Disclaimer: I do not own My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, or any of the ideas or characters related to it. I do not own Marvel or any of its ideas or characters. I really wish I did though. I make no money from this writing. I really wish I did though.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
THE CRUSADERS #2
FEATURING: THE INVINCIBLE IRON MARE; THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THE STRONGEST ONE THERE IS; SWEETIE BELLE, THE FIRST CRUSADER; AND HAWKEYE: EQUESTRIA'S BEST MARKSMARE!
"Manehattan News. As the nation mourns its fallen prince, the number of unicorn disappearances continues to rise. Ponies are advised to stay in groups, and teleport to where you need to go whenever possible. More news as it develops."
They came in droves to Canterlot. Aristocracy, foreign dignitaries, military leaders active and retired, businessmen, political rivals, family, friends, enemies, the important, the unimportant, the rich, the poor; from all across the world, Crystal Empire to Gildedale to Mozambeak, they came to Canterlot pay their final respects to Oren the Diamond Wolf, Prince of the diamond dogs, protector of Equestria, beloved husband of Princess Luna.
The rain came with them. Cold, hard, reaching through the thickest cloaks and boots to drench the body and freeze the heart.
The mourners stood in long rows outside the castle and down the city streets, waiting for their turn to greet the surviving royalty and pay their respects. No royal had ever died before in Equestria, and no preparations had been made for it. The silver and glass urn in which Oren's ashen remains were kept, crafted and enchanted by the greatest deer enchanters, stayed within the castle itself, inside the vault that once held the mythic Elements of Harmony, safe forever from all potential harm.
Standing at the main gate into the castle, gold crown and necklace and boots traded for the more appropriate black, Princess Celestia nodded as each mourner passes by and offered a word of condolence, yet her mind was only partly on them. The majority of her thoughts, and her eyes, were trained on the heavily-cloaked figure hanging back from the rest of the crowd, large hood hiding all features. Though she could tell, from the way he stood, that he was a two-legged creature. He had been there since the procession began, never moving from his spot, only watching. Celestia knew, she had been watching him the entire time he had been watching her.
Doctor Doom walked past, flanked by four pony guards hidden completely inside silver suits of armor, their steps mechanical. He paused for a moment between her and the strange figure. His thick brown mane was plastered to his head and neck by the rain. "I'm so sorry for your and your sister's loss," he said. "I feel responsible, in a way. If I hadn't teleported away to acquire the help of my retinue, perhaps I could have made a difference in the battle. Or at least keep Oren from using up all his magic."
Something about Doom's words left a sour taste in Celestia's mouth. "The only ones responsible are New Tambelon and Loki. Both will receive what's coming to them."
Doom nodded. "Indeed. If I can be of any help, the Crystal Empire is at your full disposal." He then motioned for his guards to start walking again.
As Doom continued walking, Celestia once more caught sight of the cloaked figure, who seemed to have moved just a bit since she had last seen him. She squinted to see him better through the rain. Yes, yes had moved his hood back a few inches, revealing a black horn that sparkled as if filled with pinpricks of light. Celestia's eyes widened at the sight. That was a horn she would have recognized anywhere.
The figure covered his horn, and then turned to go down a nearby alley. Celestia looked at the crowd of mourners filing past her into the castle, and then back to where she had seen her long-lost nephew. He was gone, disappeared into the shadows. He had grown adept at running in the past fifty years, it seemed. But that was fine, the Celestia standing at the gate thought. Lir had revealed himself to her for a purpose, and she knew where it was he would be going.
A castle guard beside her cleared his throat. "Is something wrong?"
"Not at all," said the Life Model Decoy of Celestia, low enough for only the nearby guards to hear. "But you should go inform Celestia that a very important person is going to visit her sister."
Princess Celestia burst into her sister's bedroom, ignoring the familiar blue-silver-purple color scheme of everything and looking right at her sister lying in the bed across the room, and the figure crouched next to her. In most ways he resembled a diamond dog, the medium-sized kind most often seen leading packs, his coat dark grey and eyes emerald-green. Yet his mixed heritage showed in his starlit unicorn horn and his lower half, his legs like those of a pony's instead of a dog's. His mane and tail were pitch-black and cut short. He was only about a head taller than an average pony.
