I'm a historian by training, a teacher by trade. I love video games so much, but when it comes down to it, I'd rather have ponies.
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Fleetfoot shot back in through the window, skidding to a halt on the burned carpet. The rest of the Wonderbolts were standing guard over an empty entrance hall. "Message relayed, Wing Leader," Fleetfoot said to Spitfire. "Orders are to keep looking."
"Keep looking?" commented High Winds. "Oh great, the Princess might be dead, but keep looking guys."
"They must have had advanced warning," said Spitfire, scanning the room with her blue-tinted, heat-vision goggles. "She was just here. How could they have moved her without leaving a thermal print?"
"Maybe it was that purple unicorn," said Soarin'.
"No, the Captain was dealing with her outside when I left," said Fleetfoot.
"It was the Night Guard," said High Winds. "It had to be them. Those fellows are dead as scarecrows. No heat signature whatsoever."
"Agreed," said Spitfire. "The breach has already begun. They might be willing to kill the hostage rather than let us rescue her, so we'll have to hurry." She revved up her flight aura. "Spread out, go room-by-room. There's no other choice. We've got to do it the hard way."
"You know, Spitfire," said a voice from the rafters above, "I couldn't have said it better myself!"
"Combat formation!!" shouted the Wonderbolts' leader, but the cyan blur was already upon them.
"Do it," ordered Shield Banner.
The earth pony engineer lit the fuse on the dynamite with a jet lighter. "Take cover!" he yelled, and everypony but the Captain dove behind a tree, or pressed against one of the low walls in the courtyard.
The blast tore the side-door off its hinges and disintegrated the rubble barrier behind it. Bits of burning shrapnel and molten rock rained down upon the soldiers. Shield Banner's orange force-field shimmered from the blow.
"Forward!" he ordered, and the legionnaires thundered into the building. He marched in on their heels, surveying the scene. Empty, but clearly a great battle had happened in this room. Everything was completely destroyed, including what appeared to have been a Saddlesaurus Rex skeleton. Several hallways branched off into the darkness. "You," he said, pointing at a squad leader, "take your team north to the medical wing, search every operating theater for--"
"Captain!" shouted a soldier behind him, and Shield Banner turned forward to see a cheerful pink pony standing almost nose-to-nose with him.
"Beep!" she said, poking his horn with her forehoof.
"You again!?" said Shield Banner, swinging an iron-shod hoof at her, but the pink pony skipped back out of reach, light as a feather.
"You again, yourself, you big meanie," said Pinkie Pie, bouncing around. "Bet you can't hit me!" She blew a raspberry.
The Guard Captain's horn flaring bright-orange as a wave of hexing magic shot towards the pink earth pony. But just as it got to her, Pinkie reached behind herself and held up a large, oval mirror. "Return to sender!" she said as the spell reflected right back into Shield Banner's eyes.
I am ten years old, lying with a broken leg in the gully, miles down the road from my house. I lie here for hours in the sun, screaming for help until my voice is just a dry whistle. My leg is twisted under me. The pain is unimaginable. I think I'm going to die.
Now I am seventeen, weeping over a casket. The doctors said Tornado would get better, but he didn't. Tornado was the hero in the family. Now I have to be the hero.
Now I am twenty-two. All of these bodies, my own stallions. Dead, because of me. The first time I've had to order them into battle. They tell you all through training, these ponies died so that many others could live. It's different when they're lying there in front of you... they're just colts...
"Sir!" A hoof slapped his face. "Sir! Get up!"
Shield Banner pried his eyes open. "Horseradish," he wheezed.
The present returned in a watercolor bleed. Then he was back with his troops storming the Ponyville University Science Hall. Celestia... I have to find Celestia...
"What are the orders, Captain?"
"Advance!" he rasped.
Deep in the building, Shield Banner could hear the muffled booms of traps going off as other teams met their own fate. He was going to lose more ponies tonight, and Pinkie Pie was nowhere to be seen.
The agent almost tripped over his shackles for the hundredth time as they raced through the maintenance corridors beneath the University. "Get these cuffs off of me!" he said. "I can help you carry the alicorn!"
"Keep mouth shut," said Chyornyj Slon. "Or I will pull your jaw off like drawer."
"Well!" said the agent. "That was rather violent, mate. No need for that kind of thing."
