“Finally! Things are looking up for our side!” Twilight clung to the back of the tiger as it loped towards the center of the arena, taking advantage of even a moment's rest. “Fluttershy, ask your... um... friend here if it knows any way out of here. As soon as we get a free moment I want to find the exits.”
“He can understand you just fine, silly.” Fluttershy leaned down to hear a soft rumble from the tiger. “Hmm... no, they had him in a covered cage when they brought him in; he didn't see how they got him into the pit.”
“Covered cage? The pit was ready beforehand? Dear Celestia, this place knew what it was doing WAY beforehoof.” Twilight rubbed her muzzle. “Problems for later. Right now we need to end this fight. Give me a second to....”
Her voice trailed off as two shadows- one massive, one much smaller- streaked overhead. “Come on, Skippy, is that the best-” she heard Rainbow Dash shout out before distance, and the deep whoosh of the manticore's wings, stole her voice away.
“...Dash is definitely handling the manticore,” the unicorn whispered, consulting her mental checklist. “Check.”
“-the best you've got?” Dash didn't even know for certain why she was taunting the beast; she was pretty sure it was already as angry as it could get. So was she, for that matter. But despite the anger, she was thinking clearly- she knew that she was both faster and more maneuverable than the manticore, but she had to keep it “entertained” enough for it not to give up on her and go after one of her friends.
Unfortunately there were precious few ways for her to do so aside from keeping just ahead of the creature. She managed to get it away from the middle of the arena, and with a quick juke, she faked it out well enough to get it to crash into the thick perimeter wall. Unfortunately, that only bought her a few seconds of peace, as it practically bounced from the now-cracked wall only to land on its paws and immediately took off after her again. “Ugh, wouldn't you know the thing is even tougher than it looks,” she groaned beneath her breath.
As she cruised along the edge of the arena, she took a moment to look over the ongoing battle. For some reason, Indy had Jack's sword and was actually holding his own against one of the hunters; Dash could just make out Rarity's magical field around him. Not too far away, Jack and AJ were likewise doing a good job of keeping the other hunter on the defensive, with the human's impressive moves complimenting the cowpony's relentless attacks well.
The manticore must have noticed her gaze, or maybe it had gotten tired of chasing her tail, but she somehow sensed it slow and begin to peel off. She muttered every last profanity she could think of and cut the sharpest U-turn she could manage, her head pounding from the strain the maneuver put on her body- but it gave her just enough time to intercept the manticore as it bounded into the air once more, streaking towards Indy and Rarity, who continued their fight unheeding of the new danger above them.
Dash thrust out one hoof, dipped and then soared, aiming right for the beast's chin-
-and the manticore suddenly twisted itself around, a wicked grin on its muzzle as it brought one huge paw around to swat her out of the air-
-and Dash spun, planting both rear hooves on the beast's foreleg even as it swung, using it as a springboard to launch her hoof-first right into the thing's jaw. The blow was strong enough to daze the creature at least, and its dive became a freefall- directly towards the fashionista and archaeologist below.
“Ah, crud- look out below!” she hollered.
The hunter, with its inability to feel fatigue, was quick to leap away; Indy was caught flat-footed, but a magical “shove” from Rarity was just enough to get him out of the way, while the pony spun on her hooves and jumped for all she was worth. The manticore slammed back-first into the floor with a sound not unlike a small explosion, and enough force to rattle the overhead crystals and the announcer's platform.
The impact was also enough to crack the thin plate of rock underneath the beast, and as the manticore rolled back onto its feet and gave chase to Dash again, the spiderweb of cracks began to grow. Indy scrambled to get to his feet, aches and pains forgotten in a rush of panic. “Rarity! Get back!” he shouted to her, sprinting to get away from the now-collapsing floor.
“Indy? What-?!” Only now could she see the gaping hole opening up behind him, the pieces of rock falling away into the lightless void beneath this place. Her legs locked up under her in fear. “Run!” she called out to him, reaching her magic towards him- no good; he was outside of her range.
Then the rock beneath her started to crack as well, and with a panicked yelp she scrambled backwards, tripping over her hooves and falling back. She looked back up to see Indy sprinting towards her, one hand out, preparing to jump-
-too late, as the rock gave out beneath his feet and he plummeted out of sight, too fast for her to catch with her magic.
“INDY!” The ground was still fragile beneath her, but she crawled up as close to the pit as she dared; the edge of the hole was just in front of her, and with a quick glance to her sides she could see where the pit ended. Hoping against hope, she stuck her head over the edge and looked down.
“Uh... can I get a hand here? Or a hoof? Whatever you've got available.”
There he was, almost ten feet below, hanging precariously by one hand; somehow he'd managed to get one of his kunai free and dig it into a crevice in the rock as he fell. It wouldn't hold long, though, and he was too far down for her to get a stable arcanokinesis field around him with enough strength to lift him.
Desperation triggered innovation. “Indy! Your whip! Toss one end up so I can take hold of it!”
Carefully, the human reached down with his free hand, grabbed the handle of his whip, and flicked the lash upwards. As soon as it was as high as it would get, Rarity's arcane field took hold of it. “I have it! Climb!”
The human started to pull himself upwards- and then the kunai slipped out from the rock and tumbled into the black void beneath him, and Rarity felt as though her heart had stopped for a moment. But his hold on his whip was strong, and as she began pulling him up with as much magical strength as she could muster, he started pulling himself up as well, digging his boots into the rock for leverage. But it wasn't a fast enough pace for Rarity's tastes- that hunter was still out there somewhere, after all- so she seized the whip's end in her teeth, ignoring the atrocious taste, and began pulling as hard as she could with her hooves as well as with her magic.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, one of Indy's hands grasped the edge of the pit. Immediately Rarity rushed forward, wrapped her magic around his chest and pulled, carefully bringing him back onto solid ground, where he collapsed on his back and panted for breath. “Where's... the hunter?” he gasped.
“I don't know, I... wait.” She spotted the Imakandi, sprinting across the arena as the tiger chased after it. “Ooooh, catfight,” she quipped with a giggle, managing to get a chuckle out of the exhausted human as well. “Indy, can you stand?”
“Yeah, one second.” It took a little longer than that, but the archaeologist managed to get back to his feet once more. “I think that's another one I owe you,” he told her with a grateful smile. “Guess we'd better get back into the action.”