Celestia took a few steps from the doorway, almost afraid this wasn't true. "Lir… my nephew…"
The pony-diamond dog mix held a hand up as if to wave at her, and then put his full focus on the dark alicorn spread out on the bed. A number of machines were hooked up to her, reading all her life signs. From what Celestia could tell, he seemed to be doing his own diagnostic.
"Heart rate and pulse are low but within acceptable parameters," said Lir. His voice was rougher, more world-weary than Celestia remembered it. "Magic levels are dangerously low, but slowly rising back to normal." He swept a paw over her chest, where her heart would be. "Dark Realm levels in her body are consistent with fifty years ago, so no contamination from the events in Manehattan. Assuming she's been unconscious the last three days, her body is ready for her to wake… as soon as her mind is."
Lir finally stood up from his mother's side and looked at Celestia. "I recommend abstract of zapp apples be applied to her horn every four hours. The inherent natural magic should increase her magic's recovery rate."
Despite the circumstances of their meeting, Celestia couldn't help but smile as she advanced across the room to join Lir at Luna's bedside. "You have become quite the doctor, it seems, while you've been away.
Lir shrugged. "I had to become something, I guess. I have a lot to make up for, after all."
The two shared a look. Celestia broke it first, looking down at Luna. She felt uncomfortable. Fidgety. She wanted to give her nephew a hug, but didn't know how. She wanted to say something, but she didn't know what. And has she stood thinking, the separating silence between them grew greater and greater. She could quite nearly feel him slipping away again. But what could she say to family that she hadn't seen for the better part of a century?
To Celestia's relief, Lir broke the silence for her with a chuckle. "I'm sorry, really. I just didn't realize until just now how rude I was being. It's… it's good to see you again, auntie. It's been a while."
Celestia nodded, finding this all too surreal to even laugh. "Yes, it has been. I wasn't expecting you so soon. I only just sent some ponies to get you."
"Yeah," said Lir, giving a bitter smile. "I suppose you would have. Some of Dad's STRIKE goons? How long did it take to find me?"
Celestia looked up from Luna to Lir for a moment before turning and starting to pace the room, from the bed to the glass doors that led out onto a balcony, and then back. Thinking. "We never really lost you. We just… kept our distance. Even kept a few revenge-minded parties off your scent. As much as we missed you, we thought you deserved… well, needed, the peace and solitude of Zebrica."
Lir nodded again, his smile growing less bitter and more wearily amused. He folded his hands together. "Kind of you, but… peace and solitude, avoiding stress, isn't exactly the secret to my staying in control. And working as a free doctor among all the zebra tribes isn't exactly a stress-free environment anyway."
Celestia could think of nothing to say to that. So instead she wandered over to a full-body mirror and changed topic. "I know you came for your father's funeral-"
"And it was a wonderful funeral," said Lir. "Very moving. Glad I was able to make it."
Celestia continued. "But now that you're here, stay. Please. We need you. Your mother needs you. Equestria needs you."
The diamond dog-pony very pointedly looked away from Celestia, one of his hands coming to rest on the unconscious Luna's shoulder. "I tend to actively avoid global catastrophes…"
"We're putting a team together." Celestia took a step toward Lir. "To stop the ones who killed Oren. To avenge your father. We need you on this."
For an unbearably long minute, Lir was silent. Then he sighed and sat down on the bed. "Would you be needing me, or… the other guy?"
Celestia grimaced at that question. It was a fair one, but still. "You. Only you. I promise." Unfurling her right wing, Celestia held out a small cube, looking like it was crafted from a single piece of blue quartz, dull and lightless. "This is a part of the magic-draining machine the criminals Shocker and Vulture used. I think they, at least in part, based their machine off of your old research."
Lir retrieved a pair of glasses from a pocket on his purple vest, slipped them on, took the offered cube, and looked it over. "I… think I might know what this is, but I'll need more time and some very specialized equipment to be sure. I hope STRIKE will have a place for me to work."
"So you will stay?"
Lir bounced the cube in his hand, testing the weight, and then offered it back to Celestia, who tucked it back into her wing. He then sighed again and smiled, revealing his canines. "Why not? It will be good to see some old friends."
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.
The solitary sound of a wagon wheel in need of oil was the only steady sound to break the late-night silence engulfing Rambling Rock Ridge, where even after centuries of use Glory Belle still found the best gemstones. Perhaps it was because, being so near to the small, "backwoods" town of Ponyville, none of the major gem harvesting groups went there. It was just her, her little wagon, and the light from her horn to light her way. A good place to run away and get away from it all for a little while.
