puffing out his chest while he maintained that commanding scowl. “Bonecrusher! Indar! You let this intruder run circles around you. And Colonel, I’m not going to say you bucked up by getting caught, but I know you can do better.

“In fact, you can all do better, but apparently, you collectively decided to forget. I guess that means I have three rookies in my midst all over again. Such a shame that we have to get back to the basics. Laps! Now! Run until you start wondering if this field is in the center of Tartarus!”

Chapter 4 - Chessboard of Love

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Tail’s sprawling mass, once again, stretched across the imaginary finish line on the track. She gasped as three ponies remained planted atop her back and actively ignored their various states of exhaustion—or amusement. At some point, Barrier had decided that running was not enough and that it was time for another round of the rediscovered sport of combative sprinting!

If the clutching legs around her barrel were any indication, Tail figured that Bonecrusher was immensely enjoying this new activity. In fact, the squashed pegasus convinced herself that it was the sound of giggles bubbling out of Crusher’s muzzle instead of the battle cries of pending doom. Though, the former option was preferable to pretty much anything that she had ever heard come out of the earth pony’s mouth.

“That hopefully knocked the crap out of all of you,” Barrier quipped from his post at the top of the pile. “Certainly gave that the best effort I’ve seen all day.”

A smile blossomed once Tail’s ears caught the words. They flicked to the contented tone that laced Barrier’s voice, and the timbre of that sound coaxed out a happy hum that evolved into a relieved sigh once she felt Barrier step off the stack.

The crunches from his hooves moving along the path briefly serenaded the mare before a squeak drowned out the percussive patter. Tail’s stare instantly wandered across the cheeky grin plastered onto Barrier’s face and drifted to the unicorn’s crisp blue eyes. They stood out against the swaths of red and orange that drenched Barrier’s midnight armor in the hues of the setting sun, and they sucked Tail’s awareness straight into their alluring depths.

Warmth erupted throughout her muzzle once the captain pitched his head downward. Tail’s heart thumped as the next few seconds stretched out into what felt like an eternity, and her feathers ruffled against Crusher’s grasp to the picture of Barrier holding his snout mere inches from her lips.

“Turnabout is fair play,” he spoke, repressing his volume before his attention snapped to Bonecrusher. “I think you can release her. The day is over, which means you’re just stealing my job now. And I’m not sure how much I like that.”

Tail chortled at how swiftly Bonecrusher had ejected herself from the pouncer position. After taking a moment to relish the exalted status of complete pony-pile freedom, the lavender pegasus rolled onto her side and glanced at the earth pony who had even managed to drag the dangling Indar along for the ride. “Three lengths in a flash and a corporal to boot! Not bad, Bonecrusher.”

The lime pony snorted in response and opened her mouth to reply just as Indar’s hoof tapped upon the top of her helmet.

“Let’s get going,” the perched unicorn suggested. “Trigger said tonight was a two-for-one special, and I know you’d much rather enjoy that than waste time when we’re off-the-clock.”

“Fantastic idea,” Crusher shouted enthusiastically. She spun around with a sharp kick of her leg and took a few steps before calling out to Barrier and Tail, “You two should join us if you decide not to be so damn sappy.”

Both officers remained silent as Indar and Bonecrusher made their nightly exits. Shock lingered in the gentle evening breeze, and Tail barely moved in the immediate aftermath. Her body seemed content to lay upon the gritty track, but her ears remained active—catching the soft brushings of mischievous steps.

Just before Barrier’s foreleg came down, Tail rolled away from his attempt at turnabout. She latched onto his outstretched extremity, popped up with a powerful sweep of her wings, and promptly pushed the stallion onto his back to complete her limb-locking pin. “Sweety, I hope you didn’t think I was going to go that easy on you after you telegraphed that. I can’t have you picking up an easy win.”

Barrier gawked at the pegasus. His jaw slacked, and the fur around his neck bristled from the fluid nature of Tail’s maneuver. “Sweet stars, the pony who taught you that must be proud.”

Tail gradually sculpted a half-lidded stare as she lowered her muzzle to the stallion’s nose. “Mm, playing dirty now, Barrier?” she cooed in a flirtatious voice. “It turns out that my teacher is particularly knowledgeable and quite the charmer. Two fantastic dates, and I’m pretty sure I’m about to ask him if he wants a third.”

The mare wiggled atop the stallion, gently grinding her armor against his kit the instant his subsequent smile was observed. She bit her lower lip in anticipation of his answer. Though, she had a strong suspicion that he would reply with an affirmative. What she did not expect was another source of commentary.

“My my, Auntie, you were right about them. I can feel their auras from here. Shining’s been holding things back from me. This is wonderful!”

Both Barrier and Tail slowly turned their heads to the source of the noise. Tail’s pupils dilated as she gazed upon a pink alicorn. She could feel Barrier tense beneath her straddling grip, and she stammered a response. “P-Princess Cadance!? W-What are you doing here?”

Gleeful titters burst from the princess’s muzzle. “You should see your faces! Eyes wide like Auntie Luna’s full moon.” She paused to nudge the older princess who stood at her side. “Why didn’t you bring me out here sooner? This is something that needs my immediate attention.”

Luna simply snickered. “I already told you that I needed a good reason, and now I have one. I’m afraid I’ll need you for this evening, Ms. Tail. Your new laboratory is ready, and I have to give you the tour and briefing. You can show Captain Barrier later. My niece has plans for him.”

Barrier questionably eyed Cadance while Luna left the field with Tail. His scrunched smirk battled the blatantly gleeful grin that was etched onto the alicorn’s face, and he opened his mouth to speak only after he was confident that the departing ponies were well out of earshot. “Whatever Shining told you, it is bullshit.”

The mare’s smile stretched, and her purple eyes sparkled. “Oh, Barrier, if what Shining said is bullshit, that only means he inherited the trait from your side of the family tree.” She flipped her violet, rose, and gold mane with a lackadaisical flick of her lifted forehoof and waited.

A grunt pushed its way through Barrier’s throat, and the stallion lifted his own leg to rub his forehead. “I wasn’t born yesterday, Cady. That look is more than enough to give it away. I’m not ready to have this conversation with you.”

Cadance held her silence. Her gaze narrowed, and after several shifts across his armored frame, the princess met his eyes with a far more relaxed and softened demeanor. The awkward pause lingered like the fading light of the departed sun, and Barrier’s expression contorted as his features sought refuge from the burden of the alicorn’s steadfast, regal stare.

“Faust dammit,” Barrier groaned, snapping his head to the side such that his sightline fell upon the brick archways that lined the field. “You’re turning into a brat just like your aunt. My love life isn’t royal business, so get the thought out of your head now.”

“But…” the mare interrupted with a playful note that pinged the upper edge of her registry. “As your relative, your happiness is my business. And since you just said love, I think I can stretch my case even further than you think.”

The sharp slap of Barrier’s hoof hitting his forehead briefly echoed throughout the yard. He grimaced before gradually turning his attention back to Cadance, who had started shamelessly giggling at the spectacle. “Not funny, Cady. It’s not funny at all.”

With a foallike fervor, Cadance shuffled across the grass towards the stallion. She bit her lower lip while the muscles in her cheeks fought to return the mare’s smile to its full splendor, but the princess overcame the tugs to retain her more reserved composure. “Barrier,” she answered in a motherly tone, “Shiny and I just want to make sure that you’re happy. I can already sense what you’re feeling. There’s no point in hiding it from me. I just want to help you be ready for a modern mare.”

Barrier straightened his posture as he slowly sucked in his next breath. The fur covering the back of his neck stood up, and his ears swiveled and perked. “It’s not the modern mare I’m worried about,” he grumbled. “Tail and I get along fine.”

“Then,” Cadance interrupted, swishing her tail to some imagined beat, “you shouldn’t have a problem accepting a double date invitation—say in a couple nights?”

Tail froze mid-step, drawing a sharp breath that carried with it the musty scent of the stone stairwell she had been descending with Princess Luna. They had swiftly departed the palace’s glamorous levels on an adventure to the lower, often-forgotten floors of the royal estate—where the facade was stripped down to mounted lanterns and the bare rock of ancient Canterlot.

The trek, however, had been derailed by a single statement from the Princess of the Night that left the poor lavender pegasus flustered. “Cadance wants to do what?” Tail asked in a high-pitched tone that might have been mistaken for the confused shriek of a filly had one been present.

A jovial laugh emerged from Luna’s opened muzzle. She planted her forehoof against the curving wall and braced herself as the melody stretched her smile and brought tears to the corners of her squinting eyes. “Oh, Tail! You cannot tell me that you did not see this coming! It should be no surprise at all that my niece has taken an interest in Barrier’s relationship. She is the Princess of Love, and I guess you two are sending out all the right signals.”

Redness crept over Tail’s cheeks as she gazed up at Luna in complete disbelief. “The Princess of Love… We’ve been on two dates! Two dates! How can the Prin—”

Luna’s cackling doubled in volume as she hunched over. She pushed herself from the wall and shushed the pegasus by finding the colonel’s muzzle with her flailing forehoof on the second attempt. “Amora is right! Sometimes you make it too easy! The answer, Ms. Tail, is that that is the very reason why she is going to ask Barrier for the two of you to join her and Shining Armor on a double date.”

The smaller mare sputtered in response, and her pupils swallowed her shrinking irides. In her mind, the images unloaded upon her imagination, dumping snippets of her wing-flared, flustered self, an awkward Barrier, and a pampered royal all over the place. Pitiful attempts to impress the Princess of Love with her displays of affection towards the captain tumbled about her consciousness with the grace of her first day of combat training. There was plenty of stumbling and a ton of exhaustion.

“Filly, I suggest breathing,” Luna’s voice cut through the scientist’s social simulations. The pegasus was practically hyperventilating when the comment slyly ensnared Tail’s focus, and she peered at Luna with blinking eyes before the diarch continued, “There she is! Now I can restate that there is nothing to panic about.

“Cady was the first to break through Barrier’s shell when he and I returned to Equestria. She is like a little sister to him, so I can offer my personal experience. We might be a little difficult at times, but we always mean well in the end.”

Exhaling, Tail slouched as she continued her descent towards the bottom of the curving stairwell. “Yeah, Princess, I have a younger brother, and the number of times I have cursed in your sister’s name at his antics would probably be frowned upon.”

Tail turned her head upward, gazing upon the alicorn with a keen eye before Luna’s bottom lip curled into her mouth. After a few more paces, a series of suppressed snorts slipped from the larger mare to Tail’s waiting ears. Unbridled laughter soon followed, swallowing the Princess of the Night in a chipper spirit that spurred the colonel’s feigned disdain.

“That just means he is doing his job!” Luna squealed in delight. “And don’t worry, I shan’t tell my sister about your transgressions upon her good name.”

Tail trotted off the last step just in time to deadpan at the diarch’s generous act of mercy. She rolled her eyes while her feathers and namesake flicked about, betraying her internal dismay. “Thank you for being so kind, Your Highness. Never has a princess done such a noble deed before you.”

When Luna didn’t respond immediately, the pegasus sucked on her cheek and pivoted to face the towering alicorn. The humor had been wiped from her visage, and those teal sights peered down the dimly lit hall that stretched before the pair with a knowing that Tail’s senses could not touch. “Drat,” the princess finally spoke up, “I was hoping he’d be here to meet you face-to-face this time around.”

Curiosity prodded the physicist. Her ear quivered as that desire to know perked her light frame. “Meet who?” she asked quietly, listening as her voice gained traction while it rumbled throughout the cavernous space.

Again, Luna delayed her answer. She resumed her walk down the candle-accented corridor until the smooth stone surface of the interior wall recessed. There, amidst the dampened confines of the castle’s most ancient domain, a foreboding pair of Prench-style doors stood. The modern, metal entryway smeared the light from the candles across its blue-tinted surface.

Tail had, for her part, kept pace at the alicorn’s side. She took her place in front of the mammoth structure, and her head gradually pitched her sightline towards the ceiling until the presence of a pinkish seal halted that climb. The picture of a spread phoenix stretched to fill the seal’s circumscribing circle, and Tail couldn’t resist reading the motto that wrapped around the picture’s edge. “E tenebris, invenītō fortitudinem — Out of the shadows, find resolve.”

“The creed of the Equestrian Intelligence Service,” Luna explained after tilting to face the young pegasus. “I was hoping Sir Wing would be here to greet us, but I guess he’s being a shy stallion again. Either way, it was his department that surrendered this space for you to use as your Canterlot laboratory. As they say, Ms. Tail, welcome home.”

Chapter 5 - A Catty Pegasus

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A refreshing rush of air combed through Tail’s coat after the behemoth doors had opened to reveal the physicist’s new lab. Behind the mare, the dark tugs of the dampened, candlelit corridor wrapped about her swishing namesake, but Tail’s gaze defiantly wandered from the ancient realm to home in on her future.

The white ambient light of the interior space practically bled across the threshold, and its warmth slowly pulled the pegasus forward with a beckoning call that only she could hear. This range looked nothing like the facility Luna had assembled in Las Pegasus. A dozen workbenches bathed in an ethereal glow that put the finest Canterlot stores to shame, but that wasn’t even the best part.

Six of the workbenches had already been outfitted with the waveguides she would need to seamlessly continue her research—well, almost anyway. They were noticeably smaller than the unit she had used to create the 20-mm containment vessel, but that certainly wasn’t a deterrent. Quite to the contrary, Tail’s wings ruffled at the scientific challenge that brewed within her thoughts, and it was only Luna’s interrupting giggle that yanked the sky-high flier back to the moment.

Tail snapped her head to her left and glanced upward at the grinning, teal-eyed alicorn. “You can’t blame me for showing an interest in new equipment, Princess. And the feel of this room is just… It’s just so different from how my lab in Las Pegasus felt.”

Light danced about Luna’s iris after the giggle subsided and yielded its ground to a beaming smile. “Then fear not, Ms. Tail. The Crown shall reserve its right to giggle for more pressing matters such as the budding romance between two of its steadfastly loyal officers.”

The smaller mare inhaled rapidly and deadpanned. Her wings spread, and her feathers flicked about to the rising tide of embarrassment. “You really are an insufferable brat.”

Luna’s mischievous smirk eroded instantly, and a torrent of laughter soon followed. She hunched forward and slammed her foreleg into the floor while teardrops assaulted the corners of her eyes. “By the stars, you two really are meant to be together! The expression! The flat delivery! A certain somepony has learned well from her teacher.”

For an instant, the desire to sigh and scowl blazed across the confines of Tail’s mind. The muscles in her head reflexively twitched to the mounting need, but the physicist repressed the urge. She slid closer to the chortling Princess of the Night, lifted her namesake, and deftly swatted Luna across the alicorn’s crescent cutie mark.

“Rebellion!” the princess squealed from the benign blow. Her wings swiftly flared, and the rush of wind that emerged from the diarch’s span carried enough strength to push Tail a few paces away from the flustered alicorn.

A proud grin gripped Tail’s countenance, and her brow sculpted a smug expression that cut across her glimmering chocolate-colored eyes. “And you and Amora say that I’m easy. You’re already crying foul after one perfectly placed swish. Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it, Princess.”

The playful tone in the physicist’s voice utterly eradicated the shock that had usurped Luna’s figure. “Oh no, my little pony,” she replied in a soft, sinister serenade, “you’re mistaking my shock for weakness. I didn’t expect you to be at this level quite so soon, but I guess I can finally welcome you to the game.”

Silence followed the exchange, and the two mares held their firm stares and straight faces.

Echoes of the day she met Barrier popped from Tail’s memories. The way they held those looks. That dangerous glint in Luna’s eyes is exactly the same as it was back then. Maybe there’s a little bit of catty pegasus in our nocturnal alicorn. Well, this time around, there will be no backpedaling from me, Princess.

For a few more seconds, the stillness lingered until splurts of wind sputtered through the mares’ tightly pressed lips. Once again, giggles and laughter followed, and the sounds quickly filled the massive volume of the lab with an added shot of joy.

“Ahh,” Tail sighed once the fit died out. Her body fell into that post-chuckle, contented daze, and she glanced over at the equally amused, slouching Luna. “So, Princess, are we just going to sit here pretending to do the Barrier thing all night, or are you going to tell me the reason why this room is absolutely covered in this bubbly aura?

“I certainly have a few educated guesses already, including one that I’d probably be willing to drop a few bits on, but I’d rather not make a wager when I can get the information directly from the source.”

One-by-one, Princess Luna replanted her hooves before straightening her posture. “Indeed, being Barrier doesn’t exactly suit you. You are more yourself standing at his side instead”—she drew a breath as the muscles around her chest contracted to repress the resurgent humor—“but that doesn’t have anything to do with your question. Given the cracks you put into the wall of the Las Pegasus lab, Celestia and I decided to have this room triply reinforced—sun, moon, and love.”

Tail nodded and hummed quietly while her sights scanned about her new domain. Eventually, she lifted her head to observe the beautiful, luminescent tiles that comprised the ceiling and replied, “Yeah, it was an unexpected result. Barrier and I have compatible wavelengths”—she paused to scowl at the impish look Luna flashed—“and resonance was definitely expected. I just don’t know how we broke the plateau.

“I redid the calculation seventeen times and even threw conservative systematic errors into the mix. The ninety-five C.L. is still 1.02 A.E.U. I’d rather not have this drift beyond you and your sister, but I don’t think this system can ever see general deployment.”

“Agreed,” Luna spoke with a firm, professional intonation that vividly projected her regal stature. “Much like the Elements of Harmony, that sort of power should only be trusted to those who have the dedication and resilience to wield it effectively. The resilience of someone like the pony in my presence works nicely—especially after the fine showing she gave in her B.C.T. final exam.

“My sources in the Equestrian Intelligence Service say that word of her determination has spread through the entire Canterlot patrol.” Luna paused and briefly held her forehoof to her chin. “On a semi-related note, I do not think you will have to worry about interference from the Equestrian Army anymore. Trigger’s wife will be taking over as the representative on the Joint Chiefs. Gracious Waters came to oversee the appointment himself.”

Tail’s muzzle reddened from the less-than-subtle praise, and her wings and namesake flicked several times before the familiar name reached her perking ears. “Wait, you mean the same stallion that wrote the discourse of war book?”

The princess nodded. “Yes, the very same, and I believe he would like to meet you in person before he returns home. I strongly suggest it. While you do receive royal support, Gracious is a powerful ally to have in your pocket. For now though, why don’t I help you get situated—or at least as much as I can—before my court begins? You’re going to have a lot of work over the next few days, I am sure.”

Feathers instinctively ruffled at the prospect, and Tail lightly waved her hoof to dismiss the burden. “Oh! You don’t have to worry about that. I can take care of things myself, and I should really catch up with Barrier anyway—”

Luna froze the smaller mare with a dramatic lift of her foreleg. Her teal gaze settled upon Tail’s inquisitively wavering frame. “It’s no problem at all, and Cadance still has plans for your coltfriend anyway. You can rendezvous with them later at the Phoenix Fire. Besides, Cady isn’t the only princess that can twist arrangements. I still have plans myself—for you.”

A rushed pace took Tail through the streets of Canterlot as she made her way from the castle to the Phoenix Fire. Somehow, Luna had shunned a portion of her court duties to help calibrate all six of those cute waveguides. A tiny smirk tugged at a corner of her lips. Loyalty was definitely proving to be her favorite thus far. Yes, she had named them after the Elements of Harmony, and the notion forged a quiet giggle as she reflected on the personalities of her latest bits of equipment.

With a flap of her wings, the armor-clad pegasus leapt over one of the many ornate houses. She landed softly in an empty alleyway and used the passage to bypass the nighttime restaurant crowds. Nopony wanted to trudge through the underbelly of Equestria’s capital. The stones weren’t whitewashed here. The mark of the modern elite vanished in these overlooked corridors. They were charcoal and gritty—like my stallion—and they were effective.

Eventually, Tail emerged from the maze about a half a block away from Colonel Trigger’s establishment. As she approached the door, her casual step morphed into a catty crawl. Her eyelids descended, and a foxy demeanor captured her countenance. She rolled her gauntlet-covered forehoof and stealthily propped open the wood slab like a card magician peeling off a double lift.

The drone of inebriated guards drenched the mare’s sense of sound the instant she created a perceptible crack in the entryway. She slipped in, maintaining the spirit of her prowl as she snaked her way towards the bar.

To their credits, the other patrons didn’t rat her out. In fact, they shot the newest member of their family sly looks and nodded her in the direction of her target.

Tail’s nostrils flared while she weaved her way around the tables and other ponies. Her heart thumped at the promise of latching onto that stallion after a long day of training and work. The primal recesses of her mind prodded, producing every silent step—invoking the very nature of what it meant to be a pegasus: proud, swift, and on top.

Finally, she caught sight of the unicorn haunched atop a stool. It was hard to miss his archaic armor kit, and it was even harder to miss the bright and bubbly pink alicorn sitting next to him. Tail crept forward and was about to complete her pounce when Barrier tossed his head towards the ceiling and downed a shot.

“Keep ‘em comin’, Trigs!” the stallion groaned in ecstasy. “Cadance still isn’t done tryin’ to get things outta me, and eleven just isn’t cuttin’ it.”

“Every. Detail,” Cadance reiterated, taking her sweet time to drill a little alcohol-aided emphasis into her words.

Barrier propped his foreleg on the countertop and promptly planted his chin on his curled limb. “So,” he teased, keeping his focus on the alicorn, “this is how the Princess of Love operates? Take a stallion out and get him shitfaced in front of his friends before picking at all of his deepest, darkest secrets?”

“Pbbbbt,” Cady sighed as she sprawled herself over the bar. “If you weren’t such a stubborn stallion, I wouldn’t have to get drunk—wouldn’t have to get you drunk to get all of the juicy details about you and your little pegasus.”

The other patrons responded to the princess’s childish outburst by erupting into a fit of chuckles. Tail, on-the-other-hoof, smirked in silence after she took a step back into the crowd. She didn’t want to interrupt this, especially when it came to Magic Barrier and his royal entourage.

“You getting drunk might actually be worth it, but you’re already at your limit. So there’s not much point in it, now is there?”

Cadance retaliated against the hotshot smile plastered upon Barrier’s muzzle with an overzealous pout. “I can take you any day of the week, Grandpa,” she slurred before pumping her hoof towards the ceiling. “One answer per shot! Whatever Trigger chooses!” She paused to throw a half-lidded stare in the bartender’s direction. “An’ make it a good’un. Shiny’ll get ruffled when he finds out I threw money at you. Makes the sex better.”

Tail snorted at the exchange and watched as the Coltston-wearing stallion behind the bar snapped his head towards the pink mare of honor. His midnight-coated fetlock tugged at the brown vest that covered his torso, and Tail noted the wry grimace that revealed Trigger’s pearly whites.

“That’s what everyone here wanted to know, Cady,” Trigger shouted over the raucous laughter that burst from table-pounding patrons and amused guards. “As for that deal you’re brokering, ya might want to make sure Ol’ Gramps is up for your challenge before I pour the good stuff. I hate wastin’ top product.”

Barrier flinched, drawing Tail’s attention as she leaned forward to get a slightly better viewing angle. His hoof dropped on the dark wood bartop with a resounding thud, and Tail didn’t have to see it to know that Barrier’s hellfire stare accompanied the subtle rolling of his head.

“I’m in,” Barrier answered cooly while his blue, two-toned tail whipped about beneath his stool. “I can drink this li’l mare under the damn table. I wonder if she can even make it through a single question.”

Trigger snickered and lightly shook his head at Barrier’s retort. “You’re in way deeper than ya think, Barry.” His hooves rummaged through the space beneath the counter, and after a few seconds of searching, the stallion retrieved a silver tray, ten shot glasses, and two bottles of hard liquor.

“A little Manehattan Liver-Knives for the stallion,” Trigger explained, filling half of the glimmering glasses with the golden liquid that flowed from the blocky bottle he had grabbed. He set the container aside and reached for the next selection before pouring an emerald elixir from the far more dignified, rounded glass. “And some d’Amour for our resident Princess of Love. May her hot, angry sex with Captain Armor be a story that we’ll never have to hear.”

No pony had to wait very long for the first pair of drinks to be consumed. Both Barrier and Cadance snatched their respective beverages at the behest of prideful magical auras, and both ponies tossed the brews down their throats without a flicker of hesitation.

Barrier focused on Cadance after he set the emptied glass down. She teetered atop her seat, and each time she leaned away from the captain, Barrier would drift closer and raise his foreleg as though he were preparing to catch her.

“Stop being a dad!” Cadance wailed. A happy giggle quickly swept the more aggressive demeanor aside, and the hot-pink alicorn clapped her forehooves together. “I get a question. I get a question. What—what do you see in Tail that makes you want to pursue her romantically?”

“Fuck,” Barrier grumbled under his breath. He faced the cluster of remaining glasses and reached for the second shot out of habit. “Determination,” he spoke louder. “When we first met, she told me she couldn’t quit. I was nothing short of an asshole that day, and she just shrugged it off. Didn’t matter how hard I pushed either. She didn’t flake.”

“Oooo, so she hit your respect button right off the bat.” Cadance’s purple eyes sparkled with excitement, and her light blue magic corralled her next endeavor. She downed the liquor and lifted her muzzle to guide a happy hum from her lungs towards the unseen sky. Again, she swayed briefly before recomposing herself to tackle the task at hoof. “And what about her physically appeals to you the most?”

The captain swallowed his second and third shots. He exhaled heavily as he stretched his spine and forelimbs. “Her wings and feathers. I love them. Maybe it’s only Trigsy that knows up to this point, but I have a huge feather fetish. Might be due to my time with Ember or the texture and softness of them. I don’t know, but they flick all the right switches.”

Tail’s ears twitched as she listened. Her wings—the ones that he loves—fluttered in the wake of Barrier’s admiration. She could feel the burn crawl upon her cheeks, and at least a couple guards made their chuckles heard as they gently nudged her sides.

“And what else?” Once again, Cadance slurred her words after consuming more of the colorful beverage. “There’s always something else. You know that, right?”

Barrier grunted and rolled his eyes. “I know how courtship works, and for your information, it’s her eyes.” As he spoke, the stallion’s tone took on a surprisingly solemn timbre. “They have more weight in them than any other pony’s I’ve seen. She’s got that fire in her—the one that reminds me of them.”

The Princess of Love tried to pick up her fourth glass with her magic, but the normally controlled aura refused to obey her whims. A low rumble rolled from her throat as she continued to try, but eventually, the mare gave up, lowered her mouth to the glass, and slurped the drink.

“Finally!” Cadance squealed while lifting herself up. “Now, do you…” She shook her head, and her brows lifted and fell as confusion carved its presence onto her visage. “Do…” She huffed and fluffed her feathers. “What’s your biggest fear with courting Tail?”

Barrier blinked. He promptly sloshed more Liver-Knives around his mouth and gulped down the alcohol. “Same as every other stallion in history. That I’m not good enough. Tail accepted me after I told ‘er everything. I’ve told her all of it, but I’m still afraid she’ll wake up one day and see me for the monster that I know I am.”

The lavender pegasus jolted as the words careened into her brain. Her chocolate-colored irides caught fire, and one of her wings darted out to the side. She stomped forward, no longer caring about how her interruption might alter the dynamic of Barrier’s interaction with Cadance. He had encroached upon a hallowed ground, and it was her right to do something about it.

The Princess of Love slumped onto the bar during Tail’s approach. Barrier’s attention was fully affixed to the fading princess until the pegasus wrapped a leg around the stallion, spun him around, and planted a passionate kiss on his muzzle that drew out every whistle and catcall imaginable.

Again, Barrier blinked to the fiery stare that bore into his sluggish, booze-filled body. He remained slack-jawed when Tail broke the kiss, and a heated breath dripped from his opened mouth.

“You’re not a monster, Barrier. I told you that already. I will never think that. Ever!” She spread the primaries of her still-opened wing and tenderly brushed them against his face before her eyes targeted a single lavender feather in the bunch. Swiftly, she plucked it from her appendage and tucked it into his mane. “Just so you don’t forget, Feather Boy.

“And as for you, Princess,” Tail continued her verbal bombardment after tilting towards the sprawled alicorn. “I hope that showed you exactly how I feel about my captain. I’ll be taking him home now, so with regards to that double date Luna told me you wanted… Pop’s Place for a 7 PM dinner. Tomorrow.”

With that, Tail hopped from Barrier’s post and sauntered to the door. The crowd parted for the mare and gave her all the room in the world to seductively strut with all of the confidence she had. “C’mon, Sweety, I’ll walk you home.”

Trigger tapped the countertop near Princess Cadance after nearly a minute had passed since Barrier’s abrupt departure. “Can’t say I’ve ever seen a stallion bolt after a filly quite like that,” he said to the unmoving alicorn. “I hope ya got what ya were hoping to see, Cady. It’s always fun being an asshole with you.”

The mare’s ears swiveled at the comment, and a broad grin split her muzzle. She opened her eyes, quickly peered up at the hovering bartender, and sat up without any sign of compromised motor skills. “Always, Trigsy, and thanks for the juice.”

Chapter 6 - Under the Stars

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A melodic hum drifted from Tail’s mouth as she escorted Barrier back towards his home. After every few steps, she’d glance over her shoulder to make sure that the stallion was keeping pace. More often than not, she found that he was. In fact, more often than not, she found that his eyes were keenly following her swishing namesake—and that a blush would usurp his muzzle’s natural color every time he got caught in the act.

“Not fair,” he mumbled in an alcohol-induced drawl. “Cute pegasus, bar kiss, good view.”

Tail giggled at that one, and she promptly paused her stride to give the inebriated stallion the time he needed to pull up to her flank. “Form up, Captain,” she spoke with a tone that injected the standard order with playful mischief. “I don’t want to hear excuses for that when I can make an excuse to turn a bar kiss into a street kiss.”

Barrier’s ears flicked upright, and he stumbled forward as quickly as his sedated body dared to allow. “It’s dangerous to flirt with a drunk colt,” he commented after his meandering trot finally carried him to the correct position at Tail’s side.

“So is going to a bar with Princess Cadance, especially when said bar is owned by Trigger,” the lavender mare quipped while her sights swept over the unicorn’s armored frame. Concern plucked the sportive spring from Tail’s voice and firmed the features of her face. Beneath the gentle glow of a city streetlamp, the amber flare that periodically graced her gaze returned in full force to cast its hold upon the silenced stallion. “And it’s far more dangerous to call yourself monster when I’ve already told you I won’t believe it.”

Wings spread at the behest of the rising passion. Tail’s breaths quickened, and her heart raced while that heat coursed across her nerves like nothing else in the entire universe mattered at all. Her coat puffed at the internalized notion that her captain’s honor was on the line, and she became wholly transfixed by the blue eyes that cradled her attention.

Seconds of silence lingered upon their score, and eventually, the pegasus scrunched her muzzle, sharply inhaled, and waited for Barrier’s response. Yet Barrier stood still. The only hints that showed were subtle movements of pupils that outlined Tail’s cheeks, skirted her exposed feathers, or fell into her emblazoned stare.

Finally, it clicked. Barrier broke the silence with a gasp, lowered his frame, and nudged the pegasus even after he drew a squeak from her. He pressed forward, lifting her forelegs from the ground and pinning her back to that glorious streetlight.

Those unfolded wings stiffened as Tail felt the warmth of Barrier’s muzzle upon her neck. The sensation contrasted sharply with the dull feel of the pole pressing against the protective plates that adorned her back—or the weight of his armor clashing with the resistance that her own kit had to offer. His heat was far better, and the mare couldn’t help but shiver when the tip of his muzzle lightly tapped against her own.

“Your attitude,” he whispered with a volume just loud enough to tug upon Tail’s ear tips. He shifted his head forward to deposit a kiss upon the mare’s waiting lips. “Your personality. Your intelligence. Your dedication—”

It was Tail’s turn to blush. Crimson clearly showed on her muzzle and quickly spread to her ears as Barrier renewed his advances with increased vigor after each of his declarations. Somewhere buried in the depths of her mind, Tail’s foalhood counterpart flailed and squeed at the fulfillment of a reminisced romantic fantasy. In the present, her forelegs had moved of their own volitions to wrap around Barrier’s barrel.

“—are all dangerously enjoyable.” The captain brushed her mane with a wandering hoof and delivered a firm, punctuating kiss that drove home his arguments.

The mare’s hind legs quivered as the swelling tide of love drowned out the harsh taste of alcohol that still stuck to Barrier’s tongue. Her limbs relaxed, and she briefly slouched against the light post until the stallion’s free foreleg corralled her barrel and pulled her close. Time was ...a meaningless component of the spacetime four-vector… during that memorable moment, and when Barrier eventually retreated from his kiss, Tail peered up at her captain and held a silent, bated breath.

Had it not been for the barely perceptible curvature of the unicorn’s contented smirk, Tail would have immediately leaned forward to reclaim Barrier’s lips. Instead, she surrendered to the details that he gave her in that moment—from the tangible beat in his chest that transmitted through their embrace to the sparkle of mischief in his blue eyes that gave away a blossoming secret.

“I don’t think I want to go home yet,” he continued in a gruff murmur, revealing the truth behind that effervescent glow.

Tail laughed, tightening her own hold on the stallion as her muzzle crept towards one of his ears. “After a move like that, Magic, neither do I…”

The bushes and shrubs of the Canterlot Gardens whipped past Tail as she darted over the grounds. Streams of colors, drawn by flowers of all hues and shapes, blurred across her vision, and the pegasus took a brief moment to glance over her shoulder at the chasing Barrier. “Almost there,” she chimed, planting her left legs to make a push to the right.

Tail’s hooves navigated a gentle slope that rose above the borders constructed by the garden’s hedges. Forget-Me-Nots dotted the hill, and the way in which the soft blues captured the moonlight put a smile on her face. This was a place where they could put every bit of the city outside of their minds—where the ground peaked above the horizons etched by society and pushed her closer to a beloved sky...

That smile evaporated, and widened chocolate eyes accompanied the sudden presence of Barrier’s weight upon the mare’s back. Tail tumbled to the grass, and Barrier’s chuckling tones bit at her ears when he rolled her over and claimed his perch. That’s a pegasus thing, she reflexively thought as she peered up at a proud, less-inebriated grin.

“Gotcha,” he calmly announced in that gritty tenor that made Tail’s feathers ruffle.

The more she stared at that smug smirk, the more her muzzle scrunched. Finally, the pegasus lifted her leg and pressed her hoof to Barrier’s nose. “Sweety, you can’t count it as catching me if I’ve already crossed the finish line.”

“Is that so? Well”—the stallion paused, and his sights aimlessly wandered as though he were in deep thought—“Cady might say that love’s a battlefield, and where one places the finish line is up to interpretation. Right now, an observer would say I was winning.”

“We’re not on a battlefield, Barrier,” she snorted and defiantly flicked her namesake, “and you should be happy with that. Don’t forget, I outrank you now, Captain.”

The unicorn’s ears twitched in the wake of those words. It was his turn to contort his muzzle to the point that Tail believed he had started chewing on his cheek. A halfhearted scowl cut across his brow, and he yanked a breath into his lungs before delivering his rebuttal. “I thought we said no ranks outside of training.”

“I wasn’t the one who said love is a battlefield,” she purred in a singsong voice before her wingtip delicately ran over his chin. “And what kind of mare would I be if I let you have it both ways?”

Barrier ducked beneath Tail’s wingspan and rested his head atop the floof that escaped the purview of her golden breastplate. “The most amazing mare ever?” The cadence of his question quickened as a sidelong glance detected the deadpan response emanating from the pinned flier. His timbre took a shift of its own, morphing into something reminiscent of a pleading colt. “Can I at least count the streetlamp kiss?”

Tail settled back into the grass and softly sighed. She set her right forehoof just behind his ear and began to brush his mane—careful not to dislodge the feather keepsake—as the fresh memories of that kiss saturated her mind. Amidst those dreamy reveries, her attention gradually drifted to the stars above until the only earthly things she felt were the green blades poking up from beneath her body, Barrier’s radiating warmth, his occasionally tilting head, and the hairs with which she played. “Yes,” she eventually answered. “I’ll definitely give you that one. I’ll give you that one for quite some time.”

Several more seconds passed during which Tail’s focus gallivanted across the heavens, and the imaginary journey remained a silent one until the unicorn opted to accompany his date.

“Luna used to hide messages in them while we were on missions,” he commented quietly after dragging his muzzle towards Tail’s neck. “It was her way of keeping tabs on us from afar, and it was pretty useful when it came to the griffs. They thought that gift was just an equine myth.”

Like a slowly rising tide, a murmur brewed in Tail’s throat before a nostalgic wind dripped from her muzzle. “When I was younger, the stars really steered me to science, and… they strengthened my relationship with my dad too. We used to stargaze together a lot, and eventually, he started going out of his way to take me to the Ambler Planetarium to see all the exhibits and stuff. If we ever got to hear a cool lecture, he’d get super excited about the research going on around him. It was kind of inspiring to watch a scientist of his caliber jump around just like a foal.”

The pressure from Barrier’s subsequent snort jostled the fluffy tufts of Tail’s coat. The mare halted her petting and pivoted her head to take in the stallion’s sheepish smile. “What?” he answered the inquisitive expression that comically squished her countenance. “Am I not allowed to chuckle when you make it obvious where you got it from?”

Tail coiled her forelegs and reflexively puffed her cheeks. “Being told I’ve turned into my dad is absolutely the most romantic thing ever, Sweety,” she replied with a tone drenched in lighthearted sarcasm.

“Complain all you want, but I have yet to meet another pony who gets as worked up about science as you. I haven’t met a pony who takes to military history like you do either. We live in a magical world, but, if you ask me, that spirit needs a different kind of magic.”

The muscles in Tail’s face relaxed once those words reached her ears. Now, this I can work with, she thought, mischief stretching a corner of her lips. “I was just lucky to get an inspiring teacher who figured out how to get me moving. He’s a different kind of Magic, indeed.”

Barrier snorted again and shifted more of his weight atop the pegasus. “I sense your roommate’s terrible influence all over that one. Maybe we should finally do something about all the insufferable brats in our lives. Then we’d be free—” The stallion abruptly stopped, planted his mouth into Tail’s lavender fur, and groaned. “I can’t believe you agreed to that dinner with Shining and Cadance.”

“Mm,” Tail replied, draping her folded forelegs over his scruffy neck, “we don’t have to worry about them. The best part about this spot is that it’s just the plants, the sky, and us. We’re both going to have a lot on our plates tomorrow, so I propose that we let it be for now. Tonight, I want someone special to watch the stars with me.”

A minute passed in which the two ponies remained still. The mare’s chest gently rose and fell under the unicorn’s bulkier frame, and her mind swirled around the prevailing notion that sat bare upon her declaration. You’re the special someone…

Barrier swallowed hard, and the tension that surrounded the gulp flirted with Tail’s senses. His face started to noticeably flush, and the instant Tail’s demeanor transitioned from a concerned grimace to one that flashed a hint of awareness, the stallion’s horn lit.

Lavender fur rose to the tingling wave of magic that swept up the pegasus in its grip. Tail stretched in its hold once Barrier rolled onto the grass, and she uttered a quiet peep as the levitation spell deposited her back atop his waiting chest. She shivered blissfully as his muzzle brushed against her ear in piecemeal advancements that carried an aura of evaporating shyness.

“I would love to watch the stars with you,” he whispered. His forelegs wrapped around her torso before the remnant sparkle of his sorcery faded. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do this with anypony, and”—he paused and drew in the blueberry-like scent of Tail’s flowing mane—“stargazing was a family affair for me too.”

The relaxing physicist smiled contentedly as her sights once again greeted the numerous twinkling lights. “Is that so?” she playfully hummed. “Did you gaze up at them with Captain Armor, Grandpa, or are we talking a different kind of family affair?”

Tightening his hold on the smaller pony, the stallion grumbled, “You know I’m not actually his grandpa. One of my siblings gave birth to that branch of the family tree, and Cadance and Velvet skewed it more and more. Punishment for not accepting uncle, they said.”

In her head, Tail imagined little cartoon ponies jumping around Barrier while shouting teasing declarations regarding his grandfather status. One of them was, of course, themed in the color pattern of Princess Cadance. Another was Shining Armor, and the remaining participants were vague blobs of purple and blue that were left to the devices of Tail’s internal narration.

Bubbling laughter filled the air as the duet of her creativity and Barrier’s percussive rumblings pushed the mare past the brink of restraint. “From what I saw tonight, I’d say that you and Princess Cadance have quite the interesting relationship.”

“Yeah,” Barrier answered, his tone calming as he let the single word cling to the wind. “She’s a pretty important pony to me. Family is pretty important to me. It was the only thing I had left after I came back. But, to actually answer your question, this was something I used to do with my mother, so I guess we’re on even ground, Ms. Tail.”

“Well then, here’s to a resumed tradition, Mr. Barrier.” Her volume gradually diminished until a gentle stillness hovered around the pony pair. The pegasus’s heart thumped through the brief rest, and each quiet beat coaxed to the surface a more vibrant blush. Tail’s lips quivered, and the mare’s mind churned in search of the perfect lyrics. “I hope you know… there’s more for you here now.”

Chapter 7 - A Caliber’s Debts

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The gardens of Canterlot seemed like a distant memory as Tail meandered alone down a dusty road in Las Pegasus. A giant crescent moon just peeked over the horizon, and its argent smile flirted with the wooden rooftops of the old-style shops that lined the street. For whatever reason, Tail was the only pony that dared to drift about the dry, desert night, and sure enough, every building she passed peered back at her with blackened windows that echoed the stillness.

“What am I doing here?” the mare spoke in an airy tone as she swiveled her head in search of a familiar face. When no answer came, Tail staggered forward. A groan crawled up her throat as she slogged through the city. Her eyelids drooped, and she struggled to maintain a straight path, for the sands of a groggy nemesis toyed with her balance.

Her mind felt stretched beyond its natural limit—as though the streams of her consciousness were actually fibers that could be pulled until she was left with troubling pockets in her mental landscape. Each step brought additional weight that crashed upon her lean frame. Hind legs failed to support, forelegs failed to steer, and Tail’s surroundings began to swirl like water careening around the event horizon of a drain.

“Where are you?” she murmured right before the sound of Barrier’s voice barely brushed against her perking ears.

“...with a marginally sober stallion in a park…”

Tail’s wings had spread to the fleeting words, and she quickly stumbled forward at the sign of life only to spill onto her side when the silence resumed. An exasperated sigh burst through her parted mouth and flaring nostrils, and her legs strained as she battled against an oppressive, invisible weight that seemed to keep her prone.

“The Tartarus is this?” she groaned. The muscles in her barrel tightened when she tried to lift her body once more, yet nothing budged. She continued to struggle—and crafted a defiant scowl as her efforts to will her limbs to just do something! resulted in a racing heart and mounting frustration.

“Oh, come on!” Tail roared again. Her extremities felt like utter deadweight, and the grit of the Las Pegasus road drenched her sense of touch as the grains of dirt infected the mare’s lavender coat. She scrunched her muzzle in discomfort, but thankfully, the cringey ordeal did not last for long.

“Can’t have a fussy date…”

Warmth cascaded over Tail’s rebellious legs as the added statement flirted with her ears. The barren ground popped from her awareness as she was rolled onto her back, and a vibrant, sunny sky greeted the suddenly stunned scientist. Blades of grass sought refuge in her fur, and a soft, breathing mattress kept her quite snug beneath Celestia’s star.

“Barrier…” Her whisper rumbled throughout the wilderness. While quiet in volume, the name carried a surreal energy that made the ground tremble. She did not need to look back to identify the stallion who tightly held her. He could make it… even here… and that was more than enough. It no longer mattered that her limbs misbehaved, and the strange discontinuity in how she arrived at this place from Las Pegasus barely registered as a problem.

“Much better. You know a stallion could get used to having an adorable mare sleeping on top of him.”

Tail slowly turned her head to lightly nuzzle into his fluff. “I’m not asleep, Barrier,” she hummed. “You haven’t run me into the ground today, so how could I possibly fall—”

“But now I’m going to have to figure out exactly what to do with you,” the stallion continued speaking as though Tail hadn’t answered him at all. “There’s a lot I need to think about when it comes to you.”

Tail pursed her lips while her attention settled on the serious timbre that had usurped the unicorn’s tone. A torrent of words assembled in her head while gentle tugs at her mane marked the tender brushings Barrier had unleashed.

“How can I prepare you for the next step while maintaining this? Taking you to the next level and making sure you’re best equipped”—he gulped and took an audible breath—“to become my successor. Moments like this… are distant and rare for me, and I would be lying if I said I felt like I deserve them. I would be lying if I said I wanted you to be like me. I just don’t know how I can make you better. But then, you keep surprising me. You keep sticking up for me. You keep defying the odds.” He descended into a whisper that Tail somehow perceived as a roar. “You are the most important pony to come into my life in over a thousand years. You’re the sun to my sky.”

Tail’s body clicked. Her lungs swelled, and she inhaled with a ravenous ferocity that made it seem as though she had lingered on the verge of drowning. She rapidly sat up, and her head darted about to haphazardly throw her gaze around yet another location. A darkened room—devoid of Barrier’s tender warmth—greeted her, and Tail was left to confront an aura of an entirely different caliber.

Something old and something powerful waited in the shadows. It cast an eerie, mysterious darkness that contorted Tail’s features into a concerned, gaping stare. The mare reached out for the unknown, towards what she interpreted as a figure, and from the depths of that outline, a cylindrical form began to take shape in front of the pegasus’s widening chocolate eyes. It drew closer and closer over the course of a few seconds until a decidedly metallic surface finally came to rest against Tail’s outstretched hoof.

The scientist jerked from the sensation, and her ears instinctively flopped as curiosity naturally accompanied the unease. She delicately guided her hoof over the sloped surface and felt the seams and grooves that covered the unidentified, mystically shrouded object. Her muzzle quivered, and her lips wiggled as the question assembled in her mind. Though she did not have to ask.

A single explanation emerged from the voice of an older mare that carried wisdom in every facet of its tones. “Resolve.”

Ragged, staccato notes sprang from Tail’s muzzle as she heaved her torso from a firm mattress and assumed a seated position. Her hair, a quilt, and some silky sheets cascaded off her naked figure as her dilated pupils absorbed the first images of unfamiliar surroundings. Her sights initially fell upon a star motif carved into the bed’s hindboard. Its finer details had been snatched by the veil of greyscale that shrouded the chamber, but the swirling pattern of geometric designs spoke to her scientific instincts and allowed the beat of her respiration to shift to a much gentler tempo.

I’m awake this time… she commented to herself before her attention wandered to the source of the room’s darkness. To Tail’s left, heavy drapes hung over the windows, and only a trickle of exterior light managed to infiltrate. Even then, most of those intrusive pre-dawn photons abruptly fell upon a small, simple sofa placed directly in front of the window. The furniture’s finer features were robbed again by the dim environment, but Tail could discern the outlines of two armor kits stacked atop the light-grey cushions.

Tail blinked several times while this latest clue chipped away at the gap in her memory. Her feathers ruffled, and she stretched her neck as though she could crane for the story she yearned to reclaim. Her eyes dashed about, randomly hurling her gaze across the room and over numerous faint shimmers that tried to answer the mare’s call.

Armor… Stars… Stars… Garden! I must have fallen asleep with Barrier!

Tail’s mental page had turned, and her awareness immediately snapped to a sea of barely noticeable reflections that crowded the space. Her coat bristled once she identified the sources of each of those pinpricks, for every dot of light that condensed in the darkness came from the surface of an emptied bottle. Booze. Booze. Booze. Booze, the mare’s mind rattled as Tail obsessed over the glass contours. She finally caved in and leaned over the side of the mattress to pluck one from the floor—where she found the only comfort she could with that situation.

It’s dusty. All of them were dusty—as if they hadn’t been touched in weeks—as though whatever beast that had wrought this havoc had at least departed. With this train of thought established, Tail lowered her guard and twisted her hips to reach the wooden nightstand located beside the bed. She was okay with leaving the bottle there—at least until she saw what was placed atop the oak.

A dark cloth occupied that spot. It had been neatly folded several times over to form a makeshift cradle, and atop that soft fabric, her feather sat. “I told you. You’re not a monster,” she whispered aloud after quietly setting the bottle back on the floor.

Tail finally rolled to face her opposite side. There, Barrier rested beneath his quilt with the most contented smile on his muzzle that the mare had ever seen. The peace in that soft grin melted the mare’s heart, and the fragments of that troublesome dream faded into the land of the forgotten as she nestled into the warmth his barrel had to offer.

Her hooves drifted over his neck and ventured through his mane, pausing only to acknowledge the waking purr that seeped from his muzzle. “Oh, Barrier,” she cooed, trying to coax him from his slumber.

The stallion in question shifted slightly. His foreleg flopped around Tail’s back, and a light pressure held the pegasus in its cuddly confines. “Mm, no nightmares,” he muttered softly before Tail was further snatched by his embrace. “My Blanket.”

While lazily swishing her namesake atop the silvery sheet, Tail snickered at the new name. “First time you bring me to your place and I’m relabelled as an object? Your old-time dating customs are something else.”

Barrier opened one of his icy-blue eyes and quickly set his stare upon the physicist. That contented smile quickly spread into what Tail could have interpreted as a suave grin, and a throaty reply promptly emerged. “Nickname.”

Tail shuffled towards the headboard and repositioned her snout until her nose lightly tapped against Barrier’s. “Nickname, huh?” Even with the little light, her irides reflected a mischievous glow, and her lips followed suit by crafting a countering smirk. “I wonder what nickname I should give a stallion who’s soft, warm, huggable…”

“Mm, don’t know if it’s a good thing that I’m curious. Feels like I should be a bit terrified, and I might add that you’re the soft, warm, and huggable one here, Blanket.” Barrier lifted his foreleg, snagged the displaced quilt, and draped both his limb and the cloth back over the reclined flier.

The mare bit her lower lip after she was engulfed by the cozy domain. She wriggled in the unicorn’s gentle hold and threaded her forelegs around his body. “Well, I guess I can be your Blanket if you’ll be my Magic Bear.”

The stallion’s ear flopped and he tilted his head. “Magic Bear? Does that mean you want me to roar or something?”

Tail sharply inhaled and buried her muzzle into Barrier’s chest to suppress the laughter that rose despite her efforts. “Oh, my sweet stars, Barrier! It’s a play on the teddy bear thing Princess Luna teased us about, and while I don’t want to give her the satisfaction, the name really fits.”

“So…” Barrier began his response after yielding a quiet chuckle. “Relabelling a pony as an object with utility is bad, but relabelling a pony as a foal’s toy is fine?”

Tail giggled once more and stretched so he could catch her half-lidded glance. “You can always roar for me if you want to. Who knows? I just might like it. Though, I’m fairly certain that’s not exactly a third-date activity either. This coziness most definitely is, so I’ll take it and offer my thanks for being such a good caretaker. It’s quite sweet of you.”

Barrier flicked his tail in the wake of a quick peck to his cheek. “Least I can do for the mare who defends me like no other,” he answered quietly, rolling his head to sneak a peek at the drapes. “Nngh, but I’m not looking forward to getting up. Going to be a busy day with Bonecrusher and Indar, and I recall a certain filly promised a double date with a princess at 7 PM. I’m definitely going to have to add royal planning strategy to your executor curriculum.”

The pegasus grumbled, knowing that daybreak would soon be upon them—and that Barrier’s presence would be needed on the training field. She basked in his embrace for as long as she could and huffed once her mind finally admitted that it was time to get up. “I’ll probably be spending most of the day in my new lab. I hope you don’t mind, but I think Princess Luna has more in store for me.”

Barrier grunted and rolled his eyes. “She always has something in store. Don’t know if it’s a princess or an alicorn thing, but all of them are conniving little shits.”

Tail hummed affirmatively as amusement drew out a simpering countenance. “Well, maybe once she’s done, you can come down and see the place, and then we can go to Pop’s to meet Princess Cadance and Captain Armor. And”—her tone and pacing promptly picked up a more playful character—“you can add whatever you think is necessary to my curriculum, but I’ll stand by my actions last night until rainbows shine in Tartarus.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” Barrier replied before giving the mare a gentle nuzzle. “You can take a shower if you want. It’s the first door on the left as you go into the hall. In the meantime, I can get a quick breakfast going for us. Thinking Prench toast. Something other than pancakes this time.”

The pegasus planted her forehooves into the mattress and pushed up, stretching her figure in front of the unicorn while her back briefly held a catty curvature. She watched him as he stared up at her with a dopey grin etched onto his muzzle, and she couldn’t contain the blossoming, beaming expression that utterly betrayed her emotion.

“Sounds good to me, Magic Bear.” She tittered and rolled from the bed as her namesake recovered its impish swish. “And you weren’t kidding when you told me your place was messy. I’m going to have to teach you the modern art of Canterlot recycling.”

Barrier swiftly sat up. His eyes widened, and his horn sparked to life. “Shit.”

All the while, Tail chortled as she watched the stallion scramble out of bed. “Hehe, it’s like I already told you. There’s a lot more here for you now.”

Chapter 8 - Showers & Steel

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Tail leaned her forehead against the white tiles that lined the shower walls. Her eyes remained closed while warm water tugged her mane, soaked her lavender coat, and blanketed her body in a perfect shroud for mental wandering. In particular, the feeling of Barrier’s fur lingered in her memory, and its presence produced a random progression of hummed notes that slipped over a bitten lower lip.

Three chords passed before the image of the first time she had seen Barrier stuck out amongst the sea of snapshots that tumbled through her mind. The echoes of his harsh tone bit into her reflections, tearing at the fabric of that long-abandoned nightmare. I gave everything for both of you, and you would demand more!? That’s what he had screamed at Luna in that moment—when she had clawed her way into his life.

You really didn’t want me there—Tail’s smile broke the hold her teeth had placed upon her lip—but I told you I couldn’t quit. Now here I am.

The mare’s ear flicked. The timbre of her internal narration had shifted to something far more subdued as Tail’s focus flew through the timeline. Barrier’s life, the things he had to endure, his pain—they haunted the dusty contours of every bottle she had seen. She had clawed her way in…

“Caught a glimpse of your face and the pain left behind.” While her repetitive humming yielded to the emerging lyrics, Tail’s voice clung to the chain she had established. A G5 chord—it was definitely a G5—anchored her verse until a lifting D and more somber A-minor rounded out the trio.

Difficult days came back to the drenched pegasus. Days when he had seen her not at her best—and ones when they had clashed—ventured to the front. Flashes of that flask flickered in her imagination, and more of the spawned melody tumbled from her muzzle as her brain clung to a simple notion. If I had known a fraction of what I know now. “Things I can’t know, but I’ll certainly try. Lost in past feelings inside. Just look at me now. No reason to hide…”

Tail drew her breath and held it as the first verse came to an end. Those days could be gone. The days of secret-keeping were definitely gone. The hidden history? No longer hidden. The abundance of dusty bottles hadn’t been touched in ages. Instead, he had been touching her, and once again, she embraced the memory of a stallion who had taught her so much—who had carried her home—the stallion she loved.

She threw her head back with enough force to send her mane into a frenzy as it slapped atop her withers and spiraled over her shoulders. Her voice returned with a wind that banished the A-minor from the refrain and replaced it with a far more wholesome Cadd9. “‘Cause you’re not a monster! No, I won’t believe that. Can’t you hear me screaming as I try to outlast the edge in your voice that strives to push me away?

“Well, you put your shields up when others let you down. Damn aura of pride yankin’ burdens around. Now I’m reachin’ out … ‘cause you’re no longer displaced.”

Chocolate irides once again ensnared curtain-dulled light, and soft breaths soothed Tail’s frame. She relinquished her creative muse for the time being, opting instead to allow her sights to meander across a decorative blue trim that had been cut into the tile. For a minute, she listened to the comforting sounds of falling water before mumbling, “The blue matches his mane.”

Reluctantly, the mare shut off the faucet, pulled back the curtain, and stepped onto the beige mat placed beside the tub. She froze from the wave that enveloped her body, and she promptly snatched a white towel that she presumed was not Barrier’s standard issue. “Mm,” she mumbled again upon pressing the soft cotton to her coat, “he’s probably been waiting for me.”

On cue, a knock at the door drove Tail into a startled, arched posture. Her wet coat quasi-bristled at the percussive interjection, and she glared at the white wooden entrance while her muzzle scrunched in anticipation. Dilation skewed the subsequent seconds, and a softly muttered, “How long has he been there?” barely graced the air as a hoof timidly pawed at the fluffy floor mat.

Tail eventually mustered enough reserve curiosity to overcome the minor butterflies and pop the latch. Behind the swinging plank, a blushing Barrier stood, and his blue eyes clearly darted from curl to curl of Tail’s black mane.

“Uh, uh-hem,” he coughed after bringing a forehoof to his muzzle. “Just wanted to let you know that breakfast is ready. Not trying to rush you, but I’m going to have to get to the field pretty soon to meet Bonecrusher and Indar.” The stallion briefly paused as a smile began to take shape. “I might have to teach them how to identify a siren because, with a voice like that, I’m starting to have some doubts.”

Natural pegasus defenses sprang into action. A shiver ran from the base of Tail’s namesake all the way to the tips of her ears, and it brought with it a powerful field that—in true scientific terminology—floofed everything. “You heard nothing,” she squeaked, flaring her wings before her still-pawing hoof aborted that action to yank the towel and toss it at the backpedaling Barrier.

The stallion chuckled after his head was covered by the projectile. “Mm, I’m pretty sure Amora told me about this once. For all her conniving, she was pretty spot on with the adorable of this one.”

Heat rushed to Tail’s head, and the mare swiftly rolled her eyes. “Of course she would. Any other deep, dark, embarrassing reveals I need to know about?”

Another round of snickers dribbled from Barrier’s mouth. “It’s Amora,” he replied, passing the towel back to Tail. “Her plots are on par with Luna’s, and based on one breakfast, I’m guessing she could ramble for weeks. So… probably?”

“I can’t even imagine what else she’s told you!” Tail unleashed an exasperated sigh in response to Barrier’s trailing inflection, and her head found refuge in the embarrassment-concealing confines of the towel. “What in Equestria am I going to do with that mare?”

“Is there anything anypony can do about Amora?” The charcoal-coated stallion flashed a contented grin and kept his foreleg held out to the mare. “I’ll take it as a downpayment for when she gets a significant other, but that’s for another time, methinks. You have some Prench toast with your name on it, and I even managed to clear a path to the dining room.”

Tail pulled the cloth to her chest. Her mane fell forward, covering one of her eyes, but the other set its sight upon Barrier. The mare could hear the beating of her heart inside her head, and the muscles around her muzzle quivered. Breaths came slightly quicker, and that familiar fire swiftly spread across her iris. “Barrier…”—no more secrets—“do we need to talk about that?”

An audible gulp thumped in the unicorn’s throat. His ears had pitched to receive Tail’s reserved tone, and the grin that had sat upon his countenance faded. His leg, however, remained outstretched, still waiting for the pegasus to grasp it. “It’s probably a conversation better served for later. I’ve found a good place, but parts of me are still works-in-progress. Is that—” He paused. “I hope that’s an okay answer for now.”

The scientist swept her hair to the side as a smile blossomed. In its wake, Tail watched the apprehension evaporate from Barrier’s frame, and he beamed at her the instant she set her pastern upon his limb. “It is, Magic Bear—as long as that good place involves escorting me to that Prench toast.”

Dazedly, Tail stared at the ceiling of her newest laboratory. Her focus dissolved into the stretches of white lights the space’s previous owner had set into the stone. Magically powered diodes… she lazily noted as her withers pressed into the backrest of a black, padded chair. The pegasus swiveled about like a foal for a few moments before she snapped from the trance, leaned forward, and thrust her hoof towards the waveguides.

“And just what am I going to do with you? I tooled all my equipment for twenty mils, but nope, you all have to be super fancy with your nine-point-zero-six-seven-eight Canterlot Crown unit conversions.” She smacked her lips and narrowed her gaze on the closest of the hollow metal structures.

Hints of cinnamon lingered, thanks to the wonder of Barrier’s breakfast. Her facial expressions softened in the wake of those fresh memories, and his name escaped from her muzzle at the behest of a throaty purr. “Magic…”

I have never seen any weapon like this. Probably too big for standard use, to be honest. Barrier’s words rushed back to her—as did the feel of her grip on the A0 after she had unleashed that science-shattering round. His assessment from nearly a month ago had been correct. The rifle platform was built for a physicist and her lab.

“I’ve gotten better,” she muttered aloud before rolling off the chair. The mare scrunched her muzzle, and her sights rapidly darted from workbench to workbench. Her ears twitched and her namesake swirled while an internal debate proceeded behind the betraying cloak of a contemplative scowl.

Suddenly, the pegasus pounded her forehoof against the rough stone floor. “No, I’ve earned this.” She threw her focus over grey slab after grey slab until it careened into the reinforced rock at the end of the cavern. “Smaller munitions will be more portable. I can make something. It’ll just be more complicated to make the containment work. I’m going to need augurite—boatloads of augurite.

“Crystal for the rounds, metal-infused for the resonance induction coils.” Tail snorted. “Do I even have the money for that? I mean, I can always write another grant, but that’s such a bucking pain.”

She strode towards one of the unequipped tables and grunted as she leaned over the maple top to retrieve her saddlebag. From the burlap confines, a sheet of paper and a drafting pencil emerged, and it was not long before Tail tapped the metal tip of the instrument against the parchment.

“You’ve got the support of a friggin’ princess,” she groaned, squeezing the pencil to reveal a thin tube of graphite. “She’ll have your back. Quit dwelling on it. Be innovative. Stay practical. Put what you’ve learned to good use. What do I want?”

Tail closed her eyes and leaned forward as her hoof meandered over the paper. She sketched pony stick figures and allowed her body to produce random mosaics while her imagination dove through the library of her training experiences.

Movement. The scent of grass tickled Tail’s nose as she pushed her dirt-stained figure from the ground. She lunged at the silhouette of her captain once again and sought to override her primal instinct. That liberating roll loitered just over her horizon, and when Tail finally grasped it, she felt—

Freedom. The wind rushed through her coat, and as the pegasus came out of her roll, she was no longer in the yard. She was soaring over Canterlot, running towards Tower Forty-One to lead a counteroffensive with her comrades. She needed the freedom to move every feather—every limb. They all had to be there to remain—

Reliable. Cloudy skies ensnared her vision. Pain tore into her wing, ripping at the nerves to the beat of snapping bones and stomping hooves. The taste of blood accompanied the sting in her muzzle, yet in spite of the hardship, Tail lurched forward. She hurled her foreleg at the shadow of aggression. She had to keep going. She had to put up a fight, and all she needed was one damn leg!

Clang! Her imagination released the sands of time to cling to a new reverie. Gunmetal armor gripped her slender frame as Tail squared off against an unseen attacker. The mare’s gaze drifted down towards the source of the clamor where she found a blade’s advance halted by a glimmering line of steel strapped to her foreleg—

Light poured past strained irides after Tail’s eyelids snapped open. Her fur bristled, her wings flared, and the intrigued mare slowly turned to face the grand doors of the laboratory. Repeated thumping had snatched her away from the daydream, and the cadence coaxed the corners of the physicist’s lips to tighten. She had company. She wasn’t expecting any—at least not yet.

For a moment, Tail didn’t quite believe she had heard what she had heard. Perhaps her mind was still running wild. Perhaps it was merely a trick. Gingerly, Tail approached the entrance. She held her breath, not wanting to make a sound that could reveal her presence, and her perked ear nearly reached the surface when another knock thundered.

Tail slowly exhaled and readied her hind legs. The possibility that an unwelcome visitor stood just outside her vault formed a real threat. Her coat remained on end as she lifted her hoof to a large crystal set into the blue metal doors, and with a gentle press, the mare activated a magical interlock.

The behemoth Prench-style slabs parted amongst a chorus of sorcery-driven machinery, and Tail didn’t wait to make a move. She leapt high into the air to avoid the typical line of sight, pressed her hind hooves against the edge of the still-opening entry, and jumped over a pair of ponies that, upon observation, didn’t appear all that malevolent.

A batpony mare followed the arc and peered up at the physicist with a pair of yellowish-green eyes. One of her hooves was still lifted towards her mariner-blue mane as though she had been in mid-salute, and a white lab coat was draped over the pony’s petite purple frame. Across her muzzle, a grimace spread, carrying an aura of uncertainty with it.

As she landed, Tail slid her gaze to a light-blue stallion who stood beside the saluter. He was considerably older in appearance than his companion, for his mane had long since yielded to the greying march of time, and spectacles perched upon his snout. To his credit, his facial features looked far more composed than his counterpart. There were no signs of surprise or confusion when it came to her gymnastics. In fact, the tranquil, brown-eyed stare that met Tail silently told her that he had seen it all before.

“Uhm, hello, Colonel Tail,” the mare began after she finally lowered her hoof. “Sorry to disturb you. Princess Luna informed Colonel Wing that she believed you would want to meet the general here. I work in Wing’s lab, and he asked if I could be an escort. Again, sorry to disturb you, ma’am.”

Tail’s head tilted to the mare’s melodic tones, and her brain oscillated between potential replies. The smaller mare seemed cute. She worked with the stallion kind enough to give her this space. Yet, her lab was unquestionably hers now. There was no place for a general anywhere near it—not after the more boisterous members of the Equestrian Army had tried to take it from her.

“Perhaps you should have started with a different title, Dr. Batsy,” the stallion spoke up. “With all she’s been through in the past couple months, I’m not surprised to see an entrance like that. Captain Barrier taught you well, Colonel. But my only capacity here as a general is to apologize. I’m really here as an author. Princess Luna seems to believe that you rather fancy my book.”

Chapter 9 - Lilac & Lavender

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“Gracious Waters,” Tail mumbled as she gawked at the old blue stallion. There was no inflection in her tone to indicate that the physicist was asking a question, yet the soft delivery made both of Tail’s guests perk up their ears and lean forward as if she had been. “You wrote the Discourse of War.”

“Yes, yes I did,” he replied in a worn, raspy voice. “It was an aspect that was often overlooked in the academic literature. Ponies today don’t really understand that weight in a battle because we have largely existed in a period without conflict. Skirmishes can perhaps be handled with the power of friendship. Our culture is built on harmony, and war, by its very nature, is a clash of chords.

“Personally, I found it interesting that, while society openly supported actions that we would find dreadful today, the equines of a thousand years ago were more resilient when it came to addressing more elaborate conflicts.” Gracious paused as a tapped cadence derailed his train of thought.

Sheepishly, the earth pony turned towards Dr. Batsy before he raised his hoof to adjust his glasses. “I may have promised the young doctor here a treat from one of the local bakeries to thank her for being my escort. You know what they say? Never keep a mare waiting, especially when a mango muffin is involved.”

Tail pressed her foreleg to her muzzle and chortled. “Well, we certainly can’t have that!” she tittered, drawing an eep from the embarrassed batpony stallion-sitter. “I wouldn’t want to keep you waiting any longer than intended, and I do appreciate the visit—and the apology. Your book was definitely inspirational. I drew from it quite frequently, and I would warrant a guess that your insights will be relied upon again when it comes to navigating certain facets of history. Perhaps we can find some time to discuss things… when we’re not in the damp underbelly of Canterlot Castle—”

Batsy reared up onto her hind legs and thrust her forelegs towards Tail. The mare’s coat fluffed as her entire body appeared to be engulfed by low-amplitude, high-frequency oscillations. “Come with us!” she squeaked again as her widened yellow-green eyes corralled Tail’s focus and figure. “I just want to num on a mango, not be a rude battu that interrupts your conversation.”

“There might be a lesson about irony in there somewhere,” Gracious added after taking his turn to laugh. Eventually, the echoing chorus subsided, and the old stallion clopped his hooves against the stone in approval. “But I think that sounds like a marvelous idea. What do you say, Colonel? Are you up for a little academic discussion and perhaps some tasty baked goods?”

Tail was fairly certain that the trio’s trek had taken her back to a section of Old Canterlot that couldn’t have been all that far from Barrier’s home. Here, a market square broke free from the confines of the cobblestone grid to create a sprawling, interspersed mass of trees, tents, and shops. Numerous brick and mortar stores lined the clearing, and their ornate window displays drew various onlookers to the impressive setups that proudly announced, This is our house.

The bakery in front of Tail was no exception to this rule of better business. Against the backdrop of a blue-tinted pane that arched above the entrance, the words Lilac & Lavender greeted patrons with an elegant and inviting script.

“Ambrosia’s muffins are the best,” Batsy commented in a deep, throaty whisper that drew Tail from her observations. The smaller mare swiftly hopped ahead of Tail and Gracious with a bouncy stride that sharply contrasted with the gritty timbre that carried her most recent delivery. She veered from the straight path to the recessed door to plant her snoot against the right flanking display window with a reverberating thud.

Gracious merely chuckled at the outburst while shooting a sidelong glance in Tail’s direction. “Wing warned me she might do that. Though, I can’t say I’m all that surprised. I have had the pleasure of dining here in the past. What about you?”

The pegasus shook her head. “No, can’t say I have. I haven’t exactly had a lot of time to explore the city until recently. Past few months were dedicated towards setting up my training and actually doing it. Though, Barrier’s place is pretty close by, so perhaps I’ll be making more visits—especially if these muffins are as good as she’s making them out to be.”

“Oh, they’re that good,” Batsy interjected with a voice that had been muffled by the mare’s plastered position against the glass. “So good.”

Another chuckle escaped the stallion’s muzzle as he sidestepped Batsy and made his way into the interior of the shop. “Mm, I think I am going to make my way to the counter. What is it that Wing told me? She’ll come in once she remembers that she doesn’t just have to look? Something like that.”

“I believe I’m with you on that one,” Tail added with a merry giggle of her own. With a leap, she slipped into the establishment before the glass-panelled door could close and made a graceful landing upon the tiled floor. Instantly, intoxicating aromas coaxed her senses. She clicked her tongue and inhaled, drawing in even the subtlest hints of baked dough, assorted fruit, and spices.

Seats and benches lined the wall opposite the counter, and shelves filled to capacity with various bits of baking paraphernalia stuck out from their earth-toned anchors. The counter showcases, however, were far more alluring to the intrigued physicist.

Bagels, muffins, cookies, and cupcakes filled a series of glass enclosures that stretched across three-quarters of the room’s length. A chocolate chip muffin could have had the mare’s name written on it already. Tail’s wings fluttered as she pranced towards the sweet confection. “Oh yes, you shall most certainly be mine.”

“Hunny, that’s my job, and we both know it.”

Laced with the tiniest hint of a rural accent, the unfamiliar call turned Tail’s head to the left. There, leaning upon the threshold to the kitchen, was a lilac mare who unabashedly perplexed the pegasus with a half-lidded aquamarine stare.

“Excuse me, what?” Tail answered with a peep as her ear tips flicked upright. Her sights rapidly scanned the earth pony, scouring features for any sign of clarity. But the sweep simply traced the outline of a brown chef’s coat, danced along the edges of an aquamarine bow, and followed the laser-lemon highlights that streaked through a blue-violet mane that had been carefully corralled into a high ponytail.

“Did you get into the poison joke at work again?” She took a step in Tail’s direction—all the while maintaining the salacious expression. “You could have told me that you wanted to play mare again. I would have stopped by the Bit and Bridle to pick up a few things. Then we could pit that pegasus pride of yours against my earth pony tradition—”

Gracious Waters coughed and attempted to intervene. “Ms. Ambrosia, that isn’t Wing…” The attempt fell on unlistening ears.

“You look even more fit this time too. Have you been working out in secret?” Ambrosia reared up and draped her forelegs over the display case directly in front of Tail. She pitched her muzzle to lock onto the shrinking scientist and swished her hips. “I will definitely find something to drag over those thighs.”

“Sweety,” Tail began to piece together her response while her namesake snapped about, “you’re cute and all, but I’m already taken. I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about. I just came in for a chocolate chip muffin.”

Ambrosia went silent and narrowed her gaze upon the flier. She pursed her lips as the piercing stare made Tail’s pulse adopt a nervous beat. The baker curled her forelegs, and for a second, it genuinely looked as though she were planning to leap upon Tail to test the colonel’s latest declaration.

Thankfully, the pause bought enough time for Batsy to stroll to Tail’s side. The batpony promptly pressed her hoof against Tail’s flank, drawing out a squeak as she gestured to the cutie mark. “Not Wing!” she announced triumphantly to Ambrosia, whose muzzle immediately turned a deep shade of rose.

“Not Wing?” the baker asked. Her inflection skirted a strange superposition of timidity and disbelief. She narrowed her eyes further and scootched a teeny bit closer. “This isn’t some sort of prank, is it? The resemblance is uncanny. Same coat color. Same mane color. Even the eyes have a similar chocolatey hue. Though, I guess Wing does have a bit more amber in there—”

Batsy ushered another squeak into existence once she prodded Tail’s flank into Ambrosia’s view. “Amby, the cutie marks are different. Tail’s got two orbitals in the cute little shape of a heart. See? Wing’s got three in the boring old shape. Poison joke does weird stuff, but I’ve never seen it change a pony’s destiny.”

The lilac mare retreated from her perch as her eyes shot open. “Oh, sweet Celestia,” she gasped, scrambling to don a mitt before she rummaged through the showcase. “Chocolate chip, right? This is really embarrassing. I’m so sorry. I really thought you were my husband. You two look so alike… I thought he went off the deep end with one of his experiments again.” She deposited the treat into a paper bag and stretched her hooves over the counter. “I hope this is a more appropriate welcome to Lilac and Lavender. This one is on the house.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much. My roommate has put me through far worse,” Tail giggled as she took possession of the muffin. A delighted hum punctuated her jovial melody as she peeled back the paper and sank her teeth into the dessert. The bolt of lightning that leapt from her taste buds sent her fur and feathers into a fluffed frenzy, and the pegasus quickly chomped another bite.

“Seems like you’ve wrangled another customer, Ms. Ambrosia. Can’t say I’m all that surprised. With the way Dr. Batsy was bouncing around on the way here, one could assume that you generate enough business with your mango products alone.”

At the mention of the fruit, Batsy jumped from Tail’s side and hurled her torso onto the area of the counter directly next to the register. Bits, an offering to the oven spirits, spilled out from under one of the batpony’s leathery wings in the wake of a frenzied rustling. “Amby,” she whined, shooting the baker pony a watery-eyed, puppy-dog stare, “feed me!”

Amby lifted her foreleg and pressed her hoof to her lips. Her chest flexed slightly, and soft snorts escaped her nostrils as if the mare were engaged in a brief battle to suppress a bout of laughter. “Well, General, it’s like I always say. Batsy may keep Wing’s lab in line, but she makes me the breadwinner. Now, before I get this silly mare her mango muffin, what would you like?”

Gracious sidestepped the mares that stood between himself and the goods. He examined the treats carefully, but after passing by all of the cases, he scrunched his muzzle and unleashed an inquiring grunt. “They all look delicious, but today, I’m looking for something specific that Wing and Trigger brought to my attention yesterday. Something about an apple whiskey muffin…”

Ambrosia cocked her head to the side and leered mischievously. “Oh? So you got some intel from my favorite cowcolt of reverie and my silly pegasus stallion?”

Tail’s ears ensnared the drifting words as she crunched through the last bites of her muffin. The conversation churned in her brain, and the figurative cogs lurched at the sudden onset of realization. The second after she swallowed the final, delicious morsel, she sucked in a rush of air with such fervor that the whooping noise easily snatched everyone’s attention. The scientist’s sights darted about the bakery before they latched onto Ambrosia’s confusion-laden figure.

“You mistook me for your husband? And your husband is that Wing?” Tail’s foreleg sprang towards Batsy. “The same Wing that works with her? Your husband is my mysterious Canterlot benefactor—the guy Princess Luna wants me to meet—and he just so happens to look like me? And he knows Trigger? The odds of that are incredibly infinitesimal. I mean probably not as infinitesimal as Luna working with me, or me ending up in Princess Celestia’s bathtub, or me predicting a successful B.C.T. run a decade ago, but st—”

Tail squeaked. Through her excited rambling, the pegasus had dropped her guard. She hadn’t even noticed the three new arrivals that had trotted in during her barrage of questions, and now, something belonging to one of those ponies plopped atop her head. And it did a fine job of obscuring her vision too.

“Geeze, Flicker, sometimes you’re insatiable. Try not to fluster the best baker in Canterlot until after I get my fix.” Trigger’s smug grin greeted Tail once the stallion retrieved his Coltston from the top of her head. “And it’s not unusual for me to know ponies. I run a bar in a city full of guards.”

Ambrosia’s subsequent chortles washed away the mare’s puzzled expression. Her pupils wandered upward, and one of her ears flopped to the side before a drawn-out interjection conveyed Amby’s building curiosity. “Though, it is a little unusual that they haven’t met yet.” She tilted her head and shot Batsy a prodding glare. “Has he been passing out in the lab again?”

The batpony dramatically threw her forehooves over the counter and moaned. “Amby! I need my muffin! Feed me!”

“I swear, sometimes the babysitter needs a babysitter.” Ambrosia snagged numerous bags from her stock and started wandering towards one of the cabinets on the back wall. “A mango muffin for Bats, two S.A.R. muffins for Trigger and General Waters…”

Amby paused, allowing the focus of the room to shift to the two other ponies that had entered with Trigger. Standing near the doorway was a beautiful alabaster unicorn. Her dark-red mane draped over her back, and a contented smile sat etched upon her countenance as her emerald eyes tracked her bartending companion.

Caressed by the embrace of a similarly colored magical aura was a squirming foal whose meandering amber sights could not settle on a target. A tiny, chatelle-colored horn poked out from underneath brown and burgundy locks—a mirroring symbol for the lavender-grey unicorn who kept trying to wriggle beyond the envelope.

“Moon Glow is in back if Peebles wants to go play with her,” Ambrosia added after teasingly waving one of the paper pouches. “Now, what can I get for you, Autumn Tea?”

Chapter 10 - Chevrons

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Barrier slowly inhaled. His icy-blue sights flirted with a flickering flame that danced over the purple candle placed atop his desk. That desk, still puckered and pitted by the hooves of previous owners, remained a boulder’s throw from the pristine furnishings reserved for the stallion’s full-time counterparts. Then again, part-timers didn’t even get offices back in his day, and it wasn’t as though Barrier had complained about having a little castle space to himself.

True to form, and despite having weeks filled with opportunities to decorate, the unicorn had done nothing to liven up the bland space. The drawn breath finally escaped from Barrier’s lungs in a sigh, and his focus shifted to the two ponies standing near the other side of the table.

“As much as I love running the two of you ragged, we need to have a chat and now is the time,” Barrier spoke while Bonecrusher and Indar silently listened. “Your time with me is almost up, and there are some things that I want to get off my chest before we’re done here. I already said I suck at this shit at Tail’s ceremony, so I’ll cut to the chase. What is it that the two of you want to do with your careers?”

Crusher snorted. Tension rumbled along her straightened forelegs as the earth pony’s strain mounted. She struggled to keep her amethyst eyes on Barrier and had to repeatedly reset her gaze before her response emerged. “Not much to think about there, Captain. You could have kicked me out. I’ve pissed off at least one princess. Odds are I’m due for a shit send-off to some scrub post.”

“Blunt as ever,” Barrier deadpanned. He leaned forward, propped his head up with his foreleg, and took a moment to read the emotions radiating from his students’ expressions. “And you have every right to be concerned, but that answer had nothing to do with my question. Where is it you want to go?”

The mare huffed. Her shoulders relaxed, and the concern that had burdened her figure melted away. “Canterlot Guard. I’d move up the ranks here. If shit is going to go down, the princesses will likely be involved, and I want in.”

“What about you, Indar?” the captain asked after glancing at the taupe stallion.

“I’d like to stay here as well,” the unicorn answered in a tranquil tone. His eyelids had descended until only slivers of his umber irides remained visible—as though he had dove into a deep, meditative state to retrieve this answer. “Bone and I have been working together for a long time. I’d rather not break up the band.”

Bonecrusher shuffled her limbs in the wake of Indar’s reply.

Barrier’s ear simply twitched. The officer’s deadpan demeanor fell to the wayside as his brow lifted to the rising tide of amusement—and as his cheeks involuntarily crafted a beaming smile. “Well, I’ll be. It looks like my ponies have matured a bit in the last couple months. Let’s not make too much of a fuss, or Luna might try to co-opt me into doing this for another group.

“That being said”—Barrier fumbled about one of the desk drawers before he set two boxes and a roll of parchment upon the tabletop—“you’ve both grown. Private Bonecrusher, pending paperwork, you’re no longer a private. Corporal sounds better. And as for Corporal Indar, it’s sergeant for now. However, I think that rank understates your abilities. Multiple ponies believe you’re sharp enough to be an officer candidate, and I agree.”

Indar stiffened. He remained quiet while he looked at the scroll, and the manner in which the curvature of his lips swayed between the makings of a grin and a frown revealed his unease. “I take it that pertains to O.C.S.?”

Magic Barrier nodded. “It’s an eight-week course these days, so it’ll keep you busy. It’s located in the city though, and I can throw in my recommendation that both of you end up in the Canterlot Guard once we’re officially done.”

“Sir, I—” Indar stuttered. Words escaped him, yet he managed to gingerly move his foreleg towards the document.

The unicorn’s pace, however, was far too sluggish for his lime-hued squadmate. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Indar! Take the damn thing already.” She huffed, shooting him a sidelong scowl that pierced the lingering anxiety. With equal swiftness, Bonecrusher reached out and opened the box that Barrier had placed closest to her.

Inside, a set of chevrons indicating the mare’s new rank gleamed up at her. Their silvery contours caught the light dancing above the nearby wick, and dilated pupils absorbed every sparkle that saw fit to share the gift. For a brief moment, all of the ponies in the room refrained from making a sound while Bonecrusher appeared to drift off into a dazed state of reflection.

Suddenly, Crusher’s coat bristled, and her body jerked. She snapped the box closed with a reverberating thump and glared at Barrier through a crescendo that rode the swell generated by the steely brawler. “I’ll accept these… if Civvy does the pinning.”

The foreleg Indar had extended dropped to the wood surface with a thud. His ears stood as straight as they possibly could, and he slowly tilted his head towards the earth pony as a slack-jawed expression plopped into existence.

Barrier fared no better. He nearly fell over backwards, chair and all, after a sputtering string of staggered wheezing rather explicably emerged. “Luna! This isn’t funny! I told you a long time ago that my dreams aren’t to be messed with!”

Bonecrusher groaned and rolled her eyes with equal amounts of brewing disgust. “What? What the fuck is wrong with that?”

Sitting at one of the small tables in Lilac and Lavender, Tail stared upon the latest culinary creation placed before her. A cinnamon swirl muffin had been set onto a small turquoise dish, and now, the treat simply beckoned to be devoured—crumbly top and all. Of course, the pegasus happily accepted the burden of this temptation. She reached out and only paused her motion to observe the tentative shuffling that shifted her focus to the right.

There, a ghost-white unicorn filly stood at attention. Her eager aquamarine gaze homed in on the expanse between Tail’s hoof and the snack, and she fidgeted in an appropriately sized brown chef’s coat.

It also turned out that the young baker was not alone in this reconnaissance operation. Beneath the waves of the filly’s flowing aquamarine mane, Peebles surfaced with her breath held and her cheeks puffed as she added her own tension to the mix from the comforts of her current perch.

Tail’s cheeks burned as she smiled at the spectacle. Her ears perked to the imagined sounds of laughter—echoes from days gone by when she and Amora would get into similar predicaments. Memories of tumbling bandages and busted model rockets glimmered like trailing embers, and Tail’s muzzle scrunched when she suppressed a sudden whicker.

Both fillies fashioned scowls at the outburst, with Peebles even throwing in a firm pbbt of the tongue before her little foreleg gestured towards the still-uneaten muffin.

“Sorry, Moon Glow,” Tail answered sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to keep you waiting. You two just got me thinking about some ancient history. I’ve been in your hooves, so I know this is serious business.” The pegasus supported her words with a reassuring nod and finally grasped the gift.

Cinnamon scents snagged Tail’s mind the instant she brought the muffin to her muzzle. The perfectly balanced aroma coaxed a melodious hum from her throat, and she eagerly bit through the crunchy top and soft, savory interior. “Oh my goodness! This is good!”—Tail snapped her sights back onto Moon Glow after gulping down the bite—“You bake better than I do!”

From behind the counter, Ambrosia’s laughter emerged to battle the sounds of Tail’s frantic munching. “Moon Glow is quite the apprentice. She prepped that batch all by herself and everything—”

The unicorn filly stomped her foreleg and methodically shook her head once she had reacquired Tail’s attention. She then drew a box in the air with her hoof and repeatedly pointed to Ambrosia until the lilac mare came clean with the information.

“Almost everything. I took care of the oven bits because those are the dangerous parts, but Moon Glow was responsible for everything else, including the recipe.”

Tail blinked, and then she blinked again. She continued to look at the youngster as repeated internal mumblings of Witchcraft! tumbled about her brainspace. Deep breaths drew repeated reminders of the warming taste that lingered behind, and the mare gradually leaned towards Moon Glow. “Can I buy a box?”

Platinum Blaze squeed in response, prompting chuckles from both Trigger and Gracious Waters.

Moon Glow herself had a far less bubbly reply, but the beaming smile that engulfed her countenance and the jubilant nod conveyed everything Tail needed to know. She was getting a box of those delicious pieces of cinnamon sorcery.