“Well, it seems that our contestants found one of our surprises a little early! What a pity; that bottomless pit was sure to be a crowd-pleaser. But one should expect the unexpected in the Dome of Doom!”
“The last thing I'd expect is for him to pipe down. Wouldn't that be nice?” Twilight couldn't help but giggle; it was a supreme accomplishment to get Fluttershy of all ponies annoyed enough to say something about it. “I know, seriously,” the unicorn agreed. “We need to finish this before he drives us all crazy. Fluttershy, get your friend here to chase the hunter back towards the middle of the arena. I have an idea.”
Applejack's ears perked as she heard a sharp whistle from somewhere near the center of the dome. She risked a quick glance backwards and could just make out Twilight, seated on top of that tiger behind Fluttershy, waving a hoof towards them. The cowpony understood. “Jack,” she called out, getting his attention. “Let's bring 'im around! Twi's up to somethin'.”
“Understood!” Immediately, the samurai changed his tactics, and he and Applejack began forcing the Imikandi to retreat, giving him no option but to head towards the middle of the floor.
Finally, after a couple more minutes of chasing, fighting and corralling, the two remaining hunters stood back-to-back at the center of the arena, both watching their opponents emotionlessly, each ready to respond to the slightest movement. “And here we have it,” the announcer called out. “The last stand, the final fight. What will it be? A reckless charge? A careful approach? An all-out brawl? Or perhaps-”
“...or perhaps teleporting the hunters over the bottomless pit.” Everything was silent for a moment as the two remaining Imakandi fell, noiselessly, to their doom. “So be it! All is fair in the arena! But now... the final scene in our opening act must still be played out- the manticore!” As if hearing its cue, the beast landed in the center of the arena, followed closely by Dash. “Darn it, get back here, you bat-winged jerk!” she yelled, delivering a powerful double-hoofed kick to the beast's rump... which only served to infuriate the creature, as its ebony eyes locked on its original target- Fluttershy.
Twilight had just opened her mouth to speak when Dash shouted. “Twilight! Bind its wings, quick!”
There was a combination of authority and desperation in the pegasus's voice that overrode the unicorn's tendency to question what she didn't understand; in an instant, her horn lit up, and a glowing field surrounded the manticore's wings just as they were about to snap open for flight. Caught by surprise, the beast stumbled out of its pre-flight jump.
“Jack! AJ! Take out its front legs!”
Jack's sliding kick came just a little too slowly, but lifting the paw he'd been aiming for left the manticore with much of its weight on its other foreleg- which took a crushing blow from Applejack's hooves. As it recoiled and tried to regain its balance, Jack's second kick caught it in the back of its leg, sending it crashing face-first into the ground.
“Okay! Indy, hogtie the front legs! Rarity, same, back legs!”
Indy's whip caught the beast's forelegs as it scrambled to regain its paws, and as it braced itself to break free, a glowing field of white magic surrounded its hindlegs, yanking them together and back, sending the creature crashing back down on its belly. There it lay, squirming and snarling, struggling to get free, as Rainbow Dash touched down in front of him. “Whoa, Dash,” Applejack murmured, staring at her friend. “Didn't think y'had that sort of leadership streak in ya.”
“Didn't mean to step on your hooves, Twilight, but I figured we had one good shot.” The pegasus glared into the manticore's black eyes. “I said I'd get in that ugly head of yours. Knew every move you'd pull. Knew just how to shut you down.” She actually snarled, and the other ponies took a step back in surprise. “You don't attack my friends, not while I'm around.” She abruptly turned away. “Indy, you wanna see our old friend off?”
Wordlessly, Indy drew Jack's katana, held it in both hands and raised it up, blade downward and pointed towards the manticore's head. The beast continued to growl and struggle right up until the moment the sword drove through its skull and into the stone floor below it.
“A clean sweep for our returning champion and his allies! Let's give a cheer for Two-Sandals the Treacherous!”
Off to one side, a part of the arena wall shuddered, then slid downwards with a soft rumble. “That might be a way out!” Twilight called. “Everyone, go! Dash, scout it out ahead of us!”
“You got it!” The pegasus streaked through the air, disappearing into the dark tunnel beyond the door as the others approached. But they'd only gotten halfway there when Dash came soaring out even more quickly. “Not an exit!” she yelled, her eyes wide. “Get back!”
The rest of the group backpedaled as quickly as they could as a number of dark, menacing shapes flowed out into the arena. They were barely recognizable as being human-like; jagged rock bones moved beneath dark metallic armor, an endless variety of wicked black weapons gleamed dully under the yellow light, and harsh deep-blue lights glared from empty eye sockets. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty... “Aw crud, how many ARE there?!” Applejack groaned.
“Oh my,” Fluttershy breathed. “I'll be right back....” And with that, she spread her wings and leaped from the back of her tiger, soaring off towards one side of the arena away from this new group of adversaries. “Where's she going?!” Dash demanded.
“I'm sure she's got a plan of some sort!” Twilight slowly backed away from the horde of creatures, which had already spread out into a semicircle. “And speaking of plans, I sure hope one of you is coming up with one, because I've got nothing! Jack, give us some information!”
“I have fought against creatures such as these- but never so many at once. This may prove... difficult.”
“And now we come to Round Two in our contest! Our champion and his companions have proven they can handle quality- but can they handle quantity?” As one, the mass of creatures began to march forward, weapons at the ready. “Can they withstand this horde of mindless, flesh-hungry monsters? Can they overcome such incredible odds?”
“Can they survive? Can they escape? Can they make it home? Can they can-can? I can can-can!”
As one, everyone and everything in the arena looked up.
The pink pony was standing on the announcer's platform, holding a microphone with one foreleg. “The situation looks grim, but there's something my friends have that these ugly beasties don't! And that's heart! Guts! A duodenum! And maybe a mild rash, but don't worry, Rarity, I promised not to tell anyone!”
The white unicorn blushed. “Um....”
“What the....” The announcer stared at Pinkie incredulously. “How did you even get up here? What do you think you're doing?!”
“Helping you, silly! I mean, seriously, you could use a co-announcer up here. This silly game you run here needs more verve, more energy, more pop!”
“...are you insane? Do you even understand what's happening here? Do you know what's at stake? This isn't some ridiculous game, you overfluffed equine- this is deadly-serious reality!”
“Oh yeah? Well... I reject your reality, and substitute tapioca!”
