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 #3
FEATURING: THE INVINCIBLE IRON MARE; THE INCREDIBLE HULK: THE STRONGEST ONE THERE IS; SWEETIE BELLE: THE FIRST CRUSADER; HAWKEYE: EQUESTRIA'S BEST MARKSMARE; THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MARE; AND THE MIGHTY LANCER!
"Unicorn disappearances continue unabated. Everyone please remain calm. More news there as it develops."
Inside the STRIKE field base, formerly a supermax prison for the ultra-dangerous, everything was cold steel and dull greys, with none of the ornamental gold and silver to be found in Canterlot. Big, straight-edged corridors for any size soldier, reinforced doors with electronic locking mechanisms, security checkpoints at every junction and entrance and security cameras at every corner. It was a structure built by utilitarian minds for purely utilitarian purposes, going down fifty levels below ground with its own power supplies, fresh water supplies, showers, recreation areas, and enough stored food to last the entire two hundred-strong personnel for a year in an emergency. Longer, if the personnel didn't mind recycling showers. Utilitarian minds for utilitarian purposes.
The main command center of the complex was too floors below ground level, which gave Lir an uncomfortable but manageable feeling of claustrophobia. It was circular, forty feet all around, the walls lines with computer stations and diamond dogs hard at work at a hundred different tasks, doors to other parts of the facility spaced every six feet and the ceiling dominated by paneled lighting. A circular table sat in the center of the room, Equestria's coat of arms emblazoned on the cool-blue surface. There was enough space between the table and the walls for several more scattered work stations.
Lir found the chairs around the table to be quite comfy as he waited for things to get started. To pass the time he worked. The magic harvester taken from the U.C. attack lay on the table in front of him. The square top was removed and a whole mess of multi-colored wires pulled out from the hole it left at the top like some mechanized guts. That particular comparison came from Lir's mental companion, with a hearty chuckle.
Across the round conference table, with four chairs separating them, Sweetie Belle and an unarmored Galaxy sat very resolutely not looking or talking to the other. Lir thought this almost as troubling as the magic harvester he was taking apart. Almost.
"Uh, Galaxy, would you happen to have a slotted screwdriver on you?"
A screwdriver flew over and embedded into the table beside Lir's hand.
The room erupted into movement and the sound of chairs scraping against the floor. Lir looked at the screwdriver near his hand, and then up and around the room. All the STRIKE operatives, unicorns, pegasi, and diamond dog alike, had leapt from their seats and looked at him, looks of terror on their faces. Some had even readied their pistols at him, an action that had Lir's companion metaphorically rolling on the floor laughing. Even Sweetie Belle had stood up, though she looked more concerned than scared.
Lir, for his part, rolled his eyes and pulled the screwdriver free of the table with a grunt. "Everyone can relax. I've got my secret. If I couldn't handle some screwdrivers, I wouldn't have come here in the first place."
Galaxy chuckled and smirked. "I guess that makes two of us who can handle our screwdrivers."
Lir chuckled at that. Sweetie Belle glared between the two. "Why do I get the feeling at least one of you is not talking about screwdrivers the tool…."
Before Lir could put to word the response he had for that in his head, that perhaps a screwdriver was in order after seeing everybody panic around him, the main doors into the command center slid open with a mechanical hum, admitting Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, Hawkeye, and agent Cameo. At this the standing STRIKE personnel moved to attention. Sweetie Belle did the same, calling forth the training she had received during her Mare Do Well Days, while Galaxy swiveled around in her chair to face the newcomers.
Lir however only had eyes for his mother. It was the first time he had seen her awake and moving in the three days he had been back in Equestria. Mane and tail limp, face gaunt, eyes puffy and wet; as a doctor, Lir knew Luna should not have been up yet. As her son, he also knew there was no point trying to argue.
"At ease, please," said Celestia, marching toward the center table, Luna beside her and the two STRIKE agents in-step a few paces behind. "Back to work, all of you. This is a very critical few days for us."
After a few more wary glances toward Lir, all of which he ignored, the room got back to work. Lir looked around at them, and then stood up and, feeling no embarrassment at doing this, went over to Luna and helped her into a chair at the table. "Hello, Mom."
Luna looked up at him with distant eyes, and for a second Lir feared she didn't recognize him, that all the trauma of recent days had done something to her mind. But then she smiled and caressed his cheek with a hoof. "Lir. I knew you would come back home someday. Celestia says you made me healthy again. Thank you...."
Lir's throat felt dry. He swallowed, nodded his head, and returned to his seat and the work he had there. He could feel Sweetie Belle's and Galaxy's eyes on him as he pulled the screwdriver from the table and began removing a panel on the magic harvester, but didn't look up. Nor did he look up when Hawkeye and Cameo sat to his left and right. It was just something to be expected.