Once the fillies bundled off to fulfill Tail’s order, Gracious cleared his throat. The old stallion cast long, intent glances at all of the ponies in attendance before he reached Tail. “Now that Ms. Batsy has her fix and things seem to have calmed down, I believe we can chat scholar to scholar.”

“I still can’t believe how well that kid bakes,” Tail mumbled through clenched teeth. A box containing Moon Glow’s goodies dangled from the scientist’s mouth by a braided rope, and the pegasus practically pranced as she passed through the gate to the castle grounds.

She maintained the upbeat trot, keeping a brisk pace as her thoughts steered her towards the yard. Meeting Gracious and Batsy had been uplifting tangents. Getting to see the sparkle in Moon Glow’s eyes and experiencing Ambrosia’s shop each had the same effect. They were all escapes from a day she had anticipated would be spent at the core of Mt. Canterhorn.

Yet, the thing that made her lips curl and got her blood pumping was her imagination’s rendition of sharing her latest purchase with her squadmates. Bonecrusher would wear that irritated grimace before she’d succumb to the crumbly goodness. Indar would calmly eat the offering—and probably scold Crusher for her initial behavior. Barrier snagged two—one for himself and one in the name of the Interrupting Colonel—before making her run a few laps for occupying the yard during his time slot.

As she passed through the archways, however, all Tail found was an empty pitch. She tilted her head as a contorted expression snagged her lips and tugged them towards the side of her face. The day’s end hadn’t come yet, and Barrier had already let them go? Did Tartarus unlock? Tail pondered as she stepped onto the grass.

Plotting her course, Tail transferred the box of goodies to a corralling wing and mumbled idly, “Guess that means I’m going to have to go on a hunt. Maybe he got called away by Princess Luna? That’d certainly be up there in terms of possibilities. Though, any of them could drag him away. Celestia, Cadance, Shining Armor…”

The mare sighed at the growing search list. The combinations were staggering when one factored in royals—and then refactored in royal mischief. Add the planned double date on top of that, and a random Barrier disappearance shot from the realm of the impossible straight to the land of the inevitable. “Or maybe, I could stand here and tell ponies that it’s my yard and my time for a change.” Tail swished her namesake and giggled at her out. She had already donned Barrier’s armor kit once. Perhaps assuming his demeanor would be another thing she could check off her list of silly stuff to do.

“You could try saying that to me, Civvy,” Bonecrusher grunted after emerging from behind one of the stone columns with her saddlebag in tow, “but I’d probably tell you to go buck yourself.”

Tail snorted, immediately tossing an over-the-shoulder glance at the earth pony. “We both know you’d say that to me anyway. That’s not exactly shattering news. What is shattering news is why you all left the field so early in the day. Also, I have muffins.”

An eye roll followed, and it was Crusher’s turn to huff. She closed the gap between herself and Tail as a gust of wind raced over the field with just enough energy to noticeably pull at Tail’s mane—and make conversing momentarily tricky. Another sigh accompanied the delay, and the earthly mare did not give nature another window to interrupt.

“He wanted to talk about boring shit: life choices and future junk. Indar’s finally going to get his hooves into an officer’s school, which the dumbass should have done years ago. He’s almost as nerdy as you if the subject’s his magic. Damn miracle—” The mare stopped. Confusion lifted her eyebrow, shifted her jaw, and pulled her head away from the pegasus.

Sparkles. Sparkles glimmered in Tail’s eyes as she crept closer to the retreating Bonecrusher. The scientist was vibrating with excitement, and the breadth of her smile exuded an aura of happiness typically reserved for occasions when her students successfully tackled a challenge. “I’m not surprised. Indar’s really taken his magic to a new level. I’m sure he took Barrier’s input with the utmost professionalism.” Catty mischief grasped Tail’s expression as the paced trot forward continued. “You, on-the-other-hoof, I am curious about.”

“You’re fucking curious about everything,” Bonecrusher quipped. “I’ve lived through the endless questions.”

Tail craned her neck at the invitation. “So?” she asked, holding the word out just long enough to make Bonecrusher opt to look elsewhere.

The lime-coated mare dropped onto her haunches, groaned, and peered at the sky. Tension roamed about her muscles in short-lived bursts that pulled her mouth through various cycles of frustration, unease, and perhaps even insecurity.

Intrigued, the observing pegasus plopped onto the ground as well. She briefly ruffled a few of her feathers in response to the short blades of grass that made exploratory ventures through her fur, but the minor distraction proved ineffective at pulling her stare off Bonecrusher.

With a forceful thump, Crusher tossed her saddlebag down and began rummaging until she had successfully retrieved the box Barrier had given her from a sea of small weights, pads, and Phoenix Fire drink vouchers. “I’ve been promoted to corporal”—she revealed the chevrons to Tail—“and—”

Feathers flared to this news—this time sending the container of muffins through a harmless slide to the dirt. The excitement that had dotted Tail’s irides with foalish twinkles fanned into her fiery glare.

“Stop acting like a fucking child, and I swear to Celestia if you hug me, I will kick your ass,” Bonecrusher grumbled the instant it became clear that Tail had no intention of curbing her enthusiasm. Just looking at the pegasus made the earth mare stretch and straighten her posture in defense until she finally pushed her forehoof against Tail’s chest.

The physicist held her position against the powerful limb that kept her at bay, and her brow gradually ascended as the slew of calculations began. I could go in for the hug. I’m not sure that she really expects me to do that.

“Ugh, now that you’re here, this isn’t as easy for me to say as I thought it would be…”

Tail’s muzzle scrunched. Maybe if I’m aggressive with deploying the hug. Could attack the foreleg and go for a submission hold. Bonecrusher might actually like that. Might be a good way to work off those muffins.

Bonecrusher paused and pressed her hoof a bit harder against Tail’s frame. “Would you stop acting like a weirdo for like five seconds? I already got weird as shit looks from Indar and Captain Barrier during that chat. I don’t need whatever the Tartarus this is.”

“Hmm?” One of Tail’s ears flopped to the side. The mischief eroded from her countenance, leaving a far softer appearance in its wake to accompany the concern that laced her voice. “You got weird looks from Barrier and Indar? You didn’t try to brawl them in the office, did you?”

“No,” Bonecrusher grunted. Her limbs started to twitch in the seconds following the latest link in Tail’s chain of endless questions, and she promptly delivered a light shove to the pegasus. “How the buck does that even work? I’m trying to ask you if you’ll fucking pin my chevrons, Civvy! You’re supposed to be a genius. Figure it out!”

“You want me to pin your chevrons,” Tail slowly repeated in a soft voice that just surpassed the upper bound of whispering. “Isn’t that something Barrier should do? I mean, that seems like a captain’s duty.”

Bonecrusher pulled her foreleg away from Tail and let it drop to the pitch. A ninety-degree turn followed, allowing the mare to conveniently throw her gaze down the field before she replied. “You’re not one of us. You don’t belong here. Go home.” The words dripped from Crusher’s muzzle with a serene, silky timbre that impressively shed the pony’s usual grit. “That’s the shit I told you, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’d be a loser if I didn’t acknowledge that, so no, this isn’t Captain Barrier’s job.”

Heat flooded the pegasus, engulfing her sense of touch in a struggle confined to the emotional plane. “Bonecrusher, I—”

“When I got this assignment, I thought I hit the big time. Trigger wasn’t one to be quiet about Captain Barrier’s abilities. It was something to write home to the folks about. Let good old Mom and Dad know that I had brushed away the theatrics, clawed down to the family root, and yanked what it meant to be a guard right out of our beloved earth.

“And then I saw you, and I thought I was staring at the definition of a fucking sideshow. How I look at you now is so different from how I saw you then. Sidestepping it isn’t an option. If you won’t do it, then I’m not taking them.”

Tail carefully scooped up the case with one of her wings. “I’ll do it,” she answered. This time, her tone was resolute. “You can’t pass up something you deserve.”

For a moment, Bonecrusher didn’t speak. Not a single trickle of air moved into her lungs, and not a fiber of her body dared move either. The shimmering lights that reflected off her visible eye told Tail everything she needed to hear—well, or so she thought until the earth pony finally spoke up. “I’d like a muffin now.”

Chapter 11 - A Date with a Princess

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Amusement sketched the subtle, curving lines that spread across Tail’s muzzle. She had finally completed the journey back to her new lab space—with some muffins and Bonecrusher’s pins in tow. Once again, an imagined warmth flooded her senses as she reflected on her time at the yard. Her squadmate’s atypically stoic demeanor, as well as the relatively verbose conversation, captivated the physicist’s focus as she neatly arranged the pin case atop one of the unfilled benches.

“Turns out you’re full of surprises,” Tail commented as she headed towards her more active workstation. Her namesake swished as another thought crossed the mental threshold to the realm of the spoken word. “Bonecrusher in a dress uniform. That’ll be a day.”

She flopped onto her padded chair and rolled into position at the desk. Hours ago, she had been there, doodling away with one of her drafting pencils in search of something that could change the course of her research world. Barrier had seeded that specific train of thought, and just before Gracious and Batsy had arrived, she had grasped at it—a glimmer of her future that had reflected off an imagined rail. Her brain had definitely conjured something, and she’d need a state of darkness to snatch it back.

Forelegs reached towards the ceiling, and her eyelids descended to cast out many of the potential distractions that lurked around her lab. “Guess I should get back to it,” she murmured, picturing a block of steel floating beside her outstretched limb. The visualized bar of metal morphed its shape to a size that she could definitely wield. It could now sit between her elbow and knee, which meant that her leg would retain full movement.

“Gotta clip to my leg somehow,” she whispered, continuing the sculpting in her mindscape. Suddenly, there were braces added to the bottom of the rectanguloid. The structure snapped into place on her leg, and she wiggled her appendage about as a bored barrel manifested itself inside the steel.

Tail started humming as she pondered her next steps. The compact design definitely met the basics for battlefield readiness, but there was a long to-do list forming. “What is my mechanism going to be? Bolt action isn’t going to work. How will I feed ammunition? And how am I going to work in the circuit?”

Ninety minutes dissolved into history at a faster rate than Tail’s perception of the clock. The allotment of time between her return to the cavern and her planned rendezvous with Barrier was but a flash in the eyes of science, yet Tail had managed to cover the tabletop with a dozen drawings of potential loading, circuit, and firing layouts.

Things needed to be tweaked before she could move forward with material acquisition, and even then, it was highly likely that unforeseen obstacles would make her change things again and again. Nonetheless, as Tail rose from her seat, she couldn’t take her eyes off the sheet that topped the parchment landscape.

“You’re a pretty boy,” she spoke in a sultry tone before her lips curled into a feline grin. That particular design was one of the more complex out of the bunch, but there was something that made Tail’s fur ruffle with excitement once the technical aspects ensnared her thoughts. Revolving cylinders felt efficient. “I’m going to have to make sure you see the light of day.”

And with that, Tail twirled about, giving her workbenches and the expansive, illuminated space a once-over before she headed out through the gargantuan enchanted doorway. Crossing the threshold made the mare shiver, especially when there were no guests to distract her from the abrupt transition.

“Need to get some more lamps down here,” she muttered, glancing around the colder, damper, untamed confines of the castle’s deepest stairwell. Back inside the lab, the vibrant lighting had done a wonderful job transforming the subterranean dwelling into a room that could have been located anywhere in the world. Stepping from that environment into the clammy corridor put a few things on Tail’s list of desires.

Those, however, were checkmarks for a different day. After climbing the spiral, she’d be a short trot away from ticking off a different set of desires: seeing that charcoal coat, getting some of Pop’s delicious food, and having a double date with a princess and her prince-consort. Her pupils shrunk to tiny dots. Her wings flared, and a squeak quickly shot from her mouth.

“How am I going to battle those wits!?”

Trotting away from Canterlot Castle, Barrier chuckled. He continued to throw sidelong glances at Tail, and each time he looked, another spurt bubbled forth.

“What is so funny?” Tail peeped, her feathers fluttering repeatedly. Her sights darted about, shifting from fleeting glimpses of the un-uniformed stallion to the ornate buildings near the palace grounds—and the swarm of richly ponies that gravitated towards the royal court.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he answered sarcastically. “Probably the fact that you’ve been twitching like crazy since you came to my office. And then there’s the mumbling about how we’re going to combat the lovebirds in my family.”

Tail stopped in her tracks. “Luna told me how close you and Cadance are. I knew she wanted the double date, and I pressed for it by causing a scene in a bar. Maybe this was all part of the plan! This is a tactical brilliancy! I am in a battle with a genius of love. I cannot go into this lightly.”

Barrier halted and pivoted to the face Tail. He held his breath as his mare piled on the words with an increasing amount of panic. She was gasping when his unbridled laughter echoed down the lane, and he promptly took the final step to tap his nose against hers. “I know better than most that Cady can be a lot to deal with. I also know that you have nothing to worry about. Yes, she’s going to try to get information out of you, but that scene you pulled in the Phoenix Fire won her over completely.”

“That scene had nothing to do with winning her over,” Tail answered. The boop against her nose had corralled some of her anxiety, and the surprising swiftness with which Barrier had deployed his maneuver left the mare’s senses yearning for more of his, well, everything. A brief hum washed away the panic from her voice, and she continued in a gentle purr, “You said something stupid, Sweety, and I took it upon myself to correct you.”

Barrier responded with a hum of his own. “And this would be the part where I deflect by seeding the fact that I am the lucky one in this relationship, which is why”—he paused to brush her mane with his foreleg—“again, you’re not the one who has to worry about Cady.”

Throwing her legs around Barrier’s neck, Tail exhaled. Her withers relaxed as she tucked her wings against her body, and she let her weight hang upon his sturdy frame for a few moments. A field of strawberries flooded her nostrils as the physicist rubbed her muzzle through his wavy mane. “Thank you,” she mused aloud, “and somepony snuck in an extra shower. This shampoo is really nice.”

“I condition too,” he joked, “but keep that one to yourself. I wouldn’t want that bit of intelligence leaking all over the place. Certain individuals would never let me live it down.”

“Your secret is safe with me,” she whispered in his ear while her limbs added an additional squeeze to the hug. “But just so you know, I love a pony who conditions.”

The unicorn released a sigh marked by feigned relief. “I knew I could count on you, Blanket, and duly noted.”

From her post, Tail could feel the muscles in Barrier’s face craft a grin before his trademark chuckle swirled about her ear. A staticky crackle from his horn swiftly followed, and the mare quickly found her fluffy self perched perfectly upon the stallion’s saddlepoint. She was just about to ask him what he was up to when the sounds of pompous nobility clawed for her attention.

“How unseemly…” Canterlot mareistocracy suffocated the two otherwise simple words, which in turn sent a chill along Tail’s spine.

Uppity, flailing tones followed. “And right in front of the castle… the nerve!”

Her gaze narrowed, focusing on the stretch of road in front of her. She tuned out the flippant commentary from the obnoxiously dressed pretenders and allowed her hooves to explore the area around Barrier’s withers. “Valiant steed!” she cried with a sudden thunder that even made the captain startle. “Such a fine gentlecolt you are to offer yourself as my fine chariot for tonight’s affairs.”

Barrier’s ear twitched. He gradually turned his head to glance up at Tail, who started laughing the second she caught his smug expression. “We can’t keep our distinguished guests waiting. It’d be even more rude if we had to tell them that the riffraff kept us delayed.”

Teardrops formed as Tail’s chest heaved to the beat of her own laughter. Whinnies of disgust from their gawkers only stoked the mare’s giggle fits, and Tail slumped onto her perch seconds after catching the pair of furrowed, furious, puffy-cheeked scowls that had been aimed in her direction.

Stumbling steps carried Tail forward as she leaned against Barrier’s side. She couldn’t stop the stream of snorts and giggles that poured out of her—except for the brief pause she took to puff her cheeks and scowl at the unicorn. Of course, all this managed to do was get both of them riled up again.

Tail pushed on through the melody and clung to the frayed strands of her composure. Her hoof snagged the forest-green entrance to Pop’s Place, and the strap of sleigh bells that hung from the wood jingled as the physicist held the door open for her date. “Allow me to get the door for my noble carrier. I can’t be turning into the riffraff, now can I?”

“What would I ever do if that happened?” Barrier countered, his speech still accented by his amusement. He slipped past the door and made his way directly to the second booth on the left. It was theirs now after all. The only difference was that, this time, he scooted all the way to the window to give Tail the space she needed to sit on the same bench.

Tail meandered towards the booth. She couldn’t help but stare at all the musical memorabilia that Trot had tacked onto the yellow-painted walls. Before she could even register it, her namesake was swaying to a disco tune of a Lady Summer track that played in the background—and accompanied the satisfying sizzle of the griddle.

As expected, the chef’s station was manned by the plump dusty-cream earth pony, and it did not take long for the brown-bearded stallion to glance towards the arriving patrons. “Uh oh!” Trot exclaimed just as Tail plopped down next to Barrier. His emerald eyes glimmered with delight. “I wasn’t expecting a late night, but I’m willing to roll the dice now that I see you’re sitting together.”

Barrier stretched his neck and looked around the diner. They had arrived a few minutes early, and he softly smiled in the wake of his observations. “Looks like we beat the dinner crowd today.”

“It’s been a slow night,” Trot added while scraping the cooktop clean. “Sometimes I check out early if things are really quiet. Breakfast is when I make all my bits anyway, but it’s nice to get some quality dinner company. But enough of that. You two going to stick to your usuals, or are you going to explore the menu?”

“Well, I think I’ll take some time to browse the menu again,” the pegasus replied. “We’re actually waiting on a couple ponies to join us, so you’ll definitely be getting some more quality company tonight.”

On cue, Barrier levitated one of the menus to Tail as a silky sound slipped from his throat. “About that, Mr. Bell, I hope you stay upright when our friends get here. You don’t seem the type who’d lose his stuff, but it is Canterlot, so I’m not taking any chances.”

Trot spun around, planted one of his forelegs on the counter, and pointed his scraper at Barrier. “Hey, hey, in this city, there’s gotta be spots like this looking out for the little ponies. Too much ritz, and I’d lose my freakin’ mind. Those characters? They want their Restaurant Row hoof ratings and image. I”—he turned the utensil towards himself—“just like making good food.”

“So far, you have a one-hundred percent in that department,” Tail commented while flipping through the laminated menu. “I think everything in here would be delicious. Is it bad that I’m seriously considering ordering an omelette-based meal for dinner again?”

“You order it, and I’ll make it. Omelettes come with hash browns and your choice of toast,” Trot said with a chipper rise in volume. He had only just turned his attention back to his griddle preparation when the sound of the sleigh bells carried throughout the small diner. He pirouetted towards the door. “Welcome to Pop’s Place. Take a seat anywh-hubbada-wha?”

Trot’s sights fell upon Cadance and Shining Armor. The pair, appearing without their typical attires, had shed their official regalia. Nevertheless, it was impossible for the gaping chef not to recognize the alicorn princess and her husband.

The Princess of Love had not even made it entirely inside before her head was snapping about to take in the decor. “Shiny, this place is adorable! And do you feel that? I can sense affection in the air already.” She paused, pacing her slide towards Barrier and Tail so her foxy smirk formed just as she reached the table. “See, Honey, what’d I tell you?”

Shining and Barrier simultaneously pffted at the shameless delivery. “Might want to be careful,” the former continued. “You might give them the opening to say that it was the two of us all along. Wouldn’t want to give Gramps the leg up before we even sit down.”

“Just get in the damn booth,” Barrier grumbled. “Your wife wanted a pleasant evening. She didn’t ask me to take up foalsitting duties.”

Cadance snickered. The alicorn slipped around Shining and gave the white unicorn a little nudge with her flank. She stood patiently while her husband made the trek before nestling herself across from Tail. “This place evokes a lot of good memories from our malt shop days. It almost feels like we’ve jumped back in time to a high-school date. Wouldn’t you agree, my dorky little champion?”

“Yep!” Shining hurriedly answered. A reddish hue showed beneath his white coat, and he swiftly snatched a menu with his equally rosy aura. “Colonel picks ‘em well.”

“Don’t be shy, Shiny,” Cadance playfully chided. “From what I’ve gathered from Luna, Tail more than likely knows a thing or two about all those games you like to play.”

Tail’s posture straightened, and she unwaveringly looked at the princess as she quickly churned over potential responses. “I’ve definitely been called a nerd more than a few times,” the physicist replied, opting for blunt and open honesty. “I don’t know what Shiny plays, but I was quite the Pouch Beasts master back in my day.”

The stallion jerked back in his seat and snapped his muzzle towards his wife. “Did she just call me Shiny?” he asked, double-taking before affixing his stare upon the lavender pegasus. “And did you just say Pouch Beasts?”

“Yes, Dear,” the princess replied with a teasing inflection, “she most certainly did. Personally, I think it’s a bold move. Not as bold as the kiss she gave to our beloved Barrier last night, but it’s definitely up there.”

Her blush returned in full force, but Tail maintained her form. She leaned onto the table, planting her foreleg so she could nonchalantly roll her hoof. “As an academic, it’s my job to weed out misconceptions. This one”—she gestured towards Barrier—“dropped a pretty big one at the Phoenix Fire last night. A lesson was deserved, so I gave one.”

Barrier nudged the flier and snickered. “So far, I’ve learned that if I say stupid things, I get kissed. Not sure if that’s really the tactic you want to use, but I know I’ll take it.”

Cadance waggled her eyebrows. “Maybe that’s all part of the plan, Barrier. Feminine wiles and persuasion run deep, and teachers can be exceptionally good at planning.”

“I don’t want to know about the wiles,” Shining Armor’s voice cracked as he stretched and plopped both of his forelegs between his wife and Tail. “I want to know what Pouch Beasts deck she ran! Was it a Hurriblast Afterburner style deck, or did you try a Terrabolt stack?”

“Is anypony going to explain to me how the Princess of Love and the Captain of the Royal Guard have made their way into my restaurant?” Trot was slouched over the countertop, and by the look of the heaving gasps that made his chest rise and fall, Tail promptly assumed that he had been trying to get their attention. “And then could you maybe tell me what you want?”

The pegasus flicked her mane and shot a sidelong glance towards the diner owner. A giggle bubbled up as she playfully batted her hoof in his direction. “Sorry, Trot, didn’t mean to keep you waiting. I’ll go with the Western, wheat toast, and a glass of WNS, and”—she added a snicker while straightening her leg—“no ranks on dates.”

Both Cadance and Shining mumbled sighs of understanding before they quickly made their selections. It gave Tail time to collect her thoughts and enjoy the moment. All the nervousness she had leading up to the outing failed to resurge against the chaos brought about by their banter.

In fact, the physicist couldn’t help but shift her wings and relax her spine. Soon, her tongue would embrace the sweet taste of WNS. She would share another meal with the unicorn who was becoming more and more important in her life, and she would do her best to make the most of this date night. Affirmation rapidly swirled around her ponderings, prodding Tail to resume the conversation that had been interrupted by necessity.

“As for your question, Shining, no, I was a bit of an asshole when I played. Jetsight frontrunner for discard pile draws and burns. Darcaesar as the heavy attacker and switch-ability master, and Lernadrache for its unlimited energy manipulation.”

While a cheeky smirk settled on Tail’s countenance, competing states of confusion and amusement forced Barrier and Cadance to turn their sights to the blinking Shining Armor. For what felt like a minute, the stallion remained silent until emerging chuckles from the waiting trio triggered Shining’s subdued reply.


Chapter 12 - Prepositions

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Empty plates sat atop the group’s table in Pop’s Place. The second booth on the left was occupied by four ponies with filled bellies and jovial hearts. Once again, the diner had emptied out during their date, leaving the loitering patrons free to converse in relative peace—or free to lounge anyway.

Shining Armor had slouched on the bench and draped his head over the rear rim of the curved wooden frame. One of his forehooves lightly rubbed his stomach, and his eyes stayed closed as he let the aftereffects of Spike’s Skillet dribble out through soft, contented groans. “What were you saying again about hobbies, Tail?” he asked in a stupor. “I got a little distracted by Pop’s gravy.”

“At any other Canterlot function, you might get called out for such unseemly behavior, Mr. Armor. Thankfully, I am fully aware of Trot’s wizardry. I understand the anguish you face.” Tail casually gestured towards her cleared dish. “Every ingredient in every bite.”

Where Tail had been lenient, the Princess of Love delivered strict justice. A harmless, yet firm jab met her husband’s side, and the action—along with the devious etching that tucked and tugged the contours of Cady’s face—yanked Shining into the upright position. “Tail was saying that she liked to play guitar before somepony decided to forget his manners.”

Squinting, Shining scratched the back of his head in the wake of Cadance’s singsong vocalization. “Right, guitar! My bad. What kind of stuff do you like to play? I’ve been known to lay down a nice track every now and then myself. It’s part of how I won over my sweet princess.”

Barrier grunted. “Here we go again. Are you going to tell the story of your love at first sight again, or would you like me to recite it from memory?”

The redness that swept over Shining’s muzzle drew chortles from the mares. Though, it was Tail’s turn to take the initiative. “My dad loves to play, so I picked it up when I was pretty young. Can’t say I’m that good. I mostly just screwed around on it, so I’m certainly not going to win any princesses with it. Though, I can get my way through some old hits, and I also like to write my own stuff.”

“You compose your own music?” Cadance asked. She tilted her head downward, fashioning a cute, starry gaze for the pegasus. “I don’t know about winning over a princess, but I’m sure there’s a prince who would love to hear you play something you created.”

“And there she is,” Barrier deadpanned. “I wondered when the romantic inquisitor side would surface. Call me surprised that you waited until after dinner to unleash that face.”

The cerise alicorn shrugged. “It is my duty to all of Equestria to help guide and nurture love in all its forms,” Cadance explained as a sly inflection toyed with her pitch. “This includes ensuring that ponies feel comfortable sharing talents that are mutually beneficial.”

Instinctively, Tail bit her lower lip once her imagination set the scene and went to work. With the diner momentarily swept from reality, the pegasus was free to occupy a black stool set atop a small, raised wooden stage. The planks creaked as she settled atop her perch, and her attention drifted to the one stallion seated in the audience. A spotlight dangled high above her head, casting the effect that she and Barrier were the only two ponies in existence—and that everything else had faded to black.

The weight of a guitar-laden strap pressed against her neck. The band’s liberty-blue fabric was randomly dotted with illustrations of lavender atoms, but the true beauty rested between her forelegs. A semi-hollow body electric guitar begged to be played. Its sunburst paint job and gold accents glimmered, and the hum of the attached amp pulled Tail closer and closer to the instant when she would—

Tail squeaked. In her daydreaming trance, the mare had managed to coil strands of her mane around her foreleg to the point that the tension had become noticeable. “Ehh,” she mumbled nervously at the realization that all of her dinner companions had suddenly snapped their collective focus to her. “I, um, wouldn’t mind playing for Barrier if that’s what you meant. I just”—Tail swallowed—“I don’t play for others very often.”

Cadance set her elbows upon the cluttered table and gradually leaned forward. For several seconds, she narrowed her gaze and mushed her muzzle before her mouth managed to catch up to whatever internal processes she had running. “Hm, a pegasus professor daring to step out of her element. Willing to make such a dramatic display at a bar—and in front of a princess no less. Capable of putting on a tactical display the guards are still murmuring about. I can’t help but wonder why you wouldn’t play for others, but I’d be delighted to learn whether you consider our Magic Barrier to be your prince.”

“Oh,” Tail answered reflexively as one of her ears swung down. “That kind of has more to do with my family than anything else. I’m not trying to say that my mom was pushy or anything. It’s just that she and my little brother gravitated towards the creative side for their professions. I just wanted to tinker. I didn’t want music to become my thing. I also didn’t want my brother to think I was encroaching upon his special talent, so I mostly kept it to myself.”

“The joys of a younger sibling,” Shining added with a tranquil calm laced within his tone. “Having dealt with all of the trials and tribulations of a smart aleck named Twily, I can definitely say I know your pain. Then again, she did end up having the cutest foalsitter around.”

The Princess of Love prodded her stallion with a playful swat. “Don’t be narcissistic, Dear. We don’t want to give Tail a bad impression.”

Tail stifled her laughter as she observed Shining’s immediate double-take. His muzzle scrunched, and his eyes appeared wide as the desire to respond to the incredulous decree beat out the unicorn’s recognition of the cunning ploy.

“I was talking about you!” his voice broke like that of a colt just hitting adolescence, which did absolutely nothing to help Tail’s restraint—or the restraints of any other pony at the table for that matter.

Harmony manifested through the proceeding chorus as the next round of jovial silliness bounced between the walls of the nostalgic dinner. Even Trot threw in a few chuckles from his perch beside the griddle.

“Oh, my sweet boy,” Cady spoke after wiping a renegade tear from her face. “You’re just giving our company far too much ammunition. The success of our mission is all in the diplomacy, and now I’m afraid our side of the table won’t have the clout to press the most important concern of all. Don’t think, with all that laughter”—she gestured towards Tail with a roll of her forehoof—“that I have forgotten. Somepony has yet to confirm or deny that Magic Barrier is her prince.”

Tail retreated the few inches the seat allowed. Heat blossomed upon her face, casting a familiar reddish glow that managed to spread to her ears. Her namesake shifted along the edge of the bench, and she cleared her throat while her thoughts homed in on the underlying element that cemented the foundations of this little game.

“He’s not my prince,” the pegasus calmly replied. She held her breath for a moment once the stallions turned their heads—and once she caught the budding grin that began to stretch across Cady’s countenance. “He wouldn’t want that kind of title anyway, and I bet if I called him that, he’d give me some weird look and grumble about it. He’s already got something more valuable in my book. I respect him more than anyone could possibly imagine. Besides, why would I ever call him prince when I can call him Magic Bear instead?”

Barrier blinked, and for a moment, it appeared as if he had planned to speak. The stage had been set with tension that dragged the captain’s brow into a scrutinizing scowl, but the words did not come.

Tail briefly wondered if it was the deadpan stare Shining was giving—or the faint flickers that meandered about the unicorn’s lips—that kept her date silent. However, she was promptly distracted by the sparkles that radiated from the Princess of Love.

Like a cat preparing to pounce, Cadance wiggled in her seat and nimbly repositioned her forelegs atop the table. The excitement etched into her gaze morphed as a mischievous bend usurped her smile, and a sultry rasp emerged once she spoke. “Barrier, Honey, I really like this one.”

“That didn’t sound creepy at all, Cady,” Barrier answered. His sarcastic inflection merely drove the mare to rest her chin atop her folded limbs, and the short snort that followed did not deter the alicorn from continuing.

“I thought you said stables were common in your era,” she countered, throwing in a pout for added measure.

“Yeah, nope!” the stallion chimed back with such speed and vigor that he had somehow managed to slip the words out before Tail’s melodic mirth took center stage.

“I don’t think that’d work anyway,” the pegasus concluded, her speech ragged with pauses induced by her mounting hilarity. “My roommate would probably want in on it too, and that sounds like a cherry pancake nightmare unfit for a certain stallion.”

The bench creaked when Barrier recoiled. His jaw shielded his throat from the phantom threat while a string of clearing coughs underscored the seeds of dismay. “I put up with enough brats as it is. I don’t need alternatives to match the royal counterparts.”

“Shiny!” The alicorn resorted to the use of a playful whine to punctuate her puckered lips. “Didn’t you tell him that this is what family is for? We’re only doing our duty, Magic Bear.”

The alabaster stallion quietly eyed the now-grimacing Barrier. Yielding a short hum, Shining leaned against Cadance, pitched his muzzle, and delivered a gentle nip to her ear. “I think,” he began in a tender timbre, “that we’re lucky to have gotten him out on a date night with us. We should, perhaps, consider the current state of diplomacy a success—lest we end up receiving another lecture on house lineage or prod Ms. Tail to believe that we are crazier than we are.”

“Seems pretty normal to me,” Tail remarked on cue before her mouth corralled the straw to her soda. She sipped as signs of disbelief wandered onto her companions’ faces, but her statement had been delivered with absolute sincerity. Out of all the possible things to take issue with, the latest sentiment hardly seemed to scratch the surface of the unreasonable. “You’re talking to a physics professor who ended up in B.C.T. with this guy. I think family antics are hardly crazy in my presence.”

“Looks like we did it again,” Barrier mumbled as he and Shining Armor stood just outside the door to Pop’s Place. The pair had gathered, bathing in the halo cast by one of the city’s streetlamps, in the wake of their dates’ sudden departures.

A tinge of red showed through Shining’s coat once the unicorn’s sheepish laugh meandered about the chilly, late-night air. “That guy must be some kind of saint. Every other place in Canterlot would have punted us out hours ago—except for maybe Donut Joe’s. Still, I have to commend Trot. That attitude is pretty rare.”

Barrier chuckled, and his eyes closed as a tranquil smirk took shape. “Tail and I found this place by dumb luck. It fits—”

A light nudge bumped Barrier from his thought train. He stopped speaking and turned in time to observe the mischievous aura that radiated from Shining’s frame. “Seems to me that she’s the one that fits. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this relaxed. No wonder Cady likes her.”

“Tail is certainly something,” Barrier answered. His words lingered in the wind, drawing out as though the stallion were becoming more and more distant with every second that passed—until the apparent vulnerability had to be abruptly crushed. “Let’s just hope I don’t fuck it all up.”

“I was wondering where Grumpy Grandpa had run off to. And here I thought I was witnessing the cusp of a miracle.”

Sighing, Barrier rubbed the base of his horn. The hints of a scowl began to form along his brow, and he released a curt, grumbling retort, “Not helping.”

This time, Shining didn’t answer right away. He leaned against the exterior wall of the diner, slightly tilted his head, and waited.

“Don’t give me the silent treatment. Tail needs more training. I’ve trained somepony close to me before. It isn’t fun, and it isn’t easy,” Barrier spoke as he kept his forehead planted against his hoof.

“It worked, and history doesn’t have to repeat, Barrier,” Shining’s voice emerged at a lower tone. A serious grit accented his words, and the Captain of the Royal Guard did not waver. “Tail is Tail. She’ll respond in her own way and apply her own thoughts to what you teach her. Take things a day at a time. Talk stuff out, and let the wall down once the sun sets.”

The charcoal-colored unicorn squinted. “And now my great-grandnephew is giving me relationship advice too.”

“No, you’re getting advice from an officer who married a princess. It isn’t easy going home to a pony you’ve taken an oath to die for if need be. Times might be peaceful now, but I can grasp the burden.”

Dropping his leg, Barrier looked to his younger relative. “But the burdens aren’t the same. She’s pushing into dangerous territory. You know what she’s doing. You know what Proud tried. He’ll probably try again, and he won’t be the only one. B.C.T. won’t cut it against those risks. She’ll have to fight harder than she ever has. She’ll see things that I saw.

“And before you ask,” Barrier blurted after catching sight of Shining’s quivering lips. Swirls of moisture formed as his heated gasps danced with the night’s cold. “It’s not about what Tail thinks of me. I’ll worry about that for a while, but she has her ways. For once, I like where I am. I don’t want to slip. I’m going to need help to make sure she’s trained right—and to keep tabs on those walls.”

“Should I go out on a limb and guess that that’s the reason you wanted to chat?” The white unicorn shuffled closer to Barrier.

“Yeah, she’ll have to overcome powerful unicorn aggressors. I want to bring in the other two most combat-capable magi around. Doesn’t hurt that you and Trigger know me well either."

“Where in Tartarus have you been?” Amora’s voice cut through the darkened landing before the swirling wisps of her aura could fully complete the teleportation spell. A single iris caught the moonlight tricking in from the outside, and it cast its cobalt hue upon Tail.

“I’ve been—” Tail’s neck recoiled. An alabaster fetlock had extended across the threshold, and the medic’s hoof had been promptly and firmly planted upon the physicist’s muzzle.

“You have been gone for nearly two days. No word! No message! No indication from your royal benefactor! This can only mean one of two things. You’ve either been replaced by a changeling drone, or you’ve restarted your terrible overworking behavior.” Amora pulled back her outstretched extremity and dramatically draped it over her forehead. “What is a roommate to do?”

Tail wiggled her snout and groaned. She shot the medic a deadpan stare and defensively extended her wings to cover her flanks. “That is ridiculous. First, I still have a royal benefactor,” she blurted, gesturing to Cadance. “Second, I wasn’t overworking, and I certainly am not a changeling drone. I was on a date.”

“Can confirm,” the princess broke her silence. “Did you know they are sickeningly adorable together? Just like you with your antics, Major. Tail said her roommate was a character. If I had known it was you, I wouldn’t have even bothered, and before you ask, no, I’m not pregnant yet.”

“Hmm…” Amora plopped down on the carpeted stairs that led up to the living room. Once again, her sights homed in on Tail, and her brow crafted an inquisitive scowl normally reserved for unruly patients. “You’ve come home with Heartbutt, and it actually is Heartbutt. Fine! You’re not changeling infiltrators, but a date doesn’t explain two days. Spill it, Professor.”

A sheepish, bashful grimace overtook the mare. Tail’s partially unfurled wings twitched before her namesake flicked against the stone slab beneath her hooves. There was no getting out of this one. Ams had gone academic, and the route to her bedroom was blocked. “Well, we did go on a date. It was a double date, actually. Pop’s Place, and we killed a lot of time there, but…” Tail practically sang through her delivery, and the tempo with which she spoke only quickened with every word that followed. “The night before, I slept at Barrier’s.”

Both mages perked in response to this revelation. With a shake of her haunches, Amora scooted and leaned forward until she was barely supported by the step. Cadance crept farther and farther forward until Tail could feel the weight of the impish expression pouring into her peripheral vision.

The pegasus simply sighed. Of course they’d have that reaction! What other reaction could they have? Perverts. In the wake of her breath, the stillness brewed. It washed the concern from Amora’s countenance and left nothing but mischief. It spurred a princess of love to show her lust, and they still hadn’t said even a single word!

Nevertheless, Tail knew. She predicted the turmoil of teasing that had to be boiling within her companions, and she confirmed that presumption as soon as her roommate opened her mouth.

“Hunny, there’s a big difference between at and with.”

Chapter 13 - A Dream Unresolved

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“There’s a big difference between at and with.” The titters of Amora’s laughter echoed throughout a massive illuminated void, and each reverberating beat drastically increased the probability that the ruffled Tail would crack.

Strangely, the saturation of their surroundings matched the lighting of her Canterlot lab, but the distortion in her friend’s voice planted seeds of doubt that joined the pangs of annoyance in the race throughout Tail’s subconscious. “Can it, Ams!” she shot her response when another rising wake grazed her ears.

Tail tossed a scowling glance over her shoulder to confront her roommate, and her brow quivered. There was no one there to receive the brunt of her pouting rebuttal. The rocky depths beneath Canterlot castle did not greet her laser-beam stare either. Tail was nowhere near her lab. There was simply nothing beyond an endless expanse of softly glowing mist.

The pegasus twirled around, her head leading her body’s rotation as she searched for any sign of one mischievous roommate. “I know I heard you, you little tease!”

Fluffy lavender ears shifted and swiveled in search of a ping. Legs stretched as Tail lowered her center of mass and leaned forward. She shushed, opting to remain in silent wait for Amora to finally drop the act, but the physicist found that the familiar tones of her childhood friend no longer lingered in the winds.

Instead, there was something else—a sensation that she hadn’t experienced since she was a little filly. Droning smears of sound dribbled in from the hazy edges of the space. The chorus of strangers set her coat on edge, and she instinctively bent her hind legs as though they were spring launchers. Her wings, for their part, snapped outward, and the front edges of the feathery limbs curled in preparation to scoop the air aside.

Through the fog, ghastly shapes congregated, forming what looked like darkened clouds to the crouching Tail. The veil eventually thinned before the pressure of the meandering march, transforming the amorphous blobs until solidified legs reached over the ill-defined border. Black fluid dripped from the barely visible appendages, and like ink, it peppered the illuminated floor in splotches that made the pegasus snarl.

Tail’s pulse raced to the sight of this invasion. Her heart punched out jagged beats, and her pupils dilated to allow every detail to rush in. This is my territory! Her voice exploded throughout the cavern in a reverberating echo—despite the fact that her mouth had never even moved. I know what this is! I know exactly where I am. This is my realm, and I refuse to accept this!

The pegasus lifted one of her forelegs before delivering an authoritative stomp. The gesture produced a clang that sounded an awful lot like metal colliding with stone, but the unexpected noise did not shift Tail’s unrelenting focus from her pursuers. In the span of a blink, Sally’s golden contours wrapped around the mare. Determined embers licked the thin slivers of her irides, and the now-armored physicist bared her teeth as hellish faces tore into her domain.

Wisps of vapor snaked around muzzles that looked tattered, marred, and ragged. Empty sockets cast chilling stares, and more ink poured from the hollow voids and gaping jaws as though the fluid was the creatures’ life’s blood.

With sloppy, staggering steps, the beasts revealed more of their figures. Equine in shape, but definitely not pony, their bodies were covered in incomplete patches of black fur, and their hides, oozing the same onyx puss, had a better resemblance to crumbling timberwolf bark than pony flesh.

A cupric stench bit Tail’s nostrils as she turned her head to take in the full swath of the encroaching line. Her limbs quivered once the scent added its data to the cacophony of wails and the eerily disjointed crawl. Night terrors… she pondered as the barbs of youthful fear tugged at her planted foreleg.

Tail popped her jaw and flicked an ear. I’m not young anymore. I’m a lot stronger than I was, and I’m sure as shit not leaving this job unfinished. A hefty weight swiftly replaced the tingling sensation that had raced along that pesky limb, and a new band of light snagged Tail’s attention when she levelled her leg.

A vibrant chevron of white glimmered off the angled stainless-steel rail that sat between her knee and fetlock joints. Two wide bracelets held the mass to her appendage, and a crescent-shaped loop emerged from the far end of the fixture and curled under her hoof.

In that moment, time’s presence took a back seat, and Tail’s sights scanned this newfound tool with unbridled scientific scrutiny. Her lips curled into a smile as though she had just come across an old friend, and when the pieces started falling into place—the barrel, the supports, the augurite-laced mesh, the revolving ammunition housing, and the trigger waiting to be pushed—she discovered an equally uplifting sensation.

“This is my design,” she mumbled. “This is exactly what it should be!” Tiny bolts of electricity cut channels through her coat before they raced into the mesh. On cue, Tail could sense a round seated in the cylinder. Luna’s presence spoke through the small exchange, and Tail immediately adjusted how often she pushed her own weather magic into the rail.

She inhaled, drawing a large gulp of air into her lungs as she pushed herself from the crouching position to stand tall. She pressed her hoof against the smooth loop that just grazed her fetlock, and her gaze narrowed on the swarm of hobbling, groaning messes that crawled ever closer. “You need to get the fuck out of my dream!”

No sound. No enemies. No haze. With the snap of the trigger, all of those things had vanished. There was no trace of her taking the shot either, though Tail was sure such an abrupt change had to have come through her use of Luna’s magic. Regardless, she couldn’t feel the presence of the shell anymore. She couldn’t feel the presence of anything, really. She was alo—

“Hehe! You did it! You did it!” Multiple teleporting pops darted around Tail before a chirpy filly’s voice came from directly beneath the still lifted foreleg. “What’s this? What’s it do? Did Moonie’s muffins help? I’m sure they helped!”

Tail tilted her head and threw a quizzical glance at the latest intruder. The chatelle-colored unicorn foal, with her brown and burgundy locks, was definitely somepony the physicist had recently met. “Peebles?” she asked, her voice drifting to a higher pitch than normal.

“Mmhmm,” the youngster answered through a rapidly bobbing nod. “It’s Platinum Blaze. Peebles is what my daddy says because I pbbt when I’m up. I think it’s easier to talk here, but Mommy wants me to try more. But then I can’t talk to Moonie because she doesn’t talk while up too. I like having sleepovers. Then we can talk all the time! Just like how we’re talking now.”

Tail’s ears splayed as she absorbed the rambling of the utterly rambunctious foal. “I’m actually talking to her. This is… You’re actually here, aren’t you? Like I’m not imagining all of this. Though, maybe I could imagine this. I guess anything is possible.”

A giggle bubbled up from the filly before she wiggled with excitement. “I’m here! Your dream got scary when the unfish… unfinsh…”—Peebles puffed her cheeks and tried again—“unfinished came. That’s what Uncle Wing calls them. He’s a nice pony. You’re a nice pony too! You bought Moonie’s muffins! So I came to help, but you made them poof!”

“And you are in big big trouble, Miss Platinum Roya Blaze.”

The gruff, masculine tenor that came from behind Tail made both mare and foal twitch. Tail turned at a snail’s pace to take in Trigger’s visage, and Peebles gingerly poked her face out from behind Tail’s body.

“You look bigger,” Tail idly commented as she took in the barkeep’s looming form. His trademarked Coltston was nowhere to be seen, and his long horn appeared unimpeded by the stallion’s usual methods. “And why does everypony I know suddenly dreamwalk?”

Trigger snorted. He held a firm, parental stare on Peebles for a few more seconds before a more relaxed expression forged a proper greeting. “Not everyone dreamwalks, but my daughter picked up some tricks. And she should know better than trying to enter another pony’s dreamshell over such a long distance. Or at all when permission wasn’t given.”

“But Daddy!” Peebles protested through a forming pout. “She had the scaries, and they were shouting and being mean. And I didn’t hop in her dreamshell from home! I popped to her first, so there! I was safe.”

The black-coated mage huffed, and his hoof quickly ascended to press against his forehead. Tail nearly chortled at the whole affair, but she promptly clamped her jaw shut once she watched Trigger squint in response to his daughter’s adorable ferociousness.

“Filly,” he grumbled as strangely argent waves of magic coated his horn. “If I find that ya did what I think ya did”—he hesitated as his aura began to reach for Peebles at an agonizingly sluggish pace—“we are going to have a serious chat. Ya teleported to her home in the middle of the night. By yourself.”

“Mmhmm!” The foal still carried some stubborn enthusiasm in the reply. “I am the best night guard! And Auntie Ams is really snuggly. Did you know they live in the same house!? She made sure I was warm and said that I”—her voice momentarily transformed into a perfect mimic of the medic—“have your resolve, Daddy.”

The stallion groaned. “Once my cadet, always my cadet. I swear that mare is the biggest enabler in Equestria. Fine, I’m gonna make my way over. At the very least, I know where I can help with Ms. Tail’s trainin’.” He shot the pegasus a teasing glance. “If a kid teleporting into your home doesn’t wake ya up, then ya clearly need more instruction.”

Trigger’s words hadn’t reached Tail’s ears. She had zoned out to the echoes of that perfect impression as they splashed around her mind. One word, in particular, stood out over all the noise, and it coaxed a memory that another dream had etched upon her subconscious.

A mare’s voice boomed over the barren dreamscape in a tone reminiscent of the Royal Canterlot variety. “Resolve. One day, your resolve will change...”

Confusion shaped the mare’s scrunched brow and pursed lips. Her body shivered to the hefty tones as each word had prodded an autonomous response. Cheerful laughter added another layer of complexity after Platinum Blaze started gleefully shouting that her nana had been there. The physicist could only give her attention to Trigger in the hope that he would have an answer.

His pinprick stare told her everything she needed to know.

Grogginess fogged Tail’s senses as she idly stared at the darkened ceiling of her bedroom. Colors had been washed out by the greyscale of night, and for several seconds, that blissful state of total unawareness hovered over her thoughts.

“Pbbbbt!” At least until that...

The noise made Tail’s legs instinctively jerk. The illusion ended, and an accompanying wave of chills rolled down her spine. It was one that had been spurred on by the torrent of memories that had crossed from the realm of dream into the world of the woken. She had been visited by a host of creatures—friend and foe—yet none of them should have been there.

“Your dad is not going to be happy when he gets here, Peebles,” Amora spoke with a gentle tone that crept to Tail’s ears from the opened doorway. “Props for being a loyal friend, but you’re way too young to teleport and dive without your dad keeping tabs.”

Another sound of protest emerged from the foal, and Tail lifted her head in time to see Platinum Blaze emphatically squirming in the dual grip of Amora’s magic and foreleg.

“Don’t pbbt me. I gave you credit where it was due, but I know your dad well enough to know that he’ll be worried sick. I am your favorite aunt, after all. I have experience in all matters pertaining to sneaky fillies and rambunctious roommates, and don’t doubt that one bit.”

Tail retorted with a snort. The claim, on top of the filly’s relentless squirming and noisemaking, produced a melody that the pegasus could not contain. “That really happened then,” she commented through sputtering giggles. “It was way too vivid. Those things were real, and she was there. Just incredible.”

Amora briefly gazed at the ceiling and groaned. “Oh geeze, now the other one’s awake. I’m not going to foalsit the both of you. One should be in bed, and the other hasn’t given her roommate enough caffeine to put up with a questioning crusade.”

Propping herself up with her forelegs, Tail pressed her back against her headboard. The blanket that had covered her body tumbled from her chest, revealing a fluffy coat that reflected what little light darted about the room. “Two ponies entered my dream. We don’t need caffeine to question that! I mean, Trigger, I don’t really have to question. He’s got experience and a reputation to match, but his filly? She’s carrying around a princess caliber skill! That’s nuts—”

The medic sighed and dramatically rolled her shoulders. “Hunny, I know what you’re about to do. Just don’t. This one goes straight to need-to-know on Celestia’s order, so don’t get your brain all riled up for nothing.”

Tail rocked forward. Her ears twitched, and rebellious strands of her mane jostled about. “But you clearly know something,” she complained, allowing her back to hit the headboard again with a deep, padded thump.

“I know something because Trigger was my D.I., and the circumstances were very, very different. Even so, rules are rules, and I ain’t breaking this one. You’re just going to have to leave it be. Keep obsessing over Barrier or something. I’m sure he’s got plenty of stories to satisfy your curiosity.”

Amora’s volume faded to silence. The medic’s coat stood on end in the seconds that followed, prompting Tail’s brow to rise before a jet-black aura rapidly engulfed the home and answered the unspoken question. In that instant, Tail’s room was drenched in pure darkness. The illuminated hallway was seemingly snatched away into a dimensionless void, and even the light of Amora’s magic evaporated. In its wake, streams of an amber field blossomed and cradled Platinum Blaze.

Coalescing grains of dust and debris swirled in the space between Tail’s hindboard and the invisible door. The rattling of papers filled the air in spite of the fact that nopony present could actually see them, and from that unusual nighttime tempest, Trigger’s body formed.

“Sorry for the delay, Major,” Trigger spoke as he levitated his daughter to eye level. “I take it she wasn’t too much trouble on this outrageous visit to her aunt…”

Tail’s breath hitched. The hoarseness of Trigger’s voice, the enveloping darkness, and the unfamiliar teleport produced an imagined weight that barreled down upon her chest. Like Amora, her fur was bristling—stirred up by the powerful presence that had infiltrated their abode—but unlike Amora, Tail’s heart was racing. She tried to kick her hind legs as though she were still a little foal locked in a nightmare. Just keep moving! Just keep moving! You’ll wake up and escape.

Trigger huffed, Tail blinked, and the pressure upon her body vanished as quickly as it had come. The light from the hallway resumed its march to battle the greyscale that otherwise held dominion over the mare’s room. Tail’s usual clutter had indeed been scattered about by the unicorn’s intrusion, but the minor annoyance didn’t make a bit of headway against the relief that sat upon Tail’s relaxed countenance.

“Dread, anxiety, confusion. Ms. Tail just felt those, Peebles, which is exactly why we don’t recklessly use dreamshell magic. I know why ya did it. It was a brave move, Squirt, but ya don’t have to be brave alone yet. Come get me right off the bat if ya sense something weird. Alright?”

Father and filly stared each other down for quite a while before Platinum Blaze smiled, hummed, and settled into the embrace of Trigger’s spell. The stallion clearly took the gesture as a sign of agreement because he immediately snapped his attention towards Tail.

“Uhh, hi?” the mattress-perching pegasus squeaked as she fell victim to his sparkling amber glare. Her snout scrunched as she watched a conniving grin spread across his muzzle, and the chuckle that followed did nothing to keep the mare from flicking her namesake.

“Well, it’s good to know that ya can sense some amount of magic when it’s right on top of ya, Flicker. Of course, that teleport was the equivalent to punting your door off its hinges—along with every door between my place and here. I bet every unicorn on your block felt me comin’, but what’s a guy to do? At least I have a baseline for my contribution to your training. By the time I’m through with ya, you’ll be reading teleport chains like an open book. I can’t wait to see the look on Shiny’s face when he jumps into the bottom of your hoof. As for right now though, I gotta clear the air.”

Feathers splayed to a timbre shift that overtook Trigger’s voice. A playful quippiness had punctuated the early parts of his tiny lecture regarding her magic-related inabilities, which made Tail all the more cognizant of the edge that bit into the stallion’s transitional sentence.

“What I’m about to say doesn’t leave this house. I’m not jokin’ when I say my family’s well-being is on the line here, so don’t buckin’ test me. Given tonight, it’s obvious that my mom has taken an interest in your life, which means you’ll probably piece it together on your own soon enough with that damn genius of yours. I’m not one to play pointless games. Since ya got the trust of a bunch of folks that I trust, I’ll extend it and save the hassle. To put it bluntly—and I swear ya’d better not go full Twilight Sparkle on me—ya can’t really call me a pony.”

Chapter 14 - But Pawns

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“Excuse me, what!?” Tail’s voice went up two octaves that day—though, technically, it was still nighttime. The pegasus swung her hind legs off the edge of her mattress, sending her blanket and sheets tumbling to the floor. “What do you mean I can’t call you a pony? And what does going”—she made air quotes with her forehooves—“full Twilight Sparkle entail? Does it have something to do with not being able to call you a pony? Or maybe it’s something completely unrelated?”

Trigger sighed, lifting his foreleg to give a lackadaisical roll of his hoof before explaining. “Going full Twilight Sparkle is when overly curious bookworms ask a mountain of useless questions without carin’ to wait for a reply. You two might be perfect for one another at this rate.”

Suddenly flushed, Tail loosed a sheepish laugh. She shifted her hips, settling atop her bed while she absentmindedly combed her wild mane with a forehoof. “Sorry, Trigger, I’ll keep quiet now. Please continue.”

“Maybe there’s hope after all,” Trigger snickered, glancing at Amora while he gently bounced Peebles in his magical hold. His aura spiraled around the young foal’s ears. “Twilight would never shut the hell up, so I sent her straight to Celestia’s bedroom one night. I don’t think she’s lived it down yet, so congratulations for getting the message in one take.

“And ya can’t really call me a pony ‘cause I ain’t one. I’m sure ya understand this better than most. There’s more to the world than meets the eye, and there’s more to how things work than what they teach ya in school. Celestia moves the sun. Luna moves the moon. Cadance moves emotions, so what do ya think moves all that energy ya dream up in the night?”

Tail’s focus darted about like a child hitting a candy store for the first time. Unintelligible mumblings dripped from her muzzle, and her ears and namesake flicked to a beat that only sampled the track her memories were compiling. “Starswirl… Haycartes… Neigh…”

Maintaining a low volume, Tail kept listing off the famous ponies of science until she realized that Trigger had not spoken another word. She fidgeted, briefly pondering if her rambling counted as full-Twilighting or if he had genuinely offered her the question. When he met her stare with a smug grin, she knew that she was still in the clear. “Uh, the only thing I’m really aware of is Luna’s abilities as a dreamwalker.”

Trigger retorted with a curt shake of his head. “It’s a popular term, but it’s kinda wrong. Luna doesn’t really dreamwalk. She more or less floats and guards the shore. Living things dream. Some cause elation. Some cause harm. All that turmoil needs a place to go, so what happens to that shitload of energy? The Universe becomes the most imaginative bitch in the room and packs it someplace. That’s where I’m from, Flicker. I’m a creature of reverie, and my talent is protecting aspirations.”

The pegasus slowly turned towards the open doorway. She found Amora still standing there, leaning against the frame as a grimace twisted her countenance. Tail pursed her lips and held her attention on her roommate through a few seconds of silence before she lifted both of her forehooves and slapped her cheeks.

“Ow!” she exclaimed, drawing curiosity-laden glimpses from both her roommate and the silver-haired guest. She swiveled in response, throwing both of them looks before sighing. “I thought I fell asleep again, but I guess not.”

A gritty grunt crawled from Trigger’s throat. “You’re awake, and what I told ya is real. There’s a whole mess of stuff out there that ya don’t know. Just going to have to accept—”

“Your mom,” Tail interrupted before taking a short pause, “she’s the one who does the moving, isn’t she?”

“Wow, looks like I was right. Droppin’ the puzzle pieces quick. And only cut me off once to boot. Miracles do happen.” The stallion chuckled, and one of his ears pivoted towards the door. “She’s got many titles, all of which are boring and not worth the time. What’s important is that she clearly isn’t bored with you.”

“Sir Trigger!” Luna’s Royal Canterlot voice carried from the living room. The noise immediately caused the other mares to jerk at their posts, though Trigger simply rolled his shoulders. “That is hardly the proper way to introduce the Grand Matriarch, Thestral of Reverie, to the uninitiated. An ambassador should know how to promote his lineage.”

“And a princess should know that eavesdropping is bad, Mes Étoiles. I already had to deal with one feisty filly tonight. Am I going to have to deal with another? I don’t think your sister is a big fan of my bartender reports. Would hate to waste her time.”

Soft chortles from the Princess of the Night flowed into the bedroom in waves. The melody persisted, prompting even Trigger to drop his deadpan defense at the behest of an inquisitive lip curl.

“I don’t think that will be necessary, Colonel.” Despite the repeated yawns that followed, it was clear that the drowsy tones drifting from Luna’s side belonged to none other than Celestia herself. “I’m already updated on the situation. True, I would normally give my little sister a scolding for such an invasion. But we’re here because someone released an enormous amount of magical energy, and we would rather put our ponies’ minds at ease.” The alicorn unleashed another dramatic yawn.

“Verily so! But my sister is so very tired when woken up before it’s time for her sunrise. Fortunately, Captain Barrier came along with us and is busy making those famous pancakes of his.”

“And coffee!” Celestia added emphatically. “Cakes and coffee.”

Tail’s cheek twitched. The muscle beneath her right eye adopted a frantic spasm, and her mane erupted into an even more unkempt mess of rising spirals and spontaneously split ends. “Barrier?” she called out with a twinge of uncertainty that sent her pitch fluttering.

“Busy night, Blanket?” The unicorn’s voice echoed from down the hall before dragging Tail’s wings through an equally sporadic set of spasms. “Seems like you’ve accumulated some unexpected company.”

“Uh, yes, you could definitely say that…” Tail answered, watching as Trigger used the brief exchange as an opportunity to stick his head out into the illuminated hallway.

“Barry, I know what my training sessions are going to cover. She didn’t detect Peebles, or two bloody alicorns, teleporting into her home. We can’t have that with our prospect, now can we?”

The stallion kept leaning farther and farther across the door frame until Tail thought that he would eventually tumble out of the room with his daughter in tow. The darkness of her bedroom and the brightness of the corridor played tricks with his coat, drawing lines of shadow and contrast that kept the decaffeinated pegasus upright long enough for her to catch the next words that left his muzzle.

“Oh, and by the way, Ms. Tail,” Trigger spoke up after conducting an abrupt about-face that yanked his head back into the darkness, “at eleven-hundred, there’ll be a crate outside your lab. Receive it promptly.”

Tail’s eyelids drooped as she trudged towards the castle. Around her, ponies skipped about through the reflected rays of the morning sun with far more passion than she could be bothered to muster. Her morning had started in the dead of night, and its events inevitably led to the two rulers of her country, a nonpony pony, said nonpony pony’s daughter, and her captain all appearing in the residence. “Mornings suck,” she grumbled, tossing a tired glance in Barrier’s direction, “but at least the view is nice.”

“Flattery won’t get you out of hitting the field at daybreak next week,” Barrier replied as he kept pace. He took in the pegasus with a meandering—and completely unsubtle—scan. “Besides, I’m not the one trotting around in that lab coat looking adorable.”

Tail planted her foreleg atop one of the cobblestones and coughed. She halted dead in her tracks and arced one of her wings to form a makeshift pointer. “My mane is a frizzled mess, and I look like a zombie. I don’t think adorable is the right word.”

Barrier just kept walking. The stallion stepped into the scientist’s path and lifted his tail to brush it against the underside of her muzzle. “You look like a hard worker who wouldn’t have been blamed for catching up on her sleep.”

The pegasus shivered from the gesture. A heated gasp escaped through her parted lips as her wings lifted from the canvas fabric of her lab coat. “I can’t,” she answered, leaning towards him before resuming her forward progress. “I now have that mysterious Trigger package to think about, and if I skew my sleep schedule, it might lead to a conflict with the pinning ceremony.”

“So what you’re saying is that, despite being tired, you’re showing off your dedication and doing so in style? Sounds adorable to me, Professor Blanket.” Smugness, in its untainted form, snatched the captain’s countenance. He kept peering over his shoulder just long enough for Tail to feel the warmth hitting her cheeks, and then his attention was back to front-face.

The pair had reached the castle’s main gate. A gradient of purple shades rose to the sky until bands of white adorned the tips of the towers. The largest spire sprouted directly above the archway, and it greeted guests with a host of balconies, slotted windows, and astronomical banners that served far more of an ornamental purpose than a military one.

Nonetheless, a pair of guards stood at the base of the stone arch. Each was adorned in a standard kit and remained in picturesque, statue formation until the duo entered what Tail could only describe as saluting distance. The burnt-orange pegasus to the right threw his hoof to his helmet in a quick snapping motion, and it wasn’t long before a slew of information poured from his mouth.

“Captain Barrier, Captain Armor would like to have a word with you as soon as you’re available. Last I heard, he was still in his office. Colonel Tail, I’ve been instructed to pass the message upon your arrival that Princess Luna wishes to spend the remainder of her morning with you. She said something about waiting for you at bedrock and that you would understand.”

“Oh…” Tail hovered on the vowel as she returned the salute to both the pegasus and the navy-blue unicorn that stood across from him. Her lips held that shape as she resumed her trot, and with a single thread of thought, she giggled. “I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t take the morning off.”

“Guess so.” The thinnest trace of embarrassment flirted with Barrier’s tone. He completed his passage through the oversized archway and turned towards the keep. “I had better see what Shining wants. After that, I can find my way to your new lab if you still want me to.”

The last word had barely leapt from Barrier’s tongue before her answer skirted the breeze. “Sweety, please. Just keep heading down. It’s literally the last thing one can find. I believe in you.” She caught up to his side and planted a peck on his cheek. “And if you can’t find it, then I’ll certainly find you.”

Barrier’s horn lit once he reached the door to Shining Armor’s office. His aura enveloped the wooden planks, and with little effort, he pushed open the entryway. Light poured through the ornate panes, sending white bands across the rich mahogany desk that served as the office centerpiece. Papers, likely the day’s roster reports, lay neatly piled at the corners, and quills were already at the ready.

The tranquil scenery did not fit the nature of the two creatures who were already present. “The incursions of Aislynn Caliber upon the woken domain cannot go unchecked,” Shining wailed, pointing an entire foreleg in Trigger’s direction. “And you cannot go around Canterlot freaking out every magic-sensitive person in the capital.”

Trigger leaned against the wall near a windowpane and sighed heavily. “Do I need to remind ya that ya had no idea the Sea of Reverie even existed until Wing brought me here? I don’t want my mom fucking around with things either. She pulls the same next-level shit that Celestia does, but don’t act like it’s a security hazard. You’ll just get your panties in a wad for no reason, and trying to get her to stop is about as useless as trying to convince a windigo to stop being a frigid asshole.”

A snort shot through Shining’s nostrils as he threw his head back. “That does not change the fact that it is Princess Luna’s job to watch the dreams of ponies. The Houses Caelum and Caliber established this arrangement over a thousand years ago—”

“And Mes Étoiles was bound to the moon for nearly that entire time. Would ya send a foal to a pool without a lifeguard, Shiny? Mother tried to let it be for so damn long. She stayed out of things in ancient times, but Luna needed a mentor. She stayed out of most events for nearly nine-hundred years after her student’s banishment. She sat there and watched as creature after creature went too deep.

“Grogar? Went too deep. Discord? Just ask your sister. Starswirl? Ya bet your shielded ass. Sombra? Took way too damn long. She even stayed out of it when Wing went too deep, but then shit got real. He summoned me. What about the foals who can’t? What about the ponies who don’t have the resolve? Point is… my mom’s crazy, and yes, it’s not her right to generate destiny, but she’s not an enemy. She never has been.”

Barrier blinked. He had gradually made it over the threshold during the course of that display, and he calmly closed the door as he was enveloped by the raucous banter. “You two need buckin’ marriage counselling.”

“Don’t give Cady ideas,” Trigger quipped back. His amber sights settled on Barrier’s frame, and those eyes sparkled with the glowing cinders of trouble. “It’s probably her biggest fetish.”

Shining’s jaw dropped. Dry heaves of air exited his throat, but there was simply no motion or effort to form actual words. Even his hoof remained unmoved from its pointed post.

“Thank fuck, I killed that conversation,” Barrier added as his tail swished with triumph. “Neither of you should worry about it. Luna’s not incompetent. She’ll settle her emotions on the matter in her own way. It’s not really our job to question that. The real question to answer is why is the spotlight on Tail, and what are we going to do to make sure she’s prepared for the role?”

Trigger adjusted his trademarked Coltston. “We’re going to make sure it doesn’t take me frazzling every pushover in Canterlot to make an entrance.”

“Should probably spend some time developing her innate abilities as well,” the alabaster unicorn commented. “It will help in dealing with magic users and would give a boost to her stamina.”

“Yeah,” Barrier muttered, lifting one of his forelegs to rub the base of his neck. “We can’t forget tactics either. She showed she had the stuff during B.C.T., but our own scenario for her final exam didn’t follow the script. If we want to mitigate the dangers that come from her own program, then we need to make sure that she can beat the best.”

“Heh,” Trigger grunted, shooting Shining a teasing smirk, “that’s why two of us are here.”

Meanwhile, Tail made her way down the steps that led to her laboratory. Despite the increased familiarity, the sensation of moving from a bustling environment to one devoid of effectively all outside contact remained a tad unsettling.

The transition from castle to cave also left something to be desired. Humidity crept into the mare’s coat, and a shiver raced along her spine as she plopped her hooves against successive stone slabs.

Waves of light and dark ebbed through the raised tufts of her fur each time she passed one of the wall torches, and every now and again, her ears would flick to the sound of falling water. Eventually, she neared the end of the spiral, as evidenced by the radiant glow that came from those massive metal doors—and the unintelligible notes of Luna’s voice that managed to reach her position.

After a few more paces, the shuffling of hooves became more distinct, as did the words coming from the Princess of the Night.

“Ooh! She approaches!”

By the time Tail concluded her descent, Princess Luna was seated perfectly square to the trajectory of arrival. The alicorn had completely ditched her formal regalia, opting instead to wear a lab coat similar to the one that currently covered the physicist. The royal sister beamed with unbridled optimism as she levitated a pair of safety goggles for an impromptu inspection.

“Greetings again, Colonel! We think this attire is appropriate for the morning’s activities. We wish… to do science.”

Chapter 15 - I Swear, If You Hug Me

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Day 77 — Hey Future Me, do you remember this day? Of course you do because how could you forget? I was about to write down that thing that you learned, but then I decided that it wouldn’t be all that wise. You know what I’m talking about. Somehow, that thing was actually rivaled by other events. Princess Luna came down to the lab and tried to help. Let it be known that she looks downright adorable in a lab coat. Though, perhaps her visit was a bit premature given the current stage in the development process.

Luna threw her forelegs over one of the workbenches and sighed as she stared at Tail. “Ugh!” she gasped, overcoming the sounds of a quill tip dragging atop parchment. “Tail! This is so boring! How do you deal with this? Where are the test tubes? Where are the explosions? Where is the magic!?”

The pegasus giggled and smirked at the sprawled alicorn. “You know nothing of my pain, Princess of the Night. I’m not even writing the additional grant request yet. Only once you experience the scrounging for money stage can you claim to have survived true mental anguish.”

“You need to write another one?” Luna unleashed a high-pitched squeal that echoed throughout the cavern of the lab. Her pupils practically engulfed her irides, and her jaw hung open for a few seconds before she snapped up and fluffed her wings. “Bless the stars that Proud has been removed from the J.C.! We do not think another round of that could be tolerated.”

Tail set the quill down on the tabletop before she planted her hind hoof against the bench’s edge and turned her black swivel chair until she faced Luna. “Just come over here and I’ll show you why. After my dream last night, I think I’ve got things sorted out.”

“But?” the princess poked. Her pitch rose as she spoke, and she shuffled across the floor to settle at Tail’s side. “Oh my, you seem to have been quite busy while we were… moping… on the other table.”

A proud, subdued smile stretched across Tail’s muzzle as she glanced down at the latest drawing. Earlier messy sketches were scattered beneath the most recent version, and the difference in quality was striking. Solid ink lines graced every element of this rendition as if her professional confidence itself had been placed on display.

In the top left, Tail had drawn the external profiles of her leg-mounted revolver. Every angle of the stainless-steel weapon had been labelled—from the shape of the barrel to the hinges of the cylinder. She had also spent a fair amount of time illustrating the 210-degree torus that would function as the trigger—along with its union beneath the end of the barrel.

What drew a hum from Luna’s throat, however, were the cutaway depictions seated in the center of the page. One showed how the trigger would discharge a round through a set of springs and a hammer, and two others detailed a series of magical current pathways that ran from a sleeve mount through the cylinder and barrel.

Finally, on the far right, Tail had provided a larger image of the cylinder’s magical circuit and how she intended to optimize rounds for the smaller caliber form factor. “We see,” Luna commented, finally breaking her contemplative buzz. “This design will require a large supply of refined augurite and a trusted mage capable of integrating the coils with the non-magical metal. The crystals for the smaller shells are not cheap either. Still, we will see what can be done—”

A single, loud thud rang from the laboratory doors. Luna hopped in place from the sudden sound, and Tail’s coat bristled in response to the intrusion. “Shit,” Tail gasped. She had pressed one of her hooves against the tuft of floof that occupied her chest. “I really need to install a sensor on the stairs or something.”

Tail popped out of the chair when another thud threw an echoing wave across the cavern. Wanting to prevent another soul-shivering sound from quaking her core, she unfurled her wings and quickly kited her way to the entrance. I wonder who could possibly have such an obnoxiously powerful knock, the narrator in Tail’s head pondered in an impressively sarcastic tone. She took up a defensive stance at the side of the doorway, deliberately out of the direct line of sight, and deactivated the locking mechanism.

“Ya didn’t fuck that one up, Barry,” Trigger’s quip rang out the instant a noteworthy crack appeared in the entryway. “Enough of your gritty, veteran paranoia must have rubbed off on her. She didn’t just stand in the vulnerable spot. A-plus shit, Flicker.”

“You’re just as paranoid as I am,” Barrier said as the breach continued to open. “And honestly, Tail’s intelligence has nothing to do with my level of… Holy Zacherle!” The stallion peered at the massive illuminated expanse and his breath hitched. Finding Tail amongst the angelic glow, he exhaled and extended his leg towards the space to silently ask the obvious question.

“Mm, it’s pretty big for my purposes, but the seclusion is nice for my research, and the walls are crazily reinforced. I guess the previous occupant also had some fairly insane clearance demands.” Tail smirked, scooted over to her stallion, and touched her nose to his. “Welcome to my Canterlot Lab, Magic Bear.”

“Thanks, Blanket,” Barrier quietly answered. “I’m glad I got to follow Trigsy down for my tour. It would have taken me another thousand years to find you again.”

“Oh Barry!” Trigger gagged. “I’m all for romance, but that’s just… just no. And don’t I get a little nose kiss too? After all, I carried down this big old crate from that mysterious previous occupant.”

Tail leaned to the side, catching Trigger with her gaze before she shifted her attention to the pony-sized wooden crate that rested next to the stallion. “Sweety, you can look, but only Barrier gets to touch.” She glanced at the stairwell for a moment and idly rolled her forehoof. “Unless it’s training related, of course. That might make things kind of difficult. Anyway, what’s the deal with this delivery I had to promptly receive?”

Luna approached with an equally inquisitive stare etched upon her countenance. Her brows were furrowed, and one of her ears had perked its way into a perfectly upright position. “Indeed, what nonsense is Sir Wing up to this time? Do I need to fetch my sister and have her check the royal banks?”

“I don’t know, Mes Étoiles. Ya tell me. There are about a million bits worth of purified augurite bars in this box and another two-hundred-kay in thaumium crystals. He just looked at me this morning, mumbled some scientific shit about an old Starswirl Grant on magic storage, and sent me on my way.”

“You literally know his mind better than anyone else!” Luna retorted while Tail just blinked.

“He wants good ponies to succeed,” Trigger answered with a shrug. “He’s been following these developments for a long time, and he’s just as good as Twiggles or Flicker when it comes to fitting jigsaws into the big picture. It’s just what he does.”

Tail just gawked at the crate and blocked out everything else around her. We were just talking about it. First, the lab space, and now the materials… Who is this guy? Why does he keep helping me? The odds of two related coincidences are low, but he is the head of E.I.S. He has to… Finally, she spoke up. “He knows.”

Day 78 — Today was relaxing compared to the insanity of yesterday. I mean, I guess it’s nice that I don’t have to write another grant request or battle the Canterlot aristocracy. Still, I don’t know how I’m ever going to repay this Wing guy. After dealing with the setbacks that led me here in the first place, a part of me wants to be skeptical. I hope it doesn’t come back to bite you, Future Me. I have hope, though. His wife is so nice.

Enough of that! This entry should be a happy one. The pinning ceremony for Indar and Bonecrusher happened this morning. I get giddy just thinking about it. Barrier looked amazing - like a stud - in his dress uniform. Indar formally accepted the transfer to officer school, and my bitch of a nemesis really has become my friend.

Tail stood behind one of the archway pillars that lined the field of Barrier’s Yard. She hid from the simple stage that currently occupied the center of the field. Though, she would have to conquer the 14-gauge steel support lattice soon enough. It was her next mission as a squadmate, and she could not let them down.

The pegasus cradled the box containing Bonecrusher’s pins, and she opened the lid to peer at the twin set of silver chevrons. Bonecrusher, under the Authority of the Royal Sisters, and at the recommendation of your captain, you are hereby appointed the rank of EE-4. Hereafter, you are to report to Canterlot Guard, Division 1. Your nation thanks you for your service, and your princesses recognize your dedication.

A commotion nudged Tail from her internalized rehearsal, and she quickly stowed the box beneath a wing. The familiar sounds of Princess Celestia and Barrier pulled at her senses—and equally pulled her out onto the field and into the morning light. She squinted thanks to the glimmering sun, but after her eyes adjusted, she took in the spectacle.

Celestia had arrived wearing a beautiful golden gown that flowed from her hips in a wavy cascade. The color was faint, which—in Tail’s opinion—was perfect as it did not compete with the alicorn’s already regal stature.

Barrier, for his part, looked as handsome as ever in his white dress uniform. There was something about the way that attire contrasted with his dark coat that made Tail’s blood rush to her cheeks. The blue trim on the jacket matched the base of his mane, and the decor of medals and golden buttons produced a portrait that seemed to come straight out of fantasy. Except, this was a fantasy that she could touch.

“Colonel Tail,” Celestia called after noticing her presence. The alicorn waved and smiled. “You look lovely this morning.”

Tail trotted closer to the pair and sheepishly shook her head. “Just normal dress blues, Your Highness”—she lifted her namesake to display the tattered makeshift ribbon that corralled her officer pins—“and the remnants of my old shirt. You two look incredible though. Your gown is really something.”

“Lies,” Barrier and Celestia responded in time, prompting the jolted pegasus to readjust her ruffled feathers. The two magic wielders briefly glanced at one another before Celestia took the reins.

“Your presence is a testament to your dedication. I’ve heard wind of your new undertakings and expect great things from you, Ms. Tail. The fact that you have swayed the opinion of a bitter rival is proof enough. You’ve shown you’re where you’re meant to be, and that is quite lovely indeed.”

Barrier snickered at Celestia’s eloquence as he leaned towards Tail. The unicorn held his muzzle to her ear and whispered, “But you do actually look lovely.”

The flier stretched a wing and pressed her feathers against Barrier’s face. “You’re going to make me forget my lines if you keep doing things like that,” she mumbled, blinding him with the onslaught of fluff.

“Soft feathers don’t make much of a counter-argument, Blanket.” Barrier slowly retreated, negating the blockade by simply moving out of its reach. “But we can save that discussion for later. We should probably get to the stage before our guests of honor show up.”

“Darn! That was the perfect shot!” a flamboyant squeal pierced the air, drawing the trio’s collective focus to the other end of the pitch. There, loitering by one of the castle walls, was a young pink unicorn mare. Her emerald aura clutched a camera with a telephoto lens, and her hoof frantically moved to brush the cinematic curls of her dark-blue mane.

“Did you hire a photographer, Tia?” Barrer muttered as his muscles pulled his lips into a thin line. His icy-blue gaze floated towards the diarch—where it was initially met with a shake of the head.

“No,” the princess eventually replied. “However, I wouldn’t put it past Luna. She was overdue for a good rest after spending so much time with her star scientist, but this particular project is quite dear to her…”

“Figures,” the captain sighed, strutting to the stage. “Well, it’s not like this is a confidential event, so what do I care?”

“That famous paranoia of yours back on display, Magic Bear?” Tail cooed as she took her position at his left flank. “I bet soft feathers are the perfect counter to that.” She draped her unoccupied wing over his back and scooted closer to her target.

“It’s only paranoia until you’re dead,” the stallion huffed, settling into the additional source of warmth, “but this is nice.”

“Make sure you get our good sides!” Tail shouted to the photographer before her laughter spilled out.

“It seems she’ll have plenty of opportunities.” Celestia gestured over towards the archways with one of her slender forelegs. “Our honorees are here.”

Tail craned her neck and peered in the direction from which she had come. Sure enough, Bonecrusher and Indar drew closer to the stage with every step. The former’s trot appeared to carry slightly more weight than that of her counterpart—as the crunching thuds into the grass produced pockets of discoloration that Tail could trace all the way to the stone walkway.

Both the lime-coated earth pony and the sandy-colored unicorn wore navy-hued dress uniforms, and both kept their motions swift and crisp as they maneuvered onto the raised platform opposite Tail and Barrier.

“Look at that,” Crusher quipped, her amethyst glare still trained to find her former foil. “Civvy’s already got Captain Barrier under her wing. Isn’t that some sort of deep pegasi courting ritual? And here I thought we showed up for something else.”

Indar flashed a halfhearted scowl and sighed. “You can’t help yourself, can you—even at an event that is literally for us? We’re in the company of Princess Celestia as well.”

Bonecrusher tossed her tail into an aggressive swish while she stared at the sun-maned mage. “We swam laps in her bathtub, Indar. There are lots of things that I’m just not going to give two shits about after that. No offense, Your Highness, but the sappy crap is low-hanging fruit compared to that.”

“Point taken, Private,” the alicorn answered, allowing a devious grin to blossom as she observed the officer couple. “Perhaps The Civvy and the Captain would make a fine addition for the Ponyville Theatre Troupe. I should ask the managers to pursue it. Of course, as payment for your input, we shall strike your initial jab from the record and proceed. After all, it sounds as though the rank of private no longer suits you.”

The earth pony did not miss the cue. She snapped to attention and held a salute, and it was not long before Indar did the same.

“Captain Barrier, Colonel Tail, you are both free to proceed. As a Princess of Equestria, I declare these festivities to be officially opened.”

Barrier gave a curt nod and slid out from beneath Tail’s wing. He approached Indar with measured steps and stopped within hoof’s reach. “Eh, I still am not one for many words in these situations. You came to me as a corporal with a good head on your shoulders, and during your time with me, you’ve only grown.” Using his magic, Barrier retrieved a pin box from within his uniform and carefully affixed the sergeant chevrons to the collar of Indar’s jacket. “Under the Authority of the Royal Sisters, you are officially appointed the rank of EE-5. I have already filed the recommendation that you start O.C.S. as soon as possible. That recommendation has been formally recognized.”

“Thank you, sir,” Indar spoke only after Barrier had lifted his leg to return the salute.

Tail smiled warmly at the scene. You really deserve it, Indar, she thought as the boys stomped their forelegs against the stage. She waited until Barrier had started his return trip before making her way towards Bonecrusher. Even amidst the regal glow of Celestia and the clicking of the camera in the background, it was hard for Tail not to be engulfed by the stare the earth pony was giving her.

For months, those purple eyes had been the bane of Tail’s existence. They had targeted her, judged her, homed in on her potential destruction. They belonged to a mare that had beaten the shit out of her—that had forced her to fight back like she never had. They had bitten into her when a snarling voice told her that she didn’t belong. Now, they were calling her forward.

Tail clutched the pin box with her left wing and rolled her appendage to cradle the package with an underside grip. “For about two months of my life, I genuinely believed that you were the biggest asshole that I had ever met.” Tail paused, peeking at the sly expression that emerged on Bonecrusher’s muzzle. “You rubbed me like nopony ever had, but you also pushed me to do better. And by the end, you came clean with me and had the backs of this squad.

“Under the Authority of the Royal Sisters, you are hereby appointed the rank of EE-4. Your orders are to report to Canterlot Guard, Division 1, effective immediately. Your nation thanks you for your service, and”—Tail affixed the corporal chevrons to Bonecrusher’s collar before she hugged the lime-colored mare—“I am so happy for you.”

Bonecrusher flinched at the embrace. She quickly drew a breath and released it in a slow hum that tickled one of Tail’s ears. “Civvy,” she whispered, “you were supposed to salute.”

Chapter 16 - I’m So, So Bad!

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The Phoenix Fire was as boisterous as ever. Guards laughed their heads off as pints flowed down their gullets. A cacophony of drumming filled the air as spurred ponies drove their hooves against the solid wood tables. All was normal aside from the bar, which had had all but five of its stools removed for the occasion. Trigger had reserved the center-stage spots earlier in the day, and now that the night had come, they were being occupied by the only ponies he saw fit to fill them.

Indar and Bonecrusher held the third and fourth positions, respectively. The honor of the middle chair went to the colt poised to make his officer-school debut, which was another custom that Trigger had made sure to enforce the second the quintet strolled through his door. Crusher took the spot to his right, where she found herself nestled between her squadmate and the honorable benefactor for the evening—the Princess of the Night.

“Alright,” Trigger spoke up, standing in front of Indar, “normally Barry would be the one paying the tab tonight, but since this is Mes Étoiles’s shitshow, she has agreed to pick up the bill. The bigger shitshow just might be how ya wake up tomorrow, Indar, but since you’re destined to be our newest officer candidate, you get the first call. What will ya be drinking?”

The sandy unicorn remained quiet for several seconds as he maintained eye contact with the enthused bartender. “Emerald Crown,” he answered in a stoic tone, his stare unwavering even as Bonecrusher offered a retch of protest.

Trigger tipped his Coltston and turned around to face the towering shelves of liquor. He spotted the bottle he was looking for, and in the blink of an eye, the bottle appeared in his grasp. “An absinthe,” he explained, gesturing to the rose-tinted glass. True to its name, the cap carried a metallic emerald sheen. “At least our boy is cultured.”

Barrier chuckled at the remark and watched as Trigger placed stemmed glassware in front of each of them. He moved down the line, pouring an ounce of the drink into each glass, and gave Tail and Bonecrusher scolding looks when they reached for their beverages prematurely.

“Fuck me, no wonder why ya made that noise,” Trigger groaned. “If ya drink it neat, it’s a burning mess, and there are far better drinks for that. Put your damn hooves down, fillies!” He promptly made another pass, setting a perforated spoon across the rim of each cup. Small cubes of sugar followed, finding their places in the cradles. The tender’s magic sprung to life, ensnaring cups of iced water in his aura, and for the next several minutes, the stallion took great care methodically placing drops over each cube until the sugar made its way into the absinthe below.

“Still keeping up with the practice, we see,” Luna chimed in a chipper tone before a beaming smile took root. “Even my sister might be impressed with that execution, and we both know how she can be with her traditional food and beverages—and desserts.”

“Is that why she was so keen on getting some of Barrier’s pancakes?” Tail asked with a giggle. She waved her hoof towards her glass and glanced at Trigger for some sign of approval that she finally had permission to drink it. However, when the creature of reverie nodded in Indar’s direction, she thumped her foreleg against the countertop.

“Tia is a wild child in many areas,” Luna answered, the seeds of laughter bubbling up around the fringes of her words. “But I’m afraid that cuisine is not one of them. She had her likes a millennium ago, and they have only deepened their hoofholds in the time since.”

“Eh,” Barrier grunted, “she probably just got used to my cooking when we were on the field together. Still, I wouldn’t advise coming between Celestia and her layered cakes unless you’re in the mood for a swift trip to the ground.” The captain slid his sights over to Indar. “And are you going to get to drinking that so we can partake? The night’s young but I’m not.”

That remark drew a nudge from Tail, who prodded the stallion’s side with the tip of a forehoof. “Sweety, please, you drilled the crap out of us for two months. Nopony should believe that, and I definitely don’t.”

For his part, Indar let out a low murmur. He was still gazing at the rows of liquor bottles in front of him. Though, he finally lit his horn and grasped the glass with a spell. “Apologies, Captain,” he said, pivoting his head towards Barrier as a toothy grin emerged, “I was merely taking in the company of my squad.”

“We could fuckin’ drink to that,” Bonecrusher grumbled, “if somepony would actually get to drinking.”