"Quiet, you two," said Spike, sweeping the labyrinth of tunnels with his dragon eyes. He consulted the blueprints that Twilight had found earlier. Applejack had said she was going to be set up in the north wing, waiting to give the signal, but that's where they were operating on Luna as well. I have to be be absolutely sure of my bearings, he thought, or else I could catch our own ponies in the trap.
Nightmare Sun lay still tied down to the stretcher, supported between Spike and Slon. The white alicorn murmured and tossed her head.
"Ah, gentlecolts?" said the agent. "I don't mean to be a negative nancy over here, but it looks like she's starting to wake up."
"Her regeneration must be accelerating," said Spike. "Slon, are you sure you can't drain her like Cinnamon Oatmeal did?"
"Nightmare's blood is evil," said Slon. "Commander said it makes evil thoughts."
"Oh, well, we certainly wouldn't want you having any evil thoughts now, would we?" said the agent.
They carried on through the dark tunnels, listening to the Royal Guard above them clear barrier after barrier with their own explosives. Boom. Boom. The lanterns hanging from the ceiling swung back and forth, causing their shadows to pitch and roll like a stormy sea. The Night Guards had set their traps to block-off and seal-up the paths leading deeper into the building, rather than to maim or kill. Spike wondered if anypony was dead in spite of it.
They reached a maintenance hub with corridors leading off in every direction. The floor had a large drain in it. "Alright," said Spike, "I think this is it. Let's get the charges set up."
"For Celestia's sake, unshackle me!" implored the agent. "Let me help!"
Slon motioned for his attention. When the agent looked, Slon had a pair of plum-sized rocks lying on the floor. Slon stomped them both into dust.
"You have conquered the language barrier," said the agent. "I think I'll just sit here like a good little prisoner while you two save the day." He looked over at the Nightmare, who continued to murmur in her sleep. "Well, old girl," he said. "This has just about been the best night ever, am I right!?"
Rainbow Dash pinwheeled across the landing, legs striking out before anypony could react. Fleetfoot caught a right-cross to the jaw. High Winds dodged a microsecond late, and went down groaning, clutching his nose. Soarin' dodged a little too far, getting caught up in a crystal chandelier and bringing the whole thing down upon himself.
Dash sent her death-from-above crashing down against Spitfire. It was a combo-finisher, charged with aura energy that Dash had sapped from the rest of the Wonderbolts. There was a brilliant burst of rainbow and gold light, and Spitfire's aura burned with ghostly flame, then sizzled with steam. She had her hooves up in a cross-block. She had stopped Dash's strongest attack cold.
Spitfire flung Dash backwards. The two circled each other like wolves.
"Lovers' quarrel," said Spitfire with a smirk.
"We had our time, 'Fire," said Dash. "But I always kind of knew I'd have to kick your ass someday."
"Aw, come on, Dashie, you're breakin' my heart over here."
Dash warped across the room with a supersonic punch, but Spitfire spun and dodged just out of reach. The wind from Dash's strike whipped through Spitfire's mane, as the gold pegasus used the momentum to catch Rainbow Dash under the chin with a perfect flip-kick.
Dash slammed up against the ceiling and then crashed into the floor, landing hard on her wings. Her flight aura had absorbed some of the first hit. The second was all bad. Dash clambered to her hooves and tried to take off, but her wing made a cracking noise and seared with pain. She stumbled and almost fell; it was that old injury from so many years ago. OH, GREAT TIMING, she thought.
Spitfire's aura blazed and she spun into Dash with a whirling cyclone-roundhouse. Dash barely managed to get a foreleg in the way before the strike slammed into her, sending her tumbling into the railing.
Spitfire came in to deliver a coup de grace, and Dash feinted down and threw a sweep against the back of her opponent's legs. As Spitfire fell, Dash reversed her spin and smashed Spitfire across the face with a back-hoof. The two ponies locked into a ferocious grapple.
Spitfire had a grin on her face and blood on her teeth. "Nice try, kiddo, but I do this for a living." She swept her hoof down, tearing it from Rainbow Dash's grasp, and threw a crushing elbow into Dash's already-black eye. Dash gasped, and then Spitfire hit her again in the same exact place. Dash let out a cry of pain this time and wrenched her body away as her vision clouded with spots.