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.
Sweetie Belle ran through the Everfree Forest, horn glowing with magic to light her way as she chased whatever creature had attacked those ponies in town. A sharp hiss made her skid to a halt and look up, just in time to see the bat-like creature, fangs gleaming red in her horn light, before it tackled her from above.
Glory Belle stopped at a particularly promising outcropping of rock and set to work on it with a pickaxe.
Chink. Chink. Chink.
She had never been able to get the hang of her sister's gem-detecting spell much to her annoyance over the years. Magic had never been her forte even with Twilight Sparkle teaching her.
She woke up to find herself on her back in Zecora's hut, the zebra looking down at her in worry. The smell of potions and blood was thick in the air. Yet Sweetie Belle didn't feel anything until her sister, her friends, and the princesses themselves came to tell her about the vampire stalking the area.
Chink chink chink chink.
There were some good gems here, Glory Belle was sure of it. She just had to keep picking away keep working and not thinking. Nothing to think about. People died all the time, even immortal royalty, thought Glory Belle as she swung the pickaxe harder and harder with her magic. The sound of metal on stone echoed across the rocky fields.
Raiding the first of many, many hidden vampire strongholds after months of physical training, making her powerful, making her resist the sun, making her survive on the barest minimum of blood. Her cape swirling, silver blades flying through the air to pin vampire ponies to rocky walls. Rainbow Dash jokingly calling her the new Mare Do Well, and it sticking.
Pinkie Pie, Scootaloo, and Apple Bloom dying of old age. Applejack moving to Gildedale only to get trampled in a sudden Komaga stampede. Rarity a victim of the Great Cutie Pox Plague. Fluttershy another victim of the vampire wars, not saved before the beasts drained her dry. Rainbow Dash sacrificing herself along with Derpy to stop Arabus's spell on the Princesses. Twilight joining the Doctor on a Tardis trip and never coming back.
CHINK CHINK CHINK-
"Retire, Sweetie," commanded Princess Celestia, legs bandaged, left wing in a sling. "Live in peace."
Sweetie Belle looked down at the broken pickaxe, the metal end snapped off from the wooden haft by the sheer strength of her blows. She let out a sigh and tossed the ruined thing away, and then turned to her wagon to grab a new one, all the while mentally chiding herself. She had come here to get her mind off her troubles, not dwell on how they had all started.
With a new pickaxe in hoof, Sweetie Belle turned back to the rock outcropping, seeing she had demolished a good half of the pony-sized thing. It had helped to imagine it was Galaxy's head.
Before she could get in more than two swings, a sudden great wind battered her from above and behind. Unprepared for it she staggered, and then turned to look. A sight she had been expecting met her eyes; a purple and green dragon bigger than Ponyville's old town hall, each wing six yards long, green flames eternally flickering at the corners of his great mouth. He was high up and coming in slow.
When the dragon finally landed the earth trembled with the force. Sweetie was prepared for it this time and stood firm, casting a glowing-purple magic shield around herself in an orb to keep the kicked-up dust off her as she took a few more swings of the pickaxe. "Spike."
Spike disappeared in a flurry of green flame, reappearing the same size as Princess Celestia. She could feel his eyes on her as he walked over. "I thought I'd find you here." His voice had grown deeper as he had gotten older. "Trouble sleeping?"
Sweetie could have laughed at that. Continuing to swing her pick, this time with her fore hooves instead of her magic, she very purposely did not look at him. "I think I've been in a walking sleep for… the past fifty-four years now, give or take. No, even longer than that. Not hungry either."
She heard Spike let out a rumble and then settle into a sitting position. "True enough. But I don't need to tell you that there are better uses of your time than hiding out here picking rocks."
Sweetie almost laughed, putting the pickaxe back in the wagon and wiping a hoof across her brow. "What, like babysitting Galaxy some more?"
Spike shrugged. "In a manner of speaking. We, that is, uh, Celestia and I, are putting a team together. Galaxy, Lir if we can find him, a few others… and you, if you'll accept. The team needs a leader."