Even from the group's vantage point, it was easy to see Pinkie produce a small bowl from seemingly out of nowhere and hurl it at the announcer, striking him in the face and splattering it with... tapioca pudding? Indy somehow managed to tear himself away from the sight and glance down at the creatures- only to find them absolutely transfixed, staring upwards; his hand went towards his gun, knowing that seven bullets wasn't exactly going to turn the tide, but they'd need every advantage they could get-
“Indy!” He could just barely hear Fluttershy's voice behind and above him, and he turned to see the yellow pegasus flying towards him. “Catch!” she called out, tossing something large at him. Tired limbs moving out of reflex managed to snatch the object out of the air before it tumbled by him.
Fluttershy had found the submachine gun he'd lost.
Indy couldn't help but cackle to himself as he took a couple of steps forward to get his friends out of his line of fire, then dropped to a knee, shouldered the weapon and flattened the trigger for everything he was worth.
tat tat tat tat tat tat
Everything was suddenly lit in a bizarre shade of green as the weapon's bright blue lances of energy sizzled across the yellow-lit arena. Metal armor bent and melted before the onslaught, and the creatures literally shattered one-by-one as Indy swung the weapon around, shards of black rock and dark metal skittering across the arena floor in a cloud of destruction. When the submachine gun's magazine finally emptied, all that remained standing on the arena floor were five shocked ponies, a somewhat-impressed samurai, and an archaeologist with a half-crazed grin.
“Ohhhh, that felt good,” Indy murmured, even as he dropped the empty mag and fished a new one from his jacket.
“Now that's some action! Woo! Go Indy!” Pinkie was literally hopping up and down on the platform, waving her forelegs in the air excitedly. The announcer had finally recovered from the unusual assault and was wiping tapioca from his face. “You... you maniac! Get off my stage!” He jumped at the pony in an attempt to tackle her, only to have her leap from the platform, giving out a gleeful “Wheeee!” as she fell.
Her plummet was stopped less than three feet from the hard stone floor with a leaping grab by Jack. “My hero!” she squealed, hugging him tightly around the neck until he ended up prying her off with an embarrassed smile. “Wow, guys, I am so sorry that took me so long. I mean, seriously... you have no idea how hard it was to find some tapioca pudding in this place!”
“It- that- what- how-” Little bits of Twilight's mane seemed to independently fray as she tried to process that statement. “...okay, honestly, I don't care. All that matters is that we win again, thanks to Fluttershy, Indy and Pinkie. Now we need to find a way out of-”
“NOT QUITE YET.” Everyone froze in a moment of shock; all mirth and personality had vanished from the announcer's voice, leaving it as cold and threatening as a winter stormfront. “You have one more challenge to overcome before you leave our arena. One of the samurai's most formidable foes, ready and eager for a second chance. Once more emerging from the deepest pits of hate, introducing....”
A deep, rumbling roar came from the center of the arena, startling everyone on the floor and scattering them a bit. Some sort of dark vortex was hovering just above the ground, coalescing like fog, until abruptly it shot outwards into a rough, solid-black hourglass shape, atop which sat something resembling a head mixed with a bubbling glass flask. Slowly, a pair of pupilless eyes and a wide, wickedly-fanged grin formed in the boiling darkness.
“Hello again, Samurai Jack.” The voice was high-pitched, grating, like steel daggers on a chalkboard. “Aren't you glad to see an old friend return?”
“You could not be further from a friend, Demongo.” Jack crossed his arms. “I had hoped to never see you again. Though I did wonder what became of you after you reported your failure to Aku.”
“My former master was... most displeased. But now I am beyond even Aku's reach, in this place. Here, I am remade, improved... transcendant.” Demongo reached inside his cloak to produce a rough stone skull; Jack took a step back, arms raised in a defensive stance. “Perhaps you remember how I could summon the souls of those I defeated, and command them as my minions?” He seemed to be waiting for an answer, but after a moment of stubborn silence from Jack, he continued on. “Well... my new master has resources and knowledge to make Aku look like a mere child. Not only do I have access to the souls of warriors the likes of which you have never seen, I have been shown the secrets of another soul-stealer from a faraway realm. I no longer must summon my minions to do my bidding.” He crushed the skull in his hand, and let the powdery remains fall to the floor. “I may now become them.”
There was a brief but blinding flash of light, and when the group's vision cleared, Demongo had seemingly vanished. What stood in his place appeared to be a human man with wild red hair and pale skin, dressed in red-and-purple robes. What seemed to be a perfectly round glass sphere, about the size of a bowling ball, hovered at his right side just below his hand.
Jack's hand went to his side- but his sword was absent. A few feet away, Indy abruptly remembered he still had it. As quickly as he could, he yanked the scabbard free of his belt and tossed it towards the samurai.
The newcomer's hand twitched. The sphere shot forward like a cannonball, smacking into the katana and sending it clattering away. “Gah, what the hell-!” Indy yelped, taking a quick leap back; in an instant, his pistol was in hand and aimed at this new threat, and three shots rang out- only to each be intercepted by the sphere, zipping back and forth faster than the eye could track. Three molten lumps of lead plopped to the ground in front of the man's feet.
“Oh, come on,” the archaeologist growled, quickly holstering the handgun and pulling his whip free. He didn't dare use the submachine gun- if that orb was as effective against energy as it was against lead, the automatic weapon would either be useless or a fountain of friendly fire. Jack wasn't idle while the archaeologist moved to a better position- a leaping kick brought him just inside the arc of the swinging crystal, with a brief tearing sound as it passed by his back, but the attack missed as the man skillfully rolled aside. The samurai glanced over his shoulder to see that the sphere had cut a long, smooth line along his already-abused robe. “Stay clear of the orb!” he warned.
“Don't have to tell me twice!” Dash zipped past the sphere as it arced through the air again, aiming both hooves for the man's chest- too slow; this creature made the Egyptian seem like a doddering old-timer in comparison. She cut a razor-sharp Immelman turn and shot towards his shoulder blades, only to have to peel off to evade the gem. “This isn't working!” she shouted in frustration.
“We need to overwhelm him!” Twilight began magically throwing everything she could find in the area- mostly shards of broken arena floor- in order to keep their opponent distracted. She was only marginally successful; either the man was precognizant, or had reflexes bordering on that level, but whichever it was, he was almost impossible to pin down.
