SOMEWHERE IN EASTERN EQUESTRIA...
A land cruiser sped over a rugged mountain road, past dry, brown slopes that were void of any habitation, pony or otherwise. Small patches of dirt-brown scrub dotted the barren hills of the Badlands. The cruiser had the road all to itself as it raced to make its rendezvous before the sun went down. It bounced over the rough terrain beneath a gloomy, overcast sky that was almost the same color as the hills. The place was unnaturally bad, as the name suggested, and a keening wind whipped through the desolate peaks and canyons as the cruiser made haste.
Not a good omen, thought Doctor Time Turner Whooves as he sped along in the cruiser. The middle-aged earth pony sat tensely in the middle of the vehicle, flanked by grim-faced colts armed with automatic weapons. Bringing the big stuff out, huh? he thought, staring down the barrel of one such item. Doesn't matter. They wouldn't help much. Not against him. More soldiers guarded the prisoners in the rear of the cruiser: three silent figures with hoods over their heads, whose clearly visible claws and scaled limbs made it clear that they were dragons. They sat rigidly, said hands cuffed, under the watchful gaze of the guards.
Whooves squirmed uncomfortably, feeling more like a prisoner than a passenger. He rubbed his hooves through his unruly brown hair, which was steadily accumulating a number of graying ones. Sweat glued some of it to his forehead, and his light brown coat glistened in the mid-morning sun. Am I doing the right thing? he fretted, glancing rapidly between the road, the guards, and the dragons at the rear of the cruiser. What if I'm making a terrible mistake?
Other sounds began to be heard. Just as the Doctor had convinced himself that he should never have accepted the offer of those damned Canterlot Princesses, the cruiser arrived at its destination--a remote airstrip overlooking a war-torn city. Or, at least, what had used to be a city. No doubt those monsters destroyed it, Whooves thought, and silently wondered if he was talking about the dragons in back, or the ponies surrounding the four of them. Artillery fired somewhere in the distance, and the noise shook the Doctor's bones. Sirens were blaring somewhere else. The sound of the conflict, which had been going on for months now, reminded Whooves of why he had been so eager to flee the province he was in for a safer, ore civilized location. This was no place for a stallion of his intellect--not anymore.
The cruiser finally squealed to a stop, and the guards hustled him and the hooded figures out of the truck. An unmarked jet airplane waited on the runway, along with a small "reception committee" consisting of a bland-looking colt in a suit and a small escort of armed guards. Although the plane had no identifying uniforms or insignia, Whooves assumed they were from the Canterlot Royal Guard, perhaps even from the Princesses' own Special Forces. The Doctor did not care at the moment what they were, only what they represented: the leading agency in Equestria, specializing in sabotage, reconnaissance, assassination (that one gave him chills), and especially... extractions. That one, he hoped, was what they were best at. He wanted them to keep him safe, especially after his recent narrow escape.
The guard who had been driving the cruiser shoved him forward abruptly, bringing him face-to-face with the colt in the suit.
"Doctor Time Turner?" The colt smiled and held out his hoof. "I'm EIA." He did not offer his name, and even if he did, Whooves would not have believed him.
"Just the Doctor."
The colt kept smiling. "Yes, of course." He turned to another guard, who held a suitcase in his teeth. He took it and gave it to the driver of the land cruiser, who accepted it eagerly. The briefcase contained more than enough money to make the driver's risky job worth while. Setting the case down, he gestured behind him.
"He wasn't alone," the driver announced.
The EIA colt spotted the hooded dragons kneeling beside the cruiser and frowned. He turned back to Whooves.
"You cant bring any friends."
"They are not my friends!" the Doctor rebutted. Indeed, he wanted nothing more than to get as far away from all of this and see his true friends again. He was especially worried about the hooded drakes. Looking around at the guards at the scene, he thought to himself, You have no idea what they're capable of doing!
"Don't worry," the driver told the EIA agent. "No charge for them."
The agent studied the dragons for a moment, looking doubtful.
"Why would I want them?"
At this, the driver smiled. "They were trying to grab your prize." He pounded Whooves on the back, his smile changing into a smirk. "They work for the mercenary. The masked drake."
A look of excitement crossed the EIA colt's nondescript, uninteresting features. He gave the prisoners a closer look, still a little unsure.
The driver nodded. Doctor Whooves gulped.
"Get 'em on board," the agent ordered, swiftly revising his original plans. Clearly this was an opportunity he wasn't going to pass up. He extracted a cell phone from his jacket. "I'll call them in."