The hollow noise of Spitfire's hooves on the floor, then the rush of wings. Dash couldn't see the attack coming but she knew it was there, braced herself as best she could, and then Spitfire's brutal double-buck hit her in the chest. Dash crumpled away from the blow, trying to absorb it, but the air rushed out of her lungs as she fell backwards against the railing. Still not as bad as an Apple-buck, thought Dash, coughing up blood.
A flurry of left and right hooks assaulted her, and she managed a ragged defense, delivering a counter-punch here or there, slugging Spitfire pretty good a couple of times. But the Wonderbolt wore her down, and then Dash slipped up and dropped a hoof.
Spitfire swept inside of her opponent's guard, locked Dash's elbow and sent the cyan pegasus spinning face-first into the railing. Dash rotated in midair and brought her rear hoof up and across Spitfire's ear, knocking the gold pegasus down, but she couldn't control her own momentum and toppled over the banister. Dash barely managed to snag the landing with her hooves and teeth as part of the railing fell and smashed to kindling on the tile floor below.
"You always did have great stamina," said Spitfire, wiping a line of blood away from her mouth. She snorted steam and pawed a hoof at the ground, getting ready to charge. "But I don't have any more time to play nice. Sorry, kiddo."
With a fiery explosion and golden contrail, Spitfire launched herself straight at Dash, flight-aura focused to a razor's edge. The Wonderbolt aura-blade was a lethal attack and Dash was shocked to see her former friend using it against her. Dash had no choice but to let go of the landing as Spitfire's aerial attack cut through the wooden floor like paper. A single sliver of Dash's hoof separated as she began to fall.
Oh crap, oh crap! thought Dash. The green tiles of the entrance hall rushed up at her face. It occurred to her how ironic it would be for the great Rainbow Dash to die from falling just thirty feet. She squeezed her eyes shut.
The impact never came. Instead, she landed against something taut and stretchy. A trampoline. A giant pink trampoline.
Dash descended down to the floor with the heavy impact of her fall. Pinkie leaned over the edge with a quick bro-hoof.
"Now we're even!" she said.
Then with a sproing, the trampoline sent Dash careening back into Spitfire's surprised face.
"Rainbow-grab!!" shouted Dash, even as Spitfire moved too late to block. Dash's foreleg whipped around Spitfire's neck and clothes-lined the gold pegasus, dragging her backwards into the air. Spitfire thrashed to break free, but the blow had stunned her.
Have to finish this quickly, Dash thought, wincing through tears.
She fired her rainbow-aura for maximum thrust, and although her injured wing screamed with pain, she was still able to summon a massive blast of speed. With a roar of exertion, Dash swung around in a three-sixty, transferring nearly all of her momentum into Spitfire. "RAINBOW THROW!" screamed Dash as she released the gold pegasus.
Spitfire shot straight upwards at a ludicrous speed. She wasted the last remnants of her flight aura trying to slow down, and when she met the inside of the stone dome, there was nothing left to protect her. Spitfire struck head-first, making a hollow, coconut sound, and sending a crack up the wall. Where she bounced off, there was blood. She fell like a shot bird.
Dash fell too, spiraling down toward the tiles. At the last second, she reached out and grabbed onto a frond from a planted palm tree, sliding down the trunk and rolling out on the floor. She turned to look over her shoulder, just in time to see Soarin' catch Spitfire right before she hit the ground. The gold pegasus looked like a rag doll.
"Horseradish," breathed Dash. "But she was asking for it."
"Dashie!" came the voice of Pinkie Pie, over in the corner. She turned to see her friend standing by a chalk-outline of a door on the brick wall.
"Oh no, are we really doing this? Pinkie, I've seen you get up to some weird things before, but--"
"Pshh," said Pinkie, rolling her eyes. "What better time to yank their chain?" She opened the door. "Come on! Hurry!"
Dash did not need to be asked twice. She galloped over to Pinkie, just as the rest of the Wonderbolts leaped from the landing in pursuit. Together, Dash and Pinkie Pie slammed the door shut. There were two impacts on the other side, then silence.
"You're stretching it a little, Pinkie," said Dash, examining the now-solid wall.
"That's a strange way of saying thank you!!" exclaimed Pinkie Pie. "Or glad to see you!!"