It almost seemed like he was showing off when he jumped Jack's sliding leg sweep, and ducked Applejack's follow-up leaping kick, while still managing to keep himself out of the way of Twilight's attacks as well. But her intense concentration on him saved her when that sphere lashed out towards her- she was just able to form a shield to deflect it away, and while he pulled it back towards him and sidestepped to dodge Applejack's midair buck, Jack landed an excellent kick to his chin, sending him rolling aside and the gem clattering along the floor. Fluttershy's tiger pounced on it, but couldn't hold on as the man once more pulled it towards him.
Twilight could hold on, though, magically stopping the gem just short of the man's hand. But the force he was exerting on it was incredible- it took everything she had to hold on... which was why, after a couple of seconds, she reversed the direction of her pull and let their combined efforts drive the sphere into the man's chest at near-supersonic speed.
The form of the man shattered, blew away like so much ash, leaving Demongo sprawled on his back. But the creature was far from done; he managed a quick handspring and wrapped his cloak around himself again, and with another flash of light, he was transformed. What stood in his place now was much larger than the previous form- standing on two massive hooved legs, closely matching a minotaur for the most part, except for the two horned heads that each sported a glowing red eye. An enormous spiked mace rested in the beast's right hand.
“Such a hideous beast!” Rarity exclaimed, unfortunately getting the creature's attention right off the bat. With a deep, twin-voiced roar, the bizarre minotaur jumped forward, its terrible weapon swinging down towards her- only to strike nothing but rock, as the unicorn was gone in a flash of light to rematerialize next to Twilight.
Finally given a target big and slow enough to hit, Indy unslung his submachine gun and let loose. But the incredibly destructive bolts of energy- so harmful to everything else they could manage to hit- thudded into that thick skin with seemingly little effect; the thing wasn't even reacting as more than a hundred blasts slammed into its back, barely causing more than a few scorch marks.
Rainbow saw. “Twilight! Light me up!” she shouted, immediately taking to the air and soaring up and back. The unicorn understood; as the pegasus cut a swift turn and rolled into a dive, another of the purple teardrops surrounded her. She crackled through the air, her aim unerring, straight for the middle of the beast's chest.
There was no way it should have been able to move that fast, but that huge mace had come around just in time to swat her away like an errant hoofball pitch, and before she could do anything to course-correct she found herself slamming into the arena wall. The energy field around her literally exploded, blasting a crater in the wall, and before Dash could recover, she found herself half-buried and pinned down by the rubble. She cried out in pain as jagged rocks pressed against her.
“Dashie! Oh, yer in fer it now, ya two-headed lump of ugly!” Applejack galloped towards the creature, her eyes narrowed and practically aflame with anger. She saw the low mace-strike coming just in time to leap over it, twisted in midair and landed both rear hooves on the creature's midsection with all of her considerable might- only to bounce off as if she'd kicked the side of a cliff. She hit the ground hard, legs half-numbed from the impact, unable to regain her hooves as that wicked mace raised up to splatter her across the landscape.
Another flash of white- this one from Jack's robe as he nimbly dove in to pull her out from danger. The mace slammed into the ground just behind him, obliterating a fairly large chunk of it and sending shards of rock everywhere; Jack let out a pained cry as several of those shards embedded themselves shallowly in his unprotected back. He skidded across the floor, losing his grip on Applejack along the way, leaving them both laid out on the ground.
“Twilight! See if you can get it off-balance!” Indy's whip lashed out, snapping against the side of the creature's left head; the blow did it no harm, but the whipcrack was loud enough to disorient it for a moment. Twilight tried to pull at the mace, but something about it resisted her magic; instead, she gripped one of its massive hooves with her magic and pulled with all of her will. Its weight shifted, and as it tried to recover, a thick piece of rock slammed into one of its heads. “Take THAT, you brute!” Rarity shouted.
It was enough to get the creature off of its hooves, and with a deep thud, it hit the arena floor hard enough to crack the stone. Indy jumped onto its broad chest, practically shoved the muzzle of his submachine gun into the eye of one of its heads, and let loose; at that range, the less-durable material that made up its head couldn't hope to withstand the punishment, and the face and skull were practically pulverized.
The monster seemed to take great exception to that, and its free hand lashed out, hitting Indy in the side like a sack of bricks. The archaeologist pinwheeled through the air, hitting the ground in a heap. The creature began the slow process of getting up, the smoking remains of one head hanging limply while the other bore an expression of pure fury, ignoring the thick rocks Twilight and Rarity send slamming into it.
But then a large, tan ball of ferocity landed on that still-intact head, and wicked claws and teeth tore at it. The creature reeled under the weight of the tiger and stumbled, losing its grip on its mace; the massive weapon crashed to the ground as the monster flailed about. Its snarls matched that of the tiger as the animal scrabbled for purchase on its shoulders, biting at its throat instinctively.
The precarious battle came to an abrupt end when the creature managed to plant its hooves and bring both fists upwards in a wicked blow. The tiger- and Fluttershy, who had been clinging to its back the entire time- went sliding across the ground for a good few dozen feet before coming to rest. Once more unencumbered, the creature turned towards its fallen mace-
-which slammed into the back of its knee, its handle surrounded by both a light purple and light blue field. Rarity's and Twilight's horns flared as the mace swung around once more to clip the beast's other leg, sending it right back to the floor. Its one remaining head could only watch helplessly as its own weapon raised up and came crashing down on its face.
Once more Demongo's summoned form broke away and dissolved. The soulstealer himself seemed to be losing strength, but not enough to keep him from getting back to his feet and once more transforming. In his place stood what appeared to be a slender, blonde woman, wearing a black sleeveless minidress, ankle wraps and gloves along with a flowing white underskirt; over one shoulder was propped a long metal staff, the end of which was decorated with a silvery crescent moon. But the first and most obvious sign that this was no ordinary woman was the fact that she was hovering placidly a few inches above the ground.
Much of the group had regathered, minus the still-trapped Rainbow Dash and the unconscious Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie, who was standing in front of the yellow pegasus defensively- and they took a moment to stare at this new opponent. “I must say, she has daring fashion taste, if nothing else,” Rarity murmured.
“Never mind that, what's she plannin' on doin'?” Applejack eyed the newcomer warily, doing her best to keep a solid stance despite aching muscles. “What can she do, fer that matter?”
“I'm not sure, but the fact that I can't sense any magic coming from her, and yet she's floating... that might not be a good sign.” Twilight backed away slowly.