Celestia stood beside Luna and cleared her throat. "Galaxy, Sweetie Belle, Kyrie, Lir, glad that you could all make it. Hopefully, if all goes well more will be joining you. You will need to rely on each other for what the coming days will bring. For now, I'm sure you all have questions."
Galaxy raised a hoof. "Yeah, you know, coming in, I thought for sure the whole island was gonna sprout massive turbines and lift into the air as a floating fortress. Kinda bummed that didn't happen. Just saying, you might want to get on that."
"… Any serious questions?"
Sweetie Belle raised her hoof this time. "I have a few. I must ask, what exactly is it we're dealing with here that requires a group like this? My vampireness, Galaxy's Iron Mare armor, Lir's genius, and… whatever it is Hawkeye does. What are we looking at?"
At this all-important question Celestia closed her eyes, nodded as if in response to some other thought, and then opened her eyes and stared at Sweetie Belle. You've all been briefed on the events at the United Countries building. Some of you were there," she said with a nod to Galaxy. As she did so her horn lit up gold, and a slim crystal rose from the table's center. Galaxy leaned forward in her seat in interest as the crystal began projecting into the space about the table holograms to go with what Celestia was saying.
"Loki, a very sad, very twisted young dragon, is leading the rogue group New Tambelon to some unknown ends. With a Dark Realm-using machine, the supervillains Shocker and Vulture opened a portal to… somewhere else, where Loki had been for an unknown purpose. They escaped before Galaxy could stop them, but to where we don't know."
"That's a lot of lacking knowledge," said Galaxy, drawing glares from Sweetie Belle and Hawkeye. "You can't solve a problem without all the variables. Is there anything important we do know?"
"I hate to say this," said Sweetie Belle, "but I have to agree with Galaxy. What about the attack the other day? If they had all that Dark Realm, why did they need the magic harvester?"
At this Lir looked up again from the device in front of him. "Oh, I can answer that. Probably why I'm here in the first place. You see, Dark Realm is an incredibly potent energy source, but also incredibly stable. Depending on how much Dark Realm you have, you need a certain amount of other energy, like magic, to get a reaction. Like squeezing an orange to get juice."
"I've always been more of an apple pony."
Everyone at the table turned to look at Cameo. He coughed and sunk a few inches into his chair. "Just… thought I'd say something. Continue."
Lir stared at the earth pony a moment more before turning back to the table at large. "Well comparing apples to oranges aside, if Loki had been planning to use the entire U.C. meeting's magic to power the portal, I doubt it was just to bring him over from where he was. So they'll be needing both new supplies of magic and of Dark Realm. Any large gatherings of living beings will do."
Celestia ordered for a counting of all the large gatherings, social or otherwise, throughout Equestria for the next three months, and then turned back to Lir. "Do you know how much Dark Realm there is in the world?"
The pony-dog hybrid shrugged. "I remember using some from a secret storage hold in the diamond dog lands back when I was doing my research, but I'm about fifty years behind there. I can write up a tracking algorithm, basic cluster recognition. That should rule out a few possibilities, though you should probably ask your world leader friends if they have any they aren't sharing."
"What about the magic harvester," asked Hawkeye. "Can you get the portal-creating part working without the magic-draining part?"
Celestia and Luna shared a look. Sweetie Belle looked at them. Galaxy looked at the pieces of the device on the table. Lir frowned, thinking, and did the same. After a moment he pulled out the wires connecting the cube part to the rest and held it up. "This is what generates the portal. I think I could rig it up to draw power from the other side of… wherever, but without a beacon on the other side to lock onto, such as that scepter Loki had, there's no telling where the portal would open up or what would come out."
Luna cleared her throat, drawing all attention to her. "That is a risk we must be willing to take. Being able to open the portal could aid in forming countermeasures against it. Use that hammer if you need power."
Celestia nodded in agreement to this. Lir looked back at Hawkeye a moment more, saw the strange need in the hippogryph's eyes, and with sudden understanding turned to Galaxy. "I guess we better get to work on that then."
Vulture had just finished inputting his newest crystal triplex algorithm into his battle suit's flux capacitor when the iron door to his private lab in his complex swung open and Shocker stuck his head in. "Hey, mad scientist, get suited up. The boss is going out to have some fun and we have a mission."
"Excellent!" Vulture let out a cackle and grabbed a live wire hanging from the ceiling. He jabbed it at the red armor plate from his flight suit on the table before him, his mind erupting into cheers when nothing happened. "Success! I have performed SCIENCE!"
"Yeah, I am sure you have." Shocker marched over and smacked Vulture on the back of the head. "Come on now, I said get suited up. Loki has already left and he is giving us a distraction. We will need to use some of his stored dragonfire to get where we are going in time at this rate."
At this the disabled pegasus began to assemble his Vulture flight suit, a hundred different scenarios running through his head. "Ooh, dragonfire, must be important. And where exactly is it we're going in such a rush, dear feather-head?"