"Hm." Despite recent events, Sweetie Belle couldn't help but feel intrigued by the idea. Chucking whatever loose gems from the rock she thought promising into the wagon, she grabbed its handle with her magic and started walking back to Ponyville. "Okay then. I suppose my sister and the others, Faust rest their souls, would be disappointed in me if I didn't accept. Anything else you need to tell me?"
Sweetie Belle stopped walking when she suddenly felt a scaled hand on her shoulder. She looked back at Spike, grimacing at the tears the old dragon now allowed to shimmer balefully in his green eyes.
"Yes, there is," he said. "I'm sorry. For my son, my precious boy, I'm sorry. I can't… I can't ever make up for what he"
Sweetie stared at Spike a minute, her emotions in turmoil. Then she gave a bitter smile and placed a hoof on Spike's hand. "The ones we love always disappoint us, darling."
Galaxy groaned as she sat down on the couch in her Manehattan apartment, laptops and miscellaneous pieces of her armor hardware littering the room around her. A headache pounded through her head, helped in no small part by the pounding of the rain outside.
"For Faust's sake," she said, dropping the coin-like mini arc reactor she had been holding to rub both fore hooves over her temples. "As if the city doesn't get enough water, being right next to the ocean and stuff. I'm trying to work in here!"
Beside Galaxy on the couch, the helmet of her Iron Mare suit squeaked, like a speaker turning on. Then out came a clear, mechanical, monotone voice. ~General Oren has recently perished, Miss Galaxy. It is Equestrian tradition to have rainstorms accompany the funerals of notable figures. My records indicate-~
Galaxy groaned again and picked the arc reactor back up. "I know what your record say, Ultron. I programmed them in. There's nothing you know that I don't."
~Yes, of course. I apologize. Though it is prudent to state that I have been monitoring nation-wide communications, and there is widespread concern over your not attending General Oren's funeral. May I ask why?~
Galaxy scoffed and levitated over a piece of her chest armor, inserting the arc reactor into the center. "I'm busy. Lots of work to do, improvements to be made. Armor density needs to be upped at least twenty percent to handle Vulture's claws and wing blades, energy output for repulsor blasts needs to be increased for more stopping power, need to heighten reaction time to deal with faster targets. A group of New Tambelon goons is one thing to handle, but Vulture and Shocker are taking it to the next level. I need to be ready for next time and… and I…"
Galaxy's magical hold on the chest plate faltered, lowering it slowly to the table in front of her. She looked to the widescreen TV hung up on the wall across from her, where the news coverage of Oren's funeral played. "I don't think he'd want me wasting time at his funeral when there's work to do."
The helmet squeaked again. ~A logical conclusion. If any being is fit to find and kill the two terrorists Vulture and Shocker, it is you, Miss Galaxy.~
This struck a nerve. Galaxy grimaced and, seeking an escape from the way the current conversation was going, brought over one of the laptops lying around and began typing. Her hooves worked faster than her magic would have. "I wouldn't say kill, I'm not really the killing type. It's not... tasteful?"
~I don't know about tasteful~ said Galaxy's armor A.I., ~but I know effective. Killing will remove the threat permanently, something I-~ Galaxy finished typing and hit send. A moment later the helmet beeped. Ultron paused as Galaxy sighed and leaned back into the couch, letting herself rest a moment.
~I have just received a new armor design. Evaluating now… finished. Highly impressive. An emotional being would say… elegant.~
Galaxy nodded along to Ultron. "I know, I know. Get to work on that right away, Ultron. I want it ready for when the trouble starts."
~Understood. Also, sensors indicate someone has just landed on the outside landing area. Predicting request for entry now.~
Someone knocked on the glass door to the landing area. Galaxy looked over at the glass and recognized through the darkness and pouring rain the STRIKE agent from the day before. Hawkeye, she thought. "Let her in."
The next moment the hippogryph was inside and performing a stationary spin to fling all the water off. "Man, it is absolutely pouring out there!" And then, before Galaxy could say anything, Hawkeye took a look around and let out a whistle. "Jeez, did your suit explode or something?"
Galaxy glared at her and levitated a towel over from the bar to dry her rain-splattered helmet. "Of course not, that would be silly. I took it apart by hoof. Looking at what works, what doesn't, and what can work better. I can always build a better suit."
"Right, of course." Hawkeye flapped over to the couch and sat down beside it. With little flourish she removed the curved plastic and steel bow from her back and began tinkering with the pulley system. "You can probably guess why I'm here. Or, most of the details anyway."