Indar levitated the glass towards his muzzle, hesitating only once the rim of the chalice reached his lips. “I could also be cruel and mutter something about your exuberant opinions. In fact, I think I have a few things to say. On our first day, I did have my reservations. Captain Barrier is a renowned officer, but my company offered mixed results, to say the least.

“Crusher, we’ve been around each other for a long time, and if I’m being honest, until recently, it felt like you had a chip on your shoulder that you just couldn’t remove. Tail, you were just a stranger. It was as if the whole affair followed a crazy script. Yet, here we are, and I’d like to think that we’re all the better for it.” With that, the earth-toned unicorn tipped some of the absinthe into his muzzle and unleashed a savoring purr.

“Smooth words from the upstanding candidate. The fates could have written a different path for this band. We knew risks lingered in the variety of personalities—from tranquil stalwart to brash hothead—but indeed, here we are in joyous celebration,” Princess Luna added before taking a sip of her own beverage. “We also think this is not too bad.”

A soft snicker dribbled from Tail’s tongue after she tried her own drink. “I’m not sure, Bonecrusher, but I think Princess Luna just implied that we are volatile.”

“Imply?” Luna retorted with a huff of feigned irritation. “The Princess of the Night need not imply. We can declare the truth when it is plain to us. The two of you are most certainly volatile.”

Crusher grunted. The mare was having none of Luna’s shenanigans as she lifted the base of the absinthe glass well above her muzzle and downed the refreshment without delay. “Yeah, yeah, I’m a real asshole. I almost got kicked out. Civvy almost got kicked out. Trigger can get this shit glass out of here and pull out the cinnamon whisky because that’s what we’re having next.”

Barrier silently stared. Bonecrusher silently stared. Indar had returned to another glass of absinthe, and Luna giddily clapped her hooves. The Phoenix Fire patrons were riled, filling the bar with boisterous cheers as a madly blushing Tail accompanied Trigger to push an upright piano out from the back.

The mare swayed atop her hind legs as she trotted, and bubbly giggles burst from her muzzle as her balance lagged about a half-second behind her wobbly strut. After a dozen more strides, with the piano settled into performance position in the center of the establishment, Tail hurled herself atop the wood and fashioned a mischievous, half-lidded glance that she casually tossed in Barrier’s general direction.

The pegasus lifted her foreleg and twirled a lock of her mane around the fluffy appendage before batting her eyelashes. She bit her bottom lip while taking in the image of a rather confused-looking Barrier. Confused, or maybe he just really likes the view… “Sweety, both Shining and Cadance wanted to hear me sing. Seems like you’re the one here for my debut.”

She didn’t wait for a response before whirling from her perch. To every eye in the place, it appeared as though the inebriated physicist was on the way to a clumsy meeting with the floor. All the guests of honor shuffled atop their stools, but it ended up being Trigger’s magic that caught the diving Tail.

The bartender promptly plopped her atop a bench he had placed in front of the keys. “The Phoenix Fire will not be held liable for injuries, Flicker—especially not ones caused by a patron jumping off my piano.”

Tail hummed as she lifted her head to meet Trigger’s paternal scowl. Her hooves struck a few of the notes, causing the crowd to settle down in anticipation of the entertainment. “Mm, thanks for the idea,” she mumbled while continuing to scour around for the chord she wanted.

A few misstrikes followed. There was a bogus B-major with an accidentally diminished third, and Tail’s gritting teeth would hold it against her for a minute or two. The D-major came out okay—at least if she counted hitting the C along with it as acceptable. I did no such thing. Eventually, however, Tail claimed victory. Her ears perked the instant her brain recognized that she had successfully, albeit timidly, played an E♭-maj7.

She struck it again. Louder this time, the act verified that the mare had scoped out the correct key. Tail’s namesake gently swept over the floor. She closed her eyes, blocking out everything she could, and inhaled. “Last dance… last chance for love…”

In an instant, a pin drop would have been heard amongst the audience. The guards refused to make a sound as Tail’s melodic voice permeated the room, and a few mouths hung open in the wake of the first several chords.

“Yes, it’s my last chance, for romance tonight… Oh, I need you, by me, beside me, to guide me. To hold me. To scold me”—Tail paused, opened her eyes, and turned her head to ensure that Barrier soaked every sultry beat that emerged—“‘cause when I’m bad, I’m so, so bad…”

She waggled her browline and giggled as a reddish hue began to shine through Barrier’s charcoal coat. The maneuver got a rise out of those in the building. Their silence swiftly ended, and in the echoes of their mounting hollers, Tail pumped up the volume and ramped up the beat. The timeless lyrics of Lady Summer and Humble Heights flew from her muzzle in an upbeat timbre that got several of the knowledgeable patrons singing along.

Tail turned back to the piano and marched through the chord progression with vibrant slaps on the keys. Elevating the pegasus, the music sent her mind soaring along with her wailed notes. She completely missed when the singing Princess Luna climbed on top of the instrument, and she didn’t sense when Indar slid onto the bench until his fur pressed against hers—and when he gingerly struck a few keys to join in on the performance.

Her sights snapped between the sandy unicorn and the boisterous princess. “What are you two—” The question didn’t escape in time. Barrier’s foreleg wrapped around her barrel, and in an instant, she had been plucked from her perch and hoisted up onto her hind legs.

“They’re taking over for you,” the captain quietly spoke into Tail’s ear as he kept her propped up with his reared posture. “Might be a little dated, but if you really wanted to dance, all you had to do was ask.”

The mare’s wings flicked as Tail’s body sought balance in the unfamiliar posture. A dopey grin spread across her countenance in the wake of a downright adolescent chuckle. “Well, I’m not much of a dancer, but I’m all for elaborate singing schemes if it gets me held like this. And, Sweety, it’s my sworn duty to introduce you to disco.”

Barrier shivered after Tail suddenly pressed a foreleg against one of his haunches. “Something tells me the dancing side of this disco will be a far cry from what I’m accustomed to.”

Tail relished the moment—or merely waited for the details to drift through her mind. Regardless of how much the booze was in play, she would save that analysis for later. Right now, she had a stud in her grasp, and his little vibrations betrayed any hope of concealing exactly how he felt about her touch. “Damn right it is, Magic Bear.”

With the next heavy downbeat, Tail was off to the races. She ignored the wail that exited Barrier’s mouth as she twirled him around. Her wings shot out in various directions to compensate for her legs’ compromised ability to keep her upright, and she swayed her hips to the rhythm. She separated from that warm coat of his and dropped onto all fours before her namesake slapped against his thigh just as Luna sang the so bad lyrics.

Barrier followed her lead in planting all four of his hooves on the floor. For several measures, he silently watched the rocking pegasus, who was snapping her limbs in frantic, vigorous thrusts that looked like the epitome of spontaneity.

They’re pretty good, Tail remarked to herself in regards to Indar’s piano skills and Luna’s booming voice. That spontaneous spirit had indeed taken her body by storm. She shut her eyelids and flipped both her mane and namesake to the music. Her hips continued to bounce and sway as opposing legs kick-stepped with the melody, and every now and then, she felt the heat of Barrier’s magical caress.

Tail reclaimed her vision to the sight of Magic Barrier’s paced advance. She beamed, noting how his strut mimicked the way she imagined her own moves. He strode up to her side and created a tidal wave of giddy chills that raced across Tail’s skin the instant he draped a foreleg over her withers.

“Let me take the lead for a while, Blanket,” he whispered into her ear as the tug of his hoof guided Tail into a semicircle that avoided one of the dining tables.

“Um… okay…” The mare had melted. A dreamy timbre saturated those two simple utterances. Its seed had been planted the second she had started singing the song, but its essence had been set free by the romantic glow of Barrier’s touch. Tail’s sights lazily wandered as the stallion carefully threaded her figure past chair after chair.

Occasionally, their legs would collide, sending Tail into a brief stumble that Barrier swiftly corrected. He carefully pulled her, corralled her, or spun her through every obstacle, and none of those events seemed to pierce the physicist’s bubbly veil until she realized just how far they had travelled.

When Barrier had plucked her off the piano bench, she had been standing in the middle of the floor—right beside their friends. However, after glancing up at the ceiling, Tail discovered that she and Barrier had made the voyage to one of the bar’s dimly lit corners. Muzzle slightly agape, the physicist succumbed to a realization that peeked over her emotional horizon. “I’m really drunk, aren’t I?” she admitted as her hind leg heedlessly bumped against her sturdy partner.

“Extremely,” Barrier chuckled, “but, knowing your tolerance, I’m hardly surprised. You don’t have to worry about it tonight. I got to you before you punted some of our colleagues.”

A torch in the dark, the statement yanked at the portion of Tail’s brain that had been lulled by the train of libations. Blushing, she faced the biggest shit-eating grin she had ever seen Barrier fashion. Liquid smugness could have manifested from a theoretical ether in the field of that toothy, handsomely suave visage.

“We’re never letting you drink again!” Bonecrusher shouted, easily conquering the Phoenix Fire’s raucous antics with her taunt.

Tail squeaked in response as the burning heat in her cheeks seemed to radiate to the very tips of her snout and ears. “I, uh, didn’t want to make a mess of things.” The scientist sheepishly munched on her own cheek while the attentive stare eroded at the behest of a softer, far more bashful demeanor.

“I may be a bit behind with the times, but I am pretty sure defending a lady’s honor still qualifies as excellent third-date material. You haven’t caused any trouble, and you won’t while under my watch. Besides, if you had actually caused trouble, Trigger would have kicked our asses out of here already.”

Tail’s tipsy smile returned. She interrupted his explanation with a boop to his snoot before she draped her muzzle over his shoulder. “Your first narrative was way better, Sweety. You should stick with that one. It’s that kind of affection that will make me live up to my pet name.”

Chapter 17 - All the Right Buttons

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“Are you going to, uh, ask me to pry you free this time?” Amora’s smug smile sparkled in the radiant beams of sunlight that poured through the windowpanes of her abode. She twirled her forehoof in anticipation and kept her attention solely focused on the occupants of the living room couch.

“Nope, not a chance,” Barrier answered. The stallion was thoroughly wrapped up in Tail’s legs and wings, for at some point while sleeping off the previous night’s stupor, she had decided—perhaps dictated—that he would play the part of Little Spoon. “I’m pretty happy with where I am for once, and with how much she drank last night, she might be better off not waking up just yet.”

The unicorn mare shuddered, and the muscles around her right eye began to twitch. “You’ve got some stories to tell me then. Tail and alcohol do not mix well, so if she had more than a shot, I know all bets on sanity are off.”

“Does convincing Trigger to roll a piano out from the back so she could sing me a song count as a story?”

“Yes,” the doctor responded, ignoring the bristling wave that rode down Barrier’s body as she enthusiastically plopped upon the padded ottoman. “Tell me everything.”

Barrier sighed. It did not help his case that Tail had unconsciously responded to his shuddering by tightening her hold. Her hum nipped at his ear as her forelegs clasped around his chest. The whole sight was, of course, met by Amora’s silent, glimmering gloating. “Not like I have anything better to do, I guess,” the stallion proceeded. “Night started out like most officer candidate send-offs…

“Indar chose the first drink, and then we went down the row. Wasn’t much of a surprise that things went downhill from there. Bonecrusher picked something hard. Tail got tipsy and started going on about how Cadance challenged her to sing, but the performance wouldn’t be for the Princess of Love anyway. And”—he paused, momentarily projecting a monotonous expression—“Trigger is a fucking enabler.”

Absentmindedly tracing shapes into her beige carpet as she listened, Amora tittered at Barrier’s editorial. “Especially if he senses that the end result is what the target truly wants. I wonder which happened first. Did the tipsy pegasus toss the idea at the barkeep, or did Trigger force her to act?”

A rumbling groan rattled in the stallion’s throat. “Definitely got baited after mentioning Cady. Though, I’ll give her credit. Once she was hooked, she was all-in. I’d put a few bits on even Bonecrusher being amused by the whole thing.”

“I don’t think what anyone else thinks particularly matters,” Amora replied, thumping her tail against the furniture with a rising assertiveness that mimicked the bite in her tone, “especially when it’s opinions from random-ass colleagues. I want to know what it made you think.”

“Like the sirens would have a run for their money against a voice like that,” Barrier spoke without missing a beat.

The abrupt delivery prompted Amora to lift her chest from the comfortable support. She rolled her head, banishing the waves of her brown mane from her back, and simply stared at the stallion in quiet amazement.

“And again, for the first time in a long time, I’m pretty damn happy.”

The medic perked up even higher before making a whistling motion with her lips. “Wow, the stern captain makes a clear declaration of his feelings. You know what? I’m just going to leave you two to this cuddlefest. Let me know when you both decide to go steady, and in the meantime, I’ll be in my room running a few self-diagnostics to make sure that I didn’t actually go comatose.”

Barrier smirked at the unicorn mare until she disappeared down the hallway. His cocky smile softened, casting a more contemplative demeanor as his horn lit. He loosened Tail’s vice-like grip just enough to spin around in her embrace, and his muzzle found a comfortable perch in the crook of her neck. “Going steady, hm?” he softly muttered. “I might need to brush up with Cady about those rules of engagement.”

“I feel like today is the perfect example for highlighting the benefits of living with a doctor who also happens to be your lifelong best friend,” Tail remarked as she descended the castle stairwell towards her lab.

“I just can’t believe you don’t have a day-ending hangover,” Barrier chirped, keeping pace at her side. “I’ve seen green recruits get shitfaced for days after jumping into a party like that.”

Tail cocked a mischief-loaded sidelong glance and homed in on her stallion’s figure. “Well then, Sweety, it’s a good thing I’m not a green recruit, now isn’t it?” The mare’s namesake swished as her teasing timbre reverberated along the spiraling stone shaft. “But in all fairness, yes, it’s totally thanks to Amora. Years of being in college as a student, followed by years of being at universities in a professional capacity, have greatly removed any desire I have to drink like that on a regular basis. It was just…”

“You wanted to preserve the tradition for Indar,” Barrier calmly interjected, “and I’d expect nothing less from you. But Amora seemed quite excited by the notion of you getting hammered, and that makes me think there’s more history to Blanket than she lets on.”

Once the couple reached the final step, Tail retorted with a gentle nudge against Barrier’s flank. “I do stupid shit when I drink, which I think was made pretty obvious by the whole singing and flailing thing. I’m sure you remember better than I do because the moments that aren’t blurred in my memory involve you keeping me upright.”

“Heh,” the unicorn grunted. “If we weren’t at the Phoenix Fire, I’d say something about a C.O.’s responsibility, but since we were, I’ll use date duty as my excuse. Also, your voice is pretty damn good. I don’t think anypony in there thought your performance was stupid, and if they did, I can always hunt ‘em down and make ‘em run laps.”

Laughing, Tail unlocked the door to her personal cavern before her impish tone snatched Barrier’s attention. “Is that your idea of chivalry, Sir Barrier? One could postulate that keeping a mare from stumbling over herself was a mark of friendship, but for all I know, such a noble deed could be central to your rituals of courtship.”

Barrier snorted again, shaking his head as he followed Tail into the lab space. “The old ways of courting wouldn’t be welcomed in today’s times. Between tribal traditions and wars, ponies weren’t as willing to waste time with prolonged affairs.”

“Is that so?” Tail asked, bounding over to the crate Trigger had brought down. She snatched a crowbar from the nearest workbench and pried open the lightly colored wood with an emphatic, ripping slam. “Well, then how did it happen?”

Sidling up to the mare, Barrier eyed the opened package and softly groaned. “Relationships often grew on the lines. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a pony to suddenly feel something had clicked with a comrade. So”—Barrier slowly drew a breath as a red hue began to spread across his muzzle—“the pursuer would challenge a prospective mate to a special duel, and if taken, the winner would, rather literally, claim the loser. I guess you could say it’s similar to the pegasus rite of under-the-wing…”

Tail’s sparkly scientific enthusiasm drained before she could even pull one of the captivating, meter-long augurite rods from its packed confines. Instead, her focus shunted directly to her captain’s tale, and following his words, she lingered in the burning heat that seemed to engulf her entire head. “When you say rather literally…”

“Lots of breeding. There were other things, but those preferences depended on the couple. Let’s just say that some ponies were very bold with their winnings. Claiming is definitely the proper term.”

The lavender pegasus stood silently. Her hoof hovered above the expensive pile of metal and crystal, but Tail was no longer in her lab. Her wings had exploded out of their stiffened shells, and she and Barrier were back on the field. Sweat poured from their coats as they tussled through grass and mud without a care for anything in the world beyond the test at hoof.

Caked to our fur as I push for the pin. Lightning flashed across the imagined landscape, and a heavy onslaught of rain bombarded their bodies as Tail straddled her splayed combatant. He was under her wing now, shielded from the torrent by the earned protection of her feathers. The grin of pride that split her muzzle was tamed only by the affection glimmering off his iris. She tugged a leash that popped into existence and watched as the thick blue collar around his neck lifted in kind. Mine…

Or not. The scenery had abruptly shifted before bright bands of moonlight swept over the pitch. Like a predator on a hunt, Barrier loomed above her prone figure and was silhouetted by Luna’s moon. His magical aura pierced the shadowy veil, and that familiar warmth coiled around Tail’s limbs. In the span of a blink, her forelegs were pulled behind her head, and her hind legs were pushed higher and higher until the stretched muscles could give no more.

Something soft was pushed into her opened mouth, but when she tried to ask him what he was up to, all that emerged was a timid Mmmf? The stallion approached at a painfully lackadaisical pace. Victory was etched into his confident smile as those lips came ever closer to her own. Her wings quivered uncontrollably in those infinitely dilated seconds, and she huffed—

“Tail.” Barrier gently tapped her forehead, shattering the delusions of fantasy and hurling her consciousness back into the present. “You okay?”

“Eeep!” Tail launched halfway to the ceiling with a single downflap of her wings. She gasped, squeezing her hind legs together while she glared at the perplexed stallion.

Barrier wore confusion on his countenance as he eyed the gliding pegasus. “I’ll take that as a no,” he answered, continuing to watch with a raised brow as Tail descended to the floor like a broad leaf milking its autumn fall. “Care to, uh, explain that one, Blanket, or should I take an educated guess?”

A sheepish splatter of chuckling accompanied Tail’s errant mane brushing. The pegasus wiggled her wings as she struggled to loosen the force that kept her hind legs locked together. “Mm, your educated guess would probably be correct. Something about that piece of historical information really pushed my buttons. Maybe it’s the competitive nature of pegasi at work, but I imagined all of it. Winning, losing, taking the challenge.”

“Ah, so I riled my little songbird.” Barrier let out a playful growl as he drew his muzzle towards one of Tail’s upright ears. “A part of me would love to challenge you right here and now. Then I could claim what’s mine.”

“Buck,” Tail whispered. Barrier’s sultry, husky, gritty whisper made the mare’s knees feel weak. She visibly shuddered from the notion, and the heated breath that emerged from her nostrils put the hairs on Barrier’s neck at attention.

“But I’m here to help you catch up on work today, Blanket, and after Amora brought up us going steady this morning, she might steal the win if we have such a battle now.”

Tail’s heart pounded. Her wings kept flicking about while each successive word broke her train of thought even more until the cognitive dam finally burst under the mounting pressure. “She did what!?” Those pesky wings snapped outward, providing a clear warning of the coming onslaught. “I can’t believe she would go there. Actually, no, she would go there after a few daaa— Wait! You want to go steady—”

“Spoilers, good doctor,” Barrier calmly spoke after he hushed the rambling pegasus with a simple boop to her snoot. “I have something in mind that I want to start putting together, so let me surprise you with this one. In the meantime, how about we get to work? Just tell me what you need me to do.”

Tail had carefully laid out a few rods of glistening augurite and a hoofful of thaumium crystals atop one of her workbenches. “The problem with augurite is that, since it easily conducts magical currents, it’s tough to actually manipulate with magic. I mean, one of the entrance examinations for Princess Celestia’s School of Gifted Unicorns includes a demonstration of augurite-related spells.”

The pegasus rummaged around under the tabletop and retrieved a hotplate. “Thankfully, it becomes more malleable under heat loads, so normally, I just expose the metal to a heat source and then shape it.” Tail ducked under the table surface and reappeared with protective mittens over her forehooves.

“These rods have the perfect diameter for making induction coils, so my first step is to make a bunch of different ones that we can test to measure the response. It’s probably all pretty dorky stuff to you, especially considering that you saw the end product. At this stage of the game, I have to worry about two responses: the resonance between the user and the ammo, and the natural resonance of the circuit. Only way to get the second one right is to brute-force the configuration map.”

“You don’t say?” Barrier replied as the whistle of his activated aura became audible. The blue arcs of his spell corralled one of the metal rods, and after a few seconds, the mage lifted the thin cylinder above the bench and began to warp the augurite into various spirals and wiggly shapes. “Looks like I’ve still got what it takes, so what kind of coils does my rambly little Blanket need?”

Tail gawked at the spectacle. Without saying a single word, she hurled the hotplate back into storage, internally praised the princesses because she hadn’t turned it on yet, and with equal flamboyance, atlatled her oven mitts across the room. “I don’t know how you’re so damn talented, but prepare your brain for dimensions, Magic Bear!”

The captain snickered as his lips drew a knowing smirk. “Well, I don’t know if I’m as talented as you think I am, but passing that test was what made Celestia put me on the executor track in the first place.”

Chapter 18 - Workbench 8

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A twirling pegasus danced around one of her workbenches and practically chirped in delight as she repeatedly settled her rapidly shifting gaze upon Barrier’s masterwork. He had expertly produced enough sets of coils that she could easily spend the entire day testing them all. While in Las Pegasus, Tail had never been able to make such requests. There was no one there who could control augurite to this extent, but now, Barrier had given her a whole slew of coil densities and spacings to examine.

“I think I’ll start by making a few T-shells for this,” she commented, immediately skipping off towards one of her waveguide-equipped desks. Her mane and namesake bounced to every hop, and she glanced over her shoulder again to share an appreciative smile with the far more stoic stallion. “It’s definitely easiest for me to extract my own innate magic. Though, I am going to have to deal with the smaller size of these waveguides again. I would ask if you could manipulate thaumium too, but I can’t let you do all the heavy lifting in my own laboratory.”

“Heh, wouldn’t dare question your drive,” Barrier spoke before he trotted forward and plopped down at Tail’s side. “Proved that point quite a while ago.”

Snickering triumphantly, Tail started arranging her space. She plucked a metal vice from the corner of the tabletop, moved it front-and-center, and slotted one of the thaumium crystals into the grip. Quartz-like in shape, the glassy gem radiated a bluish light that beckoned the physicist closer as it pulsed.

Of course, Tail obliged. Her hoof corralled a maroon toolbox from the right edge of the bench, and her head drifted towards the clamped jewel. Without looking, the scientist slid the lid off of the battered container and rummaged around until she managed to acquire varying scraps of sandpaper. “The game has just begun, my sweet thaumium,” she cooed, blepping at the crystal before she brought the coarsest grit to bear on the exposed surface.

Like a cat preparing to pounce, Tail primed her limbs. Her wings flared as she pushed the sheet against the gemstone, and then, it happened. Her hoof oscillated at a blistering pace, which produced waves of thaumium powder that collected around the vice. Occasionally, she reined in the debris by sweeping the bits into an accumulating pile near the center of the desk.

Barrier’s muzzle opened as he took in the spectacle. He loosed a rumbling groan and gawked at the mare’s leg. “Zacherle, you weren’t kidding about heavy lifting.” A buildup of static electricity arced between Tail’s feathers, prompting Barrier to lean away from the dangerous-looking display. “And is that normal?”

“Perfectly normal,” Tail tittered, grabbing a small water bottle to wet one of the finer-grit papers before she resumed. “I keep building the charge as I go so I have a reserve to fill the shell once it’s ready. The plus side is that I’m a lot stronger now than I was the first time I did this. Probably due to this hot captain I know.”

“Well, I’m sure he’s a fine, upstanding pony if you’re giving him that kind of credit. I would say you should introduce us, but I might get jealous.”

Briefly halting her sanding, Tail lowered her eyelids, curled her lips, and fashioned a sultry stare. “We’re way past introductions, Feather Boy, and given the number of dates we’ve had, you’ve reached dad-joke status far too quickly.”

The stallion straightened his posture, driving the mischievous curl of Tail’s smile to grow even more. “Well,” he coughed, “I guess that means we’ll just need another, which kind of fits with that surprise I need to put together.”

“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” Tail answered happily before she resumed her sanding and polishing. She hummed as she went, periodically rotating the crystal in the vice or swapping in a different grit paper to use. In the span of a few minutes, the speedy pegasus had transformed the jagged structure into a smooth cylinder that looked more like a glass rod than a gemstone.

She lifted the finished product with her hoof so Barrier could get a better view. With thin bolts of electricity still dancing along her feathers, Tail giggled until she stifled the building melody by biting on her lower lip. “Maybe I’ll polish you just like this after I win one of those duels.”

“Just as confident as the day you told me you couldn’t quit. Though, given your hoof action, I may have to go all out to preserve my health—or at least consult Dr. Amora for a high-quality lubricant.” The captain took a precautionary sidestep to give those sparking wings of Tail’s some deserved respect.

“I’m surprised you’d go to Ams for that,” Tail retorted before her giggles continued. She rolled around the side of the table and pulled a brass shell from her tiny tool chest. The crystal snuggly fit inside the metal vessel, which appeared to have thin, bare wires protruding from its unsealed end. “Figured Princess Cadance would be your go-to for something like that.”

“You’re not wrong,” the unicorn answered as he watched Tail turn her attention to the nearest waveguide. She disappeared behind the silvery bar that composed its primary structure, and within a few seconds, a heavy thunk momentarily derailed Barrier’s train of thought.

The mare popped her head above the boxy device and waggled her browline. “I feel like there’s a but to that statement. Also, I seated the shell to the output end of the guide, which means, we’ve reached the fun part again.” She shuffled along the length of the contraption, guiding her foreleg over the glinting rail. It curved once she passed the long end of the workbench, and that is where things got interesting.

The boring rectangular pipeline widened to join a dozen copper toroids laid out in series. Just as she had done for the downstream end of her apparatus, Tail allowed her foreleg to ride the crests and troughs of the RF-cavity until she reached the input terminal. The dark, gaping hole greeted the charged physicist. Its yawning expanse begged for energy, silently wishing to be put to the test.

Tail checked a couple levers that jutted out from beneath the nearest toroidal segment. Her hoof tugged on the black knobs that crowned shimmering chrome rods, and she released a grunt of approval before returning her focus to the cavity’s opening. Tail exhaled, closed her eyes, and carefully pulled her right foreleg towards her body.

Bands of vapor condensed and spiraled in the wake of the retreating limb. Her wings flared, provoking the accumulated charge to form streams that followed the ley lines of her weather magic. After a few seconds, the wisps coalesced into a single tuft that hovered just in front of Tail’s reach. With a gentle shove, the mare dumped all of her accumulated electrical energy into the puffy mass and forced the teeny, zapping companion into the first segment of the waveguide.

Yellow light poured from the opening until Tail threw the first lever into the upright position. A high-pitched buzz sprang into existence and quickly descended the frequency spectrum before a low purr penned the final note of the transfer process. After waiting a few seconds, Tail lifted the second lever and trotted to the output end of the pipeline.

“And, just like that, we’ve got a T-shell,” she announced triumphantly, hoisting the fully jacketed crystal to a height where Barrier could take in the view of his bubbly, leaping physicist.

Barrier smirked as his eyes trailed Tail’s hopping motions. “Why do I get the feeling that the science has only just begun?”

“Just hold still,” Tail commanded, approaching Barrier with a scheming smirk etched onto her muzzle. She had decided to don her lab attire after relocating to Workbench 8 with one of Barrier’s coils, the completed shell, and a box of miscellaneous trinkets. There was, however, something else on her mind that needed her immediate attention.

She watched the stallion, who, to his credit, did not shy away from the weight of her challenge. Nonetheless, the slight head tilt betrayed his curiosity, and the physicist used the opportunity to strike. With a whoosh of her wing, she revealed an unfurling lab coat that she draped over Barrier’s back.

He blinked as the fabric settled atop his withers, and he turned to acknowledge each of the leg sleeves that fell rather uselessly to his sides. Capt. M. Barrier had been embroidered with a blue thread that resembled the stripe in his mane, and Tail pointed out the labelling by pressing her hoof to his covered chest.

“I thought about going with Magic Bear,” she added through a quiet chuckle once the unicorn met her gaze, “but something told me that this was more professional.”

“I’m going to have to wear the goggles again, aren’t I?” By the time Barrier had slipped his forelegs through the pair of sleeves, the goggles in question were dangling from the tip of Tail’s other wing.

“You know it, Sweety. Lab bureaucracy was bad enough in Las Pegasus. The paperwork I’d have to fill out in Canterlot for a safety violation might just put grant applications to absolute shame.”

“Heh,” he grunted, retrieving the protective eyewear with his own namesake. “Might want to be careful around the nobles. They could easily give you as much paperwork for having an employee working off the books. I think you’d be surprised at how often payroll comes up in the—”

Tail snatched the fringes of his coat collar and pulled herself closer until her lips found his muzzle. With nothing left to hold, her feathers were free to flutter as she melted into a kiss of her own making. In that instant, he was a living contradiction—soft to the touch, firm in posture, a stud in white, and yet downright adorkable.

Her tactical retreat followed, fully accompanied by a brush of her tail that dragged along the underside of his muzzle. She could feel him lean into it as though he yearned for more.

“Like blueberries,” Barrier quietly mumbled before the sensation of taking a step forward jarred him to speak up. “Payment received, Blanket. If there is more of that in store, I’m definitely willing to see what comes next.”

“Glad I can count on you,” Tail cooed. “We’re definitely at a stage where it’s nice to have another set of hooves—and an extremely capable unicorn.”

She plopped down in front of the bench and got back to work by maneuvering her hooves through the assortment of goodies. Like a kid rummaging through a chaotic pile of building blocks, Tail dug in. Her namesake swished faster and faster as her enthusiasm built, and from the jumbled mess, she began to construct order.

The test coil was installed into a U-bracket mount that had been stolen—unceremoniously ganked—from a university gyroscope demo kit. Tail clamped alligator clips onto the terminal ends of the coil before feeding the attached augurite wires to a breadboard that had clearly yellowed from age.

“I think you might have one of those,” Barrier commented, taking a seat at Tail’s side as her hooves launched a second attack on the kit of goodies. “Though, you might want to explain to said unicorn what all of this stuff is because it just looks like salvage to me.”

Tail flicked some parts out of the way as she searched for what she was looking for. “Attenuators, resistors, and capacitors for the magic-carrying circuit. I made a bunch of these myself from thaumium dust, which is why I save the powder, by the way. Just trying to find the ones that I used for my last tuning test.”

Barrier’s right ear lowered as he slowly turned his head to face Tail. He stayed silent for a few seconds before the lack of noise beyond the pattering of parts crept into her awareness. “And what exactly does that mean, Professor?” the stallion asked once Tail cast her gaze in his direction.

“Hm, remember when I gave the filly-on-a-swing analogy for you controlling Luna’s residual magic? It’s kind of the same thing. I use my weather magic to swing the shell, but all these coils and the things we attach to them have their own tendencies. I need to tune the circuit to optimize the output so it’ll give the best response without blowing up in my face.”

Tail unleashed a triumphant squeal as she plucked two prized components from the stash and slapped them into sockets on the breadboard. The small cylinders didn’t look like much. Their shiny surfaces had been dulled with time—like a sterling ring that had inevitably lost its luster—and yet Tail couldn’t restrain her still-swishing namesake and flaring wings.

Much like their trip to Las Pegasus, this was an opportunity to show Barrier why she had worked as hard as she had. Grinding out these tests was an essential part of her research, and without him here, it’d be the most dangerous.

“Mm, I don’t like the sound of that last bit, myself. Doesn’t sound all that pleasant.” He hesitated, watching Tail ram a pair of antennas into the plugboard. “This is what made the princesses tag Amora as your medic, right? I’ve been thinking about your executor training, and I might want her to be on the field during our sessions once they get more intense.”

Quick, repeated gusts came from Tail’s nostrils as she quietly laughed. “You’d probably have to convince her that your yard was yours. I don’t know how you’ll get her to take orders from you every day of the week, but she is the best at what she does.” Grinning with pride and admiration for her longtime friend, Tail fetched a hollow stainless-steel cylinder from the junkheap and promptly married it to her T-shell.

“I dunno,” Barrier casually retorted as Tail slid the new union into the coil he had made. “I could go with the tried-and-true method of pancake bribery, and I only plan to work you three days out of the week anyway. Off-days can be used for recovery—they’ll probably be needed at first—or lab time if you’re feeling well.”

“That sounds like a great plan to me, especially if you’ll keep serving as my lab assistant.”

“Heh, you came into my world and held your own. Only seems fitting that I return the favor. Besides, there’s something special about seeing you do your thing.”

Tail froze after his words drew out that familiar, burning sensation. It enveloped her cheeks and swept up her perked ears, and she completely forgot that her foreleg was still hovering above the desk—or that her namesake had shot upwards in the wake of his compliment. For a moment, the experiment on Workbench 8, and its underlying question, evaporated from Tail’s consciousness. It had been replaced with a question weighted far more by sentiment and affection. Where has this stallion been all my life?

Chapter 19 - A Cadance of Sincerity

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“Buck!” Tail shouted as she hastily yanked her forehoof away from the sparking input prongs of the resonance circuit. The sleeve on her limb was dusted with soot as bands of lightning flooded the gaps between the shell cylinder and the coil — along with the windings of the coil itself.

Meanwhile, Barrier’s gaze narrowed. A vibrant, bright-blue wave spiraled along his already illuminated horn, and the protective spherical shield he had placed around the main body of Tail’s setup radiated with renewed vigor. His decision turned out to be the correct one, for the shell responded to the mare’s prodding by exploding in catastrophic fashion.

The casing and stainless-steel wrapping vanished in a ball of purplish light. The augurite coil snapped after producing a menacing whine, and chunks thudded against the stallion’s spell before they rattled against the bottom of the container like the thrown toys of rambunctious foals. Smoke clouded the domain, hiding the frayed ends of the wiring from the observers’ varied views.

Barrier bit down on his tongue and grimaced while he peered at the surface of his magical craft. Tail, on-the-other-hoof, silently cast her own charm through an inquisitive expression that drove her to reach for a quill.

“Well shit,” she added with an extra harrumph for good measure. “I really am going to have to make a new batch of resistors and capacitors for this.” She jotted down a few notes on a pad of paper and glanced towards Barrier.

A bead of sweat rolled over his furrowed brow before he released an exasperated sigh. “That one packed quite the kick, Blanket. I know I shouldn’t expect surprises from you anymore, but you really made me work that time.”

Slouching, Tail sheepishly brushed the burnt metal debris from her coat as her namesake gently swayed. “Yeah,” she admitted in an apologetic tone, “if it weren’t for you, I’d probably have to endure another lecture about safety from Amora. Then again”—the mare’s posture straightened, and the timbre of her voice abruptly shifted towards that of a chipper songbird—“having you here kind of fulfills all of those safety considerations. And thanks to you, I know what my next step needs to be.”

She leaned towards Barrier and pecked the side of his muzzle. “But I’m sorry you had to work so hard. I’m fine with calling it a day here. Could get some food, relax, or perhaps you could tell me more about these fancy duels of yours.”

The unicorn snorted in response to the sultry murmur that punctuated Tail’s list. “Keep that up and I might just start thinking there’s a kinky mare under all that science.”

“Sweety, you should know that pegasi are very possessive of their perches. I may be a nerdy physicist, but those displays of dominance are still laced into my genetic code.” She paused, taking the reprieve to very visibly ogle the contours of his body. “And, if I’m being openly honest, you’re one fine perch.”

Barrier lifted his left forehoof and rubbed the back of his neck. His eyes wandered, drifting from his spell to the corner of the table, over Tail, and finally to the floor. With a small pop, he teleported the confined smoke from the premises and placed the coil fragments on the tabletop before cancelling the field. “Heh, down girl. You’re not the only pony with a history of strong displays. Though, I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. I’d like to swing by Cady’s place to have a chat with her about just how I’m supposed to surprise you with a plan when you know it’s coming. After that, I could head to you and enact my equally stealthy scheme to win the medic over?”

“That works for me,” Tail snickered while she played with a lock of her mane. “I wouldn’t want to intrude on such a sensitive mission when it is clearly a personal assignment that involves royalty.”

Barrier paced around the sitting room of the Cadenza Estate as he waited for Cady to arrive. The room was outlandishly pink, with every wall prominently featuring the principal color of the princess’s coat in large rectangles bordered by gold filigree. In his own time, this would have likely been considered the most coltish paint job on the property—a fact that still made him double-take whenever his glances settled on one of the many heart-themed sofas.

Twilight hues poured through panes that stretched from the floor to the ceiling between cream-colored wooden beams. The light toyed with the golden accents that decorated the ceiling, creating a shimmering fire pit of imagined embers that added to the chamber’s vibrancy.

The stallion chuckled as he made another round past the largest sofa, and after a few more steps, a contented hum seeped from his muzzle.

“You know you can sit on them…” Cady commented after she entered through a smaller doorway that faced the interior depths of the manor. “You don’t have to wait for me to get here to do so.”

Barrier patted one of the cerise cushions and shook his head. “Daring to sit before the Princess of Love chooses her seat? Did you mistake me for Blueblood?”

Cady halted her trot and scrunched her muzzle. “Please don’t insult my intelligence, Sir Barrier,” she answered through hushed laughter. “It would be impossible for me to mistake the aura of your love, the love of family, for somepony who only expresses genuine love for his reflection.”

“A thousand apologies, Your Highness,” the unicorn replied, taking a deep, theatrical bow after a teasing smile graced his countenance. “I would never dream of such a thing, for you married into my house. Now, you are family, and—”

“Your honor is my honor,” Cadance tittered. She resumed her trot and plopped onto the nearest seat with a soft thump. “This is exactly the kind of stuff that makes the grandpa nickname stick. Though, I’ll give Tail total props for her contribution to the cute nickname collection. Good energy in that one.”

Barrier nodded and moved to take a seat at Cadance’s side. “And she’s the reason I’m here. You married a nerd. I’m dating a nerd, and after a few dates, I’ve realized something very important.”

“Oh?” the alicorn asked, her pitch riding the rising tide of curiosity. She twiddled her hooves and turned her head to address her relative with a greater degree of intimacy. “And what might that be?”

Holding his stoic captain’s demeanor, Barrier took a deep breath. “No point in beating around the bush about it. I don’t know how to formalize a relationship in this era. Traditions have changed, so I need to know how to properly move things forward without fumbling it all.”

Even though Cadance held her silence for several seconds, the Princess of Love hardly remained still. Her twiddling stopped—only to be replaced by a strengthening vibration that got the mare bouncing atop her sofa. The oscillation continued to increase the brewing tension until she finally squealed with delight, “You’re going to ask her to be your marefriend?”

“Don’t have to mince words. That’s the idea, yeah.” Barrier leaned away from the high-pitched soundbox and countered the exuberant alicorn with a raised brow.

“Don’t stop there!” Cady’s wings flared in anticipation, and she promptly closed the distance between herself and Barrier by scooting sideways over the plush cushion. “Tell me what you want to do. No elaborate plan or scheme. Nothing over the top. What would Magic Barrier do?”

“I’d grab my sport jacket and take her to Pop’s,” came the answer with little delay. “We’d have a nice dinner, and I’d tell her that I enjoy our time together. Maybe I’d give her a batch of her favorite flowers, and then I’d say that becoming her coltfriend would be worth all the teasing and knowledge dumps she has to offer.”

Thoughtful nods consumed Cady’s motions. “Okay, okay,” she mused. “Just so we’re clear. If there were an elaborate scheme, I’d expect you to ask her to be your marefriend while dressed up as a teddy bear so you could be her super sweet Magic Bear. But”—she tackled him into a hug—“your plan sounds perfect to me. Just do that.”

Freed from the confines of her laboratory and all its associated safety apparel, Tail trotted towards home. Hints of a nighttime chill began to emerge as the capital city sat drenched in twilight hues, but neither the fiery tones nor the whipping breeze could distract the mare’s mind from the time she had spent with Barrier.

He’s really something, she pondered, mentally recapping the unicorn’s exploits. Easily manipulating augurite, saving me from an eternity’s worth of additional shield fabrication… She bit her lip and purred. ...introducing me to the concept of that duel.

The curiosity surrounding Barrier’s not-so-secret meeting with Princess Cadance brought a blush to her muzzle. Rather pointlessly, the physicist tried to decrypt the details and wondered what sort of event Barrier would construct with such an experienced guide. Of course, those explorations were short-circuited every half block or so—when Tail’s brain returned to the root notion that Barrier actually wanted to take that next step.

Her forehead buckled under the weight of a sudden scowl. An instant comparison had been made that tossed her focus to the years gone by. Tail’s last serious relationship hadn’t exactly been a good one. She was young, naïve, and more passive at the time. That stallion really wasn’t a good fit for her, and her friends and family knew it. She’d been told time and time again that something was off, but a younger Tail didn’t heed the warnings. That shadow made her laugh. That shadow made her think he cared.

“Hey! I think he went this way!” A trove of young mares skittered down the lane, rushing off in a pastel scramble that registered only as a quiet murmur and a blur to the pondering physicist.

In the end, the shadow hadn’t cared much at all. In his eyes, her projects amounted to nothing more than backburners—things she had to quit if the void needed to nurse on more of her attention. Tail’s blood simmered over the heat of that bullet point. She detested quitting. She detested bailing on things that mattered to her. The darkness had repeatedly demanded it, but Barrier challenged her to break it.

Barrier had broken her scowl too. A single sentence drifted about her thoughts and slapped a smile on her face. “There’s something special about seeing me do my thing, huh?” she giggled, emerging from her deep dive as she set a forehoof on the step to her home.

The world was suddenly present again, greeting Tail with a peculiarly crowded street that had flocks of fillies dashing around for no discernible reason. The spectacle drew another round of laughter from the perplexed Tail, who simply shook her head in bemusement while she reached for the door latch. “I think I’ll leave this one to Ams.”

Whatever was going on in the road was the least of her concerns. There was a more pressing matter to attend to, and it evoked a lesson imparted long ago by the wisest scientist in her early life. Deeds, not words. “You can plan all you want, Magic Bear, but I’m not going to sit on my haunches,” she whispered with an intense enthusiasm as she pushed her way through the doorway. “I’m going to surprise you too.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever you say, Amsy!” a silky masculine voice tumbled down the stairwell. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Tail stopped on the landing and peered up the carpeted stairs. Her ears flicked upright as the timbre of the voice made her wings flutter, and she promptly pushed the door shut without giving the action any degree of consideration.

“I’m serious, my guy,” Amora answered the visitor. “She’s gained a lot of skills that would probably blow your musical mind, and that doesn’t even cover the biggest surprise of all. Now, if you were anypony else, I’d gossip about it for days, but B.F.F. rules strictly prohibit information sharing with little brothers.”

Tail’s feathers whipped downward, propelling the pegasus to the top of the staircase in a single bound. She landed on the soft carpet with a thump as the generated gust still swirled around the confined space, and her sights immediately homed in on the stallion sitting on the couch. “Sincy,” she uttered in a hushed breath while her brain churned to process just how the unicorn had shown up in her home.

A frost-blue foreleg brushed aside a renegade clump of dirty-blond mane. The stallion swept the gently curving lock back again before his brown eyes met Tail’s gawking stare—and then proceeded to meander over the flier’s bulked-up muscles. “Shit, Sis, you look great! What in Tartarus have you been doing here?”

Tail tilted her head as she watched her comfortably reclining brother. “What in Tartarus have I been doing?” she regurgitated while dramatically waving her foreleg. “Sincerity Syncopated Chain, what in Tartarus are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be on tour with Barley?”

Both Amora and Sincy snorted, but it was Tail’s sibling who spoke up first. “Canterlot tour dates, Tail. Barley’s probably fumbling around our hotel room right now. He usually freaks out the day before shows, but we’ve got a meeting with the princesses tomorrow about potentially doing a Gala set, and the poor guy has lost his freakin’ mind. Your whole sabbatical thinger probably skewed your date matrix, or whatever science name you give it, but here I am, trying to visit my sis.”

He paused as a chocolatey glow twirled around his horn, and soon after, a rolled-up newspaper appeared from the gap between the couch and the ottoman. It unrolled to reveal the boldface headline, Tower 41, and the picture of the full squad gathered on the ramparts. “There’s also this whole thing where I learn my little professor is also an ass-kicking colonel, which is worrying her mother sick, by the way. Is this that news Amsy was talking about?”

The younger brother had all the dramatic gestures to match Tail. He repeatedly prodded the newspaper as an inquisitive, quirky glare manipulated his countenance, and the inclusion of a stressed hum made it clear to the pegasus that her pop-star brother was not inclined to retreat.

“Sincy, you knew about my officer commission. Mom also knew about my officer commission. It was the whole reason for my sabbatical in the first place, so I don’t know what the big deal—”

“You’ve become a fucking badass and didn’t tell me!” the stallion interrupted, shaking the Canterlot Chronicle with his magic. “Now I have to see all these moves. Maybe there’s something I can work into a show or some out-of-this-world inspiration right at my hooftips.”

Tail slammed her hoof to her forehead and groaned. Her eyes tightly shut, and she vigorously flicked her namesake. “Celestia, help me, you are incredible. You’re seriously coming at me with that as the basis of concern? You want moves.”

“He’s always wanted moves, Honey,” Amora quipped from her sideline seat on the couch. She batted her eyelashes as both members of the brother-sister pair shot the medic glances. “You two are definitely cut from the same cloth. Just a matter of stitch.”

Sincerity Chain dropped the newspaper on top of the ottoman and rolled onto his hooves. He stretched, cracking his neck in the process, and successfully recaptured Tail’s focus with a satisfied moan. “It’s not just about the potential moves,” he admitted before adopting a far more sheepish tone. “SincyStar needs another servicing, and I’m not about to trust my precious to anyone else.”

Tail crept forward until the distance between the two had evaporated. She pressed herself into his lemon-scented coat and wrapped her forelegs around his body. “You’re such a dork,” she commented quietly as he embraced her with an equally squeezy hug. “You just leave SincyStar to me, and I’ll get him right as rain. As for my, uh, big news, I started dating a guy, and I think he’s amazing.”

Chapter 20 - SincyStar and Day -9435

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Settling on the floor in front of the ottoman, Tail hunkered down for another scientific pursuit. She had collected all of the tools she would likely need for this job. Her in-home junkbox also found its place at her side, and within the tattered cardboard confines, there were a plethora of electronic components that she could use if her first invention needed more serious maintenance.

Between Tail’s sprawled hind legs, a colt-sized gold and black keyboard synthesizer awaited the touch of its creator. A metal-plated plastic logo showed its wear as patches of black battled the chrome SincyStar. “He’s held up pretty well considering how long you’ve been toting him around. Dad really did an amazing job with the casing.”

“Yeah, he did,” Sincy added, leaning over the cushiony top of the ottoman after he claimed it as his perch. He briefly sucked on the inside of his cheek as his horn lit, and in a few seconds, he had a bright-blue hairbrush hovering over Tail’s mane. “And you did an amazing job with everything else.”

Only the two of them remained in the living room after Amora made a retreat to her own space. This was one of the few times brother and sister got to bond on the same plane of existence, and Tail was silently thankful that she didn’t have to make an awkward conversation out of it.

“I did my best,” she answered before flipping the power switch. A pair of speakers barely hidden beneath the plastic grill crackled to life, and Tail pressed a few of the piano-style keys while her ears swayed to the synthesizer’s incredibly smooth timbre. She closed her eyes once Sincy guided the bristles into her mane, and she lightly hummed as soft pops pattered along the pulled fibers. “Keys feel okay, and the notes still sound alright. What do you want me to do with him?”

Bashfully chuckling, Sincy rubbed his head as his magic kept the brush dutifully attending to Tail’s mane. “I think I’m out of the smooth, jazzy phase. I want to explore a hotter sound to go along with Barley’s guitar work.”

The pegasus carefully flipped the synthesizer and yoinked one of her screwdrivers from the assortment of tools. With the removal of six screws, Tail had exposed the interior electronics. She pursed her lips at the scene, a clustered jumble of components shoved into breadboards—and a spider’s web of wires to boot. “Are you sure you don’t want me to redo all this? I could solder something—”

“No,” Sincerity cut her off as he guided the brush through another section of Tail’s messy mane. “I know you could make something better now, but that’s not the point. This gift got you your cutie mark. It’s been here for me my entire career. Besides, why would I ever replace my boy’s heart and soul when I can always use him as an excuse to drag the nerd out of her lab?”

Tail’s sights raked over the circuits. As a six-year-old, she had actually done a fairly decent job organizing the components in a way that made future service easy. The 4.5-volt bias rail was fairly accessible, and there were plenty of open sockets on the breadboard to wire something between the signal input and the speakers.

“I guess it would also make getting the hair brushies more difficult if I had to fiddle around with a soldering iron every time. You’ve also taken good care of SincyStar, seeing as how we’ve yet to have a component fall out during any of your travels.” Rummaging around the box, she plucked out a couple op-amps, three potentiometers, four 1N4148 diodes, and a crapton of resistors and capacitors. “Why don’t we try a Lord Loud Blues Breaker setup then?”

“How do you just know what to grab?” Sincy asked incredulously. His voice shot up the scale, and his attention to Tail’s manecare plummeted while he gawked at his sister’s speedy snatching.

“Sweety, please. Even my filly self knew that my cute wittle baby brother would grow up to be a star. That’s why I put it in the name.” Her teasing inflections yielded to a low purr that rumbled once Sincy resumed the gentle strokes. “I know because I researched the diagrams for every amplifier distortion circuit I could find. Ponies change, so do tastes. I didn’t want to look like an idiot when you came knocking. We also made a promise.”

Day -9435 — Tail slowly shuffled her way from the backyard shed towards a small brown-brick home. She could only use three hooves for this daunting journey across the green blades of grass that stood between her and the back porch. Her fourth leg was too busy holding onto her first real invention.

Boisterous, joyous laughter emerged from the towering frost-blue stallion at her side. “You got it to work all by yourself!” he hollered with an infectious pride that made Tail’s heart pound. “Sync is going to love this. I’m so proud of you.”

Tail pouted from the heat that poured into her cheeks. She didn’t like stepping under the spotlight—at least not when she didn’t earn it—and in this particular instance, she hadn’t even given the gift to her brother yet. She certainly hadn’t built it all by herself. “You helped too, Daddy, but I hope he likes it,” the freckled pegasus answered. Her volume dwindled as she spoke, and the careful shuffling continued until the moss-covered planks of the porch presented the most troublesome challenge thus far.

Thankfully, as the little tinkerer pondered the next move, her father took action, cradling the filly in his magic before he carted an eeping, chirping young scientist into the house.

Whatever surprise plan Tail had intended to execute at that moment went out the window—and was lost to history. Sincy was already firmly entrenched in the middle of the room in a fortress of striped cushions that rose above the barren landscape of a grey rug. Of course, the second the newly minted four-year-old spotted Tail, he burst from the castle in an explosion of black, white, and gold.

“Is it ready?” he asked, his r sounding a whole lot closer to a w. His brown eyes shimmered in anticipation as he watched his dad gently place his sister down on the carpet.

Plopping to her haunches, Tail nodded and set up the SincyStar on the floor. After spending a moment adjusting the annoying double braid that her mother insisted she wear, Tail flicked the power switch and timidly pressed a few of the keys to show her younger brother that the instrument could generate all those piano sounds he had grown fond of over the last year.

The colt squeed and immediately made grabby hooves for the toy of his dreams. He squeed again when he read the silvery letters glimmering atop the synthesizer’s front plate. “Tail, this is so cool! And it has my name on it and everything!”

His hooves could not descend on the keys fast enough. The instant Tail had spun the contraption around for Sincy, he pounded away with a reckless, happy abandon that made the pegasus wince with every strike.

“Sync,” their father spoke with enough sternness in his voice to prod both of his children to look up. “Your sister put a lot of work into that for you. It’s not like the other pianos you’ve played. This one is one of a kind, so you should treat it with care. You wouldn’t want it to break now, would you?”

As much terror as a four-year-old could muster assaulted the colt’s countenance. His muzzle dropped and his eyes widened until his pupils looked like the teeniest of pinpricks in a mostly white field. “You’ll fix it for me if it breaks, won’t you, Tail?” Sincy sounded as though he were on the verge of tears. “I’ll treat it better than I’ve treated anything! I promise! But… if something happens, how would I fix it?”

Tail blinked at her flustered brother.

“I’ll sing anything for you!” he pleaded with her when she didn’t respond with words.

“You’d sing for me anyway, Sincy. You’re a little rock star. That’s why I put it in—”

“I need to know you’ll fix it for me!” the borderline cry made Tail recoil, and she instinctively flicked her namesake in response. Seemingly waiting for an answer, Sincy maintained his stare until the shared anxiety forced Tail to fuss with her mane again. “I’ll brush your hair if I need to bug you about it!”

Tail stepped forward and ruffled her brother’s mane. “Just be gentle with it, but if you need me, I’ll be here.”

The colt pushed up with his hind legs and wrapped Tail in a hug. She flapped her wings for balance as the duo embraced over the instrument. “You’re the best sister ever,” he mumbled into her lavender coat. “You’re so smart, and we’re going to keep this deal forever, and I’m going to write a million songs on your present! Just you wait and see!”

Tail seated the output cable and smiled. She’d managed to clean up some of the chaotic wiring on the breadboard, and in her mind, that made up for the lack of solder or a more professional-grade P.C.B. Of course, that whole notion was made rather pointless by Sincy’s strong argument. The two had struck a deal, and the pleasant pricks of the bristles through her mane provided evidence for the agreement’s success.

“I wonder if I could deploy combat-ready sockets,” Tail mused through a quiet mumble as she extrapolated the breadboard concept to a more sturdy option for her revolver’s augurite layout.

“I know my fans are a bit crazy, Sis, but I don’t think SincyStar needs combat equipment,” the colt countered as he shifted the brush to comb the hairs that ran towards her crest.

Feathers flicked and Tail’s ears perked as she squeaked. “Uh, right, definitely not relevant. I started thinking about work again, and my mind wandered.”

“Heh, don’t wander too far, or else I’ll never hear a word about this amazing stallion you’re dating.” Halting his speech, Sincy quickly moved the brush from Tail’s mane once he saw his sister leaning for a permanent marker. Once she returned to an upright position, the fermata broke to a taunting, singsong tenor. “So, spill the deets! I promise I won’t tell Mom!”

“Please, that just means you’ll tell Dad right away, and he’ll be the one that tells Mom.” She eyed a string of little notes her previous selves had written onto the underside of the plastic lid. Six, ten, sixteen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty-five… Her younger versions had all done what they could to keep her gift going—to help her brother explore sound in a way that wasn’t unlike her pursuit of science. She purred as she jotted something down and set about closing up the little synthesizer.

“Well, without going too deep into work stuff, some of the higher-ups in the E.D.F. were not too thrilled about me. They tried to weed me out by having me go through basic combat training to solidify my commission, but Princess Luna pulled some strings to up the ante. Passing my B.C.T. meant my work became mine.”

“Whoa, that sounds kinda brutal,” Sincy added while he continued to masterfully maneuver the bristles through strands of Tail’s mane. “Guess it explains why you look so toned now, but it still doesn’t explain who this guy is or how you met him.”

“I’m dating the captain who trained me.”

Sincerity drew enough air to audibly gasp. The brush fell from his magical grasp, and he leaned across the furniture to greet the turning Tail with a jaw-dropped, gaping maw. “You’re dating a guard captain!? What the heck? Whatever happened to the nerdy science partners?”

Gagging, Tail squinted and shook her head. “Never again,” she blurted. “Every single one of those relationships turned into the kind of competition that wasn’t fun. There was also never an escape from the job. Every date descended into talking about the grind. There was no growth, no narrative, no story. With Barrier, there are more words than I know what to do with.

“When I started training”—Tail humphed as she tightened the final screw against SincyStar’s backplate—“things were so different. I trotted into a world with no experience, and nothing there was given. The struggle was real, and the number of times I got my ass beat or outclassed by my squadmates would make you cringe. But after spending two months with Barrier, something about being with him just clicked.”

“She wants to fuck him!” Amora shouted from her room, sending the pegasus into a sputter of random syllables and flailing feathers.

“You literally told him as I was walking in the door that you don’t gossip to little brothers!” The mare plopped her head into her forehooves and sighed. “I swear. Sometimes, it is impossible to believe she is an extremely qualified medical professional.”

As waves of laughter flowed down the hall from Amora’s domain, Sincy shrugged off the exchange and moved around the ottoman to take a seat at his sister’s side. “That’s fine and all,” he commented in a more subdued tone. “I want to know how he makes you feel.”

A brown iris peeked out over a fluffy fetlock, and for a while, Tail simply gazed at her brother. There were many ways she could fashion a response. The subjects of quitting, the battle with Bonecrusher, the outings at the Phoenix Fire, and the exam preparations all paint a clear picture. She watched as Sincy tilted his head more and more through the silence. His ear started twitching as though his need to be filled by sound soared to new heights.

But he won’t learn from a list… The scientist emerged from her self-cocoon and shifted her gaze from Sincerity Chain to the SincyStar. She reached out, flipped the power switch again, and positioned her hooves to hit a G5 chord. The distorted notes emerged with an edgier bite, and instantly, Sincy jerked forward and brightly smiled.

“Wow! You really hit the sound right on the head. Maybe we can tweak the pots and get even more out of that new addition.” He glanced up at the ceiling and pushed both of his forehooves through his mane. “I don’t know how you do it every time.”

Ignoring that line of thought for the time being, Tail tested both a D and a Cadd9 before she gave the colt a brief look. She kept cycling between the three chords, and by the third repetition, the physicist started singing with enough sass etched onto her voice to match the overdriven synthesizer. “Well, you put your shields up when others couldn’t collect—those burdens endured commanding my respect. Now I’m reaching out... ‘cause you’re no longer displaced.”

Sincy froze with his hooves still pressed against his head and his back arched. Tears welled up as the musician absorbed what Tail had offered. “You started composing again,” he breathed before awkwardly slouching over the furniture like a cooked noodle, “and that fight in your singing voice carries so much weight. You’ve got to let me help you with this, and I have absolutely got to meet this guy.”

It was Tail’s turn to jolt—twice, in fact. The first came from the thought of working on a musical piece with her brother again. For the shortest of moments, a relatively unpleasant memory came to mind. That spotlight was his, after all, and the only time she tended to step into it came when she got exceptionally drunk.

The second jolt was driven by a far more pressing matter. A sheepish smile tugged on the corners of Tail’s lips as she passed the SincyStar towards the colt. “About that,” she shyly tittered, “Barrier is actually coming over tonight.”

“Oh my gosh, be normal!” Tail shouted as she opened the door to let Barrier inside. Her ears immediately drooped once her brother crowded the landing and practically draped himself over her back. “This is definitely not normal…”

“Tail!” Sincy cried as his sparkling eyes met Barrier’s icy-blue gaze. “You said he was a captain! You didn’t tell me you were dating an adonis!” The frost-blue stallion teleported to the top of the stairs, and a pair of aviator-style shades suddenly sat atop the bridge of his muzzle. “Hey there, Stud. I see you’re a unicorn, but I’d guess pegasus because only angels have wings.”

“Sweety, that’s not even factually accurate!” Tail groaned as her wings began to rapidly flap. “And hitting on the colt I’m going out with—or whatever the fresh hell that was—is still not normal. You’re acting even worse than Ams.”

Barrier’s sights wandered between his agitated Blanket and the stranger at the top of the stairs. “Do I even want to know?” he whispered to Tail. “I brought the cherries and baking supplies as an offering…”

“He’s just— I— I don’t even know. I tapped into some emotional nerve, and now he’s high on the mere thought of meeting you.” Exhaling slowly, Tail puffed her cheeks and homed in on Sincy with an anguished scowl. “Barrier, this is my little brother, Sincerity Chain. Most ponies call him Sync for short, and I promise, most times he’s not like this. Sincy, this is Captain Magic Barrier. I’d like to continue to make sweet music with him, so if you wouldn’t mind cutting the hyper overdrive, I’d appreciate it.”

Sync pulled the shades from his face and grinned wildly. “Sorry about that, Sis. The vibes are strong, but I’ll do what I can to keep ‘em in check.” The colt tapped his hind leg as he slightly pitched his snout in Barrier’s direction. “And it is a real pleasure to meet you, Captain. Tail made it very clear to me how much she values your company.”

Chapter 21 - M.E.T.H.O.D.

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Tail sighed as she trotted through Canterlot in the pre-dawn hours. Light from the rows of streetlamps bounced off Sally’s sleek metal curves, but that bouncing failed to match the exuberance with which Sincerity Chain darted around his armor-clad sister.

The physicist had managed to navigate through the first night of Sincy’s visit. She had endured the banter between brother and boyfriend that would make most mares tug their manes out—at least that’s what she believed. He had even gotten through his meeting with the princess on the following day without pulling her through some ridiculous sibling adventure. Unfortunately, she was paying off the interest now.

“Taiiiiiiilllll,” he squealed through a prolonged, flamboyant whisper as he dragged his foreleg over Tail’s covered spine. Sincy jumped in front of the pegasus and snapped his head to show the appreciative, inspired sparkle that danced around his irides. “You look so cool. I still can’t believe you didn’t tell me any of this. You’re lit A.F., carrying that armor like it’s nothing. How heavy is it? Can I try it on? Do you think I should incorporate some guard stuff in the show tonight?”

“Sally wasn’t exactly built to fit a tall boy, so I don’t think attempting to squeeze into my armor would be a good idea. And I think you’ll give poor Barley a heart attack if you make changes to the routine the morning of the show.”

“What about the helmet?” the colt asked, pursing his lips to shape a juvenile pout. “That shouldn’t be much of a problem, right? It’s all glimmering and pretty, and the gold color will go well with SincyStar. I could do a tribute on stage! The fans will lose themselves in the”—he paused his stride to sweep his foreleg across the heavens—“experience.”

“Yeah, yeah, Casanova. And you might want to keep it down unless you want a swarm of waking fangirls to drape themselves all over your experience.”

In an instant, the aviator shades had returned to their spots upon Sincy’s muzzle. “Do I have much to fear when I have the best guard escort Canterlot has to offer? I’m sure my big sis will do everything she can to keep me safe from any trouble, and for the record, my fans are understanding when it comes to boundaries. I don’t really expect problems with them—unlike my sister, who won’t let me try on her armor.”

“It’s too small for you, and the helmet doesn’t even have a horn hole.” She flashed a devilish grin at her brother. “But maybe if you manage to be good today, I’ll try to convince Barrier to let you try on his kit instead.”

Maintaining the smug expression, Tail took a few steps to pull up to Sincy’s side. Behind the tint of his spectacles, she could tell that he was beaming at the mere idea of getting his hooves on Barrier’s armor. However, his contentment to bask in the glow of optimism lasted for about the time it took them to traverse another block, and then, it was back to sibling business as usual.

“I bet I could slip into one of your gauntlets,” Sincy slid into the conversation with the grace of a tumbling boulder.

“Not happening. Once I get to the yard, it’s on Barrier’s time. I can’t be messing around with my kit. I can’t even imagine what you told him for him to let you come.” Tail hesitated. Her teasing demeanor vanished as she fashioned a grimace and sternly stared at her brother. “Sincy, this is easily the most serious thing I’ve ever done. I’ve been worn out and injured during training. I’ve been deployed at the head of a squad. I can’t take any of this lightly.”

“Got that right, Flicker.” Tail’s body stiffened and her coat bristled once the weight of Trigger’s foreleg settled over her withers. His other foreleg awkwardly hovered in the air over the spot where Sincerity had been, but the singer had loosed a squawk and bolted down the street in a scrambled mess that made the creature of reverie chuckle. “The fuck did I just watch?”

“Creative muse in action,” the pegasus deadpanned, casting her blank gaze down the road towards her sibling. “If this was supposed to be some sort of test, wouldn’t it have been better to wait until after I receive some instruction? Seems kind of pointless to demonstrate that I still have no ability to sense your incoming presence…”

Trigger set his hooves back onto the ground and shrugged. “I might find it fun, to be honest, but nah, I’m not here for that crap. Shit’s gettin’ interesting in the yard, so I decided to pick ya up myself. Though, given that your brother didn’t sense me coming either, now I know it runs in the family. We’ll have to do something different—”

Sincy was in Tail’s and Trigger’s faces in a flash. The swag shades were redeployed, and the sibling showboat smile was shining brighter than Luna’s silvery moon. “You know this guy too, Tail? And he knows I’m your brother? How mysterious...” The blue unicorn tipped his head so his pupils drifted above the frame of the aviators.

“You’re being weird ag—” Tail huffed when her little brother booped her muzzle, and a scowl set in just in time to greet the sparkling, impish expression that crept along Sincy’s countenance.

“Your story keeps revealing an incredible cast of characters, Sis. I thought this renegade cowcolt might have been a deranged stalker, one of those terrifying shadow ponies, or maybe a typical noir-film villain, but no! These sweet argent locks and burning amber eyes belong to a friend who hasn’t been introduced, and yet, somehow, someway, he sees that we’re related with a perception that speaks to the level of the soul.”

“Heh, I know who ya are too, Mr. One-Half-of-Sync-and-Barley,” Trigger replied in a quiet, gritty timbre.

The statement made Sincy’s ear noticeably flick. A fermata was inserted into the score, one which Tail happily used to push her brother back a good foreleg length before his shades returned to the ether.

“It’s more like one-twentieth, actually,” the unicorn continued in a more reserved demeanor. “A few others join in on the music side, and we have a solid crew of techs to help with setting up shows. Pretty sure Tail qualifies as an honorary member of the band, seeing as how she got me started and keeps performing maintenance jobs on our stuff.”

Tipping his trademarked Coltston, Trigger nodded before a knowing smirk stretched across his muzzle. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll see it all tonight. Got tickets after all. Got a wife and a daughter who are huge fans. Little one falls asleep to Beautiful Barley or Big Bam Boom almost every night.”

An enthusiastic gasp rushed into Sincy’s lungs to produce a whooping echo that rang off the Canterlot houses. Trigger had punched his way straight into the stallion’s soft spot. Tail knew young fans had always been high on her brother’s list, and she had to stifle a giggle as she watched him prance in place. “Details! Favorite song? Picture? Should I sign something? Quill! I need a quill.”

“Do I have a picture?” Trigger snorted through an air of mock offense. He reached under his hat and held out a small photograph of Platinum Blaze.

Tail could already anticipate the onslaught of pleasantries her brother would forge. Oh, your filly is so cute! She’s beautiful! You must be such a proud dad!—to name a few. She closed her eyes and waited as a gentle smile took shape, but those expected words never came.

Instead, Sincy peered at the picture in silence for a few seconds as he blinked and combed his mane. Eventually, his eyes widened, betraying a sense of disbelief, and he finally answered, “Whoa! She’s real? I swear I’ve seen this filly in my jam-session dreams. That is nuts.” He leaned closer. “Like, she looks exactly the same. Unforgettable stare, you know?”

“Eh,” Tail replied sheepishly after glancing at both her mesmerized brother and the cheek-twitching Trigs. “Probably just a coincidence, or maybe you got a piece of inspirational fan mail.”

“Mm.” Sincy puffed some air around his mouth and looked skyward. “It’s possible. Barley is pretty thorough when it comes to making sure letters from the younger fans get prioritized. In that case, I’ve definitely received a letter from your adorable filly, Mr. My-Sister-Still-Hasn’t-Intro—”

Groaning, the physicist promptly jabbed her brother in the shoulder. The strike had been bittersweet in nature—driving the unicorn to rub the impact site with his free limb while forcing the pegasus to cave to her brother’s blunt demand. “Sincerity Chain, this is Colonel Trigger, proud proprietor of the best bar in the city. Trigger, you know who he is.”

“That hurt, ya know?” Sincy grumbled, still rubbing the stinging spot. “Strong mare…”

Trigger unloaded a deep, rumbling laugh that surprised the siblings. “Ya haven’t seen anything yet, Kiddo,” he remarked to the colt of the duo before adjusting his hat. Beneath the brim, the glow of Trigger’s magic seeped to the outside world. Black and amber swirls swept around the group, separating the ponies from the familiar sight of cobblestone streets and alabaster homes. “Just wait until you see the main event, and that was some slick shit, Flicker.”

Barrier winced and shook his head. Driven by the sudden oscillation, the hairs at the nape of his neck splayed beneath a mental weight that forced his eyes to close and his lungs to draw breath. “Coax it,” he whispered as his cheeks and lips contorted. Like a mouse in a maze, the stallion was searching for something that only one other pony in attendance could understand, and each minute shift in the unicorn’s expression revealed another discovered obstacle that demanded an adjustment. “Every other swing.”

Tail’s advice hung upon the wind in a gentle hiss. It reverberated, joining the gentle cascade of an anomalous cobalt hue that rippled over Barrier’s horn. Far above, the bright crescent of the moon wobbled slightly in acknowledgment of the stallion’s efforts. And with each passing second, the celestial object crawled towards the horizon.

Having joined Barrier in the center of the training yard, Luna stood to his left and quietly watched the captain. Her sights danced over the jagged, familiar contours of his ancient armor before her attention returned to her heavenly companion. “You’ve come a long way, Barrier,” Luna spoke as her horn flared. “In another few years, you might be able to do this on your own, but we’ll leave it there for now.”

Barrier glanced at the Princess of the Night. She wore a confident smile that did nothing to conceal her motivations for adding her power to the pre-dawn festivities. With the alicorn’s magic entering the mix, the moon’s descent became a far less taxing activity for Magic Barrier—and a far quicker one at that.

“What?” Luna asked, adding an inflection of completely feigned innocence. “We can’t possibly have you wear yourself out. There are more amusing plans that merit a degree of regal study.”

“Hm, I understand,” Barrier answered, lifting his helm from the ground before placing it upon his head. He put a few more paces between himself and the lunar diarch, planted his hooves, and stretched his spine through a satisfied groan.

As the first hints of sunlight cast their reddish hues across the dim sky, glimmering sands began to coil around Luna. The amorphous storm hardened to form vibrant plates of steel that snatched those skybound rosy bands and laced them across the metal surfaces. An armor kit that hadn’t been seen since the Griffonian Wars settled on the princess’s powerful frame, and Luna’s mischievous gaze sparkled like the billions of stars that dotted her domain.

Spells ripped from their horns. The bluish arcs shattered the temporary tranquility that had settled over the pitch, for each time the mighty sprays of magical beams collided, cracks and pops echoed off the castle walls.

Princess Luna was the first to annihilate the distance between herself and her target. Her gauntlet-covered forehoof smashed into one of Barrier’s defensive casts with enough force to produce fissure lines in the shield.

A pulse of light shot up the spiral of the captain’s horn. Instantly, the single shield divided into a hexagonal array that diverted Luna’s punch away from the stallion’s body. A buzz roared as the aura around Barrier’s magical appendage shifted to form a jagged pillar of energy, and a dagger-like bolt rocketed towards the royal’s neck.

Luna huffed and met the assault with a shield of her own. The bright purple field curved into an appropriate crescent shape that floated about a hoof’s width away from the alicorn’s coat. There, it efficiently snagged the captain’s attack and afforded enough time for the mare to regain her balance and counter.

Rapid teleports set a cadence of swirling eddies that whooped around the grounds as the fighting wielders tried to gain control by ambushing the other’s rear. Beams continued to miss their marks as constructed shields or raw speed led to patches of grass and dirt getting blown away.

Snares joined the percussive fray once a dance of kicks, blocks, and jabs brought armored plates into grinding contact. Grunts and snorts accompanied the clanging bangs while the pair duked it out through physical blows for about a minute.

Eventually, Barrier and Luna leapt away from one another and landed on the grass with bassy thuds. Their kits rattled along with their heaving chests, and both ponies wore smiles etched by the impromptu entertainment.

“Full throttle right out of the gate, Captain,” Luna chimed. “We’d say you’re ready to train the next executor, but something is missing. We want to see something new—a spark of inspiration that can stoke those to come.”

“Heh,” Barrier snickered, “whatever you say.” A slug of brilliant blue magic jolted from the unicorn and headed directly for Luna’s muzzle. Racing over the field, the spell quickly collided with one of the alicorn’s protective casts. Instead of dissipating or deflecting, however, the shining packet of the captain’s aura clung to the princess’s shield.

Barrier’s gaze narrowed. He homed in on the bolt, concentrating while the color of the sorcery shifted from his lighter blue to that of Luna’s. Gradually, the attack slipped through the defenses, emerging from the interior surface of the shield before it gently tapped against the alicorn’s snoot and evaporated with a quiet pop.

Luna scrunched her muzzle and blinked. Her shield dissolved after she tilted her head, and she silently stared at Barrier while her wings sheepishly flapped. There might have been a question buried in her mind that had struggled to make it to the surface, but if that had been the case, no one would know. The Princess of the Night was thoroughly outmatched by a far more flamboyant group.

“So bucking cool!” Tail and Sincerity shouted in unison from their spots on the sidelines.

The latter had hurled his sparkling gaze upon Luna’s frame. He quivered as his attention darted over the various pieces of armor, and he repeatedly cooed before his brain forged the words. “Princess Luna looks absolutely stunning! Look at how majestic she is! I didn’t even know the princesses did combat!” He briefly snapped his head in Tail’s direction to ask, “Did you know? Look at those colors! Look at the beauty! Like the stars she represents, a galaxy of possibilities.”

Tail started walking out onto the pitch. Her eyes simmered with a fire that joined her knowing smirk. “Are you kidding me?” she squealed in delight. “You frequency shifted at range and exploited a phase lock! What? That is absolutely out of this world! And you didn’t tell me you could do that?” She briefly snapped her head towards Sincy. “He didn’t tell me he could do that!”

Both siblings flailed their forehooves, drawing laughs from Barrier and Luna—though the latter appeared far more flushed.

“I got the idea from you, Blanket,” Barrier admitted after his laughter died down. “You’re the one who taught me the concept. Just hadn’t had the opportunity to put it into practice.”

Still parked by one of the archway’s columns, Trigger hummed and pivoted his muzzle skyward to show off a smug grin. “It’s almost like it was a good idea that someone went to grab a certain physicist so she could see one of the byproducts of her shared expertise. Who could have ever dreamt up that?”

“It ended too soon,” came the unexpected commentary from Bonecrusher, who casually leaned against the stone pillar adjacent to Trigger. The interruption drew the attention of the others, who all peered at the earth pony with various degrees of confusion. “What? I like a good fight,” she continued, flashing a salute to the officers. “I’m also here on official business. Princess Cadance asked me to inform you that Captain Armor will be running a bit behind schedule. He ran into Major Amora, and the two started rambling about Civvy’s nutrition.”

Tail stretched her limbs and resumed her stride towards Barrier. “Well,” she purred, “that sounds a bit fortuitous to me. After seeing that demonstration, the student is feeling motivated by her teacher’s innovation. How about giving me a warm-up, Captain?”

Meanwhile, Sincy’s focus had been stolen by the new arrival. He lifted his aviators onto his forehead and allowed his brown eyes to drift until he had quietly observed Bonecrusher’s guardly figure. “Oh hello,” he uttered in an atypically serene fashion.

Bonecrusher dropped onto all four hooves. She craned her neck, taking a moment to blatantly stare at the interlocking eighth notes stamped onto Sincy’s flank. Seconds later, her pupils shrank, her back arched like that of a cat, and her saddlebag dropped onto the grass. “Holy crap, it is you.”

The popstar rubbed the back of his head with a meandering hoof. “Well, I’d hope I’m still me,” he answered. “What I’m really interested in knowing is who you might be, Ms… ?”

“Bonecrusher,” she replied swiftly, snatching a sleeved 45 vinyl out of her saddlebag with blistering speed. She held the record, a quill, and a small jar of ink out towards Sincy. “Would you sign this for me?”

Happiness claimed Sincerity’s countenance. He put his magic to work and corralled the items in a field of levitation. “Oooh, a Triple-B single,” he remarked upon glancing at the cover. It was dotted in graffiti-style art and depicted black and white images of himself and Barley Blues. “I haven’t seen one of these in a long time. This one was a limited-edition run, I think.”

The mare simply nodded. Her amethyst sights remained affixed upon the stallion’s eyes as he met her gaze with a thoughtful one.

Finally, he inked the quill and dragged it over the sleeve. “To Bonecrusher,” he narrated as he wrote. “A feisty name for a feisty mare. Keep me safe, guardpon. Love, Sync.” The colt’s chocolate aura wrapped around the record a few times before the items floated back into Bonecrusher’s possession. “Extra spell to protect the sleeve. Ink runs are downers.”

Again, Bonecrusher nodded. “Er, thanks. Guess it’s a good thing I ran into Princess Cadance before my shift.”

“Random things are fun. I mean, I think it’s a good thing I got to tag along with my sis today. Got to see amazing ponies in amazing looking armor outfits, yourself included. It’s really pumping me up for the concert tonight. Speaking of that, I hope you’re coming too. Tail and Barrier are going to be there. Mr. Spooky will be there too, and I know the princesses will be in attendance.”

Bonecrusher’s eye twitched while her muzzle flushed. Slowly, her forehoof lifted from the ground and extended towards Tail. “Wait! Are you telling me, out of all the Tails in Equestria, Civvy Tail is your bucking Tail!?”

Sincy momentarily chewed on his cheek. “Well, I wouldn’t say that that Tail is my Tail. I think Barrier has more of a claim in that department now, but she’s my sis—”

“Shit,” the corporal mumbled before Trigger could no longer contain his laughter.

“Might want to watch out, Sync,” the stallion of reverie added. “One could easily say that Tail and Bonecrusher are rivals.”

Chapter 22 - The Key of Fields

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Canterlot Coliseum rumbled with electricity. 23,500 ponies occupied every single seat in the place—from the floor seats that stretched right up to the stage to the V.I.P. boxes nestled underneath the second balcony. And, as one might expect, the vast majority of those ponies were cheering like tomorrow would never come and they just had to let it all out.

Speakers hanging from the rafters still carried a sustained chord from Barley’s semi-hollow body guitar. The cream-colored earth pony was dripping with sweat at the end of a solo-heavy song, and his blue-striped black mane dangled over his teal eyes in a curly, wild mess.

Above the band, a makeshift arch of steel struts housed dozens of lights that bathed the platform in an ocean of purple, white, and gold. Several smaller stages had been set up atop the main floor for the drum kits, synthesizers, and backup vocalists; and behind it all, a violet tapestry with a circular logo containing an artistic rendition of an old-ponish S&B served as the backdrop.

“Dude!” Sincy spoke into a microphone from one of the synthesizer stations. “You just killed that. Seriously, did you all hear the crazy licks that he just did?” The crowd responded with a cacophonous, resolute roar while the unicorn glanced over his bandmate. “Why don’t you take a break, Barley? I can do that thing where I change the show on the fly for the sake of my own entertainment.”

Still standing on his hind hooves, the earth pony spun around to face Sync. His sunburst-painted guitar twirled around with him until a single teal iris snagged the image of the frost-blue stallion. “What are you up to, Sincerity Chain?” Barley grumbled with the intonation of a skeptical parent scolding a child caught in the cookie jar.

“I’m so glad you asked, Buddy! I think it’s a fair guess that most of our fans out there know what this beautiful baby is.” He reached under the large instrument, carefully retrieved SincyStar from its case, and lovingly set the smaller contraption on the station stand. “I’d bet they also know that my sweet, wonderful sister built this for me when we were kids. What they don’t know is that my sis is here tonight on a date, and what she doesn’t know is that I wrote a song for her.

“See, while we’ve been out on this tour journey together, she’s been mixing it up in the guard, building new skills, and making new relationships. I got to meet her coltfriend. I got to meet her supporters. Super shoutout to Mr. Spooky, Autumn Tea, and little Platinum Blaze! You’re super ‘dorbs. I got to meet her rival!” Sincy waggled his eyebrows and flashed a toothy smile. “You’re super ‘dorbs too, Bonecrusher.

“So! There I was, watching my sister duke it out with her captain in awesome armor on the castle grounds, and the magic just happened. I could see it in her eyes—the reason why he wanted to learn everything he could about who she is. I could see that she just wouldn’t quit, and that’s why you’re all going to get to hear a song I wrote a few hours ago.”

The crowd erupted again once Sincy started alternating between the F keys on the small instrument. “If you want to come in, it’s in F,” he shouted to the slack-jawed, utterly stunned Barley before diving headstrong into the song. His eyes met the blushing pair in the front row, and it was easy for the brother’s smile to linger.

Tail, decked out in some colorful bracelets that were reminiscent of her teenage youth, could barely keep her wings from brushing her neighbors. The splayed feathers twitched, riding the wave of embarrassment that was delightfully painted upon her reddened muzzle. Thankfully for the flustered mare, she only had to contain one of the wandering appendages.

The other was free to seek refuge in Barrier’s charcoal-colored coat. Though, the captain didn’t exactly seem to be doing any better. His grey sport jacket had proven to be completely out of place for this kind of concert. His ears quivered to the relentless cheering that dominated the arena, and he gawked at Sincerity with a diffident expression matched only by the disillusioned, deadpanned question he directed towards his date. “He just set us up, didn’t he?”

What I want, you’ve got, but it might be hard to ponder
how your flame just burns forever — with a passion that’s insane…

Day 83 began with still sore limbs. As one of them had predicted, her first day off was spent recuperating, and Tail had come to both loathe and appreciate the augury. The first afternoon of executor training had been spent trying to break Shining Armor’s ultimate shield—

“Bucking hotshot asshole,” the pegasus muttered under her breath, reflecting on how the Captain of the Royal Guard didn’t even move as she threw every punch, jab, swing, and kick that she could. Eventually, she had gone all-in and deployed her cloud compression techniques, but not even the electrical discharges managed to put a scratch in that unicorn’s field.

Nonetheless, Barrier’s words to her after they finished sparring that morning stuck in her mind. She could remember them in his voice. She could feel the warmth his look brought and the confidence it gave. I know you won’t quit on this. No matter how much it may hurt to keep going, and it will hurt, I know you’ll keep going. We’re going to bring out the absolute best of your abilities, and once we’re done, you’ll be able to defend Equestria. You’ll know how to protect life—and when to take it…

Electricity sizzled as another cloud tuft formed in front of Tail’s hoof. Her brow descended to shape a scowl, and she leapt at Shining’s rosy rampart through a flap of her wings. A bellowing shriek was heaved from her lungs as she rammed the tuft into the barrier. Lightning cracked across its surface in the most energetic rupture that the pegasus had created to date, and ripples could be seen meandering around the sphere like waves in a pool.

“Hot damn,” Tail exclaimed once she processed the sting racing up and down her right foreleg. She hissed, shaking out the limb while her sights wandered to Shining’s silhouette. He stood tall, and his namesake remained unbroken.

In fact, behind his protective cast, the stallion looked truly imposing. An unreadable, stone expression fixed Shining’s physique, and his light-cerulean irides composed icy burrs that challenged the singed pegasus. “That’s not going to work either, Colonel. My magic could handle an entire changeling army even while I was being manipulated. I know Barrier’s first exercise is for you to break this thing while I just stand here and wait, but if you keep thinking that power-leveling is the answer, then I might just get insulted.”

Tail’s ear flicked. Her forehoof was replanted on the ground in a snapping movement that accompanied her sharp exhalation. “I didn’t ask for a crib sheet, Captain Armor. This is the only technique that I’ve got that works on a magical playing field, and I haven’t used it for very long. Knowing the strength limit is good information to gain, especially when a good punching bag is just standing there all day for me.”

From underneath one of the archways, Trigger chortled. He peered at both Amora and Magic Barrier as the tip of his tail skirted over grass and stone. “He pissed her off with that one, Barry, but I guess it was time to give some direction.”

“Yeah,” Amora quietly added. She had locked onto Tail’s smudged hoof and wrist after making a note of the tiny shadows that the noon sun cast on the field. Suddenly, her voice surged in volume, taking advantage of the brief lull. “You’ve hit Q-max, Tail! Definitely not the variable to push anymore. It’s also almost lunchtime, and you can bet your sweet ass that I’m going to use it to look over your leg!”

Contentedly observing the spectacle, Barrier’s lips curled upwards. “Better to be pissed off than pissed on. Though, for the record, I don’t think she’s pissed. I think that we’re about to see some science.”

“You got that right, Captain,” the pegasus growled on cue. She stretched her neck and cracked both of her wrists before her fiery glare pierced Shining Armor’s stubborn obstacle. “You had better prepare yourself for a fun afternoon. I’m going to find the full dynamic range of my weather magic, and the second I find the right frequency, I’m going to wipe all the grins off your face like it’s foals’ night at the comic book store.”

The alabaster unicorn seemed happy to flash such a smug grin for the sassy officer. “Right now, I’d say that’s the only place you’d find the piece of fiction where you best me in under a month.”

Yeah, yeah, what I got: full stock of thoughts and dreams that cater
to the view you won’t surrender…

A groggy Tail stared at the collection of augurite coils still in her workbench test bin. The bright glow of her laboratory presented a misguided conception of time to the pegasus, who had actually snuck out of her home before the sun rose on a much needed weekend.

She idly rolled her forelimbs as she sat and grimaced. Bandages had been wrapped around both of the legs, and she shuddered at the sensation. “Ugh, the goopy stuff is gross,” Tail remarked, referring to the ocean of cream that Amora had rubbed into her coat. She sighed and swiveled in her seat. “But at least the soreness is gone.”