Shocker growled at the insult, but then a moment later smirked. "We're off to the Crystal Empire. Time to replenish our Dark Realm supplies."
Now Vulture began to grin. "This is going to be fun! Oh how I love these covert raids in places we're not supposed to be, killing people we're not supposed to kill BUT DOING IT ANYWAY!"
Shocker growled and glared at his companion. "I hate working with maniacs. Loki doesn't pay me enough for this."
Vulture let out his own growl as he pushed past Shocker for the door. "And I hate working with humorless mercenaries like you! No heart for the mission, no joy in what you're doing! It's enough to make me gag!"
Flying over the pegasus, Shocker slapped him upside the head and began winging it to the stairwell leading out of their secret underground base. "I'll gag you myself if you don't shut up and get a move on!"
And with that, an ugly, UGLY friendship was born.
The soft Pop sounds of Nightshade filled the air with its keening vocals as Sweetie Belle ran laps around the indoor exercise room.
Giddy-up oh ooh!"
After the meeting had ended and Galaxy and Lir had gone off to work, Kyrie had given Sweetie Belle the briefest of tours before going off to do her own thing, saying something about monitoring the search for Loki. That had left the unicorn to wander the endless, identical hallways of the underground complex on her own, eventually finding herself in a football field-sized exercise and training room. With no better way to spend her time at the moment, she decided she could at least get some training in.
"This little pony traveled whickers
This little pony Everfree,"
Fifty laps around the oblong room, and she had only been through two and a half songs. Sweetie Belle was relieved to find she hadn't slowed down in her long retirement as much as she had feared. She figured she could still improve though.
"This little pony traveled Hock Kong
This little po-"
The music filtering through the exercise room's sound system shut off. Sweetie Belle put the brakes on her running, sliding to a stop a few feet to the left of the main door and, standing next to it, a clearly-stunned Cameo. "Oh. Uh, hello, darling. I'm sorry, how long have you been there?"
Cameo stared a moment longer, mouth ajar, before shaking his head, adjusting his dark grey suit, and stepping farther into the room. "Only since the start of that song. Watching you run was incredible."
Sweetie Belle quirked an eyebrow at this, causing the earth pony to flinch. "I, I mean that seeing the legendary Mare Do Well's athleticism at display was very… inspirational. I don't think there's any other pony on this island who could run the way you were running, and that's the truth."
Sweetie Belle chuckled at the obvious attempt at flattery, sweet as it was, and grabbed a white, folded towel from a nearby bench to give at least the illusion that she was drying off sweat from her workout. "That's very nice of you, but I can't help but feel I have certain… advantages. Vampire and all. And please, I'm hardly legendary."
"Oh, but you are," persisted Cameo. "You were the world's first superhero. Everyone who has come since is thanks to you. A lot of ponies look up to the Mare Do Well. I could probably name a dozen in this very base off the top of my head who would kill for your autograph."
"Speaking of which…." Sweetie Belle dropped the towel back onto the bench and turned to Cameo, giving a little smirk. "Vintage trading cards, eh?"
Before Cameo could do any more than stutter and apology, Hawkeye's voice came over the complex's intercom. "Sweetie Belle, Princess Galaxy, please suit up and return to the main command center. Loki has been spotted in Stalliongrad."
The two ponies stood there a moment in silence, before Cameo turned for the door, out the door into the long hallway beyond it, down the hall to the armory, Sweetie Belle following close behind. "I'll show you to your new uniform. I think you'll like some of the modifications we've made."
Thousands of ponies, diamond dogs, and gryphons filled the streets of Stalliongrad, so many that the bigger-than-normal gryphon, feathers grey like the factory smoke turning the city's late afternoon into an early dusk and eyes a sickly gold, seemed an oddity but nothing to be alarmed over.
This suited Loki perfectly; his dragon form simply wouldn't do in such crowded areas. He gave a silent thanks to his gryphon mother for her little contribution to his abilities. As a gryphon, even a gryphon as large as him, few passerbies would look twice, and none would look three times. But the kinds of ponies that would be looking for him, oh, they would know him right off. It was exactly what Loki wanted.
A building came into view up ahead, Loki's eyes locking on it. The music hall was ten stories tall, built from grey granite blocks the size of carriages. Banners lined the walls and hung from lampposts, proclaiming to the world that the soft Pop band Nightshade was playing that evening. A row of glass doors seven feet high stood open, welcoming patrons into the brightly-lit lobby.
Loki paused a moment to snap off a salute to the nearest security camera, and then went inside.
Galaxy, in her full Iron Mare armor, counted the minutes passing by as she flew above the miles of featureless ocean, slate-grey in the dimming light; a result of the storm clouds forming about. To her right and a few yards behind flew an airship that was all sharp angles and matte-grey armor. Every time she glanced back at it Galaxy could see Cameo and that Daisy agent at the controls, Sweetie Belle behind them adjusting her uniform. Hawkeye had stayed back at the base to watch over Lir as he continued his work at her own insistence.