Galaxy took a moment to admire Hawkeye's red-tipped wing feathers before nodding. "Yeah, I know. Putting an A-Team together to show New Tambelon they've gone too far, right? Avenge the fallen Oren and bring everlasting peace to the world at last?"
Hawkeye blew a raspberry and slipped the bow back onto her back. "Careful, you could cut someone with that snark. But yeah, basically. Princess Celestia herself recommended you for the job."
Galaxy didn't expect that. Putting the towel and Iron Mare helmet down, she turned her full attention on the hippogryph. Well, you can go back and tell her that was wasted effort." Hawkeye opened her mouth to say something and Galaxy cut her off with a raised hoof. "It was wasted because I would have forced my way onto the team anyway. I have a score to settle with Shocker, Vulture, and Loki."
Hawkeye visibly relaxed, and then slipped a PDA from a chest pocket on the black vest she wore. "Okay then. Well, that was easy. Huh, I guess just pack your things and get ready for a trip. A long trip."
She pressed a few buttons on her PDA, followed soon after by an incoming message beep from Galaxy's. "I've just sent you the coordinates for STRIKE's main base of operations." She slipped the device back into her vest pocket. "You should get there as soon as possible."
Galaxy frowned. "Now hold on. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I have no intention of working for STRIKE. I'll handle this on my own."
Hawkeye chuckled and flew up from the floor, wings beating a slow pace as she hovered back toward the exit out to the landing platform. "No, no, no, you won't be working for STRIKE, just utilizing their assets. Princess Celestia's putting a special team together. You, me, a few others."
"A few others?" Galaxy stood up and went to the sliding door with Hawkeye. Her interest had been piqued. "Who else would a living goddess want on their personal strike team?"
In the swirling, incandescent rainbow of thought and music that was the Dreaming, the blue-coated, crimson-maned pegasus that was Lancer Lightningborn stood out like a discordant note, yet fitted into the color harmony at the same time. An aura of peace long-denied him in the mortal world now surrounded him, penetrated him to his core, revealed to him ways and realities he had never before suspected.
He had a companion in this.
"Lancer, do you feel that?"
"Yes." Lancer opened his eyes and gazed at the alicorn facing him in the Dreaming. Her coat sparkled like crystal, every color he could imagine constantly shifting and shining within and without her. Her mane and tail, pure white, could have hurt his eyes to look at. Her eyes were orbs of light, and on her flank there was the image of a constellation made of gems. "I feel it."
The crystal alicorn nodded. "They are constructing something. A way to pull you back to their dimension. There is an evil there that you must help them defeat."
Lancer knew all of this. From the Dreaming, he knew and saw all that he needed to know or see. But still, Lancer had questions. Ever since he had opened himself to the lightning he so naturally wielded and come into the Dreaming, Lancer had had questions.
"Must I go? How will it happen? What must I do there?" And then another question came to one, disrupting his peace like a thrown pebble disrupts the surface of a still pool. "What will I remember from my time here?"
The crystal alicorn smiled. The next moment, or perhaps since the start of the conversation, as time worked oddly in the Dreaming, she was right in front of Lancer, one silver-clad hoof caressing his cheek. "You must go, for destiny. You will know when it is happening. You will remember only faint impressions on the surface, but in your heart you will carry this time with you always. And so I will stay with you, always, even as I fulfill my role here."
Her smile dimmed. "As for what you must do, this you will remember most strongly. The world is failing. To save it, there is a pony who must discover who she truly is, and she will need friends for this. True friends. Protect her from our doom. And even more importantly, protect her from her doom's Shadow. Let not your heart fail."
"It won't," said Lancer. As he said it the Dreaming told him it was the truth. "I will do what I must, even though I know not what it is."
The Dreaming began to change around them. Lancer felt the tingle of lightning coursing through his coat and gave his wings a flap, noticing that he and the alicorn were drifting away. "My friend! Will I ever see you again?" His voice boomed across the distance.
The crystal alicorn's laughter filled the distance in response, clear and joyous. "You will. But not yet. Where time has meaning, I don't exist yet as I am here, and I won't know you. But with love and friendship, one day I will."