And no weather magic over the weekend! Tail recalled the tone of her roommate’s voice while her memory kindly replayed the aggressive warning. None! Not at all. Not a single bolt. No shaping clouds. No secret tufts. Just recovery. Doctor’s orders.

The physicist puffed her cheeks and blew a pouty gust over the tabletop. “I would love to play with you today,” she spoke to the coils, “but Ams will know. I also have to keep myself at a-hundred percent. I have a Captain of the Royal Guard who needs a strong ego check.”

Tail slouched. Her posture degraded at the behest of the sleepless night until it became necessary for the mare to prop up her head with a bent leg. She leaned over the workbench, dragging clumps of unkempt mane over the surface while her eyelids drooped.

Shining’s untouchable visage haunted her brain’s inner vision. His uncompromising stare, which soared like a phoenix from the ashes of his usual dorkiness, egged her on with the threat of disappointment. “It’s too close to Barrier’s,” she mumbled as the notes congregated to make a dissonant nightmare.

Her namesake slapped against the support frame of her chair after a mechanical clatter echoed from the doorway.

“Fear not, Colonel!” Luna’s boisterous voice filled the cavern. She pushed the large gates open with her magic and beamed at her friend. “Your presence was sensed, and it is merely I.”

“My presence was sensed, huh?” Tail questioned after forcing herself to sit up for the Princess of the Night. “Did Amora pressure you to keep tabs on me too?”

Pursing her lips, the alicorn shrugged. “She might have mentioned it, but in this instance, it was the absence of your dream fabric that was the giveaway.”

Tail silently watched as her patron approached. Tiredness continued to drag on her facial features, and a heaviness built in her chest that felt like a winding spring.

Princess Luna opted to plop her haunches down on the floor, a move which kept her sightline even with that of the pondering pegasus. “One doesn’t have to be asleep for me to see the seeds of a nightmare. Perhaps, I could be of assistance.”

Cheek muscles tensed, wings tucked against the body, and the winding in the chest felt even tighter. Tail glanced away from Luna in a scramble that instinctively sought answers. The pressure mounted, and Tail’s breath hitched before she finally managed to let some words escape.

“They’re investing a lot of time in me, and this week just made me question if I’m worth that investment.” Tail paused, forcing her drifting gaze to finally settle upon Luna as the tension started to lessen.

With her ears pivoted towards the flier, the royal remained silent. Her pupils dilated as she absorbed the scientist’s worn demeanor, and she simply waited for her far younger subject to proceed.

“B.C.T. made sense. Some ponies were coming after my work on valid considerations that I wasn’t qualified. But this? I definitely appreciate Barrier’s input more than most ponies will ever understand. I just don’t know if it’s really okay that Shining Armor is spending three days out of the week standing in a shield that I haven’t figured out how to crack yet. He’s the Guard Captain, and he’s betting his personal resources against my pegasus pride.

“I’m probably already halfway through my frequency sweep, and I haven’t spotted a promising node either. It’s like being back in graduate school—surrounded by titans in Barrier, Trigger, and Shining, who can put your knowledge to shame. And while I would love to keep pushing, because I really don’t want to zap others’ time”—she held up her forelegs—“work pause.”

“Tail, no one expects you to have all the answers after three sessions. Shining Armor has spent his entire career thus far on palace defenses and associated magics. Trust me,” she huffed, rolling her cyan eyes. “He is insufferable when the subject shifts to those techniques. Still, he puts his heart in the place where it is warranted—just as Barrier and Sir Trigger do. You have undoubtedly earned their confidences, and you have earned mine.

“It is also natural to feel uneasy while standing in the presence of someone that you think outshines you. Again, I know this all too well. And perhaps”—Luna lifted and flicked her forehooves in an air-quotes gesture—“this back-to-graduate-school sensation casts an illusion that you’re an imposter. So I ask you, what did you do when faced with the impossible challenge of harnessing alicorn magic without risking corruption?”

“What did I do?” Repeating the question, Tail reclined and lightly tapped her muzzle. “Well, I did research. I believe that most documented cases of magical tampering gone afoul can be explained by direct access to magic or magical artifacts outside a pony’s resonance zone. Sombra and the Crystal Heart, the repeated uses of the Alicorn Amulet over time, Grogar’s Bell—all presented cases where direct magical taps led to extreme psychosis. That’s why I started building augurite coils.”

“Mmhmm,” Luna responded, giving an affirmative nod as she rolled her lifted foreleg. “You learned, Ms. Tail. It’s what you do. You’ve already returned to school at other points in your career and discovered that there was nothing improper when it came to those maneuvers. Sleepless, lonely nights lead to questioning the wrong things. We believe we know just the place to reset your efforts in the right direction.”

Luna had delivered a solid argument. Science naturally brought setbacks, and things could be unravelled in a nanosecond. As Trigger once told her, the Universe would always be the most imaginative bitch in the room. It was sage advice. It was also sage advice that could be tipped on its head. The Universe had to have an answer for Shining’s shield.

Gradually, Tail leaned forward. She relaxed under Luna’s mental light, and the added curiosity prodded the physicist just enough for her to perk her ears and flash a sheepish smile for the Princess of the Night. “Does this place happen to have a bed?”

The alicorn pushed a hoof to her muzzle to stifle an emergent giggle. Again, she nodded at the frazzled mare. “Indeed, it does. The Private Palace Library remains one of two book-based, academic establishments in the City of Canterlot that I’ve managed to keep Twilight Sparkle out of.”

Tail awakened to a philosopher’s paradise. Recovering from the grogginess that seemed to always follow her naps, the scientist didn’t remember much of the trip that brought her from the laboratory to what she presumed to be the fabled Private Palace Library, but she certainly did appreciate the bed.

Wrapped in a quilt of violet and gold, Tail had found the reset she needed between the comfy blanket and firm mattress. The silky bed sheets presented a strong invitation to return to the land of slumber, but given the sunlight that poured through the stained-glass dome above her head, Tail figured that it was probably time to get to work.

Her sights wandered around the lofty panes, catching the rainbow hues that depicted Celestia and Luna swirling about their respective skies. Painted murals reached for the ceiling and captured the likenesses of equine legends—Starswirl, Haycartes, Clover the Clever, a towering thestral, and Discord?

“That’s kind of surprising,” Tail mumbled, examining the utterly strange depiction of the notorious draconequus. Set against the backdrop of solar rays shattering an overcast sky, Discord appeared heroic. Donned in bright Royal Guard armor, he was lunging across the scenery with an outstretched arm and a pointed claw. Something about the design played with Tail’s brain. Perhaps it was the contrast, or maybe it was something else, yet the physicist started to genuinely wonder if the creature was actually pointing at something of merit.

Sitting up, the pegasus followed the line past rows of bookshelves and marble columns until an unusual feature plopped into the center of her vision. The library had a fountain—an honest to goodness working fountain. Similar in size to Princess Celestia, the ornament consisted of a Corinthian column set into the center of a clover-shaped pool. At the top, metal figures of Commander Hurricane, Princess Platinum, and Chancellor Puddinghead had been affixed atop an inscribed golden base.

The bizarre artifact provided enough motivation. Exiting the cozy confines of the bed, Tail rolled onto the tile floor. She shivered from the chill that raked her nerves, but the trickling fountain coaxed the shuffling scientist closer and closer until she could make out the inscription.

It was gibberish.

“What kind of glyphs are these?” Tail asked herself as she observed the unusual markings etched into the gold. She flicked her namesake and puffed—feeling for a brief moment that she was missing out on something important amidst the curved strikes and strange characters. Thankfully, her mind quickly found something else to dote on.

Resting on the ledge of the fountain pool, a note had been laid by Princess Luna. Dear Tail, it read, I had to retire for the morning, but I believe your dreams were sweet. Tia knows that you’re using the library, and I took the liberty of informing Magic Barrier and Amora that you were resting. For what it’s worth, I recommend looking at the books in Section W. You are where you belong. ~Luna

“Section W, eh?” Tail mumbled as a shy smile played upon her lips. As the seconds passed, the pegasus perked even more. Her wings fluttered and her eyes glimmered as she scanned the sides of the stacks and noticed the letter labels. Through the care of her friends, and through those comforting words, Tail found a mission, and it did not take long for the flier to pop off the ground and glide to the appropriate area of the library.

By comparison, Section W was tiny. Nestled between a single set of marble pillars, the collection consisted of just four rows of books that spanned just over the average pony’s length. Most of the manuscripts appeared to be old prints that had all been stuffed into one piece of wooden furniture, while other sections went on for meters.

Still, the titles alone drew a gasp. “By the stars, what?” Tail squeaked as she ran through the list of prominent physics authors. “Dynamic Jack, Farahay, more Starswirl, and even more Clover! Is that first edition from the eccentric Superposed Chat? And a few works from Bundle Bush. These are all legendary—”

But I’ve read all of them. Would anything in these really give me insight into Shining’s magic? Am I forgetting something obvious? She plucked the books of Dynamic Jack and Superposed Chat from the shelf. I guess another look-through couldn’t hurt.

Visually combing through the worn spines for another spark of inspiration, Tail crouched down and scanned the shelves again. Once she reached the bottom row, the scientist spotted something different tucked against the wooden frame of the bookcase. A sole outsider amongst an onslaught of prized relics, one manuscript stood out as looking far newer than its peers. It had no written title or author markings. The only indicator was a gold foil feather printed on its center.

Tail snatched the book and brushed her hoof against the grainy faux-leather surface. Opening the cover, the pegasus immediately felt a chill rush up her limbs. Her wings shot open while the wave rippled through her coat, and her fiery stare soon seized the text on the first page with a stoked intensity that might as well have burned the rest of the study to the ground.

Notes on my U(1)-M Unification Theorem

Greetings future enthusiasts (or my future self)! I have focused some time as of late fussing over the particulars of magic. While the greats have spent lifetimes making progress describing the individual branches of the science, I believe we’re still missing the trunk and root. How can earth ponies possess magical arts? How does the weather magic of pegasi interact with the spells of unicorns? I think the connections are there, but the mathematical framework is not. My postdoctoral life has been grounded too much in the practical for me to fully bring this to light (or to defend it under the scrutiny of peer review). Still, I have left these notes on the potential interactions between the magic, auguric, casting, spell current density, and electric fields in the hopes that one day they might make Equestria shine brighter.

Chapter 23 - The Birth of the Bullet Flash

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“Are you done?” Tail asked Amora as the medic fiddled with the scientist’s right foreleg. An apple rested in Tail’s left hoof, and the mare repeatedly waved it around the white unicorn’s head. “The idiom is bullshit. I’m trying to eat, Ams. Come on, I haven’t even hit my limit yet.”

“Fillies and gentlecolts, a Ph.D.,” the M.D. retorted, tightening her hold on Tail’s limb as she combed the appendage for any sign of wear or tenderness. “You’re halfway through Week Two, so now is the perfect time to check. And don’t even think about shifting the axes on your best friend. You might be a ways away from your stamina cap, but you’re at the high end of your frequency spectrum.”

“And she still hasn’t managed to get the better of my spell,” Shining quipped before biting into his own red apple with an aggressive chomp.

The group had gathered in the shady walkway behind the arches to collectively enjoy a meal. Though, the degrees of enjoyment proved to be markedly varied. The Captain of the Royal Guard had continued his new tradition of ribbing Tail well into Session Five, and the glare the pegasus offered up in retaliation made the mare’s opinion on the subject more than known.

“Captain Armor,” Amora flatly answered, not even bothering to turn to face the stallion as she continued her thorough examination. “If you keep harassing my patient, then I’ll start writing you fake E.D. scripts that I can conveniently leak to your wife.”

“Don’t fuck with the medic, Shiny,” Barrier chuckled. “You should know better than that.”

Amora sustained the same nonchalant tone after releasing Tail’s appendage. “He should, but let’s be honest, he’s a doofus.”

Humming quietly, Tail continued to eye her current nemesis before she spoke up. “The only thing doofusy about Shining Armor is his Pouch Beasts deck. His magic is something else entirely, but”—she pointed at the unicorn—“I haven’t been sitting on my ass all week, Captain. I’m done with my scan. It’s time to try something new.”

Observing Shining’s raised brow, Tail basked in the confusion before biting into her apple. She devoured the fruit, reached for her helmet, and glanced towards Barrier—who met her gaze with perked ears and a grin. I think I am about to put your mathematics to a real test, Dr. Secret, Tail thought.

She slipped the helm onto her head, pivoted towards the field, and marched out onto the grass with a sway in her hips that beckoned her stallion to watch. But which technique should I try first? All that scanning, and I still don’t really know the fundamental structure of Shining’s magic. Though, the lack of a response to frequency shifting could mean that he’s been clever enough to overlay time dependencies in a constructive way.

A short shrug preceded the claimed decision. “The direct approach it is then.” Tail spun around and planted her rear hooves into the turf. She rocked forward, stretching her hind legs while her wings unfurled and flapped. A momentary tension enveloped the physicist’s muscles in a bittersweet warmth that evaporated the mealtime rust.

Across the yard, Shining made his way out from under the covered, stone path. Cocky confidence manipulated the contours of his face, and his smug smirk managed to outlast a preparatory neck roll. The mage maintained his steady pace until he reached the center of the pitch. Once there, he stood still, effortlessly summoning the rose-tinted bubble that had been the bane of Tail’s progress for a week and a half.

Wiggling in her armor, Tail crouched. Her wings, once again, swept outwards to reach their maximum span. Carefully, she lifted her right forehoof and allowed her weather magic to guide water vapor over the limb.

“I thought you said the scan was done,” Shining remarked once Tail had condensed the accumulated vapor into a cloud-tuft form. “You’re not trolling me, are you, Colonel?”

“Not my style, Captain. At least, not here,” Tail shouted in response. Her wings quivered, and her facial muscles strained as she sought to overcome the skepticism with innovation. The sideline gazes from Amora, Barrier, and Trigger weren’t lost on the mare either. The tides of change were churning, and more of the same wouldn’t be enough.

Tail’s eye twitched. Her hoof shifted, and her pegasus magic prodded the small tuft. The cloud began to rotate and stretch as though a greedy filly were pulling a strand of cotton candy out from the maker machine. Its shade grew darker and darker until the black thread that remained suddenly transformed into a glowing amber needle of manifested lightning.

Crackles erupted from the scientist’s wings when she slammed them towards the ground and sprang forward. Spurred by the thunderous sprint, arcs danced across her body as the distance to Shining Armor rapidly diminished. Entering the final leap, Tail braced the attack with her left foreleg and aimed the blow by adjusting her right.

From her fighting lungs, a battle cry emerged that echoed off the castle walls. Tail drove the electrical dagger forward—slamming it against the outer shell of Shining’s shield. Peering with a fiery scowl through the barrier, Tail panted heavily. She watched as the captain’s focus produced a nearly cross-eyed, dumbfounded expression that had to be completely entranced by the miniature pike that Tail had thrust at his defenses.

While Shining’s cast had neither shattered nor disintegrated, the faint discharges that overtook the inner surface of the magical bubble provided enough evidence to wipe the smirk off the unicorn’s face. Like the dome of a plasma toy that a slick parent would get a scientifically-inclined foal, the shield was assaulted by rather excited electrons.

When Tail pulled her hoof away, however, she saw just how effective her test had been. The lingering glow of the bolt caked the pinkish aura in a spray of amber, and at the center of the collision point, a small—yet present—hole had been bored through the bulwark.

“Fucking Tartarus,” Shining mumbled. He gaped at the tiny opening, plopped down on his haunches, and terminated the spell. “What the heck was that?”

Tail spread her wings to make a graceful landing in front of the seated Captain of the Royal Guard. Notes of Amora’s cheer reached from the peanut gallery to her ears, and for a moment, the pegasus swore that she could hear Trigger clapping and hollering. Her inferno gaze, though, had not yet swayed from Captain Armor’s physique.

“That?” she mused aloud. “That was me confirming that the divergence of the electric field is really related to the magic one.” When the unicorn blinked a few times at her explanation, a smile swept across Tail’s muzzle with the speed of a swift wind. “Then again, you did say something about me being the fiction in a comic book, so maybe I should give it a badass name and leave it at that. What do you say, Captain Armor? How about we call this issue The Birth of the Bullet Flash?”

“Is that the name of the superpower or your alter ego?” Shining asked without missing a beat.

The response might have come quickly, but Tail couldn’t help but giggle at the absentminded delivery. It was becoming more obvious to the mare with each passing second that her technique had successfully exploited a blind spot. In fact, Barrier had managed to walk all the way over to their position without Shining shifting his gaze or flicking his ears to indicate any sort of acknowledgment.

“Clearly technique,” Barrier answered, causing the younger stallion to jerk his head to the side. “I’ve been to too many dinners with you and Cady not to receive a dozen lectures on comic origins and backstories.”

Shining fiddled with his forelegs and nodded curtly. “Mm, fair point. It’s, uh, I still can’t believe she got through in under two weeks. We figured you’d pull off something, Tail, but that was a different sort of something.”

Tail beamed, closing her eyes at the behest of the reinvigorated smile. “I found a fascinating book in one of the castle libraries. It definitely laid the groundwork for me trying that method—and offered some exceptional insight into magic as a whole. There are actually two other options I put together that could challenge your shield, but my general feeling on them is that they’re more complex. Figured it would be best to see how the simplest approach went first.”

Barrier’s gunmetal armor rattled once he rolled his shoulders. He met Tail’s radiating enthusiasm with a softened expression that relaxed his jaw and eyelids. “I’ve already learned the lesson to not stifle your inquisitive nature. We can get to the more complex things a little later on, but I think we should probably focus on a couple issues with the technique you just showed.”

Class is in session! Instinctively, Tail flopped onto the grass and peered up at Barrier with her full, perky attention.

“Next session, we’re going to start spending mornings in the weight room to increase your punch strength. You got through, for sure, but if I were in your shoes, I’d start thinking about how to turn what you’ve got into something that can incapacitate right away. That’s going to require putting more than a little hole in Shiny’s spell.

“Shining, for the remainder of the time I’ve got you slated for, no more standing still. The days of simple defensive work are over.”

The Captain of the Royal Guard sported a wicked grin. He began to rub the uncovered portions of his forelegs together like a cliché supervillain would in the moments leading up to the unnecessary monologue.

Barrier gave a gentle snort and reaffixed his focus to Tail. “I don’t want to sell what you’ve done today short. Pulling something like that off after putting in the extra time is—well—you. There is just a big difference between outmatching magic that isn’t being actively supported and doing the same when under the threat of counterattack. The goal going forward will be to improve your consistency and efficiency”—he snickered—“because an army already got away with grinding down Shining’s masterpiece for two weeks without an interruption. And I just don’t think that’ll ever happen again.”

“Oh, piss off!” Shining wailed, immediately abandoning his comedic, bombastic posturing to stand. “I was being brainwashed by a changeling queen! Completely different circumstances...”

Propping up her muzzle, Tail cooed before she shot Shining a sidelong glance. “Don’t wig out on me yet, Captain Armor. There’s still plenty of daylight left for me to get in some more test runs. I’d like to tweak a few things before I have to think about handling counterattacks—and, if it’s alright with the two of you, I’d like to have some energy left over at sundown.”

The mare gradually leaned closer to the two stallions before she continued in a hushed whisper. “Amora’s weekend restrictions really put a hamper on my research. I’d like to keep tomorrow as a possible workday.”

Like now, I can’t explain, oh yeah…
Well! Well you!

“Well, damn,” Tail grumbled at the sight of smoke filling Barrier’s magically generated coil-testing enclosure. She drew a long breath and leaned back in her swivel chair to briefly lose herself in the lit panels of her laboratory’s ceiling. “That one was looking pretty promising.”

Ending her reprieve, the lab-coat-wearing physicist turned her attention to the right edge of Workbench 8. There, she had already entered a slew of data onto a neatly organized notepad, and the moment had arrived for her to add another row to the list. Grabbing one of her own shed feathers to use as a quill, she narrated as she wrote, “Coil class: Barrier 6-C. Breadboard circuit resistance: 12.5 Ohms. Breadboard circuit capacitance: 250 microfarads. Breakdown time: 42.0 seconds.”

Also dressed in the appropriate protective attire, Barrier loosed an amused grunt as he cleaned out the dust and debris. “Most of that is still meaningless to me, Blanket, but at least I can wrap my head around the 42-second bit.”

“That just means my favorite assistant has grasped the most important part of this experimentation. The other numbers will be more critical when I do the fine-tuning, but it’s the breakdown time that sets the bar for confidence.” Giggling, she lifted Barrier 7-A from the box of coils and offered it to the stallion after he had re-readied the testing apparatus. “I’m running the circuit here longer than I’d need to in the field. Essentially, we’re gauging how long and how well we can push the swing before it gets tired and shits the bed.”

Barrier grasped the device, set it onto its stand, and connected it to the breadboard circuit while Tail prepared her body to endure another round of electrical charging. “Are you looking to reach a certain bar, or is the plan to rinse and repeat to find a winner?”

“Both,” Tail chimed. She promptly stretched one of her wings and pointed towards Barrier with the wingtip. “It takes me about ten seconds to probe and prime a shell I am not familiar with. If I have some prior experience, that number drops to around three. Keep in mind that the probing part of the process doesn’t drive the circuit at the same power that the priming part does. Frankly, if I find a coil that can handle a priming oscillation for 300 seconds or more, I’m not going to lose sleep over the possibility of it breaking on me when I need it. The longer it goes beyond that, the happier I get with the design.”

“I think I’ll have to take your word for it on this one,” Barrier sheepishly replied. The glow of the magical aura around his horn brightened while he adjusted the safety goggles strapped to his head. “But, at the risk of exposing myself to more science, is there any particular reason why the coils fail, or is it just dumb luck?”

Sweety, you can expose yourself to me any— Nope! Serious question! Tail shunted the thought and pushed it directly into the designated mental gutter. A slight flush frosted her lavender muzzle, but the pegasus managed to nimbly shake it off. “Yeah, unfortunately, that’s a bit technical. Some of it is dumb luck. There can be impurities in the augurite that mess with things in pretty catastrophic ways, but it’s the coil design that plays the biggest role. The spacing and sizing matter a lot, and if things are wrapped so tightly that there is a solid contact between the loops, then you can get cracks in the oxidation layer that will lead to shorts. For those types, I’d generally apply an additional coating, but we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.”

Tail reached for a water jug on the other side of the table, and she began to extract vapor to put to use. Smiling as her weather magic constructed microclouds, she continued in a purring voice, “I know it’s a lot, but you have been an incredible help to me. If it weren’t for your skills, I’d still be sweating out the production stage. The fact that we’re already hitting this exploratory work is fantastic, and”—she moved her hoof to rustle a box of new, shiny components—“you freed up whole days for me to make these.”

It was Barrier’s turn to feel the flustering burn that overtook his charcoal fur, and Tail had to giddily smirk at the view. Glancing away, the stallion corralled a silver stopwatch with his sorcery, but the way he bit his lip and fiddled with his forelegs indicated that his mind was definitely someplace other than the pending analysis.

“So, I confess this is a bit last-minute, given that it’s been over a week since we talked about it, but I may have arranged everything for that special surprise date on the day after tomorrow.” He paused when a spontaneous ripple of current arced over Tail’s wingspan. “I don’t think it’s anything too over the top, and it definitely depends on you being free for dinner.”

“Of course I’m free, Barrier,” Tail replied with a haste that made her shuffle with surprise. She started to lean towards the stallion—but jerked back when she remembered her body’s present state. “Uh, I’d be way more affectionate if I weren’t loaded with charge. Just let me know the time, and I’ll file it with my secretary to make sure Amora is as far away as possible.”

Chapter 24 - Will You?

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Day 93 — Future Me, I’m really going to struggle to get this all written down, but I’m going to fight for it because that’s what I do now. In retrospect, scheduling the best night of your romantic life the day after a morning in the weight room — followed by an afternoon spent scrambling to not die at the hooves of the Captain of the Royal Guard — might have not been the best idea. I do not have full mobility in my legs, and I’m starting to seriously consider that biology is just wrong. Sorry Dad, but… the nerveless parts of my wings really do feel like they’re feeling.

I’m rambling, sorry, again. Future Me, tonight was amazing, and even though a lot of our parts are presently aching, what Magic Bear did tonight filled me with so much warmth that I just can’t be bothered to care about things that suck. My heart’s pounding just going over it again, and I can’t shake this heavy weight. I really hope that this is one of those memories that we’ll always cherish.

You make my dreams come true!

Tail sat on the cement step just outside the front door to her apartment. Wearing a light-yellow sundress, the pegasus peered skyward and silently observed the pinkish streaks that began to grow more prominent in the twilight hour. While it was still fairly hot outside given the time of year, the humidity had dropped, leaving the vibrancy of the city street a tad more appealing than an empty living room.

A breeze weaved its way between the homes and gently tugged at the airy fibers of Tail’s dress. Promptly, Tail lifted her leg to corral the fabric before a throaty groan slipped through her lips. The motion had provided a potent reminder to the physicist that she had endured another week of training. Her limbs were not happy with her.

Gingerly, she pulled the offended foreleg across her chest and began to stretch. “Mmf, yep, we overdid it.” Her sigh loitered in the wind for a couple of seconds—until a squeak accompanied the scientist’s decision to give her other forelimb its due attention. She squinted and inhaled as she willed the aching appendage to hold out for just a little longer.

Leaning against the wooden door to her rear, Tail released that held breath and let her body relax. She kept her eyes shut and just listened to the world around her as ponies pranced by and chatted. In spite of the dull aches that periodically assailed the mare’s muscles, a gentle tide of contentment claimed Tail’s visage.

It turned out to be a really productive week, after all, she reflected. Princess Luna helped me. Amora acted like her usual self, and I guess Shining Armor’s cockiness was a decent motivator. Next week’s sparring sessions should be fun, especially if I can deal with those counters. She halted her chain of thought as a dreamy image of Laboratory Barrier formed in her mind.

The coy grin she fashioned for him urged Tail to appreciatively hum. He did look quite dapper in the researcher’s garb, even though academia was definitely not his element. I wonder if he thinks the same thing about me when I’m in armor, she mused as her ears perked to a new, approaching cadence.

“I’m not late, am I?” Barrier asked once he came to a stop in front of the doorstep.

Barrier’s tone added no sense of seriousness to the question, but Tail shook her head anyway as she opened her eyes. “No,” she answered, immediately caching the view of the sport-jacketed stallion levitating a gift-wrapped box, “just felt like getting out of my room, and this seemed like a good spot. That, or I’ve gotten into the habit of trying to avoid Amora’s teasing even when I don’t have to.”

“Can’t say I blame you. Between her, Luna, and Cady, we seem to have more than our fair share of nosy mares. You’re also developing defensive habits, which I support as a C.O. Then again, maybe that just means you’re picking up my paranoia? Heh.” Self-consciously, Barrier rubbed the side of his head with his hoof.

“Sweety, please,” Tail rebutted after cautiously making her way onto her hooves. “I’ve known Amora for thirty years. Any paranoia I’ve gained with regards to her is squarely on her. You can take credit for Luna and Cadance if you want to, though.”

“If I have a choice, I think I’ll take a pass on that one. I’ve got more important things to think about right now that don’t involve random attempts to wrangle the insufferable sides of two alicorns.” The unicorn guided the floating present towards Tail. “Not sure if it’s normal to give a gift at the start of a date these days, but it is probably for the best to drop it off now.”

Straggling forward, Tail chirped as she took the box under her wing. “I thought you said you didn’t go too over the top, Magic Bear. You’re already pushing it with a gift, but for the record, I don’t really think there is a standard protocol on when to spring such things.”

“Good to know…” The captain continued to bashfully brush the darker portions of his mane. “I can’t say I know anything about this at all.”

“Does anyone?” Tail replied rhetorically before her gaze drifted to the top of the package. “Did you want me to open this now, or would you prefer if I waited? I can take it upstairs before we head out.”

Barrier finally lowered his hoof to the ground, and his frame visibly stiffened as Tail shot an inquisitive stare. “Zacherle help me,” he muttered under his breath before speaking up. “You can open it now. I think it’ll set the tone for the night.”

Repositioning herself, Tail shifted the package forward and reached with her opposing hoof. Fleeting glances caught the blush that appeared on Barrier’s muzzle as she tore through the glimmering cobalt wrapping paper to expose an unmarked purplish cardboard lid. Another sequence of maneuvers transferred the top to her other wing, which allowed the mare to peek inside.

“No way!” Tail squeaked, immediately scooping the soft, fluffy gift from its dark confines. She raised the acquired teddy bear towards the sky, beaming at the icy-blue dots that returned her stare, its charcoal-colored cloth, and the blue-striped hair that capped the plush. “You got me a Magic Bear!?”

The pegasus did not wait for the actual Barrier’s response. She dragged the toy closer and planted a soft kiss on its forehead. “This is for you,” she spoke quietly, turning around to carry the gift inside with as much speed as her sore extremities would tolerate after the excitement. She swished her namesake and looked over her shoulder at the unmoving unicorn. “You wait right there. When I get back, there will be a far more memorable one for you.”

Barrier’s ears succumbed to the redness that had initially infected his cheeks. He briskly nodded to the mare while she vanished into the void of the stairwell, and his response stumbled into a relatively humble existence. “Guess I didn’t go too overboard.”

I really hope that this is one of those memories that we’ll always cherish.

While I’m thinking about it, Magic Bear Bear, Magic Bear Squared?, is beyond adorable. Now I have another cute captain to keep me company, and this one is cuddly and fun-sized. Every time I look at him, I start giggling like a little kid. Who would have guessed that our stern officer would come up with such a sweet, sappy gift? Now, for what it’s worth, I can’t say I wouldn’t have been extremely amused by Princess Cadance’s quasi-suggestion, but my new teddy bear is certainly more practical.

Don’t give me that look, Future Me. I know you probably want to get to the best part of the night, but the tangentials are important to fully reminisce! It didn’t take me very long to figure out that our trot around Canterlot was winding towards Pop’s…

The instant Tail saw the diner, she realized that something was off. In the windows, all the shades were pulled down despite the fact that the sun’s brightness no longer posed an inconvenience. It would not surprise her at all if less-observant ponies assumed the establishment was closed, but the fluorescent ambiance that bled around the edges of the drapes shouted that someone was home.

Barrier gestured towards the entryway, providing a silent nudge to the mare’s confidence that sent her scooting towards the forest-green door. The voyage, however, was immediately stopped once Tail noticed the absence of the sleigh bell strap. In its place, a sign had been hooked to the anchor. “Closed for a private function.”

Two threads of thought bombarded the scientist’s heart. A pang of disappointment ripped through her chest at the idea that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy their favorite restaurant. Her wings opted to speak a different language. They fluttered and lifted, catching the auspicious script written by a filly who could still believe in knights and fairy tales.

“Showtime,” Trot Bell’s muffled voice crept through the doorway. The dusty-cream earth pony popped the latch and pushed the entrance open. The bearded stallion flashed a mischievous grin while his emerald eyes snagged Tail’s attention. On this night, he wore a black and white shirt printed to look like a tuxedo, and he promptly bowed to the pegasus before unleashing the fakest Prench accent Tail had heard in her life. “On-shont-tay, Mademoiselle, and welcome to Père’s Place.”

Trot shuffled backwards, revealing the aesthetic changes the diner had received for the occasion. The cultural memorabilia, neon signs, and odd trinkets still caked the walls and shelves. The additions were what made Tail speechless.

Taking a step forward, Tail glanced around to absorb the field of potted forget-me-nots that conquered the space. The colorful sea of blues, purples, and whites made her eyes water as they sparkled for the countless five-pointed flowers. “You’ve now gone over the top twice,” she mumbled, twirling around to face Barrier. “You knew they were my favorite?”

“Sincerity,” the unicorn admitted. “Your brother also dropped the hint that you had a thing for living plants too, so the pots stood out as the best op—”

Closing her eyes, Tail threw her forelegs around Barrier’s neck, dragged her body towards his bulky frame, and planted a kiss on his lips. Warmth overwhelmed her emotions and cleared the pathway for liquid happiness to run down her muzzle. Her ears swayed to the sound of his sharp gasp and the rumbling moan that followed.

Responding to the purr, Tail veered her hoof placement, caressed his mane, and melted into the embrace. She shuddered when one of his forelegs discovered one of her wings, and his other available hoof meandered through her curling mane just above the back of her neck.

“Whoa, Nellie!” Trot exclaimed, giving the couple even more space. “You silly foals! If you have all the dessert now, there won’t be any room left for the amazing dinner Candy and I have in store for you.”

Tail snorted at the comment, and her lips couldn’t resist stretching out to accommodate her consequential twittering. She retreated a few inches and wiped her eyes before happily meeting Barrier’s shellshocked, dopey smirk. “I’ll never turn down a meal from you, Trot, but this stallion is too savory to pass up.”

“Ah! Ah! Ah!” the owner quipped, hastily heading towards the griddle station. Swishing his bushy tail, the earth pony roared with laughter. “Don’t let the gar-sown get in the way of the moment. Got it!”

“That’s not what I said at all,” Tail called, turning her head to the side so she could see the boisterous cook. The physicist puffed her cheeks and ruffled her feathers at the mere notion that she would be that rude, but her retort only caused the chef to howl even more.

She was about to counter again when Barrier’s hoof slid along her chin. The stallion gently guided Tail’s attention back to him, and he greeted the feisty flier with a serene smile. “Professor.”

The tuft of fur on Tail’s chest expanded outward after the pegasus lost herself in the glow of Barrier’s irides. “Yes?” she asked in a dreamy daze.

“You already know how I am when it comes to making speeches, and I think most guys probably wait until later in the night. I also think your brother got it right with his song, so if I can keep being upfront before dinner”—his timbre clutched a husky tone that rose just above the volume of a whisper—“will you be my marefriend?”

Tail knew it was coming, and yet, she flushed regardless. Her essence opened to the buoyant sensation that made the scientist feel as though she were floating on a cloud, and she affectionately nuzzled against Barrier’s hoof. “I’m going to have to thank that dork, aren’t I?” she chortled giddily. “And yes, absolutely yes, this professor would love to be your marefriend. You even get extra credit for showing your work.”

Trot hummed as he started working on a pile of hash browns. “Congratulations, Bucko! Just leave the rest of your night to us. The second booth on the left is all yours.”

Chapter 25 - Flowers, Coils, and Pegasus Pride

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Sighing in relief, Tail made her way up the apartment steps after making a run to the post office. A week had passed since her magical date with Barrier, and the mare had finally decided to come clean by informing her parents of the news. Of course, Sincerity Chain had likely already beaten her to the punch. He was notoriously terrible at keeping secrets after spending all those years sweating his emotion out on the stage.

Tail simply shook her head and snickered at the thought. After all, she didn’t particularly mind her brother’s antics, especially when they proved to be useful, and it was not as though she had a strong base on which to mount a complaint anyway. A smile swept over her countenance at the behest of Exhibit A, and her wings fluttered and tingled as the echo of Barrier’s touch raced around her memory.

She pranced through the living room and marched down the short hallway before slipping through the first doorway on the left to enter her room. There, a portion of the Pop’s Place Forget-Me-Not Meadow had found a new place of refuge. The pots covered every available surface that hadn’t been drowned in paper clutter, which meant the top of her bookcase and the portion of her desk by the window.

Whistling one of Sincy’s songs, the physicist flopped onto her desk chair and opened her journal. “A lot happened in the last seven days,” she spoke to the leaves of paper, “so let’s make sure I got it all down.”

Night 93 — It was kind of silly having Trot and Candy bring out a multicourse meal to us in the diner, but Trot was exceptionally sweet. I swear! Every time we go there, he just lets Barrier and me carry on our conversations until closing time becomes a distant memory. In this case, it was more letting us get cozy on the same side of the booth without too many interruptions. :3c

Still, when we decided to leave, Trot went and pulled out two big Princess PushRPull style wagons so I could take the plants if I wanted to. Figured that my office and bedroom could use a little more lively decoration. Though, keeping the plants in the lab will require some experimentation. Not sure if the lighting down there is a sufficient source of U.V., but that’s what monitoring is for. The exciting bit happened when—

Trying to quietly push carts through Canterlot in the night was not an easy feat. The rattling of the axles as they battled the cobblestone road peaked just below Tail’s anxiety on the matter. But if one of those wheels squeaked? Her guilt-ridden frown returned.

“I’m going to have to put a stop to that,” Barrier spoke up after the worrisome expression got plastered onto Tail’s muzzle for the second time. His horn lit, and once his bluish aura coated the red and white wheel caps, the pestering whine was heard no more.

“My hero,” Tail crooned, playfully batting her eyelashes at Barrier. Without having to worry about the noise disturbing the peace, the mare relaxed. She already had to deal with her muscles raging about the minuscule force that had to be overcome to push the wagon. The last thing she wanted was for some angry Carin’ to show up and derail the perfect day.

“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” the stallion muttered. “That sound is grating, clearly bothering you, and would likely bother somepony else. Definitely not how I plan to end the night that I become a feathery little Blanket’s coltfriend.”

Tail’s wings ruffled, drawing a warm chuckle from the captain. She held a sweet, alluring hum while taking nearly a dozen steps. The note dwindled, setting the stage for a quick breath and the answer that followed. “You really did surprise me tonight, Magic Bear. The dinner, the diner, the flowers, and the Magic Bear Bear?” Her feathers blissfully shuddered again.

“I’m just glad I didn’t screw it up,” he laughed, glancing towards the pegasus as they pushed their respective carts through the cool Canterlot night.

Tail bit her lower lip and calmed her rambunctious appendages as the couple started trotting by one of the few buildings in the capital that seemed out of place. While most of the structures within the city walls stuck to the alabaster, regal aesthetic, this large, two-and-a-half-story building was constructed using mostly red brick.

The Revival architectural style, terra-cotta cornices, and window surrounds weren’t lost on Tail either. However, the most notable feature ended up being the armor-clad stallion standing at the main entrance of what turned out to be Canterlot Orphanage.

“Indar?” Tail asked, tilting her head before the unicorn turned to face the officers. The pegasus immediately brightened at the sight of her old squadmate. “It is you. How is O.C.S. going?”

The taupe stallion instinctively popped a salute the second after his umber eyes registered that he was standing before Barrier and Tail. “Captain, Colonel,” he spoke crisply as his gauntlet-plated hoof rested against his helm. “O.C.S. is going well. I just decided to slip home for the weekend to check in on the family, ma’am.”

Flexing her foreleg a few times, Tail teasingly scolded the guard, “Indar, it’s date night. Put it down. Neither of us is on duty, and from the looks of it, neither are you.”

Stepping between the wagons, Barrier lifted his eyebrow and stared at his former pupil. “You said you were slipping home for the weekend, Sergeant?” he asked. His eyes slid up the railed steps, and he confirmed the signage printed above two windowed doors.

“Yes, sir,” Indar responded as his dropped forehoof tapped against the cement. His facial features stretched into an awkward grimace that conveyed a sense of unease. “You see, I’m an orphan, so before I signed, this was home.”

“It still is your home, you silly foal,” an elderly voice dribbled from an opened window. Behind a mesh screen, the darkened face of a yellow mare flirted with the notion of appearance. “I was starting to think you’d finally forgotten about us, but lo and behold, there you are. Now, why don’t you be a dear and come inside? Invite your friends in too. Some of the older ones are still up, and I know they’ll all love to see you.”

It’s kind of amazing how far Indar has come, considering what he’s had to struggle through. Really explains his demeanor! But my goodness, was he a sweety with those kids. And! An entire cart of forget-me-nots is now in the hooves of excited caretakers — with their mother’s help, of course.

Day 98 — Dr. Secret really confuses me. The pony’s — creature’s? — mathematical expressions look right. I mean, I got through Shining’s shield by testing an application of one of them, but things are strange when you start thinking about theoretical abstractions. An A.E.U.-limiter, for example, looks like a failing concept in the face of the divergence formula. Is this a firm basis for what I saw with Barrier in Las Pegasus, or are there just further layers to the constants? Do I have to wiggle my hooves and throw around some tensors? Just makes me wonder if I’m flirting with new physics here, or if this is just uncovering a case of society growing complacent because alicorns are around…

Whatever, that’s your problem, Future Me. Present Tail has better bits of news that are far more concrete! 1) My legs don’t feel like they’re getting bucked off anymore, and 2) Barrier and I found an incredible set of coils!

“By Luna’s moon-stamped ass!” Tail wailed as she scribbled down her collection of data entries for coil Barrier 9-F. The physicist unloaded an exuberant squeal that ascended to the ceiling above before producing an echo. “This one lasted thirty minutes too? That’s all six in the set. I’m going to have to fiddle around with these some more.”

“We are right here,” Luna deadpanned, swishing her star-kissed tail in a momentary fit of worn agitation. “And it seems unlikely that my ass has anything to do with the results of your test.”

Tail spun her chair around as Barrier grunted with amusement. The pegasus met the lab-coat-wearing alicorn with a sparkling stare that completely overwhelmed the Princess of the Night’s fatigued disposition. “Au contraire, I think that both of your asses now have everything to do with it.” Tail adjusted her goggles, leapt out of her seat, and sped towards one of her waveguides.

“I need coffee,” Luna groaned, her eyelids drooping behind the protective goggles. She rolled her head to the side and loosed a sigh in Barrier’s direction.

“Still not as bad as Twilight,” Barrier teased after a smirk spread across his muzzle. “You shouldn’t have volunteered to wake up in the afternoon if you couldn’t handle the responsibilities that go along with a sciencepon on a mission.”

“And to think we offered you the library bed!” Luna boomed in a shout that swelled dangerously close to the famous Royal Canterlot Voice.

Tail snapped into a straightened posture after she slipped an uncharged shell into the output end of the Generosity Waveguide. She gestured with her hoof to the potted forget-me-nots that occupied the tabletops and replied, “Don’t scare my plants. And, for the record, I would repay the favor and put a bed down here for you, but Amora would definitely come after me. If you need to go back to sleep, I’m not going to hold it against you. We can arrange a more suitable time for me to get another sample from you. Barrier can help me put Generosity through its paces, and then I can retest the 9-type coils using a shell of his magic at the core.”

Scoffing, Luna lifted her head and grunted. Her ethereal mane seemed to frizzle, and once again, her tail quickly traced a swooping arc. “You dare issue such a challenge to me, Tail? Your princess has the power to move a celestial object across the heavens. Charging a thaumium crystal is a filly’s errand compared to the incomprehensible force required to set my moon on its path.”

“Hm, interesting,” Tail retorted. She pushed one of the waveguide levers into a locking position and started trotting towards Luna. The scientist’s lab coat fanned behind her in a dramatic wave that followed a small goggle adjustment. Tail flicked her used wingtip outward just as a sly grin formed. “During the Summer Sun Celebration, it took you two-point-seven-five seconds to fully ramp your moon to the desired angular velocity. Assuming optimal directional control, that means you apply roughly 750 septillion units of incomprehensible force to your heavenly body.”

Watching Tail slam a forehoof down in triumph, Luna blinked. She gawked at the scientist until another groan gurgled from her throat, and the declaration that emerged on the ensuing breath carried all of the alicorn’s energy from her slumping figure. “I need coffee!”

Day 99 — Today was the last day of my sparring regimen with Shining Armor. That’s not to say that there is nothing left for him to show me — because that is definitely not the case. Let me remind you — if you somehow forgot — that anypony who thinks that the Royal Guard is unsuited to do combat has never seen Shining when he is in Captain Armor mode. Making any dent in his shield spell while he is actively countering was absolutely impossible three sessions ago.

Now, I’m at least putting up a fight. I even got to test the other two potential methods in an active scenario. Spoiler: my hunch was pretty much right. They require a lot more precision than I can currently muster on the fly, but progress is progress. I still can’t believe I was beating myself up over stuff a couple weeks ago. I mean, I know Barrier is in my corner, but I should have also known — implicitly — that Shining and Trigger had my back too…

Bolts bounced along Captain Armor’s horn as he launched his counterattack. The spell that Tail had grown accustomed to being spherical in shape now resembled a stained-glass variant of a traditional soldier issue. Its surface slammed into the pegasus with enough force to lift Tail off the ground, but Shining was far from done. His horn sparked again, and an identical barrier spawned above Tail’s position to execute a pincer maneuver.

Tail growled the instant she felt her hooves leave the dirt. Her ears swerved to scan for any sign of the coming tactic, and her wings cocked in preparation for flight. She’d been sandwiched by the officer’s moves more than enough times that morning, and the scowl that beset her visage telegraphed her frustration—along with her desire to utterly obliterate said frustration.

With a sudden second buzz prodding her senses, Tail’s brain clicked. Her feathered appendages sent her into a rolling motion. She retracted both of her forelegs, simultaneously spinning two Bullet Flash pikes into existence in the process, and after she had made a single half rotation, Tail threw her limbs outward to slash each of the defenses.

The glowing rods of lightning dug into Shining’s spellcraft and produced deafening squeals that shot across the yard. Unfortunately for the flier, her assault did not fully shatter the intended targets. Instead, Tail had ripped out sizable chunks in the captain’s namesakes that left a pair of massively exploitable holes.

Shining snagged the mare in the fallout of her own attack. He forced her limbs through the openings and marched his shields onward until they neatly pressed against her barrel. Her rotation stopped, Tail simply dangled in midair—frozen in place by the restrictive casts.

You’re learning. You’re learning! Tail’s logical thoughts tried to wrangle the inferno that blazed everywhere else. Her nostrils flared as a heated breath escaped, and her blood boiled. The scowl she had been wearing morphed into an even more intense glare as that pesky pegasus pride kept urging her to fight. Even if the previous 1919 engagements had demonstrated the pointlessness of extraneous struggling, the feeling that pushed Tail’s pounding heart didn’t care too much for rationalization. She wanted to shred the damn things.

To his credit, Shining did not keep Tail in that position for very long. He completed her unfinished rotation and dissolved his magical aura in such a way that Tail gently returned to the earth. “You kind of look like you want to kill me right now,” the Captain of the Royal Guard carefully spoke.

Two more deep breaths passed through the mare’s lungs, and her sights remained completely affixed to Shining’s face. She read him—searching for the spark, the twitch, the line, anything that would help her conquer the questions in her head. When’s he going to attack again? What change do I need to make to get the upper hoof?

“You know that Cady was a pegasus before she became an alicorn, right?” Shining added, maintaining his more reserved tone. “I know that Hurricane’s Way runs deep, so I think I can make a fairly good guess about what you’re asking yourself right now. Probably some variation on ‘how do I win.’”

Tail flinched. The longer Shining’s words bit into her consciousness, the more embarrassed she felt. She slowly folded her wings, tucking them tightly against her sides before responding with a nod. Despite the acknowledgment straight from the Captain of the Royal Guard, her hubris still plucked premonitions of arrogance to prepare her mental defenses. That part of her mind fully expected some cocky continuation. Her rational side thanked the stars it didn’t happen.

“We’re not competitors. No matter how quippy I might get, or how much it might feel like I’m pot-shotting your ego, I’m here to provide some tools to help you grow.” The blue-maned unicorn’s expression brightened as he pointed to Tail with a white foreleg. “Your only competition is Past Tail, and you’re definitely winning that fight. Your endurance has gained a few stat points. Your strength is getting a nice buff also, so you’re making good progress here.

“That being said, I think you can grow even more if you slightly tweak your mindset when it comes to sparring. Asking yourself how to win might be enough in certain instances. For example, having useful intelligence on an enemy will make all the difference in the world once you’re in combat. I’m not trying to push you away from that with this advice, but the questions that I think you should address are a little different. If you’re pinned in a shield sandwich, what technique do you have to get out of it? Can you fashion something to help yourself?

“You can carry charge over your body, but are you reliant on your forehooves to produce the Bullet Flash? In this scenario, splitting your forelegs between targets led to an entrapment. Is there a different motion that could be applied to minimize that danger? Those are the types of things that shift Pegasus Pride away from the notion of winning and towards the notion of surviving.”

The scientist’s racing pulse relaxed in the wake of Shining’s insight, and her stare finally softened as she sat upon the grass. “Hm, I’ve really only tried my cloud compression techniques with my forelegs. Hadn’t really had a reason to do otherwise, but you make a good point. Turning that into a reliance is a hindrance in combat, and in hindsight, spreading my legs was really dumb. I just didn’t want to get pincered again, but that’s what ended up happening anyway.”

Shining snickered, rolled his shoulders, and cracked his neck. “I believe you would claim that is what collecting data is for, Colonel. Seems to me that there’s still a little bit of daylight left for me to work with, and I’m down for running through some more scenarios until then. It’s technically the last session of my three-week set too, so if there’s anything you’d like to ask or try, now’s the time.”

Tail glanced down at the tufts of fur around her unshorn hind hooves. “I guess I could give it a try,” she mumbled, biting her lower lip before returning her attention to Captain Armor. “Do you mind if I give bucking a shot?”

Beneath the archways, Barrier and Trigger shared a few chuckles of their own. Pitching his muzzle towards the creature of reverie, the former spoke up once he had made eye contact. “So, what do you think, Trigs?”

“I think Shining did a half-decent job,” Trigger replied through a sly smile. “And I think Flicker has already got the skills to answer the shit she got asked. I have some ideas of my own on how to move her along. By the time I give her back to you, Barry, she’s gonna be a lot better on that pitch.”

Chapter 26 - Cowgirl Under the Sun

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Trigger tossed his hat to Magic Barrier and stepped out into the afternoon light. As he claimed the training field, his silvery mane parted and his horn decloaked, an action which unleashed a wave of energy that flowed over the yard. While the release made both Barrier and Amora tense up, the vest-wearing stallion didn’t seem particularly concerned with their reactions. Instead, he kept his focus tuned to Tail as his aura continued to radiate.

The mare’s wings quivered from the relentless pressure, and an impulsive gulp raced down Tail’s throat. She gawked at his glowing horn, hypnotically observing the amber band that wrapped around the dark spire.

“We talked about this already, Flicker. Ya couldn’t sense inbound teleports, includin’ one from my fuckin’ kid, and that’s a problem for an officer of your caliber.” He lifted one of his forelegs and shrugged. “Now, your performance with Shining Armor brought some other shit to my attention that I want to get to sooner rather than later, so for now, I just want to do one thing on the topic of your sensitivity range.”

Pawing the grass, Tail nodded. “What did you have in mind?” she asked, her feathers still wiggling about at the behest of both Trigger’s auguric field and her mounting curiosity.

“Ya clearly feel this,” he answered, referring to his own spell, “but I want to know when ya can’t anymore. Shut your eyes, ignore everything other than the sensation I give ya, and let me know when it goes away.”

“Okay, experimentation. Got it.” Shaking out all six of her limbs, Tail closed her eyes as instructed and tried to ignore the routine rumbles of the castle grounds. She homed in on the unease that pressed against her feathers and chest, and she fought to cling to that awareness with all of the mental might she could muster.

However, like the simmering coals in the pit of a dying fire, the signatures of Trigger’s presence became fainter as the seconds passed. Tail’s ear flicked and her muzzle scrunched when she realized the tightness in her chest had vanished, yet the tingles that trickled along the edges of her wings loitered for about half a minute longer. Eventually, they subsided as well, and once they did, Tail blurted, “Now!”

“Don’t open ‘em yet,” Trigger commanded, his unchanged volume hinting to the pegasus that the stallion had not moved from his known location. “The muzzle scrunch, what was it about, Professor?”

Tail tilted her head, cooed, and lifted her brow. “I really didn’t take you to be the quizzing type, Colonel, but—uh—the feeling I had in my chest went away first. I could tell you were still casting, thanks to my wings, for a little while after that point.”

“I’m still casting, Flicker,” the mage quipped and snorted. “Just dialed back the strength. Ya don’t spend a lifetime around a scientist and educator without pickin’ up a few habits, so let’s roll with it. Why do ya think your wings were the last to go?”

“Well, that one makes a lot of sense on a fundamental level. Wings are generally the preferential guiding channels for weather magic among pegasi. I’d naïvely expect them to be the most magically sensitive body part.” Still drifting within her sightless realm, Tail bobbed her head as she spoke and swayed one of her wingtips around as though she were addressing a lecture hall.

“Nailed that one, which isn’t much of a surprise comin’ from a science horse. So, I’ll do ya a favor and stimulate your data-driven mind. I’m currently pumping out about two-tenths of an A.E.U. at a distance of five meters. A competent unicorn’s standard teleport would make noise at around this level. I’m going to get closer, and I’d like ya to tell me when ya get that feeling in your wings again.”

Tail crouched and fanned her feathered appendages. Her limbs twitched and her ears perked in search of the unicorn. Of course, Trigger didn’t make a detectable sound during this portion of the experimentation. That additional piece of information would completely invalidate the result, and the impressive stealth with which Trigger moved did not go unnoticed by the pegasus.

Once a minute had passed though, the anxiety began to weigh more heavily on the waiting mare. She clenched her eyelids shut with greater force and began rolling her wings back and forth. Is he already right on top of me? she pondered, crouching a bit lower to brace herself for a jump scare. Come on, why am I not feeling it? He’s got to be close. Just find him!

A frustrated breath burst from her nostrils as she fought the increased urge to just say something and be done with it. That’s no better than quitting! What kind of example is that? Just wait for it…

And thus, Tail endured the darkness for a duration that seemed an order of magnitude longer than what Trigger actually put her through. Her facial features contorted and shifted throughout the tense battle, and the flier kept sidestepping the psychological pitfalls that converted every distant sound or unrelated physiological response into a signal detection.

“Finally!” she squealed once significant pinches sprinted down the nerves in her wings. Her eyelids popped up, revealing Trigger’s location to be about one meter in front of her muzzle, and her ears splayed in response to the closeness. Keeping her gaze affixed to the stallion, Tail inhaled slowly before releasing a knowing sigh.

Trigger just shrugged. “It’s not great, Flicker, but it’s not hopeless either. At least ya didn’t fall for the baiting and tell me that ya could sense my ass when I was over by the archways. That would have been straight trash. Now, since Shining isn’t here to hear me say it, I’ll reiterate his message. I’m here to help ya grow.

“He’s also right that ya gotta get into the mindset of askin’ the right questions. If a pony can teleport to this distance without any inbound indicator, that pony will likely wreck your shit. How do ya counter? How do ya live? How do ya make it to tomorrow? Right now, all that jazz is philosophical bullshit, which is nice and all, but I think ya got a potential, practical, hoofs-on answer in your pocket already.

“Ya spent the last three weeks attackin’ defenses, but what are ya gonna do when ya get matched up against a striker who’s stronger? How are ya gonna stay on guard, and what are your own counters going to be? At the end of the day, there are two options in that scenario: run or fight harder. As far as I’m concerned, ya spent—what?—three fuckin’ months learnin’ how to run yourself ragged around this yard. It’s time to learn how to kick some ass.”

Listening intently, Tail gradually morphed from a calm, seated student into a vibrating, pumped pegasus. She huffed and fashioned a determined expression that had been anchored by a furrowed eyebrow and tightly pressed lips. For a moment, Tail relished Trigger’s abhorrently blunt, yet exuberant delivery. The raw beats and abrasive colloquialisms reminded the mare of a history professor she had during her undergrad days. If that were any clue, it meant she was in for a good time.

Intrigue also worked in mostly expected ways. Tail’s wings flapped with excitement to a particular verse from the stallion. “You think I have an answer already?” she asked before a smile broke her more serious demeanor.

“Yup, I sure do,” Trigger answered. His horn started to glow brighter as the intensity of his spell increased. “The second method ya tried with Shining—the one with the field loops—looked promisin’. Why don’t we start there? I would like to experience the demonstration myself.”

“You want the second method?” Tail reiterated. One of her cheeks floated on a rising sense of disbelief, and she punctuated her abrupt bewilderment with an embellished flick of her namesake. “Really? I backed off of it with Captain Armor because it felt like I was entering secondary effect territory. That one tackles the field ramp over time, and it didn’t seem to be as effective when going up against him in a more active sparring environment.”

“Different circumstances, Flicker. With Shining, your startin’ goal was to get through a stationary object while he stood around. Ya had to work to make the Bullet Flash, right? Now, are ya tellin’ me that ya’d rather sit around because a technique didn’t help ya get through Shining’s bubblegum crap?” The creature of reverie snickered and shook his head. “Nah, of course not. That doesn’t sound like ya, at all. So I’m gonna work ya until that skill becomes natural. Don’t worry though! I’ll be turnin’ this exercise into a game to make it a bit more fun for us—at least for today anyway. Once ya get good, it’ll become a full-on brawl.”

Tail stood once the notion of Trigger’s game piqued her interest. The echoes of astonishment faded from her countenance as the muscles around her muzzle relaxed. “And just how do you plan to make it a game, Colonel?”

Sweat soaked Tail’s trapped fur as she fought to stay upright. Exposed portions of the mare’s coat appeared matted and smudged—as though she had been hit by multiple objects and dragged through the dirt. Exhausted, she wobbled atop three hooves while her raised fourth limb commanded a pulsing ring of electrical current that hovered in the air in front of her worn frame.

Her wings trembled with tiredness as well, but the determined physicist kept them partially opened. Weather magic poured through the feathered appendages, which produced two additional current rings that guarded Tail’s flanks.

“Bring it,” she muttered under her breath as her fiery sights locked onto Trigger. Despite the fact that the two had been going at it for hours, the stallion looked no worse for wear. Tail could not resist gritting her teeth at the ridiculous spectacle again and again, and her mind could not escape the frequent question that now plagued its processes. How the fuck does he have that kind of stamina?

Trigger fired off three amber pulses that zipped across the field. With a separation of roughly ten meters between the stallion and the scientist, Tail did have a window of opportunity to adjust the locations of her magical defenses to optimize the interceptions. In this case, however, no additional optimization was necessary. The mage of dreams accurately dumped the rounded, translucent attacks right through the centers of the mare’s swirling fields.

Shouting and squeaking after the rings did nothing to slow down the bombardment, Tail recoiled. Colliding with her body, the magical bolts popped and disintegrated once they had transferred enough momentum to resemble a foam-dart projectile that had been amped up with an industrial spring—or some other form of toy-conglomerate sorcery.

While the strikes themselves hadn’t been devastating in the slightest, Tail gasped for breath. Her wings drooped. Her foreleg fell to the ground, and she began to lean forward as her balance succumbed to the costs of manipulating that sort of weather magic for the entire afternoon. Suddenly, her chest and muzzle found sanctuaries in the warmth of Barrier and Trigger, both of whom had moved to her location with a speed that Tail’s brain just could not currently comprehend.

“Oh, hello,” she mumbled dazedly after her lungs had settled enough. She struggled to keep her eyelids open once Barrier had gently removed her helmet, and that effort proved even more daunting when she managed to shift her muzzle a bit deeper into Barrier’s wonderfully smelling coat. “I don’t think that went very well, Trigger.”

“Is she fuckin’ kidding me, Barry?” the stallion retorted as he reclaimed his hat with his magic.

Barrier grimaced as he took on more of Tail’s limp mass. “I think she’s done for the day, Trigs,” he answered in a reserved, concerned tone.

“Of course she’s done. I know that already, but it definitely went well. Ya made three simultaneous counters, Flicker, used different parts of your body to do it, and kept goin’ until ya just couldn’t go anymore…”

“I hate quitting,” Tail mumbled again before she shifted her burrowing target to Barrier’s heavenly mane.

Trigger hummed as he repositioned his levitating Coltston over Tail’s head. He plopped the hat onto her battle-ruffled mane and chuckled. “Since my magic is gonna be on display for a few weeks anyway, I think ya best hold onto that for me until ya realize that no one’s gonna say that ya did.”

Lunch was already being served in Canterlot by the time Tail awoke. Her second session with Trigger hadn’t exactly produced dramatic changes in the scientist’s progress. She still was incapable of slowing down the stallion’s projectiles, and a test in which she incredibly made four stacked field rings yielded yet another fruitless result.

Her eyes rolled skyward, catching sight of the Coltston brim that swept out from the crown of her head. “You’re right though,” she muttered to an imaginary version of the unicorn. “A 33.33-percent increase isn’t anything to laugh at, but just what am I going to do when one of your spells is enough to rip through all four?”

Turning her attention from the overcast sky to the saddlebag dangling at her side, Tail nickered. Amora and Barrier had been explicit in their instructions for her off-day. Lab work that involved magical manipulation was out of the question, and since forging stainless-steel components was the next step on her program checklist, that wasn’t going to happen without breaking two-and-a-half cardinal rules. Don’t fuck with the medic, and don’t fuck with your C.O.-turned-coltfriend.

Thankfully for the physicist, there was another checklist to tackle—one that involved a package from Sincy, a new notebook, and a rendezvous with a secluded library. “I should also think up a good name for that technique too,” Tail pondered aloud. “Loops and rings just don’t stand up to the Bullet Flash.”

I have to see what’s in that package from Sincy, as well. She briefly glanced at the padded brown envelope that had been tucked into the cloth confines of her carrier. He’s probably written some elaborate apology message because I bet he couldn’t resist blabbing about Barrier to Mom and Dad.

Tail spent the remainder of the walk allowing her brain to slosh between thinking about her brother’s antics, potential names for her maneuver, and what her research into Dr. Secret’s notes would uncover next. When she stepped onto the palace grounds, most of the guards paid her no mind—though a few tried to sneak looks at the familiar hat that sat upon her head.

Getting into the private estate without Princess Luna serving as an escort, however, proved to be a more difficult experience. Two guards crossed their spears in front of the imposing gold-plated doors that separated Tail from that beautiful library, and a third, rapidly shifting his gaze from Trigger’s hat to Tail’s bag, circled around the colonel like a cat on the prowl.

“Guys,” she spoke, pulling an ornate iron key from the satchel. She held it out towards the scouring soldier and deliberately showed the decorations depicting the royal seals. “I literally have a key to the building. Please let me in.”

“Would be a breach of protocol,” the patrolling white pegasus spoke up. He tapped Tail’s canvas pack with his wingtip and affixed his silvery gaze onto the physicist’s visage. “What’re you carrying, ma’am?”

“What am I carrying? Seriously? A package from my brother, a blank notebook, some ink, and my own feather quills. You’ve been gawking at it all for like a minute. You can see what it is.” Tail’s cheek twitched after she answered, and an annoyed scowl gradually usurped her expression.

“What’s in the package?” the blue-maned stallion continued, his resolute stare unwavering.

Tail lifted her foreleg and dramatically slapped her hoof against her cheek. “What’s in the package? I don’t know yet. I haven’t opened it.”

“Could be contraband,” the guard flatly replied before briefly peering at his squadmates. “Princess Celestia is due to return from an extremely important sortie at any moment. It would be against procedure to let somepony into the estate until she is returned to a verified safe zone.”

Taking a deep breath, Tail carefully lowered her leg. She exhaled slowly in an effort to dissipate the aggravation that made her heart furiously pound. Calm down, Tail, she reassured herself. They could be rookies for all you know, and maybe this is an example of standard protocol that Luna didn’t tell you about. You’re dealing with the Princesses’ private abode, after all. It is not some regular hall.

“I see,” Tail eventually replied. Dragging her focus up the facade of the structure, Tail silently noted how faded the white stone appeared under cloudy skies. The burgundy tile roof, on-the-other-hoof, blossomed in its pairing with the grey, and the covered watchtowers that capped the corners of the estate loomed overhead. “So, if I wait here for Princess Celestia, would that work with your procedure?”

Celestia’s laughter carried along the interior corridor that led to the Private Palace Library. “I can’t believe they made you wait! I just went on a muffin run to Lilac and Lavender. Though”—she snapped her head side-to-side—“I may have snuck in a couple of cupcakes, and Moon Glow threw in some extra little treats too.” Still giggling, the Princess of the Sun jiggled the two paper bags that she held in her magical grip.

“And I still can’t believe the extremely important sortie was just about foodstuffs,” Tail grumbled as she kept pace at the alicorn’s side. “Though, I really don’t have any basis for complaint. Ambrosia and Moon Glow make exceptional goodies, and your house guards have to stick by the judgment calls that they think are right. Minor inconvenience for me? Yes. Worth not being yelled at by superiors? Also yes.”

“Well, at least that will not be a problem going forward. I’ll make sure that all the squads on that detail know that you’re to be admitted without a royal escort during standard court hours.” Celestia shared a warm smile with the pegasus. “On a more personal note, Luna has been keeping me updated on some of your advancements, but we haven’t had a substantial one-on-one chat since your adventure began.”

The Princess of the Sun halted her trot in front of a pair of stained-glass doors that depicted seven ponies floating around the planet. The characters bathed the world in what Tail presumed to be the Light of Knowledge, but ironically, the only one of the bunch the younger mare recognized was Starswirl.

Golden bands wrapped around Celestia’s horn before the paned gateway parted at the behest of the alicorn’s magic. She tilted her head to reaffix her gaze to the lavender pegasus and continued, “From what Luna has told me, it seems you might have some exciting things to share. Considering that you are wearing Trigger’s hat, I am definitely now inclined to believe her. What I mean to ask, since I have some time until my next appointment, is if you wouldn’t mind some company.”

One of Tail’s ears flopped against the Coltston. She scanned the princess’s bright-pink irides for any hint that there was a classic royal troll in progress. When she found none, the scientist snickered and shrugged. “Are you actually asking me if you can join me in your own library, Princess Celestia? That seems kind of backwards to me. Of course you can. As for Trigger’s hat”—Tail lifted opposing legs and struck a heroic pose—“he told me to keep it until we were done, so I’m going to rock the cowgirl look.”

“Hehehe, excellent!” Celestia shimmied enthusiastically before practically leaping into the library. “I haven’t had a study party in ages. I can even offer some of these treats, but only after you tell me what is happening with your training first.”

Watching the plumes of white feathers bundle ahead of her, Tail crossed the threshold into the pristine study. She immediately swayed her course towards Section W and replied to the alicorn in a contemplative stream of vocalized thoughts. “Mm, well, it’s been pretty tough. That’s for sure. Definitely got the impression that both Captain Armor had and Colonel Trigger have a game plan for me. With Shining, the task was to break his shield spell, and that was what led me to this spot.”

Tail plucked Dr. Secret’s notes from the bottom shelf and held the book up to the princess. “This,” she continued, “was extremely helpful in opening my eyes to some things. I was able to develop an extension of my cloud compression method to combat Captain Armor. Now I’m hoping it will help me deal with the insanity that is Trigger’s firepower.”

“Oh my, that is interesting,” Celestia mumbled around half of a chocolate cupcake that she had unceremoniously shoved into her muzzle. The Princess of the Sun lightly nudged her own throat and emphatically swallowed the bite of the dessert before she proceeded. “A pegasus successfully confronting a mage like Sir Trigger on the battlefield would be quite impressive. I don’t think you’d see challenges like the one from Proud ever again.”

Loosing a high-pitched hum, Tail sheepishly rubbed her cheek. “Well, that’s the thing. Trigger suggested I explore a specific technique, and I just don’t see it working yet. I’d demonstrate if it weren’t for doctor’s orders, but I’ll do my best to explain. The concept is to create electromagical field loops that counter inbound attacks, but those require a lot of stamina to form. Yesterday, I managed to stack up four of them—only to watch as the record-breaking arrangement failed to have any measurable impact on Trigger’s spell.”

The scientist plopped down on her haunches after expending her breath, and she threw in a sullen slouch to boot. “I think there are real scaling problems,” came the extra admission. “Ineffective and tiring do not make for a very successful combination.”

Again, the jingle and glow of Celestia’s magic tenderly swept through the room. In a few seconds, a chocolate chip muffin hovered within Tail’s reach, and the princess encouraged her subject to lay claim to the delicious acquisition. “Recharge, and come at it with a fresh perspective. Though, I imagine that’s why you’re here, and I’m probably more of a distraction than anything else.”

“Hardly,” Tail responded as she corralled the muffin with her left foreleg, “and thank you. Honestly, I think you and your sister have every right to know how my efforts are going. You’ve thrown an awful lot of resources my way, and without that opportunity, I wouldn’t be here at all. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have even found a permanent job. Plus, come on, it’s like a filly’s dream to munch muffins with the Princess of the Sun.”

Donning an impish grin, Celestia took a seat on some floor space adjacent to Tail. “You say that when the questions are about your research, my little pony, but I also want to know about you and Barrier. Cadance may have mentioned that he planned to make your relationship a bit more official…”

Tail completed a bite of her muffin right as the redness of a blush conquered her entire countenance. Her ears stood upright through the slits in the cowcolt hat, and her heart thumped as Celestia’s punctuated inflection immediately retrieved the physicist’s memories of that special date. She nodded. “We have.”

“I see,” the princess carried on. Celestia’s teasing timbre sent a shiver sliding up Tail’s spine, and the vulnerable pegasus found her wings and namesake flicking through an assuredly deliberate pause. “Well, as you know, your brother will be performing at the Grand Galloping Gala this year. Magic Barrier means a great deal to both my sister and me. The Crowns would be honored to offer an invitation to the new couple, especially if such a date night would make two of our finest officers happy.”

Chapter 27 - Integrals

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Digging into her second muffin of the day, Tail retained her place of refuge in the princesses’ private study. Celestia had left the physicist to her own devices. At least, that’s what the diarch opted to do after gleaning as much information as she could regarding Barrier’s surprise at Pop’s Place. Now, with that hurdle finally cleared, Tail could turn her attention to her original checklist for the day.

She retrieved the brown envelope from her saddlebag and carefully extracted the contents. The pegasus expected the onslaught of cursive hornwriting that neatly covered every available space on the parchment. What Tail did not expect to receive was a sleeved recorded single. “Explains the padded envelope,” she mumbled while setting the vinyl off to her side before she fully turned her focus to the note itself.

Dear Tail,

Thank you for being such an amazing sister, and thank you for opening up your home and life to me in a whole new way. Maybe it’s weird to hear this from a younger brother, but I am so incredibly proud of you. You just blow my mind all the time with how cool you are — and how you’re willing to keep a promise you made when I was four.

SincyStar still sounds amazing, and I continue to really dig the bite. In fact, I snuck in some time to drop a demo track of that song of yours using the best invention ever. That’s what the record is, by the way. Barley sat in to lay down some drums and bass, and I took the synthesizer and backup guitar parts. I left the main lick line open for you to play over though. Just in case you want to jam along on L.L. Maybe we can rock it out when I come back to Canterlot for the Gala — since I obviously think that you revelling in your musical side is dreamy.

Sorry for the pause — or if my writing looks worse from here on out. I had to put on the shades for this bit. Since your dreamy music is related to a certain stallion, this seems like the perfect moment to segue. An overnight postcard arrived yesterday from Mom “breaking” the news about you seeing a guy. No! I did not spill the beans early this time! Won’t deny that I wanted to. Barrier seems like a radical stallion, and if he makes you happy, which he obviously does, then I’m a happy bro.

I’ll be even happier if you write back to tell me he did the forget-me-not thing. Please tell me he did the forget-me-not thing! Seriously, pick up a quill right now and let me know. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then I’ll still think he’s a cool champ. But if he did it, then the colt is 5Head for listening to the sibling-based market research on what makes a Tail tick.

See you in a few weeks!

Love always,
Sincerity Chain

Tail giggled as she tucked the letter and record back into the padded envelope. Shaking her head at the collection of words, Tail placed Dr. Secret’s notebook next to her own. “That stallion is such a dork,” she rambled, flipping ahead about a dozen pages in the tome of information, “and what in Tartarus is 5Head? Is he tripping on modern slang again?”

Whatever the case, Tail’s battle resided less with her brother’s mannerisms and more with Dr. Secret’s story. The pegasus located the spot where she stopped reading during her previous visit and immediately resumed where she had left off.

I don’t want to limit myself when it comes to pondering potential applications of the divergence proportionality condition, but I must admit that I keep gravitating towards the theoretical implications instead. Our entire scale for measuring magic is gauged against the magical output of an alicorn — namely Callie for obvious reasons — but the unit is frankly bullshit. It’d be like basing the kilogram on an arbitrary mass housed in some random glass jar. We’ve grown implicit in just accepting it as norm that her celestial powers are a maximum constant in the Universe — in the same way we do for the speed of light. If my k-designators are true constants, that worldview is gone — and no offense, Callie, if you read this, but it probably should be.

This mathematical framework offers explanations for so many oddities in our lives. Earthpon coupling — the alpha-field. Why a unicorn horn has a spiral — the relation between the casting and auguric vectors. Cutie marks might even be buried in here, and yet there are still things that just feel out of reach. I really would like to tie the curl of the magic field to that of the electric. All the hints are there. It would make the auguric analogous to the magnetic, and I could sleep easy at night. I think the practical applications here would also be far more amusing…

“Analogous to the magnetic?” Tail questioned aloud if she had read that correctly. Her sights wandered to the beginning of the paragraph, and upon reading it again, she reiterated, “Analogous to the magnetic.”

The physicist snatched one of her lavender feather quills, opened her notebook to the first page, and inked the tip of her pen. She started her own musings by writing in the primary expressions from Dr. Secret’s journal, and her lips curled into a sly smile as she penned her book’s title: Catty Cover: From Section W to the Bullet Flash.

With a snap of her wrist, she flipped to the second page the instant she thought that the ink on the first was dry. Her eyes sparkled under the light that seeped in through the stained glass dome, and her hoof scrambled to convey the inspiration that had kindled the seed of an idea.

In the spirit of Dr. Secret’s ruminations on the mathematical descriptions of magical phenomena, may this journal provide additional insight through the likely oversimplification and over-trivialization of extremely complex methods — in a similar vein to every physics grad student’s “favorite” author.

The author of this particular manuscript can definitively state that a practical test of the divergence proportionality condition (Eq. 1) conducted by a pegasus (in this case, me) demonstrated a highly correlated effect with respect to a unicorn’s spell (namely that belonging to the Captain of the Royal Guard).

I’ll likely write more on this in the future, but for now, I’d like to focus on something raised by Dr. Secret himself. What if I assume that there is a curl proportionality condition between the magic and electric fields as well?

Tail began sketching several loops onto the piece of paper as she mindlessly toyed with her bottom lip. “So what happens if I’m looking at it all wrong and it’s not like the Bullet Flash? I can’t just overwhelm the local magic field by hard ramping on the auguric. Well, I am still ramping because time derivatives exist, but using that principle as the fundamental mechanic to counter Trigger probably gets busted right off the bat.”

The pegasus hovered over one of her doodles of two stacked field rings, and she carefully drew in her expectation for how the lines of the auguric field would behave in that scenario. “‘Analogous to the magnetic field,’ you say, Dr. Secret?”

Suddenly, Tail’s eyes went wide. She sliced the diagram with a heavy arrow that mimicked how she had tackled Trigger’s shots. “That’ll never work because the auguric field can’t do work if it’s like the magnetic! The force’ll go as v-cross-A, and that’s why every time I saw no effect! I literally optimized everything to fail by default!”

Tail bounced as she made her way out onto the training yard. The muscles in her legs and chest still felt warm from her morning weightlifting session with Barrier, but after a fantastic lunch, she also felt primed and pumped for another chance at unlocking Trigger’s sorcery.

“Ya look pretty energetic today, Flicker,” the creature of reverie remarked as he strolled alongside the physicist. “I’m startin’ to get the sensation that ya might have tapped into an impressive dream. Does that mean I should expect some experimentin’?”

Beaming in the afternoon sunlight, Tail tossed a sidelong glance to Trigger. “I spent yesterday in a library, Colonel, and we both figured out what that meant when it came to Captain Armor. In my professional opinion, you should expect this afternoon’s science to reveal just how much ass I intend to kick.”

“Heh, I like it. A little feist never hurt anypony,” the stallion grunted as he sized up the metal-clad mare. “So what are ya gonna try today? Will it be boostin’ your shit to six rings, or are ya planning to give me somethin’ new and interestin’ to watch?”

Tail swished her namesake and replied, “Interesting and semi-new—more of a refresh, really. I’m still going to be using the field rings, but my testing methodology has changed. I’d like to make a few trial runs against single spells if that’s alright. Doesn’t really fit the combat realism portion of the training, but verifying that I’m on the right track would be useful.”

“It’s fine with me. B.C.T. was the place to tear your ass down and build ya back up anyway. Way past that point now.” Trigger’s horn began to glow as he came to a halt, and his gaze quickly narrowed on Tail while she marched to her normal spot on the pitch. “Just let me know when and where.”

Full breaths filled Tail’s lungs as she paced out the ten meters from Trigger’s post. She spun around to face the powerful mage, firmly planted her hind hooves against the dirt, and reared up. Flapping her wings to maintain balance, the scientist outstretched her forelimbs and started guiding water vapor towards her glimmering gauntlets.

As soon as the twin tufts appreciably formed between Tail’s limbs, the tiny cloud constructs began to spin. The transition from white fluff balls—to powdery donuts—to black streamlined toroids occurred swiftly, leaving the flier with two rings ready to handle her lightning charge. She didn’t wait to seed the electrical current either, and soon enough, the darkness surrendered to vibrant golden halos.

“Alright,” Tail called after she nudged the sparking bands into orientations that kept the second dimension of the loops hidden from Trigger. For all intents and purposes, the physicist had created the auguric equivalent of a Toptimbertz coil, and now, she was ready to put it to the test. “Whenever you’re ready, please launch one of them between my forelegs. Target somewhere on my breastplate, I guess.”

Trigger aimed his horn by tilting his head downward and fired a salvo. Creating a pressure wave that pushed the blades of grass beneath it, the sizzling amber pulse sprinted across the yard.

In a heartbeat, Tail felt the shot slam and shatter against her protected chest. She stumbled a few steps but managed to maintain her upright position thanks to some quick work from her wings. “Ugh,” she groaned in defeat as rising frustration shaped the scowl that pursed her brow. The first observation that made it through Tail’s mental processing was the fact that she hadn’t stopped Trigger’s attack whatsoever. “Still not enough…”

However, as more data slipped into her awareness, Tail realized that this experiment had ended quite differently than the others. For starters, Trigger’s spell had pushed her forelegs apart instead of simply ghosting her defenses, and—unlike all of the previous efforts—Tail still held two swirling disks of lightning at the ends of said limbs. They didn’t shatter this time?

“Another!” Trigger barked before a second round erupted from his horn.

Yanked from her internal gearbox, Tail snapped her sights to the stallion. She scrambled, attempting to clap her hooves together around the blistering bolt. In the instant the assault snuck through her appendages, Tail could have believed that she had squeezed a slick, invisible stress ball as opposed to completely whiffing on Trigger’s magical aura.

The crack of a third volley bursting upon Sally’s golden contours immediately followed. Tail staggered away again, but the defensive arrangement held. The pegasus had not lost her weather magic, and she had undoubtedly sensed something that had not been detected during the first two sessions with Trigger.

Nevertheless, Tail huffed in the wake of her body taking those blows. Her forelegs burned from the strains and stresses generated by both her cloudcrafting and Trigger’s firepower. A dull throbbing repeatedly pinged the nerves in the scientist’s neck, and her eyes ravenously ensnared the rays of the sun to craft a blazing, determined reflection.

Tail snorted and glared down her black-coated nemesis. Calculations flashed across her imagination as she replanted her hind legs in the dirt and braced for another attack. You feel a force, Tail. It’s doing something. Why isn’t it enough? Too fast? Not enough field strength? A whole lot of both?

The stream of thoughts surrendered the floor once Tail noticed that Trigger was not making a move to launch a fourth strike. Her rear limbs quivered as they supported her mass, and her jaw clamped shut while the swirl of anticipation, dissatisfaction, and contemplation took over. “You’re standing there for an awfully long time, Colonel!” she roared, waving her forelegs in an effort to keep them loose.

In a blink, the mage vanished from Tail’s field of view. Exhaling after the abrupt disappearance, Tail swiveled her head from left to right to check if Trigger was trying to pull a fast one on her, but he was nowhere to be seen on her flanks.

“Eeep!” the pegasus shrieked as a droning vibration arced from her field rings to her legs. She tumbled backwards from Trigger manifesting just outside of her hoof’s reach—and would have hit the ground if not for the creature of reverie’s magical intervention.

“Ya know, Flicker, I really like this one. I don’t know why ya got all scowly on me. All I’ve got to do is look at the data to see progress. Right off the bat, the fuckin’ things aren’t shattering after one hit, which is a pretty big plus when it comes to a fight. Probably less of a burden on ya, too, since ya don’t have to recast ‘em every damn time. Then, there’s the whole part where I was aiming here”—he lightly pressed his forehoof to the star medallion that decorated the armor—“but the first shot hit here.”

Tail’s ears wavered to the metallic scraping sound that accompanied Trigger moving his hoof a few centimeters towards the ground.

“And the second and third ones hit here.” A toothy grin dominated the stallion’s expression as he dragged his hoof downward. “So ya definitely did somethin’. If they were a little out in front of ya though, it’d buy some more time. Also, ya can make two pairs already, so ya probably should. It’s fuckin’ calculus. As the physics horses say, integrate that shit.”

“What?” the mare blurted, gaping at Trigger through dilated pupils. Her feathers ruffled, and the set of weather-casts dissipated while she pondered his peculiar diction. “Did you just tell me to integrate that shit?”

“Yeah, it’s like ya got a piece of that particle trap thing, but it ain’t complete or tuned yet. What the fuck does Wing call it?” Trigger clicked his tongue in thought. “Synchrotron? Yeah, definitely synchrotron. Honestly, that’s what ya should call this maneuver. The Synchrotron Flicker, a name that’s badass, and everyone at the Phoenix Fire will know who helped make it.”

Tail finally managed a blinking reaction before Trigger’s magic guided the mare onto all fours.

“But, once again, ya found a great path we can take by just bein’ yourself. Let’s see if ya can throw the fuckers. If ya can chuck ‘em and keep control, there’ll be a greater deflection distance by the time the shot gets to ya.” Snickering, Trigger turned around to trot back to his original shooting spot. However, before doing so, the mage glanced over his shoulder towards the pondering pegasus to offer one additional bit of wisdom. “And, uh, third thing, Flicker. Your rings gave ya a spook before I teleported in, right? Might want to, I dunno, look into that shit too.”

Chapter 28 - Cady’s Closet

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Tail peered down at the elegant ensemble that she had carefully rested atop her bed. Heart racing, the pegasus drew a paced breath to try to calm herself in the midst of such an outfit. She considered the white corset, embroidered with silvery hearts and a little lacy flair, over the top even for a wedding ceremony. How in the world did she have this for the Grand Galloping Gala?

Her sights drifted from the centerpiece to the set of powder-blue silk stockings, and her wings immediately stiffened. Tail could already imagine how the smooth fabric would feel wrapped around her limbs, and how snug they would be once all the white lacy garters properly anchored the garments. As flamboyant as it all was, the scientist’s stifled moan conveyed the desire that kept her feathers fanned. “I can’t wait to see what Barrier’s reaction will be…”

In true academic fashion, Tail had already prepared to record that information. Her personal journal had also been placed upon her mattress, and she had preemptively opened the book to a mostly empty page that was appropriately labelled Day 121. Despite the excitement swirling around that evening’s festivities, she couldn’t help but smile warmly at the cursive text that littered the adjacent leaf. The previous two weeks had been interesting.

“Academic Log, Day 110,” Tail narrated aloud as she deconstructed the testing setup on Workbench 8. “The Barrier-9 coils exceeded all of my expectations in the previous set of trials. Even when using B-Type and L-Type shells in the core, all components in this series hit the thirty-minute mark without incident—thanks entirely to the supreme auguric arts of a Magic Bear.”

“Heh, you sure you want to go with that description for me, Blanket?” Stepping towards the coat-wearing physicist, the unicorn bore a skeptical grimace. “I was also responsible for the dozens of them that blew up on us, technically anyway.”

Tail stopped her storytelling, turned her head to gaze at the stallion, and pulled her goggles up onto her forehead. “Sweety, if you keep that up, I’m going to fill my notes with even more accurate depictions when it comes to the subject of you.” She fashioned a half-lidded stare as she flashed a mischievous smirk for her coltfriend.

Maintaining his unsure demeanor, Barrier nervously chuckled. “And just like that, I’m trotting right into a trap. You’d think that a guy would get it after a thousand years, but nope, mares.”

Giggling, said mare leaned forward and tapped her muzzle against Barrier’s snoot to melt away the colt’s silly restlessness. She closed her eyes and tendered a meditative hum. “You were the one who quoted Cady’s ‘love is a battlefield’ line. I’m just resetting the goalposts to combat this particular form of self-deprecation. I could say, ‘Without my wonderful special somepony, I would be adrift in a hostile ocean of tedious metallurgy and endless nights.’ But you really should know better. Traps have been a part of the relationship game for ages, and you haven’t exactly been innocent on that front either, Mr.-Nickname-Me-Blanket. And don’t even try to deny the parallels to combative sprinting.”

Having preserved the intimate contact through her latest round of teasing, Tail suddenly retreated after her mind clutched a theoretical straw. “You know,” she continued, tapping one of her forehooves against the floor, “I wonder if the whole teasing, trapping, gamesponship thing couples do is the result of society secretly clinging to some elements of your dueling tradition.”

“Not impossible, but I bet tracing those clues through history would be difficult.” Barrier shrugged and levitated the goggles off his face. He closed the gap that had formed between the pair and started affectionately nuzzling Tail. “Especially when you think about how much ponies learned about my era, I doubt we’d truly know. What can be easily explained is my choice in nickname.