Galaxy found it interesting how important the cross-dimensional portal was to Hawkeye, but kept such ponderings in the back of her mind. There were more important things to consider at the moment, such as putting her repulsor-charged hoof through Loki's face. That was going to feel good, she was sure of it.
The radio in Galaxy's helmet buzzed. "Galaxy, you there?"
"Hello there, Miss Belle fancy hearing from you way out here."
A groan came over the channel. "Galaxy, slow down, please. You're going faster than this plane can!"
Galaxy looked back and saw that the STRIKE plane was indeed falling behind little by little. "Hm, now there's a conundrum. Hang back here with you and risk Loki getting away, or speed up and take that dragon bastard down myself. Hmm… yeah, you guys just hang back and relax. I'll handle this."
Galaxy shut off the radio and poured on the speed.
Loki stood in the balcony seating, leaning over the rails to look out at the screaming, flailing crowd a dozen feet below him. It was primarily earth ponies as far as Loki could tell, with a liberal helping of diamond dogs sprinkled throughout. A crowd like this was perfect for Loki's plan.
Three unicorn stallions, one on electric guitar, one on piano, and one on drums, filled the concert hall with a steady Pop beat, the kind of generic sound that Loki hated for its… ponyness. A unicorn mare, dressed up in a ridiculous neon-pink jumpsuit, danced about the stage singing into her headset.
"Gonna keep on dancing to the rock & roll
"On Saturday night, on Saturday night
"Dancing to the rhythm in our heart and soul
"On Saturday night, on Saturday night!"
"What a beautiful, beautiful voice." Loki checked the clock on the wall behind him. It said Thursday, not Saturday. "But what terrible lyrics. Oh well, it's just a cover anyway."
Turning away from both the clock and the singing-along crowd below, Loki made for the stairs leading down.
Down in the crowd, a white-coated, yellow-maned earth pony mare felt a sharp buzzing in her head, causing her to leave her aunt's side under the excuse of going to the little filly's room.
Loki swept along the wall, wings held tight to his sides as he made his way to the back of the stage. The most sound he made was the soft tapping of his cane against the floor, drowned out by the partying crowd around him.
Shocker, wings retracted against his body, clung to the bottom of the heavy transport truck as it rolled through the gateway marking the boundary to the Crystal Empire. Thunder rumbled somewhere off in the distance, sending a tingle of fear down his spine. He couldn't explain why.
"At the good, old, Rock & Roll roadshow
"I gotta go Saturday night, Saturday night!"
Cane still tapping, Loki stepped onto the stage from behind, still out of sight of the crowds and the performing band. Here he found the music to be nearly unbearable. A diamond dog, short and squat and with barely any neck, his security uniform fitting ill on him, stepped toward Loki from the side, one hand raised up.
"Me sorry, but you not allow-"
Not pausing his stride, Loki swung his cane hard enough to knock the diamond dog's head off his shoulders. The body thumped to the floor and the head, mouth agape, trailing a tangle of blood and ripped flesh, sailed through the air into the front rows of the crowd.
The music faltered as the band members and members of the front-most row looked first at the trail on the stage left by the head, and then at the headless corpse and the pooling blood around it. Loki could have laughed as first confusion, then shock, and then horror ran like waves through the simpering ponies. Some, the more observant of the crowd, turned tail and ran.
Stepping over the corpse to continue his stride, Loki grasped the unicorn drummer by the neck, the tips of his gryphon talons sinking into flesh, lifted the squirming stallion out of his seat, and threw him over the drum set, over the stage into the backs of the now-fleeing crowd. The rest of the band dropped their instruments and ran for it at the sight of this, the pink-dressed singer pausing only to grab the fallen drummer with her magic.
Loki followed them, dispatching the security guards rushing at him swift blows of his cane or savage stabbings with his claws. Then, as he exited the building through the front doors, Loki cast the spell that let him change between his gryphon and dragon forms. Grey feathers flattened down and hardened into scarlet scales. His beak elongated and grew teeth long and sharp as steak knives. Muscles slimmed and his tail burst into spikes and scales, moving his center of gravity lower so that he walked upright on two legs.
The finishing touches, and what Loki took particular pleasure in, were his cane transforming back into its full spear shape and size, and a gold helmet shimmering into existence onto his head, two horns curving out from it styled like a goat's horns.
In the plaza outside the concert hall a confused, frightened crowd milled about, while the sound of sirens filled the air. Loki jabbed his spear right as he walked, and an oncoming police car blew apart, flaming debris flying in every direction. The crowd screamed at this show of power and surged away from Loki who with a wave of his spear and a whispered incantation conjured three copies of himself around the edges of the crowd, hemming them in in every direction. "Kneel before me."
The crowd of earth ponies continued milling about, chattering in fear like cattle, pressing tighter together as the three Loki copies drew in. The real Loki growled and slammed the butt of his spear against the brick ground. "I said, KNEEEEEEEEEEL!"