Lancer didn't need the Dreaming to know that this was the truth. As the crystal alicorn faded away, he turned his thoughts to other matters. Matters close to the heart. "If I may see Kyrie again. Teddy, Ace. My friends. I will see you all again. And then, whatever evil this is, I shall defeat it."
Loki sat cross-legged in the middle of a red-and-grey-brick room, yards-long tail curled around him on the floor, wings draped over his shoulders like a cape, claws gripping tightly the gold spear in his lap. The yellow glow from the crystal at one end of the spear was the only light in the room, casting everything in a sickly sheen, but it was enough for Loki to see with his draconic eyes.
But at the moment, seeing wasn't important to him. His mind dwelt on other things; a conversation from across the stretch of time and space, delivered to him through the shadows dripping from the corners of the walls.
"Leave the Crystal Empire alone, and the Crystal Empire will leave you alone."
Loki's grip tightened on his scepter, the glow from the end intensifying. It was frustrating taking orders from anyone else, but he wasn't a fool. Aggravating Doctor Doom at that moment would be the height of folly, especially after the debacle that was the U.C. summit in Manehattan. That had been meant to behead every nation that was even a possible threat to his plans, but all Loki's minions had managed to do was hurt Equestria and anger the Crystal Empire.
"No… Doom will have to wait until later. For now, Equestria. Speaking of which…." Loki lifted up his scepter and banged the bottom of it against the brick floor. "Enter."
The steel door in the wall behind Loki swung open with a creak. Shocker marched in, still in his combat gear from the heaviness of his steps. "Sir, I'm sorry to interrupt whatever it is you are doing, but we should discuss our plans."
"Indeed." Loki looked over his left shoulder at the red and yellow-clad gryphon. "Manehattan should have been our victory right there. Because of that changeling it wasn't. Where do we stand now?"
If Shocker saw the murder in Loki's eyes, he made no sign of it. He merely shut the door behind him and marched to stand a few paces in front of Loki. "It's not good. We still have some supply of Dark Realm left, but most of it was used up in Manehattan. After all, we all expected to succeed there. Furthermore, there's no chance of getting any more large political gatherings, so we will have to acquire the magic to kick-start the Dark Realm from somewhere else. Somewhere more discreet, if we're smart."
If anyone else had said that, Loki would have beheaded them. As it was however, one of the reasons he kept Shocker around was for his blunt ways. Not antagonistic, but not servile like so many others in New Tambelon were toward him either. Loki could appreciate that. It helped that Shocker was awesome right.
"Very well then." Loki stood up. "I have an idea on where we might acquire the magic we need. For now though tell me, what response might we expect from the Princesses?"
"A very immediate, very dangerous response." Shocker took a sheet of printed paper from a pouch in his utility belt and handed it to Loki. Loki took it and saw it was a list of names. "From a contact I have in the palace. It seems Oren's death has finally pushed Princess Celestia over the edge. While Luna lies bedridden, Celestia restarts the Crusaders Initiative."
Loki read the list of names, his heart beating faster with each one. "Iron Mare… Hawkeye… the Hulk… Lancer… Mare Do Well… Spider-Mare…."
"With some support from STRIKE," said Shocker.
Loki burnt the paper to ashes with a stream of flame from his mouth, and then let the ashes drift to the floor. "Are they a threat?"
"To each other, more than likely." Shocker opened the door, and together they left the room and began walking down a narrow brick and mortar tunnel; an abandoned catacomb of some kind. "But if Celestia and Luna can get them working together, and they might, they could throw some noise our way. Our killing Oren might have been a bad thing to do, if it gets them angry enough at us."
"Revenge is a strong uniting force." Not pausing in his two-legged stride, Loki swung his tail and speared a rat scurrying along the wall, flipping it into the air to snap up with his mouth. "But you sound almost… regretful, that Oren is dead."
Shocker stopped walking, but Loki continued on a few feet before stopping to look at him. "I knew Oren," said Shocker. "I worked with him for years through STRIKE. I knew how he worked and what he wasn't good at. Predictability's a good trait to find in your enemies."
Loki grinned at that. "Oh, but Celestia is predictable. So, so predictable. Because really, in the end, she only ever wants one thing. She'll want her loyal subjects to experience that beautiful lie known as friendship. And that's where we can hurt her. Hurt them."