Whooves swallowed again, hard. He was not enjoying the way this was turning out. He shuddered at the memory of the attempted kidnapping, and at the very name of his attackers' infamous commander. Spike had become synonymous with atrocities, at least in the parts of the world he now hoped he was finally escaping from. The most frightening fact about the mercenary was that, according to draconian standards, he could still be considered a baby dragon. He knew the dragons that were bound to be coming on the plane with him were also young, nowhere near the size they would grow up to be, but he was sure that they were older than their leader. And the legends that surrounded Spike's beginnings...
Celestia, a baby that has performed atrocities unimaginable to everyday city ponies. And now we're bringing some of his lackeys with us to Canterlot. Again, he gulped.
Given the choice, Whooves would have left Spike's followers far behind them.
Within minutes, they were in the air, flying low over the remote Macintosh Hills in an attempt to avoid detection. Special Agent Con Mane checked on Doctor Whooves, who was safely tucked into a passenger seat, before turning his attention to the three hooded drakes still kneeling at the back of the plane. Though his cool exterior showed no sign of it, Con Mane felt as though Hearths Warming had come early for him this year. Finally, he thought, after months of trying to get some reliable intel on Spike, these three bozos practically hop into the plane with me! To date, the notorious drake had defied the Agency's best effort's to neutralize or even co-opt him. They didn't even know what he looked like beneath the grotesque mask he wore twenty-four-seven. The dragon was a mystery--with an unsettlingly high body count.
Forget Whooves, Con Mane though. If I get the 411 on Spike, I'll be getting quite the recommendation on my files. There might even be a promotion waiting for me when I get back. Maybe a post up in Manehatten or Vanhoover.
The hooded figures knelt by the cargo door of the plane, their wrists still cuffed behind them. Their wings had been tied up as well, for good measure. Don't want them flying off when I need 'em. Royal Guard commandoes stood guard over the prisoners. Wilson grabbed the first captive, a pearly white drake with light pink spines running down his back.
"What do you think you're doing in the middle of my operation?" he demanded.
The prisoner said nothing. Con Mane assumed it was the gunk they had to shove down these things' throats to keep them from breathing fire. Of course, that didn't mean they couldn't talk.
Fine, Con Mane thought. We'll do it your way. He hadn't expected the drake to crack without a little persuasion, and in truth, he had been anticipating this next part. The colt drew a semiautomatic pistol from inside his suit and pressed the barrel against the pale dragon's hooded head. The prisoner flinched, but remained silent. Con Mane decided to up the ante a bit. He drew he prisoner over to the cargo door, and raised his voice so that the other prisoners could hear him even through their hoods.
"The flight plan I just filed with the Royal Guard lists me, my men, and Doctor Whooves here. But I only listed one of you."
Now he threw the cargo door open. Cold air invaded the cabin as the wind outside howled past like timberwolves howling at the moon. Con Mane grabbed onto a strap to anchor himself. He nodded at the guards, who grabbed the drake he'd pulled over and forced his head out the cargo door. The wind tore at the areas of his wings that were not completely tied down, threatening to pull him out of the guards' grip. Seeing this, they held those parts down so that they would not drag them all out. Below them, the barren stretches of the Badlands waited.
"First one to talk gets to stay on my aircraft!" Con Mane shouted, loud enough to be heard over the roar of the wind. He cocked his weapon next to the drake's head, hoping to intimidate him into talking. "So...who paid you to snatch the Good Doctor, huh?"
The drakes remained silent. Spike's goons were loyal, he could give them that. Time to push a little harder.
Alright. Time for a little illusion...
He fired the weapon out the door, the sharp BANG! of the gun blasting through the howling winds. The Royal Guards pulled the prisoner back into the plane, and clubbed him roughly over the head with the hilt of their swords before he could make a sound. In theory, Con Mane hoped, the other prisoners would think their comrade dead and thrown overboard.
Maybe then they'd be more easy-going about giving him what he wanted.
"He didn't fly so good for a guy with wings," Con Mane bluffed. "Who wants to try next?"
The Royal Guards shifted over to the next dragon, a burly crimson drake with torn yellow wings and matching spines, and pulled him over to the cargo door as well. They hung the prisoner out of the door, high above the mountains. The drop was enough to make even a dragon pray to Celestia as they fell. And he would fall, should they decide to throw him out. His torn up wings ensured that.
"Tell me about Spike!" Con Mane demanded. "Why does he wear the mask?"
No answer, save for the roaring winds and the purring engines.
Now frustrated, Con Mane placed his gun against the second drake's head. He was getting fed up with their silences. Did they really think he was just joking around here? Though, with them being younger dragons, he would expect them to. Stupid lizards don't even realize how powerful the Equestrians are. He cocked his gun again, but still...nothing. This one didn't even flinch.