“The single most important tool any executor can have is a good blanket. There’ve been times when one is all I had to see me home safely. It can do a lot when you’re caught in a crisis. It can still be there when your chips are down. I think most ponies would probably laugh at the sentiment nowadays, but I gave you that nickname because there really aren’t any other ponies around who I would trust as much as a good blanket on the field. I am lucky to have found the perfect one.”

Tail’s entire body jerked. She pomfed immediately, and her muzzle and ears succumbed to the blood rush that turned them all a deep shade of red. A surprised squeak popped from her parted lips, and for a moment, the vibrant blaze that warmed her entire being showed no signs that it would ever relent. Jittery, timid movements followed, in which the pegasus tried to return the nuzzles with an appropriate degree of vigor, but her brain had put oh my gosh on a near-endless loop that gave the victory to Barrier.

“A perfect, squeaky little Blanket,” the stallion’s raspy tenor hit one of those perked, rosied ears. “Though, maybe we should start talking about crafting the steel cylinder for your coils before we lose the entire day to a back-and-forth that we’d have to keep secret from insufferable princesses for all of time.”

Tail barely managed to nod while she dazedly ogled Barrier’s withers and flanks. “The Gala will probably give them enough ammo,” she meekly mumbled, not really registering any of the words she had just spoken. Instead, her brain’s screaming proved to be far more distracting when accompanied by Barrier’s gentle touch. This colt is going to be my perfect perch!

As the second week of training with Trigger neared its end, Tail tumbled into the grass and swept one of her wings in the stallion’s direction. Two cloud swirls trickled into the wake before they started rapidly spinning, and a second set followed suit after the mare made a backstroke with the same feathered appendage.

The clanking of armor plates echoed off the palace walls after Tail continued her roll and sprinted to gain some separation between herself and the inbound volley. Her two Synchrotron Flicker pairs sprang to life and brilliantly glistened just in time to nudge Trigger’s shot down and to the side.

Tail did not stand still for a second. She darted to the left, snapped her namesake behind her, and threw a fleeting glance to check Trigger’s location. Still there. Now, what about the spell? Her sights shifted towards her idling current loops before she followed the trail of uprooted grass and excavated dirt that the amber bolt kept digging into the pitch.

Cutting the feeds to the four rings, Tail started dumping her pegasus energies elsewhere. She flapped both of her wings to pick up speed and banked to the right, a move which pointed her sleek frame directly at Trigger. You want to throw a live, homing round at me!? Here’s some fucking integration for you, big boy!

Angle of inclination, mutual inductance corrections, A-dot-d-L, d-theta, delta-T… Tail’s brain crunched the calculations as she continued her frontal assault. An inferno raced around her chocolate irides the instant her internal clock hit t-zero, and her wings curled in preparation for the coming counter.

To her right, a pair of vibrant rings appeared for a wrinkle in time that briefly forced Trigger’s spell to follow the trajectory Tail had flown. For most of the training session, this was the maximum degree to which Tail had operated—spot, seed, deflect, move, repeat! This time around, she was determined to try something new.

The first auguric guide vanished as quickly as Tail had spawned it, but the maneuver had not been deployed alone. Successive doublets flared along the flight path to keep the stallion’s salvo confined, and those firefly embers snaked towards Tail until the mare crouched and leapt into the air. On the spot where she had stood, a quadrupole arrangement of synchrotron snares outshone the sun.

“Let’s try a strong focusing element then!” she roared as the pursuing bolt abandoned its target and rocketed along the beam axis Tail had created instead. A broad smile claimed her countenance as she watched the attack barrel down on its creator. The slew of math that had occupied her mental landscape was abandoned for the basest, most down-to-earth expression of joy all scientists aspired to grasp. It fucking worked! It fucking worked!

Trigger wore a smirk of his own as he confronted the power of his volley. The amber aura around his horn swiftly evaporated, and in its place, an argent mist started to swirl around the spire. The creature of reverie lifted his foreleg before a similarly colored light illuminated the limb.

Steam exploded out from around Trigger’s body when the round collided with its caster’s hoof. The attack vigorously ruptured, blowing away the swirling vapor from the giddy-looking creature of reverie. The resulting shock wave rattled off the castle walls and windows, and Amora, Barrier, and Tail all cringed at the obnoxious noise.

The reaction from Tail, however, was by far the most vocal. “Are you kidding me?” she shouted as soon as her hooves touched down on the grass. “I set that whole chain up after scrambling around, and you just stiff-arm the thing like it’s nothing?”

Laughter flowed from the stallion after he lowered his leg. “Barry! Ya should have pulled me in for this shit way before her B.C.T. final exam. C’mon! How could ya hold out this level of entertainment? And stop whinin’, Flicker! Do ya even have any idea what ya just did? Four sustained pairs and—what was it?—ten or so leadin’ in. New record and an absolute poppin’ counter. What are ya gonna call that one?”

Tail quirked an eyebrow as she observed Trigger’s exuberant reaction. Geeze, with how much he likes the art of the battle, maybe he should be giving one-on-ones with Bonecrusher instead. She tilted her head once she became the target of his address, and she quickly puffed through her open mouth. It’s not whining to strive for more parity— Oh, he wants another name?

Tail scratched her chin with one of her gauntlets as she pondered the new dilemma. Though, in this particular instance, there wasn’t much to ponder since the base maneuver already had a name. She had simply created a series of the auguric kickers to get the job done. A series? Hmm— “Synchrotron Cascade,” she answered, still looking skyward as her mind reaffirmed its choice.

Meanwhile, Amora peered across the training yard at her best friend. Her muzzle hung slightly agape as she took in the scientist’s battle-tested visage, and her white coat bristled in the aftermath of Tail’s flashy Synchrotron Cascade and the Trigger-induced blast wave that followed. “She made him use dreamshell magic,” the medic muttered. Blinking, she turned towards Magic Barrier. “She actually made him use it.”

“Just another example of her being the perfect Blanket, Major,” the captain replied as he kept his stoic pose pointed towards the field. “She keeps figuring out new ways to tell everyone else the same message she told me. Though, it honestly doesn’t hurt that Trigsy’s enjoying it out there.”

“Yeah, it’s just”—Amora hesitated as she shifted her attention over to the resting combatants—“amazing to see how much she’s grown.”

“I think I can take back my hat now,” Trigger said, trotting ever closer to the pegasus. “Did ya think about that other homework assignment I gave ya? I’d like to spend the next week hammerin’ that shit out before my three weeks is up.”

“The teleport thing?” Tail asked while her head bobbed up and down. “I thought about it quite a bit, actually. If a teleport spell transmits with an auguric field, then my field loops should pick it up. My guess is that’s what I felt the other day. I’m also guessing that this is the variable that gets tuned to control the noise of said teleports, which in turn explains why silent teleports can be a thing when it would otherwise make no sense—”

“Whoa, get in the stable, Flicker. You’re Twigglin’ on me here. Totally right, but don’t need the lecture right now.”

The mare flushed and she nodded again as she gazed up at the creature of reverie.

“For the next three sessions, I want ya to focus on maintainin’ a single loop, maybe two, for the entire day. That’s going to be your sensor, and nothing else matters. Well, almost.” He smirked as his magical aura reverted to its more familiar amber hue. “Ya got to get used to wearin’ this.”

Tail squeaked as a dark object roughly the size of a watermelon appeared from nowhere. It tumbled through the air towards her, and she scrambled to snatch it with her forehooves. It took very little time for the pegasus to determine that the squishy object was made of some type of synthetic rubber. What took a bit longer was for her to determine that she was holding a sensory deprivation hood.

When the moment happened. It happened spectacularly. Her ears shot skyward. Her tail flagged, and the redness on her muzzle almost managed to reach the shade Barrier had provoked in her lab. “Did you get this out of a porn store!?” she wailed, prompting another bout of laughter from Trigger.

“No,” he answered with an ambiguous level of sarcasm, “I got it from Cady’s BDSM closet.”

Eyes? Useless. Ears? Useless. Helmet? Set aside. Tail stood at the center of the training field with touch as her only meaningful sensory input. Even the breaths that she could draw through the little nostril holes in the rubber deprivation hood had the scent of the yard drowned out by the overwhelming aroma of the gear.

This isn’t embarrassing at all! she screamed in her head as she pranced in place and fluffed her wings. “Don’t worry about a thing,” he said. She pondered Trigger’s last instructions to her when hearing was still a thing that she could freely do, and she tried to calm herself in the expansive darkness.

Relax, it’s not that bad. It’s not like Barrier is standing over there thinking thoughts. Her mental voice briefly shifted from its typical tone to something far more voluptuous. Sweety, I’m sure he’s thinking the thoughts you’d want him to— Not the time! Not the time! Okay, two field loops. Yeah, let’s try that. I should be able to maintain them. Now, where to put them?

After some further deliberation, Tail decided to place a loop at the midpoint of each of her wings. The nerves running along the edges of the feathered appendages would provide sufficient feedback. Her hooves would be free to help her dodge incoming teleports from Trigger, and she could change her wing orientation to easily scan. Plus, if he got cocky with her, she could always toss one of her blazing rings of lightning at him for the laughs.

Getting to work, the physicist went through her normal procedure of converting collected water vapor into scintillating halos. Once they were prepared, Tail lowered her center of mass towards the ground and waited. She held her flight limbs in a half-cocked position that set the orientations of the two disks to be roughly ninety degrees apart. To optimize the coverage, of course!

Out of nowhere, a buzz rumbled against her right wing before a spark jolted a squeak from her trapped muzzle. She leapt to the left as her heart thumped, and she could feel from the thud that reverberated through the dirt that Trigger had indeed slammed into the grass some distance to the right of where she had stood.

Her head jerked to the side after she landed, and the next round of contemplation commenced. Those feedback shocks are actually kind of distracting. I don’t think I even need them to be that big. Beneath the black hood, a grin stretched across Tail’s muzzle. She had, once again, found herself smack dab in the middle of a physics problem.

Tail shrunk the loop area by about ten percent, and she reduced the current flow to the point that the outside observers would probably have a chance at spotting the diminished brightness. Not like that particularly mattered to the pegasus, who reasserted her crouching stance and endured the void.

The tiny synchrotrons whirred, and both sent a trail of shocks along the leading edge of Tail’s wings. Her muzzle scrunched, and she snapped her nose towards the ground. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What is he going to do, teleport in dirt? She lifted one of her pinions and huffed. The change in pressure that she felt did nothing to alter her mindset that Trigger was coming from below.

Two heavy knocks pushed against Tail’s armor before the mare’s entire front half got lifted off the ground. She squealed from the unexpected motion and flailed as Trigger tightened his hold on Sally’s breastplate.

Eventually, the physicist settled down. She dangled in the elevated state, and her nose pointed directly downward at the chuckling Trigger. She could feel the vibrations of his laughter through the subtle presses against her armor, but she had little way to convey her own amusement. The intuition was right, and I still have room to make them more efficient.

“Dun-duh-duh-dah!” Tail sang as she held up the forged cylinder with both of her forehooves. She presented the gleaming marriage of stainless steel and augurite to Barrier as though it were some sort of mystical offering to the unicorn. Of course, the stallion’s magic had been an essential piece of the crafting process, so he was not at all surprised by its existence.

“It looks so pretty,” Tail carried on in an enthusiastic whisper before she carefully eyed the six chambers, the augurite ejector rod and extractor, and the current injection band that followed the cylinder stops. She purred and glanced at Barrier. “You did such a great job with this. I can’t even see any of the seams between the metals.”

“It’s your design,” the stallion replied as he returned her gaze with a gentle smile. “I think making your lab life easier is the least I can do after letting Trigger run a little wild with your training.”

Tail immediately blushed, and her brain scurried to deliver a hastily executed ramble. “It’s fine! It’s fine, really. I’ve been able to trim the current loops a lot over the course of two days. It’s like they’re not even there now. Majorly efficient!”

Pitching his muzzle downward, the unicorn snorted. “You know that’s not the part of the training that I was talking about.”

The pegasus bit her lower lip and steadily exhaled. She shuffled back onto the swivel chair at Workbench 8 and propped up the cylinder on the test stand. “It’s been a little distracting,” she admitted, clamping the leads from the breadboard to the injection band and the end of the ejector rod. “Kind of puts certain ideas in the head when you’re pretty much alone with your thoughts.”

Sidling up to the table, Barrier nodded. “I bet it does. Quite the sight to see you fighting against the odds as well, and then there’s the obvious—”

“Sweety, it’s going on your head when I win a duel,” Tail flatly interrupted. “Then I’ll be free to explore your conquered coat at my leisure, right?”

“If you win, then it’d be your right to do so, but”—Barrier grunted— “I’m not all that inclined to let you win, Blanket.”

“We’ll see about that, Magic Bear. There’s more to the battlefield than the physical grind.” She paused to trace the augurite circuit with the tip of her hoof. “R, C, lead, injection band, six coils, rod output, back to breadboard. Good! Academic Log, Day 119: six-shell, five-minute run. Personal Log, Day 119: prepare to floor coltfriend at the Grand Galloping Gala and gain a dueling edge.”

Chapter 29 - Duel Me at the Gala

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“Oh my,” Tail gasped after she opened the front door to the spectacle of Barrier in his dress uniform. During her pinning ceremony, she thought that the white jacket, with its blue trim and golden ornaments, made for an excellent combination with his charcoal-colored coat. Her pupils dilated, and her lips curled into a dopey grin. Now, from the marefriend viewpoint, she was downright attracted to the way his dark contours toyed with the bright fabric.

She devoured him with her wandering stare until their gazes met. Her mind had unleashed a symphony of praise and adulation that penned ghost notes around those two uttered words, and those notes hovered like ethereal fireflies above overjoyed foals. Their shared silence, a fermata which towered over the score conducted by singing gala-goers, dared them both to speak.

“You’re beautiful,” Barrier answered the call. He extended his leg towards Tail and held it out for her to take.

Tittering from the compliment, Tail carefully stepped forward to drape her silk-covered limb over the one Barrier had offered. She followed his lead as he guided her out onto the street, and her quiet giggles rose in volume as they carried out one of the more traditional gala-night rituals. When he released the support on her appendage, Tail calmly lowered it, brushed against his side, and blanketed his withers with one of her wings.

“And you’re handsome,” she cooed into his ear moments after she lightly kissed his cheek. “I feel kind of shallow for saying it, but I think I’m a bit of a sucker for a stallion in uniform.”

“Heh, ponies like what they like. I don’t think indulging in my uniform makes you shallow. You’ve already shown over and over where you place value, and it’s pretty clear that your trust in me has little to do with how I appear tonight. Besides, if it did make you shallow, then I’d be just as much. I love feathers, and right now, the prettiest set in Canterlot is sticking to a certain nickname.”

Craning his neck, Barrier softly smiled at the lavender pegasus and continued, “As much attraction as I find in their touch, or in the fact that you look like a princess, those aren’t the things that drew me in. You told me you couldn’t quit, and then you lived those words. And nothing would do me a greater honor than donning this uniform and serving as your escort tonight.”

Tail nudged Barrier’s side with her lace-covered flank as another bout of giggles spurted from her lips. The tumbling, chaotic melody warmed the cooler night while Tail’s fit produced a squinty, bubbly, contorted expression. “By the stars, Barrier! That is clearly coming from the same side of the family that led to Shining Armor! I’m the physicist here. I should be the dorky one.”

“It is the duty and honor of the house, m’lady,” Barrier retorted once a smug, snickering smirk overrode his modest demeanor.

Gasping for breath, Tail pushed her wing against the unicorn’s back to keep herself upright. “Your duty, huh? Well then, since we frequently see the princesses, how about you escort your princess past the royal reception so we don’t spend all night attending linecon?”

“That’s not a bad idea. Probably take an hour or two just to get through at this point, and I’d put a large stack of bits on Twilight being around Celestia.” Barrier shuddered as his cheek tensed to craft a pained grimace. “I’m sure Cadance or Shining has already told her about us, and if she already knows that you’re a physicist, we’d have another couple hours of questions to endure. I love Twily as an uncle should, but I’d like to actually have the night to spend.”

Squeezing his barrel with her wing, Tail affirmatively hummed. “Chaperoning an overactive student at a dance? Sounds like a perfect argument for why I decided to teach at a university instead. Though, considering that Sincy is back in town, I’m afraid those antics are probably ones we can’t avoid.”

“No, we can’t.” Barrier relaxed his neck and turned his attention towards the castle grounds. The uneasy expression had not yet fully disappeared from his face when Tail heard his voice take on a sheepish tone. “I still need to thank him for his help with the setup at Pop’s.”

“Ah, such valor! I would expect nothing less from my Captain of the Laboratory Guard.” Tail straightened her posture, puffed her chest, and struck a playful, furtive glance. “Since I happen to know the ballroom in which one Sincerity Chain will be performing, perhaps I will happily take up your dorky proposition after all, Sir Barrier.”

On a night… when bad dreams become a nightmare…
the moon messes with my despair! Gotta laugh it in the face!
Sorry, Princess!
Twist and shout my way out, and wrap your wings around me
‘cause I ain’t the way you found me, and I’ll never be the same!

“Oh yeah! Well ‘cause you! You make my dreams come true!” Sincy’s refrain wailed over the South Summerland Ballroom sound system. The unicorn continued his song, yet he frantically waved to Tail and Barrier the instant they stepped into the grand chamber.

True to its name, the ballroom presented a summer season decor that set it apart from the typical Canterlot style. Saffron columns surrounded each of the circle-top windows that overlooked vast swaths of the castle gardens—or at least the glowing white bulbs that provided some illumination of said gardens through the night.

Above the windows, a coral-pink railing ran along the entire length of the wall, creating the illusion of a balcony that led to nowhere. Against that backdrop, a temporary stage had been erected for Sincerity, Barley, and the other bands playing the venue that evening. A bustle of ponies, mostly consisting of younger adults who clearly did not come from old money, bopped to the beat and exuded fun, surprisingly.

Tables, chairs, and refreshment stands had been pushed to the perimeter of the space, and upon inspection, Tail discovered that, for the most part, the only company for those furnishings were the blue, chive, and scarlet mosaics set into the walls.

“Well, listen to this!” Sincy shouted as he jumped off the stage. He carried his silvery microphone with his magic and hopped through the parting crowd as a lime-colored guard scrambled to make room for the rogue performer. Sincy burst through the last line of dancing defenders and dramatically thrust his foreleg towards Tail and Barrier. “I’m high on my daydream ‘cause I’m sure of what I’m watchin’ right now. I know! Well you! Hell yeah! You make my dreams come true!”

He suddenly darted back to the stage, leaving an armor-clad Bonecrusher standing at the edge of the crowd as a deadpan stare chiseled at her strong countenance. “Captain, Civvy,” she spoke at a volume that just scraped above Sincerity’s hollering. “Your brother got a lot of energy a few minutes ago.”

Tail trotted forward after she flicked her wingtip to greet her old squadmate. “Got Sincy’s security detail, huh? He’s not”—Tail rolled her head to the side to get a good look at the stage—“being weird, is he? I can boop him if he’s being weird.”

“Not any weirder than you,” Bonecrusher countered before a grin split her muzzle. “‘Sides, this assignment came as a request from Princess Celestia. He can do whatever he wants for all I care. As long as I keep him safe, it’s a job well done.”

“Well then, Corporal, keep up the good work. I highly doubt anyone in this room will present any trouble, but if they do, feel free to call on us for backup.”

“Tartarus will freeze over ‘fore I share that kind of fun, Captain,” the mare grunted before she shifted her body to keep an eye on the stage as well. “I was told it’s a special night. I intend to keep it that way lest somepony wants their face rearranged.”

“Face rearranging? Is that some sort of new party favor? I’m all about party favors! Streamers, poppers, balloons, piñatas— Piñata, ññata. Teehee, that’s fun to say. Anyway, hi Barrier!”

Both Tail and Bonecrusher blinked after a pink blur inserted itself into the center of their group and congealed into a curly-maned, blue-eyed earth pony mare.

Barrier simply flinched. The high-pitched ramble made his jaw clench shut, and he took two deliberate, audible breaths before shifting his sights to the Element of Laughter. “Pinkie,” he replied, an act which quickly generated a squee from the smaller pony.

“It is you! I knew it. You look so handsome! Now, hurry up and tell me who your friends are so I can become friends with them too.” She tweeted and bounced in place as if the perfectly normal span of time between her statement and Barrier’s pending answer stretched across eons.

“The one in armor is Bonecrusher. She’s on duty, so don’t be dragging her off to any parties.” Barrier gestured to Tail, and the corners of his lips immediately trended upwards. “And this pretty pegasus would be Tail—”

“Ugh-uhhhh!” Pinkie whooped. Beaming, she shot Tail a dinner-plate stare, incinerated the gap between them with a blistering dash, and frantically shook the scientist’s mysteriously raised limb. “Oh my gosh! You’re Barrier’s marefriend! No wonder why he seems less grumpy. Hi! I’m Pinkie Pie, and I would luh-uhve to throw you a party, especially since Barrier didn’t tell me I couldn’t.

“I have a file on you and everything. Physicist, oooh, Twilight Sparkle will love you. Kinda smells like blueberries even though they aren’t her favorite. You’re more of an apple kind of gal. I should introduce you to Applejack! She makes all kinds of apple goodies: apple pies, apple fritters, Applejack Daniels, apple crumb cake, apple strudels, apple cider, zap apple jam, normal apple jam…”

Caught in a strange superposition of intrigue and horror, Tail watched as an onslaught of apple-related goodies poured from the swirls in Pinkie’s mane. Even an icy glass of Applejack Daniels, which Barrier immediately grabbed, appeared when it was listed. “Uh, apples are nice,” Tail muttered through a Pinkie-triggered tremolo.

“Apple crisp, apple tart, apple cobbler—” Mid-list, Pinkie stopped both her verbal bombardment and the excessive shaking of Tail’s leg. From the ether, a small purple-eyed, light-green alligator appeared atop the scientist’s silk-covered appendage.

Tail recoiled her muzzle, quirked her brow, and pursed her lips at the creature that looked up at her. The little guy blinked one eye at a time and flittered its tongue, prompting the pegasus to gradually tilt her head.

“This is Gummy!” Pinkie squeaked. “He wanted to say hello too! He’s an alligator, which is exactly why I named him Gummy. Gummy the ‘Gator, get it? Wouldn’t make any sense if he were a crocodile. Not at all!” She briefly turned to face literally no one and winked. “That’s called alliteration, fillies and colts.

“Anyway,” the pink mare continued after her sights snapped back to Tail, “Gummy really wanted to tell you that, in the limit of asymptotic freedom, the fine-structure coupling constant converges to 1/42. I have no idea what that means, but he seemed pretty excited about it. If you ask me, I think it’s about cupcakes or maybe chocolate mousse. I don’t know. Donuts and eclairs are also pretty solid.”

Tail tuned out the noise coming from the bubbly soundbox. Diving into the young gator’s gaze—alliteration—the physicist pondered how this stoic, gentle pet could survive against the unyielding torrents of loud and crazy that flowed from this perky element bearer. Is she still talking? How is she still talking?

Pinkie’s droning waves produced crests that just managed to flirt with Tail’s awareness. She unconsciously shifted her outstretched foreleg towards the earth pony’s muzzle, and with the softest of upward forces applied to the underside of Pinkie’s chin, Tail succeeded in closing the Element of Laughter’s mouth. “Teehee…”

“Hey Tail!” Sincy’s heavenly voice instantly reached out to her through the ballroom speakers. “I see you’re done talking with your friend now, so it seems like a good time. Everyone, let’s take a five-minute break. My sister is here with her dreamy date, and I would like to catch up with them—along with my personal guard. I told you I’d sneak in a dance with you, Bonecrusher. No joke. I will discover what your favorite Barley ballad is. Now, for the rest of you fillies and colts, it’s time to hail hydrate and get some water. Can’t dance to these Triple-G beats if you’re out of action, so visit those lonely water stations, grab a crystal glass, and sip away. Also, if you wouldn’t mind parting the way for the fam, I’d appreciate it too.”

Having spent song after song cozied up to Magic Barrier, Tail felt like she had spent the night floating on a cloud. Her feathers flicked to every gentle touch of his foreleg against her back and haunches, and her mind snatched every hint of his scent when her muzzle brushed against his coat.

“Did you know that dancing with you is so much better when I’m not drunk?” Tail whispered after the unicorn guided her through a twirl. She had reached their periapsis yet again, and the mare used that perfect opportunity to graze his neck and mane.

With some space on the dance floor carved out by Tail’s whirling revolution, Barrier stepped forward and reared up. He planted one of his hooves on her flank and kicked his hind leg out to the side so he could perform a bipedal pivot. “You’ve asked me that during almost every song,” the captain chuckled, “and then I’ll just remind you that that dance will always be something special.”

“Flatterer,” Tail huffed, wrapping her forelegs around his withers as her wingtips flirted with his cutie marks. Her gaze sparkled while she lost herself in the one returned by his icy-blue eyes, and her body shivered once she pressed her lace against his uniform. “It’ll still be nice to have a firm recollection of every moment as opposed to portions of the night being a blur. I wouldn’t want to miss a second of this.”

Tail released a low growl as her feathers pressed a little harder against the shields on his flanks. She giggled at the redness that crept onto his cheeks, and after a less-than-subtle head repositioning, Tail closed her eyes and claimed that charcoal muzzle with a kiss. Her grip tightened as she dove deeper than she ever had—allowing her tongue to dance with the lingering sting of apple whiskey.

A quiet moan rumbled in Barrier’s throat, which provided the pegasus all the motivation she needed to hold their kiss until the only option was to break away for a breath—and to hover barely an inch apart. Dopey smirk met dopey smirk, and the couple stood untouched by the rest of the world—

Until Tail realized that no one was making a sound. The music had stopped. Other ponies were dead silent, and they remained that way until her swiveling sights caught a whistling Amora, a random camera flash from a pink unicorn photographer, and three grinning princesses all congregated around the entryways.

“I am so telling Mom,” Sincy purred, drawing Tail’s attention stageward. The unicorn musician had moved away from his instruments and sat with his hind legs dangling off the end of the platform. He momentarily looked to his left at the stone-faced Bonecrusher, who had immediately popped a salute for the alicorns, and a devilish grin swept over his face as he consequently drew the microphone towards his mouth. “She’s doing a great job, Princess Celestia, but I still haven’t gotten that dance.

“Though, I guess that can come later. Since you’re all here now”—he flopped onto his back and pointed his muzzle at the drum kit where Barley Blues was seated—“do you think we should pop the surprise now? I’m starting to get the vibe that it’s time. We’ve got the chill crowd, right Canterlot? Who wants to see a surprise?”

A murmuring roar meandered about the ballroom as various pockets of ponies expressed their intrigue towards the unexpected. Grabbing the atmosphere by the figurative horns, Barley began to beat a couple of drumsticks together at a faster and faster rate until a widespread, vibrant chant of “Yes!” echoed throughout the chamber.

Bopping his head to the beat, Sincerity Chain rolled onto his hooves and arched his back in a drawn-out stretch. He sighed once he relaxed his posture, and the chocolatey aura around his horn rippled as he cast a second spell. Rays of light strobed above the stage, and amidst the glimmering parlor trick, a familiar semi-hollow body, sunburst guitar appeared from out of thin air.

Tail smiled at the cherished golden accents, pickguard, and engraved truss-rod cover. “Double L,” she mumbled after verifying the two script L’s that had been etched into the cover’s plastic material.

“Tonight, fillies and gentlecolts,” Sincy blared, “you are going to see the reunion of the only band I’ve been a part of that predates Sync & Barley. If you want your guitar back, Sis, you’re going to have to come up here and grab it, but once you do, I think these fans are going to want to hear a song. And I think you know the one that needs to be played.”

“Now, huh?” Tail called to her brother. She turned towards Barrier as her smile morphed into a grin just as devilish as her sibling’s. An adorable mix of confusion and concern usurped her coltfriend’s visage, and the image prodded an internalized giggle that Tail happily channeled into mischief upon trotting towards the stage. Brushing the underside of Barrier’s muzzle with her namesake, Tail replied to the unspoken question, “This is how a perfect blanket answers the challenge.”

Tail flapped her wings and leapt onto the set. She landed at Sincy’s side, and before he could speak another word, she had already reclaimed possession of her guitar. With the strap secured around her neck, and with the curved, glossy body pressed against her chest, the pegasus tested each of the strings with some wing plucks.

“Have any words for the gala-goers, Tail?” Sincy asked as he pushed a black dynamic mic and stand out in front of his sister.

“Well, uh, I can’t say I’m much of a performer. I probably haven’t consumed enough alcohol to sing without feeling the stage fright, and if it weren’t for the fact that Sincy is family, and Barley might as well be, I wouldn’t be up here at all. But”—Tail affixed her gaze to Barrier and quickly hummed—“this is a song I wrote for that stallion I was dancing with, and I’m sure many of you can relate to the notion of a significant other pushing you to be better. This is part of that journey, I guess.”

Tail’s heart shot into her throat the instant Barley began to tap his hi-hat cymbals. Keeping his percussion part on the quieter end of the volume spectrum, the cream-coated earth pony set a tempo of 115 B.P.M. and largely provided filler sounds to guide Sincy and Tail. The latter’s pulse started to race as her brother moved to his synthesizer station, and soon, a rotation of notes covering the G, D, and A-minor chords propagated throughout the ballroom.

Tail tried to gulp down the uneasy feeling. Oh, I’m really doing this, she thought, lifting a twitchy foreleg to prepare her opening G5. The thumping in her head grew more acute as Sincy reset the chord cycle to cue her in, but the view of Magic Barrier’s dilated stare generated enough warmth for her soul to keep the butterflies at bay. All those mornings singing in the shower, and all those days spent together. There’s no turning back now, not after he called you perfect, and certainly not after that perfect date.

Her wing hovered above the strings. The sounds of Sincy’s A-minor strokes racing across the keyboard hit her ears, and the instant he removed his hooves from those notes, Tail struck her introductory G5 and began to sing.

Caught a glimpse of your face, and the pain left behind.
Things I can’t know, but I’ll certainly try.
Lost in past feelings inside.
Just look at me now, no reason to hide.

‘Cause you’re not a monster! No, I won’t believe that!
Can’t you hear me screaming as I try to outlast
the edge in your voice that strives to push me away?
Well, you put your shields up when others let you down!
Damn aura of pride yankin’ burdens around!
Now I’m reaching out, ‘cause you’re no longer displaced.

Listen to the orders laced in your sighs.
Riding me hard ‘til I just want to cry,
but you’re not gonna best me this time.
Just look at me now! You’re one of a kind.

‘Cause you’re not a monster! I won’t ever think that!
Can’t you hear me screaming as I try to outlast
the edge in your voice that tells me I just gotta stay?
Well, you put your shields up when others couldn’t collect
those burdens endured commanding my respect.
Now I’m reaching out, ‘cause you’re no longer displaced.

Everybody wants! Everybody bleeds!
Everybody learns, and everybody needs
some help with those demons they just have to slay.

‘Cause you’re not a monster! No, I won’t believe that!
Can’t you hear me screaming as I damn sure outlast
the edge in your voice that strives to push me away?
Right through those shields as we soar to the sky.
Oh, trust in me now, and we’ll conquer the night.
Can’t you see, we’re no longer displaced?

As the song progressed, Tail gained more confidence with her vocals. What started as a timid, borderline wobbly affair blossomed into a gritty, heartfelt serenade that cast everyone and everything—aside from Barrier—into a penumbra.

The wailing pegasus saw neither the giddily jumping Cadance nor her hoof-pumping roommate. Bulb flashes from the flanking photographer also went completely unnoticed. When she entered the first refrain and swapped the A-minor for a Cadd9, the physicist even found it hard to keep track of her brother’s accompaniment and Barley’s rhythm. All she could see was Barrier looking up at her with an entranced, dumbfounded expression.

Like the sensation of his magic meandering through her coat, the image of him staring up at her like he could see no one else sent an uplifting shiver down her spine. She hit the bridge with more energy than she ever had in the shower, even going far enough to yank the microphone stand closer with her wing.

Without realizing it, she had switched to using a forehoof to strum her chords—an action that produced more powerful, energetic pops than the gentle harmonies created by her feather strokes. The last four words clung to a sustained, ringing G5 that, in Tail’s mind, left it all on the table. Whatever they were in, they were in it together in spite of where they had been.

Barrier planted his hoof and heaved himself up onto the stage. His horn lit as he strode towards his marefriend, and the blue aura swiftly enveloped the couple. By the time Barrier reached Tail, the pair had vanished from the ballroom, leaving a snickering Sincy behind to catch his sister’s guitar in his own magical field.

Tail emerged from the teleportation spell with her back pinned to one of the training yard’s archway columns. Her silk-covered legs rubbed against Barrier’s jacket after the stallion reared up and passionately pressed his lips against her muzzle. She moaned into the kiss and squeaked once his meandering forelegs navigated her lacy garments and mischievously pressed against her cutie marks.

The stallion rolled his head to the side and trailed additional kisses along Tail’s jawline before he playfully nipped at the scientist’s neck.

“Nngh, Barrier,” she grunted after he broke the kiss. Her face flushed in response to the developing path, and she instinctively wiggled against the stone as her arousal spiked from the sudden intimacy.

“Blanket,” the unicorn answered in a deep, husky voice. He shifted his muzzle and inhaled, taking in the scent of Tail’s mane during a steady drive towards the mare’s perked ear. He coaxed another squeak by kneading her haunches, and the second his muzzle was close enough, he unloaded a lustful whisper that made Tail quiver. “Duel me, right now.”

For a few seconds, Tail felt woozy on her hind hooves. Even with support coming from both the archway and Barrier, the shuddering motions that rocked her two appendages seeded the thought that she was about to topple over. She finally gained the wherewithal to throw her forelimbs over his shoulders, and after a sharp breath, the pegasus spoke, “What rules, Magic Bear?”

“First to pin wins the other. No magic. No flight. Just us and the yard.” Barrier nuzzled the side of Tail’s head and released a pent-up puff of air. The muscles in all four of his legs noticeably tensed, and that firmness held like a dam that needed to break until a rush of words rode a wave of tangible relaxation. “I don’t know how I got so lucky. Your attitude, your personality. Your intelligence and fucking dedication, the signs of a perfect blanket.”

Every element in Barrier’s list renewed the heated vigor of Tail’s blush. One at a time, the mare carefully slid her hind hooves higher and higher up the stone column until she had acquired enough torque to topple her coltfriend. Without sensing any resistance, she pushed the unicorn onto his back, straddled his barrel, and stretched her muzzle forward to easily deposit retaliatory kisses along the length of his horn.

“Sweety, I hope you’re not just falling over so we don’t get our outfits dirty,” she quipped, digging her forehooves under the bottom of his dress uniform. It was his turn to shudder to her touch, and Tail’s namesake and wings immediately flicked to the sensation of shared desire that the tiny movements revealed. “And I’m not taking a win without a fight either. I told you I don’t quit, and now is hardly the time for a tactical surrender.”

Tail’s eyes opened to the morning light that poured into Barrier’s bedroom, and her sights settled upon the little grey sofa placed by the window. All around the piece of furniture, reminders of her night with the stallion were prominently on display. Their gala outfits haphazardly covered the armrests in wrinkled avalanches of silk and cotton. The sensory deprivation hood from her training had been slapped down atop one of the seat cushions, and buck me, he used so much rope!

The pegasus bit her lower lip and shivered. Flashbacks to the onslaught of rough thrusts and tender touches shifted Tail’s attention to the dull ache that still lingered in her haunches and barrel, but that affixation was relatively brief. Barrier had wrapped himself around her body as they slept. His muzzle gently snugged into the crook of her neck, and his forelegs ensnared her trunk.

At some point in the night, the blue quilt had been punted to the foot of the bed, but Tail didn’t find it all that necessary. With Barrier glued to her backside, and with his hooves dug into her coat, warmth was in ample supply. They were alone with one another, the scents of their nighttime passion, and the mess they had made.

“Hmm,” she mumbled quietly while the last point meandered around her brain. She hadn’t noticed it at first, mainly due to the fact that, for most of the night, she had been unable to see a thing, but the chamber’s ambiance definitely felt brighter than it had during her first visit. The dusty bottles were no longer anywhere to be seen, and the dust, in general, had been cleaned up.

“Oh my, he must have figured out the recycling program,” she whispered to herself. Being somewhat mindful of her still-sleeping coltfriend, Tail tried her best to crane her neck without disturbing him. Peering over the horizon formed by the mattress, the scientist expanded on her hypothesis. Indeed, he had cleaned. In fact, aside from the furnishings, the only thing she recognized was the feather on the nightstand.

Seeing the lavender quill resting atop its cloth cradle made Tail’s wings ruffle. The heat that ensnared the physicist’s physique surged, and all of her efforts to be silent caved under the mental picture. She chortled quietly at the parallels between her current predicament and her feather’s status. All night, Barrier had cared for her with a degree of respect and admiration that was clearly reflected in how he cared for a piece of her.

The revelation built up the tension in Tail’s chest. It was the kind of feeling she got whenever she contemplated the fundamentals of her existence. Silly things, such as ‘Tail is Tail’ or ‘I am me,’ could put her in a profound trance, and this marked one of those moments. The conclusion she repeatedly reached while staring at that feather, while snagged in Barrier’s embrace, made the pressure swell until the only way she could avoid crying was to laugh. I am cherished…

Barrier groaned to the noise, but once he conveyed signs of cognizance, he quickly played a different tune. Through an appreciative hum, the unicorn rubbed his chin against Tail’s coat and tightened his hold on the mare. “Perfect Blanket was pretty amazing last night,” he cooed. “Beautiful singer, wonderful dancer, ingenious dueler—and incredible in bed.”

“Barrier,” she answered after her sniffling laughter subsided. She shifted a forehoof and set it on one of his legs. Her heart pounded. Much like her journey onto the stage, the pegasus knew that the echo of her thoughts would not allow her to turn away. Time and time again, the stallion had made her feel special. Time and time again, he had been the support that she needed. Time and time again, he proved to be the partner she could lean on. “I love you.”

The logical side of Tail’s brain might have taken the opportunity to postulate just how much tighter Barrier’s hug could get. The emotional side of her brain held onto his reply tighter than anything ever would.

“I love you too, Tail.”

Chapter 30 - Dreams & Calamities

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Late afternoon had arrived by the time Tail trotted up the stairs to the living room of the apartment. She carried all of her gala apparel in a tote bag that hung over her withers, and a broad, infectious smile stretched along her muzzle.

“Hi,” she happily hummed after taking the corner at the top of the stairwell. She lifted her leg to wave at the three ponies that had reclined across the purplish-brown faux-leather couch and ottoman.

Sincerity’s eyes immediately lit up, and he aggressively snuggled Barley Blues while his sights remained locked on Tail. “You were so wonderful on stage! Everypony loved it! The excitement and energy of your sweet act pumped the crowd up straight into the majestic cosmos! You should have seen the look Princess Cadance had. I thought she was just going to burst into a ball of glitter or something, but then that other friend of yours did it first. Was cool, but still not as cool as your dynamite performance. But then you disappeared. Well, not really, but you get what I mean, right?”

“Please stop him!” Barley shouted through a warbling voice as his partner in crime jostled him about. The black-and-blue-maned stallion tried desperately to brace himself from Sincy’s shaking, but against the unicorn’s stoked emotions, the earth pony could only grimace and hold out hope.

Finally, Amora’s horn illuminated, and she bolstered Barley’s position with her cobalt aura. “What your brother is trying to say, Tail, is tell us fucking everything.”

Tail started giggling. Her namesake bounced back and forth, and her limbs bent to shape a posture akin to a little filly on the verge of jumping into a vat of candy. “He took me to the training yard and we sparred.”

The answer drew perplexed expressions from the two stallions, and Sincy even pulled his hooves away from Barley in response. Amora, conversely, fashioned a knowing grin and nodded for her roommate to continue.

“I spent the night at his place, obviously, and that was very nice.” Tail’s timbre instinctively took on a more sultry touch through the latter half of the sentence. “Not going to give you details beyond that, but”—she paused and twirled around on the spot—“I told him I love him, and he told me that he loves me too.”

Sincy dramatically gasped. The blue colt slipped his hind legs off the ottoman and leaned forward as though he were preparing to lunge at his sister. “You told him you love him?” The squealed question emerged with just as much flamboyance as the noise that preceded it, and both Amora and Barley Blues splayed their ears from the loudness.

“Uh, yes,” Tail answered with a rising inflection that made it sound like she was asking a question more so than offering a definitive statement. She shuffled to the sight of her brother’s disbelief, and the dreamy joy that had been plastered on her face began to show the subtle twitches of erosion. “You don’t think it was too soon, do you?”

Groaning, Amora cocked her foreleg, shoved her hoof against Sincerity’s shoulder, and easily pushed him off the couch. “Stop putting idiotic thoughts in your sister’s head—”

Slumped over the ottoman, Sincy grumbled. Twisting his body to glare at Amora, he shouted, “What was that for?”

The medic was having none of it. She levitated one of the displaced throw pillows for her sofa and hurled it at Sincy’s muzzle. “Hush,” she commanded, recasting her gaze to Tail. “Hunny, you’ve spent almost every day of the last four months with Barrier, and even then, timeframes aren’t fixed things. If it felt right to you, which I’m assuming it did because I know my best friend, then that’s all that matters.”

Tail blushed. Her thoughts clung to every facet of her night and morning, and the swirl of emotions quickly restored the whimsical wonder to her smile. “I love Magic Barrier,” she reaffirmed to the crowd before she began to flutter towards her room. “I’ll be back in a bit. I’ve got a journal entry to write.”

Sincerity rolled over the ottoman in a frantic effort to catch up to his sister. “Wait!” he shouted as his aviator shades materialized on the bridge of his muzzle. “Do you have Bonecrusher’s address?”

Decked out in her golden armor, Tail met Barrier at one of the gates to the castle grounds right before sunrise. While she had grown more accustomed to the early hours during her time training, the first day of the workweek after an important, packed Grand Galloping Gala weekend proved to be a tough sell to the pegasus.

Tiredness frizzled the parts of her mane that peeked out from under her helm, and caffeine had not yet conquered the bags dangling below her eyes. “Don’t be a jerk,” she mumbled, catching the stallion at her side doing a terrible job at stifling his chuckle.

“I’m not chuckling at you, Blanket,” he replied, shaking his head. His armor rattled once he turned to glance at the black satchel draped over his gunmetal kit. He opened it with his magic and retrieved a small white bag of pastries. “I’m chuckling because I figured this morning might be rough, so I picked these up to share before we get into it. They’re apple.”

Tail wrinkled her snoot at the teasing delivery that accented Barrier’s trailing statement. “You actually listened to the pink one? By Celestia, that was such a strange exchange, but I guess she does live up to her element.”

“She’s… an acquired taste? Not necessarily a pony I’d like to be around 24/7, but she does know how to throw a party. Twilight swears by her too, so at least I don’t have to worry about her going rogue. I just have to worry about her talking my ear off.”

Nodding, Tail flipped her focus between the hovering bag and Barrier’s face. “It’s equally strange that her information was right. I’ll take apples over blueberries every time, but”—she ruffled her feathers and shifted gears—“we should talk about what the game plan is for the day, preferably while I stuff my mouth with one of those goodies.”

Snickering, Barrier lifted a triangular apple turnover out of the bag and guided the scrumptious-looking staple to Tail’s opened mouth. “I’d like to skip the weight room today and focus on the two of us sparring. In the past, this training involved more intense activities. Some had survival courses, and others were assigned actual missions that put them behind enemy lines.

“There aren’t that many enemy lines drawn on the map anymore, and I should probably get a definitive answer out of Celestia if survival trails are even socially accepted these days. That might tack on another few weeks to the program, but for now, it’s my job to connect the dots. Shining helped hone an attack. Trigger helped develop a defense, and I need to do what I told you I would. We’ll be paying extra attention to your decision-making in combat, specifically when to protect and when to strike.”

Munching on the apple turnover, Tail released an approving moan. “Cinnamony,” she commented after Barrier had finished his explanation. “It’s almost like you, Trigger, and Shining got together to construct a curriculum with a narrative. It’s a good teaching habit. I’m impressed.”

“Heh, well, you’re not exactly the typical student. Your B.C.T. proved that. Seemed wise to put together something that’d fit you better. Chances to poke, chances to work, those sorts of things. Now I’m just wondering stuff like, ‘Is Sally really going to cut it during this next phase?’ and, ‘How do we tackle the shit out of each other without thinking about the other night?’”

“Hmm? You don’t think Sally is up to the task?” The mare’s curiosity spilled out while she gulped down the remaining bites of the turnover. A thin smile formed as the sweet and sugary flavors from the pastry danced atop her tongue. The crust, with its wonderfully crisp texture, carried just a hint of salt, and the filling might as well have been straight out of one of Granny Smith’s famous apple pies.

Barrier swiveled his head to look directly at Tail, and his icy sights noticeably meandered over her entire figure. “No, I don’t. At some point while I was sealed away, Celestia changed the standard kit from what I’m wearing. It just doesn’t offer you the proper coverage for actual field deployment. Yes, you have some protection for your head, neck, and back; but parts of your barrel are still exposed, and your legs are completely unguarded. I thought you earned proper gear on the wall outside Tower 41. I certainly think you have earned it now.”

Tail promptly met Barrier’s stare with one of her own. “Captain, if you keep saying things like that, it might become rather difficult for me to spar without thinking about how much of an adorable flatterer you are.”

“I stand by what I said, Colonel,” the unicorn said with a smirk. “We’ll have to make do for the time being, but we should get you fitted. There are still certain companies and divisions that make use of less ceremonial attire.”

Tail fanned her wings while she took stock of Barrier’s armor. “I’m still quite fond of Sally, but yeah, I can see the difference. You’ve really got full protection with your kit, and I imagine those spikes on your legs can be turned into potent weapons if you want them to. Probably takes some getting used to, though, fighting with all that extra weight.”

“Quartermaster chat is in order then,” Barrier added, tossing the empty bakery bag into a trash bin placed along the walkway. “But it’s getting lighter, so we should get to work.”

Damp with sweat, Tail deflected one of Barrier’s spells and dodged a strong thrust from the stallion’s foreleg. Having spent most of the morning discussing the concept of O-O-D-A cycles and engaging in their analysis, the pegasus leapt into a quick mental assessment of the situation. Spell deflected, estimated recharge, melee strike overexposed—barrel vulnerability. Tail cocked her foreleg, drew in a swirl of water vapor, and thrust a blazing Bullet Flash spike towards Barrier’s open flank.

His sightline never drifted from Tail, and his horn illuminated again. In the span of time it took Tail to throw her jab, the stallion had erected three small, square-shaped shields to intercept and block her attack.

He’s smiling, she thought as the gentle curvature expanded over his muzzle. The current loop situated between her wings responded to something with a barely perceptible buzz, and in the blink of an eye, Barrier had moved ten feet away with a silent-type teleport.

“Getting quick,” the stallion commented, taking a gentler posture to indicate to the mare that it was acceptable for her to launch into another round of questions. “And way more consistent with your decision-making too.”

“And you’re manipulating your auguric field with that teleport, Captain. The loop response is noticeably different, which I already expected, and now I’ve confirmed it. But”—she lifted her forehoof and slapped it down against the dirt with a resounding thud—“did I actually make the right decision? I thought I might have had a wider window, but you got a counter up anyway. Given what Shining could do with his shields, I imagine you could have fashioned a similar block-and-trap counter if you wanted. So did I make the right call, or did you telegraph a weak spot for me to take the bait?”

“Little bit of both, if I’m being honest.” Barrier’s grin grew more pronounced as he spoke. “If I threw tricks every time, then I wouldn’t exactly provide a good sample for learning. It’s a ‘walk before you trot, trot before you gallop’ sort of thing. The better answer to your question is to have a cover for the worst case. If I snagged you after your strike, what would you do next? The practical answer is that both noticing the opening and doing something about it come with the intuition-building process.

“B.C.T. started this. You increased the scope of what you could do with your body, and you learned the basics of how to move around and command a small squad. Celestia would probably toss in a chess analogy if she were here. Guess I’ll do it for her. You know how to move pieces. Now you get to figure out all the best combinations.”

“Mm, saying things to touch my inner nerd? Well done, Captain. One more before lunch?” The physicist unfurled her wings, planted her hind legs, and crouched in preparation for another set. She narrowed her gaze as she stealthily formed two additional current loops beneath her primaries. That might be enough area to appreciably boost the gain on his teleport chains.

Barrier dashed forward without uttering a word. In two steps, he had dissolved the gap between the ponies, and then, he was gone—

Tail’s wings flicked, and she immediately jumped to the left. The unicorn had been speedy with his teleports, and even with her advanced warning mechanism in place, Tail still could not fully avoid the stallion’s punch.

He slammed his metal-clad hoof into the golden flank-plate and pushed the pegasus up into the air right in the middle of her dodge attempt. Iron thunder boomed around the yard and echoed off the stone structures while Barrier’s horn glowed yet again.

A buzz rippled through Tail’s left wing. Other side! She hurled the flight appendage towards the ground and rolled her body to catch Barrier with a swing of her right foreleg. A ringing noise filled the air when her gauntlet connected with his chestplate, but the strike lacked the momentum and power to do much of anything against his bulkier physique.

Dammit, Tail internally grumbled as her brain nitpicked the updated data. Her rotation had exposed her underside to the attacking stallion, and her counterattack had not been strong enough to parry the advance. What are you going to do when it all goes to shit? How are you going to survive? Remembering the words of her mentors, Tail decided. Vapor rapidly congregated in two cloudy toroids that whirled half a leg length above her trunk.

When the loops sparked to life, Tail watched the aura around Barrier’s horn fade. Physical strike! She snapped her muzzle downward, casting her gaze along the length of her barrel. Her two rings, serving as glimmering bullseyes, pulsed from her weather magic and beckoned their wielder to push her boundaries even further.

Tail trailed the colt’s inbound hoof and drew a breath. As quickly as she could, she formed a tiny, aggravated tuft in the space between the tip of her tongue and her teeth. A scowl took shape in response to the acidic, metallic taste that brewed in her mouth, but Tail kept pumping the electric charge until Barrier’s gauntlet breached the domain of her Synchrotron Flicker. The mare flicked her tongue downward and blew.

A tiny bolt erupted from Tail’s gaping maw and plowed into Barrier’s gauntlet with enough force to shift the captain’s momentum. Light enveloped his horn before the deflected limb hit the grass, and Barrier teleported to a safer distance in the wake of the surprise strike.

Barrier silently stared at Tail through her aileron roll, and he maintained his stillness for several seconds beyond that. “Wow,” the wide-eyed unicorn finally spoke up. “That first punch got me thinking that we were going to need to have a conversation about the pitfalls of a weak counter, but you turned it into a feint and then did that.”

Tail grimaced and sheepishly pranced in place. “Mm, but it was pure desperation. I knew I fucked up the instant my strike had no power. Then, I realized my barrel was vulnerable because of our armor conversation earlier. Seemed like the perfect spot for you to hit to prove the point. I really didn’t even know if I could shoot a bolt like that. I just tried it because it was the only thing I could think to do to survive the moment.”

“Sometimes that’s all we can do on the battlefield, Colonel.” Repeatedly shaking his head, Barrier snorted. “That expression doesn’t suit you. On both C.O. and coltfriend fronts, I think you should wipe it from your muzzle. You did well, really well, and I think it’s time for lunch—”

Tail’s chest suddenly dropped to the grass. Arcs flashed between her three detection loops, withers, and feathers. Her brow cut an even fiercer scowl than the one she had worn a minute prior, and she snapped her head to glance rearward before her iris flashed an amberish glow. Inbound combatant. The pegasus bucked high and hard with both of her hind hooves just in time to catch the helm of one sneaking, teleporting Shining Armor.

The guard stammered back on his own hind legs and twirled around in the aftermath of the strident blow. “Prank attacks, before lunch, now a bad idea.” He spun around a few more times before tumbling to the dirt. “Medic…”

Tail scanned the horizon while a sensation of endless wonder drove shivers along her limbs. The entire sky had vanished behind a giant dome that flickered with the dynamic luster of an aurora, and the ground was covered in a sprawling ocean of forget-me-nots. The gleaming paradise was still—

“Too still,” Tail mumbled aloud as she began to pivot around. There was neither sound nor breeze to coax her senses. No other pony was in sight. This world was motionless, cut off from time in a bubble that left it anchored in history. She strode forward, hoping to find someone, preferably Barrier, or something that could provide a clue.

As her walk transitioned into a full-throttle gallop, Tail’s sights snapped over the domain. She was the only thing that moved here—the only thing with a tempo, a beat. The pegasus ran through endless stretches of flowery fields for what felt like an eternity. The seconds stretched into minutes, which stretched into hours, and she only came to a stop once a different sign of life was finally detected.

She skidded to a halt as the land tore open around her. The plants ripped down to the root, and from those widening chasms, a bubbling sea of black ink began to rise. The iron-heavy scent of blood forced Tail to scrunch her muzzle, and she recoiled when she watched a drenched limb jut out from the depths.

The leg developed a deep-purple hue before a matching pony head burst from beneath the surface. Two golden eyes glared at Tail from the abyss, and the entity growled in a gaudy, masculine voice, “It’s you! I will make you pay for ruining our legacy! I will make you pay for taking what’s ours!”

The amorphous features of the stallion’s mouth melted and dripped. Pained wails churned a cacophonous echo that perturbed the already-fragile domain, and Tail splayed her ears in the midst of the horrendous wind. To the pegasus, hatred itself started to coalesce into this beast, but as she took another step back, he was abruptly yanked beneath the waves.

A soul-shaking pop preceded the chain of incomprehensible movements that followed. The ink plummeted to the bottoms of the crevices, and the world reformed. For several seconds, Tail’s clock rewound, dragging her along the path she had run until she returned to the center of the field of forget-me-nots.

She flinched once an unexpected gust brushed her mane, and she trembled when she heard another voice ride upon the wave. “Oi, ya daft, stubborn ass!” The Trottingham accent hit Tail hard. “Ah didn’t come all this way ta chase ya down! Gear up and fight! Ya’ve got ta be ready! Especially you, Barrier!”

At the mention of her coltfriend, Tail shifted her hooves and spun around. Based on the tones she heard, the scientist had expected to come face-to-face with a mare. What she saw, instead, made her blood run cold. The calm field of flowers and hypnotizing dome did not exist in the space that had been behind her. Instead, darkness stretched over the sky’s solid angle, and a windswept, snowy expanse ran from her hooves to the horizon.

Tendrils of dark magic encroached upon Tail from this haunting void. Their green and purple wisps came closer and closer as they reached across the stormy tundra. “I will conquer all. One banner, or oblivion.” The droning, demonic cry put Tail’s fur on end. Chills raced up and down her legs and sent her wings into an endless ruffling.

In a blink, she was staring at the daunting unknown through the grill of a helmet. Her body had been encased in a grey armor similar to Barrier’s kit, and her muscles tensed in anticipation of the fight to come. Just ahead of the horizon line, the beacon of an orange sparkle reached out to the physicist, and Tail could not resist holding a foreleg out as though it were meant to be grasped!

“There ain’t time, Lassie! Tell ‘im ya heard it too! Protect the line! And don’t ya dare quit—”

A thin beam of white light cut into the black abyss. The fabric of the dream Tail’s mind had been wandering reset, and from the hazy emptiness, elements of the training yard took shape and emerged from the fog.

Heaving for breath, Tail tossed the helm from her head and quickly surveyed the field. The pegasus’s pulse pumped at a rushed pace, and her attention darted along the familiar archway columns as she tried to explain what she had just observed. Dream. It’s a dream. You’re in a dream. Relax. Control. Breathe, or wake up, or

Tail stiffened, and her ears perked. A crunch in the grass off to her left flank tugged at her awareness.

“Or you can keep the courage to ask the question.” A calm, methodical cadence carried the lightly accented tones of a mare across the imagined pitch. While the delivery was new to Tail, she recognized the timbre before the visitor had finished her sentence.

Turning, Tail stared awestruck at the creature standing in her presence. Luminescent argent locks cascaded from the mare’s head in waves and swirls that resembled that of the sister princesses. Thestral wings were folded beside a dark body, which possessed a figure like Celestia’s—and a coat color like Trigger’s. However, the towering mare’s glistening red-ochre eyes provided the greatest source of enchantment.

“You’re—You’re—” Tail babbled reservedly. She blinked several times and pawed at the ground with one of her armored extremities.

“Aislynn Caliber, Grand Matriarch of the Sea of Reverie.” Hints of high nobility coated the creature’s words as she spoke, and she gingerly sat down on her haunches in front of the gaping physicist. “You’ve already met my foolhardy son and my adorably sweet granddaughter. I can’t say his recklessness didn’t pay off. He found love in the Land of the Woken and made a rebellious ball of fluff. Though, I expect both of them will interrupt, given that I’m here, so if you have found the nerve to ask the question, now would be the time.”

“That!” Tail squeaked, flailing her active forelimb. “What the heck was that!? Who the heck were those ponies? Why did one call Barrier’s name? Were they real? Was it just me? Was it you? Actually, why are you even here?”

“Those,” Aislynn corrected in a gentle voice, “were calamities, my child. Nightmares hold powerful magics. They can cast deep shadows over many generations, and they can sweep across both the past and the future. Yet, even shadows dream, and time and time again, others have come forward to find resolve out of those shadows. The one who called your beloved’s name is one such ally. As for why I’m here, it’s to remind you that you are not alone—” The thestral briefly paused, and one of her ears quivered.

Disturbing the landscape, ripples of energy turned the grassy yard into something more akin to the surface of a lake on a windy day. “Tail!” Luna shouted once she fully materialized in the dream. “I came as soon—” She stopped, breathlessly peering at Aislynn as though the Universe decided to halt everything.

“As I was saying, you’re not alone,” Aislynn continued before tossing a warm smile in Luna’s direction, “and neither are you.”

Chapter 31 - The Line of the Drecht

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Tail strode with purpose towards Celestia and Luna’s estate. This time around, the guards only greeted her with polite nods as she moved up the stairs and through the doors with enough speed to make her lab coat flutter in her wake. In her mind, the words of Aislynn Caliber echoed, their message anchored long after she had returned to the realm of the woken.

That book you’re reading, Ms. Tail, perhaps you should finish it.

The clapping of her hooves against the marble floors reverberated off the hallway walls while she maintained her brisk pace. Upon reaching the library, Tail yanked open one of the doors, slid inside the grand chamber, and took the direct line to Section W. Once she had corralled Dr. Secret’s notebook with her foreleg, she flapped her wings and propped her back up against the nearest wall. It was time for a good read.

Would a subsection title such as ‘With Eyes Towards the Future’ be appropriate here? I kind of feel like it would be, or maybe, ‘With Eyes Towards the Ends of Time’? That one might be more accurate. My latest ponder gave me quite the bother. The expressions I’ve included in this manuscript — I think they work, but on that same vein of things left untouched, there’s stuff that I think is just missing. Nowhere in these expressions does an explanation for corruption just pop into existence. There’s no on-switch that suddenly generates the madness that users of the Alicorn Amulet experienced. There’s nothing that highlights why the Tree of Harmony is special, why the Elements do what they do, or how magic becomes dark. There’s no obvious solution to what happened in The North. Why did the Crystal Heart have a curse to begin with? Why did Sombra’s activation of it turn him into a mad king, and why did Callie, Luna, Amore, and Aislynn have to create the Temporal Drecht? Why was it the only way out at the time?

Everything up until this point explores the consequences of unifying our standard of magic with a U(1) gauge symmetry, but there’s obviously more. Princess Cadance has the power of love, and Queen Chrysalis can bend emotions. Discord has chaos and disorder. Twiggles and Company have the magic of friendship. Maybe they all draw symmetries of their own. Maybe they all highlight different directions. Perhaps there’s something else to tap into, and I’m going to take a shot in the dark here, Callie, that you already know and you’re just playing coy. How many times in your thousand-plus years of life has a scholar come along and scratched the surface of something that is already natural to you? Hmm? Maybe one day you’ll let me in on the game, but then again, I take over the E.I.S. tomorrow — so I guess I’m already in it. Anyhoo, see ya at bedrock, Sunbutt.

“See you at bedrock? Take over the E.I.S.?” Tail exclaimed. She slammed the notebook shut and plopped it onto the shelf before she dropped onto all fours. Her widened eyes shifted, casting her gaze aimlessly over the floor while the puzzle pieces collected in her mind. She imagined the door to her laboratory and the inscription that had been etched upon it. Out of the shadows, find resolve. Aislynn, the lab, the book, Trigger’s… Tail’s breath hitched. “Holy crap, Dr. Secret is Wing.”

The physicist scrambled back towards the door once she settled on her decision. Today, her visit to the library would be a short one, for the time had come for her to meet her sneakiest benefactor. At least, that’s what the plan was up until Luna and Barrier crossed the threshold before Tail made her exit.

Barrier’s drooping eyelids and slouching demeanor froze Tail mid-step. The poor stallion looked like he could flop over at any given moment, and Tail’s countenance quickly bore the hallmark quirks of concern.

“Sorry,” he spoke sheepishly, “I know you wanted to do some metalwork today, but I didn’t really sleep well. My dream last night— Our dreams last night—” Barrier strained as he moved one of his legs towards his marefriend. “It was Ember, and...”

Tail gasped after his voice trailed off. The orange sparkle, the one who knew his name, an ally whose dreams had stretched across time—that mare had been Ember. Tail didn’t wait for the exhausted colt to close the distance between them. Opening her wings, she shuffled up to his side and draped her feathers over his withers and barrel. The pegasus didn’t need Barrier to explain it any further. She didn’t really expect him to say anything else either—at least, not in front of Princess Luna.

“Come here, you sweet boy,” she whispered, pressing down with her wing as she slowly marched him to the library bed. Tail guided him atop the spirals of violet and gold that covered the quilt, and through some careful positioning, she sat on the mattress in a manner that turned her thighs into the perfect pillows for his head.

With the lower parts of her hind legs dangling off the side of the bed, Tail brushed Barrier’s mane with one of her forehooves. “I think Luna will agree that I can take a vacation day. Get all the rest you need. I’ll be here.”

Tail continued to comb Barrier’s mane even after she was certain that the stallion had fallen asleep. His gentle breaths raked the fur on her thigh and offered some reassurance that her coltfriend was receiving a needed reprieve.

“I am relieved that we found you,” Luna said quietly from her bedside post. “Last night’s events proved troubling in more ways than you know. Barrier is quite capable of keeping his mind secured from me. Even on nights when a nightmare plagued his thoughts, he would succeed in locking me out. Yet, those blocks crumbled before this morning’s light. The disturbances that struck both of your fabrics were palpable, and when I sensed that his defenses were down, I went to his fabric first—and there she was. I don’t think he has seen her in some time, but this one was obviously different. It’s just not a wound that I am qualified to heal.”

“It’s hard to grasp what I saw and heard in my dream,” Tail commented, resting her hoof on the back of Barrier’s neck as her idle gaze drifted. “I watched a beautiful world start to die. I heard terrible things. I met Trigger’s Mom, and it’s honestly all so incredible. Still, I can’t deny that I heard a mare call out to Barrier, and I heard her call out to me.”

Tail squinted as a shocking pain clutched her chest. Anxiety and sorrow contorted her muzzle and cheeks while memories of departed family flickered in her mind. It took several deliberate breaths for the scientist to steel herself and regain composure. “To still love somepony who’s gone, but whose dream remains alive, that has to be hard on him. Loss is hard on just about anyone, but here we are, right? You found him when he needed you—just like I’ve found him now.”

Luna’s blue wings splayed, and she tightly pursed her lips to fashion a pout. The tense expression loitered on her countenance for several seconds until a dramatic sigh heralded a wave of relaxation. “As the princess in the chamber, shouldn’t spirited words and advice be coming from me? Why must subjects lay claim to this most important of royal duties?”

Watching a lopsided smirk form on the alicorn’s muzzle, Tail stifled a chortle. “Well, if you want to get technical, you did essentially arrange for me to meet Barrier. If that’s not enough to satisfy your princessly urges, you could engage in a royal duty by pointing me to Wing’s office. Seeing how those notes I’ve been reading are his, and considering the overlap in our research interests, I think it’s time that we met.”

“Oh,” the Princess of the Night chirped. She tucked her wings against her sides and replanted her forehooves to sit higher. “I would be happy to give you those directions, but I should warn you that you won’t find him there. As a precaution, he’s gone north to monitor the environment for any recent changes. After speaking to both Lady Aislynn and my sister, we fear that the dark aura that infringed upon your dreamscape is tied to Captain Sombra.”

“Captain Sombra,” Tail methodically punctuated the rank and name. She glanced downward to check on Barrier’s tranquility, and she resumed her careful brushing of his mane. Once the pegasus gained confidence that the noise hadn’t perturbed the stallion’s slumber, she turned her attention back to the regal sister and continued, “I thought Sombra was defeated. The Crystal Empire was destroyed in the battle, and the Heart was lost. How could he be a threat? Unless—”

“The Crystal Empire was not destroyed.” A stern composition flattened Luna’s features. “It was sealed away using a powerful spell that required my sister, Princess Amore, Lady Aislynn, and me to create. At the time, we viewed it as the best option for the tragedy, but there are enough signs that indicate it will fail in your lifetime.”

“The Temporal Drecht?” Tail interrupted, drawing a curt nod from the Princess of the Night with her soft-spoken voice.

Luna exhaled. “Indeed, that is what we called it. Times were not good back then. The war with Griffonia was nearing its end, but tensions were still high. So much loss had happened, and none of us could even point to why anymore. The griffons hated us. We hated them, and all it did was spill blood. Celestia had started talks with Gallant the Third, but there were enough doubters in the courts to make us think that there was one last thread ready to snap.

“Sombra went north, as we learned, to manipulate the Crystal Heart into pacifying the griffon army. He didn’t take the ‘no’ from Amore lightly. He viewed the arcane magic as an easy way to win the peace, but all the Heart did was take his love and make him lust for war. There weren’t enough troops to manage a second front. Even the executor squads had suffered heavily by this point, and the risk of a self-anointed King Sombra rejuvenating Griffonia’s exhausted legions was too great. Celestia and I travelled to the Empire with the full intent to end the life of the pony we trusted most.”

Day -365747 — The Line of the Drecht

Luna crawled through the blizzard that battered her armored frame. The air whistled as it bit against the sharp contours of her spiked, gunmetal kit, and her eyes burned as she peered out through the grill at the visible landscape.

The once vibrant spire that stood at the center of the Crystal Empire emerged from the driving snow darker than Luna’s darkest nights. Like a knife of obsidian, the structure sliced into the sky, dispelled the light of the world, and draped everything in the dreariest of greys.

“We need to find Amore, Sister,” Celestia called from her position on the right flank. The Princess of the Sun, clad in armor like that of her younger counterpart, lurched forward as she carried a trunk on her back. “We need to find her and set this right.”

Bitter cold drilled through the protective plates and gnawed on Luna’s flesh. Even with the golden glow of her sister’s magic washing over them both, she could still feel the sting of the icy wind. However, neither storm nor windigo’s breath could prepare the Princess of the Night for what she saw at the edge of the capital city.

Jagged black crystals had erupted from the ground just beyond where the glassy streets came to an end. At first, Luna mistook the imposing quartzes to simply be a new bulwark, but when her teal sights landed upon the base of the wall, she quickly learned how wrong she was.

The horrified faces of crystal ponies frozen in mid-flight stared back at her. Some were missing limbs. Others had their jaws brutally torn from their heads, their screams forever silenced by bulging eyes and solid icefalls of blood. Their bodies crippled and shattered by a galaxy of crystalline morningstars, these frightened, fleeing souls had been executed in mass and left behind for any trespasser to see.

Her stride halted, Luna trembled. She’d seen combat. She’d seen and commanded terrible things, but this? This was beyond— “Amore’s dead,” she answered Celestia. “She would never let anything like this happen to her ponies. She’d never let anything do this to them!”

Heavy armor rattled from atop one of the quartz pikes, and both princesses snapped their heads to glare at the disturbance. There, Sombra stood, no longer wearing the issue of an Equestrian captain—but wearing the robes, regalia, and gear of a tyrant. “The price one pays for defying her king is the death of all those who would run on her behalf.”

Sucking in a breath, Luna quaked at the ghastly grit that emerged from Sombra’s throat. Anger pooled in her mind, and the inferno that brewed in the core of her horn grew more irritating with every second that she took in his dark-grey visage. He looked nothing like the captain she trusted. His horn had transformed into a red, curving crescent, and the crimson bloodlust in his irides bathed in hideous tendrils of drifting, ethereal umbrum magic.

The Princess of the Night could not hold it in any longer. The cry of Tia telling her to wait fell on deaf ears. Her cobalt-blue volley had already leapt from the tip of her horn and rocketed towards the unwavering Sombra.

Raising his iron-plated foreleg, the stallion wore an indifferent expression as Luna’s attack collided with his limb. Cracks of vermillion and onyx lightning ensnared the magical strike, and it simply vanished from existence. For several seconds, Sombra held his pose until a subtle twitching under his left eye became ever more noticeable.

Finally, he craned his neck and looked away from the alicorn as a hissing wind flooded his lungs. “We did this for you, you ungrateful bitch!” he wailed through a spittle-spewing snarl. He snapped his focus back to Luna and bared his fangs. “You want to impress your sister? You’re already the lesser light! You hope Amore is alive? You hope to see her again instead of your executor!? Here! Let me show her to you!”

Sombra slammed his hoof into the curved metal bands that protected his neck and chest. With his own raw strength, the tainted king ripped open the silvery plates to reveal a lurking dread as a cacophonous symphony of screeching iron pierced the gales. Blood stained his dark-grey coat in a chaotic splotch that surrounded a self-inflicted wound, and the princesses gasped when they peered at its center.

A dim reddish glow pulsed through the Crystal Heart as it sat implanted onto the stallion’s body. “There she is, girls! The Heart, her heart, is mine! Those who bowed before their true king now serve as my soldiers, and my slaves obey! I fought for you, and you betrayed me! They died for you, and who will remember them? I will give you one chance to bow before me now, and if you do not, I will take my army and march on Griffonia. I will take Gallant’s head and put it on a fucking pike. I will march on Equestria, and those who do not give me their unconditional love will suffer the same fate.”

The lid of the trunk that Celestia carried swung open at the behest of her magic. From the crate’s confines, six gemstones of various colors emerged—with the centerpiece being a rosy six-pointed star. “You do not have to do this, Sombra. The war is coming to an end. Stand down, and come home. You are not a king. You are our honorable captain.” The Elements of Harmony spread out in front of the sisters once both began to pour their auguric energies into the gems.

Another roar burst from Sombra’s muzzle. The globs of dribble that flung from his mouth froze before they plinked against the crystal barricade. “You ask me to stand down, and yet you raise your ace against me? It is truly outstanding that after all of your ordeals, and with all of your so-called leadership, that you are both primed for incompetence. Harmony is useless in war!”

Luna’s coat bristled in the wake of Sombra’s words. She dumped more of her power into the Elements of Harmony, and she could feel Celestia do the same. The air around the ancient artifacts scintillated in response to the cosmic energy they absorbed, and after several seconds of being steadily fed, the gemstones started to orbit around the pony princesses at a blistering speed.

Enveloped in a warm, swirling sphere of heavenly light, the sisters tapped the tips of their horns together. Erupting from the shell of the occult cast, a rainbow beam sliced over the gloomy tundra, cut through the blustering snow, and barreled into the prismatic Crystal Heart.

The green hue that had ensnared Sombra’s eyes brightened once the colorful assault disappeared into the domain of his hatred. The purple wisps that swept out from his head darkened and expanded as he took a step forward and grinned at the stunned royals. “I told you. Your harmony has no purpose here.”

Sombra cackled as he thrust a foreleg towards the princesses. A flash appeared from the Heart, and a thumping rush of wind flew from the stallion. The gust whipped through the elemental defenses and collided with Equestrian armor while darkness collected around Sombra’s chest.

The air rocked to a dissonant wail when a greyscale ray exploded from the crystal. In an instant, the Elements of Harmony stopped moving. The rebounded attack tore through the alicorns’ spell, and one-by-one, the pieces of Equestria’s greatest defense dropped into the snow.

Arcs of various shades, ripping through the decaying bubble, shocked the princesses. Cries of pain fled their lungs while a strange, black ooze crept along their limbs and ate away their armor. Luna’s agonizing screams echoed through the city. The parts of her body that the substance touched must have felt as though they were dying. Burning spikes set her nerves ablaze, and no amount of adrenaline could set her free. She dared not look at her sister with the cat-like slits that briefly infected her visage, but she knew from the tones that captured Celestia’s throat that they were enduring the same demise.

“See!? The seeds of your distrust have already been sown. Incompetence and false grandeur! How many lives did you feed to the wastes of your ambitions? No more. You wouldn’t bow to me before, but now you’ll bow to me in death. I’ll save Equestria from itself. Like Amore, your gifts, your love, belong to me—”

Luna and Celestia gulped down deep breaths when the pain abruptly subsided. In front of them, a cloaked thestral mare with an ethereal argent mane appeared from the nothingness. With one flap of her wings, she erased Sombra’s spell and banished the marks of a tantibus.

Still recovering from the shock, the alicorns collapsed into the snow behind Aislynn Caliber. The Princess of the Night, unwilling to surrender in the presence of both her sister and mentor, struggled to push herself up. “Tia,” she practically wept, though no tears showed on her scrunched face, “how is this possible? How could they fail?”

“I, I don’t know, Sister,” Celestia answered as she, too, fought to regain her footing upon the icy expanse. “Maybe we can try again. Maybe we can try something else!”

Meanwhile, Aislynn homed in on Sombra with her red-ochre gaze. A silvery mist partially shrouded her imposing form, and she held her towering posture like that of the Reaper surveying its prey. “Amore, your will?” she asked after a single thread of light connected the Grand Matriarch of Reverie to the Crystal Heart.

“This isn’t for you to decide! I am the king here!” Sombra raged at the dismissal, but his attempt to march forth was halted once he spotted the lines of light that stretched out from Aislynn’s hooves.

“The Elements won’t work on him as long as his body is attached to the Heart. He is too far gone for friendship now, and you cannot further jeopardize the love in your own magics. Amore is doing her best to keep the brunt at bay, but there isn’t time. Without a spell to erase the curse—”

“There is no spell to remove the curse! That’s why we needed her!” Luna shouted, stumbling to the ground. The snow caked her chin, and the alicorn coughed as she squinted up at the thestral.

Aislynn pressed a fang against her lower lip and nodded. “I know, Child. That’s why this is the only way. I ask that you lend me your strengths and trust me with the fate of the Woken World. It is all I can do for my own friend and my favorite student.”

Shining through the snow, the bright-blue bands of Aislynn’s magic encircled the entire capital. The thread that connected her to the Crystal Heart briefly appeared more luminescent as her wings unfurled to their full span. The mare’s cloak fluttered in the wind, and she glared at her trembling combatant. “Take it to the heart you cast aside, even shadows dream. Amorous art…”

Luna dug her hind hooves into the crunching snow and slid across the ground far enough to wrap one of her forelegs around Aislynn’s limb. “Lūminis art…”

Doing the same as her younger sister, Celestia grunted. Tears welled in her magenta eyes while she clung to Aislynn’s free hind leg. “Sōlāris art…”

The mist that hovered around Aislynn grew brighter and brighter. Engulfed by its light, the darkness began to retreat from the quartzes of the Crystal Empire. Even the spire showed signs of improvement before the thestral completed her grand design. “Dreamshell art, Temporal Drecht.”

Luna rubbed her stained cheeks with her fetlock. “We watched as he screamed, cursed us to death, and faded away. We watched as the Crystal Empire—and all of its surviving inhabitants—vanished from the flow of time like they were nothing more than the remnants of an emptied hourglass. All we had was the tundra, one another, and the mission to be ready.” She snorted. “And I couldn’t even be around for a thousand years of that. I should have been there to ensure that others remembered the sacrifices.”

Initially, Tail sat still atop the mattress, but when the silence lingered for far too long, her feathers began to flutter. A mounting strain of anxiety tugged on her chest and stretched her countenance into a grimace. “So, how do you know that the spell will break in my lifetime? And what has been done to make the outcome different when it happens?”

“My little pony, the worry plastered on your face makes me believe that you already know the answers to those, but I shall indulge your curiosity with some questions of my own. What spell do you think Princess Mi Amore Cadenza completed to ascend? And from where do you think your grant money came?”

Chapter 32 - A Queen’s Whispers

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Humming, Barrier rubbed his muzzle against Tail’s thigh as he emerged from his sleep. He opened one of his eyes and rolled before focusing on the mare who had spent the better part of her day acting as his pillow.

Still locked in her seated position atop the library bed, the pegasus softly smiled at her coltfriend and moved her foreleg out of the way. “Feeling better, Magic Bear?”

“Yeah,” the unicorn answered bashfully after he pushed his chest off the mattress and stretched. “I’m sorry, though. I shouldn’t have dumped that on you. It’s probably not part of modern relationship etiquette to burden one’s marefriend with such history. I imagine it’s not all that reassuring to know that she can have that effect either.”

“Barrier,” Tail countered flatly. She injected a momentary pause while she leaned to the side to kiss his cheek. “You’ve told me how important Ember is to you. You don’t have to justify your feelings to me, but if you continue to think that I feel threatened or cornered, then I can always show you how catty I can be on the field.”

The melodious giggle that followed Tail’s remark got the stallion snickering. “That’s what you said the other night, and we know how that went,” he answered, returning her kiss by depositing one of his own.

A prompt squeak wiped the smirk from the scientist’s expression. Her feathers ruffled, and a reddish hue crept onto her muzzle. “You know what I mean. I don’t think that you care about me any less because you still care about Ember. I won’t ever ask for you to stop caring about her. So much for making that point clear in a silly way, and to think you tell me that Princess Luna is the insufferable brat.” Tail huffed and flopped onto her back—much to the grinning Barrier’s bemusement.

“You made it perfectly clear,” the captain replied as he gradually ventured into the sprawled Tail’s line of sight. “This morning, when you knew what I needed without me having to say it. It’s another sweet thing Cadet Tail would have to run laps for.”

“Good thing I’m not Cadet Tail anymore.” With images of B.C.T. flooding her memory, Tail fashioned a half-lidded stare and an asymmetric smirk. Her nerves tingled to the fresh sensation of support that cradled her frame, and a contented sigh leaked through the gap between her top and bottom teeth. “Mm, probably shouldn’t have flopped. There’s a lot more work involved with being someone’s pillow than a pony might think. Your mane was an irresistible target too. I don’t have the luxury to be tired, though. Got to get up! Got to get to the lab.”

Barrier’s attention noticeably wandered over the reclined pegasus, and he spontaneously purred. “I thought you said you had a vacation day. Maybe I can make it up to you with a thorough massage, especially if your wings are available for some extra affection.”

“Perhaps we should save that for a bed not owned by princesses,” Tail muttered after her mentioned wings had already spread over the quilt. Her namesake swished violently, and she closed her eyes for a moment to reset the more scandalous thoughts bouncing about her brain. “I’m no longer sure that the day can be cleared. Luna and I spoke while you slept, and she filled in some details about the history of the Crystal Empire—about the day she and Princess Celestia confronted Sombra.”

“You know about Cady then.” The quilt puffed and the mattress bounced once Barrier shifted his legs and carefully plopped his body over one of Tail’s outstretched wings. “It was one of those things I drank through, I suppose. I knew as soon as I saw her cutie mark that the Crystal Heart was in her future. Just kind of thought I’d be gone by the time it came to that.”

Tail’s feathery appendage flicked against Barrier’s barrel as she rolled onto her side to face the unicorn. The relaxed state she had garnered yielded control to a perked brow that betrayed her concern. “And what do you think now?”

“I met somepony who showed me a better place, so I don’t think being gone is in the cards anymore. If they need me when he returns, I’ll be there this time around. I didn’t stop him once, but I can make amends for that failure. Equestria, today, isn’t broadly equipped to deal with a menace like Sombra anyways. Cady will need all the help she can get, and she is my family.”

Tail fidgeted with her hooves as she listened to her coltfriend. When he finished, the physicist pressed her forelegs together and began speaking in a whisper that quickly transitioned to her normal voice. “No more secrets. Luna told me something else while you were asleep. I’m eager to get back into the lab because my research is part of their plan to actually equip Equestria.”

Flinching, Barrier clenched his eyelids shut and pressed his lips together. He stayed in that pose until Tail’s elevated limb draped over his withers, and by the time he affixed his sights to the mare, she had already wrapped him up in a hug. “I’m not surprised,” he sighed. “I wish they had told me that from the start, but it just means that I was right about the training you’d need.

“Going to be honest. Hearing that makes me think about a lot of uncomfortable things. They gave you full control of your program, so who’s doing the equipping? Who’s doing the defending? Are they planning to send you to the line? It’s not impossible with how Celly throws around Twilight, but”—he gritted his teeth—“we haven’t even covered survival or the emotional elements of battle. I think I, we, we should talk to Celestia.”

Tucked away in a relatively small chamber adjacent to the throne room, Tail, Barrier, and Celestia gathered. The space carried the same cozy characteristic that the private library possessed. Though, in this case, there was no bed to lounge upon, and a random fountain was nowhere to be found. Still, stained glass windows provided ample natural light for the marble decor, particularly in the afternoons, and gigantic, velvety cushions offered plenty of seating options for the three ponies.

The Princess of the Sun opted to sit on one such cushion that matched the color of her eyes. She took a sip from a small cup of tea that floated in her golden grasp, and she visibly relished the scent that rose with the steam. “Are you sure I couldn’t interest you in a cup? It’s really no trouble at all.”

Tail flailed her forelegs from her perch at Barrier’s side. “Don’t worry about me, Princess,” the pegasus insisted after noticing that the alicorn had definitely placed her in the spotlight. “I’m not much of a hot-drink mare. Hot cocoa? Maybe on a winter’s day, but cold drinks are more my style.”

“I see,” Celestia responded before sharing her focus with both of her subjects. “I imagine you’re here because of Sombra.”

“I need to know your intentions with Tail, Celly,” Barrier replied before he repositioned himself atop his navy-blue seat. “Luna told her that her research was part of your defense plan, but that only leaves two options. Either telling Tail that she was in control of her own program was a lie, or you’re planning on sending her north to defend Equestria herself. B.C.T. wouldn’t have been enough to justify that kind of deployment, but there wasn’t much pushback on me restarting an executor program, was there?”

The drone of Celestia’s magic graced the air while she moved her porcelain teacup and saucer to the ledge of a towering ebony bookcase. “Like many things, Barrier, the proper answer to that line of inquiry cuts many layers, both rosy and bitter. Ms. Tail is not the only recipient of our initiatives, but what she’s done could very well address one of the fundamental problems we saw when we directly confronted Captain Sombra.

“With the Crystal Heart in his possession, he corrupted Luna’s and my magic. He nullified the Elements of Harmony, and if Aislynn had not been there to tie our auras to Amore’s will, then we both would have assuredly perished. The hope that arises with Tail’s work is what does Sombra have to corrupt when the magic that’s used is separated from the source?

“The current plan is to send Cadance to the line with Shining Armor as her escort and Trigger as the striker. Sombra is unfamiliar with their magics, so there is a window, especially when one considers that Trigger has Aislynn’s attack capabilities. Incapacitate or distract in that time, and Cadance can remove the Curse of the Heart without risking exposure to Sombra’s counter. If Trigger were to be trusted with a weapon that could keep his own power hidden, the duration of that window only grows.”

Tail lifted her head as the implications dawned on her, and she peered into Princess Celestia’s steady magenta eyes. She doesn’t even seem like the same pony, Tail pondered, contrasting the alicorn’s demeanor with how she had acted during their library rendezvous. Is that how many moves you’ve had to think ahead?

“So that’s your plan? You’re going to send three ponies, only one of whom has even set hoof on a field of war, to fight against Sombra—the most experienced combat specialist of my era.” Barrier’s interjection pulled Tail from her examination, and she promptly pitched her head to observe her coltfriend’s scowl. “That can’t be it. You can’t seriously be sending a force that small when it took so much to just make a seal.”

“There are others involved. Colonel Wing has been using his position in the E.I.S. to prepare additional strategic lines. The Prophecy of the Tree might also come into play if Twilight is ready, but that remains to be seen. Either way, the core of the plan is the same, and who else would I send? You’ve already done so much for Equestria, and you made your desire to retire clear soon after you returned—”

“I’m not the stallion I was when I returned. This isn’t a position that allows holding back. If he gets through them, then what? If I’m here, I’ll go. Captain Sombra was my mentor. He deserves to be properly put to rest, and I don’t want ponies I care about to live in a world that his warped state would create.”

Celestia rose from her seat before an audible breath slowly moved through her nostrils. “Are you sure, Barrier? Yes, I can acknowledge that your general attitude towards life, and yourself, has improved drastically in these last few months. However, facing your past hasn’t exactly been your strongest suit.”

“I know,” came the inevitable answer. Barrier’s ears drooped in the short silence that followed, but the captain never deflected his focus from the alabaster royal. “I should have sought something, cared more, listened to the stories you wanted to tell. I didn’t seek closure with regards to Ember, and maybe if I had, then I wouldn’t have fallen to pieces this morning. But Shining is my blood. Cadance is my family, and Ember would probably smack me on my ass if she learnt that I ran away when there’s still a pony I love around to protect.”

Blushing, Tail scooted atop the cushion while her own ears perked to Barrier’s words. Her pupils darted about as her attention shifted between the unicorn and Celestia. The physicist quietly played the chess match in her head. The B.C.T., her additional training, the grants themselves, Wing’s aid, his mathematics, Trigger’s guidance, and Aislynn’s mantra factored into the calculation Tail tried to grasp.