The shout, deafening, silenced the crowd and drew all eyes to Loki. Slowly, trembling, they all kneeled down before him.
Loki grinned and, spreading his arms wide, walked into the midst of the kneeling figures, towering over them. "Isn't this simpler? Isn't this your natural place? It's the unspoken truth of you herd animal cretins that you CRAVE subjugation! The bonds of friendship, of family, of princess, of work and duty, are pale substitutes for the real bondage you desire in your hearts. Escape from the rigors of freedom and that mad scramble for power, for identity, that you take part in every day of your lives, from the cradle to the grave! All of it, diminishing what joy you might find in life."
Not a single head rose to dispute him. Loki could have laughed. Instead he kept walking and talking. "So weak. So cowardly. You were made to be ruled. In the end… you will always kneel."
A few yards away from Loki, an older earth pony mare rose up from the crowd and turned to him and fixed the dragon with a steely, weary stare. "Not to bullies like you."
Loki grit his teeth, fighting to keep his grin on as he advanced a step toward the mare. "I'm no mere bully."
The earth pony mare remained unmoved. "You are all mere bullies, in the end. What hurt you?"
That broke Loki's smile. He hardly noticed his shaking hand as he lifted his spear, squeezing the metal so tight it sounded close to breaking as he aimed the bladed end at the mare. "Look to your elder, people." The gem at the end hummed as it charged, ready to fire. "Let her be an example."
A pink and purple blur dropped from the sky, slamming four booted hooves into Loki's chest. The air left Loki's lungs in a burst as he staggered back, nearly dropping his spear as the kneeling ponies behind him tripped him up. Before he could recover there was a "thwip" sound, and suddenly the spear was pulled from his grasp. Two more thwips, and Loki found his feet plastered to the ground by some sort of webbing. A final thwip and Loki's vision turned white.
"So, uh, quick question here, champ. Don't mean to be prying, but it's kind of a biggy. Are you a gryphon that turns into a dragon, or a dragon that turns into a gryphon? I don't want to do or say anything later on to insult you. Either way, you are totally ripping off my old pal The Dragon."
A growl rose in Loki's throat as he tore the webbing from his eyes, revealing his copies had disappeared with the loss of the spear and the crowd was running away. Only one figure remained in the plaza with him, crouched over his lost object. "Spider-Mare."
"Hey, that's Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Mare, to you!"
The latex-wearing earth pony leapt at Loki, hoof pulled back for a punch. Loki twisted around, swinging his spiked tail at her. Spider-Mare flipped around the tail, shooting two web lines between the dragon's legs to zoom between them, narrowly avoiding his tail again as he slammed it into the pavement.
"Come on, you fight like my Aunty!"
A gout of flame sent Spider-Mare flipping to the side, grabbing a broken-off chunk of the ground with a web line and swinging it at Loki's head. Rather than dodge Loki caught the chunk with one hand, grabbed hold of the web line with the other, and swung Spider-Mare into the side of the concert hall building, before jerking back with both arms to send her hurtling to him.
Claws that could crush diamond closed around Spider-Mare's neck. Loki squeezed. "Pathetic. The sad little girl playing hero. Now you'll die like a mewling quim!"
"W-wait," said Spider-Mare, struggling for breath. She tried aiming her web shooters at him but he knocked them away with his free hand. "A... aren't you g-going to tell me your evil plan… dragon dude…?"
Loki snorted and squeezed harder. "Taking the time to do that would be stupid. Now, time to d-"
A pair of repulsor beams hit Loki from the side, Spider-Mare dropping from his hold as he went flying, smashing into the crater Spider-Mare had left in the concert hall building.
Iron Mare landed between the stunned Loki and the downed Spider-Mare, shoulder pads flipping open and tiny cannons sliding out toward the dragon. "Hey, I'm not overdoing that whole 'enter a fight repulsors blazing' thing, am I? It feels like I'm overdoing it."
Loki staggered out of the rubble and glared at the armored pony. "Galaxy. I'm going to enjoy splitting open your sku-"
Before he could finish a trio of crescent moon-shaped shuriken embedded into the pavement at Loki's feet. A moment later they exploded, sending him crashing, once again, into the side of the building.
As the dust settled, Spider-Mare; that is, Surprise, stared up in awe at Iron Mare from where she still lay on the ground where Loki dropped her, until the sound of approaching hoofsteps made her look to the left, to where the crescent moon-shaped shuriken had come from. The sight she beheld took her breath away.
The Mysterious Mare Do Well strode toward her and Iron Mare like something out of legend, made new for the modern age. Her purple and blue color scheme was now white and silver like the moon, and her broad-brimmed hat was gone, her cape now continuing up into a hood that hid the upper half of the face in shadow. The unicorn mare wearing the uniform, from what Surprise could see, was as snow-white as the costume, and her red eyes shone from the hood's shadows. The only bit of real color on the thing was a gold M-shaped clasp keeping her cape on. That was the deal-clincher.