As if in response to Twilight's retreat, the woman moved- or, as it seemed to the group watching her, simply stopped being where she was at one instant and hovered beside the unicorn the next. Then she performed a quick spin, and that staff came circling around, aimed directly for Twilight's head; the pony instinctively ducked, forming a hasty shield in front of her.
It was ducking that saved her. The crescent, its edge bearing a faint red glow, sliced through the shield as if it were smoke; realizing her danger, Twilight jumped back as the staff came around again, shearing a clean line through the rock floor where she'd just been crouched. “Whoa, Nelly! Watch that thing!” Applejack yelped.
The group fanned out, each of the still-standing combatants looking for an opening. The woman serenely twirled along the floor, her feet never touching down; her faint smile didn't even falter when Jack jumped at her, his midair double-fisted swing just missing her head. It almost seemed like she was dancing between her attackers, not even paying attention at the hairsbreadth misses of potentially bone-shattering blows.
But that dance stopped, and that smile faded, when she caught sight of Twilight again. The unicorn was amassing more shards of rock, encasing them in a sphere of purple energy. She noticed that the woman was staring at her while slowly floating towards her, only now she bore a sextet of long, glowing “wings” composed of translucent blades of energy, and she let out a soft whimper as she hurried her actions; when the woman was only a couple of dozen feet away, Twilight seized the impromptu fragmentation grenade in her magic and hurled it as hard as she could at this new opponent. The sphere arced through the air towards her, and with a thought Twilight detonated the magical weapon's field.
Nothing happened. The purple sphere- now surrounded by a glistening red field- hovered just in front of the woman's outstretched hand; she gazed at it in an almost curious manner, before a wicked grin split her face. Twilight let out a terrified gasp and gathered as much magic as she could, forcing it out into a thick shield wall as the woman wound up and threw the mage-grenade back at her.
The blast tore a crater in the arena floor and sent shrapnel flying everywhere; by some miracle, no one had been hit by any- including the still-floating woman. But the force of the explosion had overwhelmed Twilight's shield and thrown her back like a ragdoll in a hurricane, leaving her unconscious with a scorched coat and a bloodied nose not too far from where a still-trapped Rainbow Dash was looking on in horror.
“Twilight!” Jack turned from the downed unicorn to the now-frowning woman. “You will pay for this, creature!” he growled, setting himself before rushing her. With a smirk, she twirled once more, the staff slicing towards him- and missing, as he expertly rolled beneath and came up next to her with a devastating palm strike to her chin. Her head rocked back, and just for a moment her feet touched the ground... and when she looked at the samurai once more, there was pure murder in her eyes.
Jack couldn't hope to react quickly enough to avoid the staff plowing into his stomach... or his chest, or his head. The woman thrust the weapon into the stunned samurai's body over and over again, then brought herself into a rapid spin that slammed the flat of the crescent into Jack until the blows finally brought him to his knees. He clutched at his bruised chest and panted for breath, trying to force himself to get back to his feet; the woman raised her staff, then jumped into the air, intent on finishing the samurai off with one mighty blow.
An orange streak intercepted her on the way down. Applejack's back met the staff just below the crescent, and the weapon snapped, sending the head twirling away. The pony spun in midair and landed both rear hooves on the woman's shoulder, sending her reeling backwards to land on her backside; Applejack came down hard on all four hooves, turned to face her opponent- and then let out a howl of pain as she collapsed.
“AJ!” Dash struggled to pull herself free of the rubble pinning her down, but she couldn't budge herself an inch. Just breathing was a challenge, let alone moving. She watched helplessly as the woman slowly lifted off the ground and returned to her floating stance, looking unaffected by the blow she'd just taken. She nonchalantly drifted past Applejack's groaning form, her eyes calmly glancing over the battlefield and her opponents... until they fell on the still-unmoving Fluttershy. A wicked smile curled her lips as she began to make her way towards the unconscious pegasus.
tat tat tat tat tat tat tat
Blue lances of light sizzled through the air, only to glance off of the strange wings still hanging from her shoulders that had snapped out to wrap around her like a protective cloak. The woman spun aside and threw what was left of her staff at the arena wall where Indy was kneeling. Out of instinct, he jumped away- and just barely avoided the blast as the energized staff detonated, turning a twelve-square-foot section of wall into dust and shrapnel. Once more Indy lost hold of his submachine gun as he hit the ground, but he managed to get back to his feet and draw his handgun in one reasonably-smooth motion.
BANG BANG BANG
Heavy .45-caliber slugs plowed into the magical wings the woman had brought up to shield herself, with enough force to push her backwards. Indy slid the empty weapon back into its holster and charged shoulder-first at her, ducking beneath the blades and slamming into her chest; the impact almost knocked her over, and the archaeologist capitalized with blow after blow from his fists against the woman's chin.
He'd gotten in a solid ten punches before she recovered from her surprise and took him off of his feet with a casual backhand.
Indy was still shaking his head to clear it when he felt the soft skin of her hand around his throat. She hauled him to- and off of- his feet with all the apparent effort of picking up a kitten, and her face showed only mild bemusement as he dangled before her, eyes bulging as his left hand pulled fruitlessly at her steel grip.
So intent was she on watching his face that she didn't see what his right hand was doing, and she only had a split-second to register surprise before his second kunai was buried in her left eye.
Indy collapsed into a ball, clutching at his throat and coughing, as the woman's form shattered into ash, leaving a panting Demongo in her place. But the soulstealer still managed to get to his feet with a soft growl. “What is it with these humans and never knowing when to stay down?” he muttered, staggering a little. “Well. No matter. Now that that matter is settled, let us see what can be done with this delectable little yellow morsel....”
He'd gotten two steps towards Fluttershy when the end of a whip curled around his neck and yanked him backwards. Indy gave him a steely, murderous stare. “You take one more step towards her,” the human rasped, “and I will turn you into a very thin paste.”
Another yank of the whip brought Demongo stumbling into Indy's fist. The human threw one haymaker after another, staggering forward after each swing, keeping himself going through pure anger. The soulstealer reeled from each punch, not even able to mount a defense as Indy practically knocked him from one end of the arena to the other.