Even those steps necessitated standing on the shoulders of giants. Would she have been able to pull off the Bullet Flash—would Wing have been able to convey his ideas—if not for innovators like Farahay or scholars like Starswirl? The board had been set a thousand years before she had been born. But why would Aislynn show up in my dream, and why would Ember come to both Barrier and me—

“If he’s going, then I’m going,” Tail answered after her body jerked into a stiff, upright position. Through the cushion, she could feel Barrier’s muscles tense, and she immediately blanketed his trunk with the closer wing. She continued to gaze at Princess Celestia, whose expression had noticeably softened in the aftermath of Tail’s latest outburst. “Yes, I would trust a pony like Trigger with my research, and yes, I understand the value in the technology being deployed against Sombra.

“You and Luna can’t be on the front line while his psychological state is degraded, but your shells could be. However, the math of that construction doesn’t add up. If everything was in Trigger’s hooves, then I could have expected more pushback on the subject of my expanded training. It also doesn’t explain the cues. Aislynn and Ember showed up in my dream too. Why bother if the piece on the chessboard is Trigger? It’s like Wing wrote in his notes, Your Highness. How many times have you stared at the board in a thousand years of living?”

Stepping towards the two ponies, Celestia unfurled her white wings and corralled the couple. She bowed her head as her massive feathers pressed against their flanks, and she replied to both in an even tone. “My sister was right about your astuteness. It would be unwise to not throw everything we can into this one. I will ask you both. How long will it take to have something you can deploy to the field? What else is necessary to bring Tail’s training up to the standard you desire, Barrier, and what help do you need to prepare yourself?”

Tail wiggled to the strange sensation that accompanied being hugged by the Princess of the Sun. She instinctively squeezed Barrier with her still-draping wing in what was, perhaps, an act of pegasi pride at play. “The complicated stuff is mostly done. With Barrier’s help, I think I could have a demonstration in a week, week-and-a-half.”

“Aside from the sessions allotted for sparring, I’d like to take her on one of the survival trails, if any still exist, that is,” Barrier added once Tail had finished. “As for what I need, one piece of advice that I’ve received repeatedly is to accept that I don’t have to confront things by myself. It’s time for me to hear where she’s buried, and if it’s alright with you, Tail, I want you to come with me.”

The pegasus tilted her head towards Barrier and opened her mouth to speak, but another squeeze from Celestia silently told her to wait.

“I can’t say that the survival trails have the same functionality that they did when you ran them. The practice of bandit-squading has been outlawed for about seven-hundred years, and with the peaceful times, almost all of the trails have had major segments go completely out of service. There’s one that I gave landmark status, though, and that is the trail to Trottingham.”

Tail placed several augurite rods and a couple of augurite sheets down on Workbench 9 before she looked towards the waiting, lab-coat-wearing Barrier. “Alright, Magic Bear, I’ll leave these bits to your skills. I’d like another coil, the same dimensions as the Nines, but this one can be about fifty-percent longer. It’ll be a backup infused with the barrel.”

With one of her wingtips, the physicist gestured towards a schematic she had previously laid upon the tabletop. “I’ll also need some pieces made out of the sheets according to these designs. I know the assortment seems pretty random, but this mix of curving v’s, cute birdies, and a wonky hook makes up both the revolver mechanism and the part of the circuit that’ll link my leg to the cylinder.

“I’m going to work on the springs and rods for the trigger mechanism over at Workbench 10. If we can get through this today, then I’m fairly confident I can demonstrate to Celestia and Luna by the end of next week. We already demonstrated the coils work, so now it all comes down to assembling the accompanying hardware.”

“You’ve gone over my head again, Blanket, but that’s not much of a surprise anymore. I don’t foresee a problem with me making these. Shouldn’t take me too long.”

Tail giggled as she watched the stallion slide his goggles into their proper position. “Make extras then,” she hummed, giving a jovial flick of her namesake before she shuffled towards the adjacent bench.

“Tail,” Barrier called, causing the pegasus to halt her trot to glance over her withers at the stallion. “Thank you, for having my back.”

Another, albeit more exaggerated swish of Tail’s namesake followed. “Sweety, you thanked me over a dozen times just on the way down here. Need I remind you that you’re currently the one who is helping me out with all of this lab work? Besides, you’re the one who exhausted his courage supply today. Though, I’ll definitely take that massage later if you’re still offering.”

“Of course I am. I’m thinking I can fit it in while I take the measurements for your new armor kit. I’m going to have to get those numbers to the Quartermaster sooner rather than later. Sad to say that there’s probably no way it would be ready before we hit the Trottingham Trail, but still, it’s something that has to be done.”

A mischievous smirk crept across Tail’s countenance while she kept her focus homed in on Barrier. “Feather Boy seems quite eager to take my measurements. I’m starting to think that you’re just after another excuse to wrap rope around my thigh.”

Chapter 33 - Quartermaster Starts with Q

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Scuffed and tired, Tail and Barrier trudged their way towards the Castle Quartermaster’s Office after their training session had come to an end. Day 125 had proceeded in a manner similar to their first executor engagement. Lots of magic, lots of lightning, and lots of punches had been thrown.

“I’m starting to think that we should have done this in the morning instead,” Tail mumbled. Her protected hooves produced hard and heavy steps as she stomped along the corridor. The mare’s feathers flicked with each movement, and her nerves twitched to the continual reminders that damp fur sat trapped behind Sally’s padded plates.

“Definitely a miscalculation,” Barrier replied before the two passed through the gaping door frame that separated the pair from its destination.

Upon first inspection, the room itself was a rather bland affair with beige walls completely devoid of decoration. Though, a few cheap cushions had been thrown about the floor if a pony were so inclined. The most interesting aspect of the office proved to be its far end, where a gigantic slab of cherry wood formed the largest desk Tail had ever seen. Of course, the physicist—much like she had been during her visit to pick up Sally—was far more drawn to the enormous warehouse enclosure that lurked behind two grey double-hinged doors.

“Oh hello!” a dull-brown unicorn called enthusiastically from behind the desk.

Tail scrunched her muzzle and lifted her brow in confusion as she stared at the pony. The white-maned stallion who occupied the quartermaster station was definitely not the Quartermaster. At least, he was certainly not the same pony who she had seen when she last took a stroll to this part of the castle.

The stranger slowly leaned as he returned Tail’s gawking gaze with crimson eyes that appeared disturbingly jaundiced. “Confusion, tiny equine, can be a marvelous thing,” he serenaded while waggling his snowy eyebrows. With the next syllable out of his mouth, the unicorn tossed his foreleg against his head and gasped. “Fear not! The Quartermaster has gone on an oh-so-perilous mission to the frozen tundra to help another interesting pony figure out some exceptionally boring things. I’m his replacement. Temporary, I assure you. I don’t think I could handle all of this”—he dramatically gagged—“beige for long.

“You can call me Q, or D.Q. Hmm, ice cream does sound nice. If I pair it with cake, then perhaps Goodie McPrincessface won’t blow her gaskets, but that’s definitely not why you’re here. I can’t help but notice that you’re sporting last season’s drab Celestial model. Let me tell you that Luna’s house colors are all the rage with the colts this year. Something, yadda yadda, edgy, you know how it is, I’m sure.”

“Are you Pinkie Pie in disguise?” Tail questioned after stretching her neck and squinting. The rambling jumble of statements certainly reminded Tail of the perky pink pony.

Suddenly aghast, the stallion shifted his foreleg from his forehead to his chest. “Do I look like some sort of roadshow clown? Well, I never! To think that I came all this way to help you in a time of need, and you treat me like this? What will Fluttershy think when I tell her, hm? You might just get The Stare. Such a shame.” Q began piling different bits of Night Guard armor, which seemed to appear out of thin air, atop the desk. “See! This is how helpful I tried to be.”

“Discord,” Barrier flatly spoke with his serious, cutting tenor before he held up a sheet of paper. “She needs armor like mine, enchantments and all, with the measurements listed here. I find it hard to believe that Celly or Luna put you in charge of Forge’s office. When will he be—”

Out of a blinding flash, the draconequus emerged sprawled atop the desk with Barrier’s list in claw. “Well, we’re fresh out of that!” he exclaimed before slamming the piece of paper down on the cherry wood.

Tail squeaked when the mischievous creature teleported again and wrapped his coiling body around both ponies. Her feathers twitched to the sensation of Discord’s coarse coat pressing against her trunk, and her eyes widened to the surreal sight of the draconequus’s head comically smushed against hers.

“You science types are all the same. Logic this, and logic that. Where is the fun? Where is the excitement?” For a moment, one of his eyes physically wandered leftward to absorb the full majesty of Barrier’s consequential deadpan. “And now you want that kind of armor for her? Typical.

“You’re quite sweaty, by the way. Didn’t you learn at a fancy school that hydration is important? As Twilight knows, all it takes is a teensy glass of water. Though, that’s actually a lie. It takes much more than that, but who cares? The most important question really is: why did you not invite the Lord of Chaos to sit in and watch you spar? Normally, I find war insufferable. It’s the wrong kind of chaos. Why waste a good explosion on a net-loss game? If the ponies aren’t around for the aftermath, what’s the point? Now, what you’ve done out in the yard, on-the-other-hand, hoof, claw, whatever, has been absolutely exhilarating!”

“Uh, because I didn’t know you wanted to come, and I don’t have permission to invite others?” Tail answered, still attempting to gain some semblance of separation as her brow furrowed. “And just what do you mean, ‘You science types are all the same’? Are you a grumpy boy because you don’t think we appreciate your talents? Sweety, I’ve taught Chaos Theory for Undergrads. You want to experience something hilarious, then you can come to sit in on that.”

“You know what? I’ve changed my mind.” Discord crumbled in front of the couple before his individual pieces marched behind Forge’s desk and reassembled themselves. An obnoxiously large scroll appeared on the wooden surface in a mound of parchment that spilled onto the floor. He daintily picked up Barrier’s note, and with an exaggerated degree of care, the draconequus placed the sheet over the pile. “You’ve moved to the top of my list!”

To Tail, the third executor session with Barrier simultaneously felt like she had sprinted to new ground and backpedaled to something she should have picked up in B.C.T. Both ponies had cast aside their armor kits for the day to tackle the essential topics of pressure points and how one exploits them.

The scientist battled a sickening sensation in the pit of her stomach as Barrier put a little more strain on her foreleg. His grappling hold was doubly threatening in the sense that he could likely break the bone with a swift motion, and the force applied to the targeted cluster of nerves was less than pleasant to the vulnerable physicist.

“It’s not a great experience,” Barrier commented as he kept the mare pinned to the ground—and his hind legs wrapped around her shoulder. He pulled his forehoof off Tail’s elbow, much to her internalized delight, and he chuckled as one of her wings thumped against his side. “Yeah, that will always be a bigger target since there’s less protection there for an attacker to worry about, and the tactical benefits of getting a natural flier out of the sky are pretty obvious. But, we also covered all of the sensitive spots on your wings after the gala.”

Slapping his flank with her wing again, Tail huffed. “You’re tempting fate, Captain. Don’t give me a reason to spontaneously explore the sensitive spots on your horn. It would be a serious breach of protocol.”

Barrier snickered before he gently tapped around Tail’s elbow and wrist. “You can disrupt grip and stability with these if openings are presented. They certainly will be if you’re going up against someone with a modern armor kit. Imagine being hoof-to-hoof with an earth pony like Bonecrusher. A few seconds in which you can capitalize on an opportunity to strike could make all the difference. As a Blanket Bonus Fact, these weaknesses had a lot to do with where we put the spikes on our gear. Some in the executor squads liked direct coverage, and others preferred to bait with pairs that were offset. Point was the same though. If you wanted a tender spot, you were going to have to work for it.”

Flexing her released appendage, Tail curved her spine and stared at her captain. “Does that mean we’ve covered them all now? After playing an equinnequin all day, I think I’m ready to deliver a lesson of my own.”

“That’s pretty much all of them. Again, I don’t think I need to explain the leverage points on wings to a pegasus, and since you mentioned it, a lesson on the sensitive spots of a unicorn’s horn would actually be pretty brief. A strike to a horn could disrupt a spell, but the risks generally outweigh the benefits. You’re dealing with a sharp object that can deal physical damage, and the move itself is analogous to kicking a wasp’s nest. You’d better be sure you can one-shot it, or you’re going to have a pissed-off mess on your hooves.”

After rolling off the stallion, Tail stood up and grunted. “That makes sense, and it’s probably a good thing to know.” Her lips curled into a smile as Barrier looked up in her direction.

“So what lesson does my favorite trainee want to deliver before we call it for the evening?” Barrier asked as he started turning to push himself upright as well.

Tail dove at the stallion the instant she recognized that one of his planted forehooves served as the pivotal column in his attempt to stand. She brushed against the nerve cluster at his elbow and discharged a small electric shock that sent the numbed leg skidding out over the grass. Barrier’s barrel thumped against the ground, and as soon as it did so, Tail straddled the charcoal-coated unicorn and pressed her elbow against a sweet spot at his withers.

Barrier unleashed a heavy breath that whipped the nearest blades of grass, and he squirmed beneath Tail once the mare pushed her hind legs against his flanks.

Maintaining her commanding leverage over all of the tactical positions she had targeted, Tail slid her muzzle next to one of Barrier’s ears. She attentively listened to the surprised sounds that dripped from his mouth, and eventually, she began to speak in a voice drenched in desire. “I just wanted my sweet perch to know that I’ve committed his lesson to memory, and that, the next time we duel, I plan to win.”

The mounted stallion shuddered in the middle of the pitch while he miraculously pieced together a staggered response. “Sweet Zacherle above!”

Motivated to invite the princesses for a demonstration before the week was over, Tail headed into her laboratory to get a little weekend work on the books. She had moved her comfortable swivel chair from Workbench 8 to 10, and a delighted grin took hold of her countenance as she gazed down upon the table’s surface.

With Barrier’s help, she had managed to fabricate almost all of the parts needed to construct her revolver design. A routed stainless-steel chassis, a little shorter than the length of her foreleg’s cannon, sat amidst a swarm of augurite and iron. Compared to the more conventional shapes of the A0 rifle’s core componentry, the piece that now garnered the physicist’s attention looked like it came from a completely unrelated field of study.

Peering at the frame’s irregular trapezoidal profile with its routed side in view, Tail could finally picture the entire compact layout with ease. The rightmost area would house the augurite hammer, the pawl, associated springs, and birdies within its angled confines. Immediately to the left of this compartment, a large rectangular aperture indicated exactly where the cylinder would go, and several tiny holes had been punctured into the bordering metal surfaces to facilitate the mechanical stops, the pawl-ratchet interface, and the oft-forgotten-always-important drainage.

Tail’s sights moved more leftward, taking in the hunk of steel that encased the barrel and the backup coil. A shallow channel had been cut just under the barrel so the cylinder’s ejector rod would have someplace to go, and below that, a deep, dark groove extended from the bottom strap to fit the rods and springs of the trigger assembly. This feature contributed the most to the frame’s atypical shape. From the front view, the slab of metal looked an awful lot like a blocky J drawn by a colt in the midst of a robot phase.

Eventually, Tail’s focus drifted to the region of the frame beneath the gun’s muzzle. There, a series of three holes waited to be filled by crucial bits of equipment. Two would house screw-capped sockets for the RC loads of the resonator circuit, and the leftmost one would serve as the trigger mount. At this point, the critical steps on Tail’s list were becoming far more manageable.

“Install the internals,” she mumbled as one of her forelegs hovered over the hammer, “secure the pins, all the latches, get the trigger mechanism in, and seat the cylinder crane. Hooking up the sockets might be a bit of a drag, and I still need to get this beautiful frame mounted on my gauntlet and wired up to that augurite-mesh stuff. But all that leaves is fabricating the actual trigger and putting the cover plates on. C’mon, Tail”—she slapped her cheeks with both of her forehooves—“you’ve got this! Let’s go!”

The magical bolts on the laboratory doors clunked, driving Tail’s ears to stand upright. She kicked her hind leg against the floor and used the acquisition of angular momentum to rotate her chair so she faced the entryway. “Who’s it going to be today?” she pondered aloud while her mind went through the names of those who had access to her workspace.

“G’morning, Blanket,” Barrier called when only a sliver of his physique was visible through the crack in the opening gate.

The research-prompted grin that had been present on Tail’s muzzle paled in comparison to the beaming expression that bloomed once she recognized the answer to her question. She waited until Barrier slipped into the room before she waved, and a melodious greeting leapt from her tongue. “Morning, Sweety! Was it Amora who told you, or have you just gotten that good at reading my whereabouts?”

“Had a hunch. You were extra feisty yesterday, and with a self-imposed deadline for that test of yours, wasn’t much of a guess. I also had a feeling that you might be needing this.” Smirking, Barrier held up a rich red cardboard box that Tail instantly recognized as a 12-pack of WNS. “Caffeine source for the fizz-needing physicist.”

Tail’s chocolate-brown eyes sparkled. She floated off the chair after her wings unfurled and flapped, and she smoothly moved towards the stallion through an easy glide. “You brought me caffeine?” she purred, not waiting for an answer before throwing her coat-covered forelegs around the stallion.

Ensnared by a thankful kiss, Barrier grunted. A ripple meandered through his magical aura, and the levitating beverage case wavered in altitude until a steadied limb found refuge across Tail’s withers. “Mm, that makes me think I did a good.”

“Oh, you definitely did,” Tail replied, carefully pulling away from her coltfriend after enjoying several seconds in his embrace. “I figured that an extra day would guarantee that the demo can happen sometime this coming week. After looking over all the parts, I’m doubling down on that position. The only meaningful fabrication work left for me to do involves how the revolver will sit on my leg, trigger included. After that, it all comes down to making sure the circuit contacts are secure, but that system is fairly robust by construction. The mesh that Wing included in the crate will provide the primary current I.O., but I plan to solder backup leads onto the gauntlet pieces just in case. I also made spring-up contacts for the ends of the barrel coil, which I should probably put some stoppers over, but you get the idea. Redundancy!”

Punctuated by the large blue metal slabs slamming shut, the drone from the doorway’s machinery came to an abrupt stop. Barrier glanced to his right at the coat rack Tail had set up for their protective gear, and the hints of a smile formed in the aftermath of the scientist’s surprise kiss. “I’ll get my lab coat on,” he said in a tender tone. “I have another hunch that a lot of science will be happening today.”

Tail wildly panted as she soared through the air over the castle yard. Her glare cast downward and absorbed every photon that reflected off Barrier’s battle-hardened body. The stallion had just succeeded in sneaking through her defenses, and the end result had been a leg drag that sent him rolling over the grass—and her tumbling into the sky.

Though, the subject material for Day 130 of Tail’s combat adventure offered a straightforward explanation for her sluggishness. To prepare for a fully encasing suit, Barrier had set a new stipulation: she could only use her Bullet Flash and Synchrotron techniques if she could create them over spots covered by Sally. For the pegasus, doing the deed wasn’t so much the problem. While one fight was being waged with Barrier, Tail had drawn another line against Father Time.

Vanishing before he completed his rolling motion, Barrier launched into his next attack with a teleport. The pegasus steadied herself by shifting her wings, and her focus darted to the four current loops that sat atop the metal plating that covered her shoulders and haunches. A buzzing rattle across Sally’s surface alerted the pegasus, but by the time the signal meandered through Tail’s feedback mechanism, Barrier’s hoof rammed a pressure point between her withers.

Even with the protection afforded by her armor, the overwhelming strike pushed Tail into the ground with a thud. The wind rushed out of her lungs along with a shriek, and Barrier’s magic rapidly coiled around her wings and legs to keep her pinned beneath his sturdy, straddling frame.

“Not working,” she heaved. All of the mare’s efforts went towards getting air back into her agitated lungs, so she simply relaxed in the gripping confines of Barrier’s hold. “Need a new idea. Just too slow.”

Barrier relaxed his posture and brushed his muzzle against her unprotected ear. “As a captain and a coltfriend, I think it’s time for a little turnabout. The most valuable lesson there is—is that Colonel Tail always thinks up something.”

“So not fair,” Tail muttered after her cheeks had reddened. Her namesake flicked, and her feathers splayed and wiggled once Barrier loosened his spell. She continued her cadence of calming breaths, and when a sufficient number had done the job, Tail pursed her lips and uttered a whistling sigh. “Relying on the sounds made between the current loops and the armor is never going to be fast enough. I need a thread to a nerve, but the only way to achieve that without breaking your rule would—”

Tail’s eyes lit up, and her namesake swished with renewed vigor. It’s not like there’s an absence of moisture under there. Might be a little weird, and the sizes might need to be different. “I need a receiver! Instead of just a detection loop, make it a pair, and keep one ring between my armor and my body.”

Snickering, Barrier kissed Tail’s ear before he climbed off of his marefriend. “Never any doubt. The perfect blanket will always come up with something in the moment, so let’s get back to it and see if it works.”

Rising to her hooves, Tail sported her determined, fiery stare. Once again, small current rings began to faintly glow just above her armor kit as she concentrated, but she worked her real magic beneath the golden metal. Head tilted and brow quirked, the scientist found herself captivated by one thought as she began to shape cloud toroids in the tiny, sweaty space. This is way easier than I expected.

Admittedly, Tail briefly shuddered once she had started pumping charge through the trapped rings, but the sensation of retaining an intimate contact with her birthright quickly became par for the course. She positioned these larger receptor loops beneath their visible counterparts and nodded to herself once the edges of said rings settled relatively close to her spine.

As soon as she crouched into her ready position, Barrier disappeared from his spot on the field. Upper left, 160 degrees, Tail thought after a strong shock jarred her left flank. Jumping forward, she glanced over her shoulder to see the unicorn pounce the place where she had stood. He bounced off the grass and immediately proceeded into the second link of a teleport chain, which Tail also read.

She plopped onto the ground before the coming flash illuminated her right side, and Tail grinned as she watched Barrier’s projected shadow follow his trajectory over her barrel. Spell after spell followed, and each time, the physicist felt the impact on the differential signal between the visible and hidden sensor rings.

Upon completing twenty consecutive teleports without landing a hit, Barrier returned to his standby location. A wave of laughter burst from his muzzle that nearly drowned out his reply. “Guess we know Trigsy will be proud. Though, seeing all of that dodging, I have a couple of questions. What are you going to do to counter? And why bother with the external loops at all?”

“Clever boy,” Tail cooed. She lifted her foreleg and started pawing the air while she explained. “Keeping the external partners makes reading through the metal a little easier. I don’t know if it’ll be more difficult with your style of kit, so while it could be less efficient to do it this way, I think I’m testing the conservative case. Also, it lets me do this.”

A mischievous grin abruptly claimed Tail’s visage. The glimmering toroid that floated near her left shoulder rapidly rotated and stretched. Before Barrier’s scrutiny, the piece of the Synchrotron Flicker technique morphed into a spiral and then transformed into a Bullet Flash spike. “That’s how I’m going to counter.”


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Tail paced around her laboratory in a violent, vigorous frenzy. The day had come to put the firing range in her Canterlot space to use. Dubbed OPERATION COBALT by the physics powers that be, the test would, hopefully, demonstrate Tail’s ability to rapidly destroy targets using the magical auras of Celestia, Barrier, Luna, and herself. The entire page of Tail’s academic log for Day 133 had been meticulously reserved for all of the data input, and the rambling pegasus had already labelled the table on the sheet.

At the far end of the range, about two meters from the rear wall, Tall had placed four cubes of iron, with edge lengths of about fifteen centimeters, atop a stage frame. “Now all I’ve got to do is wait for the princesses and show that their incredible investment was worth it! Hurray! Not panicking at all!”

The mare scrunched her muzzle before she twirled around and hurled her sights towards Workbench 10. She halted, frozen by the reflective stainless-steel contours that culminated years of effort. The beaming claw-like partitions of the gauntlet contrasted nicely with the dark augurite-infused sleeve that lurked behind the metal legwear. The rubber brackets, which Tail had screwed into the top of the revolver to cover the extra contacts, created a similar effect. Her work looked damn beautiful.

With her attention wandering all over her invention—the capped RC elements, the added input leads on the gauntlet, the revolver as a whole—the mare vocalized one thought. “When science fiction becomes reality.”

She turned towards the entryway when that notorious clunking sound hit her perked ears, and she anxiously smiled as Barrier escorted Celestia and Luna into her lab.

The younger alicorn seemed particularly pleased as she used her magic to play with her lab coat and goggles. “She’s going to make you put them on too, Sister,” Luna teased in a singsong voice that drove Celestia to visibly roll her eyes.

Barrier snagged the collar of his own coat with his magic and gave it an affirmative tug. “You don’t think she will, and yet, you see both your sister and me wearing them. They’re your own safety regulations, Celly. Of course Tail is going to make you wear the gear.”

Tail pressed her lips together and held her breath to suppress the giggle fit that yearned to break free. The humorous entrance did wonders to settle her nerves, and the uplifting sensation that sent her namesake swishing was only bolstered by Celestia’s retort.

“But they’re so scratchy!” the Princess of the Sun complained. “And I doubt she has one in my size any—”

Finally surrendering to the need to laugh, Tail chortled as she stretched one of her forelegs towards the coat rack. There, an extra set of goggles dangled from one of the rungs along with the largest lab coat the mare had ever seen.

Silenced by the gesture, Celestia nervously followed the invisible ray projected by Tail’s limb until her own gaze fell upon the enormous white apparel. The alicorn lowered her muzzle and sighed. “Ugh, she’s a professional. Of course she would thoroughly prepare for a demonstration of this magnitude.”

“Damn right, I prepared,” the pegasus quipped before she trotted forward to give her coltfriend an affectionate nuzzle. “Thank you for the escort, Captain, and yes, Princess, if you would be so kind as to put on the lab coat and goggles, it would be appreciated. After all, one of my aims with this demonstration is to use your magic, and that requires taking a sample. I already have a leftover shell from Barrier that I can use, and Princess Luna gave me an ample supply to help with the construction tests.”

Shuffling over to the rack, Celestia relented. Her golden aura swept over her long horn, and at the behest of her magic, the gigantic coat levitated off the stand and dropped over her withers. For a moment, she fussed with the fabric, shifting and tugging the material to slip her wings and legs into the appropriate slots and sleeves.

Tail took the opportunity to readjust her own lab attire—especially the googles, which she had worn up on her forehead during most of her pacing and note-taking. She wandered over to the Magic waveguide, opting to use this particular apparatus to bottle Celestia’s energy since the name felt appropriate. She yanked the bulbous output lever into the open position, picked up an unsealed round from the adjacent bench, and smirked at the Princess of the Sun.

“If you’ll step this way, we can get started with the first section of the demo. This”—Tail raised her leg to show off the unassuming brass cylinder—“is an augurite-caged thaumium round. Using the waveguides in this laboratory, I can take gifted magical energy and contain it within the thaumium crystal. An augurite cap at the base of the metal shell contacts the thin cage that surrounds the thaumium, and it’s through this cap that, well, all of the fun stuff happens.”

The pegasus slotted the open end of the round into the exit aperture of the waveguide before she shifted the lever again to lock the brass in place.

Still uncomfortably fidgeting with her lab coat, Celestia curtly nodded in response to Tail’s explanation and trotted towards the lavender scientist. She shot a short glare at her sister once Luna’s continued conniption reached her ears. The flat expression could have shouted volumes at even the most apathetic of creatures, though a simple, “Are you done now?” may have sufficed.

Instead, the regal mare pivoted her focus to Tail after silently delivering her point. “Pardon the interruption, Professor. Please walk me through what it is that you need me to do.”

Moving to the input side of the waveguide, Tail double-checked all of the knob positions before she pulled the lever closest to the opening into a horizontal position. “I would like for you to channel a spell through the inlet that you believe will have the power to put a dent in one of those iron blocks at the end of my makeshift range. Once you’ve done that, let me know, and I’ll complete the shell. We’ll repeat that process five more times, just to have a full set, and then we can proceed with the exciting part of Operation Cobalt.”

“Operation Cobalt?” Celestia questioned, fashioning a perplexed expression. Once she reached her destination, she lowered her head towards the ground and took a peek inside the contraption. “And a spell that could put a dent in an iron block, hm?”

“Mhm! Celestia, Barrier, Luna, Tail are the four shell types I plan on showing you this evening. Cebaluta sounded weird, and Celebarlunata is just too long. Cobalt is a word we already have and kind of fits. Bullshit acronyms, initialisms, and names are definitely physicist things.” Tail tweeted as she eyed the alicorn peering into her device. “Feeding a spell of that magnitude into the waveguide is exactly what I would like the cutely curious, lab-coat-wearing Princess of the Sun to do.”

Straightening her posture, Celestia blushed. She scrunched her muzzle as another round of Luna’s laughter filled the cavernous expanse, and a snort swiftly fled the towering mare before she mumbled, “You have been hanging around my sister for too long.”

The distraction did not stop the princess from fulfilling Tail’s request. With her horn alight once again, a golden ray trickled from Celestia’s spire into the tapered opening. Luminescent bands dripped from the aperture until Tail shoved the lever back into the vertical state. A familiar buzz ran the gauntlet of the audible spectrum, and once the scientist had heard enough of that delightful purr, she lifted the second lever as well.

After walking to the output side of the setup, Tail released the jacketed round from the waveguide and held it up so Princess Celestia could see. “Just like that, one down, five to go.”

As Tail worked the controls to make the hoofful of additional rounds, Celestia’s demeanor shifted from intrigue to appreciation. “This process seems rather efficient. I have to say I’m impressed. I did not know what to expect, but given what I just experienced, I believe you have made a good use of your resources.”

“Well, thank you for the compliment, Princess. Though, I hope the next part is equally impressive. You can rejoin Barrier and Luna now. Probably best to keep a little distance as this will be the first time I’ll put your power to work.” Tail collected one of the C-shells and maneuvered to Workbench 10. The newly created ammunition joined its already-fabricated counterparts on the tabletop once the pegasus retrieved the other shells from the bench’s lockable drawer.

Like a mother cradling a newborn infant, Tail carefully lifted her revolver and made sure that the caps covering the RC loads had remained secured. Pushing her lab-coat cloth aside, she released a steady sigh as she shimmied her right forehoof and leg through the sleeve and gauntlet. The fabric and metal claws pressed snuggly against her limb, and she stretched the weighted appendage to verify the barrel’s alignment—and to make sure that the trigger was in its safety position.

The unusual actuator looked as though Tail had cut a piece of tubular chrome railing out of a random stairwell. The polished, curving crescent, with its rounded ends, sat between the muzzle of the gun and Tail’s wrist. Like an incomplete bracelet, the arc of metal hovered—waiting to be used.

With her opposite wing, the scientist flicked a latch on the side of the revolver, lowered the freed cylinder crane, and loaded her rounds so she could fire in C.B.L.T. order. Once the cylinder was stowed, Tail lowered her hoof and started walking to her predetermined firing line. “The trigger is currently being held with a pin and spring in a way that the weapon can’t fire,” she explained, tilting her head towards the trio. “This gives me the confidence to trot around without fear that I could accidentally hurt the hoof that’s close to the barrel.”

Tail veered her path so Celestia and Luna could observe how the barrel stopped just above the ground. “I measured things out so, when I have this limb planted, the muzzle is half a hoof length away from the tip of said hoof.”

When the princesses responded to her description with nothing more than a broad smile and an intrigued stare, Tail settled herself about fifteen meters from her line of iron bricks. “Operation Cobalt, C-shell demonstration. Going hot.” Tail lifted her right foreleg and clutched the left side of the trigger with her left wingtip. The pressure produced by the securing pin surrendered to the tug, and the tube slid until it wrapped around Tail’s fetlock and snapped into place with its extended end floating beneath her hoof.

Cast damage to Target 1, the pegasus thought as she began to channel her innate magic through the resonator circuit. Cast damage to Target 1. Her memories drifted to days spent under the summer sun and the warmth that Princess Celestia offered to everyone. More personal moments surfaced in her mind when the mare remembered their muffin-filled rendezvous. Happiness, camaraderie, magic… Her lips curled upward, and her hoof depressed the trigger.

In a heartbeat, and to the click of the augurite hammer, a blazing golden bolt tore across the lab, shot straight through the leftmost block, and dissipated when it hit the enchanted wall that served as the range’s backstop. The gaping hole left in the iron was surrounded by a uniform orange glow, and Tail’s narrowed eyes homed in on the spectacle through her protective eyewear.

Celestia did not say a word. Luna even gently nudged her flank, but all the Princess of the Sun did was stare onward with her mouth hung slightly agape. Barrier, of course, wore the shit-eating grin of an incredibly proud coltfriend.

Tail did not look over to gauge their reactions. Tests were not aced by answering only one question, and successfully shooting one alicorn-grade round represented only a fraction of her plan. “Operation Cobalt, B-shell demonstration. My aim with this one, Your Highnesses, is to dispel the notion that only your auras are useful. I can take Barrier’s magic, or that of any unicorn, and hit a target with the same degree of force.”

Cast damage to Target 2. The process started again as Tail kept the electromagical current flowing through the coils. Resonating with Barrier’s aura proved to be an exceptionally easy affair. A fountain of possibilities exploded across her thoughts as though her filly self had gotten into the family photo album and just scattered the pictures everywhere.

‘I can’t quit, Captain.’

‘Sweety, shut up and drink with me.’

‘That little stunt makes you my sweetest cadet too, Rookie.’

‘Fucking Agincolt.’

‘You really are the best cadet I’ve ever had, so stand down, Colonel.’

‘Thank you, Magic, for everything…’

‘I don’t know how I got so lucky. Your attitude, your personality. Your intelligence and fucking dedication, the signs of a perfect blanket.’

‘Can’t you hear me screaming as I try to outlast the edge in your voice that tells me I just gotta stay?’

‘I love you…’

An amber inferno swept across Tail’s irides as she stared down her target. Thin, barely visible arcs of electricity crawled up the fur of her stretched limb. Determination, love, and affection gave her spirit the type of resolve that turned dreams into reality, and with this state of mind, Tail pressed the trigger.

The targeted brick evaporated from existence before the four ponies registered the blistering brightness that bathed the entire lab in blue light. The other three blocks tumbled from the stage in a thunderous clamor as a shock wave reverberated from the backstop. Several of the diodes in the ceiling blew out in the second when it felt as though Mt. Canterhorn itself was shaking.

The mages snapped their heads around, tracing something unseen to Tail, once they realized that the volley had shattered two of the three magical laboratory barriers. Celestia and Luna made it clear to the pegasus after they turned to one another, blinked, and simultaneously spoke, “The only one left… is Cady’s.”

With her eyes closed, and with her forehead gently propped against a wall, Tail stood beneath her bathroom’s showerhead and allowed the falling water to wash away the sweat and grime of Day 134’s session with Barrier. The mare let her mind wander in that meditative space while silently reflecting on the outcome of Operation Cobalt and the progress of her sparring skills.

2.16 A.E.U. Tail had concluded after she had time to evaluate the B-shell portion of the demonstration.

As a safety precaution, Celestia had immediately cancelled the L.T. components of the program. “I don’t think we need to see any more, Ms. Tail,” the regal voice echoed from memory. “You have undoubtedly produced an incredible body of work down here. Using my magic already spoke volumes. Using Barrier’s, to that effect”—a smug smile had stretched across the alicorn’s countenance at that moment—“tells me a great deal about your character. We will inform the J.C. about this development. Please keep training hard. We’ll need you on the line.”

Tail’s ear quivered to the sound of a squeaking door hinge. Soft hoofsteps followed, drawing a chuckle from the flier as she hoisted her head off the beige plastic backsplash. “If you’re trying to sneak up on me, then you’re not doing a very good job, Magic Bear.”

“I can safely say that sneaking up on you has become a far greater challenge in recent weeks,” the sweat-soaked Barrier answered, pushing his voice over the drone of the vent fan. “In this case, I’m here for a far more selfish reason.”

Giggling, Tail stuck her head out from around the cheap yellow shower curtain and promptly fashioned a sultry, half-lidded stare. “Dirty boy, didn’t Princess Cadance tell you that sex in the shower isn’t all that?”

Barrier blushed and scrunched his muzzle. A short sigh quickly followed as his tail sheepishly flicked. “She’s the Princess of Love, so naturally, it was one of the first things she told me. Your roommate, on-the-other-hoof, told me armor wasn’t allowed on the couch, so I took it off. Then, she complained that I looked gross and mentioned something about actually having hot water…”

“Conniving and rude, typical Amora,” Tail huffed, pulling the shower curtain back as she stepped away from the stream of water. “Why am I not surprised? The boiler in this apartment is pretty large. There’s plenty of hot water left, but since you’re here, come on in, Sweety.”

The unicorn stood still for a few seconds before he was beckoned into the tub by Tail’s reaffirming nod. He closed the curtain with his magic once he crossed the rim, and his haunches soon settled by the drain.

As the warm water rained upon Barrier’s neck and withers, Tail watched the stallion’s muscles relax. Deprived of her main source of external warmth, she shivered and ruffled at evaopration’s behest, but the marginal discomfort would not deter the mare from her self-acquired mission. She corralled her bottle of shampoo with a wing and applied a glob to a primary feather on the opposite appendage.

“Close your eyes, Magic Bear. Get your mane a little wet, and keep your muzzle pitched up.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Barrier answered, craning his neck to dampen his mane without complaint.

Once he had finished, Tail went to work. Depositing the Drunkberry-scented shampoo, her wingtips brushed against the blue hairs before they retreated to allow the mare’s forehooves to work up a rich lather. She massaged his scalp with gentle kneading motions that pulled quiet moans from Barrier, and when two of her appendages meandered to rub the back of his neck, a tiny blue spark popped along the length of the stallion’s horn.

“Such a sweet captain, training a crazy pegasus and putting in all that overtime in her lab. The perfect assistant and the perfect coltfriend—would be two statements I could make regarding one Magic Barrier.”

A deep, throaty purr rumbled in Barrier’s throat. “One Magic Barrier could get used to this. Kind of a shame we’re about to spend three weeks trekking around the wilderness. Then again, it’ll build skills you might need—”

Tail tapped her nose against Barrier’s and hummed while her hooves continued to work the shampoo into his mane. “Three weeks alone with you on a trail, while learning, by the stars, sounds like a disaster.” The sarcastic delivery drew a chuckle from both of the ponies.

“We’ll have to get our supplies in order tomorrow,” Barrier added after Tail guided the top of his head into the falling stream, “but tonight, lots of Pop’s Place and diner celebration fit for a successful scientist.”

Smirking, Tail pressed into a kiss. Her legs drifted from his rinsed mane to settle over his withers, and an approving murmur swelled. “Mm, that delicious gravy. We’re going to keep Trot late again,” Tail replied after obtaining the bare-minimum distance required to comfortably speak. “At least now I know that gravy is nothing compared to yours.”

Celestia and Luna spent the early hours of the night enjoying a combined dinner-breakfast together in their private estate. The two sat across from one another at the midpoint of a long mahogany table. Wrought-iron candle lanterns, with dangling stained-glass charms, illuminated the homey space, and gentle waves flowed in the grain of the walnut panelling that covered the wall.

The Princess of the Night flatly stared at her older sister as Celestia shoved a piece of vanilla buttercream layer cake into her muzzle. The enthusiastic smacks and chirps that followed only prompted Luna to double down on her deadpan expression.

“Do you need some help with that, Sister?” came the obligatory inquiry. “It would be a shame if ponies everywhere learned that their beloved Celestia routinely confused eating with inhaling.”

“Oh, hush!” Celestia countered after finishing the dessert off with a hefty swallow. “The only ponies who would care come from nobility. If the Elements of Harmony can dine at Donut Joe’s in peace, then I can certainly enjoy cake in my own home without judgment. Besides, we each have our favorites.”

Luna snorted and leaned into the velvety cushions on her high-back chair. “You should write that one down. It sounds like a lesson you could have Twilight learn.”

Chortling, Celestia placed her emptied dessert plate atop the table. “Oh, that actually is a good idea. I could hit her with a real zinger like, ‘There’s no wrong way to fantasize.’”

Suddenly, the door to the dining room flew open, revealing a bright orange light that overpowered the chamber’s muted ambiance. Philomena immediately leapt from her current perch and swooped in, planting herself amidst the ethereal tides of Celestia’s mane.

“Geeze, you’re not even going to say goodbye?” a stallion’s voice carried across the threshold and utterly ignored the scrunched, startled states of the royal mares. “Travel on a guy’s back for ten days, build some memories together, then whoosh, right back to Callie’s mane.”

The phoenix pushed her head through the blue band of said mane and glanced at her travel companion.

“I am not being a little colt,” Wing rebutted the silent statement. The lavender pegasus finally stepped through the doorway. A dark cloak wrapped around his frame, but it didn’t fully hide the manner in which his jet-black tail swished about. His brown-eyed gaze remained firmly affixed on Philomena as though he expected some sort of elaborate reply.

Philomena merely shrugged and gestured with her beak towards the Princess of the Sun.

Wing pressed a hoof against his forehead before he dragged the appendage across his swept-back mane. “I don’t think sacrificing a polite farewell makes that much difference in time savings here. Delaying my report delivery by five seconds to say, ‘See you later, Wing,’ is not going to change anything.”

“Speaking of being polite,” Luna interrupted, turning her attention to the Director of the Equestrian Intelligence Service after she overcame the officer’s incursion and relaxed, “should we be surprised that a member of the House Guard did not announce you, or?”

“We didn’t use the front door,” Wing answered immediately, “but that’s not what’s important right now. As you feared, Princess, the Temporal Drecht is definitely failing, or maybe I should say that the city is reaching the end of the canal. Either way, I give it a month before the spell collapses, but it could happen sooner if there’s a nonlinear decay. We could also get lucky and it might last five full weeks, but that’s the timescale we’re looking at before the Crystal Empire resynchs with our reality. Regardless, we left a long-range thaumium emitter up there, so the comm relays will get triggered when it happens.”

“I see,” Celestia said in a reserved tone. “First thing’s first, I am happy that you both returned safely. The North can be as untamed as the Everfree. While I know you are both skilled in the field, it is good to have you home. All the same, your calculation is troubling. Were there obvious indicators in the terrain, or am I to presume that you were able to observe the Drecht for yourself?”

“Observe the Drecht—” Luna’s muzzle recoiled. She watched as Wing closed his left eye, and she gasped when a fiery auguric seal appeared and began to slowly revolve in front of his opened right. Hovering, the glowing circular construct mimicked a glass lens—at least in terms of its location. Meandering glyphs of an ancient text floated around the vibrant crisscrossing bands that formed the edge of the ocular spell. “You gave him Aurora’s Eye?”

Celestia greeted Luna with a small smile when the younger alicorn finally turned her head. “Indeed I did, Sister. Who better to carry the ability to see all magics than the pony we placed in charge of the E.I.S.? Still, we should probably not keep our faithful director here any longer than necessary.”

“Not that I oppose the decision,” Luna offered. Her massive wings fluttered against the sides of her towering chair. “I am just surprised, especially to see it wielded by somepony other than you.”

The Princess of the Sun softly grunted to acknowledge her sister’s reaction. “Much as you were persuaded by an inquisitive pegasus poking around, I found a kindred gamer in Wing. Speaking of a certain scientist”—Celestia pitched her sights in Wing’s direction—“Tail demonstrated her latest design and provided an unmitigated success. I believe we should meet with the J.C. tomorrow, perhaps around this time, to discuss our preparations. You should factor her presence into your options.

“I do sincerely hope you’ll be ready by then as well, Sir Wing. I visited Ambrosia in the bakery this week, and she seemed quite keen on having you home. Something about toys from Bit and Bridle.”

The stallion’s ears perked, and his face flushed. Sheepishly, Wing rubbed the back of his head and returned the princesses’ grins with a smile like that of a sly foal being caught at the cookie jar. “Well, I guess that means I’ll be trotting into an ambush tonight. Woe’s me.”

A day and a half had passed before Tail and Barrier met in front of the palace estate with their full collection of gear. Of course, the unicorn had opted to wear his entire armored ensemble, and a large, camouflaged saddlepack currently rested at his side.

Having been instructed not to bring her armor for this trek, Tail simply toted an enormous saddlepack of her own. She had loaded the dark-blue waterproof sack with rations, water, purification tablets, a few cups, some tools, cordage, clothes to handle the elements, and a sleeping bag—just to name a few things. For her own sanity, she had also tucked away another notebook, a bottle of ink, and a small caffeine supply—the latest of which had definitely gotten strange, yet understanding looks from Barrier.

The surprise of the morning came when a message from Princess Celestia reached the pair requesting their presence before they departed. Now, Tail anxiously eyed the gold-plated doors as she waited, wondering why exactly the alicorn wished to see them. It gave the pegasus an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach akin to how she felt as a child when a classmate got called to the principal’s office. Except this time around, she was that classmate, and the principal was one of the rulers of the entire nation.

Tail squeaked as Barrier delivered a nip to her ear. Her wings splayed, and she huffed as the affectionate gesture shredded her nervousness with the power of distraction. “Was it really that obvious?” she quietly asked, promptly drawing a smirk from her coltfriend.

“Flicking tail, pawing the ground, idly staring at the door. I’d say so, Blanket, but I don’t think you should get too worked up. We’ve got a lot to tackle with this trip. Knowing Celly, she probably just wants to give some regal words of encouragement.”

The two house guards standing off to the sides of the grand entryway stood up a little straighter as a metallic clank preceded the doors swinging open. Trotting hastily in front of Princess Celestia, Dr. Batsy emerged from the darkened interior, shuffled down the steps, and marched right up to Barrier and Tail.

“Colonel Tail, it’s great to see you again,” the petite purple batpony spoke as she gave a casual salute. “Captain Barrier, it’s also a pleasure. Don’t think we’ve met before, but oh my, have I heard a lot about you. I’m Dr. Batsy, Colonel Wing’s lab associate. Anyway, sorry to delay your travels, but Wing would like it if you would keep these on you at all times during your journey.”

The blue-maned mare lifted one of her leathery wings and swiveled her head to look under the appendage. She quickly retrieved a set of plain-looking black boxes with a forehoof before holding the flat, plastic rectanguloids out to the couple. “Uh, they’re a pair of teleport transceivers—in case we need to recall you to Canterlot.”

Tail took one of the devices and tucked it under her wing for the time being. She curiously peered into Batsy’s yellowish-green eyes until the mare shuffled to the side once Barrier collected his transceiver.

“Thank you, Batsy,” Celestia spoke, drawing the trio’s attention with her calm, steady tone. The royal methodically stared at both Barrier and Tail, making it clear to the latter through a soulful gaze that something had changed since the revolver test. “Colonel Wing returned from his trip north the other night, and he believes we have a month. Nothing is certain, so this is a precaution in the event that it returns while you’re away.

“I pray that it doesn’t. I believe you will both learn a lot about one another during these next few weeks. You each have much to gain. I believe you’ll both grow stronger, and I hope that you get the closure you need, Barrier. I already gave you the cemetery section, but you should know that she left something there for you too.”

The stallion’s armor rattled as he stiffened to the declaration, and Tail immediately scooted closer to offer some degree of comfort.

“Please be there for him as well, Tail. I have a feeling that you will soon come to understand some of the sacrifices those ponies of old had to endure.”

Chapter 35 - Remember

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When Tail regained consciousness the following morning in the cozy confines of her liberty-blue sleeping bag, she felt surprisingly refreshed. The cool, dawn air that lingered in the forest made her ears and muzzle tingle, but she had been built for altitude. This sensation wasn’t so much a challenge—but a call that spoke directly to her roots.

She and Barrier had spent yesterday’s remaining daylight traversing the nearly forty kilometers between Mt. Canterhorn and Nipersneigh Lake, which marked the head of the Trottingham Trail. With her eyes still closed, Tail released a pleased hum at the thought. Before the start of her training, such a march would have been out of the question. Doing so comfortably? Well, that would have formed a chapter in a fantasy fanfiction.

“Mm,” she purred, rolling in Barrier’s direction. “Should we get a move on?”

No answer came. Groaning to break the silence, the pegasus slipped a foreleg out of her sleeping bag and reached for where she presumed Barrier to be, but instead of finding any sign of a stallion, Tail’s limb thumped against nothing more than dirt and grass.

Suddenly wide awake, Tail sat up and scanned her surroundings. Her pack was gone. Barrier was gone. Her rations were gone. In fact, the only things around that stood out against nature’s backdrop were a canteen of water and a bound scroll. Shuffling her way out of her plush cocoon, the scientist scrambled over the ground, snatched the parchment, and eagerly unravelled the message.

Dearest Blanket, it read. In my time, this course was far more dangerous than it is today. Violent bandits, as part of their sentences, would roam the hills and ridges of the trail. Some were spared by cadets, but the vast majority were not. Some of those condemned tried to turn the tables by killing inexperienced rookies before the officers of the watch tendered swift ends. Times have changed, and the practice fell out of favor long before my return. It was brutal, but you should make no mistake. The Trottingham Trail is still a battleground, and you have to survive it.

While the dangers you face on this trail are not the same as the ones I faced, the danger we will inevitably oppose together is quite real and quite deadly. Therefore, I have another challenge for you. I am your bandit. I’ve taken your food. I’ve taken your supplies. I’ve taken your lifeline. Maybe this notebook of yours contains vital Equestrian intelligence, and you need to retrieve it all before I sell it off to an enemy of the state. Follow the trail, be mindful of clues as to where I may have moved off the path, and use all of your skills.

Equosetutum purslane and quackgrass both grow in the area during this time of year, so if you need to restock your food supplies before you reclaim your gear, those would be your best options. Just remember, always assume that I have eyes on my prey.

After rerolling the scroll, Tail stood up. She dumped the parchment into the interior of her sleeping bag before folding the puffy fabric so she could easily carry the bundle on her back. The pegasus snagged her canteen as well and hooked its tan burlap strap around her neck.

“You’re going to be my bandit, huh?” Tail muttered under her breath. Her sights shifted over the terrain again before they settled on the winding dirt path that sloped down towards the lakeshore. Between the trees’ towering trunks, she could see the gentle waves on Nipersneigh Lake along with the sparkling cosmos that the sun created by playing with the water’s surface.

Always assume that I have eyes on my prey. Barrier’s concluding statement corralled the mare’s calculations, and it drove her feathers to restlessly flick. Why call anything prey unless you plan to attack, Magic Bear? Instruct me to use all my skills? I know that you’re up to something, but you’ll also know that I know.

The mare’s half-spread wingspan steadied, and she produced a suite of nearly undetectable current loops under her primaries and over her haunches. You’ve forced me to find my own sustenance by taking my pack. If I were a bandit, I think I’d swoop in when my target was foraging, especially if they were distracted from possible flight triggers. So, Tail, what are we going to do to catch our thieving criminal?

Tail trotted nearly fifteen kilometers without any sign of Barrier or her gear. Over the span of three hours, she had passed several small Nipersneigh beaches and began ascending the slowly curving trail into the foothills. Birds chirped in the distance, and Tail would occasionally hear the light rustling of foliage. Every now and again, a critter would scamper through her field of view, but, for the most part, she was alone—and hot damn, did it suck.

And then, there’s you, the flier commented to herself as her stomach growled and churned. Back in grad school, you could go half the day without a problem. Then again, how far away is Canterlot by now? I’m still exerting energy even though I’m just trotting. I’m probably not being very fair to you, annoyed stomach. Tail released a long, exasperated sigh. She needed to go on the hunt.

About halfway up the hill, the tree growth began to give way to an open field filled with purslane. The sea of flat, rounded leaves swayed with the wind as a breeze dared to kiss the ground. Reaching skyward like children yearning for their parents to scoop them up, the plants’ yellow flowers reciprocated the affection and danced.

Near the high end of the clearing, a galleted flint tower stood about 150 meters from Tail’s present position by the edge of the forest. The small keep captivated the scientist’s attention, for it appeared to the pegasus as though a pocket of pre-Canterlot history had been miraculously preserved in the middle of nowhere. Of course, Princess Celestia had mentioned that she had designated the area a national landmark.

For a moment, Tail wished to spend some time praising the pony who looked after the site, but other details in the scenery overrode that notion. A sign of life came from one of the slit windows in the stone structure when Tail swore she saw the light of a lamp’s flame. Her head snapped down, casting her gaze to her forehooves before she meticulously scoured the path. While the ground closest to her limbs did not seem disturbed, interesting features appeared in the dirt the closer Tail’s scan got to the purslane.

Heavy divots carved into the sloping terrain. Almost like somepony trudged through here with armor and two packs. The tracks wandered from the well-travelled route and disappeared into the overwhelming mass of succulents. Still, Tail found more subtle clues, such as broken stems and jarred leaves, that told her something had recently moved into the field on a vector that pointed at the fortification.

Tail fashioned a devilish grin. Giving a physicist hours of solitude to engineer a plan was the scientific equivalent of giving a colt permission to start a bonfire—especially so when said physicist would have much rather spent that time trekking with her bandit.

Stage One— Tail poured a little more charge into the current loops that she had maintained around her body. They each responded by glowing at a higher brightness, which would make them visible to Barrier without arousing too much suspicion. At least, that’s what she hoped. A good thirty minutes’ worth of ruminations had also been dedicated to factoring in the impacts of a ring reposition. This decision carried the biggest risk. Barrier had been at the yard with her for every session since she applied the technique, so a major shift in location felt like a bad move. However, she wanted to make her rear look like a more inviting target, so she pushed the sensors hovering over her haunches a teeny bit forward.

Stage Two, plant the garden— Tail emerged from the trees and knelt down to take a bite out of a purslane leaf. Like a crisp cucumber, the piece of foliage crunched in her mouth and deposited its nutritional benefits through a unique peppery kick with a lemony twist. The pegasus kept her sights homed in on the tower, but she hugged the tree line as she swayed to the right. Beneath the purslane sprawl, Tail deposited current loop after current loop. She cut back to the left while she closed the distance to the keep, eventually creating a snake-like structure of detector elements as she repeated the winding maneuvers.

Stage Three, recalculate— The odds of a frontal assault are low. The keep appearing active is likely a ploy. Teleporting in from above or below? Possible options, but low probability. Vibrant rings should make magical means less appealing once the high gain is considered. Factoring in the coverage of the flanks and the dangers Barrier saw from me kicking Shining Armor in the face, 130 to 160 degrees and 200 to 230 degrees would form the optimal windows for a spellless approach.

By the time Tail had progressed another fifty meters towards the tower, she had hit her cap on the maximum number of sustained rings. Nevertheless, the weeks of honing her weathercrafting skills had dramatically improved the mare’s limits—both in terms of amplitude and stamina. As a result of all that training, she had gone from barely being able to maintain a few current loops to being able to maintain a triangular array of nearly eighty.

Spaced roughly four meters apart, the concealed swirls of electric charge connected to her namesake through primed vapor threads. Tail expected that, with her defenses raised, Barrier would go the stealthy route. The problem for him rested with the array. No matter how much Barrier avoided casting, or how much he repressed his aura, Wing’s mathematical expressions gave Tail a lifeline. Barrier’s inherent magic would still produce a response in her network.

Letting the stragglers die off as she continued her march, Tail kept the total number of active rings constant as new ones spun to life in the eddies produced by her stride. She had progressed another twenty meters when the first ping hit the tactical detector, and Tail fought to keep her pacing even to not alert her target.

220 degrees, intercept course. Tail momentarily kept a grin at bay as she continued to calmly walk. Her brain, however, frantically crunched the data and counted down the disappearing distance between Barrier and herself. By the time that number hit two, she couldn’t contain the smirk any longer. Her counterattack commenced the instant Tail smacked her swishing namesake against Barrier’s uncovered muzzle.

Rapidly turning around, Tail found him surprisingly unarmored and actually surprised—at least if the gaping stare was a decent indicator. Her sleeping bag flew from her withers and tumbled atop the purslane while her canteen lagged behind the jerking motion until it found refuge under a wing. Tail’s irides radiated a determined blaze as the flier made good use of her momentum. She replanted her hind legs, sprang towards the stallion, and rammed her shoulder against his chest. The foreleg on her opposite side jumped into the action as well. She swiftly raised the limb and covered his eyes with her cannon before she pushed up on the base of Barrier’s horn and wrestled the contorting stallion to the ground.

Tail huffed and pressed her nose against his throat while her mass came to settle atop his frame. She nipped him once a predatory growl emerged from the pride-infused pegasus. “If this were a duel,” she quipped, “I’d tie you up and fuck you right now.”

Barrier shuddered in response, and his hind leg twitched. “Feisty Blanket sounds very feisty,” he managed to gasp after regaining his wits, “but are you planning on keeping me like this? Or are you going to show me how you pulled that one off?”

Scooting forward, Tail planted a kiss on his muzzle before she teased the stallion. “I don’t know. Having an apprehended bandit squirm beneath me while I steal his sight and exert some leverage on his horn is pretty damn appealing. Though, maybe I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and let you decide, Magic Bear. Since you rummaged through my gear, you can choose one thing to teleport to me: my caffeine or my rope?”

Tail’s inked quill scurried across the page of her journal as she finished penning her entry for Day 144. A blade of quackgrass dangled from her muzzle, and Tail lazily chomped on it before her gaze slid to Barrier. She smiled when she discovered that he had already been staring at her from his post atop his black sleeping bag, and she quickly added a punctuating statement to her log about how she rather enjoyed the blue color of his eyes.

The pair had covered 250 kilometers in their eight days of travel, and while most of those nights had been spent under the stars, the couple had gained the luxury of occupying another watchtower at this particular stage of the journey.

“You’re taking quite a liking to that grass, Blanket. Maybe I’ll have to convince Trot to put it into some recipes at the diner.”

“What I would give for one of his culinary creations right now,” she answered dreamily after closing her notebook. Placing it beside her pack, Tail continued to observe her coltfriend.

Illuminated lanterns, dangling from the ceiling on short chains, cast soft shadows while the flames played with their iron hosts in the drafty lodging. Diffused, darkened X’s wavered across the mostly empty space, and the slowly oscillating bands raked back and forth over Barrier’s countenance.

Tail recognized the awkward grin that he returned. A lopsided affair, that particular expression bore the burdens of reflection. “But you weren’t just looking at me because I was mindlessly nomming on quackgrass, were you?”

“Heh,” Barrier breathed in the wake of Tail’s blunt delivery. “No, I can’t say that I was. It’s been a long time since I was last on this trail, and a lot of things are the same”—he reached out and rubbed the worn, uneven oak flooring—“but a lot of things are new. Don’t really have to worry about deranged criminals nowadays, and the company is a different sort of enjoyable. Mm, it’s just nice to have you here while I remember those who were with me before.”

The pegasus quickly finished off the blade as she watched his ears droop. Behind those words, his uncomfortable smile morphed into a grimace that made Tail want to jump off her sleeping bag so she could wrap him up in the tightest hug he had ever experienced—

“How many ponies even know this path exists, let alone know it was a training ground?” the unicorn carried on. “I mentioned it during your B.C.T. how ponies today don’t get war and conflict. In many ways, I’m glad. It means times have been peaceful, but it also means that ponies don’t remember what was endured. They don’t think about all those battles we covered. They don’t think about the sacrifices, and they don’t remember the ones who answered the call. Some of those ponies were my friends. They were my responsibility, and outside Celestia and Luna, I’m the only one who remembers.”

Gradually standing before Barrier vocalized his current chain of thoughts, Tail shuffled her way to the stallion and made good on her silent promise. She draped herself over his back, rested her chin atop his mane, squeezed his sides with her wings, and slipped her forelegs around his chest. “You can tell me about them, if you’d like.”

“Damn, you’re adorable,” he muttered, tangibly relaxing beneath the blanketing Blanket. He crossed his fetlocks and rested his muzzle atop the makeshift pillow. For a moment, Barrier remained quiet. His eyelids descended as his muscles kept loosening in Tail’s embrace, and in that claimed tranquil state, he finally proceeded.

“You already know a little bit about Ember. We never actually ran this trail together, which is kind of funny since she was from Trottingham. She got wrangled into my unit pretty early into the war with Griffonia. Her feistiness caught Captain Sombra’s eye, and he wanted to see the benefits of pairing her raw, abrasive fighting style with my coverage abilities. Griffons loved bows, and she loved getting through those volleys and pounding the shit out of them.

“But all that viciousness came from her love for us. When she was a rookie, half her squad got wiped out near Griffonstone. It changed her sense of loyalty in a way we used to joke about. We looked at her like a mother hen, ironically. If she thought we needed to retreat, she’d swear at me until I couldn’t hear. If she knew there was no other way, there’d be a fire in her eyes that I thought was unique—until I met you.”

Tail’s wings flicked in response to the declaration, which drew a brief pause from the story-telling stallion. “Sorry,” came the mare’s whisper, “didn’t mean to stop you.”

“‘S fine. Besides, I kind of walked into that one with some sudden flattery. It’s also true. When you defended my honor against Bonecrusher, the spark was the same. If you saw her fight, I think you’d understand. Stars, did she push for us. Celly once gave us a mission to infiltrate a warlord’s castle. It didn’t go well. We killed the lord, but the job wasn’t stealthy. Getting captured wasn’t an option, and teleporting wasn’t always an option either. Leaving your squadmates behind, for example, was considered a disgraceful act. Instead, unicorns… often had the job of incinerating their own squads if capture became inevitable.

“Ember made sure I never had to do it. That night, she clawed, blazing a path all the way to the border. I’ll never shake the look on her face when we got everypony across the river. She had a few cuts on her head and blood was trickling into her fur, but the love in her stare was something. Let’s just say we didn’t need a duel for that one.”

A reserved smile tugged on the corners of Tail’s lips as she gently rubbed Barrier’s sides with her wingtips. “Sometimes a duel isn’t needed,” she commented in a soft-spoken voice.

“True, though our recent engagements have led me to admit that they’re fun. Just don’t tell Cady,” Barrier replied before he lazily flicked his tail. “You and Ember, I believe, would have gotten along well. Both quick with the wit and unable to learn the concept of quitting. Come to think of it, you would have also probably enjoyed talking with Silver Dust too. He served as my lieutenant for almost the entirety of the war, and I did meet him on this trail.

“That pegasus could do things with snow like you do with lightning, and when he got serious, his golden eyes conveyed such focus. He was a measured stallion in a way that kind of reminds me of Indar. The officers here knew he’d make a fine lieutenant right at the start. He cared about his squadmates, and he’d attack tasks with plans that minimized casualty risks while still getting the job done.”

Pausing again, Barrier loosed a drawn-out yawn. “Mm, you’re being super effective. Might not get through ‘em all at this rate. Though, in a way, you’re already a little familiar with River Styx. I used his likeness during your final exam. He was a good stallion too, albeit a little more carefree than most of us. Liked to wear his mane up in this unusual ponytail. I did not mimic that bit, but he was decent when it came to silent teleportation. He also had the habit of being notoriously quick on the kill.

“With him around, I always knew I had an ace I could play that would be speedy. He was a great lifesaver.” Another yawn escaped the stallion’s muzzle. “They all were, honestly. I just wish more ponies could remember them.”

Tail finished arranging some smooth, hoof-sized stones around the rim of a small fire pit that Barrier had dug with his magic. She had already located some dry brush and sticks, which she had set in the center of the bowl. Swiveling her head to survey the river-side site, the scientist confirmed that she had placed their packs, and Barrier’s armor, at safe distances from the to-be-created flames and the riverbank. When her captain returned from the wooded interior with some bigger logs floating in his blue aura, Tail turned her focus back to the kindling and lit it with a sparking burst of her weathercraft.

“Five-hundred kilometers down, two-fifty to go,” Barrier commented, plopping down at Tail’s side while his sights remained trained on the burning kindling. “What day is it now in your T.S.S.B. calendar system?”

“One-fifty-one,” Tail answered through a chortle, “and I’ve been working on some great things in that journal, Magic Bear. You just can’t see all of them yet.”

Barrier pressed a forehoof to his chest and huffed in mock offense. “Didn’t we agree some time ago to not keep secrets from one another anymore? I thought that was the deal. Here I’ve been giving you all these details about my past, and you’re keeping the lid on great things? I’m shocked.”

“Hmm, well, there is one that I’m holding onto for the end of the trip, but”—Tail wrinkled her snoot before giving a shrug—“you do raise a good point. You’ve been telling me a lot about your past. Maybe I should fill in some more details of my own. Anything in particular suit your fancy, Magic Bear, or should I just ramble?”

Placing one of the logs atop the building fire, Barrier groaned. “This might come off as being overly forward, but subtracting the thousand years, we’re pretty close to the same age. Certainly, a pretty, smart pegasus had to have had previous relationships. Anything there, or anything from them you’d like to avoid?”

“Oh boy,” Tail answered. A frown laid siege to her face, and a tremor ruffled her feathers. However, when the physicist noticed that Barrier met her display with a concerned stare, she quickly waved her foreleg. “No, no, it’s a fair question. Just the memories there kind of suck. High school is when ponies today tend to start dating, but a lot of that usually gets chalked up to toying around. Sure, there are some exceptions, but for me, I didn’t even develop an interest in dating at all until I went off to college.

“I had two serious relationships during that time. The first one didn’t last too long. We had a lot of overlapping creative interests, but the guy started pursuing another mare—”

“What an idiot,” Barrier quipped, drawing a humored grunt from Tail.

“Eh, we ended up being friends in the end, which is more than I can say about my last serious relationship. I dated this guy through undergrad and into grad school. There was a real time investment there. After years being together, I thought I had something special with him, but things got weird once Las Pegasus appeared on the radar. He couldn’t deal with my success, and he couldn’t hang with my friends. But somehow, someway, I was supposed to bend to his every request and every ambition. I could live my life so long as it matched his view of what it should be.

“One night, he”—her timbre abruptly developed an embellished, sarcastic drawl—“bequeathed the opportunity for me to express my mounting grievances. I tried to smooth things over, but when I told him that I loved him still, that I cared about him still, he just looked at me and told me that he needed to process that. That was enough for me to hear. I proceeded to tell him that I thought he had already made up his mind to move on and just didn’t have the courage to say it to my face. That was the last time we spoke. Heh, in the end, for the best, but it’s still the type of thing that can really fuck with the insecurity of a girl, you know?”

Tail’s splayed wings relaxed once Barrier wrapped his nearest forelimb around her withers. “I can imagine that’s the type of wound that takes time to heal. I can only hope that you’re not too worried about something like that happening between us.”

Flopping against Barrier’s sturdy frame, Tail sighed, “Mm, no, that’s not something I really see happening between us. I think we’re a bit beyond the years for those types of games, and seeing as how you went from being a grumbling captain to a sweet Magic Bear, yeah, just don’t see it. That’s not to say there aren’t sources of insecurity. We haven’t really talked about what happens after all this.

“My sabbatical isn’t going to last forever. At some point, I’m going to have to go back to Las Pegasus. Is that something that will bother you? How does it affect us in the long term? I mean”—the tempo of Tail’s cadence increased—“I wouldn’t want to pull you away from Canterlot, but teaching’s also my thing. I can’t bail on my students, and maybe I should have thought about it sooner. Then I didn’t, and now we’re almost at the end of this training—”

Barrier gently squeezed the flier before her ears perked to the sound of his deep voice. “I’m not that attached to Canterlot. Celestia gave me my place out of guilt, and Cady and Shining kept me moving—if you can even call it that. Either way, even if I was attached to the city, I wouldn’t have reciprocated your declaration of love—I wouldn’t have told you I love you—if I wasn’t willing to put in the effort.”

Suddenly, Tail wondered if the heat that she felt on her cheeks stemmed from the bonfire or Barrier’s brand of kindness. She instinctively leaned into him further and affectionately nuzzled the side of his neck. “I love you too, Barrier.”

Three weeks after their departure from Canterlot, Tail and Barrier emerged from the lingering morning fog and looked upon their destination. The rolling hills that had accompanied the couple on most of their journey gradually morphed into less pronounced valleys that channeled the Longe River and its associated tributaries towards the ocean.

In the distance, a blanket of haze hovered over the still bay, and old brick towers rose through the mist as though their pointed caps stretched towards the light of the sun. To Tail, the parts of Trottingham that she could see looked precisely as they had during her last visit to the area. Once upon a time, the then-student had attended a conference held off the charming city’s central square, and it didn’t take much of an effort for her to come to adore the Hoofover architectural style.

“It’s bigger,” Barrier quietly stated, adjusting the position of his saddlepack as his armor rattled. “Unsurprising, given the thousand years, but yeah, I’d say a lot has changed.”

Faced with the contrasting viewpoint, Tail nodded after she hummed in contemplation. “I’d imagine it’s probably weird for you to see a place you’ve been before not look the same. Canterlot didn’t even exist during the time of Nightmare Moon, right? I know I was astounded the first time I saw it, but for both of us, it was a fresh experience.”

“Yeah, it’s definitely weird,” Barrier replied in a muted tone. He pitched his muzzle towards Tail and met the pegasus’s gaze with an uneasy expression that tweaked a muscle beneath one of his icy-blue eyes. “Canterlot was overwhelming the first time I saw it, but I had no emotional ties to the city. During the old era, the only thing there was a small fortress that provided logistics support, so my difficulties largely centered on the cultural shifts and the noise. Every now and again, I still forget pink is considered a feminine color these days.

“Trottingham, though? When I was here last, it was maybe a tenth the size. We would have no chance of seeing any notable buildings from here. Honestly, we’d probably still be surrounded by a few squads coming off the course—or headed onto it. Wasn’t uncommon to find a few tents pitched around these parts either.” Barrier’s voice trailed off once his focus returned to the trail. For a moment, he stood in silence and peered out over the descending, winding road. “Heh, Silver would probably give me some quip about adaptability and bitch at me for keeping Ember waiting.”

Tail nosed closer to the unicorn. She lifted one of her wings and gently brushed his mane with a few feathers. “I don’t think the quip really matters now, Sweety. My mom always says grieving is your own process. No one can truly tell you where or when you’ve got to make the move. You don’t even have to grasp the full process. You’ve just got to be ready enough to take the next step.”

“Your mom sounds wise. Is that where you got your smarts from?” Accompanied by a subtle smile, a crack began to appear in Barrier’s solemn demeanor.

“Communication skills? Yes. Math skills? Tartarus no. You also missed out on her whole conflict-resolution phase.” Tail snickered before she adopted a silky, flower-child tone. “‘Now, Tail, Hunny, we should use the word “and” more when we express our grievances instead of “but.” For example, when your father keeps trying to scoop the last drop of melted ice cream out of his bowl, instead of saying, “Dear, I know you like ice cream, but that clanking noise is driving me insane,” I should try, “Dear, I know you love your ice cream, and I would appreciate it if you could enjoy it a little more quietly.” See?’”

“Faust above, does she still do that?” Barrier asked, blinking as he recoiled his head against Tail’s stroking feathers.

“Thankfully not. That shit died once Sincy started touring. I think the house becoming an empty nest loosened her up a lot when it came to exploring the cosmic energies. Kind of ironic honestly, but parents will be parents.”

Stretching a hind leg, the stallion snorted. “Leave it to a random story to lift my spirits. I’ve been keeping Ember waiting long enough. Trottinghamians had some pretty weird superstitions when it came to their dead, so the cemetery actually isn’t that far from here. It’s time to take the next step.”

Through twenty minutes of walking towards the city, the path underwent two noteworthy transformations. The first occurred when Tail noticed the increasing presence of gravel mixed in the dirt, and the second came when the gravel was replaced by a narrow stone road. There, a sizable drystane wall, capped with wedge-shaped rocks, rose from the soil and followed the lane for a kilometer.

At the midpoint of this stretch, two pillars of enormous, octagonally cut sandstone formed the entrance to the cemetery. The faces that showed to the street bore deeply etched glyphs similar to the ones in the princesses’ library, which Tail would have probably paid more attention to if Barrier had not marched across the threshold as though he were on a mission.

Of course, Tail knew that, in many senses, he was, so she quietly kept pace at his side as they meandered past worn, moss-covered grave markers in search of Section 15. Tail kept busy scouring for any indicators of what section they were in, and every now and then, she would spot tiny granite obelisks that she presumed were signs. Unfortunately, time had made most of the numerical markings unrecognizable, leaving the duo to wander the humid, hallowed premises on intuition alone.

Jerking when Barrier’s heavy pack suddenly thudded against the grassy ground, Tail spun to face the stallion. He had stopped in front of one of the more impressive monuments in the cemetery. The limestone mausoleum carried a subtle golden hue, and its squared columns supported a decorated archway that bore a glimmering ruby in its keystone.

No door separated the ponies from the darkened recesses of the crypt, and upon inspection, Tail didn’t notice any inscription that identified the occupants of the plot. Leaning, she craned her neck and curiously peered at Barrier, whose fixated stare remained locked on the gem.

“It’s magically infused,” he spoke in a hushed whisper before a small spark jumped from the tip of his horn and disappeared into the ruby.

Out of the shadows of the mausoleum’s interior, an auguric shimmer emerged and swirled beneath the arch. Both Barrier and Tail gasped when the figure of a grinning yellow-cream pegasus took shape. Strands of her burnt-orange mane flowed downward, and she flicked her head to knock a renegade lock away from her amber eyes.

“I wonder how many buckin’ years it took ya, Barrier,” Ember spoke while the stallion gaped and quivered in response to the spectacle. “Knowing ya, prolly more than a couple, eh? Oi,”—Ember’s muzzle turned to the side as she called to someone neither Barrier nor Tail could see—“how many bits should I wager on three, Radiant?”

The mare huffed, faced forward, and continued to speak at a marginally reduced volume. “I know I’m supposed ta be serious, but it’s not easy, ya know? Okay, Barrier, Dearie, it’s been two years since ya got sealed away with that thing Princess Luna became. Celestia’s convinced that one day it’ll be made right, but, as ya already know, that time is after our time. We won’t be there ta support ya, at least not like we could now, and trust me when I say that we miss ya more than I can say here.

“Even your pa was hit in a way that, well, ya’d prolly shit your kit if ya saw. Proud”—Ember curtly nodded as her voice cracked—“real proud, and real sorrow. Course, we both know that, under that grumpy piss act of yours, you’re a caring stallion who needs love and needs ta know that he’s still loved. It took me some time ta come ta grips with the fact that you’re gone, and a part of me never will, but I can make sure of one thing. When ya do come back, and ya walk the earth again, ya won’t do it alone.”

Flapping her wings, Ember reared up and twisted her body to reach out past the field of view. When she settled back into the frame, she carried a young light-purple unicorn colt between her forelegs. His mane had a striking resemblance to Barrier’s, and his eyes captured a particular shade of blue that Tail knew quite well.

“Radiant and I decided, once my service was over, that I would join his herd. It’s not the same kind of love, and as sweet as he is ta me and the others, I doubt there’ll be a day when I don’t think of ya. But this li’l ball of magical joy is our son. His name is Ardent Sparkle, and if your brother and I have anything ta say about it, when ya get back, you’ll find nothing but love in the family we’ve left behind for ya.”

Barrier gulped when Radiant Spell stepped beside Ember and Ardent. The older purple unicorn fashioned a bittersweet smile as he peered into the inevitable time capsule. “I will do the best I can to treat her right, Sir Barrier. You have made our family proud, and indeed, you are missed more than you know.”

Tears streaked down Barrier’s muzzle as he watched his brother shed the same. Tail drifted closer to her coltfriend in the wake of the declaration, and she carefully slipped free of her saddlepack before offering some comfort.

“Sir Barrier?” Scowling, Ember glanced at Radiant. She started balancing on her hind legs and covered Ardent’s ears with her wings. “What kinda twat shit is that? We want ‘im ta live his life, not think he’s standin’ in some bloody, borin’ ass cour—”

The projection rapidly flickered until a new scene stabilized around the lone Radiant Spell. “Seems as though I’m in some trouble now. Eh, Brother, I just want you to know that I’ll always be at your side. You are loved, Magic, and you always will be. I don’t know when you’ll see this, but I hope that you’ll have happiness again by the time that you do. Our house will endure the darkness to see its lost son in the light.”

Lowering his head once the image dissolved, Barrier let more tears freely fall. Tail pressed against his frame as he quietly sobbed. “Shining, Twilight, they’re hers. They’re hers, and they always have been.”

“Oi!” Ember’s voice echoed through the graveyard, causing Barrier’s head to snap up and Tail’s body to shiver. A much older mare greeted the pair this time around. With her hair long greyed, the yellow-cream pegasus looked elderly in years as she comfortably sprawled atop a bed. “I ain’t done yet. Keep the youngins out ‘til I’m ready, and don’t ya give me that look, Ardent Sparkle. I gave ya your name. I can damn well swear in front of ya if I want ta.

“Are ya still there, Barrier? As ya can see, I’m a wee bit older now. Your brother’s already gone ta the great beyond. Bonnie bless his soul. I think I ain’t got much time left for this here world myself, and I imagine we’ll both be in Trottingham together soon enough. Now, I’ve learnt quite a lot in my time, and after watchin’ my kids grow, fall in love, and have families of their own, I can think of a reason why ya’d come. I can also figure that Celestia might’ve told ya about our dear old Captain Sombra by now. Personally, I’d put my fuckin’ bits on both, so who is she?”

The mare’s brow quirked, and her sights briefly drifted skyward as if she fell into a deep contemplation. “Hmm, she’s prolly there with ya now. Ain’t ya, Lassie? Well, if he brought ya ta see me, then there ain’t a shadow in the world that can cast doubt on that trust. I’m counting on ya ta tell ‘im what he needs to hear, and if ya ‘ave gone and made me look like a fool, Barrier, then I’ll kick your fuckin’ arse. The next time ya see me, ya better have stories to tell about the life ya lived and about the love ya found.

“I kept my bargain with Radiant Spell. We fulfilled our pact ta set the next generations right. If they keep growing, then my love has already touched ya from beyond. But, there’s another promise I made ta myself, and there’s a deal I made with a different matriarch. I said I learnt a lot, and I meant what I said.”

Tail’s coat bristled as she internally swore that Ember’s piercing, determined stare met her own.

“We find what we need in those shadows, and I’ve found that my dreams can be powerful things. What comes when such magic can stretch across the past and the future, eh? Keep living your life, Barrier. Keep your soul open ta what your heart is tellin’ ya. Know that ya were always remembered, and know that ya ‘ave always been loved. Alright Ardent, get ‘em all in here now.”

With glued gazes, Barrier and Tail watched as pony after pony, young and old, filed into the room and gathered around the bed. The angle of the shot widened, revealing that most of the chamber was actually filled with ponies. An aged Ardent Sparkle waved from the fringes while Ember started to laugh.

“Four bloody generations, Dearie. Let’s give great ol’ Uncle Barrier the hello he deserves, eh?” The youngest fillies and colts sprang at the opportunity to make noise before the others followed suit. After a few seconds, the commotion died down, leaving a smugly grinning Ember in its wake. “Remember us too, my loved captain.”

Barrier planted his forehead into Tail’s shoulder after the image evaporated. He held the pose, and the lavender pegasus could feel the pressure that pushed his eyes closed. “Not sure I was ready for that,” he mumbled before he started slinking down to the grass, “but I’m glad I saw it all anyway.”

Tell him what he needs to hear, Ember’s words echoed in Tail’s mind as she lowered her head to delicately brush against Barrier’s mane. After a few nuzzles, she leaned away from the sniffling stallion and snatched her saddlepack. Her journal was in her grasp a moment later, and with careful motions, Tail ripped a page from its confines. She settled herself on the ground beside the unicorn, and she felt a strangely familiar tingle weave its way through her coat while she steadied her nerves.

“Remember Them,” she read aloud. “We often think of those who came before as giants, those who form the cores of great tales and legends, those who can be described with bold words like hero and savior. Heroes are given that name because they protected us. They fought for us. They sacrificed for us. They also loved us, cared for us, nurtured us, gave birth to us, and watched us grow. Some grew up with us too. Some built friendships with us, and—to sometimes untrained ears—taught us more about ourselves than even we could know.

“We often remember them as titles. We should remember them as ponies—wonderful, joyous souls that gave us love, so we could love others.”

Chapter 36 - Convictions

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It took three weeks for Tail and Barrier to traverse the on-hoof route from Canterlot to Trottingham. Having used their rations and foraged along the trail, both ponies made full use of the luxuries afforded to them in the two days it took to travel by train from the coastal town through Manehattan and onto Canterlot.

Barrier spent long portions of the ride dozing comfortably against Tail’s fluffy, feathery coat, while the pegasus caffeinated to her heart’s content. No longer restricted by the amount she could carry, the perky physicist remembered what it was like to fuel her addiction for some of the non-alcoholic bubbly.

When the pair had first arrived at the train platform in Trottingham, they discovered that the princesses had apparently predicted the need for some additional amenities and dispatched one of their royal railway cars to serve as a private sleeper. Spending a few months in Canterlot certainly made Tail more familiar with opulent environments, but the brilliantly white carriage still provided the most absurd travel arrangement she had ever had.

Purple drapes, with lacy golden trims, hung in each one of the windows, and a full-sized bed occupied the rear of the car. Near the front, two rows of padded seats faced one another, presumably so the heads of state could speak to other dignitaries, or one another, should they need to do so. A station was also placed adjacent to the gangway door for attendants to use in their service to The Crowns.

Giggling from her perch on the seat cushion, Tail glanced down to see if she had stirred Barrier out of his latest nap. The reactions of the company stewards would definitely have to go into a journal entry. One stallion had scrunched his muzzle in utter disbelief when she requested a glass of WNS and a sandwich as her first meal. They were clearly more comfortable catering to a more expensive palate. Then again, after spending twenty days munching on E. purslane and quackgrass, practically anything would pass as fine dining.

Tail played with Barrier’s mane once her laughter subsided and a gentle smile remained. She lightly nudged the mage as her muzzle drifted towards his ear, and a calm, melodic greeting slipped through her lips as she spoke. “We’re almost to Canterlot, Barrier. It’s probably time to wake up.”

Barrier blinked several times before he lifted himself off Tail’s claimed thigh. “Morning, Blanket,” he mumbled, casting his gaze out the window to immediately observe that the sun was already meandering through the western sky.

“Something like that,” Tail teased. She nosed his cheek while her namesake lazily swished off the edge of the sofa. “I’m not complaining. I don’t mind looking after a dozy stallion if he sleeps well, and my intuition tells me that you did just that.”

Barrier briefly stretched his neck before he plopped into a seated position next to Tail. The unicorn gave a slight nod after his shifty sights aimlessly drifted around the cabin, and he subsequently answered in a much livelier tone, “Surprisingly, I did. Really feared I’d have unpleasant dreams, but knowing lifted a big weight off my mind, I guess. She lived on. She and Radiant looked after one another.”

Pausing, he looked through the glass windows of the platform doors as Canterlot buildings began to zip by the moving train. “It’s—hard to put into words. Before I met you, I just thought my place was back then. I was stuck. No way to get home. Left with a constant burden in my mind that I was needed by her, my squad, and my family. They all fought through, though. Maybe I should have given them more credit, and yeah, I do still feel some pain if I phrase it in terms of ‘they didn’t need me after all.’ But they cared enough to leave me a gift that survived a thousand years, and you made it easier to be at peace with that gift. Heh, your poem was pretty sweet as well.”

Tail gently leaned against his unarmored frame and hummed. “I’m glad that you asked me to come with you. She’s a beautiful mare, and I can tell that she cared a lot about you if she went to those lengths. I have a strong suspicion that Amora would also want to make her an additional roommate if such an alternate universe became reality.”

Barrier snorted, repositioning his body on the seat to better support Tail’s mass. “I’m not sure whether I should be terrified by that idea or just accept that you’d make an adorable lot. Amora would pester me incessantly for pancakes, and Ember would learn that I have drastically improved my cooking skills in this era.”

When the train began to decelerate, the scientist also turned her attention to the blurs of the capital that whipped by the windows. “Semi-related, since we’re getting pretty close to the station, what did you want to do for our return-home foodening, or are you more inclined to pay a visit to Cadance and Shining Armor?”

Resting his head on the couch’s crest rail, the unicorn spent the duration of an exhaled breath staring at the ornate geometric patterns carved into the ceiling of the train car. “Shining might be on duty still, considering the time of day. He’s definitely high on my list of ponies to see, but dropping in on him when it’s a personal matter isn’t something I want to do. A visit to Pop’s Place, on-the-other-hoof, seems like a solid decision without collateral risk.”

“You had me at Pop,” Tail purred. She tenderly kissed Barrier’s exposed neck before sliding from the sofa and setting a course towards the bed. The train was in the midst of its final approach into the station, and the pegasus wanted to make sure that all of her luggage was in order before the rush, or more specifically, the inevitable rush of aides striving to help the regal clientele. “No way you’re keeping me away from that cooking. Besides, we told him three weeks, and Trot seems like the kind of stallion that actually worries about his regulars.”

“You think so?” Barrier asked, moving onto his hooves so he could sort his belongings as well. “I guess I can see it.”

Tail glanced towards the approaching Barrier while she tossed her wrinkled sleeping bag on top of the sisters’ pristine comforter. “Nostalgic type with a displayed love for storytelling, and he was down for closing the entire diner just for you to surprise me. To be honest, I should probably take Sincy to meet him at some point. I have a feeling those two would get along swimmingly.” Beaming at the social calculation, Tail started rolling her bag into a tight coil.

The stallion snickered as he sidled up to Tail before fussing with his own sleeping bag. “Leave it to the physicist to do some extra computation.”