The sound of a subway train rushing by from somewhere nearby echoed down the tunnel. Loki looked around then, a growl rising in his throat. Flames poured from between his clenched-tight teeth, fangs gleaming in the light. "I am tired of hiding in the darkness, of sneaking in the shadows as if afraid of the world. I am a dragon, not some diamond dog mongrel. I want to rule this world."
Shocker didn't flinch at this display of emotion. The consummate professional. "Could be dangerous."
This was true. Loki turned and began walking again, Shocker following close behind. Half a dozen meters down they came to another steel door, beyond which lay another brick and mortar room, this one filled with computers, portable cooling fans, and, in the center of the room, four more of the magic-draining devices that killed Oren. Gryphons moved about the room, their technological work outside Loki's more magic-leaning knowledge. All he knew was that they were doing their jobs.
He came to a stop at the magic drainers. "I want to test their mettle. Do something while that Vulture acquires more Dark Realm for us."
Shocker stood behind Loki. "It's risky. A lot of this hinges on you. But, if you insist on going out, maybe you can be useful."
Loki turned back to the gryphon. "What do you need?"
Spike, full-sized, flew over the dark ocean, its storm-driven surface grey as the clouds high above. A day had passed from Oren's funeral, but still some clouds were allowed to linger.
From where she sat on his neck between two spines, Sweetie Belle looked up at these clouds, her purple-blue mane and tail streaming behind her from the wind of the flight. She was thinking. Aside from merely "a secret STRIKE island far from Equestria's eastern shore", Spike had told her nothing of where they were going.
That wasn't a problem for Sweetie though. Even after all the decades that had passed, and much to her own surprise, she still trusted the dragon with her life. If she didn't, she wouldn't have gotten on him to ride in the first place.
Then, in the quiet of the night's last few hours before dawn, Sweetie Belle heard Spike's deep, guttural growl of a voice.
"Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
"We are not now that strength which in old days
"Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
"One equal temper of heroic hearts,
"Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
"To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield…."
She looked down at him. "That was beautiful. What was it?"
"Just some poetry Twilight taught me, long ago. Lord Trottingson. Something about it has always meant something to me. I think she felt the same. Now it seems especially appropriate."
Sweetie Belle knew what he meant. Leaning down, she tightened her legs' hold on his neck and nuzzled it. "It is meaningful. I'll remember it from now on as well. Thank you."
The two old, old friends stayed silent for a while, enjoying the other's presence. Then Spike grunted and pointed ahead and below. "There's our destination, that big island right there. Hold on tight."
Sweetie Belle held on tight as Spike curved down into a descent. As she did she looked ahead at where they were going. It was a small island, perhaps half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide, covered in blocky metal buildings and military airships. She could see ponies and diamond dogs running around, some directing landings and departures, others working maintenance on landed craft, and still more running in tight practice formations. It was pure STRIKE, through and through.
Off to the northeast, the sun began to rise.
Spike landed in an open space, shrinking down to alicorn size as Sweetie Belle jumped off him. He mumbled something about going below and then disappeared into the nearest building, leaving her to get oriented on her own.
It didn't last long as the one other individual clearly out of place there made his way over to her. Sweetie Belle allowed herself a smile as she caught sight of the half-diamond dog, half-alicorn hybrid. "Lir! It's good to see you again!"
The dark-grey creature nodded in greeting. It was odd, he seemed smaller than she remembered. "You too, Belle. I wish it was under better circumstances."
That killed some of her happiness. She coughed and glanced around. "Yeah, I'm… I'm sorry for your dad. He was a good man." Silence a moment. "So, I hear you can help us find the people responsible for this."
Lir scratched behind a doggy ear, frowning. "Is that all you've heard about me?"
"It should be."
At the unfamiliar voice Sweetie Belle and Lir turned to the nearest building. A red and grey hippogryph in black armor walked toward them from it, a comfortable, confident stride to her step. "The name's Kyrie, though most ponies call me Hawkeye. Looks like we're teammates now. Cool. And to allay your fears, Mr. Lir, all STRIKE personnel are chosen for more than mere ability. Not a one of them here will distrust you or think ill of you, I swear."
Lir hmmed. "Well that's nice, that's a real nice sentiment. I hope it holds up. In the meantime, is there anybody else coming, or should you just show me where I'll be working?"
"There should be one more coming, but you won't need her to get started." Hawkeye turned and motioned toward a pink-coated, yellow-maned earth pony mare standing near the building entrance, causing her to come over. "Agent Daisy here will escort you to your workstation. You're gonna love it, we've got all the toys."