Surprise gaped. "Mare… Mare…."
Mare Do Well; that is, Sweetie Belle, stopped at Surprise's side, smiled, and offered a hoof to help her up. "Spider-Mare. Big fan of your work, honored to meet you."
Surprise took the hoof and pulled herself up, before looking back and forth between Mare Do Well, Iron Mare, and Loki, who was just beginning to get into a sitting position. A crowd was beginning to gather again, excited chatter and the sound of cameras clicking becoming clear. Surprise ignored all of that. "I feel a little out of my league, but… want me to web that guy up or anything?"
Iron Mare chuckled and opened up more compartments in her armor, revealing lightning casters, missiles, rockets, lasers, and sonic cannons, all of which were trained on the sitting Loki. "No thanks, I think I've got him covered. Don't I, goat-boy?"
Loki scowled and made his helmet and armor dissipate, before holding his hands in the air.
"I guess you caught me."
Above, thunder rumbled in the cloud-darkened sky.
Princess Celestia looked up from the stack of papers sitting before her throne as a guard ran into the throne room, just as she had begun to grow bored with the every-day work of ruling, which she had had to return to eventually, leaving Luna to watch over things with STRIKE and the Crusaders.
"My Princess," said the guard once he reached the throne, giving a rushed bow. "News from your sister. Mare Do Well has reported in saying that they have captured Loki in Stalliongrad, as well as picked up the vigilante Spider-Mare. They are en-route back to base as we speak."
Celestia couldn't hold in her sigh of relief at this news. They might just make it through this crisis without any more death yet. Plus, it seemed Luna had been right about Spider-Mare being needed for the team. Celestia made a mental note to tell Luna this.
Returning to the present, Celestia made sure to give the guard an extra-bright smile. "Thank you for this news."
"My honor, your highness."
Once the guard was gone and she was alone, Celestia closed her eyes and allowed herself to relax, to let her troubles leave her mind. But then the sound of heavy hoof-falls made her open her eyes and look up. Doctor Doom strode toward her across the length of the throne room, flanked by six figures completely obscured in green cloaks. A personal guard, Celestia assumed.
"Princess Celestia, my old friend. I would have words with you."
Celestia motioned for the two guards at the foot of her throne to stand at ease, and then fixed Doom with her most commanding face. "We have never been friends, Doom, not since you took the Crystal Empire as yours those hundred years ago. But, for the world's sake, we are allies. What do you want?"
Doom stopped a yard from the steps of the throne and looked up at her with his red eyes. "The Crystal Empire is mine. It has ALWAYS been mine… but that's neither here nor there. I want to know what you intend to do in regards to the New Tambelon threat."
"Why would that concern you?"
Doom's eyes narrowed. "My crystal ponies are just shiny earth ponies, Celestia. They are a prime target. Some attacks have even already occurred. I want my ponies safe, and last I saw, New Tambelon is your responsibility. Yours, your sister's, and… your nephew Lir's…."
Celestia couldn't refute that. It was the truth, much as she hated to admit it.
"Very well, Doom. First, know that the leader of New Tambelon, Loki, was just minutes ago captured in Stalliongrad. He is being transported as we speak to a secure facility for… information."
The fang-bearing grin Doctor Doom gave at this news could have split solid rock. "For torture… good. The filthy dragon deserves no less."
Celestia raised an eyebrow at this. "Not a fan of dragons, Doom?"
A hiss of barely-contained anger. "Not particularly. I couldn't tell you why, I just do. Perhaps because dragons hoard and eat gems and, well… crystal ponies…."
Doom turned away and started for the door, leaving. "Very well then. Inform me when new developments occur. I will be waiting in my Crystal Empire."
Celestia let him near the exit, and then she could not keep her silence any longer. "I don't think you're a villain, Doom."
Doom stopped in the doorway and looked back at her. "Of course you do not, for I am not a villain. My crystal ponies are happy and safe. They have the best education system, the best housing, the best healthcare, absolute freedom to do anything that does not harm themselves or the Crystal Empire. No enemy would dare openly attack us and risk facing my wrath. I have given them this, and they love me unconditionally for it. Why ever would you think Doom a tyrant when he is the best even to ever happen to them?"
As the armored alicorn and his six guards left, Celestia whispered under her breath. "Because the Crystal Empire has a history with tyrants."
Sweetie Belle, hood lowered from her head, stood between Cameo and Daisy and looked out the STRIKE transport jet's forward window, observing the stormy weather and thinking back over the last twenty-four hours. It had all gone better that she had expected, if she was going to be honest with herself. And if she was going to be really honest with herself, being back in the action had felt… good.
"Ten minutes until we're back to base," said Cameo from the copilot's seat, reading off an instrument.