“ENOUGH!” Demongo stumbled back and threw open his cape, revealing the rows of skulls draped over his chest- and a thick golden chain on which was mounted a small red gem shard. A streak of energy shot out from one of the skulls, hitting Indy square in the chest and blasting him backwards across the arena floor; after a few tumbles and a painful impact with a flat rock shard, he came to a stop, instinctively curled into a ball.
“No, Indy....” Dash could only helplessly watch as Demongo gave himself a satisfied grin and turned back towards his original quarry. “Oh, dear Celestia, please, someone DO something,” the pegasus breathed.
Her plea was answered, though not how she might have expected. Something lashed out from the arena floor and slammed into Demongo's leg- the asp Fluttershy had rescued. The soulstealer let out a stream of invective and grabbed for the serpent, but it was already winding its way up his leg; it made its way to his chest and buried its fangs in what he had for a face.
“Gah! You insipid worm!” Demongo managed to get a hold of the snake and pull it free, slamming it into the ground head-first. The serpent writhed about on the arena floor as Demongo raised his foot and slammed it down.
Even from where she lay, Dash could hear the sickening wet crunch, and she closed her eyes and sobbed.
“Ugh. Troublesome pests. Now....” Demongo turned back towards where Fluttershy lay and Pinkie stood-
-only to see an all-too-familiar geta impacting against his head. The flying kick sent both of them sprawling, and Demongo was the first to his feet; Jack was panting for breath, the upper half of his robe destroyed and his bared chest and back crisscrossed with welts and bruises, but still he stood. “You will not harm her, creature,” the samurai growled.
“Gah! Why don't you heroes ever know when to stay down?!” Demongo folded his cloak, and with a flash of light... nothing happened. Jack smirked. “Run out of tricks, soulstealer?” he taunted.
“Perhaps the art of soulshifting is more draining than I had anticipated,” Demongo mused. “But no matter! Look at you, samurai... barely able to stand, carrying on through nothing but willpower. You have no chance to defeat me.”
“We will see, demon!” But Demongo's observation had been all too accurate; the samurai was nowhere near optimal form, and what would have been a quick one-sided battle instead was another drag-out fight. The soulstealer was gradually gaining the upper hand, though, and with a wild swing that Jack was too exhausted to counter, Demongo scored a takedown blow. “Haaaaa ha ha ha,” the demon cackled, grinning down at his defeated foe. “I must admit, that felt wonderful. Victory for Demongo!”
Jack wiped a thin trail of blood from his mouth. “You... have not won yet, soulstealer.”
“Oh, haven't I? Every last member of your pathetic group that could be the slightest threat to me is lying on the ground. Your precious sword is gone, and without it you are as helpless as a mewling kitten. What do you possibly think can stop me, now, from exterminating all of you and consuming your souls?”
Demongo's body stiffened as a half-foot of enchanted steel, surrounded by a blue-white field of magical energy, burst through his chest. The creature stared down at it in shock as Jack, slowly staggering to his feet, gave him a slight grin.
The sword twisted, tugged down and back upwards, cleaving Demongo nearly in half from stomach to shoulder. The creature only gave a soft gasp as he collapsed to the ground, revealing Rarity standing behind, Jack's sword hovering just in front of her. The unicorn stared at the body for just a moment before remembering herself and letting the katana drop. “Jack!” she exclaimed, rushing up to him.
“See to the others, Rarity,” the samurai replied, limping to Demongo's form and tugging the golden chain loose. “Rainbow Dash is still trapped- see if you can free her.”
“Alright.” She gave a quick glance around her. “Check on Fluttershy and Twilight first. We girls have a triage system- Twilight knows some healing magic, and Fluttershy is an expert in first aid. They can help us with the others.”
The human nodded, and limped his way towards Fluttershy while Rarity galloped to where Dash was still trapped. To the fashionista's surprise, her friend's head was down, and her cheeks were wet with tears. “Rainbow!” she gasped. “Are you....”
Dash weakly raised her head. “Just... get me outta here, please....”
It was difficult work, but eventually Rarity got enough of the rubble cleared to be able to pull the pegasus free- and immediately found herself in Dash's weak but heartfelt embrace. “Thank Celestia for you,” Dash whimpered. “I thought... I thought that jerk was gonna....” She took in a shuddering breath. “Where are the others? Is Fluttershy hurt? What about Indy?”
“Let's go find out.” Dash's wings, while thankfully still whole, were too bruised and sore to manage flight, so she galloped alongside Rarity back to the rest of their group. There they found Jack and Pinkie alongside the tiger and a bruised, but otherwise unhurt, Fluttershy, looking over a still-unconscious Twilight. “How is she? Rarity asked.
“I have to give her a closer examination.” Fluttershy's voice was quiet yet authoritative; this was her element. “Rarity, see to Applejack; Dash, look after Indy.”
“Well, okay, but what about...?” Pinkie looked up at the platform, where the announcer stared down at them. “Alas, the greatest of our challengers has been struck down,” he said, his voice subdued. “Once more, Two-Sandals the Treacherous stands triumphant- the champion of the Dome of Doom. As such, he and his allies... are free to go.”
With that, the announcer toppled over onto the platform. A deep rumbling began all around them, shaking the dust and broken rock that had accumulated on the arena floor. “Oh, you must be joking,” Rarity muttered.
“No joke. Looks like we brought the house down.” Dash glanced around. “No time to mess around. Jack, we'll need you to get Indy on the tiger's back; Pinkie Pie, you've got Twilight. I'll get Applejack.”
“And then we need to find a way out,” Pinkie added.
“One emergency at a time!” Dash was already pulling the cowpony up onto her back. “Ugh- AJ, you need to cut down on those apple fritters... okay!” She saw that Jack had already gotten Indy placed on the back of the tiger, and Twilight was hanging over Pinkie's sides. “Now we need to find an exit!”
“Or make one!” Rarity seized Jack's sword and its scabbard with her magic, then galloped ahead of the group towards the collapsed section of wall Dash had been trapped in. The lights above their heads began to shudder, and thin cracks could be seen spreading across the top of the dome. “Fluttershy!” the unicorn called out. “Fly up and see if you can find a good place for us to open a way out!”
The pegasus had to dodge a chunk of rock as she took to the air. The rumbling was getting worse, and parts of the dome were starting to disintegrate; one piece smacked the lights, knocking them off-kilter and sending a few of the crystals falling to shatter upon the floor. “I can't see anything!” Fluttershy called out. “There's no doors, no windows, nothing!”