Another shift in the train’s acceleration rocked the two ponies before a green-eyed, burnt-orange pegasus scampered into the car through the gangway door. He wore a black vest over a white shirt, and a little bowtie appeared snuggly secured around his neck. His wings fluttered as he planted his legs against the floor, and a wide, shocked stare peered through the locks of a more brownish-orange mane.

“Oh, um, sorry! I should have gotten here sooner. Colonel Tail, Captain Barrier, please allow me to get your things in order. The company would never forgive my blemish if I did not make your arrival the smoothest experience possible!”

Turning her attention to the newcomer, Tail tittered. A mischievous smirk swept over her expression, and she very deliberately reached for her saddlepack and set it on the bed so she could stow the sleep sack. Upon observing the stallion’s maintained dismay, the physicist delivered her teasing reply, “Sweety, we don’t need you to do anything. We’re both entirely capable of packing our own luggage and safely exiting.”

When the orange colt looked as though he were about to offer a rebuttal, Tail waved a foreleg and nipped the counter-notion in the bud. “We’re fine. I promise, and none of your higher-ups are going to hear any complaints out of us. I mean, you brought me caffeine after all, but it’s time to get real. Do you really think Barrier is going to let you touch his armor kit?”

Barrier immediately shook his head, and the attendant followed suit soon after. As this apparent understanding formed, a high-pitched squeal reverberated along the length of the train once its brakes engaged, and the railcar slowed to a stop in front of one of Canterlot Station’s glass-enclosed platforms.

“She knows me well,” Barrier added, lighting his horn. The pieces of his armor quivered to the magical prodding, and they rapidly popped onto his body through a series of clapping beats.

Accompanied by a steamy hiss, the windowed doors that faced the brick walkway slid open, and the drone of the bustling city immediately swept into the royals’ carriage. The sensation of fresh air hit Tail’s nose and drew out a yearning sigh. The pegasus hurled her saddlepack over her withers, did a quick double-check in search of any stray items, and felt the lure of the inviting rays of the afternoon sun.

“Please share my thanks with the rest of the staff, Dawn,” Tail addressed the orange flier before she started marching towards the exit. After a few steps, she giddily pranced around in a circle and practically leapt from the railcar. “To Pop’s Place!”

Behind her, Barrier tossed a carefree glance at the perplexed attendant. “Faust, she’s adorable when she gets excited, and those sounded like orders to me. Please give my thanks to the rest of the staff as well. I know more than most that it’s not easy being put on the spot by Celly and Luna like that.” The unicorn slung his saddlepack into its proper position before he trotted after his marefriend. He didn’t see the astounded appearance of Dawn’s face, which latched onto Barrier’s implied rapport with the alicorns, but once he passed through the opened gate and veered leftward, Barrier’s senses quickly homed in on a sheepish Tail, a giddy Princess of Love, and a snickering Captain of the Royal Guard.

Cady raved to Tail about how fantastic she looked after enduring three weeks of battling the elements, and the scientist could not resist abandoning her bashful demeanor after an additional quip emerged from the pink alicorn. “Shiny had better not try to teleport behind you again now. Might require more than the concussion protocol.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Shining grumbled, throwing his gaze to the crisscrossing white wood that supported the terminal’s glass. ”You don’t have to remind me every day that I should avoid the pranks—”

Barrier closed the distance between himself and Shining faster than even Tail had expected. He threw one of his armored forelegs around the unicorn’s neck and pressed against the younger’s alabaster muzzle with the side of his own.

“Shit, what did you do to him, Tail?” Shining squeaked once his brain caught up to his body’s recognition of the sudden embrace. “Or did Celestia put some hallucinogenic cake on the train car again?”

The charcoal-coated mage squeezed his uniformed counterpart, and a sigh broke from his lungs that sounded as though Barrier had been holding his breath from the moment he departed the train up until that very second. With the pressure released, Barrier spilled the truth, “Just let me have this one, Shining. It’s the first time I get to do this knowing that you’re hers.”

Shining’s ear flicked against the cutout in his golden helm. “Hers?” he asked, shifting his muzzle while Barrier maintained his grip.

“We already know that Radiant Spell is the father of Ardent Sparkle, but I don’t remember seeing anything in the family tree books that revealed who gave birth to the colt.” Barrier paused, and Shining’s head jerked as though a cog in his brain had suddenly lurched. “Ardent’s mother is Ember. They raised an entire family on the promise that somepony would be here for me down the line.”

“Heh,” Shining chuckled before sneaking his left foreleg between Barrier’s pack and the back of his neck. “Twily had a hunch, but neither of us felt all that comfortable bringing up a theory like that with you. Probably the only time in my life I’ve ever seen Twily ignore a potential research project, but given your successful trek”—Shining leaned to catch a glimpse of Tail—“I’m guessing that decision ended up being for the best.

“Either way, the other conniving mare in our little family thought it would also be a good idea to intercept you two at the station. I have a pair of scrolls from the Joint Chiefs to deliver, and a catch-up dinner with the recipients feels wise with wisdom.”

Tail trudged up the stairs of her apartment after a long evening with Barrier, Princess Cadance, and Shining Armor. The familiar scents of the home she shared filled her nostrils as she inhaled, and the flier couldn’t ignore an unusual sensation that crept around her body. Tail likened the fleeting experience to stepping out of her own existence.

Having spent three weeks in the wilderness journeying with Barrier, the physicist felt as though she had just walked into a foreign space. “Ams, you home?” she called, completing the climb from the landing to the living room.

“Mmhmm!” the medic answered, poking out from behind the wall that separated the kitchen from the seating area. The handle of a metal spoon dangled out of her muzzle, and a bowl of cherry vanilla ice cream floated in a sphere of her cobalt aura. Amora removed the utensil and prepared the next scoop while her sights drifted over Tail’s physique. “How’re you feeling after spending all that time with your Magic Bear?”

“Of course you’d put it that way.” Tail met the teasing tone with a flat stare and a huff. “But yes, I had a fantastic adventure with Barrier. He tested me right at the get-go, and I learned a lot thanks to that, particularly about my own limits in the field. One day, I’ll have to show you how many current rings I can sustain now. I might even catch Trigger by surprise if we have a session again.”

Finishing the trot into the living room, Amora chomped down on another creamy spoonful, twirled a forehoof, and eyed the smile that blossomed to Tail’s boast. “Mm, I have my doubts, but I’d pay money to see that. And you could at least humor me after leaving me alone to my own devices for three weeks. I forgot how boring it was before you came out here. What the heck am I going to do once you go back to Las Pegasus? So boring!”

Tail dumped her bag by the ottoman and arched her spine before she responded. “What is there to humor you with? We sparred, survived the outdoors, and shared some things about our pasts. Quit baiting. I know you’re just prodding for info on a possible Gala repeat, but this trip was about a different kind of growth—and some much-needed closure. I’m”—she stalled while her wings shakingly fluttered—“happy I could be there for him. We visited a cemetery in Trottingham, and what happened there is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I think I owe it to them not to.”

“Fine, fine, I see,” Amora dejectedly sighed. She plopped down on the couch cushion closest to the kitchen and wiggled her rump atop the faux-leather. Corralling another spoonful of the light-pink dessert, the medic shoveled the tasty bite into her waiting mouth before she pursued the latest thread that her roommate had left dangling. “A cemetery visit doesn’t exactly warrant my usual drive to incessantly fluster my best friend. So what was there that made it such an unforgettable experience?”

Tail scampered around the other side of the ottoman before she claimed the seat next to Amora. “It’s a little hard to explain since there are key details that really aren’t mine to divulge, but the gist of it is that Barrier’s ex and brother are buried in that cemetery. It was his first time going to the graves, and they left something there for him…”

Amora slowly turned her head to face Tail as she downed yet another spoonful. Concern toyed with the features of the medic’s cheeks while she listened to the pegasus gradually drift into silence. “Brother and ex? That sounds pretty heavy.”

Having sunk into the comfy cushions, Tail succumbed to the tingling sensations that cascaded along her limbs. Exhaustion set in as she slouched, and her eyes began to water while her memories wandered to the scene of Ember’s mausoleum.

The unicorn pressed her hoof against Tail’s shoulder and started massaging the mare. “Oh, Hunny, it didn’t make things awkward between the two of you, did it?”

Again, feathers fluttered. Tail winced, and she drew her fetlock across her closed eyes to wipe away the developing tears. “No, no, it’s not that. I’m just feeling tired now that I’m home, and there was a lot of weight Barrier had to bear during that visit. I’m happy, more than anything else, that he was able to trust me to carry some of that weight.”

Tilting her head, the physicist thoroughly observed the wrinkled lines of worry that marked Amora’s countenance. That tension remained even after Tail dopily chuckled and fashioned a lopsided smile. “Honestly, I think we only strengthened our relationship as we took on that trail. We had to tackle a lot of hard work, but we also had time to grow even more comfortable with the other’s company—least that’s my take. I’ve just kind of entered my unwind mode, and I still have a scroll from Shining to read. He made it sound like it’s a real doozy.”

Amora pressed her lips together, and she fashioned a grimace while her cobalt stare stayed affixed on Tail. “You should probably get some rest first. You’re looking pretty tired to me, and we both know what happens when a tired sciencepon starts reading something new. If it came from Shining, then yes, it is a doozy.”

“Oh?” Tail’s ears stood upright. “Did you get one too? I haven’t looked at mine yet. Shining said it was from the Joint Chiefs, so I’m guessing—”

“The Crystal Empire will return, and with it, so will Sombra. They’re going to send you to the front line with Barrier, and they want me in reserve to provide support.” Amora methodically inhaled before she continued. “I knew you were getting into deep shit with your research, but this is really deep shit, Tail. Now, I’ve watched you improve, but I’m going to be straight with you. I’m not thrilled at the thought of my best friend getting sent into what could very well become a warzone. You’re a scientist, not a soldier. Are you sure—”

“I knew,” Tail interrupted in a more resonant, solemn voice. “Before we left for Trottingham, Barrier and I both knew what was going on. Princess Celestia confirmed it. She also made it clear that my research would likely play a key role in Sombra’s defeat. I understand why you feel that way. I’ll probably be scared out of my mind when the day comes, but I’m not going to let Barrier take that on alone. I’m not going to let you take it on without me, either.”

Chapter 37 - Lossy Lines

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Wing hurled a gigantic map of the Crystal Empire and its surrounding regions onto the round table that occupied the Chamber of the Joint Chiefs. The pegasus had seen fit to light more candles this time around, making the stone room—with its carvings and bulky wood furnishings—appear less like the sanctum of some clandestine cult and more like a suitable working space.

Philomena cooed from her perch between the stallion’s folded namesakes, and she occasionally shot glances towards Celestia, who seemed cheekily amused by the whole pegasus-phoenix combo.

Luna sat in the towering chair to Celestia’s right, and she allowed her attention to wander over the details laid out on the parchment. Having woken up not too long before the attendees gathered, the Princess of the Night appeared sluggish when compared to the still-perky demeanor of her older sister.

Thankfully, Tia knew Luna well, and she levitated one of the biggest mugs of coffee a pony could safely wield to the alicorn’s side. “I brewed some hazelnut blend,” Celestia whispered shortly after the bottom of the mug clanked against the tabletop.

“Thank the stars,” Luna groaned, casting a stink eye towards Wing. “We did not realize that there would be a meeting to go over Revision Five of ‘The Plan.’”

“I would ask for forgiveness, Your Highness,” Wing quipped, “but everypony knows I’m not going to. I would be happy to dedicate an offering to your caffeine supply, however, and perhaps I’ll get some of Ambrosia’s cookies to add to your stash. Specifically, I’m talking about the one you keep under your throne that you think Celestia doesn’t know about—but she’s known for five-ish months. The scents of desserts do not escape the keen nose of a cake connoisseur. This nose knows? That nose knows? Something like that.”

Shining Armor exhaled as he planted his elbows on the aged wooden table and buried his forehead between his hooves. “Wing, please, just give us the updates. I’m going to have to write all of this down for Magic Barrier and Tail, and the two of them are supposed to return to Canterlot in a few days.”

Autumn Tea swished her rosewood-colored tail across the rear legs of her seat. A giggle bubbled from her muzzle while she glanced to her left to smile at the Captain of the Royal Guard. “I can help you take notes if you want, Shining. I’ve known Wing for far too long to think he’ll ever change his antics. Amby was our only hope, and she ended up being the biggest enabler of all.”

Sitting adjacent to Wing, Spitfire leaned towards her fellow flier and gave him a nudge. The fiery Wonderbolt wore a dark-brown bomber jacket, complete with a fluffy white interior that poked out around the collar and cuffs. “C’mon, Wing. We’ve got a tired princess still waking up, another princess who needs to go to bed, ponies with families to get home to, and Aph—who as the Navy Sec doesn’t even have forces to deploy on this campaign.”

The pink earth pony nodded in agreement as her hoof tapped the table. “Spitfire is correct, but I am here for support and input. Please proceed, Wing.”

Wing reached beneath the wooden surface and pulled out four of his own feathers along with vials of black, blue, green, and red inks. “Can’t ignore a straight shot from Aph, so let’s get started. My biggest concern remains what Sombra’s initial move will be. Philomena, Forge, and I scouted the Line of the Drecht, which is here.” He popped the cork on the red ink, dipped the first feather, and drew a circle around the illustrated city.

“Captain Sombra left behind two threats when he was sealed away. The obvious first target would be Equestria itself. He could march south from the Crystal Empire towards the Everfree Forest with the intent to attack the Castle of the Two Sisters. Eventually, he’d likely determine that things have changed, and Canterlot is close enough to the initial vector that I cannot rule out the potential danger of an assault on the capital.

“The other option is that he opts to hit Griffonia instead. Frankly, I think this would produce a more dangerous scenario. Whynnyapolis is along that route, which could expose thousands to the effects of Heart-induced corruption or hypnosis. The city would not be equipped to deal with such a calamity. However…”

“Gracious has already moved a company to augment the Whynnyapolis Garrison,” Tea added, prompting Wing to snatch his second quill and draw a tiny black rectangle on the western edge of the map. “He’s running it all under the guise of a northern exercise for now, but I really hope we don’t have to deploy our forces in that kind of defense.”

“Right,” Wing continued, shifting to feather number three and the blue ink. “The primary objective of this operation is to nullify the curse on the Crystal Heart and remove the gem from Captain Sombra’s possession. I’m not going to mince the words on this one. We’re facing a cyclic bullshit loop. As long as he holds it, our mages run the real danger of having their magic turned dark. The Crystal Heart, much like Princess Cadance’s magic, can also skew emotions, so brainwashing is definitely in the cards.

“A thousand years ago, the Drecht was carved because Sombra’s wrath proved to be a challenge even to you two”—Wing glanced at the princesses—“so what in Tartarus are we going to do? Option 1 would be to incapacitate Sombra through brute force, giving time for Cadance to retrieve the Crystal Heart and remove its curse. Option 2 utilizes distraction to give Cadance a window to cast her spell while Sombra still holds the Heart. If the corruptive element can be removed, then there’s a chance Sombra might stand down on his own accord.

“Given his familiarity with Callie and Luna, sending them to the field as part of the initial wave is out of the question. He’s used the crystal to taint their powers before. It’d only be easier a second time around, and I’d rather not watch all of Equestria die off. That doesn’t, however, mean their magics can’t be in play.”

The pegasus drew three fractal-like lines from the Canterlot edge of the map to about five kilometers outside the southwestern, southeastern, and northeastern limits of the Empire City. “I also installed these teleport transceiver chains on my journey. Once we know that the Temporal Drecht has failed, the E.I.S. will send a squad consisting of Captain Shining Armor, Princess Cadance, Colonel Trigger, Captain Barrier, and Colonel Tail to the southwest node.”

Wing stopped when Philomena bapped the top of his head with her beak. Ruffling his namesakes in response, the stallion snorted and shut an eye to the dull sting that radiated over the top of his skull. “I didn’t forget about you. I was just trying to be dramatic, geeze. Also joining Wave 1 will be Grand Duchess and Ambassador to the Phoenix Lands, Lady Philome—” Wing winced when the bird bonked him again, an action which generated some shared laughter amongst the Joint Chiefs.

“Philomena’s presence will be of critical significance,” Wing sputtered to appease the phoenix. “Starswirl’s records indicate that her species has shown immunity to alicorn-artifacting effects, and given her innate regenerative and flame abilities, she’s a cornerstone. I already know that she can stave off the frigid environment in a rather large area, and I think her aura will help slow any move Sombra makes when it comes to both potentially corrupting and brainwashing our forces.”

“Do you think or know on the last point?” Aph asked, rubbing the bottom of her chin while her green eyes homed in on Wing’s illustration.

“Think, with enough assessment to believe the risk is worth the reward,” Wing answered as Philomena settled comfortably into his mane. “Something has to break the cycle. Either Sombra gets overpowered and the Heart is wrested from his grasp, or we manage to decurse the Heart first. Time is a belligerent in both cases. Even with all their training, Shining, Trigger, and Barrier would eventually succumb to the sway of the tainted crystal. Cadance shouldn’t even try casting anything until she knows there’s an opportunity to do so without risking her own health. If Philomena’s participation can draw out the timespan in which success is possible, then yes, she should go. It’s the same deal with Colonel Tail. She hasn’t set a hoof on a front line in her life, but her research will allow Callie’s and Luna’s powers to be put to use.

“After Wave 1 gets deployed, we can determine the entry points for Waves 2 and 3. If Sombra marches west, they’ll enter through the southeastern node. If Sombra goes south, they’ll hit the northeast. Wave 2 will definitely consist of at least Captain Spitfire, Major Amora, and myself. Though, I do expect the involvement of several Wonderbolts and a couple volunteers from the Canterlot Guard. Our primary task will be to assess the state of the Empire and lend reserve support to Wave 1. We can also flank an army if the Empire’s citizens have been mobilized.

“Wave 3 will be led by Captain Autumn Tea, who will be serving as the primary escort for the bearers of the Elements of Harmony.” Wing paused again once he spotted Shining Armor’s chilled, protective glare. “To be clear, I do not believe engaging Sombra in his presumed initial state is a friendship problem. However, reversing the damage of artifact-induced brainwashing certainly could be. Your sister is ready for this, Shining. I wouldn’t formulate a plan with her in it if I didn’t believe it. Tea will cover them anyway. You should focus on your main responsibility, which, in this case, is to protect your wife.

“My greatest concern about the One-Two transition is the actual management of the deployment. Captain Sombra was arguably the most proficient combat specialist in Equestrian history. I expect him to eventually detect the first wave. In fact, I think it’d be criminally negligent to assume otherwise, so there is a nonzero probability that he could uncover and destroy the transceiver array in a retaliatory strike. That would kneecap our primary transport medium, and we just can’t risk the logistical lines, now can we?”

In the echo of the trailing inflection, a coy smile crept onto Celestia’s muzzle, and Wing locked onto her magenta eyes. She held the expression for a few seconds while, one-by-one, the other council members shifted in their chairs. Lurching forward, the Princess of the Sun kept her attention on the lavender stallion before a silky, knowing tone dripped from her lips. “And what do you plan to do, Sir Wing, should the lines be severed?”

“I’m so glad you asked, Callie. That version of Future Me would probably show up in your throne room, tell you that the Armistice has been finished and prepped, and that I’d like to give the order to initiate the arterial transformation of Mt. Canterhorn for an immediate launch.”

Tail’s eyes gradually wandered over the scroll that detailed Operation Loadline. The early morning hours of Day 160 began like many—with Amora having already left for work and with Tail still booting up. “So that’s what they have planned,” she mumbled through a loud, lasting yawn.

Emerging from the gasp and lacking the drive to roll up the scroll, the physicist zoned out as she idly stared at her stretched foreleg. Did I not sleep well enough last night? I thought I did, she pondered, curiously inspecting her appendage while a barely perceivable tingle teasingly skirted her full awareness. This peculiar stalemate lasted for almost five minutes until the brightening ambiance of the living room bumped Tail from the trance.

“No,” she blurted, rising from her seat on the couch. The maneuver generated a gentle breeze that flirted with the curling corners of the parchment, and Tail glanced down at the ottoman to make sure that she didn’t push the sheet off the furniture. Unfortunately, the abrupt motion also produced an annoying throb that tugged on the nerves in Tail’s head, and she rightfully whined, “Ugh, come on. Just get geared up. Get to the yard, and keep in shape with a little sparring. Now’s not the time to feel tired. Not when it’s all on the line.”

The pegasus shuffled down the hall and banked to the left to enter her room. She smiled at the sight of the potted forget-me-nots that she still had in her care, but a more pronounced balance-jostling wave wiped the joy from her face once all six of her limbs quivered. Recovering, Tail stood still. Her head lowered, and she methodically eyed her four legs before she slid to the foot of her bed and began donning Sally.

The consequential trek to the castle exhausted the poor colonel in ways that defied her reasoning. Several times on each block, one of her legs would feel heavy, or her wings would tremble at the behest of a sporadic burning sensation. The throbbing that had started when she rose from the sofa turned into a full-blown headache by the time she set a hoof onto the training yard. Even keeping her eyes open proved to be a difficult affair.

Barely onto the pitch, Tail resigned herself to a fate in which her eyelids remained closed for just a little longer. Her body swayed in the cool currents of wind that meandered through her coat and swept over Sally’s golden contours. Chills prodded her senses in the aftermath, but the uncomfortable feelings couldn’t force the mare to break the tranquility that came from the darkness.

Amora, however, apparently had something else in mind. Her brisk, crisp hoofsteps across the grass had fallen on Tail’s deaf ears, and the medic’s magic swiftly plucked the helmet from the unaware scientist. “Hunny, what route did you take to get here this morning?” she spoke after her hoof found its perch on the mare’s forehead.

“Huh?” Tail muttered, opening an eyelid a sliver before she squinted. “The usual? What are you even doing—”

The alabaster unicorn slipped her leg from Tail’s head. She scooted forward and positioned her shoulder against the breastplate of the physicist’s armor.

Tail purred once she felt some of the weight being taken off her extremities. Instinctively, she leaned into the support and allowed her eyelid to close yet again.

Amora glanced in the direction of the archways, and she exhaled a sigh of relief once she found that Barrier had nearly reached her position. “Take her,” she instructed. “Don’t let her near anyone, and don’t let anyone get near you. Go to Medical, the back entrance near the D Barracks, and the second you get in the door, tell the triage nurse that I sent you and that she needs to be put in the Feather Flu Unit, immediately.”

“Ams,” Tail groaned quietly while she struggled—and failed—to lift her feverish body off the unicorn, “what are you talking about? We scheduled yard time. I don’t quit.”

Grimacing at the spectacle of his exhausted marefriend, Barrier moved closer. Using a combination of his physical touch and magical ability, the stallion lifted Tail onto his back so she could drape over his sturdy, metal-clad frame.

“‘S cold,” the pegasus quietly complained before her muzzle found some degree of coziness in the dark blue strands of Barrier’s mane.

“Sorry, Blanket, you don’t have to worry about today. Let’s get you tucked into a nice bed.” The reserved tone in his answer further betrayed his underlying concern, and that timbre remained present in the comments that followed. “She’s really burning up, Amora. What are you going to do?”

“Just get her to the triage nurse, and stay with Tail until I get there. Feather Flu is a highly contagious, pathogenic virus, specifically for winged creatures. I’m going to go decontaminate the route and run some scans to make sure the city isn’t about to have an outbreak on its hooves. Since you’re a unicorn, you should be okay to stay with her. Just don’t leave until we can go over decontamination protocol.”

Tail awoke to the familiar sight of a fiber tile ceiling in a partially illuminated room. A beige quilt covered most of her figure—along with a cheap sheet that felt like the fabric equivalent of stale bread. University classrooms don’t have beds though, she thought, attempting to lift a leg as she peered up at several flickering fluorescent tubes.

Her appendage didn’t optimally obey her neurological command. That sense of sluggishness loitered about the barely raised limb. It sloshed against her muscles as though the sensation were a windswept lake and her body composed the sandy shore. Suddenly, Tail’s folded wings alerted her to the burning ache that snaked between her feathers, and she let out a raspy sigh that made her ears twitch with shock. “Fuck, I feel like shit.”

Tail’s leg thumped against the tiny mattress after she gave up trying to lift it more than an inch above the padded surface. At this moment, more details of her environment crept in on the mare’s awareness. She was no longer wearing any piece of her armor kit, and she detected the pressure of a bracelet wrapped around her cannon. In the background, an irritating beeping noise tracked her heartbeat, but the dreariness plaguing her body pushed Tail thoroughly into the domain of zero shits given. At least now she knew where she was.

The sound of scrambling hooves provided a much more intriguing stimulus, and with a gradual turn of her pillow-supported head, Tail found Magic Barrier ensnared by her sights.

“Hey there, Blanket,” he spoke quietly. The unicorn delicately touched her forehead and started brushing her mane before his haunches plopped on the floor at her bedside.

Fashioning the best smirk she could muster in her state, Tail hummed to the pleasant pets until another wave of chills raced down her spine. “Ughh, not about your presence or touch, but I do not feel well, at all.”

“Amora thinks you’ve come down with a case of the Feather Flu. She’s still waiting on your test result for confirmation, but, heh, you’ve slept for about eight hours now. Last time she checked, you were still in fever mode too. That was maybe thirty minutes ago.”

“She’d run the test anyway,” Tail croaked, “but it’s likely the dreaded F.F. Chills, aches, agitated wings, and extreme fatigue are common symptoms, and I’ve got all of them in spades.” Hesitating for a few seconds, the scientist’s eyes began to water. “Barrier, I can’t get sick now. There’s too much at stake—”

Barrier lowered his muzzle and planted a tender kiss on Tail’s cheek. “You also can’t waste your energy getting worked up over something you can’t control. Just keep getting your rest, and drink plenty of fluids. There’s no telling when we’ll be needed on the field, but I can tell you right now that taking proper care of you is the most important duty there is.”

A silly silence settled over the hospital room after Barrier’s voice trailed off. Tail managed to channel enough willpower to forge a proper smile in spite of her body’s wish to sleep again or cry. The redness that overtook Barrier’s muzzle gave the flier a much needed emotional boost. “You’re pretty adorable when you say things like that,” she remarked, watching as his blue aura swirled around his horn.

“Don’t tell anypony,” came the quick reply. Soon after, a glass of water hovered above Tail’s muzzle. Barrier guided his foreleg under her neck and head to physically support the bedridden mare as he propped her up at an incline suitable for drinking. “Especially Luna, or we might never hear the end of it.”

Tail methodically progressed through her enforced hydration with careful sips and swallows. It wasn’t until the water first made its way down her throat that the pegasus grasped how much the infection had grossly irritated her body. Her esophagus twinged to what Tail imagined to be a mucusy mess that had cast its webby spell over her insides. Her wings seemed to echo the pain through their own renegade, pulsing beats. Still, the solace Barrier offered Tail made the unpleasant experience more bearable and kept her mental burdens at bay. For that, Tail’s heart swelled with gratitude.

Once she had finished, Tail peered past her drooping eyelids at the handsome stallion. “Have you been here the whole time? Eight hours seems like a lot, but I guess Amora must be pretty used to you being in a room like this with me by now. Probably should make hospital stays less of a habit.”

Chuckling, Barrier magically escorted the emptied glass to a countertop on the other side of the room. He continued to cradle Tail’s head even after he facilitated a reunion with her pillow, and his stare remained affixed to the lavender pegasus. “As long as I follow her decontamination rules, then I’m allowed to be here. It’s another thing you don’t have to worry about. She’s making sure I eat too—with her more stubborn kind of adorable. So you just keep getting that much-needed sleep, and you’ll be back on your hooves before you know it.”

Chapter 38 - The Trouble with Ultimatums

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Tail idly poked a burning log with a long stick. The crackling flames popped for the mare, and her sights fell upon the shimmering embers at the bottom of the fire pit. Much like the small craters she had constructed with Barrier along the Trottingham Trail, this pit had been accented by hoof-sized stones placed along its rim. Unlike the journey along the trail, however, the ground beneath Tail’s hanches and hooves showed no sign of life.

The barren, black landscape stretched out until the perceivable darkness merged with the abstract notion of the beyond. Even the compacted dirt illuminated by the orange tongues appeared desolate and chalky-grey in color.

“So you’re the newbie.” A thick Appleloosan accent overcame the sporadic noises of the flames, and the rich, country timbre shattered Tail’s stupor. She snapped her focus from the fire and swung her head to the right. There, lazily sprawled across a repurposed log, was a bone-white unicorn that the physicist recognized immediately. His gunmetal mane dangled in an unkempt mess, including the locks that had been tied into a ponytail, and his blue eyes returned the inquisition while a calm smile sat upon his muzzle.

“River Styx?” Tail mumbled, leaning forward to get a good look at his triangular cutie mark. “That is definitely you, but what? You were Barrier.”

Tail drew laughter from the stallion once she started rubbing the side of her head with her forehoof. Confusion contorted her lips into an asymmetric smirk, and she squinted as though she had just taken a battle with a headache to a whole new level.

“Correction, ma’am, Cap’n Barrier did a horrible impression of me. Though, he did do a decent enough job gettin’ my likeness to an okay degree. All the same, that’s not what’s important right now. You seem to be sittin’ all by your lonesome in this-a-here place, and as a longtime member of the 1st Executor Squad, I can thoroughly state that we are not down with that shit.”

One word in River Styx’s delivery made Tail’s wings flutter open. She held the pose while curiosity quirked her brow—and while the warmth of the fire bathed her surprisingly weighty wings in a blanket of comfort. Still, she could not sustain the awkward fermata that she shared with the lieutenant. Eventually, her eagerness to decipher the mystery of his statement won out over simply being content, and the physicist dared to ask, “We?”

The question swiftly morphed into a high-pitched squeal when a cold pang bolted from her dock to the nape of her neck. Her coat bristled, and Tail jumped from the ground as a frazzled, twitchy appearance jarred her countenance.

“Got ‘er!” another stallion’s voice cracked to Tail’s left. Wrapping around her trunk, feathers—presumably belonging to the recent arrival—gently corralled the heaving scientist and shepherded her to the ground in a slow, peculiar, other-worldly descent. “Or whatever it is the youngsters say these days.”

Wanting to meet the source of ye olde Manehattan noisebox, Tail promptly faced the newcomer, a cold-blue pegasus with a snowy-blue mane. His goldenrod eyes snagged her attention like a lighthouse in the fog, and after she blinked at him a few times, he slowly retracted his wing and grinned.

“Er, hello, Silver Dust,” Tail guessed after an additional second of computation. When he gave an affirmative nod, the mare briefly checked on both the fire and River Styx. “Okay? I know the Feather Flu didn’t kill me, so why—”

“We’re just keeping you company for now, Ms. Tail,” Silver interrupted. He held a steady tone as he spoke, and he took a seat a leg’s reach away from his fellow flier. “You will be going to the front soon, and despite all the effort you have put into your training, a first deployment is a first deployment.”

“It’s okay to be nervous,” River Styx added after he lowered his muzzle and affixed his gaze to the dancing coals. “Cap’n knows I was a jumpy little shit first time I got assigned to his squad. Come to think of it, I’m pretty damn sure it was ol’ Silver who cleared my mind with an icy swat to the flank. Imagine Cap’n told her—what was it?—that you were a measured stallion when he took ‘er out on the Trottin’ham Trail.”

“Pfft, who’s to say it wasn’t calculated? And you already know that I was meticulous when it came to my battle preparations. I didn’t have to go out of my way by competing with Flash in contests of skill and speed. Besides, sometimes there’s value in uncovering the kindness in what a stoic pony often hides.”

Styx swished his dark-grey tail, shrugged, and rolled onto his back. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with havin’ a pony willin’ to do some brute force either, Bucko. Those challenges made me a better defender, and I wouldn’t trade ‘em for nothin’. Cap’n knew it too. That’s why he never stopped me from shovin’ the spade when the job needed to be done.”

“He didn’t stop you because he knew we could factor in your brazen antics and still be effective across an entire campaign. Also didn’t hurt that you were good at doing it either,” Silver Dust snickered. “Just think about how many times a griffon line got confused because its commander suddenly disappeared in the night. Though, perhaps we’re getting a bit off-track.”

Tail flicked one of her ears downward and pursed her lips. “Is there even a track for us to be on? I mean, we’re all just kind of sitting here in the middle of, well, nothing.”

Silver Dust nodded in River’s direction. “Why don’t you do the honors, Styxy? You always did the best job playing the bard for us anyway.”

“Another relaxin’ story with good ol’ Lt. Styx, huh? I can dig those vibes, Dusty,” River Styx replied before he wiggled to better address Tail from his upside-down sprawl. “It’s not too complicated, Colonel. The Matriarch’s been a busy lady, but she’s still found the time to make sure that we could get a say. We know what you did at Ember’s grave, and we know all the things a soldier can feel before goin’ out.

“It’s customary for the lieutenants of a squad to share some drinks with a new executor. Cap’n might not have said it yet, but that’s a fact as true as your word. You can’t quit, right? Well, neither could we. You’re one of us now, Darlin’, and I think you’ll find the fight is easier when you’re no longer alone. All we have to do is kick back, relax, and wait for Ember to get her filly flank over here.”

Princess Celestia entered a meeting room in the medical ward just outside the decontamination hall. The regal alicorn wore a stern expression as she eyed Amora, Barrier, and Trigger, all of whom had hastily congregated at her request. “How is she, and what do you think the prognosis for her recovery is, Major?”

Amora sat upon a grey mesh swivel chair directly adjacent to the head of a rubber-trimmed conference table. She had been idly chatting with the two stallions before Celestia joined, and her sightline obviously followed the pacing Barrier.

Marking his territory over the rear of the chamber, the charcoal-coated unicorn marched over the thin navy-blue carpet. He periodically eclipsed a whiteboard that another doctor had covered in mostly illegible gibberish, but with the way Barrier’s stare drilled into the approaching wall after each turn, it was clear to the others present that he would have much rather been back at Tail’s side.

Trigger reclined once Celestia’s question reached his ears, and he awkwardly looked over the top of his chair from his position closest to the door.

It took a few seconds for Barrier to recognize the royal presence, but once he did, he slowed his trot to a halt. An uneasy frown appeared on his face, and one of his hind legs repeatedly tapped against the floor as if his body fought to kick-start a new bout of pacing.

“Her fever is stable, and she’s sleeping a lot,” Amora answered as she leaned onto the laminate tabletop. “Her labs came back with Feather Flu as highly probable, well above our threshold for diagnosis, but I’m thinking about running them again. Her level of fatigue is not alarming in terms of her overall health. Sleep is good for her, but it’s also not typical for it to be this severe.

“I’ve sent out some memos to the Trottingham Guard and carriage companies to keep tabs as well. Haven’t heard anything from them yet, which is also a little surprising. Feather Flu is highly contagious, so Tail could be battling a different variant that’s emerging this season. That particular hypothesis has its own pitfalls, though, since Barrier hasn’t gotten sick, and he’s been with her for effectively the entire incubation period and beyond. While these points present some reservations, I don’t really see anything that suggests her recovery will be any different than other flu infections. If she keeps sleeping it off, she could be on her hooves again in a few more days.”

Making sure that the door was closed behind her, Celestia released a heavy sigh. “While I’m relieved to hear that Tail is on the right path, I have serious concerns regarding her readiness for Operation Loadline. Some take two weeks to heal from such an illness, which would place her availability well past Wing’s timeframe for the Temporal Drecht’s failure.”

Barrier bit his lip, closed his eyes, and lifted his muzzle towards the tiled ceiling before a hissing breath burst from his nostrils. His tail flicked against his thigh, and he shook his head in barely perceivable motions through the silence that followed.

“She could be ready when the moment comes,” Celestia spoke again after her attention settled completely on the protective captain, “but you already know that, in spite of my hopes, I cannot afford to think of anything other than the worst-case scenario when planning for Sombra. We saw the capabilities of Tail’s work with our own eyes, Barrier. You know what it can do, and she already expressed her trust. If Tail’s not fit for duty when the Drecht fails, then my order is clear. Either you or Trigger will wield that weapon. That is the only logical choice.”

Having tailed Barrier after the meeting with Princess Celestia and Amora came to an end, Trigger joined the charcoal-coated unicorn in Tail’s room. Most of the fluorescent lights had been turned off so the fatigued pegasus could maintain her aggressive sleep schedule. A lone exception in the interior corner cast gloomy shadows over the expressions of the two stallions. Though, it was Barrier who met that expectation with a torn grimace and trembling legs.

“Ya look a little tense, Barry,” Trigger commented quietly while he stood at the unicorn’s side. “Plannin’ to share with the class, or are ya gonna keep all your thoughts to yourself?”

Barrier stewed for a few more seconds, steeled himself, and exhaled. “It’s bittersweet, Trigsy. She spent all that time and energy bringing her combat skill set to a new level. What she’s made in her lab is out of this world, but after the stuff she did on the field with us—and after the way she tackled the trail—there’s not a single doubt in my mind that she could make a difference when we get sent out. When Celly told us about the mission, when I jumped on it for my family’s sake, she leapt at it with the same conviction that my squadmates did. She had my back, unconditionally.”

As long, tranquil breaths emerged from Tail’s slightly opened muzzle, Barrier lifted his left foreleg and ran his hoof through part of her unruly mane.

“And?” Trigger prodded after the captain had drifted off into his mental space long enough for the cowcolt creature of reverie to start fussing with his Coltston.

“And part of me is happy that she might not be there. I don’t want her to go to a warzone. I don’t want her to experience that pain or have to make that sacrifice. I don’t want her to have to endure something Faust-fucking-awful. I’ve had a lot of ponies die for me. The thought of it being her next—” Barrier clenched his jaw and grunted. “It’s selfish. It belittles her growth, and it makes me disappointed in myself to even think it. I know she’d glare at me too if she heard me imply that I should take the weight without her.”

“We can’t always get what we want. Can’t say I blame ya though. I’m not exactly thrilled about Tea, Amora, and Wing gettin’ sent out either. They’re all capable. Shit, I trained two of ‘em myself. Even when ya got someone who will fight tooth and nail for ya, it’s hard to ignore the memory of one of ‘em being a little shit who pulls your ass out of a nightmare—or that another’s your wife. It’s hard to measure your own feelings against how much they worked, but ya already know this so you’re just wastin’ time beatin’ around the bush.”

“I’m not taking it with me,” Barrier flatly answered in his gritty tenor. He peered at the physicist, and a soft, barely-perceivable smile started to erode the fear and disgust that his expression had betrayed. “I spent my entire career using my own body and magic as weapons. Introducing something new like that when I’ve never used it doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe we can get her up long enough to go over the details with you, and I’ve seen it in action enough to help fill in some gaps.”

Briefly glancing downward, Trigger adjusted his hat once again and cast his sights just below the brim. His eyes took on an argent hue, and he gradually lifted his muzzle higher and higher until he was staring contemplatively at the empty space above the hospital bed. “Hot damn, now he’s just bein’ stupid. I’m not takin’ her shit with me either. I’ll fake it in front of Celestia if I have to, but it’s not my part to play so I ain’t playin’ it.”

Jerking his hoof away from Tail’s head, Barrier whipped to face Trigger. He didn’t say a word to challenge the other stallion’s position, and for a moment, the only disturbances came from Tail’s steady breathing and the monitor tracking her heartbeat.

Trigger did not alter his posture at all. Resolute, he held the proud pose for his audience, and he kept his transformed, silvery gaze trained on the same spot. “It’s not really a surprise. Ya already know she’s going to be there. She will go north. Ya can just feel it in the air. I can’t quit, right? Flicker told ya herself, so there’s no real point in me takin’ her work to the front line. She’ll wake up and find her lab in proper order. Though, I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up meetin’ some friends on the way. Ya can’t always get what ya want, Barry, but ya can sum up everything ya have to tell this mare in three words. Which three words will it be?”

“Three?” Barrier interjected with a sharp whisper. He turned from Trigger and rested his chest on the mattress so his muzzle hovered directly above Tail’s nearest ear. “Heh, it would fit my habit of not being one for long speeches, but she deserves more than that. She deserves to know, in every sense of the word, that she’s earned being named my successor—or that she’s worthy of more respect than anyone else I know—or that she’s honored those who came before her.”

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

Out of thin air, a set of obnoxiously cartoonish, fluffy earmuffs suddenly appeared on Tail’s head. A thump radiated through the floor after a wooden crate dropped into place next to Trigger, and in a swirling, colorful mess of disintegrating confetti, Discord emerged from his realm of utter disorder.

“I’m sorry. Is this another one of your private parties? I didn’t mean to intrude, but I do have a priority package here for one Professor Tail.” Still airborne, Discord shimmied closer to Trigger before carrying on in a purposefully loud whisper. “Pssst, it’s her new armor. Also, are we still down for O&O with Wing after this whole derailed apocalypse thing ends?”

Glaring at the draconequus, Barrier retreated from the assaulting fibers of white fluff that reached over his snout and tickled his nose. “She’s recovering from an illness, Discord. Now isn’t the time for games.”

“Yes, I know,” Discord retorted while rolling his claws. “Why else do you think I put those earmuffs to good use? Did you think it was all just for show? Honestly, I have no idea why you keep assuming I’m up to mischief. Didn’t your mother ever teach you that assuming makes an ass out of you and me? And that’s just not a very nice way to treat me—or our donkey brethren.”

When Trigger chuckled at the witticism, a wily grin swept over the draconequus’s countenance. Having no shame in carrying out juvenile taunts, Discord continued dramatically, “See? Trigger gets it, and that’s why I can play games with him without losing my mind.”

Discord’s brain manifested atop the draconequus’s paw in a flash of bluish light. Another toony creation, the little pink mass with eyes, glasses, and stick-figure arms and legs marched down the lion-like appendage as it picked up the taunt at a pitch two octaves higher than Discord’s normal speaking voice. “But we’re not here to play games. Nooooo, we’re here to deliver something that you asked for yourself, but that must mean that we’re just trying to cause trouble and make a sick pony’s life miserable. Boohoo!”

“Oh, get back in here, you,” Discord mockingly scolded after he wrangled his brain with a tiny lasso and yanked the creature into his skull. “Sorry about that. He’s just a little flustered”—he sighed deeply—“but it seems as though you’re just not going to believe me, Captain Barrier. I guess that means I’ll have to be painfully, dreadfully, agonizingly clear.”

The Lord of Chaos abruptly replaced the lasso in his talons with a clipboard. His demeanor shifted with equal quickness, and his brow fashioned a scowl that effectively snagged Barrier’s attention. “This era has made Cay-Cay and Luna more fun than they’ve been in more generations than I can be bothered to count.”

Barrier’s coat bristled to the bass-heavy, serious timbre in which the draconequus spoke, and even Trigger’s tail flicked in response to the change.

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

Chapter 39 - Knight to c3

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Tail sat up atop her bed and leaned against the minimalist, metal-tube headboard. Dark bags lingered beneath her half-lidded eyes, and she groaned as Amora put her through the fresh hell of having every single one of her achy feathers inspected. “Nnngh,” she weakly protested, wincing once a nerve opted to spike her brain instead of providing the annoying, yet tolerable droning signal.

“Well, the good news is that your fever finally broke, and it actually stayed broken,” the doctor commented while leaning closer to the extended wing. Her horn lit, and an iridescent ring swirled around her cobalt irides. Amora scrutinized the fibers of Tail’s feathers, and short, hummed notes exited her mouth while she carried out the examination. “Circulation looks okay, but there’s still some remaining inflammation.”

The pegasus lowered her head, and her forelegs wrapped around the soft surfaces of Magic Bear Bear. Barrier had fetched the gifted toy after the days of Tail’s stay stretched in number, and the cuddly little guy repeatedly found refuge in the grasp of the recovering physicist. In this instance, the stuffed animal also found itself cloaked in the dangling locks of Tail’s mane as it sat in her lap.

Despite the cozy comfort, however, being awake exposed Tail to the plights that accompanied her infection. Her muscles throbbed, sending the message over and over again that they just wanted to relax atop the mattress—no matter how much it reminded her of a college dorm. At least this time around, she didn’t believe that she’d keel over upon standing, but the mere thought of flight made her stomach churn. On cue, her barrel rumbled, and she groaned while tightening her hold on M.B.B., “Just make me feel better already.”

Giggling, Amora patted the top of Tail’s head. “That’s not how it works, you silly filly, and I know that you know that. But, since you’ve been a good patient, getting lots of rest and taking your medicine and fluids, I’ll remind you that there’s a good chance you’ll be back on your hooves in a couple days. You’re definitely on the upswing.”

“I can’t wait,” Tail sighed and peered around Ams at the unopened crate. “I should be practicing and getting used to my new kit.”

Barrier strode into the room before Tail finished her sentence, and his discerning gaze fell upon her figure as he toted a cylindrical container with his magic. “Mm, I don’t think that’s going to get clearance from Amora, Blanket. It’s certainly not going to get clearance from me. I did bring you some noodle soup though. It’s an old recipe that saw a lot of use during the ill seasons of the past, so I’d say that what you should be doing is getting good nourishment.”

Tail peeked up at the off-white cup and smacked her lips. She watched steam rise from the hidden soup after Barrier pulled off the paper lid, and her stomach immediately replied with a far happier grumble. “Noodle soup, you say? Well, there’s no way I’m turning down that, especially if you made it for me.”

“She can purr and flirt, so she must be getting there,” Amora added before she stepped away from the bed. “I’ll leave you two to it, but Tail, make sure you send your colt home to sleep in a bed tonight. He should also be getting good rest, and if you think the beds in this department leave a lot to be desired, you have yet to experience our chairs.”

Glancing over at the padded maroon seat, Barrier shuddered. “My spine has some complaints. Maybe I can bring it up with the princesses when I get a chance. Get some more funding for some room upgrades or something.”

Amora shook her head after she started trotting towards the doorway. “It’s not a funding issue. Stuff’s easy to clean, and if we need to toss it for health reasons, it’s not much of a loss. We’re also primarily serving guard ponies in this wing, and I’m pretty sure they, including you, would sleep on rocks and not bring it up unless provoked. Either way, Tail, enjoy your soup, and Barrier, actually go enjoy your bed.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the pair answered simultaneously.

Tail eagerly eyed the carton once Amora made her exit. The closer Barrier came to the bed, the more Tail relaxed, and a dreamy demeanor shaped her visage once she took in the scents of chamomile, dandelion leaf, nettles, and marigold. “Proving that you’re the better chef again, Magic Bear? You’re going to make my mom scold me when she finally meets you.”

“Just thought you might like something that I know is gentle on the stomach. I figured it must also still pass as comfort food since I’ve seen enough similar recipes around too.” The unicorn reached his post at Tail’s side before he affectionately brushed his muzzle against hers. “And I don’t think you have to worry about your mother scolding you. I have a feeling I will be in the far more precarious spot during that engagement.”

“We might both get lucky and she’ll get distracted by your vibe. Sincy gets a lot of his mannerisms from her. He’s a mama’s boy through and through.” Tail set M.B.B. on the side of the bed opposite Barrier and immediately made the largest grabby-hooves motions that she could muster in her current state.

Barrier met her excitement with a warming smile. Obliging his marefriend, he guided the cup of soup between her waiting hooves and ceased his spell once she had clearly grasped the paper sides of the cylinder. “Does that make you a daddy’s girl?” he asked, sneaking in the question before Tail’s first sip of the broth.

Tail moaned as soon as she finished swallowing. The impressive magic Barrier cast with his horn was nothing compared to the straight-up witchcraft he had provided with this unassuming cup. Of course, given that Tail still had a battle against her ailment, the crazy combination of appley, earthy, and citrusy flavors provided a psychological boost akin to strutting into a freshly outfitted laboratory.

“This is literal perfection,” she mumbled, clumsily devouring the noodles and herb-filled liquid. “And I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m a daddy’s girl. Dad gave me my first glimpse of real research science, and where do you think the I-can’t-quit attitude came from?”

“Guess I’ll have to thank him for that, and I’m glad you like the soup. I don’t know if I’d call it perfection. It’s a pretty simple recipe and takes very little skill to prepare—”

“Mmhmm!” Tail interrupted while she tilted her head back and downed the contents in a series of ravenous gulps. Her fiery glare caught the sheepish stallion by surprise, and she grinned when he fashioned a defensive smirk. “You can keep telling yourself that, but I’ll stand my ground on this one. Your ingredients also promote good sleep and a boosted immune-system response. Are you going to tell me that the best tactician I know didn’t make those decisions to help out his marefriend?”

The pegasus countered the subsequent silence with an unwavering stare and a smug expression.

Eventually, Barrier caved and retrieved the emptied container. Angling towards Tail, he deposited a kiss on her forehead as a rumbling buzz brewed in his throat. “Mm, no. I love you too much to try a con like that. Just want to do what I can to help you feel better.”

Tail melted under his kiss. Happily dazed, she slid under her covers and clutched M.B.B. after her head encountered the pillow. “I think we’re due for some sweet dreams tonight, and you absolutely make me feel better. Ams is right though. You should get some good rest in your own bed. We’re on the clock, and I don’t want you to be exhausted because you were taking care of me. You’ve done a lot, and I love you too.”

Shivering as Barrier wrapped her up in a kiss, Tail wiggled in the endless field of forget-me-nots. The plates of her executor-style armor rattled thanks to the stallion’s insistence, and Tail blushed once the bulkier, metal-clad unicorn had her pinned to the ground. Blood marred the fur above his eyes, and several fresh nicks traversed his muzzle. Ordinarily, concern would have consumed the pegasus at the sight of these features, but in this instance—

“Mm, Blanket,” he huffed in between kisses, “you were incredible.”

Tail could feel the dopey smile that blossomed and reappeared in between each of his displays of devotion. She gasped when he shifted his head and started a trail of soft kisses that inevitably led to him nipping her neck. Her hind legs trembled, and as she stared up at the vibrant auroras that arced across the sunny sky, the scientist’s brain entered scramble mode.

I don’t think we just dueled. We’ve gone hard, but I’ve never cut him up like that. And if it were, I don’t think we’d still be geared up. Tail’s thoughts were momentarily interrupted by a more dominant bite to her neck. Her feathers ruffled, brushing against the nearby plants, and it became extremely tempting for the mare to lose herself in the stallion’s embrace.

Nevertheless, one question continued to nag the colonel. Her brain carried no recollections of how she and Barrier had landed upon this field filled with her favorite flowers. No data existed to explain how he had gotten bloodied or how the heavens had surrendered their normal hues to the bands of radiation that crawled over the visible dome. Nothing explained, “What did I do that was so incredible?”

Suddenly, Tail’s body reacted to a rapid shift in barometric pressure. While she could still feel Barrier’s weight on top of her, along with the tender kisses he kept providing, her sense of hearing succumbed to a ringing that grew louder with each passing second. The environment itself started to fade away as well in a glowing haze that engulfed everything Tail observed.

Her heartbeat raced once Barrier’s presence vanished to her sense of touch, and she immediately rolled onto her hooves and stood up. A periodic click joined the whine of the tinnitus, and Tail tried to shake off the noises by jerking her head. The maneuver failed, but in the wake of its accompanying squint, the scenery shifted to a barren tundra beneath a menacing obsidian sky.

She gulped, staring down a silhouette that carved a homogenous void into the icy expanse. The looming figure did not move from its spot. However, as Tail stared into the daunting darkness, the thunderous ticks that jarred her hearing became more prominent. Her chest tightened, and the muscles in her legs tensed. Quivering motions flicked various feathers into sporadic positions, and despite Tail’s instinctive desire to escape from the maddening nothingness, she did not flee.

Piercing red eyes, surrounded by haunting lime-green sclerae, formed on the skull of the apparition. Tail clenched her jaw and crouched. The longer she glared at the gaping unknown, the more prepared she felt to act. Of course, fleeing couldn’t be an option. She couldn’t run away now, especially not when two creeds echoed in her mind. The time had come to finally fight.

A blustering swirl of snow erupted to the mare’s left, and a flash of magic sparked to her right. Hooves crunched against the frozen ground to announce the arrivals of River Styx and Silver Dust to the front line.

Supported by reinforcements, Tail took a step towards the shrouded stallion. Her irides sparkled at the behest of her internal fire, and no longer did dread find a home on her countenance. She extended her armor-covered foreleg towards the abyss and waited as a yellow-cream pegasus swooped down from the skies, landed, and pressed against Tail’s right flank.

“Oi, sorry I’m late!” Ember shouted to the squad. “Sometimes it’s just hard ta beat the message right into a fucker. Ya’d think it obvious, but I guess it’s just gotta be said aloud. Ya two are clearly stronger together as one, ya daft shit.”

Barrier sat up on his bed. Heavy breaths fled his lungs, and a nasty, chilled sweat clung to his fur. His quilt had tumbled from his frame, exacerbating the icy sensation that gripped the startled stallion. His eyes darted, taking in the greyscale scenery that had yet to be fully conquered by the band of morning light that snuck in through the barely parted drapes.

Stronger together… Ember’s voice captured his thoughts, sending the stallion scrambling off the mattress. He tore open the drawer on his nightstand and fumbled around until he snatched a small box with his magic. He then targeted the feather Tail had given him, corralling it in his aura as well before dashing out of the room as though lives depended on it.

Ponies dashed, flew, and galloped in the vast chamber that housed the Equestrian Intelligence Service. Shouts carried across the corporate office space as commands started being issued. Papers, recently thrown off oak desks in droves, piled atop the navy-blue carpet so E.I.S. personnel could plant new parchments upon the wood surfaces.

In the center of this data carnage, Wing sat in the middle of a circular counter that had been installed on a raised platform. A city of clutter covered practically every square inch of the mahogany ring, but Wing’s attention hovered squarely on a black plastic cube that staked out a visible piece of real estate. The red light of an emitting diode pulsed from its post on top of the hoof-sized structure, and the pegasus knew precisely what it meant.

The Crystal Empire had seen the end of the Temporal Drecht. Operation Loadline had begun.

Inhaling deeply, Wing slapped his hooves against the tabletop. The reverberating clapping noise brought an abrupt end to the commotion that had captivated the sprawling rows of benches, and the colonel reared up to take the helm. “Send the order to Autumn Tea. Have her teleport to Ponyville and escort the Element Bearers to Canterlot, and make sure they bring the bloody fucking dragon. Harmony depends on it.”

“Got it, Boss!” a pony squealed in a nasal voice from amidst the fray before Wing glanced towards the nearest station.

There, Dr. Batsy frantically dragged the tip of a quill over a sheet of paper. The purple pony’s gaze narrowed while her sights homed in on the scribbles of mathematical equations that she rapidly calculated. Her tongue partially stuck out from her muzzle, and it appeared as though the mare held her breath until she wrote a final number, circled it, and punctuated the effort with a strong strike of the lavender pen.

“4.753 A.E.U. per square meter at the shell,” Batsy answered before Wing even spoke the question.

Tilting his head back, the colonel let his sights wander over the protective patterns carved into their bunker’s ceiling. “It’s a damn shame that I don’t know the delta-T, but the array’s intact, so it’s probably long enough to not pose a major issue. Still, it’s better to be safe than moronic. North Division! Send the word to Whynnyapolis. Bluster Alert with a five-minute E.T.A. It won’t freak out the civilians, but Gracious will read between the lines and rally the troops.”

The pegasus wheeled to the right as another train of thought shot to the forefront. “House Guard, alert Callie and Luna! Royal, tell Captain Armor right away! He’ll have to get Princess Cadance, but heh, she probably felt the pull of the Crystal Heart even before our alarm went off. Either way, instructions are to meet at the throne room at once. Major Amora in Medical and Captain Spitfire will also need to move to standby positions, and I want some others plucked out of the City Guard as well. See if the newly minted Lieutenant Indar and Corporal Bonecrusher will answer the call. Don’t hold it against them if they don’t, but”—Wing paused when Trigger appeared at his side through a dissipating swirl of silvery mist—“everypony dreams.”

“Couldn’t have said it better myself, Kiddo,” Trigger spoke as he leaned up against the edge of the desk. The Coltston-wearing stallion lifted his right foreleg to tip his hat to Wing—and to show the pegasus the glimmering revolver strapped to his limb.

“I take that to mean Colonel Tail is still on the mend?” One of Wing’s calculating eyes zeroed in on the stainless-steel contours before the stallion’s focus wandered to Trigger’s dark-brown vest. “The look suits you at least.”

Snorting, Trigger lowered his leg and shook his head. “Amora hasn’t cleared her yet, and last I checked, she was still sleepin’ off the last of her infection. I already told Barry that ya picked up a signal, but I have a feelin’ that he already knew. Boy was marchin’ with purpose towards Tail’s room. Seemed to me like he wanted a moment, and I ain’t one to interrupt somethin’ like that.”

A grin gradually crept along the colt’s muzzle after he turned to properly face Trigger. “I’d expect nothing less from you. I would ask what you think the odds are that she’ll somehow show up to the battlefield, but I can already tell the answer by looking at your leg.”

“Well shit,” Trigger halfheartedly laughed, “and here I thought I had actually done a decent job sellin’ the work as her genuine article. Should I bail on the whole thing? Could just say fuck it and go with the blunt approach of ignorin’ a royal. Wouldn’t be the first time. Won’t be the last.”

Wing thoughtfully hummed while that smirk of his remained firmly plastered in place. He rolled his head to glance at Batsy again, but he definitely directed the first part of his response to Trigger. “Nah, it won’t matter. Callie’s not the only one who’s been moving chess pieces around the board. You could just say that there are some extra benefits that come with me holding onto Aurora’s Eye. Either way, we should get going to the throne room.

“Battu, I’m going with Trigs to see the first squad off. It’ll be taxing to keep our dreamshell link at that distance, especially during the initial commotion, so don’t get extra floofy if I drop off the radar for a bit. Plans never go as expected anyway, though. There’s still that risk that the arrays will get knocked out, so just in case, I’d like for you to go to Lab Two and prep the Armistice for liftoff-on-demand.”

Reaching out, Wing snatched the plastic cube with one of his namesakes. He lifted his muzzle, casting his gaze across the windowless chamber—over those under his command—and roared, “I’m counting on all of you, so do your best and have each other’s backs! This is a moment that defines why we’re here, and the lives of every single pony and creature you hold dear could very well be riding on the kind of soul you choose to have today. The only currency in war is life, and the cost of harmony sure as shit ain’t free. Yet, here we are, paying those dues by fighting for something bigger than ourselves. Here we are, finding our resolve in the shadows together.”

A boisterous cheer erupted amongst the roughly one-hundred ponies that occupied the office. Some hit their paperwork with newfound enthusiasm, and others focused on keeping the com lines to different branches of the Equestrian Defence Forces open.

“Repurposin’ my lines now, huh?” the creature of reverie quipped before he suddenly plopped his hat on the crown of the pegasus. He grunted with amusement when Wing flinched, and his gritty voice quickly reemerged. “Gonna make ponies think ya should be a general with speeches like that. So proud.”

“We can reminisce after we win,” Wing countered. “Transceiver Team! It’s time to pack up your shit. We’re booking it to the princesses. Wave 1 will deploy as soon as all members arrive at the L.Z. Keep ties to the other members of the Joint Chiefs as open as you can. Nothing withheld from those seven, and nothing off the table from Gracious Waters, either. Subsequent waves will depart on a staggered schedule that is completely dependent on inbound recon. You know the lists. Make sure those who need to know actually know—and those that don’t stay out of harm’s way.”

Barrier stood beside Tail’s hospital bed and quietly watched the sleeping mare. To the stallion, she looked quite peaceful. The audible quality of her breathing had noticeably improved over the last couple of days, and her fever had truly been conquered. Still, the clock had run out, and this visit to the pegasus had been only facilitated with the borrowed time that Trigger had readily provided.

It seemed as though he wasn’t the only pony with cards to play. Amora had doubled down at the eleventh hour by putting the physicist under a sedation spell the previous night with the hopes that Tail would awaken refreshed and Feather Flu free. Yet she had not emerged from that slumber, and in spite of his quivering, lifted limb, Barrier couldn’t bring himself to wake her prematurely.

From beneath his breastplate, Barrier retrieved the navy-blue ribbon that Tail had haphazardly fashioned from her dress uniform. Her golden colonel pins still dangled from the end of the fabric, and upon inspection, the unicorn had to smile at how far she had come.

A ripple of blue light snaked along Barrier’s horn as another pin emerged through the gap between his neck and the closest metal plate. A joined pair of black powder-coated bars slowly tumbled around in the colt’s magical field before he affixed the pin to Tail’s ribbon. Atop the gradually curving surfaces, depictions of lightning bolts, wings, and daggers had been etched through the dark coating, leaving behind images in sharp, glimmering silver.

“I know you’ll understand it when you finally wake up, but on the off chance that the lovable Blanket can hear me, I’ll say it aloud now. You’re the strongest pony I know, not in terms of raw strength, but you’ve got more determination than most bother to dream about. You’re more than a colonel now. From this day forward, you are the Scythe of the Crowns and Captain of the Executors. Maybe that rank means a bit more today than most, but to me, it marks indelible loyalty every day.”

He placed the ribbon on top of the pine crate before he snagged a small white card from underneath his helmet and set it beside the pins. Tail’s feather became the next trinket to emerge from the darkened confines beneath Barrier’s kit, and the mage affixed his icy-blue sights to the flier’s figure.

“You’ve done a lot over the last few months to show me your loyalty. It’s time I did the same.” Steadying himself, Barrier watched the adorable pegasus for a few more seconds before he closed his eyes. Energetic spikes pulsed outward from the scintillating region around the stallion’s horn, and Barrier squinted and jerked his head when the appendage started radiating a silvery light.

Gasping and groaning from the blistering heat, the captain coaxed a needle-like object from the spiral of his horn. With each powerful gulp of air, and at the urging of the unicorn’s power, more of the calamus came loose from Barrier’s spire until the distinctive barbs of a yellow-cream feather were fully pulled away from the stallion. A blue auguric tendril adjusted its hold on Tail’s feather, and with a swift coiling motion, Barrier absorbed Tail’s offering into his sacred core.

He hunched over while the appendage cooled and transitioned back to its usual charcoal color. A cadence of deep, pained huffs accompanied the process, and he looked up with a single eye to stare at the ancient feather that floated in his cast.

“She’s with me now,” he spoke in a hushed tone after gingerly realigning his posture. He slid even closer to the bed and grazed Tail’s forehead with a tender kiss. The gift he had received from Ember oh-so-long ago found a new refuge in the strands of Tail’s mane, and Barrier’s heart lingered on the yellow fibers as the last threads of his spell finally let go. “I’m counting on you. Look after her for me.”

The unicorn snuck in a second kiss and turned towards the doorway. As he passed the crate, his attention drifted to the propped note that he had left for his beloved Blanket to find. Three words, etched in his hoofwriting, stood out even in the dim light, and Barrier hoped with every bit of his being that Tail would see them when they still meant something. I need you.

Chapter 40 - To Answer the Call

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Philomena made figure eights around the Doric columns in the throne room as she claimed the airspace just beneath the vaulted ceiling. Far beneath her, ponies from Wing’s Transceiver Team scurried across the marble floor in a well-executed frenzy. Rubber mats were thrown down, producing a circular arrangement of surfaces that ponies could stand on without fear of slipping.

“Lattice pad inbound, Boss!” a grey-colored unicorn shouted a few meters from the formation. The stallion tossed tufts of his lime-green mane to the side before he opened a large plastic tub with some added zest. The lid rattled once it landed upon the marble, but the echoing clamor did little to delay the pony, or any other, from his mission.

An orange light wrapped around his horn as an enormous rolled sheet was lifted from the container and carried into the center of the setup. A clear plastic material comprised most of the structure, but as the pony unravelled the lattice pad, bands of embedded augurite became more easily identified. The metal strips drew a twelve-pointed star upon an area fit to hold at least ten outfitted ponies, and the vertices landed on the floor adjacent to a corresponding rubber mat.

Wing tapped his forehoof on the glossy stone and mumbled, “Whynnyapolis would have felt a shock wave by now. We’re past the ten-minute mark, folks. Let’s get it done.” Still wearing Trigger’s hat, the pegasus affixed his gaze to the observing Celestia and Luna, both of whom battled worrisome grimaces and anxious feather flicks.

Trigger closed the distance between Wing and himself and lightly nudged the stallion’s side. “They’re doin’ a fine job. Saved a lot of time by plantin’ that spellwork in advance.”

Jerking from the sudden push, Wing grunted and reclaimed his balance with a quick swipe of one of his namesakes. “Of course they are. I know that already. There’s just a lot riding on this. The sooner we have the data, the sooner we can act on it.”

The creature of reverie smirked and shrugged. “Phrase it however ya want, Kiddo. I know how ya science types get when your clocks are runnin’ too fast. Nu, nu, nu, but and because, S.U. Three generators! Heh, your team is almost ready to go, and we’re still congregatin’. There’ll be enough time to get your data.”

Mouth agape, Wing recoiled and turned to stare at Trigger. “Professor Arcade E. Pridestone is, and always will be, a national treasure. Don’t doubt the power of the penguin—”

Interrupting the feisty director, a multihued flash erupted from the main threshold of the grand chamber before Shining Armor and Cadance made their entrances. The former wore his typical, plated Royal Guard gear, and he had clearly polished the purple and gold kit until it shimmered under the palace chandeliers with a brilliance expected of the captain’s station.

Cadance provided a real surprise, however. The Princess of Love had abandoned her traditional regalia, opting instead for a brushed-metal kit that made Trigger beam on sight. The alicorn appeared as if she had stepped out of the annals of every ancient war epic that had ever been penned. Grit and toughness accompanied every sharp edge that the gear displayed, and the spectacle conveyed the notion that the princess had prepared for a true battle.

“We got here as soon as we could,” Cady informed effectively everypony who was actively listening. “Sorry if we’re late. I practiced getting into this a few times, but I’m not exactly used to it.”

“You’re not late. We’re putting the finishing touches on the setup now,” Wing answered after he fully spun around to properly address the new arrivals. “Once Barrier gets here, we can hopefully begin the process immediately.”

Upon seeing Cadance, Celestia’s concerned expression devolved into an agonized frown. Creases showed in the short fur around her brow after she took a single step towards her adopted niece. Her magenta eyes wavered, and for a moment, it seemed as though the towering alabaster alicorn had forgotten that nearly two dozen others were bustling about. “We really should be the ones going,” Tia muttered, managing to catch her sister’s ear.

The Princess of the Night finally took a few steps forward so she could lightly lean against Celestia’s side. “We’ve already been over this with Colonel Wing many times. You know the risk of us going is too great. No matter our feelings on the subject, Cadance is the one who developed the counter to the curse.”

“And Twilight and her friends are the ones who answered the Tree’s call. Yes, I know,” the older alicorn added in a subdued tone. “You’d think, after the hundreds of years, it’d be easier to watch them go out on my behalf, but it is really not.”

Luna briefly chewed on her lower lip while one of her dark-blue wings unfurled and draped over Celestia’s withers. “They will be going on our behalf this time, Sister. The weight of difficult decisions shall not fall upon your shoulders alone this time.”

“Well, at least I know Trigger approves of my style,” Cady commented, straining to add a little cheer to her timbre. However, the Princess of Love had noticeably scrutinized the expressions plastered on Celestia’s and Luna’s faces, and a lopsided, wincing smile served as a poor disguise for the mare’s empathy. Shuffling forward, Cadance made her way to the royals. “It will all work out. I’ll have Shiny to protect me, and we’ve spent a lot of time working on my combat skills too. I’m not going there to be a damsel in distress. I’m going for the sake of the Heart, and if the worst comes to pass, I’ll still have Trigger—”

“And she’ll still have me,” Barrier cut in as he entered the throne room. The unicorn scanned the chamber, sizing up the ponies in Wing’s Transceiver Team before glancing upward to trace Philomena’s flight path. He tapped the lifted faceshield of his helm after he came to a halt beside Shining Armor, and he set his determined focus on Celestia. “I knew him even better than you, and I have my own ponies to fight for now. Just leave it to us.”

Trigger stretched his neck, popped his shoulders, and walked onto the lattice pad. “We ain’t in a rush, but we shouldn’t spend the time exhaustin’ ourselves in emotional woulda-coulda-shouldas. This ain’t your fight anymore, Callie. Same way it ain’t Mes Étoiles’s fight. Ya passed the torch, so keep dreamin’ for our success. Plus, we now got Cady kitted out like an absolute boss. Captain Wind-Up-Toy over here should be inspired to put in the performance of his life. There’s no way we can lose.”

“I hate you,” Shining flatly countered before he trotted onto the mat and bumped one of his armor-covered haunches against Trigger’s side. “Making a quip literally fifteen seconds after saying not to waste time on stuff.”

“After seeing ya fight with Flicker, I know ya can take it. Besides, a little edge never hurt anyone, and I didn’t exactly hear a denial. She’s your battlefield, Armor. Time to show the shine.”

“Boys,” Cadance sighed, rolling her eyes before she snagged both Celestia and Luna in a tight hug. “I have faith in them. We’ll make it right for all the ponies who came before—and for all the ponies who live today.”

The sisters returned the hug with equally energetic squeezes, and the trio remained locked in a reciprocal nuzzling configuration until Philomena descended from the ceiling and landed on Cadance’s back. The sharp sound of talons on steel jerked the alicorns from their embrace, and the phoenix’s vibrant yellow eyes promptly met the attention of the startled Celestia.

“Of course, I know you’ll be watching her too,” the Princess of the Sun softly spoke as she let go of her niece. “We shouldn’t keep you any longer. Equestria and the Empire are in your hooves—and feathers.”

Wing moved to the 12-o’clock position of the array and released a slow, calm breath. The swirling flames of Aurora’s Eye rapidly appeared in front of his visage, and he smirked when Princess Cadance, Philomena, and Barrier immediately got the hint to get on top of the lattice pad.

“Assembly Crew, thanks for lugging all this stuff here and getting things set up for us. Move to standby positions! Mage Group, you’re up, and you know what to do.” Wing lifted his right foreleg and held it parallel to the ground. “Send them on my mark.”

Eleven unicorns, having loitered amidst the commotion, stepped forward and joined their commander in standing atop a mat at each point in the augurite formation. The team yielded a diverse mix of ponies with a composition that spanned the colors of the rainbow and covered various body types. Whatever their histories and backgrounds, all of them had their sights locked onto Wing.

The pegasus flicked his left namesake and reset his grip on the plastic cube he had taken from the E.I.S. Office. He created a slide out of his feathery appendage and guided the blinking box directly onto the nearest lattice point. Almost immediately, the ring of unicorns lit their horns in a picturesque display, and they began to channel their magical energies through the metal.

Aurora’s Eye started to rotate faster while Wing turned his focus to the augurite bands that stretched under the hooves of Barrier, Cadance, Shining, and Trigger. “Four and Six, increase your outputs by five and seven percent, respectively. Nine, drop yours three percent. Two, back off one percent.” Throwing his gaze down at the array box, Wing could see the spectra of casts that mingled in the enchanted star. Light, invisible to every other pony, washed over his transceiver in waves that became pristinely balanced in the wake of the minor adjustments. Finally flashing a satisfied smile, Wing looked up and peered upon the radiating form of Trigger that he could observe through the ocular power.

Arcs of amber and argent rippled along Trigger’s sturdy build, and an oppressively bright block of silvery fire covered his foreleg where the creature of reverie had created the illusion of Tail’s revolver. He met his best friend’s expression with a cocky grin of his own and a short chuckle. “Guess I’ll see ya in the frozen shithole. I’ll keep ya posted. Just do me that favor, Kiddo. We both know she’ll need ya.”

Both Barrier and Shining scrunched their muzzles and shared confused glances, but Wing beat them to the punch. The pegasus threw his lifted hoof to the floor and watched as the first wave vanished from the castle in a blinding release of technologically enhanced sorcery.

Heavy armor slammed against the icy tundra with a clamorous rumble. The outside world twirled around through the slots of a gunmetal visor, and raucous shouts reached out from the flank to offer both support and a safety check. Through the fog of war, an enemy limb was found when one sweeping foreleg struck against the lower cannon of another.

Snagging her prey with the cinching maneuver, Tail wrestled her opponent to the frosty dirt before taking a jab to a flank-plate for her efforts. She swiftly retaliated, barreling her spiked forelimb into the combatant’s sturdy armor with a couple thunderous punches.

“Oi, you’re gettin’ faster already, ya feisty li’l shit,” Ember spat. She wrapped her hind legs around the lavender pegasus, planted her hooves on the mare’s hips, and unceremoniously dumped Tail off her prone body. “‘Look after her,’ Barrier said. That stallion was ne’er the best with words when it came to the emotional lot. It’s not like ya haven’t trained a day in your life.”

Tail grunted upon enduring another hard collision with the ground. Her ears rang in the aftermath, and she struggled to refocus as Ember’s Trottingham accent bore through the slits in her helm. After a dozen seconds, the physicist got back on her hooves and heaved, “But I’m not fast enough, and if you keep hitting me like that, I’m going to start asking if you’re mad at me again.”

“Lassie, I told ya already. By Bonnie, I even left a damn message for Barrier ta find. I lived my life. We all did. Barrier’s still got his ta live, and he’s seen enough fuckers die. So if ya want ta live for ‘im and get used to that armor, then ya’d better be ready ta go another round with me. Besides, if I really didn’t want ta help ya, I’d be over there with the lazy lieutenants gettin’ drunk off my arse. Quit lollygaggin’ and show me what ya’ve got.”

Despite the arid climate, there was enough humidity earned through sweat that Tail could put to use. Fire shone in her eyes as she glared through the openings in her visor at the crouching Ember. If the yellow-cream flier wanted to see something that brazenly demonstrated her grit, then Tail would be happy to provide.

Vapor trails slithered through the joints in her ancient-style kit before they pooled around the spikes attached to her gauntlets. The growing cloud tufts whirled around the bases of the stout, sharp cones, and sizzling crackles tinged against the iron once Tail transformed the points into blazing, sparking Bullet Flashes.

Still sitting by the campfire, Silver Dust gradually lowered his half-filled tankard. His goldenrod eyes peeked over the wooden rim of his mug, and he quietly licked the froth from his lips while he observed Tail’s technique. “Looks like our spunky Ember tapped into somepony’s pegasus pride, wouldn’t you say so, Styxy?”

Flushed, the inebriated River Styx remained sprawled atop his log of choice in an unkempt daze. A hiccup escaped his muzzle after he lightly pawed the air in Tail and Ember’s general direction. “Did she call us lazy?” he asked Silver in a methodical Appleloosan drawl, but the drowsy colt did not receive an answer.

Ember lunged at Tail through a sudden release of energy she had packed into her thighs. The mare’s speed only increased thanks to an additional stroke of her mighty wingspan, and she swiftly moved to catch the physicist with her right forehoof.

While the Trottingham pegasus was one of the fastest strikers Tail had encountered, she had also spent weeks sparring against Barrier and Trigger. I can read teleport chains. I can read you. The thought stabbed Tail’s nerves into action, and she instantly jerked to her left to avoid the thrust.

Tail’s sights darted to Ember’s opened barrel, a vulnerability which the scientist could not leave unexploited. Sweeping her right foreleg up and out, Tail shoved her gauntlet into Ember’s stretched limb and pushed the appendage away. The result transformed the yellow mare’s initial jab into a poorly aimed cross, one which painted a glimmering bullseye on the nearest flank-plate.

Rolling her left side towards the ground, Tail slid her fetlock over the icy surface and sprang upwards once her gauntlet had slipped under Ember’s body. She whipped the scintillating spike against the iron slab and watched as her Bullet Flash devoured chunks of the armor. Spewed bits of shredded scrap showered the barren wasteland below to produce a low-resolution image of Tail’s partial shadow.

Ember yelped from the sudden inferno, but her spinal reflex snatched an escape from the searing heat. Her wings violently flicked, haphazardly catapulting the pegasus through the air before she stuck a rough landing. “Where ‘n fuckin’ Tartarus were ya hidin’ that?” she roared, circling herself like a cat to survey the damage to her gear in addition to her singed coat. “A lesser flier would just flop on that like a dead fish. Somepony might be destined ta have a mighty poor day on that one.”

Tail straightened her posture after her electrical attacks dissipated. Carefully removing her helmet, she tucked it beneath a wing before she pitched her muzzle slightly downward and directed her forthright, iridescent stare at Ember. “Don’t ever doubt that I’ll fight to live for his sake. Maybe you missed the memo, but I can’t quit. So do you still want to go another round, or is there something else you want to tell me?”

“A quick study after all,” Ember replied. She briefly glanced to her left and right after River Styx and Silver Dust teleported as close as they could without landing literally on top of her. “We’re about out of time, Lassie, but I think it’s safe ta say that we all got faith in ya. One of us now, for damn sure.”

“Hear, hear!” Silver and Styx chimed simultaneously as broad smiles swept across their muzzles. Of course, River Styx’s jovial nature could be easily explained by the refilled mug that remained ensnared by his levitation spell, but Tail appreciated the enthusiasm all the same.

Seeing the trio together like that emitted a warming wave that relaxed the physicist. A dreamy daze overtook her countenance, and the desolate world around Tail appeared more and more bleary as time went on. A pair of bright-blue bands cut across the tundra between the pegasus and the executors-of-old before a mist trickled in atop the snow. “I won’t forget,” she spoke through a sheepish smile.

“Ya damn better not! I expect more stories decades down the road,” Ember quipped as she and the stallions began to fade. Still, Tail could see her new friend reach out across the divide—along with the single yellow-cream feather that she clutched in her grasp. “You two are stronger together—”

Tail blinked, and they were gone. She no longer stood in the frozen emptiness of what she presumed to be the Crystal Empire. Instead, she stood in the private library—in front of the pegasus side of the fountain statue with the silly glyphs that she could not read—and she was not alone.

Blurred blobs of lime-green, pink, taupe, and greyish-white undulated around the other sides of the triangular pillar, but Tail could not make out exactly who they were. She merely assumed they had to be intelligent creatures of some sort, given the series of language-like noises that crept to her ears.

She seized up when something soft unexpectedly blanketed her withers. For a moment, her brain scurried to process the confirmation that she did actually have company, and the muscles in her legs stayed tense long after she blurted out a tangential, “My armor’s gone.”

A deep, cascading laugh emerged from Tail’s new companion, and the boisterous notes eventually instilled enough curiosity in the mare’s mind for her to loosen up and turn her head to the left. There, an absolute behemoth of a stallion dwarfed the physicist. Tail had never seen this midnight charger in her entire life. She had never met a pegasus who she felt could swallow her up in his span, and she had only seen such a square-cut, scarred muzzle in the pages of comic books.

Yet, she found a sense of tranquility in his teal eyes that reminded her of the calm that followed a storm. His gaze also generated a nagging sense of familiarity that made Tail grimace. Driven to acquire more data, she freed her focus and searched for other clues regarding the stranger’s identity. However, from her current vantage point, all Tail could really see, aside from his face, was the black, gold-trimmed helm that snuggly cradled his head.

Black and gold? Black, and gold. Tail nodded twice. Her jaw dropped, and her brow furrowed in a display of disbelief. She practically hopped beneath the colt’s mighty wing, and a surge of goosebumps besieged her body. “Commander Hurricane?”

“The one and only, Child,” the mighty pegasus answered in a bassy voice that rumbled like rolling thunder. He grinned and bequeathed a proud squeeze from his feathery appendage. “Colonel Tail, we knew you’d come.”

Chapter 41 - LOADLINE

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Wind howled over the snowy landscape at the southwestern arrival node. The rays of the sun valiantly battled an expanding, gloomy miasma that stretched from the center of the Crystal Empire. The smoky swirls plummeted an already chilly environment into the depths of a bitterly frigid deathtrap, and it was into that abyss that the members of the Wave 1 Team emerged.

Philomena soared from Cadance’s back the instant she came through the array. Heat poured from her spread wings, and the power of her phoenix aura pushed away both the fog and the cold. Circling above the four ponies at an altitude of about twenty meters, she gradually banked along a flight path drawn by a wide arc. The golden gaze of the majestic bird darted between the ponies she chose to protect and the haunting spire that stood at the core of the Empire City.

Peering out through the slot cut into his closed visor, Barrier spotted the tainted structure through the suppressed sea of haze. It sliced into the sky like an obsidian knife drawn against flesh, and it stood as a beacon that clearly broadcast a silent message to all who saw it. The light of Amore’s will had been snuffed out. King Sombra reigned here.

Barrier turned, catching the expressions of Trigger, Shining, and Cadance. The creature of reverie’s cheek twitched while he gawked at the glassy surfaces of the pinnacle—as if something unseen had prodded his senses before even Barrier’s keen eye could detect it. To his credit—or detriment—Shining appeared resolute and unfazed. Standing a step ahead of his princess, his proud posture and subtle smirk betrayed his determination to be her shield no matter the odds.

Cadance, however, sent a shiver along Barrier’s spine when he observed the dread gouged into her countenance. She directed a wide-eyed, trembling stare towards the city limits. Her muzzle quivered as though she teetered on the brink of vomiting, and she repeatedly recoiled at a frequency that strongly suggested a wretched horror.

“Do ya feel that, Cady?” Trigger asked.

The serious, soft-spoken tone drove Shining Armor to look over a shoulder at his wife. Barrier couldn’t see what contours the muscles of the captain’s face drew in response, but he could tell from the flinch that rattled the stallion’s kit that Shining had been caught by surprise.

None the wiser, the Princess of Love remained captivated by the trance that pulled her focus towards the city. For several seconds, she lingered in her silence until a curt nod broke the cycle of her dismay. “Yes, I feel it. It’s easily the worst collective sensation I’ve ever felt.”

Shining pivoted and reached out for Cadance after he stepped into her sightline. A gentler, more concerned demeanor had erased those hints of deployment pride, and he carefully set his gauntlet-covered hoof upon her shoulder plate. “Hunny, what’s wrong?”

The pink alicorn squinted, forcing out the budding tears that risked clouding her vision, and she took a moment to collect her wits. Her feathers ruffled while she slouched in grief, and her solemn reply carried as much gravitas as the specter of the spire itself. “The Empire’s citizens have been stripped of everything. There’s no love, ambition, or kindness. The entire city casts a field that’s an emotional void—except for one, one who is nothing but hatred.”

“Hey, Kiddo,” Trigger interrupted. A silver ring snaked around his left iris as he tested his dreamshell link to Wing. “Shit ain’t good up here. They’ve all been scrubbed of their feelings, and I’m not pickin’ up on any real dreams either. Sombra’s already got to ‘em all. I’ll let ya know once we learn what node ya should inbound on, but we’re definitely on borrowed time. I’m guessin’ he’s built his army.”

Exhaling, Barrier began to march across the icy and rocky tundra. He tilted his head to catch another glimpse of Philomena, who adjusted her course to compensate for the group’s changing positional distributions. The cool air nipped at his nose and throat each time he drew a breath, which served as a constant reminder to offer some thanks to the phoenix for relieving much of the burden.

“We should get moving,” Barrier called after he lifted his visor with the minimum magical force required. “It’ll likely take forty minutes to cover the ground we need to, and the population of that city was around fifty-thousand when it disappeared. With what is known about the Crystal Heart, and with what I know about Sombra, yeah, we’re probably heading right into an army of brainwashed ponies.”

Trigger physically shook the illusion of Tail’s revolver from his foreleg before he jump-started a brisk trot. Quickly matching Barrier’s pace, the silver-maned stallion gruffly remarked, “Wing is gonna need that intel as soon as we can get it, Barry. Isolating Sombra from a large population ain’t a promisin’ scenario, so I think we’re stuck in stealth mode until the cavalry gets here—”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Shining growled into Trigger’s right ear the instant he arrived at the unguarded flank. “You didn’t actually bring Colonel Tail’s tech with you? Are you out of your fucking mind? The contingency plan was clear. If she was out of action, it would fall on you or Barrier. I thought we were clawing for every second we could get. What about all that crap about duty and sacrifice? Is it too much of a duty for you to bear, or is it that Cady’s sacrifice isn’t enough?”

Trigger met Shining’s piercing scowl with a cocky grin that etched its mark on the reverie’s timbre. “Shiny, Buddy, we were makin’ such progress, and then ya say somethin’ stupid like that. Admittedly, I can understand why that might piss ya off, considerin’ that you’re balancin’ the duties of a princess against the needs of your love, so I won’t hold it against ya. But seriously, do ya really think I’d take that kind of dice roll without thought? I didn’t bring Tail’s shit because who do ya think the fuckin’ cavalry is?”

“You knew I’d come?” Tail questioned, glancing up at Commander Hurricane before she raised an eyebrow and pursed her lips. The chill that had formed in the wake of the grand revelation continued to echo throughout her affected limbs, but as the muscles in her cheeks slowly relaxed, she returned her contemplative stare to the statue. “How does that even make sense, and why would you expect me? Come to think of it, you said we. Who’s the we?”

The towering pegasus scrunched his muzzle and snorted. “You truly are a Clover type, aren’t you? I guess that makes a lot of sense considering the number of generations that have passed since our day. By now, she’s probably touched a sizable chunk of equinity, but then again, so have I.”

Tail blinked and her ears perked. Even though her attention stayed locked onto the column’s glyphs, she could feel the warmth of his paternal admiration without directly observing his tender gaze or curling smile.

“Rumor has it around these parts that you can’t quit, Colonel. From which warrior in history do you believe that fire comes? Like it or not, you’ve inherited my blazing pride. You’ve taken up a mantle that has left its mark across the ages—from my beloved Pegasopolis to your Cloudsdale, and”—he gave the smaller mare another squeeze with his wing while his deep voice continued to rumble—“I might add that we have a lot in common.