"Lot of loyalty for a hired gun!"
"Or," a new voice interrupted, "maybe he's wondering why someone would shoot a drake who can't fly before throwing him out of an airplane."
The muffled voice came from the third dragon, who appeared smaller, but better built than the other two. Muscles bulged beneath the black leather jacket and weathered fatigues he was wearing (Con Mane had seen earlier that this one was the only dragon wearing some form of clothing). He had the build of bodyguard, or perhaps a bouncer, and he held his head high despite the hood. Con Mane shivered when he looked at the third drake's purple scales and emerald spines. He didn't know why he did.
Giving up on the second prisoner, Con Mane had the guards haul the useless sack of scales back into the plane, and then slammed the cargo door shut to keep out the howling winds, making it easier to hear the drake talk. Now, he thought, now they were going to get some answers.
"A wise guy, huh?" He examined the third captive more closely, and grinned. "Well, if you think that's funny, how 'bout I toss over a dragon who ain't got wings at all?" He tapped the purple drake's back, where twin wings were supposed to be sprouting from his spine.
"If what I've heard is correct, then you'll have thrown all three of us overboard," replied the third drake. "Unless, of course, you were bluffing, and they're still on the plane."
Con Mane circled back to face the drake (or at least his hood). The voice coming from underneath the hood, though muffled by it, sounded slightly amplified, as though he were speaking into a turned-down megaphone. He leaned in close to the captive and said, "Well, at least you can talk. Who are you?"
"We are nothing," the drake replied. "We are the dirt beneath your feet. And no cared who I was, before I put on the mask."
Whoa, Con Mane thought, caught off guard. He felt his heart begin to pound in his chest as the information just given to him processed itself in his mind. Did he just say what I think he said?
Warily, not daring to believe his own ears, he trotted over towards the prisoner. He held his breath, and yanked off the man's, exposing the exact visage that Con Mane hadn't dared believe was underneath it. It matched the images from the countless captured spy photos and combat footage exactly. It was a face--and a mask--that had burned its way into the nightmares of countless minds in the bloodier corners of the world. It was now that he realized why he'd been frightened by the prisoner's purple scales.
Bright emerald eyes shone above an intimidating dark blue mask that covered the bottom half of the dragon's face, covering his snout, mouth, and chin. The mask, made of rubber with metal components connected to it, was held there in part by a thick vertical strap that bisected the drake's brow and cranium, leaving slits in it for his spines to stick out of. Two rows of metal breathing tubes ran above and below some sort of built-in inhaler that covered the drake's mouth. To add to the image, the tubes gave the agent the vague impression that the drake was bearing his fangs. Pipes that ran along the sides and edges of the mask led to a set of miniature canisters at the back of his skull. Con Mane could hear air hissing out from the mask as the captive breathed. There was no sign of fear in the mercenary's pirecing green eyes. When he spoke, it was in a calm and reassuring tone.
"Who we are does not matter," Spike said. "What matters is our plan."
Con Mane was fascinated by the drake's elaborate headgear, which looked to him like a specialized sort of gas mask. Why had he put it there; to simply add effect, or was it really a breathing apparatus used for some sort of vital function? He gestured to it.
"If I pulled that off, would you die?"
"It would be extremely painful," Spike answered. Still calm, still without fear.
Good to know, thought Con Mane. He decided then and there he had no sympathy for the ruthless mercenary. Spike was a bad guy who deserved to suffer for his crimes. "You're a big guy, for a baby."
"For you," Spike corrected.
A chill ran down Con Mane's spine, but he brushed it off, too busy to let it show. He knew he had to remain in control of the situation if he wanted answers.
"Was being caught a part of your plan?"
"Of course," Spike said. "The Doctor refused our offer, in favor of yours. We had to know what he told you about us."
"Nothing!" the Doctor shouted from his seat. To Con Mane's surprise, he looked absolutely terrified to be in Spike's presence, even though the drake was safely in custody. From what I've heard about his guy, he's supposed to be fearless, Con Mane thought. What makes this little lizard so damn frightening? The Doctor's eyes were wide with terror. He called out frantically, as though he were pleading for his life. "I said nothing!"
Con Mane ignored the Doctor's pleading.
"Why not just ask him?" he said, nodding his head in the Doctor's direction.
"He would not have told us."
"You have methods, I'm sure," Con Mane said.
Spike nodded. "Him, I need healthy," Spike explained. "You present no such problems."