“Well, if we can't find an exit....” Rarity glanced around, needing a moment to find something suitable for the task at hoof. She levitated Jack's sword into his hands and furrowed her brow in concentration; a fairly large, spike-shaped chunk of rock on the arena floor was encased in her magic, shuddered and then lifted up. The unicorn clenched her teeth and jerked her head to the side, and the spike shot through the air, slamming into the arena wall and digging a fairly large gouge out of it. “This is going to take too long!” she cried.
“Let... let me try.” Twilight's exhausted voice drifted up the staircase that Pinkie was carrying her over. The injured mage's horn flared; the spike rose up again, flew back a good fifty feet, and then drove into the wall as if fired from a cannon. A large crack shot up along the dark rock, and when the spike came free there was a small hole through which the group could see the outside.
But time was running out. The ceiling lights jerked back and forth, more of the crystals shaking loose and falling, and now larger pieces of the dome were breaking off and slamming into the arena floor. “Everyone! Gather around me!” Twilight called out. “We need to teleport!”
“But Twilight, can you even manage?” Fluttershy asked.
“I'm going to have to, or this place will bury us!” The group managed to gather around the purple unicorn, who closed her eyes tightly and took in a quivering breath. “Got to concentrate,” she murmured, her body shuddering as she poured all of her strength into her spell, trying not to let the increasingly close impacts of falling rock distract her.
There was a sharp crack from above, and Dash let out a gasp. “Twilight!”
“I've got it!” There was a burst of white light.
Fluttershy dared to open her eyes a moment later, and let out a long sigh of relief. The teleportation spell had landed the entire group a few dozen feet outside of the dome. Twilight wobbled and started to fall- but Rarity was there in an instant, propping up the exhausted mage with her shoulder. “Easy,” the fashionista cooed. “Just rest, Twilight. You've earned it.” She glanced behind her as the dome began to fold in on itself, huge chunks of the roof breaking off and caving in. Even from this distance the group could feel the impacts.
“I don't think we get to relax just yet,” Dash countered. “Remember what happened the last time?”
“Right, after we got the gem and....” Pinkie frowned. “But we didn't get the gem this time.”
Jack reached beneath the sash still holding his half-ruined robe up and fished out the chain he'd taken from Demongo. “I believe we did,” he said.
“Thank goodness.” Fluttershy reached towards her chest, then felt around with a hoof. “...wait, the snake! Where's he gone? He was with me before-”
“ 'Shy, the snake....” Dash couldn't finish the sentence. “...look, we've gotta go, okay?”
The dome had pretty much finished collapsing, and now thin cracks were beginning to form in the ground around it. “No time, girls!” Rarity exclaimed. “Twilight, can you manage another teleport?”
“Not on my own. I'll need you to let me draw on your magic, Rarity.”
“Jeez, you unicorns can do that?” Dash glanced between the two.
“It's rarely done,” Rarity answered. “I'm not even sure how... do you even think I have enough magic to help?”
“One way to find out. Touch your horn to mine.” Twilight leaned as far as she could, and Rarity stepped forward and placed her horn against her friend's. “Wow, Rarity, your magic is stronger than you know. I think I can manage this. Everyone ready?” Those of the group who weren't still unconscious made known their assent. “Then let's get the hay out of here.”
Just as the ground was beginning to crack beneath them, they vanished.
“Okay, Doctor Fluttershy... what's your report?”
The pegasus looked up from Indy to gaze at Twilight. “Dr. Jones has at least one cracked rib, multiple contusions, first-degree burns to the chest, and possibly a torn deltoid. Applejack's medial glutials are badly bruised and swollen, but thankfully none of her vertebrae are damaged. Mr. Jack has one broken rib, two cracked ribs, extremely-bruised pectorals and maybe a torn latissimus dorsi. Rainbow Dash was lucky enough to only suffer minor bruising and lacerations. The tiger only has a sprained front left leg and a few abrasions, and he's sleeping.”
“Okay, that sounds... pretty serious,” Twilight said quietly, gazing down at her hooves. “And what about me?”
“Minor nasal bleeding and a slight case of whiplash from the explosion... well, that's the physical effects. I don't know how your magic may have been affected.” Fluttershy gazed down at the floor of the cave the group had come to use as a stronghold. “Without proper medical supplies, there isn't a lot I can do here, Twilight,” she admitted.
“You've gotten everyone comfortable and given me a good idea of what we have to deal with. In this situation, that's practically a miracle.” Twilight patted her hoof. “I'm just glad we're all still alive, after that. As soon as Rarity and I have recovered some of our magic, I'll see about doing what healing I can.”
“But... can you heal humans?”
“Yes. Or, well, I should be able to at least. The spell I know for healing other species is less efficient than the one for other ponies, but there's less chance of... accidents.” The unicorn shuddered slightly. “It helps that we'll need to go slowly anyway, and that none of the injuries are life-threatening.”
Fluttershy's response was cut off by a call from Rarity. “Girls! Indy is waking up!”
The pair quickly trotted over to where the archaeologist lay, seeing him shaking his head slowly. After a moment, his eyes opened. “...we're still alive?” he murmured.
“Amazingly enough, yes.” Twilight gave him a smile. “Stay still, Indy. You're still pretty bad off, and I'm not quite ready to start off with any healing magic.”
“...healing magic.” Indy managed a chuckle. “I couldn't begin to tell you how useful that would've been to me more than a few times.” He tried to look around. “How are the others?”
“I've felt better, but I'll be okay. Rainbow Dash got off kind of lucky for how much rock she had sitting on her; Jack and Applejack got pretty beaten up, though neither of them will admit to how badly.”
“You should heal them first. I can manage for now.”
“Which is exactly what Applejack and Jack said,” Rarity countered, giving the human a grin. “Fluttershy is handling triage... and you don't want to tell her not to do her job, do you?”
Indy opened his mouth to speak- but then saw Fluttershy's determined gaze, and apparently thought better of his objection. “I've never been one to turn down the advice of a professional,” he quipped, with a chuckle that might have been just a little nervous.
The yellow pegasus gave him a slight smile, then rushed off to check on Applejack. Rarity couldn't help but giggle quietly. “Sorry, Indy. She gets like that when someone is hurt.”
He shrugged and offered a smile. “There's worse things.”
While Fluttershy was speaking with Applejack, Dash slowly made her way past them, towards where the other human was seated. “Hey, Jack,” she half-whispered. “How are you doing?”