"Oh yeah, thanks," said Dash with a wry smile. "I had it all under control, though."
"I know, I just like to help," said Pinkie with moon-eyes. "Now let's go see how Applejack is doing."
At the end of the darkened corridor, a tail made of purple hair whipped around the corner and was gone.
"What...?" said Spike, looking up from his work. "What was that??"
"More attention, puzhalsta!" said Chyornyj Slon. "Your eyes need to be on the bomb."
"Uh," said Spike, "I have to check something out real quick. Slon, finish the preparation and wait here for Applejack's signal."
"You're going to leave me alone with this lunatic?" said the agent.
"Spike!" said Slon, "Do not go wandering off. We have work. And the Nightmare, she stirs."
But Spike was already loping down the hallway on all fours. "This will just take a second!" he shouted over his shoulder as he charged on into the darkness. "Keep working!"
"Don't be an idiot!" Spike heard the agent yell, but Spike pressed on until he was out of earshot.
I'm seeing things, he thought to himself as he ran. There's no way it was really her.
Further on, however, he found a shiny, purple hair snagged against a cement corner. Unmistakable.
Rarity, thought Spike, peering off into the maze of darkness before him. I thought she was Shield Banner's prisoner; what the hay is she doing down here?
It occurred to him that it might be a trap. In fact, it probably was a trap. But he weighed this against the possibility that Rarity had somehow escaped her captors, and was now lost down here, alone. He had to follow the trail. It was his fault that she'd been kidnapped in the first place. At least, it sure felt that way. He had an obligation to live that down. Rarity was his friend. Maybe something more, if only things had been different. If he hadn't been just a baby when he'd met her. If they weren't a dragon and a pony. Still, Spike was surprised to find that his feelings had remained consistent throughout the years. She's so much more than other ponies give her credit for, thought Spike.
He reached a point where the tunnel dipped down, and now the floor was covered in water. The sump-pumps were apparently not working yet, and the maintenance hall looked more like a dank sewer. Spike felt the tickle of claustrophobia and quickened his step through the inch-deep flood. The lanterns swung in circles overhead, making him feel crazy, dreamlike.
At the end of the hallway, he came to a steam junction, where a room full of pipes rattled and clanged and hissed in the dark. They're testing the boilers, he thought. The process could take days, and it could make this area very dangerous. Sure enough, a jet of steam shot from a pipe-weld nearby. He leaned away from it, although he was immune to the heat. Good thing I'm a dragon, he thought, but Rarity could still get hurt if she wandered in here.
"Spike," said a voice and he turned with a start. Through gaps in the steam-jets, he could make out the faint outline of a pony. "Spike is that you?" The figure started to stumble towards him, moving directly into the path of the steam.
"Rarity!" said Spike, throwing himself forward and blocking the hissing gas with his own body. The white unicorn fell into his arms. Spike turned so that his scales could protect her from the intense heat, and cradled her as they made their way over to the wall.
Rarity was drawn and pale and her mane was a mess. She was still wearing her evening gown, although it was in tatters by now. She looked like a flower corsage that had been trampled on a dance floor.
"It's okay," he said, holding her, "Rarity, it's okay, I've got you, you're safe now." An explosion sounded from overhead, and water showered down over them in a million tiny droplets. "Well, you're relatively safe," corrected Spike, "but I've still got you." He inspected her for injury, but she seemed more-or-less intact. No blood, no burns, nothing like that.
Wait a second, thought Spike, What the heck is this thing around her neck??
It was a black, stone amulet, dull and chitinous, shot-through with irregular, oval holes. It pulsed with an eerie green glow-- bizarre, alien, and yet... beautiful. He stared into it, and it stared back.
"Do you love me, Spike?" whispered Rarity.
"Yes," he heard himself say. He did, he had, he always had. She was the only pony he'd ever wanted. The thought made him lightheaded.
"Then kiss me," she breathed.
He was helpless to resist. Spike leaned down and their lips touched, parted, their tongues running together. He found her mouth as hot as the steam. The white unicorn drove into the kiss, fierce and gentle, and they inhaled each other.