“Though, it took me a lot longer to find my place at Clover’s side. All the same, I came to protect that unicorn with every ember I had. The roles have been reversed in some ways, but the story is still there. You proved yourself to him over and over until he became the piece of your life that you have to protect. You showed your heart to those who shored him up before you were around, and they saw your truth. Now a mad king wants to bury it all in the snow. Tartarus will sprout flames before I allow it.

“That pride is your birthright. It took me countless battles and numerous wars to glean the truth from beneath the windigoes’ breaths. We need not wait your entire lifetime to claim what already belongs to you, what you’ve already shown you deserve.” Hurricane lifted his bulky foreleg and extended his gauntlet-laden hoof until it tapped the pedestal of the precious statue. “I’m here because you answered the call.”

Sucking in a sharp gasp, Tail held the gulp of air in her lungs as her jaw fell. Intrigue lifted her browline so widened eyes could track the bursts of electricity that skipped along the beveled edges of the inscription. As swiftly as the arcs traversed the letters, Tail understood. She could read it. She could grasp it. She could learn a spell that scholars had forgotten.

Hurricane’s Loyalty: With these wings, I have created a world, and in it, all I hold dear is safe.

“Protect them all with that inferno of yours, Colonel Tail,” Commander Hurricane decreed. “Let your love pierce the darkness like mine once did.”

“Colonel?” a lighter tone dragged Tail’s focus to the right of the pillar. Standing in front of one of the opposing triangular faces, the image of Indar shone as clear as day. The umber eyes of the taupe stallion punctuated his gaping visage, and his sunny mane bore the atypical signs of bedhead.

Beside him, a high-born pearly unicorn tittered. Draped in a crown and a purple robe, the violet-eyed mare winked to Commander Hurricane without uttering a single word. Tail’s heart thumped in response, and her mind immediately churned up questions that she could ask.

“Civvy!” Bonecrusher’s recognized wail brutally terminated that plan of action. Tail turned in time to spot the lime-green earth pony standing before the third side of the base. “Civvy! The buck are you doing? It’s time to wake—”

Commander Hurricane did not move his blanketing wing when the rest of the library vanished from Tail’s view. She shuffled beneath his black feathers as her head rapidly swiveled around to examine the empty expanse, but nothing snagged her interest until she craned her neck and peered rearward.

“You’ve done well, my old friend.” Massive thestral wings spread from the black barrel of Aislynn Caliber. The long, mystical locks of her argent mane floated as though they were being eternally brushed by a dreamy breeze, and her red-ochre irides shimmered as she stared upon the two pegasi. “But I believe it’s time she learnt that I am the we.”

Tail’s mouth formed a tiny grin before the pegasus kindly nodded to Commander Hurricane. She slipped out from under his wing and started a paced walk towards Aislynn. By her fourth step, a silver mist had begun to coil above the thestral’s forehead, and an impressive horn soon parted the matriarch’s bangs.

“Throughout history, many came to fear my presence, while others revered it. Some cherished my company as though we were family and gave me the hope of their ambitions, whereas others revealed their lust for calamities. Not long ago, I told you that nightmares had the power to stretch across the past and the future, but as you have already seen, that is not an ability unique to the dark. Dreams, by themselves, hold sway. When they’re created, they can either terrify and haunt or spur and inspire. Every living thing dreams, and every living thing decides what to do with them.

“Every desire, idea, and fantasy leaves a lasting imprint on the world through energy that finds its way to the Sea. Dreams only truly die if one lets them, and I was not going to let Amore’s dream die on a misguided whim. Ponies might have forgotten. They might have come to believe that I have been sitting idly in the shadows for the hundreds of years that marked Luna’s absence, but they’d be wrong. E tenebris, invenītō fortitudinem. Like the rites upon the fountain, it’s an old creed that I left to generations of the Woken World to find those who would answer the call.”

Now floating in the empty expanse mere steps from the Grand Matriarch, Tail looked at the mighty thestral as Aislynn folded her wings. She watched a silver halo form around the mare’s horn, and her sights slowly drifted after two vibrant blue bands ran parallel through the abyss and trapped the physicist in her own canal. Across this new dividing line, one of the strongest creatures in the Universe met Tail’s rising curiosity with a softening, motherly expression helmed by a decidedly impish smile.

“The Temporal Drecht may have started as a single channel meant to keep the Crystal Empire at bay until a counter for the Heart was discovered, but it became something far greater. After a thousand years, more than one came forth. More than one had dreams. More than one understood the message, and more than one had a pony they loved worth protecting across time. I built canal after canal for generation upon generation to make sure that those who found resolve in the shadows saw exactly what they needed to see. I left a message in one of your dreams too, Ms. Tail. One day, your resolve will change the world. The question is—will you pull it from the shadows now that the hour is upon us all?”

After ten minutes of marching towards the city boundary, the Equestrian squad noticed the first signs of Sombra’s army. Philomena acted first, swooping down from her held flight pattern to reclaim the prominent perch offered by Cadance. The phoenix’s keen sight had done its job, picking up on the potential danger before the two groups of ponies spotted one another amidst the low-lying haze and against the bland backdrop.

At the head of the pack, Trigger flicked his ear after the firebird delivered three taps to the rear of Cady’s helmet. He bobbed his head in response to the message, and he waited for an amber glow to pour over his horn before he replied aloud. “A group of three, huh? Sounds like a standard patrol to me. I’ve put us in camouflage, so stay within five meters unless ya want to be seen or heard. You’re the Sombra expert here, Barry. Do we keep searchin’ in the blind, or do we take ‘em for intel and see where the chips fall?”

Barrier halted his stride once Trigger asked for his input, and the quiet crunches of rock and ice that tumbled from beneath his heavy hooves brought the others to a stop as well. His bout of silence yielded the floor to the howling winds until his gritty tenor rendered the verdict. “We take them. They could be refugees, but if he’s got a force patrolling already, then he’s either gotten antsy, or he’s looking for a pony to kill. You’re not going to sneak up on a dragon actively protecting its horde. Best bet is to take a few coins.”

“Three of them, five of us,” Shining added. “Those aren’t bad odds. Personally, I would have liked to have gotten closer to the city limits, but I trust your judgment.”

Both Magic Barrier and Trigger swung their bodies so they faced the Captain of the Royal Guard. “Trigger and I will handle the attack on this one, Shining,” the former said, beating the creature of reverie to the punch when his mouth had barely opened.

For a split-second, the alabaster unicorn gritted his teeth and fashioned a half-scowl. As rapidly as the expression blossomed though, it vanished once his body jerked. He mouthed an “oh” towards his great-uncle while his cerulean sights bashfully drifted towards the sky, and after a small delay, he said in an equally bashful voice, “My duty is to protect Cady.”

“In this case, Philomena too. She’s our lifeline, and we shouldn’t risk her wellbeing more than necessary. We’ll approach under the cover of Trigger’s spell and reevaluate before they cross the threshold of detection. Ascertaining the scope of Sombra’s control is also a part of our mission.”

The group engaged in a collective nod and commenced a methodical approach towards the targeted trio. Philomena periodically gave gestures with her wings to guide the ponies, particularly through the initial phase when their marks blended into the environment. Yet soon enough, the hunters started to ascertain more details about their quarries.

Iron helmets, each bearing the red crescent of Sombra’s House along with dark-violet plumes, encased the three crystal ponies of different hues. Their eyes had been sealed behind blackened gunmetal semicircles, which only facilitated vision through narrow rectangular slits that radiated lime-green light. Haphazardly bound greyscale plates covered their trunks and cannons, and jagged spikes stretched from their withers, shoulders, and necks.

Tracing their movements, Cadance cringed. The three soldiers demonstrated the uncanny ability to trot in perfect unison, which raised some red flags on its own, but when they froze after twenty steps and surveyed the landscape with synchronized motions of their heads, even Trigger stopped in his tracks.

“Total control and obedience,” Barrier grumbled. He huffed, pitching his stern visage in Trigger’s direction. “I guess those helmets explain why you and Cady didn’t pick up anything.”

Trigger cracked his neck and flashed a devilish grin. “Isn’t it a bit fascinatin’ that Sombra would have to use ‘em? They’re definitely spellcastin’, but why? Does he need ‘em to keep control? Is it just to keep tabs on the inbound intel? Maybe it’s just fuckin’ branding. I’m sure Kiddo can figure it out, but I’d bet bits ya already know what I think.”

“Cady, stick with Shining,” Barrier gave the order. “We’re going to move in from behind and hit them when they conclude their sweep. I don’t want Cadance even coming into view of those eyes. Captain Sombra was an excellent data miner. Sooner or later, he’ll see what they’ve seen. At least, that’s the safe assumption to make. Ms. Philomena, Trigger and I can attempt to disable the spell before we tear those hunks of shit off their heads, but there’s a chance we might need your talents on this one after all.”

The quintet pressed forward until the three patrolling ponies remained just outside of Trigger’s five-meter zone. Sensing that the squad had been flirting with that threshold, the aforementioned stallion veered to the right and lined up the ambush trajectory. He and Barrier crouched in place once the trio predictably began another scan, and the instant the soldiers took a synchronized step, the duo was off to the races.

A snare of Trigger’s amber magic snagged the hind legs of both the navy-blue colt on the right of the formation and the orange mare in the middle. The makeshift lassos yanked the limbs out from under the ponies, and before they could turn around, Trigger had already slammed his forehooves into the backs of their heads.

Meanwhile, Barrier launched his assault on the burly brown stallion who occupied the row’s left flank. As the captain darted forward, a jagged blue aura surrounded his horn. He charged the brewing bolt, waiting until after Trigger played his cards to loose the precision strike. Like Tail’s Bullet Flash, the thin needle of sparking auguric energy drilled dead-center into the dark-grey slab that covered the crystal pony’s occipital crest.

Unlike the physicist’s technique, Barrier’s blast exploded outward after it partially pierced the metal. Right as Trigger was drilling the two other ponies into the dirt, Barrier’s attack blew chunks out of the helm, wrapped around the gunmetal visor, and shattered Sombra’s menacing creation.

Jumping atop the large stallion, Barrier jammed his right cannon against his target’s exposed golden mane. He glared at the fallen fragments of the shredded helmet, directed his weight across the soldier’s withers, and drove the colt’s trunk to the ground. While the green glow had vanished, the captain took zero chances. He unloaded another pair of spells that cast the ocular pieces into oblivion.

Trigger followed suit, ripping the black and grey gear from the ponies’ skulls before the pieces of armor disappeared in a flash of silver light. The orange mare and navy-blue stallion immediately erupted into tears and sniffled under Trigger’s mass, and neither put up an ounce of resistance. “Kinda risky there, Barry, goin’ for a shot like that.”

The bulky crystal pony beneath Captain Barrier did not exhibit the same emotional distress. Instead, he held perfectly still and didn’t make a sound while the charcoal-coated unicorn pitched his muzzle downward. “This one has a rank, and I needed to know the impact. To whom do you swear your allegiance, Boy? By the charge of the Princesses’ Executors, I shall end your life if you give me the wrong answer.”

Flinching, the pony’s ears perked the instant Barrier declared his credentials. “You’re Captain Magic Barrier, aren’t you?” he stammered, not bothering to wait for an answer before he rapidly continued. “My allegiance is to Empress Amore di Cadenza, first of her name, and rightful ruler of all that is crystal, Lord Executor.”

Barrier quirked an eyebrow and shifted his load off the pinned pony. “Empress, hm, haven’t heard that one in quite some time. Tell me then, how many does he have? What do those helmets actually do, and what is Sombra planning?”

“Thirty-thousand, my lord. At least, those are the ones he’s deemed fit for imperial duty.” He gritted his teeth and dug his armored hooves into the frozen ground. “I would very much like to punch the defiler of our Crystal Heart in the face for what he’s done to us. With the Heart tainted, our love is at his mercy, and those helmets ensure he maintains control across the realm. We were sent out to hunt down Princesses Celestia and Luna along with a thestral. Aside from that, I do not know. All I could feel was anger—and his strong desire to twist a griffon king’s head off in retaliation.”

“I see,” Barrier responded after quickly glancing at Trigger. “Should I be inclined to believe that all three of you were imprisoned against your will then?”

Trigger relaxed his hold on the cowering, distraught pair and stood. Once again, the reverie’s cheek noticeably twitched, and he released a slow, heavy sigh as he brushed a fetlock through the tufts of his mane. “They’re definitely clean. Desires comin’ through loud and clear.”

Giving an affirmative nod, Barrier outstretched a leg to the stallion he had tackled. “That settles it then. Rise, gentle ponies. Though, I would like to know your name, Soldier, along with how exactly you know who I am.”

The brown crystal pony pressed his limb against Barrier’s offered appendage, and he used the leverage to boost his ascent. Turning to cast his golden gaze upon the captain, he drew a calming wind into his lungs and briefly indulged in a moment of displayed serenity. “Lieutenant Smoky Andes, sir. I knew it was you because who else would Equestria send aside from the princesses themselves? I also met your sister, Arcane, on several occasions when she came on emissary business. She spoke highly of your battlefield exploits.”

“Arcy, she was quite the character.” Barrier replanted his foreleg before his attention wandered away from the lieutenant and into the depths of history. He missed the perplexed expression that scrunched Smoky’s muzzle, but thankfully, another pony present took up that burden.

“Trigger,” Cadance commanded as she trotted out from behind her Shining Armor, “we’re evacuating these ponies to Canterlot immediately. I don’t care what you have to tell Wing, but make sure he gets it. I will not allow further harm to befall the citizens of the Crystal Empire when I can help it.”

The princess took the time to peer into the souls of those crystal ponies. She held each of them with her kind, heartfelt countenance, and she bowed in front of them once the tears finally overwhelmed even Smoky Andes. “My name is Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, and though I am not your empress, you are my responsibility to protect. It may not seem like it now, but your empire has moved forward in time an amount that is difficult to describe in the thick of battle. What I can promise is that The Crowns of Equestria have acted to set things right, and I humbly ask for your trust.”

“She wants to do what!?” Wing’s namesakes flared once Trigger’s explanation bombarded his mindscape. “Of course we can do it, but we also need to finish moving things into place to handle an enemy force of potentially thirty-thousand— Someone get a runner to the E.I.S. Office! I want to know exactly where our reserves are and every single E.T.A.”

“Element Bearers cleared the gate a minute ago, sir! They need to head down to the vault for outfitting, and getting through those enchantment layers will take time. Last message from Tea puts their arrival to the L.Z. at A+33.”

Wing puffed his cheeks and dumped an exasperated breath that made both Celestia and Luna wince from the empathized stress. “Thank you, Mosaic. I know I’m sighing, but please keep up the good work. Trigs, tell your outbounds to book it like they’ve never booked it before. Now, I am relieved that those helmets do sound like an Element problem waiting to be solved, and given the vague threat towards Griffonia, the northeast option is probably best for the subsequent waves. There’s an eight-minute window before we’ll need the network. Keep me posted if something changes. Transceiver Team, standby for inbound refugees. Pull ‘em through on node contact.”

At the entrance to the throne room, Amora, Spitfire, Fleetfoot, and Soarin all gawked at the unfolding chaos with slacked jaws. Fleetfoot and Soarin, both uninitiated in Wing’s style towards operations, appeared the most dismayed by a substantial margin. Though, even Amora and Spitfire examined the teleport array and buzzing support ponies with skeptical smirks plastered on their faces.

With the rays of the palace lights reflecting off the smooth surfaces of her Wonderbolt uniform, Spitfire shrugged as she looked at the medic. “You’d think I’d be used to this by now, but every time he makes me run off to get some crap for him—or I see him doing this type of shit—it rocks my mind.”

“Hunny, you’re telling me?” Amora rhetorically countered. Her sights drifted towards a long brown hardshell case tucked under one of Captain Spitfire’s brilliant gold wings, and the discovery made her stretch to reassess the weight of the medical bag strapped to her barrel. “I’ve been with that dork since Colonel Trigger ran our B.C.T., and every buckin’ time I see him, I wonder how he hasn’t driven Amby absolutely bat-shit crazy.”

Meters away, Wing’s ear flicked, and he rapidly spun around to shout at Amora, “She wanted to bake, and I built her an oven, Ams! It’s the core of a great marriage, and it’s why Canterlot has great goodies. At least now I have four fewer arrival times to think about.”

“Major! Major Amora!” The carrying voice of a relatively distant mare drew Amora’s attention down the glass-lined hallway towards a frantically scrambling seafoam-green earth pony. She skittered across the smooth marble floor, and her deep-violet eyes bore into the medic’s scrunched muzzle and narrowed stare. Finally reaching the group, the newcomer hunched over, drooped her black tail, and gasped, “Major, we have a problem. Colonel Tail’s squadmates, they got briefed—about her condition, and—I’ve never seen anything like it, ma’am. I’m sorry, but they both broke into the ward—mumbling some nonsense about a dream and needing to wake her up.”

“Let it go, Amsy!” Wing teasingly wailed before the white unicorn had a chance to reply. The lavender pegasus gradually swiveled his head while a toothy grin took shape. He peered up at the Princess of the Sun and made a cocky click against the roof of his mouth. “I believe that makes seven, Callie.”

Chapter 42 - Their Resolve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need you.”

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

Chapter 43 - The Doctors Are In

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Thin whimsical orange filaments dangled off the outer rim of Aurora’s Eye while Wing kept vigilant watch over the lattice pad. Another diode on his transceiver box illuminated, sharing its green glow with the E.I.S. team and the royal hosts. The black cube also vibrated atop its position on the 12-o’clock point, which served as the far more useful indicator to the engrossed director.

“Odd Squad, invert your polarities. Our guests are knocking at the door,” Wing barked as his namesakes slightly unfurled. The pegasus clenched his jaw and grimaced before he glanced at Celestia. “They’ve engaged, Callie. Sombra separated from his army to investigate the extraction.”

Celestia’s feathers fluttered as well, and she inched closer to the stallion. “How are they doing?” she asked, anxiety showing on her lifted brow and quivering lips.

“He’s hardcore focused on the fight at the moment, so it’s difficult for me to grab many details through passive data exchange. But it sounds like the angry dipshit talks too much, and Philomena’s an absolute champ, so at least there’s that.”

The Triggerish witticisms did manage to lessen some of the tension that afflicted the alicorn’s visage, and she exhaled a long sigh after absentmindedly holding her breath through the entirety of Wing’s response.

A droning hum emanated from the augurite strips after the Transceiver Team executed Wing’s command, and the spell-infused metal promptly regained the strategist’s attention by sharing its vibrant shine.

In the seconds that followed, three crystal ponies appeared at the center of the inscribed circular formation. The smaller two of the trio spun around atop the plastic mat. Their sights shot skyward, taking in the spectacles of the vaulted ceiling and throne room chandeliers, and the first signs of true joy slapped broad smiles upon their muzzles that conquered the fur-clinging remnants of frozen tears.

Smoky Andes, however, set his gaze upon the Princesses of the Sun and Moon and knelt. “Forgive me, Your Highnesses, for both my vulgar appearance and my inability to protect my empress.”

“The apology should be ours,” Luna replied after a short bout of hesitation, and she frowned while she examined the hideous state of their armors. “We were the ones who failed to stop the obsession of our captain. There is no need for you to kneel here. Please stand and take your liberties. Those kits look like nightmares to me, and certainly, there must be some comforts we can provide you after your ordeal.”

Celestia nodded in agreement. “My sister is correct. It is our fault that you are in this predicament, and even now, others are fighting for their lives in the name of The Crowns. Allow us to look after you all for the time being. It is rather complicated to explain, but you’re now standing in the heart of a city that didn’t even exist the last time the Crystal Empire was free.”

“That means, what Princess Mi Amore Cadenza said was true?” Smoky splayed his ears after he rose to his hooves. “Just how long has it been since Captain Sombra came?”

Taking another step towards the lattice pad, Celestia softened her expression as her magenta eyes remained locked on the Crystal Empire’s lieutenant. She lowered her head until she effectively compensated for the difference between their heights, and she spoke to the golden-maned stallion in a motherly tone, “My little pony, it has been just over a thousand years.”

A violent vibration in the transceiver box caused Wing to jolt from his rubber mat. He swiftly stretched his namesake out in front of Celestia and swept her away from the pad. A scowl furrowed his brow, and his lips thinned while he dashed over the augurite star to corral the recent arrivals. More and more red diodes began to brighten and strobe on the cube’s wobbling topside, and the Director of the E.I.S. started wailing again. “Sorry! Sorry! Everyone clear the pad! Transceiver Team! Abort! Abort! F.C.R. Overload Protocol! Lock it down! Lock it down, right damn now!”

Splintering cracks formed in the augurite strips after Wing had made it merely a few steps off the plastic. The material hissed and squeaked as fumes began to rise through burned portions of the coating, and the members of the Transceiver Team figuratively circled the wagons after the alicorns, their director, and the crystal ponies had escaped any potential harm. They all lowered the tips of their illuminated horns and surrounded the entire assembly in a rainbow-colored shield that absorbed the blast that shredded the black box and swaths of the lattice.

An unexpected fermata suddenly hung atop Wing’s tactical score. The bustling sounds of the castle submitted to a high-pitched ringing that drilled into the stallion’s ears. Around him, members of his crew checked on Smoky Andes and company. Luna had pulled her elder sister away from the charred debris, but Wing threw his disconnected dismay directly upon the wreckage and whispered, “They need you now more than ever.”

Wing remained in that trance until an iron-clad forehoof pressed against the sweet spot between his withers, and his head immediately popped up before he turned to gawk at the grinning, guard-kitted Autumn Tea.

“Whoa! What in the hay was that?” the raspy voice of a certain cyan pegasus cracked from the opened doorway. “And why wasn’t I invited to the party if there were fireworks?”

“I don’t know, Darling”—a more refined tone reached out to tug upon Wing’s ears—“but a proper lady should not be draping herself over an officer of the Equestrian Royal Air Force, especially not while said officer is clearly on duty.”

Peering into Tea’s gold-ringed, emerald eyes, Wing caught his mental stride and smiled. He pivoted and shifted his attention from the maroon-maned mare towards the front of the house—where the Element Bearers, and their young dragon friend, gathered in a swarm of confusion, brashness, and shyness. “I see you got them all here in one piece. Quite the accomplishment when one considers that bunch. Though, I do wonder how much longer Spits will tolerate all that.”

“Princess Celestia! Princess Luna!” Twilight Sparkle shouted while she sprinted across the glossy floor towards the alicorns. “I’m so sorry it took us this long to get here. We came as soon as we could! The girls and I are ready to go! We all went through the briefing scroll in advance!”

With their respective brooches proudly displayed, the other members of the lavender unicorn’s company rushed forward to be at her side. Well, at least they did once Rainbow Dash was pried off the unamused Spitfire by an exuberantly bouncing Pinkie Pie.

“We sure did, Princess!” the orange-coated Element of Honesty added after she tipped her hat in respect. She glanced around the room and started pawing at the floor once she truly observed the chaotic state of the chamber. “But I’m guessing things went a bit afoul?”

“Indeed they did, Applejack,” Celestia answered, carefully dragging her sights over each of the seven creatures before she homed in on Wing, “but I do believe there is a plan in place, despite the commotion. My sister and I realize that you’re taking a big risk by accepting this mission, and while I would love to spend more time acknowledging that sacrifice, time is of the essence. Sir Wing, is it time for Plan B?”

The pegasus sized up the Element Bearers. Twilight Sparkle, the bookhorse that she was, expectedly looked at him with her undivided attention. Pinkie Pie seemed repeatedly preoccupied with Smoky Andes’s strange gear, but at least she tried, which was more than could be said for her fashion-designer friend. Given Rarity’s horrified visage, her jaw might as well have fallen off the alabaster unicorn’s face. Rainbow Dash and Applejack both held competitive scowls that Wing read as ready for asskicking, and the demure Element of Kindness partially hid behind her yellow wing while Spike tried to comfort the pink-haired caretaker.

“Princess Celestia, please send the order to evacuate Mt. Canterhorn and start the arterial transformation sequence. The Armistice should be already primed by now, thanks to Bats, so everything left is tied up in clearing the slope and opening the launch doors. Personnel assigned to Waves 2 and 3, listen up! We’ll be taking the C5 Corridor all the way to its end. When you get there, you’ll know where to go. Find a seat, strap in, and prepare yourself. I’ll give you more details on the way—”

A thunderous rumble shook the castle windows, and the accompanying slap made most of the ponies present jump into the air. The Crystal Empire civilians shrieked and cowered in fear of another attack while poor Fluttershy practically coiled around the expressionless dragon. Rainbow and AJ blurted counters about how neither of them had been actually scared. Pinkie just kept hopping to the beat even after the reverberations had subsided, but Twilight’s curiosity remained attracted to Wing.

The instant the interrupting explosion had boomed over the palace grounds, his sights shot to a mundane spot on the wall. Aurora’s Eye brightly gleamed in the moments that followed. A perplexing, situationally inappropriate grin stretched across his muzzle, and the magical light of an effervescent inferno reflected off his brown irides. “Tea, please make sure the Element Bearers get to the Armistice, and tell Batsy that I’ll be coming in the back way.”

Autumn Tea snickered in response. “Will do, but for the record, I’m telling Trigger that you applied his good-boy grin in the middle of an operation.”

Chuckling, Wing waved his feathery appendage at the unicorn and commenced his exit. The Director of the E.I.S. found some swag in his strut, and he quickly closed the distance between himself, Amora, and Spitfire. His namesakes playfully fluttered once he detected the medic’s subtle muzzle scrunches, and he began to speak in a teasing timbre reminiscent of a close sibling. “Ohh Amora! Would you like to join me on a field trip to bedrock? It’ll be like old times! Squad 1 and all that.”

“Why in Equestria would you want me to go on a random field trip with you?” Amora grumbled right as Wing met the small group. “Shouldn’t I go with the rest of them? Considering that I am the source of medical support on this one—”

“Thanks, Spits,” Wing interrupted his old squadmate after he tugged the case Spitfire had been carrying under his namesake. “Fleety, Soarin, it’s good to see you too. We should, uh, try to start meeting up outside of disasters? Anyway, just stick with Tea. She knows the lay of the land.”

Amora’s coat bristled. She aimed a wide-eyed glare at Wing’s unguarded flank, and a prodding cobalt-blue beam soon zapped one of his haunches. “Stop being a cryptic dick and just tell me. What are we doing?”

“Wooo!” Wing squeaked. Effectively stirred to giddy-up, the pegasus resumed his trot around the Wonderbolt line. His head motioned for Amora to follow, but his concluding statement proved to be far more persuasive. “Major, you and I are going to make sure that the last chess pieces get on the board. That thing that just put everypony on edge like half a minute ago was magically sparked, and it originated from a place on the castle grounds that you’re really familiar with. You know, a place like the Feather Flu Ward.”

“What the fuck was that for, Civvy?” Bonecrusher wailed from behind a set of shimmering umber shields that had been hastily constructed by Indar. “Are you out of your damn mind?”

At first, the pegasus did not acknowledge the presence of her squadmates. The fact that she had just unleashed a pressure wave that blew out the window of her hospital room and echoed across Canterlot eluded her awareness. Instead, her fiery stare homed in on her outstretched foreleg, the yellow-cream feather that she held, and the crackling mix of blue and amber auras that enveloped her limb.

The beige blanket that had covered her body had been unceremoniously thrown off the end of the bed the instant Tail had woken up. Gazing at that feather, she certainly felt more energetic than she had initially expected. Her wings no longer ached—thank Celestia—and her mind crisply clung to every message that she had received throughout her stroll in the Sea of Reverie. “Stronger together.”

Tail sat up as the surrounding glow faded, and her frizzled mane avalanched over her crest and shoulders in a rather gross mess. While she shuddered at the greasy sensation, her sights darted between the unopened crate, her squadmates, and the broken glass. A sheepish smile pulled the corners of her lips once the scientist started connecting dots, and Indar gradually lowered his defenses.

“So are we just gonna fucking ignore all that shit then?” Bonecrusher blurted after a few seconds of awkward silence. “We have some weird, spontaneously shared daydream and get a summons from the bucking Director of the E.I.S. about deploying to the Crystal Empire, and now, we’re just gonna stand around like dumb shits in Medical?”

“No, I’m going to answer the call.” Tail tucked Ember’s feather by her ear and hopped out of bed. She snatched her ribbon off the top of the crate and carefully examined the engraved black bars before she clutched Barrier’s note with her wing. “I was supposed to already be there with them. I was supposed to be a key piece in the fight, and now I’m late. Barrier needs me.”

“Bonecrusher, help the colonel with the contents of her package,” Indar spoke after he watched the pegasus absentmindedly flick her namesake a few times. The taupe unicorn ventured towards the opposite wall and began to rummage through the drawers. “I think you misunderstood Crusher’s question, Colonel. We’re going to the battlefield with you. We’ve been through a bit together, and he’s done a lot for our careers. Captain Barrier needs his squad”—the lieutenant grinned as he levitated a pair of scissors above his sunny mane—“and if you’re going into real combat, you need a haircut.”

The lime-green earth pony gleefully tore the pine top off the crate, and she actually giggled in response to the percussive pops that ravaged the splintering wood. “Should consider yourself lucky, Civvy. Indar’s one of the best in the barracks at quick— Fuck me!” Bonecrusher abruptly exclaimed. She eagerly started pulling out the polished pieces of Tail’s gunmetal armor and laid them upon the mattress.

The corporal brazenly ogled the kit, particularly the strong lines that defined the breastplate and the spikes that covered the knees and wither guards. Though new, the gear bore a striking resemblance to Barrier’s ancient issue, with a few notable exceptions. Slots had been cut into the barrel piece to facilitate wing movement, and some type of dark leather material padded the gaps.

When Bonecrusher lifted the right-foreleg cannon guard, however, she flinched and bombarded the physicist with an incredulous glare. “What in Tartarus is this?” she shouted, shaking the metal cylinder up and down to draw attention to the large slot a smith had willingly carved into the iron. “The City and Royal Guard designs are nothing compared to this thing. You’ve gotten nearly full-body coverage with this piece of perfection. Why would it get ruined with a gaping target slapped on the leg?”

Laughter bubbled from Tail’s muzzle, and the pegasus raised her limb to rub her watering eyes. She shared an amused smirk with her squadmates as she thought about what Silver Dust and River Styx had told her. In her hour of need, the concealed kindness of a stoic pony and a power of brute force had both come to meet her.

A familiar tingle nipped the scientist’s ear ahead of her reply, and she jerked her hoof to Ember’s feather. The silly expression on her face blossomed into a giddy, beaming smile before her coat stood on end to a rising tide of truth. That familiar touch came from Barrier’s magic, and the meaning hidden within the repeated message of her personal drecht emerged through the fog. With the quill, she could pen something new. You two are stronger together.

“What it means is that we should get through the haircut and suit-up asap. The slit is there because I need to run to my lab.”

Tail felt like a juggernaut in Serious Business Sally. Carrying the additional metal certainly exceeded the heft that she was accustomed to wearing, but the months of combat, weight, and survival training produced a pegasus who was more than up to the task. The spunkiness generated by her short, punky manecut didn’t hurt things either, and the presence of Barrier’s pins loosely tied around her neck yielded all the fuel needed to keep the mare motivated.

The instant Bonecrusher and Indar had helped strap her in, she was off to the races, leaving behind the bland abode with all of its new messes. Amora would probably yell at her later for shattering the window, even if it was not completely her fault. Random injections of arcane power sources seemed outside the boundaries of culpability. Though, she did also leave the bedding on the floor and pieces of an emptied crate strewn about. Tail squinted behind her lowered visor and flapped her wings. Okay, those kind of were.

Before the trio made it to the end of the hallway, Tail skidded to a stop as staticky cracks of emergency radios clicked along the corridor. Her padded plates briefly rattled from the maneuver, and the physicist pressed her ears against the slotted interiors of their pointed, protective caps. She leaned to the right, gently pitching the smooth silvery surface of her helm to snag a better listen.

“My dear and faithful subjects,” Princess Celestia’s voice erupted from every available speaker on the castle grounds, “by royal decree, Canterlot is now under a mandatory stay-at-home order. All civilians are to shelter in place until further notice. Everypony and every creature must evacuate the barren slope of Mt. Canterhorn. Arterial transformation will commence in two minutes. I repeat. Arterial transformation will commence in two minutes. Royal, House, and City Guard, please report to your designated A.T. Zones immediately. If you have not been assigned a designated area, report to a documented safe-haven structure. I urge all Canterlot residents to remain calm during this procedure. However, this is not a drill.”

“Two minutes?” Tail mumbled, furrowing her brow. She pulled the glimmering muzzle guard from her face and swung around to speak to the battle-ready Indar. “If they’re going to Plan B, then we don’t have much time. How well do you know the castle layout? Are you confident teleporting the three of us to some coordinates if I give them?”

“After scrambling through random homes during your final exam, Colonel, I think teleporting to castle coordinates qualifies as an easy task,” Indar said following a chuckle. “Where do we need to go?”

“Forty meters down from the G1 level of Stairwell 0, and ten meters to the northeast of the spiral’s central column. That should put us in the middle of a protected cavern. There are countermeasures in place, so we will get rerouted to a different location. That’s fine. Just let it happen.”

Once Indar nodded, Tail peeked at Bonecrusher. The earth pony snorted at the spotlight, and she habitually tapped the aisle floor with her golden-tipped hoof. The muscles in her busy foreleg bulged, and she sharpened her amethyst stare on the features of Tail’s helm. “What are you giving me that look for, Civvy? Are you trying to sneak a laugh in because you know I hate getting teleported around? I thought we were past that crap.”

“I also remember how much you hate flying, but no, I wasn’t trying to be sneaky. I was thinking about what you’ll see down there.” Tail swished her dramatically shortened namesake and pursed her lips when her brain threw an exception error. Blinking, the flier shook it off and continued, “You once got pissed at me because I told you it was classified. Now, we’re all going to go down together as comrades and friends.”

Tail shuffled closer to the duo before she wrapped her right foreleg around Bonecrusher’s crest in a clanging hug. Not leaving Indar out of the fray, she corralled the colt with her left wing and tittered. “But in all seriousness, all of my stuff is under D.P.O., so we’re forging a bond of trust here—”

“Go! Go! Go! Indar, she’s getting sappy. For Celestia’s sake, get us the fuck out of here!” Bonecrusher shouted, halfheartedly attempting to pull away from the embrace while the lieutenant’s spell shrouded the trio in its reddish-brown radiance.

Strong vibrations raked S.B. Sally’s iron as the armor’s enchantments firmly rejected Indar’s magic. Bonecrusher’s gear did the same, and for a moment, the ponies loitered in the ward until both non-unicorns provided little samples of their innate magic to trigger their respective overrides.

In a chaotic swirl of color and space, the image of the brightly lit hallway surrendered to the view provided by the damp, candlelit bottom of Stairwell 0. Mouths agape, both Bonecrusher and Indar gasped at the gargantuan blue-tinted doors. Tail joined them in holding her sights aloft, allowing herself to appreciate the phoenix that had been watching over her through so many steps.

Out of the shadows, find resolve. The pegasus pressed forward and opened the doors. To the tune of the heavy grind made by the large metal slabs, Tail strode into the more appealing confines of her lab. Some of the broken emitting diodes still needed to be replaced, but the scientist still found the better illumination, and presence of climate control, to be a far cry above the dank landing.

“There’s only one waveguide to use for this,” she muttered, making a direct line for Magic. She dumped her helm on the adjacent workbench and removed the gauntlet that had been paired with the modified cannon guard.

Tail’s guests had barely made it over the threshold before she threw the output lever on the guide into the open position and slotted an uncapped thaumium round. While her scientist side yearned to explain the details to her squadmates, this wasn’t a demonstration. This was a deployment, and others were counting on an applied sense of urgency. She wrenched the lever back into its closed state and locked the brass shell in place.

Performing her usual knob checks, Tail moved to the input side of the apparatus and rolled the closest lever into its horizontal alignment. She pitched her head as the awestruck Indar and Crusher drifted closer, and the unusual airiness and motion of her shorter, spiky mane sent a succinct chill over her exposed neck. Once again having to shrug it off, the physicist plucked Ember’s feather from behind her ear and held it towards the dark opening of the waveguide.

“Please keep your distance,” she instructed the duo before her full focus fell upon the feather. At first, barely visible vapor slowly meandered around the quill, but Tail’s weather talents rapidly turned those faint white wisps into scintillating amber bands of harnessed lightning. “You carried her with you for so long, Magic Bear. I can feel it, and I know that’s why she showed me. Your warmth is in every fiber of this feather, and we’re going to come home, together.”

Barrier’s light-blue aura poured out from the plume after yellowish sparks danced along the stem. Like a gaseous nebula in Luna’s sky, the essences swirled around one another to create a complex of stars that washed out the details on Tail’s breastplate. She coaxed the lustrous cloud from the feather’s tip into the waveguide, and once the input chamber began to overflow from the flux, Tail cranked the nearest lever.

Her setup buzzed and whistled, and after a short delay, Tail lifted the next switch. She carefully placed Ember’s feather atop the desk before she whisked around to the output end of the waveguide. There, Tail pulled the release and held up the first hybrid shell in existence. “BT-type,” she mumbled and bounded over to Workbench 10.

As Trigger had spoken, her revolver remained right where she had left it. Tail set the fresh round on the tabletop and gently brushed the stainless-steel barrel. She cradled her creation with her left foreleg, and she held up the weapon after she looked over towards her squadmates. “This is why I needed to go through B.C.T. I invented a weapon system that allows me to wield the magic of others, and it’s really damn effective at doing exactly what I designed it to do.”

“Are we having another crazy dream?” Bonecrusher asked while Tail forced the augurite-infused mesh over her hoof and fetlock. The corporal gestured wildly with one of her lime-green limbs, and she glanced in a variety of random directions that repeatedly made her sights fall on another one of Tail’s contraptions. “This is insane, Civvy. I knew you were a smart-ass.”

“Really explains that classified quip though, doesn’t it?” Indar commented during the physicist’s continued fussing.

Tail grunted, finally seating the revolver properly so it would play nice with the slot in the guard. She opened the lockable drawer and gathered two C-shells and three L-shells from her collection of ammunition. “We’re not in the middle of a dream,” she replied, freeing the cylinder latch to load the first five chambers with the alicorn rounds. She put in the BT-shell last, and Tail rotated the cylinder upon raising it to guarantee that the special ammo would be her final shot.

Turning back towards the door to get her gauntlet and helm, Tail immediately froze. Amora stood on the threshold of her laboratory with an eyebrow raised in sheer dismay. The medic pursed her lips and tilted her head while she gestured towards the pegasus with a rapidly undulating leg. “You cut your hair!”

The physicist craned her neck as shock forced her own browline to more excessive heights. Repeated gasps fled her opened mouth as she pointed her wing at the space beside Amora.

Casually waiting there with a large brown case in tow, a stallion decked out in a dark-blue, black-bolted Wonderbolt uniform greeted Tail with a simple wave. With a light-lavender coat, black mane, and brown eyes, the guy could have been the scientist’s gender-swapped reflection. “Heh, sorry it took me so long to come down and meet you, Colonel Tail. Duty called and all that. My wife and kid thought you made a great first impression though, and Trigger thinks nothing but the best of you. However, their opinions won’t mean much of anything if we don’t act, so I guess I’ll just move this introduction along. I’m Wing, and I heard you needed a ride.”

Chapter 44 - A Knight’s Reverie

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Shining clenched his jaw after a blistering crimson ray ripped through the chilly air and pounded against the outer surface of his defenses. A mix of pink and red arcs danced along the interior edge of the bubble, and the unicorn roared in relief when the added magics of Barrier and Philomena helped him overcome the strain imposed by Sombra.

Thick, heavy breaths escaped the Captain of the Royal Guard’s parted muzzle, and he struggled to stammer through even a shaky response. “I’ve never felt strikes like these. There’s more to them than just the raw power. He’s actually trying to pull my shield away from me.”

“You’re doing great, Shiny,” Cadance softly answered as she set a reassuring hoof upon one of the purple plates that protected his spine. While her words offered some comfort to her husband, the alicorn’s focus settled on the self-proclaimed monarch who lurked twenty yards away. Cady’s armor chattered. A flurry of shudders raked her trunk, and a budding scowl and trembling lip etched a pang of fear upon her countenance.

“Your business ain’t with her, ya loud-mouthed dipshit!” Trigger growled, materializing in a cloud of argent dust off Sombra’s left flank. The creature of reverie pummeled the unicorn’s chin with an uppercut before the frenzied conjurer could even react. Watching him reel from the blow, Trigger lowered his center of mass, charged a spell, and unloaded an explosive construct into the stallion’s seeping chest wound.

The bursting packet of energy flung Sombra through the air as though he were a ragdoll. Tumbling over the tundra, he came to a stop after a series of sickening thuds accented the repeated meetings of his armor and flesh with the ground.

Taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by his auguric artillery, Trigger prowled in a southeasterly direction. He dragged the dropped usurper’s attention with him once the Crystal Heart gave Sombra the health to rise again, and the instant Trigger realized that he had hooked the unicorn, he dashed forward to resume the attack.

“What is it that you do not understand about your fate?” Sombra shrieked. Another pair of his casts burned brilliantly as they barreled down on his enemy, and he swiftly slammed his gauntlet against the torn strips of his chestplate. Sombra yanked the iron free, revealing more of the Heart and the red-stained curse it bore upon his body. “You’ve already thrown everything at me, and I continue to rise because I am the one blessed by this divine will! You can’t kill me”—he loosed a single-note chuckle—“so you’re on borrowed time, mortals.”

Trigger’s image strobed in and out of view as he dodged the inbound barrage. He countered by hurling a vibrant silver flash at Sombra that threatened to de-crown the king, but the tyrant lord vanished before the needle could strike him down.

Phasing back into reality, the possessed sorcerer lunged at Trigger’s trunk and landed his punch against the cowcolt’s right side. He dug his iron-laden hoof into the brown vest while his rage manifested in the whipping purple tendrils that dripped from his eyes.

Absorbing the hit, Trigger kicked up with his hind legs and pivoted around his right forehoof. A pained grunt pushed through his gritted teeth, but the creature of reverie battled on. He didn’t fight the angular momentum that carried his haunches, and he threw another volley at Sombra’s guarded neck when the window to do so overlapped with his changing alignment.

The crackling plasma ate through the metal sheet. Orange sparks flew from the material, and a hissing pop preceded the screeched, gurgled yelp that rushed from Sombra’s yawning mouth. Violently thrashing, he moved away from Trigger, pressed a hoof to the wound, and hunched over the thrumming Crystal Heart. Vermillion eddies conquered the facets of the gem, and steam pushed its way through the newly formed hole to signify that the damage had been healed.

Meters away, Barrier still hovered near Shining Armor. His visor eclipsed the unease that tensed his jaw and sharpened his focus, but the reserved timbre that drenched his tenor voice made both of the younger ponies in earshot visibly take notice. “Trigsy’s deliberately pulling him away from the city, so keep tailing us as we move. If you get the chance, do it, Cady. He’s recovering faster now, so I can’t leave Trigger alone on the offensive any longer.”

Philomena made a trilling noise in her throat when the charcoal-coated stallion glanced up at her slender figure. The firebird continued to occupy her spot over Cadance’s withers, and she held her wings outstretched over the alicorn and the rocks below.

“Keep doing what you’re doing too, Lady Philomena. Without you suppressing the reach of his curse, I have a feeling we’d all be dead by now.” Barrier’s horn suddenly lit, and in a blink, he was gone.

“I already told you that your fate has been decided. You will never have what it takes!” Sombra taunted, stretching his crest and limbs before he silently teleported inside Trigger’s guard. A devilish grin yanked the corners of his lips. The stench of the tainted king’s sweat, acrid breath, and singed tissues assaulted the creature of reverie while the unicorn lingered directly in front of the Equestrian defender. Unyielding, Sombra jabbed the tip of his iron boot against Trigger’s chest with enough force that, even with the arriving Barrier providing a layer of magical shielding, the midnight charger was thrown by the blow.

“What’s wrong?” Sombra peered upon Trigger’s scowling visage after the stallion halted his slide by scraping the bottoms of his hooves against the barren ground. “Are you getting upset because your treacherous attempts to assassinate me are not getting the job done? Or maybe you’re just mad because I know your ruse!”

The green-scleral unicorn basked in the presence of his surging umbrum power. Darkness spread over the flanking purple wisps in black lines that crept out like greedy fingers. Oily tears drained from his sorrowless eyes and dripped from his pointed fangs, and when he saw Barrier stand by Trigger’s side, Sombra shifted his fiery focus to his former subordinate.

“I said you grew stronger, but now I see you’ve gone soft! Where did the Barrier go who could rip apart a griffon’s neck at my command? You knew what I was doing when I went north, and you didn’t stop me because you hated them all as much as me. Those worthless windrats wouldn’t know honor after a hundred lifetimes of tutelage. They started slaughtering our innocent and then whined like cowards when we returned in kind. What sort of lesson could harmony provide? I showed Celestia! I showed her that my heart was greater than her friendship, so she sent you in her stead with a fucking dream and a death wish!”

Sombra spat more of the obsidian globs as he spoke. His volume swelled, and he stomped the dirt with one of his hind legs while a tremor tensed the muscles in his neck and shook his skull. By the time he had uttered Celestia’s name, the sovereign’s grey facial features had been substantially concealed by the nefarious sludge, and he screamed at Barrier and Trigger without any regard for his lungs or throat.

“I know what those death wishes are, Barrier! The Heart can feel it!” Snarling, he slapped the central face of the crystal embedded in his chest. “My heart can feel where you’ve placed your ambitions. It can feel where you’ve sent your love, but that love is my property! That devotion is meant for your king! I will take it! I’ll make you see it, Barrier! I’ll make your new partner see it too! Your phoenix pet can’t keep you safe forever, and then I will end what I started.”

Both Barrier and Trigger dropped their centers of mass towards the snow, aimed the tips of their horns, and unleashed blinding beams that rocketed at Sombra. The blazing radiance of the casts outshone even the initial volleys that had skewered the umbral mage. Puddles pooled on the terrain over the flight paths, raining hints that the latest barrages could be more fatal to the former captain.

The wavy motions in Sombra’s ghastly purple mist ceased as the attacks drew closer. Erupting from his fur, strands of the smeared black ooze formed a thin, crescent-shaped bulwark in front of the Crystal Heart. “I remember and I learn,” the monarch quipped when the shield blocked the brunt of the spells. Only trickles of energy passed through the spraying, quivering fluid surface, but those drastically attenuated rays got swiftly absorbed by the alicorn artifact.

A flickering red light perturbed the Heart while King Sombra raised the tip of his muzzle and invited a reaffirming rush of air into his body. “Ahhh, there’s that first step I’ve been waiting for. The contract of your coming enslavement!”

Struck by the tang of a metallic scent saturating the cold gales of the tundra, the pair summoned another network of defenses to fill the space between Sombra and themselves. They both watched as the dark-grey unicorn gleefully reared up, and they dove away from one another when the Crystal Heart returned their stolen strikes as a single, scalding shaft that exceeded the input power by orders of magnitude.

Like a spearpoint hitting sheets of paper, the greyscale arc shredded shield after shield. Shrouded by juts of black lightning, the brighter core ejected clumps of the corruptive muck over the heated plain.

In the wake of the sizzling shot, Trigger’s hell-raising howl terrified the squad of Equestrians. Marked by a black splotch over his star-shaped cutie mark, the stallion’s hind leg gave out, and he collapsed upon the snow-streaked ground. His eyes bulged and panting gasps fled his opened muzzle as the slime began to spread over his coat like a wildfire burning in the brush. Sparks popped along the length of his horn as he writhed, but repeated attempts to conjure a light of hope thrust the creature of reverie into the dungeons of a nightmare.

Barrier pulled an about-face at the behest of those garish wails. Ignoring the goop that clung to his gunmetal armor, he sprinted across the steaming divide that the blast had carved into the dirt. He stumbled to Trigger’s side as the first sting crept through the creases in his gear, but the extra layer of protection had at least bought the captain a long enough reprieve for Philomena to land between them.

The phoenix stretched her wings over the ponies, bathing them in an orange glow that immediately allowed the colts to relax. Trigger, in particular, let out a loud, relieved sigh. However, once he and Barrier looked upon the stains that had spread across his haunch, their gazes considerably narrowed to the rising tide of concern.

During her first direct intervention against the umbral incursion, Philomena had dispelled Sombra’s darkness with an effortless flap. This time around, the firebird encountered a strong resistance from the obsidian substance, and it took nearly ten seconds of focused baking to burn away the remnants of the painful contaminants.

Sombra’s laughter carried across the tundra when Barrier and Trigger rose. “There’s the worship I deserve! The melody of your screams, a songbird serenade truly befitting as an offering to your ruler. At least you can take solace in knowing that you’ve convinced me to not kill you right away. The prospects of you two becoming my first Equestrian slaves and surrendering those sweet, humiliating sounds on command might just be enough of a payment for me to endure your upkeep.”

Barrier’s sights drifted over the Equestrian companions before they settled on Sombra’s figure. He observed the haughty deserter carry on with the hysterics while taking a winding, borderline-lackadaisical approach. The neck rim of the captain’s helmet scraped against his gorget, and his icy-blue gaze returned to Trigger.

Though the silver-maned charger had carried the bulk of the offensive load, Barrier had drenched his coat with sweat beneath those iron plates. The outside chill of the northern country seeped through his gear to nip at his fur, which provided a sharp contrast to the throbbing sensation that lingered in his overused horn.

“Our window’s closing, Trigsy,” Barrier grunted through a hushed breath. “We’ve pulled him south, but we need to give Cady an opening before the Crystal Heart gives him an even bigger gap—or before Philomena’s powers can no longer save our asses. I know it’s a lot to ask, but do you think you can buy me twenty seconds? Bonus points if you can get him airborne.”

“Yeah, ya can count on me,” Trigger answered, not giving it a second thought before he teleported right into the fray. As soon as he landed off Sombra’s rear, pikes of the vile fluid shot from the unicorn’s sides. With perspiration flying from his hair, Trigger dodged the spearing attempts and deftly utilized short-duration, small-area bursts of his amber-hued spellcraft.

The transition proved to be an intelligent one. The mad king and his heart had grown accustomed to Trigger’s dreamshell variety, and the precision application didn’t give Sombra additional opportunities to spread his control. Glass-like clanking filled the air with each jolting collision before Trigger gained a little payback by driving his forehoof into Sombra’s flank.

Steading himself, Barrier allowed the distractions of the battle to drift from the forefront of his mind. The last thing he registered prior to entering this peculiar state was the image of Philomena bolting to Trigger’s side—likely to provide some protection against the probable consequences of physical contact with Sombra. “Like pushing a swing,” he mumbled after the aura around his spire meandered between its typical icy-blue and a far darker shade.

Magical bands trickled away from Barrier in thin streams. Rather than immediately condensing to fuel an assault, the threads remained and hung in the air until they surrounded the mage in an incandescent gossamer. The captain emerged from his trance when a thunderous, percussive whack drew his attention to the flailing, launched usurper.

Through a flash, Barrier transported himself, along with his monstrous web, directly beneath his old friend and former mentor. The vast majority of the auguric fibers blasted upwards to form spiraling wisps that eventually surrounded, hooked, and locked Sombra at the center of a large spherical structure. With the exception of four entry ports, the gaps at the outer shell swiftly filled with luminescent surfaces that resembled the stallion’s usual shields.

The interior, however, proved tremendously different, for channelling networks stretched from Sombra’s floating body and traversed the space. In addition, the four holes in the exterior connected to the leftover parts of the gossamer, which abruptly had their funnel-like ends attached to the magical appendages of Barrier, Trigger, Philomena, and Cadance.

Without sharing a word, Barrier, Philomena, and Trigger discharged full-powered salvos into the conical traps. The tempestuous inferno of amber, blue, and orange flames mixed and brewed in the massive chamber until Sombra’s form completely disappeared within the suffocating, blinding swirl of magical light.

With the door opened, Cadance closed her eyes and bowed her head. Her typical cornflower-blue aura took on a raspberry color before she whispered an enchantment in a completely unrecognizable tongue. Her shimmering bolt shot through the grid, and the instant it pierced through the combined fury of her squadmates, the entire construct ruptured in a wafting cloud of dark-grey smoke.

Silence settled over the battlefield once the front-line trio vanished into the expanding cloud. Holding their positions, Cadance and Shining anxiously looked on, and the latter broke the stillness with a quietly muttered, “Is it over?”

Philomena was the first to appear from the smoke’s amorphous edge. She hurriedly flew towards the princess and her knight, but she did not make it back before a secondary shock wave dispersed the fog.

“Did you really think I didn’t know what you were doing?” Sombra growled as he held Barrier and Trigger aloft in his aura. Both of their heads had been sealed in the monarch’s mind-scrubbing helms, and thick collars—forged from the nightmarish ooze—squeezed their necks. For a moment, the unicorn bit his lower lip in pure bliss as muffled wails dribbled through Trigger’s new muzzle. Smiling, he dumped the unmoving duo onto a patch of faintly glowing dirt and commenced a methodical march towards Shining Armor’s defenses. “I’ll be back for more of that, Slave.

“As for you two, did you really think I missed your comrades dragging me farther and farther south? I commanded all of Equestria’s armies during the greatest war the nation had ever seen. You wanted to pull me away from my troops? Congratulations! Perhaps you should have read that a god doesn’t need them! They need me! They need to worship me!

“The mightiest alicorns couldn’t stop the will of my heart. What are a cheap imitation and her toy guard going to do? That was the plan, right? Celestia and Luna cried about it before the thestral wench appeared to lock me away.” Sombra halted his advance a few yards from Shining’s wavering bastion, and he promptly hurled a smug grin at the trembling ponies.

Slack-jawed, the Captain of the Royal Guard struggled to keep his wide-eyed stare planted on Sombra. His vision repeatedly blurred, and he gulped down a lump in his throat when the former executor came to a stop.

Once again, Cadance set her hoof over Shining’s withers, but the rattling that her gauntlet made atop his gold-trimmed plate betrayed her true underlying dread and compromised what might have otherwise been a reassuring gesture. The mare’s ears stood upright through the slots in her helmet, and her drooping lower lip joined her pinprick gaze in broadcasting her fear to the king.

“You cast your spell, Wannabe Princess, and it failed,” Sombra continued through a chillingly calm delivery. “Like those who came before you, you also underestimated my righteous will. You failed to grasp that I am the Crystal Heart, and the Crystal Heart is me. Now I’m going to take Equestria, and I’m going to slit Luna’s throat in front of her sister. I’ll take Celestia’s star as my own as well and let her corpse rot for ignoring the sacrifices her ponies made in her name. All of that, though, will come after I take those tens-of-thousands you ran from to Griffonia, so I can lop off Gallant’s head—or whatever dumb griffon fuck took his place.”

Sombra’s horn swiftly lit. A streaking bolt tore into Philomena’s wing and sent the bird spiraling into the snow with a crunching thud. With the last vestiges of the phoenix’s power removed from the field, Cadance and Shining had to bear the full brunt of the Crystal Heart’s umbral demands. The temperature dropped. The winds roared, and the ponies shivered upon the unforgiving wilderness.

In a blink, Sombra had thrown a manifested spearpoint through the pink barrier and into Shining Armor’s chest. The captain’s golden breastplate shattered from the impact, and the lightless, creeping substance of horror burrowed into the bleeding wound.

“I can see the love in your eyes too,” Sombra growled while Shining gasped and Cadance wept. “You didn’t make it to the edge of the Empire City to see what I did to the last ponies who placed their love in others instead of giving it to me, but I guess it would make sense for a false royal and her whore of knight to not understand.”

Stepping forward, Sombra coaxed a blood-curdling scream from Shining Armor as he drove the tip of his weapon closer to Shining’s heart.

“C-Cady, run—” the guard sputtered as his horn started to futilely spark. “Just run. It’s my duty. You have to—”

Another scream filled the air as Sombra leaned against the inertia of the officer’s mass. “The thestral bitch once told me that even shadows dream. She miscalculated too. I did dream—of a princess who wouldn’t abandon her duties. What does the toy dream of? A dutiful death to a fictitious love? An oath to an empty promise that’s devoid of sincerity? It’s fitting, really. I’m going to freeze your stallion until there’s no life in him. I’ll then rip off that horn of yours and use it as a spike to mount your garish pink head!”

A gust of heat took the equines by surprise. Seven argent pillars tore through Sombra’s pike and ripped it out of Shining’s chest. Another blast of wind sent the tyrant hurling a hundred meters through the air, and in front of the Princess of Love and her last defender, a lustrous savior reclaimed the line.

Now wearing a luminous white Coltston and vest, a rather teenage-looking Trigger reached for Shining’s injury with a scintillating hoof. He healed the torn tissues as a coy smile formed upon his countenance, and he glanced down towards the snow.

Beside him, Philomena and the liberated Barrier lay in pockets of the heavenly magic. The latter mumbled something about Ground Breaker, but he quickly fell silent when the crying Cadance threw her wings around both of her family members.

Shining, however, kept his questioning stare affixed to Trigger’s youthful visage. When the alabaster unicorn managed to garner the focus of the creature of reverie, he gradually tilted his head to the colonel’s broadening smirk.

“The cavalry’s on its way, so just rest up and recover as best ya can,” Trigger answered as his transformed silvery sights bore into Shining’s blue irides. “He called ya a toy guard, but that’s a distinction that only applies to the old Shining Armor. A colt once had a bittersweet dream about protectin’ a princess he loved with his life. It propelled him to enlist, but it sure as shit didn’t yield the honor of his rank. The notion of sacrifice got lost in old times, and the story that the kid wove into his ambition got buried in bureaucracy and the tales alicorns tell.

“It also didn’t help that some jerk bartender kept mockin’ the guy for it either, but somewhere along the way, that reverie became reality. A captain in name became the Captain of the Royal Guard, and that really poured some fuel on my fire. So if y’all will excuse me, I’m gonna go try to kill that Sombra asshole.”

Chapter 45.1 - The Mavericks’ Wild, Part 1

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Once again in her complete gear set, Tail scrambled along one of the castle corridors with Amora, Bonecrusher, Indar, and Wing. Still in the subterranean depths, Tail took in the underwhelming decor of these rarely used passageways. Small tapestries depicting the sun and the moon hung over large stone bricks that looked more polished by time than hoof—or perhaps it was all a parlor trick played by the emitting diodes in the low ceilings and the lingering humidity.

She locked her stride with the intelligence officer as the group swung a right into another hallway. Somepony had the courtesy to chalk SB5 on a few stones at the junction, and the labelling tugged at Tail’s memory.

“This will take us all the way to the Armistice,” Wing explained to the group in wavering pitches that shifted to the beats of his cantor. “The arterial transformation sequence should have opened the backdoor by now, which means Batsy should also be able to pop a hatch for us.”

Amora puffed as she kept up the brisk trot down the narrow path. “Are you going to actually explain to the uninitiated what the Armistice is, or are you just going to keep us in suspense until we see it for ourselves?”

“Not going to lie,” Tail added over the dull clanking of her kit, “the documentation didn’t make it all that clear. I mean, it’s obviously some sort of transport system, but the capabilities weren’t really included. Also, the details of what the arterial transformation sequence is were definitely lost on me—”

“Something got by Civvy?” Bonecrusher sarcastically scoffed from her position at the rear of the column. “Just when I thought I’d witnessed enough incredible bullshit in one day.”

Wing’s sights trained on the blackened void at the end of the hall. It seemed as though the rear entrance to the ramp had been opened during the transformation, and the confirmation brought a smile to the flier’s face. “The Armistice is the fastest airship ever built. Rocket-boosted, equipped with a thaumium-integrated reactor, has a dragless coating. You name something useful for a vessel? We probably put it on there. Best part! The move let us give Colonel Tail her lab along with all those spare bits. I needed a bigger space, namely most of the mountain, to construct a launch tunnel. It’s the A.T. that opens the exit, causeways, and exhaust vents to the rest of the world.”

Beneath her closed helm, Tail blinked a few times while her wings fluttered to her accumulating disbelief. “You turned Mt. Canterhorn into a rocket launcher for the fastest airship ever built? And that’s how you were able to give me everything I needed to finish the revolver I’m about to take with me on the same critical mission? Do you have any idea what the odds of that are?” The increasingly flustered physicist flicked her shortened namesake while her brain tackled the necessity of crunching those numbers.

“Hmm, I’d wager about the same odds as a pegasus professor developing magical munitions, surviving B.C.T., getting caught out of her element, and falling madly in love with her C.O.” For a moment, the makings of a mischievous smirk flirted with the stallion’s expression as though another witticism had already been loaded by his cocked tongue. That merriment did not persist. In a blink, the playfulness vanished. Wing staggered sideways, frowning as he nearly cut Amora off, and he had to prop himself up against the wall to prevent an unplanned rendezvous with the floor.

“Wing? What in Tartarus—” Amora’s line of questioning got interrupted by the intense sidelong glance the case-toting director threw over his shoulder.

Even amidst the dark-blue surroundings of Wing’s Wonderbolt attire, the harsh line drawn by his eyebrow stood out. He regained his balance, tightened his grip on the brown hardshell, and unbridled his gait to sprint down the hallway. “We need to leave right fucking now!”

Tail’s legs churned soon after she registered the cracking timbre that haunted Wing’s speech. Desperation had drenched his tone, and each of the notes drilled the same message into her thoughts. He’s running for someone he loves. The clapping hooves of her squadmates trailed close behind as they darted towards the unknown.

The corridor opened up into a massive cave that dwarfed Tail’s laboratory. What she had perceived as a darkened zone at the end of the line had actually provided a camouflaged glimpse of a hyperbolic ramp that gradually pitched skyward. Lined with evenly spaced fluorescent lights on the floor and ceiling trims, the boxy metal tunnel looked like a setting straight out of a science-fiction novel.

A matte chrome railing bounded the elevated, grated platform that marked the transition between the castle proper and Wing’s project. It also effectively guided Tail’s attention to the left, and her gaze quickly found a new draw in the sleek contours of the aforementioned airship. The scientist struggled to keep up her hurried pace while her curiosities prodded as many things as her darting eyes could corral.

Painted a deep, royal blue, the Armistice appeared about fifty meters in length in Tail’s first estimation. Though it was hard to gauge from the rear flank of the craft, the pegasus decided that the fuselage resembled some architectural crossbreed of teardrop and spearpoint shapes. This central structure connected to a triangular wingspan, which—based on symmetry arguments—sported four rocket boosters and their stabilizers.

That tally failed to include the four additional exhaust ports that ran out of the fuselage’s stern. Wing stood atop an opened ramp that had been placed a couple meters in front of the engine nozzles and between the hefty partitions of the undercarriage.

“Yep, it’s a four-and-four design,” he interrupted Tail’s internal ruminations. “Combined-cycle jets and the rockets to boot. Technically, the boosters can be jettisoned for staging, but again, not really a lot of time to go into the details on that. We can get some caffeine after this is over. For now, Batsy and I need to get everyone strapped in.”

With Amora, Bonecrusher, and Indar bunching up behind her, Tail pushed forward to follow Wing down the aisle once he entered the airship. The stallion stowed his carry-on in a bright-yellow locker positioned right off the top of the incline, but that particular source of vibrancy paled in comparison to just about everything else Tail could see.

Trapezoidal alcoves extended the available space into the halves of the wingspan, and they had been put to incredibly good use. In each bay, a pony-sized thaumium crystal had been set into a circuit of augurite, platinum, and gold. Five smaller crystals, still the size of Tail’s hoof, were seated into similar cradles, bringing the total count acknowledged by the suddenly heaving physicist to twelve. “And at the cost of a billion bits!”

“That’s what I said!” Twilight Sparkle wailed from the front of the vessel after Tail’s exclamation echoed throughout the cabin. “Not to mention the work they must have put in to create the augurite matrix for the dragless-coating array! Why didn’t I think of that? You’d think I’d have come up with something similar after reading all the works of—whoa!”

Still residing on the centerline of the Armistice, Tail came to a stop amidst the swarm of seated ponies. She lifted her visor and glanced down at the expressive lavender unicorn, who had found a perch atop one of the strangest seats Tail had ever seen. Anchored to a metal frame, mango-colored cushions formed a large saddle that kept the occupant firmly supported. With the additions of a high cantle, leg hooks, and head guides, the accommodation was clearly constructed to keep a pony in place through significant accelerations.

The Element of Magic cast her aptly sparkling purple gaze upon Tail’s armor. “You must be Professor Tail. Oh my gosh, Shiny and Cadance have told me so much about you. We should compare notes! Is it true that you’ve been exploring Electromagical Unification Theory? I told Wing that Electroauguric sounded better but—”

“Twiggles!” Pinkie screamed from two seats over, much to the dismay of the startled, sandwiched Fluttershy. Pinkie’s coiling tail was undergoing some crazy, unnatural movements that made Tail quirk a brow after the pink ball of chaos had successfully snagged everyone’s focus.

“Tarnation, Pinkie, was that really necessary?” Applejack asked from the second row. The earth pony had immediately glanced towards Rainbow Dash in search of an affirmation, but the cyan speed demon kept snapping her sights from the smugly grinning Spitfire to the fully suited Wing.

“I told ya so,” Spitfire whispered. “That egghead was in charge of the Wonderbolt Combat Division before he took over the E.I.S. The armored egghead once kicked my ass too, so you might want to stay on your hooves—if you ever want to be a Wonderbolt newbie, that is.”

Dread-induced respect yanked the corners of Dash’s lips outwards, and an amazed stare briefly held her countenance before she rested her chin on her cushion.

Wing ran through the roll call himself while eying the creatures present. The Elements of Harmony had been strapped in. Spike was also secured in a special chair fit for a dragon, and the young reptilian flashed Wing a helpful claws-up when the eye contact had been noticed. The Wonderbolts were in place, and Autumn Tea—and Smoky Andes?—seemed ready to go.

With that, Wing turned to the cockpit controls of the Armistice, brought up a holographically generated terminal, and started frantically coding on a keyboard that he had pulled out from under the console. “Get the others locked in, Bats. I’ll give the briefing. C.B.D.s closed, vents opened, and launch clearance confirmed. T.R.I. is at one-hundred percent. Sixty-second countdown, active.”

Batsy immediately scrambled towards the new arrivals. She shepherded the four ponies to the rear row, and she got to work guiding Amora into her seat before making sure that all of the cushion placements were appropriate.

“You’re now on the fastest airship ever built. If you ever wanted to know what Dash feels when she hits a sonic rainboom, you’ll find out in less than two minutes. Don’t try to move your body. Don’t try to lift your head and look around. Just keep facing forward, and stay in your damn seat until we hit our target. To our new crystal pony friend, please stick with the white, maroon-maned mare. You’ll be providing support to the city.”

Tail decided to shave a little time by climbing into her own saddle once Batsy had moved onto Bonecrusher. Even through S.B. Sally’s iron, the pegasus could tell that the padded foam packed some firmness. I don’t think this would be comfortable to be in for a long time, she pondered, but I imagine it gets the job done when you’re riding a rocket. Her ears flicked against the inside of her helm while Wing continued.

“Not mincing words here. Something happened with Trigs. We’re needed A.S.A.P. I’ve reprogrammed the flight path. Wave 2 will descend in an aerial drop on my mark. Bolts, take care of the non-fliers. Tea, keep the special guests on board until the ship circles around to the northeast. Standard color flares will go up for input. Wave 1 is a few klicks south-by-southwest of the border. If shit really hits the fan, evac.”

“Thank you,” Batsy mumbled in Tail’s ear. The batpony mare flashed a sheepish smile as she fiddled with some levers on the base of the chair.

Some quick adjustments to the cushions followed, and Tail cooed at how nicely held she actually felt.

“I think that’s a sign of approval, Boss!” Batsy giggled, giving the final checks on the safeties of the four ponies. She swished her mariner-blue tail, bounded up to her co-pilot seat, and wiggled her way into its snug grip. “We’re all set!”

A yellow glow crept forward from the rear of the ship, and the deep rumbling thrum of the crystal array massaged Tail’s knowing ears. The intensity of the light that enveloped the interior of the craft grew brighter and brighter—until the features Tail could see began to have their finer details washed out by the blaze.

Wing accompanied the fleeting spectacle by counting down aloud from three. The instant he hit zero, the overbearing brightness yielded the spotlight to a cacophonous roar and the pull of multiple g’s.

I’m coming, Barrier.

Chapter 45.2 - The Mavericks’ Wild, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 46 - Love’s Will

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The blinding ray produced by the BT-shell bore into the Crystal Heart and threw Sombra’s back to the ground. His splayed body lingered as a darkened silhouette in the white domain that burst from the sacred artifact, and the vibrant beams swept over the landscape while a deafening drone accompanied the incomprehensible energy that drenched the tundra.

A compression wave radially expanded through the earth in a low-frequency tremor that rode the shot’s aftermath. The gaps between the scattered pockets of natural flora flourished as an ocean of forget-me-nots flooded the terrain. Glistening blue barriers protected every sprouted plant, and a serene warmth dispelled the chilly wind to a degree that outperformed even Philomena’s fire.

In the wake of the reflections, the Equestrian defenders emerged as sparkling, semi-translucent crystal versions of themselves. Trigger’s Sheriff Star state had finally burned out, and his massive dreamshell cast dissolved in the sprawling aurora that painted the dome of the sky in the streaming colors of the rainbow.

Those that had answered the call all gawked. Though, each of them gawked at something different. Back to appearing in his normal form, Trigger set his amber gaze upon Wing and smirked at his lifelong friend.

The pegasus in question quivered. He pressed a forehoof to his muzzle, tapped it a few times as if he were gauging whether or not he was in a dream, and blurted, “Ten thousand. They hit ten thousand…”

Nearby, Indar rapidly spun around. The fiery-maned unicorn looked considerate when it came to his hoof placement, for he deftly avoided stepping atop any of the new life while he observed the drastic transformations to the landscape.

At some point during Tail and Barrier’s flight, Bonecrusher had migrated closer to her unusually energetic squadmate. Her stern focus settled completely on the glimmering hoof she had driven into Sombra’s skull, and the faint curve of a smile gently tugged at the corners of her lips.

Meanwhile, Amora and Shining homed their sights in on Tail and Barrier. The airborne couple had picked up a phoenix escort as they made their way towards the motionless king, and when they finally touched down, the two staring unicorns, along with the Princess of Love, gradually drifted towards Ground Zero.

Still heavily breathing from the battle, Tail gulped as she observed a new enigma that lurked within the flowery domain. Flashes of ruby and emerald lightning snapped around the prone Sombra. The darkness had faded from the dormant unicorn, and the hellish wounds that had cracked his head and cursed his chest had evaporated from his body. The brightly shimmering Crystal Heart, freed from its subjugation, slowly spun in the air as it hovered half a meter above the mass of purple and blue blossoms. “What in Tartarus is that?” Tail whispered once she shifted her attention to the root of her current confusion.

A shadowy apparition floated above the gemstone, and the stationary specter seemed to mirror Sombra in size, positioning, and shape. Like a scene out of a fairy tale, the umbral void, radiating heart, and fallen mage joined with the altered terrain to craft an illustration that made Tail shudder.

Had she just killed the stallion? Was the haunting shade the mark of his calamity, or was it the first burden of war that she would have to endure? Those thoughts hadn’t even crept into her mind when she grasped Barrier and no one else, but the notion of an alternate interpretation began to seep in from the darker fringes of her imagination. She had viewed the field of flowers as an ultimate sign of her love towards her captain, but what if—

The pegasus sharply inhaled when Barrier’s muzzle brushed against hers. His iron-clad foreleg draped over her barrel, and he pulled her closer to kiss the damp fur beneath her eyes.

“It’s over, Tail,” the glittering Princess Cadance quietly answered once she finished her trot. The alicorn sat by Barrier’s opposite side, and her long horn immediately took on a raspberry hue before a stream of magical energy poured into the glowing Crystal Heart. For several seconds, the vibrant red spell mixed with the dense, dazzling white aura until a string of powder-blue sparkles danced from facet to facet. Steadily, the overwhelming brilliance decayed, and the electrical arcs vanished, leaving behind a clear gemstone and a gradually dissipating umbral remnant. “And now, you’re free.”

As Shining Armor claimed a seat by Cady, Amora shuffled up to Tail’s free flank. A subdued giggle gave away the medic’s location, but she still managed to coax a surprised squeak out of the physicist when she planted a smooch on the mare’s cheek. “See? I can do it too. I can also take care of something that you both need right this instant.”

Tail and Barrier blinked in unison after Amora walked in front of them.

The alabaster unicorn tossed her forelegs around the armored ponies, and she promptly nestled her head in between their marred and matted faces. Her medical magic swept over their figures, and the timbre of her voice transitioned from the realm of friendly teasing to that of a parent looking after an ill child. “You’re both jacked up on adrenaline. Your highs are going to crash, so I had best take care of those injuries now.”

Tail lifted her revolver-laden limb and awkwardly hugged her roommate. The aches and stings that afflicted her head and trunk felt more pronounced than they had during the thick of the fight, and if there was one rule that she had truly learned from her time with Amora, it was do not fuck with the medic. “No complaints from me, Ams.”

Doubling down on the hug, Barrier embraced the cherry-loving unicorn as well before he allowed his eyelids to fall. “Probably a wise idea, Major. I’m definitely out of steam, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Trigger and Shining are feeling the same.”

The Captain of the Royal Guard grunted. “I think I’m more stunned than anything else. I haven’t seen anything like that in all my days—” Shining’s coat suddenly bristled. Tiny black crystals sprouted along his horn, and he gasped when the fading umbral apparition abruptly regained its full, rich, midnight complexion.

“Crystal slaves!” the entity shrieked, wrapping its whimsical coils around the Crystal Heart. The thief began to bolt for the purified Empire City, but it stopped in its tracks when an emerald ring snagged its trailing end.

Captain Sombra had woken up and rolled onto his stomach. Grimacing, the grey unicorn peered at his shadowy counterpart through a single green eye, and he desperately reached out towards the garish creature with an outstretched appendage. “I will not allow you to get away from me again, Fiend! In the name of The Crowns and the Empire, I will stop— Aghk!” He winced as a loud spark popped on his forehead.

The spell holding the umbrum in place cracked, and the crimson-eyed ghoul slithered away towards the distant spire at an incredibly quick pace.

Tail’s jaw dropped. Both she and Barrier started to break away from Amora’s grip, and Sombra had begun trying to push himself off the ground when Wing rushed to his side.

The runes of Aurora’s Eye still rotated around the stallion’s field of vision, and Wing swiftly shot halting glances at his fellow defenders. “Captain Sombra, while you might consider yourself so inclined, this is no longer your operation to fight. As for everyone else, that shade’s power doesn’t come close to the danger we just faced. With the curse removed, the situation has changed”—he turned to face his creature of reverie—“as has the nature of the problem. Trigs, would you send up an orange flare northward for me? Tea needs to get the message A.S.A.P. This new puzzle is one destined to be unraveled by the magic of friendship.”

Standing at the divide between her living room and the kitchen, Amora levitated a pancake-loaded plate near her muzzle. She directed a floating fork through the fluffy, cherry-filled breakfast food. However, her focus remained affixed to her couch, its current occupant, and the lavender flier who was clearly gearing up to join said occupant.

Peeking around the corner at the end of the hallway, Tail set her mischievous chocolatey sights on the reclining Barrier. She fashioned an impish grin before tossing a sidelong glance that barely managed to sneak under the longer locks of her growing mane. When Amora simply replied to the expression with a silent shrug, the physicist interpreted it as a commitment to neutrality.

Tail crept over the beige carpet and approached the end of the faux-leather furniture. She jumped over the leg rest, unfurled her wings, and parachuted atop the dozing Barrier. The poor stallion had not even managed to finish a groggy hum before the conniving mare deposited a trail of kisses along his muzzle and neck. “Oh, Barrier,” she purred, victoriously swishing her namesake.

“Mm, done with your shower, Blanket?” the captain mumbled. He stirred beneath the pouncing pegasus, and he shivered when Tail placed one of her wingtips against the shield of his cutie mark. Raising one of his eyelids, Barrier shifted his muzzle around the unkempt strands of Tail’s black mane and peered in Amora’s direction. “I thought you were going to stop me from dozing off. Now I find you’ve facilitated a penetration of my defenses?”

Smirking, Amora swallowed her latest bite and moved the fork from her mouth. “Hunny, please, if I were facilitating penetration, then I would have left the room first. You also missed the look she gave me, and if you were in my position, you would have immediately known that I was dealing with a Tail on a mission. Not to be trifled with.”

A mild blush warmed Tail’s cheeks, and she carefully pushed her chest off of Barrier’s barrel. The scientist drew a breath and fluffed her plumage after she pitched her muzzle upward to dramatically gaze upon a barren spot on the wall beside a windowpane. “Even the mightiest mages know to not keep a pegasus from its perch, especially so when this one is mine.”

“Mmm,” Amora continued once she successfully shoved another scooping of the buttered stack down her throat, “I was also busy eating these, and launching a counter-incursion while holding such a valuable asset doesn’t strike me as a tactically sound decision. I guess I could have offered to share, but you did make them as a gift, and I know you’re planning to go to the diner anyway.”

The melodic doorbell chime interrupted Amora’s habitual utensil twirling, and the three ponies shared curious glimpses with one another until a frantic, childish thudding of knocks confirmed that someone had actually arrived at their doorstep.

Setting her dish on the kitchen table, the medic moved towards the window that overlooked the street. She craned her neck and moved her head around in an attempt to spot who else would be making a mid-morning visit to her abode. Her ears twitched to the sounds of muffled voices, and Tail watched on as her B.F.F.’s body language changed.

At the start of the brief journey, Amora’s tail rapidly flicked, and the muscles around her face strained to scrunch her muzzle and furrow her brow. Her ears had perked to the tones of the outside world, and suddenly, the unicorn’s entire body jolted upright and shed the hints of her annoyance. She sprinted out of the kitchen, dashed through the living room, and had made progress down the stairs by the time the bell rang again.

With her roommate suddenly out of sight, Tail stretched her wing and snuck in another affectionate squeeze to Barrier’s firm flank. She quietly snickered at the soft grunt he surrendered in response, and following a tranquil, “I love you,” she leaned down for another heartfelt kiss.

Once Barrier’s forelegs wrapped around her trunk, Tail blissfully melted. Quiet giggles bubbled out of the perky pegasus, and one of her hooves drew little shapes on Barrier’s chest. The rumbling commotion down on the landing might as well have been a continent away, and Tail’s ears barely swayed to the growing bustle.

At least, that remained the case until Sincy’s flamboyant wail bombarded the apartment. “Tail!” he shouted through wandering pitches that easily drew the attention of Tail and Barrier towards the top of the staircase. The blond-maned unicorn sprang into view like he had leapt onto a stage, and his brown eyes passionately sparkled the second he absorbed everything his sister and her coltfriend could offer. “You cut your hair.”

“Did I forget about another touring round in Canterlot?” Tail quietly questioned in the wake of Sincy’s concluding whisper. Her eyes shifted, and soft notes slipped from her mouth as she counted days in her mind and aligned them to dates. “No, I don’t think I did. Sincy, Sweety, uhh, what are you doing here?”

“We were invited!” he jovially answered while flailing a foreleg. “We each got letters from Princess Celestia asking us to come immediately for a certain medal ceremony that’s tomorrow. You should have seen Barley’s face”—a wound scroll, ensnared by the colt’s brown aura, appeared at his side—“when this showed up in our hotel room. So proud!”

Tail cautiously raised and folded one of her forelegs. She angled her nose towards the corner of the ottoman, and her inquisitive stare drilled into her brother’s enthusiastic countenance. “We—eeeeeeeee!”

A white pegasus climbed to the top of the steps, and she banished the need for Tail to ask the question. The older mare gazed upon the lounging ponies with glistening hazel eyes that matched Sincerity’s intensity. “Well, there’s a precious memory that I wasn’t sure I’d see. Striving, Sweety, get up here quick. We get to meet him after all, and she’s even perching.”

“Oh?” a stallion’s call responded to the dulcet beckoning. “We can continue this upstairs, Amora. Can’t miss out on the opportunity to be a dad.”

Tail blinked when another frost-blue unicorn poked his head around the wall that divided the living room from the stairwell. Touched by a bit of grey, his spiky black mane brushed against the wavy golden-brown strands of his wife’s cascading hair, and a very familiar grin stretched across his muzzle.

“Mom, Dad, hello,” the scientist awkwardly spoke from atop her cozy pedestal.

“Yeah, that brings me back,” Tail’s father teased while he gave her mom a gentle, knowing nudge. “Are you going to introduce us to your coltfriend, Dear, or should we just loiter by the door until Amora pushes us in?”

With her cheeks reddening even more, Tail ruffled her feathers and carefully slid off Barrier so he could sit up on the couch. Of course, the guard stood, undoubtedly the product of years of military service, and the act prompted Tail to follow suit. “Barrier, this is my mom, Breezy Wish, and my dad, Dr. Striving Path—”

“Dr. P!” Amora gleefully interjected from her hiding spot somewhere along the flight.

In the midst of the unexpected first meeting, Tail’s heart raced. She nervously flicked her namesake, shook her head with a snort, and slowly inhaled before proceeding. “Mom, Dad, this is Captain Magic Barrier, and yes, he is obviously the coltfriend that I told you about.”

“And still an adonis,” Sincy happily added. He beamed and waved at Barrier while Tail observed the exchange. While definitely weird, something about her brother’s antics made the physicist’s anxious twitching come to an end.

Barrier responded with a curt wave of his own. “Ma’am, sir, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you both,” he calmly addressed the pair, and he stealthily draped a foreleg over Tail’s withers.

“So precious,” Breezy squeaked. She shuffled across the living room and reached over the ottoman to wrap both Barrier and Tail in a motherly hug. “I’m so happy you found each other, and I’m so happy that you’re both safe. I know we’re dropping in on you, but I really wanted to see my girl before settling into the hotel for the afternoon. Plus, your father wants to go sightseeing, and we both know that will eat up the rest of the day.”

Slightly taller than her mother, Tail returned Breezy’s hug and gently brushed against the elder mare’s crest with her chin. “Mm, it’s good to see you too, Mom. You’re not dropping in on much, honestly. We were about to go on a lunch date, and I was, well, perching.”

Giggling, Breezy cooed in delight after Barrier reciprocated her spontaneous embrace as well. “I could tell, Sweety, and you were really showing your pegasus pride. I don’t want to interfere with your plans too much, but if you’d indulge me with another piece of feathery lore, I would like to take your coltfriend on a friendship walk. Just one block! It’ll give you some time to catch up with Dad, too.”

“A friendship walk?” Barrier asked, carefully setting his hoof back on the carpet between the pieces of furniture. “And you can call me Barrier, Mrs. Wish.”

The hazel-eyed mare kept laughing as she scooted back. She unfurled her span, corralled the captain, and started to shepherd him towards the exit. “It’s when a mama pegasus evaluates new suitors set to come into her nest.” Breezy glanced over her shoulder and shot a mischievous smirk at Barrier that got the captain moving instantly.

“You cannot be serious,” Tail blurted after planting the tip of her wing against her forehead. “If Sincy is calling him an adonis, I hardly think another round of crazy is necessary.”

Barrier just chortled. “It’s fine, Blanket. Seems like it’s taken on another name these days, but since your mother explained it, I can say that I’m hardly surprised. A block isn’t an obstacle. Catch up with your dad and Sincy. Your mom is safe with me.”

Listening to her mother tell Barrier that he could call her Breezy, Tail pursed her lips. She lifted her primary feathers to watch as the pair disappeared down the steps, and she sighed at her father once the fwooshing noises of the opening and closing door reached her ears.

Striving Path rolled his shoulders and trotted to Tail. It didn’t take long for the unicorn to take his turn throwing his limbs around his daughter’s withers, and he released a long, loving sigh that flooded Tail’s senses with paternal joy. “I’m so proud of you, my sweet girl. From making trinkets in my toolshed to saving an empire. And I have my second daughter here too. I want to hear everything, or, at least, everything you can tell me before I convince Breezy to let us unpack. There is a lot to see in Canterlot after all.”

Barrier chuckled after Tail loosed another groan. “I’ve already told you, a dozen times now, you have nothing to apologize for, Blanket. Your mom is adorable, and you’ve already had to go through some initiation from my surrogate mother in Cady. Don’t worry about it. The walk around the block went well, and I clearly emitted good vibes.”

“Is a dozen times truly enough?” Tail pondered aloud as the pair approached the entrance to Pop’s Place. “I know you went through it okay. I’m just surprised she felt the need to do something like that. With my dad, it was easy. He really only wanted to know one thing, and the second I told him that I was in love with you, he switched gears from whatever parental-unit mode they were in and started rambling about research.”

The sleigh bell strap boisterously jangled once Barrier’s magic grasped the forest-green door of their favorite restaurant. He opened it, exposing both Tail and himself to the onslaught of scents and chatter that diffused from the heavenly confines. “To be fair, I think your mom only wanted to know one thing as well. Compared to the consortium of insufferable brats, Breezy Wish made for delightful company. I can see where you get it from, along with that impish grin.”

For a few seconds, Tail closed her eyes and basked in the waves of culinary wonder that bombarded her senses. The sizzle of the lively griddle grazed her ears, and the aromas of caramelized onions, grilled cheese, and fried potatoes flooded her nose. “Mm, I love this place,” she mumbled in a provoked purr that dribbled from her throat.

“Hard not to,” Barrier commented, stealing a kiss