Daisy looked like a leaf shaking in the wind. Although, as Sweetie Belle watched her lead Lir into the building, she got the distinct feeling it wasn't so much the hybrid as it was absolutely everything that made the mare nervous. It reminded Sweetie Belle of an old friend, bringing a smile to her lips.
Hawkeye was still there, watching her. When Sweetie Belle looked at her she gave a nod and indicated they should start walking. "You know, there was quite the buzz around here, when news came the legendary Mare Do Well was coming to help. I thought Cameo was going to swoon."
They walked, Sweetie Belle thinking. "Cameo… I think I met him once, at a Gala. Nice guy."
Hawkeye shrugged. "I suppose. Bit of a dweeb once you get to know him. Can't tell a lie to save his life. Did he ask you to sign his Mare Do Well trading cards?"
"Trading cards? Those must be ancient."
At this the hippogryph grinned. "They're vintage. He's very proud."
Half a minute more of walking and Sweetie Belle spoke up again. "So, you seem important around here. What's the plan that needs ponies like me and Lir?"
They rounded a bunker, Hawkeye leading a little and nodding to the two diamond dog guards stationed there before moving on. "Well I'm not privy to everything the Princesses plan, but you're a hero. I think right now Equestria needs its heroes. At least, that's what Cameo would say. As for Lir…."
They rounded another bunker. Sweetie Belle paused mid-step, staring at the out-of-place sight before her. A metal hammer, its rectangular head as big as a stallion's head, was embedded into the ground head-first, like some sort of monument or memorial. As they got nearer to it, Sweetie Belle began to feel something radiating from the hammer. It sent a tingle down her spine and made her heart flutter. "There's great power there."
Hawkeye nodded and went over to the hammer. She stood beside it, running her gryphon claws over the handle, eyes focused on someone long ago and far away. "Yes, there is. This hammer belonged to a friend of mine. Saving my life sent him… elsewhere. We think… well, we hope that with what we've recovered of Loki's equipment, Lir can bring him back."
Sweetie Belle would have gone over to Hawkeye, would have put a hoof on her shoulder and given words of comfort that Lir would succeed, but at that moment the very, very familiar sound of repulsor thrusters firing caught her attention. She looked up to the sky just in time for the light of the rising sun to glint off the gold and purple armor of Iron Mare. The sunlight stung, but not as much as seeing that Galaxy was involved on all this.
Galaxy landed in a crouch halfway between Sweetie Belle and the hammer. Quickly she stood up, glowing eye slits focused on the pale unicorn. They stayed that way for several long seconds, Sweetie Belle only able to guess at what was going on behind that perpetually-glowering helmet.
But then the front plate slid back, revealing Galaxy's startled face. "Glory Belle?"
Sweetie Belle sighed and ran a hoof through her mane. The sunlight was really starting to hurt. "Let's go inside. I think there's a lot of talking to be done."
In the Crystal Empire, there were many strange fusions of magic and technology unknown to Equestria or anywhere else. Magic to see the thoughts of others. Magic to make crystals edible to more than dragons. Magic to turn slow time, even turn it back small amounts. But there was nothing Doctor Doom valued more than his All-Seeing Room. Teller of prophecies and dreams. In that cavernous catacomb of black crystal beneath his palace, rumbling, grinding machines the size of dragons drew energy from the earth and the cosmos itself. Dozens of brass orbs the size of one-story houses floated around the upper reaches of the cavernous room, matching every movement of the important celestial bodies above.
Doctor Doom stood in the middle of this chamber, green cloak shifting in a non-existent wind as he observed the moving spheres. Occasionally a bolt of green energy would shoot out from the grinding machinery to one of the brass spheres, sizzling over its surface like lightning. This too he observed, a little more intensely.
Whenever the green lightning flashed, Doom's shadow stood out mountainous behind him, shifting around the edges, touching six coffins arranged in a semi-circle.
Then, as he felt dawn's light touch his empire's eastern border, the spheres stopped moving. Thick beams shot out from them, not randomly, but forming shapes and figures. Doom observed it all without comment, though his agitation grew as the universe's message to him grew clear.
"CRYSTAL EYES SHADOW DIES."
Doctor Doom's roar echoed through the cavernous chamber.