"Rarity," whispered Spike. Everything was far away, except for the heartbeat in his ears and warmth of her breath. He ran his hands across her neck, her back, her diamonds. She bit his lip, held onto it in her teeth, so that he felt the momentary thrill of pain. He was forgetting everything. His mission, his friends-- he'd waited so long to be with Rarity, and it was finally happening. The events of the night were like a bad dream. This had become the only reality that mattered.
The building rocked with another explosion-- very close, probably directly above them. A lantern in the tunnel behind fell from its line and crashed against the floor. It shook Spike out of his stupor for an instant, and he remembered Applejack, counting on his plan. He remembered Twilight, and Princess Luna...
"Shh," said Rarity, "stay with me."
"I... I can't..." he said. He was nauseous, his vision blurry. Something was happening to him. It was tied to the amulet, like it was feeding off of his emotions, growing stronger as he grew weaker. It was devouring his love for Rarity.
A changeling's heart, he realized. Somepony made a dried changeling's heart into a magic amulet. That's pretty darn morbid, actually.
He reached for it, missing as his hand grew weak, thumping clumsily against Rarity's neck. Angrily, he grabbed again with force and purpose.
Rarity's horn flared baby-blue, and something shiny flew up out of her sash and sliced into the quick at the base of his claw. The projectile was so narrow and razor-sharp that it passed easily between his scales and stabbed him right in his nerve. Spike cursed and flinched his hand back.
"Ah, ah," scolded Rarity and made a smile unlike any he'd ever seen on her face. "A lady removes her jewelry when she wants to. Grabby Spikey-Wikey forgot his manners." Her eyes burned with an all-too-familiar orange glow, a point of green in each of her pupils. Spike realized that he was looking at layer upon layer of hexes.
How many hexes can a pony's mind handle? he wondered. Not this many. Spike pinched his fingers on the projectile and slid it out from under his claw. It was a steel sewing needle. He threw it to the ground with a ping. "Don't do that again, Rarity," he said.
Rarity tossed her foreleg around his neck and breathed on his cheek, rising to her hind legs and rubbing her curves against him. "That's Miss Rarity to you, wyrm. Now show me what you learned while you were away at school." She attacked his mouth with her tongue again. The amulet burned like a green coal, and Spike's vision went double, his chest felt like it was caving in. His love for Rarity was a conduit through which the changeling's heart was literally sucking his life out.
"Get... off!" he said, shoving her away. Her head clanged against one of the hot pipes and she collapsed to the ground with hair across her face. "Horseradish," he said. "Rarity!" He was torn between checking to see if she was alright, or more wisely running the hay away.
Rarity looked up at him with a wicked grin, a spot of blood running down her forehead. Her eyes were green-and-orange furnaces. "Oh, baby wants to play rough? That's mama's favorite game!"
The white unicorn's horn ignited. Another glint of light flew from her sash and sliced with enormous speed into a narrow split between Spike's armored chest-scales. He felt it pierce into his body, probably missing his heart by an inch or less. He thundered forward to tear the amulet from her neck, and a third sewing needle curved around and stabbed through the taught skin of his lizard-eardrum. Spike went deaf on that side, howling with pain, still trying for the amulet, lumbering forward. Every pipe and valve tripped him up and he tumbled to the floor with a mighty splash. My inner ear, he thought with horror. She must have nicked my inner-ear. And my eyes-- He slapped a claw over his eyes just as two razor-sharp needles drilled into the back of his hand.
All it would take would be a single bolt of hellfire to vaporize her. I can't fight you, I can't... "Rari--" A needle flew down his throat. He gagged on blood.
"Mind your manners, Spikey-Wikey, or I'll have to punish you some more," said Rarity. "You know, I've always wanted a dragon slave. What can I say, it's a girl thing. And I simply can't wait to indulge myself, but I need to know that you are completely subservient. Now are you going to keep being a bad boy? Or are you going to lie there and take it like a stud?"
"Safe word!" he cried. "What's the safe word?"
She laughed. "That's cute, honey." Her horn thrummed with magic.
He dared to look, and caught the glimmer of a whole swarm of sewing needles rising into the air-- steel hornets poised on invisible threads. The changeling's heart thrummed green with power and Spike's vision swam, clouded-over. His body felt like it weighed a thousand tons. It was killing him. "Wait!" he rasped from the edge of consciousness.
Then they all stabbed at once.