“I have been worse off than this.” He glanced down at the bruises and cuts criss-crossing his chest. “I worry more for Applejack. How is she?”
“Fluttershy said a lot of complicated words that basically meant 'really badly bruised but okay'. She said a lot of complicated words about you, too, and maybe you're worse off than you're telling.” She gave him a frank stare.
He tried for a chuckle, but ended up wincing halfway through it. “Rainbow Dash, this is the path I follow. It is not a safe one, but it is a necessary one.”
“Yeah....” She broke her gaze and looked away. “I don't... maybe I don't understand it as well as I thought I did.”
That got a raised eyebrow from the samurai. “What do you mean?”
“Jack, I wanna ask you something. I know it's probably personal and all, but I need an honest answer so I can understand what's going on in my head. Okay?”
“Okay.” She took in a breath. “Jack, have you ever had someone you tried to protect... die anyway?”
His expression dropped, and his eyes became distant. “I....” he trailed off, obviously lost in thought for a moment before he could bring himself to look into the pegasus's rose-colored eyes again. “Yes, Dash. I have.”
She managed a small nod. “How... how'd you deal with it?”
“Rainbow Dash, what is this about?”
“Jack, I....” The pony looked away again. “I've never had that happen to me. I've never... lost anyone. I always managed to protect whoever needed it, somehow. But today I saw innocent creatures die despite doing everything I could to stop it. The robots....” She glanced to the side to ensure that Fluttershy was out of earshot. “Fluttershy's snake... Jack, they were depending on me and I let them down.”
She raised a hoof. “Lemme finish. Please.” He nodded slowly, and she gave him a weak smile. “Jack, when I first saw you and Indy, I... I couldn't get over how weird you looked. I didn't really trust you. I should've known better- I practically grew up around a bunch of other species from my time in flight camp. I just... I dunno.” She drew in a deep breath and let it out in a shuddering sigh. “And I just saw you and Indy take a beating to protect one of my friends when I couldn't do anything to help. If you... if you hadn't done that, if you hadn't been here, Fluttershy would....” She shuddered violently and rapidly shook her head. “I can't even think it. I'm just... I'm sorry, Jack, I'm really sorry for what I thought of you two. Without you guys, we'd...." Her voice caught, and she looked away in shame. "I don't- maybe I'm not cut out to be a warrior after all.”
“That is not true, Dash. You are among the most brave-”
“No I'm not. Not in a place like this.” Tears streaked down her muzzle. “I don't know how you can handle all this, Jack. I don't... if I lost my friends, I don't think I could go on. Things have gotten bad for us before, but after what happened in that dome....” She paused, trying to compose herself. “How can you stand that? How do you keep fighting after that? I can't stop thinking about what I would do if that happened to me... how do you keep going?”
“Because I must.” He put a gentle hand on her neck. “Because if I give up, I dishonor all of those who have fallen. If I give up, those who need help the most may never receive it. I can make a difference where many others cannot; it is my duty to do so.” He looked into her eyes. “And I believe that you know, deep within yourself, it is your duty as well.”
“Yeah, I... I just don't know if I'm strong enough to keep going if... if I failed my friends.”
“I have only known you for a short time, Rainbow Dash. But I feel I have a good measure of you.” Jack gave her a smile. “You cannot give up. It is simply not in your nature. No matter what defeats you may face, you will pull yourself up, and you will fight on. To do less would be to abandon those you care for- and above all else, Rainbow Dash, I cannot believe you would ever willingly do so.”
She stared at him unblinkingly for a long moment, tears still streaming from her eyes... and then she leaned forward and gave him the most gentle hug she could manage, sobbing into his chest. “Seriously, Jack, one day I wanna grow up to be like you,” she managed to joke in-between sniffles.
He could only chuckle at that, lightly rubbing the pegasus's neck. He looked up as Rarity and Pinkie trotted over, both concerned for their friend. “Is everything alright?” Rarity asked.
“Huh... wha? Oh... yeah.” Dash pulled away slowly, rubbing at her eyes with a foreleg. “Just... needed a little reminder of how awesome I am, y'know?”
“There truly is a first time for everything.” Rarity patted Dash's shoulder gently. “We came to tell Jack that, as it seems that Applejack and Indy are just as stubborn as he when it comes to being healed-” she gave him a playful grin, answered with a consternated one- “Twilight simply picked at random, and Jack will be healed first.”
“Very well. Thank you, Rarity.” Jack bowed his head.
“Of course. Oh... Jack, I meant to say something to you. About your sword.”
“I understand that perhaps you're not aware of this, since you are unfamiliar with magic, but that sword, Jack... the power it holds within is amazing. When I took hold of it, I felt....” The unicorn paused for a moment, considering her words. “I felt as though I were being judged by it, that it had taken my measure in that very first second... and that it had accepted me.”
Jack stroked his chin in contemplation. “Perhaps it had. My sword cannot be used to harm the innocent, and it repels evil magic. In allowing your magic to hold it, perhaps it sensed in some way your righteousness and pure intent.”
“Heh.” Dash poked Rarity's side with her hoof. “Guess I'm not the only pony warrior around. Where'd you learn to use a sword, anyway, Rare? Is it like using pinking shears?”
“Oh goodness!” Rarity giggled. “I am certainly no warrior. I just did what I had to.”
“Yeah, well....” Dash's expression went from a teasing smile to an appreciative grin. “You totally did. You came through in the clutch, Rarity. It was pretty darn awesome.”
Pinkie laughed at Rarity's demure blush. “Sheesh, Rarity, that's a blush Fluttershy would be proud of. I bet that-”
There was a sharp gasp from behind them, drawing everyone's attention. Fluttershy was standing on quivering legs in front of Applejack, who seemed on the verge of tears. After a moment, the pegasus collapsed to the floor and started wailing, and the cowpony carefully wrapped her forelegs around her. “AJ must've just told her about what happened to her snake,” Dash whispered.
“I think she's going to need us right now.” Rarity started forward, and- to her surprise- Jack was right behind, ignoring his injuries to see to Fluttershy. Indy was already there, gently stroking the pegasus's pink mane, looking absolutely lost as to how he could comfort her.
It was a somber moment, both the thrill and the pains of their victory forgotten, as five ponies, two humans and a tiger huddled around a weeping and inconsolable pegasus who had just learned of the death of a creature she had promised to protect.