Galaxy, in armor except for her helmet, came over to stand to Sweetie Belle's right. "Oh good. That means we still have time to dump her into the ocean. Nobody will ever find her body."
Sweetie Belle shot Galaxy a glare, and then looked over her shoulder at their new, for lack of a better term, team member. Surprise, her own mask removed, sat across the fuselage from Loki, whose hands and wings were bound by webbing. She alternated between staring Loki down and looking in awe at her surroundings, clearly trying to hide her looks over at Sweetie Belle and Galaxy.
Sweetie Belle couldn't help but smile at the raw enthusiasm. "She's just excited meeting us and getting involved in all this. I know the type. She'll do fine."
Galaxy shrugged. "I suppose she did better than could be expected against someone like Loki. Held him up long enough for us to get there. Still, it's a good thing I was there to save the day. As usual."
Sweetie Belle had had enough at this. She turned to Galaxy and looked her right in the gem eyes. "Is everything and everyone just a chance for you to stroke your own ego?"
Galaxy glared back, a harsh red light filling her gem eyes. "What, you think you have a moral high ground from which to judge me? You, who has lied to me and hidden behind a fake identity my whole life when you could have been doing so much more, think you can judge me? Coward."
Sweetie Belle could have hit Galaxy for that. Instead she turned away and went down to where Surprise sat, at the moment occupied with looking out a window at the storm clouds. Sweetie Belle sat next to her and put on a smile. "This must all be a lot different than what you're used to back in Stalliongrad."
The white and yellow earth pony let out a chuckle that spelled nervousness. "Feeling a little out of my depth, yeah. I mean, I'd be happy to help you save the world even if my old foe Vulture wasn't involved, but, I mean uh, I don't know what I can add to the mix next to the likes of.. um…."
Surprise's eyes flicked over to Galaxy at the front of the Quinjet. Sweetie Belle followed her gaze and nodded. "Okay, yes, Galaxy can be intimidating. But darling, really, you're selling yourself short here. Common decency is something tragically undervalued. Why, I remember something my older sister Rarity once-"
Surprise grabbed her head in both hooves and grit her teeth, stifling a scream. "Oh gosh worse brain freeze ever!"
The smile dropped from Sweetie Belle's face the moment Surprise said this. "Oh no. Pinkie Sense. Surprise, what does a really bad brain freeze mean for you?"
"Hey," said Galaxy, joining them, "what's going on back here?"
Surprise, still holding her head, looked up at Sweetie Belle. "There's about to be a really uncomfortable family reunion."
Sweetie Belle and Galaxy shared a look, and then together looked over at Loki. All the color had drained from the red dragon's face. "Well damn my life."
Purple-scaled fingers the size of fence posts stabbed through the side of the Quinjet to the left and right of the seat Loki was currently webbed to. Before anyone could do anything the seat was ripped right out of the jet, leaving nothing but a gaping hole.
Surprise, desperately straining to stick to the floor with her superpowers and webbing, screamed to be heard over the roar of the rushing air. "THIS IS REALLY UNCOMFORTABLE!"
Loki came to on his back, free of the webbing, hard stone beneath him and the sound of waves crashing against rock echoing all around him, punctuated by bursts of lightning and thunder. The smell of the ocean was strong in the air.
Rolling into a sitting position, in three directions Loki saw a flat rocky expanse ending in sheer drops, beyond which lay dark, storm-driven ocean. In the fourth he saw a tall rocky ledge, from atop which a significantly larger dragon, scales a deep purple and green, glared down at him. "Well, hello Father. I didn't expect to see you… so soon."
Spike growled as only dragons could growl, eyes glowing hot and flames flickering among his teeth. "Ten years. Ten years of neither sight nor sound of you. I thought, I hoped, that you had settled down somewhere far away. Found a beautiful dragoness, started a family, made something of yourself!"
"Oh, but I have made something of myself." Loki climbed to his feet, folding his wings against his back like a cape. He saw his spear on the ground nearby and picked it up. Only then did he look back to his father. "I have made myself the culmination of dragon power and ambition. I am what I was born to be, and what you could have been if you hadn't let yourself be softened by those mewling little ponies! I am a conqueror, a king!"
Spike slammed his fist against the rock, shattering off a piece the size of a war chariot. "If you think yourself better than your subjects, then you would make a poor ruler. What of your New Tambelon? What of the pegasi in it you consider yourself better than?"
Loki grinned. "Even the lowliest pawn can be useful. But in the end, they are still merely a pawn. I will dispose of them once I rule."
"Grrr! You are a fool!" Spike leapt from the rock, slamming down in front of Loki and grabbing him by the shoulders.
For a moment, neither did or said anything. But then, Loki felt his father's hands begin to tremble. "I know the pain you have gone through. I know you blame them for her death, as I did for years. But a crown would suit you ill without understanding of friendship. My son, please… abandon this mad scheme… come home with me. Even now there is chance for mercy and forgiveness… please…."