The dragon's utter confidence was unnerving. Con Mane laughed, mostly as a way to try and get his heart to stop beating so fast, then glanced up as a deep bass tone rumbled somewhere above them. The pilot was playing any DJ-P0N3, was he? No, the unexpected sound was playing from outside the cabin, competing with the sound of the engines.
Thunder? Wrong again; the weather report hadn't called for any thunder over the Badlands.
Outside, a massive transport plane, many times larger than the small turbojet aircraft, descended from above. Its dull gray hull gave no indication of loyalties as it drew dangerously close to the smaller plane. A ramp opened on it, and four other dragons flew out of it towards the turbojet. Two of them landed on each side of the plane. Each of them was armed ready.
The rumbling grew louder and louder. Turbulance rattled the plane, and it lurched suddenly to one side. Con Mane struggled to keep his balance. He exchanged a puzzled and aggravated look with the leader of the Royal Guard group. The soldier peered out one of the small windows and squinted into the fading sunlight.
Con Mane didn't know what was going on, but he wasn't going to show it. He still had an interrogation to finish, and a masked mercenary to finish off.
"Well, congratulations," he taunted Spike. "What's the next step of your brilliant plan?"
"Crashing this plane." Spike rose slowly to his feet. "With no survivors."
As if on cue, an armed dragon appeared outside the window the Royal Guard had been looking through. The dragon didn't give the guard enough time to react, and promptly shattered the window (and the left side of the guard's face) with a round of bullets. Another dragon began firing from outside the plane, and Royal Guards dropped left and right. Glass from the windows shattered and landed at Con Mane's hooves. Blood and chaos worthy of Discord's praise spilled throughout the cabin. Death had been an extra passenger on the flight.
No! Con Mane thought (and almost screamed). This can't be happening! I'm in charge here!
Outside the plane, the other two drakes attached sturdy steel grapples to the fuselage. Thick, industrial-strength cables connected the two aircraft as one of the dragons signaled the crew aboard the big transport. Powerful hoists activated, tugging the on the tail of the smaller plane that flew below. The tiny turbojet's tail began to pull upward, and the wings began to crumple.
The entire cabin tilted forward at an almost ninety-degree angle, throwing the Royal Guards and Con Mane towards the front of the plane, along with loose luggage and debris.
The EIA agent clutched onto a seat to keep from falling, but dead and wounded soldiers plunged through the upended cabin, plummeting past him and Doctor Whooves, who was still strapped in his seat. The Doctor was trying to process events as they progressed, but things were happening too fast.
I knew it, he thought, despairing what would come next. I shouldn't have tried to flee. There was no escape for me. Not from Spike.
Only the masked drake himself seemed to be expecting the sudden change in the plane's angle. Falling forward, he wrapped his thick legs and tail around the back of a seat and seized Con Mane's head with both hands. His wrists were still cuffed together, but that didn't stop him fro snapping the Equestrian's neck as easily as someone might slice a piece of cake for a friend.
Con Mane died afraid, far from his home and the ones he loved.
Spike then used the corpse as a weapon, dropping it onto a young guard, who was slammed into the cockpit door with a heavy thud. The soldier went limp, and the Doctor wondered whether he was dead or simply unconscious. Not that it matters, he thought. Judging by how much damage this plane is taking, I doubt he'd be alive much longer. At least he didn't have to wait for the fall. Now, though, he was worried for his own safety more than the already-gone soldier.
Spike will kill us all to get what he needs.
He propped his hooves against the back of the seat in front of him as gravity took its toll on the plane. He felt it shake violently, and realized with a new wave of horror that it was tearing apart. He felt the destructive vibrations in his spine. He was not an aeronautics engineer--well, at least, not in this sort of ship--but he knew that the plane could not withstand much more than this.
Then the right wing of the plane sheared off. The Doctor watched it separate from the rest of the plane and fall to earth, and slowly came to a realization:
This is it. We're all going to die.
Outside, the dragons at work climbed he tail of plane as the left wing came ripping off, plummeting towards the peaks below. A small cloud of smoke could be seen from where the wing hit.
The dragons paid this no mind, however. They had work to do. Pulling out explosives, they set them up around the tail of the plane. Then they flew away from the plane, flying up to get several tethers for their expected guests...
Spike snapped the handcuffs around his wrists as thought they were plastic knock-offs. Opening his legs, he fell down the length of the cabin with remarkable agility, sliding down gracefully before extending his arms to halt his descent. He stopped himself next to the Doctor's seat, and looked over at the frightened earth pony. He knew exactly what he was doing--and exactly what he wanted.
The Doctor's eyes widened with terror at the sight of the dragon.