Lightning flashed above them, and suddenly Loki noticed the tears in Spike's eyes. That gave him pause, but he quickly laughed it off and grinned, ignoring the wet sensation around his own eyes. "You think it would be as easy as that. But I have seen worlds and gained knowledge that is the fuel of nightmares!" He pushed Spike away and turned, striding to the cliff's edge to look out at the ocean, before turning back to the larger dragon. "I have grown, father, in my pain!"
Loki held up his spear, the yellow gem set into the blade glowing bright as the sun. He could see Spike's eyes widen and smirked. "I have seen the true power of these Gems, these Elements! And once I wield their power I-"
"Who gave you that!?" Spike lunged forward, grabbing the spear from Loki's grasp. He stared at the glowing gem in bewilderment, a hundred nightmare scenarios running through his head as he realized the full extent of this evil. "Loki, for the love of your mother, where did you get this weapon? How did you meet hi-"
Twin repulsor beams sent Spike flying back, over the shelf of rock he had originally been sitting on and out of sight.
Loki staggered as Galaxy landed beside him in full Iron Mare armor. "Upon much reflection, I don't think that's been overdone at all. Stay right there."
Galaxy flew off after Spike. Loki watched her go and then turned to leave, only to receive a face-full of webbing.
In one movement Surprise kicked Loki in the head, swept his legs out from under him, and shot a web line to stick him to the ground. "Nu-uh, you're not getting away that easy, champ."
These are the thoughts of Galaxy as she stared Spike down on that barren, rocky plain, a small island half a mile from the island the STRIKE base was on: "OH DAMN I PICKED A FIGHT WITH FREAKING SPIKE ADVISOR TO CELESTIA PRACTICALLY HER SON WHAT THE TARTARUS WAS I THINKING FRIEND TO THE LEGENDARY TWILIGHT SPARKLE BIG DRAGON CENTURIES OF BATTLE EXPERIENCE AND THE SCARS TO PROVE IT DAAAAMMMNNN!"
This is what Galaxy said as she stared Spike down. "You picked the wrong time to side with family, reptile. Walk away now before I have to teach you a lesson."
Spike let out a rumbling growl that, Galaxy supposed, might have been laughing. "On the one hand, you trying to do that would just about make my day. On the other, I don't want to think you're that stupid. Loki is my son. Stay out of this, mare. It's not your problem and I don't wish to hurt you."
"Ponies are dying," said Galaxy, standing up to level her repulsors at Spike. "That makes it my problem. And right now, you're starting to become my problem too. I obliterate my problems. Last chance to stand down, dragon."
A light rain began to fall as the two figures stood there staring each other down, Galaxy's repulsors humming, Spike's claws digging into the solid rock ground. Unnoticed by either, lightning flared in the distance from the direction of the STRIKE base, followed by more bolts, growing closer every time.
At once they leapt at each other, armored unicorn and fanged dragon, each ready to tear the other apart to achieve-
The world turned white to Galaxy, the white of a thunderbolt. When her vision returned and she could move her armor again, she found herself sprawled on her back yards away from where had been a moment before, which had been reduced to a charred, smoking crater a foot deep. On the opposite side of the crater she could see Spike in a similar situation, also just getting up.
"What in the name of Celestia…."
Galaxy looked up as Sweetie Belle dropped down beside her, eyes on the smoking crater even as she helped the armored unicorn up. "Galaxy, what did you two do?"
"Haven't a clue," said Galaxy, deciding for once to accept Sweetie Belle's help. She switched her helmet's optic display to infra-red and looked into smoke. "If I had normal eyes this would be excruciating. But, I think there's somepony inside there."
Before either pony could make a move, Spike struggled to his feet and with one great flap of his wings dispersed the smoke. Despite herself, Galaxy's heart skipped a beat at the sight that they beheld.
A tall pegasus kneeled in the center of the foot-deep crater, steam still rising from his body. His coat was a vibrant cobalt blue and his mane and tail were a brilliant scarlet. He wore armor strangely anachronistic to Galaxy; steel mail armor, a black and silver sleeveless cuirass and steel plate boots. From the shoulders of the cuirass flowed a cape a deeper shade of scarlet than his mane.
Galaxy also thought it pertinent to note that the stallion was absolutely ripped. Farm horse-ripped.
"Who… is that hunk?" Sweetie Belle and Spike glared at Galaxy. She looked at both of them and shrugged. "What?"
The pegasus staggered from the crater, seemingly having trouble gaining his bearings. Before she knew what she was doing Galaxy hurried over, putting a hoof out to keep him standing. "Whoa, steady there."
He groaned, shook his head, and looked around, green eyes wide with what Galaxy surmised to be wonder. "I'm back, then. I am truly back…."
Lancer looked at Galaxy then, chuckled, and grinned. "I think I have a hippogryph waiting for me."