A deafening explosion suddenly tore through the aircraft, blowing the tail off of the plane completely. Smoke filled what was left of the cabin, and Whooves saw that Spike's goons (all dragons) were gliding down into the cabin through the smoke. Several of them had cables. Whooves watched anxiously, trying to understand what was happening.
Is Spike trying to kill me, or save me?
Something large and heavy was lowered into the cabin, an the Doctor recognized it as a body bag. He was even more frightened (and, admittedly, a little relieved) to see that it was already filled. The bag was lowered into the seat next to Spike who unzipped it to reveal the body of a light brown earth pony. It took the Doctor only a moment to understand what Spike meant by it.
Sweet Celestia, that's supposed to be me!
Spike then pulled something out of one of his jacket pockets and turned to Whooves. The Doctor recognized it as a piece of surgical tubing, and his eyes widened when he saw the hollow needles sprouting from both sides of it. When Spike tore open his sleeve, he tensed, but didn't dare move. He simply shut his eyes as Spike took a strong grip on his foreleg and readied a vein the crook of it. He winced at the pain of the needle jabbing into his vein, and opened his eyes when he felt Spike loosen his grip on his foreleg.
Swiftly taping the needle into place, Spike then inserted the other end of the tube into the lifeless body in the seat next to them. Dark red blood began flowing through the tube, and the Doctor realized with horror that Spike was pumping the blood back into the lifeless body.
Doctor Time Turner Whooves had never felt sicker in his life.
After a pint or so of compressions, Spike withdrew the needle from Whooves' foreleg and gestured that he should apply pressure to the puncture to keep him from bleeding out.
As this happened, one of the dragons that had flown in drew the hoods off of the heads of the prisoners. He secured one of the harnesses on the red drake, tugged on the rope, and waved once as the crimson dragon was yanked up out of the plane to the transport above.
The second prisoner began climbing up towards the nearest cable.
Spike put a claw on the drake's chest and shook his head.
"No, brother," he said gently. "They expect one of us in the wreckage."
The white dragon nodded in understanding. Without any sign of protest, he unhooked himself from the life saving clip and fell back onto a seat, tucking his arms under his still-tied-down wings. He looked over at his leader and rested a claw on his arm. His eyes shone with the brightness of a true believer.
"Have we started it? The fire?" the drake said.
Spike squeezed his arm in return and nodded.
"Of course. The fire rises."
It was enough for the drake. He handed the line to Spike, who clipped it around the Doctor. He produced a knife that he must have taken from one of his men--or perhaps from one of the Royal Guards--and faced Whooves. For a moment, the Doctor was sure that Spike was going to slice his throat. But Spike simply leaned forward and cut the Doctor's seat belt, cutting him loose.
As gravity took its hold on him, Whooves flailed in panic and tried to find something that he could hang onto before he landed on the pile of bodies at the front of the plane.
Help me! he screamed in his mind. I'm falling...!
But he and Spike, who had let go of the seats as well, found themselves simply dangling several feet above the cockpit door and the pile of bodies blocking it. Smoke and blood filled the cabin of a plane that had been calmly sailing through the air on its way to deliver the prisoners to Canterlot, what was it, ten minutes ago? The Doctor wondered for a moment what had happened to the pilot, then decided that it didn't matter. His ears were ringing from the explosion, his hooves were dangling in the air, and what the hell was Spike pulling out of his pocket this time?
It was a small hand-held detonator, as it turned out. Whooves gulped at the sight of it. Spike looked him in the eyes.
"Calm, Doctor. Now is not the time for fear."
He checked the clips around them both once more, then looked up at the transport plane waiting for them up above.
"That comes later."
He pressed the firing button.
The explosions that released the plane from the grip of the steel grapples amplified the ringing in the Doctor's head. He yelled in fright as the cabin dropped away from him and Spike, falling down to the Macintosh Hills waiting below. Looking down at the falling cabin, Whooves was shocked to see that the white drake with pink spines that had said he would stay on the plane had indeed stayed on the plane. He was staring up at the figures of Spike and the Doctor as he grew tinier and tinier in the Doctor's vision.
What was most unnerving, however, was that he was smiling up at them.
The Doctor watched the plane fall and crash into the mountains below. He felt a dull, burning anger pushing up through him, one he'd felt on many occasions before. He knew it was pointless to express it, that it would only get him killed faster, but still, it was there.
And he decided to let it out, whether Spike liked it or not.
Doctor Time Turner Whooves, renowned doctor of "many things", screamed in both rage and terror as he was pulled up toward the waiting transport plane.