Let me tell you something right off the bat: I don’t like parties. In fact, I don’t enjoy anything remotely resembling a social gathering. Crowds put me on edge, and I’ve never been one to mingle with people I haven’t met before, or particularly care to know in the first place. Hell, I’ve never even been to the monthly barbecue my comrades liked to throw. And on the rare occasion when I was forced to attend a party, I mostly just hung around in a nice corner and avoided conversations. Call me a recluse if you like, but I’m not willing to drop over a decade’s worth of paranoia for the sake of small talk with strangers.
Yet despite all that, I still found myself standing in front of Ponyville’s garishly-colored ‘Sugarcube Corner’, preparing to mingle with what appeared to be quite a few ponies. I was surprised at the fairly large number of attendees, given that night was settling on Ponyville. When I voiced my thoughts to Twilight, the young unicorn merely giggled and smiled up at me.
“No one ever declines an invitation to Pinkie’s shindigs,” she explained, “She might be a little eccentric, but when it comes to parties, Pinkie Pie is practically the princess.”
“So you’ve said,” I replied, before sighing and glancing at Twilight, “Look, I’m not saying this to be rude, but I’m really not one for parties, Twilight. The last one I attended was, I don’t know, three years ago? Maybe four?”
“You’ll be fine, Jack,” Twilight assured me, “Besides, you get to meet the rest of my friends!”
I stared at her for a long moment, before turning my gaze towards the open door of Sugarcube Corner. Then, with another sigh and a mumbled curse, I began striding forward, Twilight following excitedly. I admit, I was impressed at how fast she’d bounced back from my cold words regarding Aurelius, though I still had a feeling she hadn’t quite yet accepted my reason as to why he needed to die. To her, giving someone a second chance almost seemed instinctual. The tolerance that permeated Equestria was nearly enough to make me nauseous, and while a part of me found their devotion to it laudable, another part wanted to rave at their naivety. I wanted them to see that sometimes you had to fight for peace, and not have it served up on a silver platter. I wanted them to understand that sometimes, when push came to shove, you had to draw a gun and shoot someone dead.
I wanted them to understand what it was like to have to fight for survival... that sometimes, when push came to shove, you had to draw a gun and shoot someone dead. But they didn’t. Maybe they couldn’t. And all I could do was smile and nod.
I pushed aside that dark train of thought as I just outside the doorway of Sugarcube Corner, eying the ponies inside warily as I fiddled with the strap of my seeker rifle. I felt Twilight gently nudge the back of my knee, prompting me to stop loitering outside the bakery. Barely a moment after I’d stepped inside, a certain pink pony leapt from nowhere and began bouncing happily in front of me.
“You’re here!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, “Now the party can really start!” Before I could even say anything, she grabbed my hand dragged me to the middle of the room for all to see, “Everyone, this is Jack. Jack, this is everyone! Well, not everyone, but everyone I could invite on short notice.” Pinkie Pie began pointing her hoof at individual ponies and introducing them at a rapid pace, “That’s Berry Punch, Pokey, Cheerilee, Cloud Kicker, Raindrops….”
The names went on, and it was all I could do to nod politely at each pony Pinkie Pie introduced. Like I said, I wasn’t one for parties, and a part of me was itching to scramble out the door and leave Sugarcube Corner in the dust. But out of respect for Pinkie Pie (and sheer force of will), I stood my ground until, finally, the introductions came to an end. Pinkie Pie went off to fetch me a drink, giving me an opportunity to slink into a corner and hover just beyond the party’s social circles. I was content to stay that way, too, until a familiar unicorn with a white coat trotted up to me.
“Hey there,” I said to her, inclining my head slightly, “You’re Rarity, right? Sorry about your boutique.”
“Please, darling,” she replied, putting a hoof to her chest, “You needn’t apologize. You saved Applebloom’s life, and for that, I am more than thankful.” She blushed in sudden embarrassment, “And I daresay that I was…overreacting earlier, when my boutique was ablaze. Princess Celestia has already offered me the funds to rebuild my boutique and my business, so I should hardly be worrying about living on the streets.”
“Glad to hear that,” I said, folding my arms together and leaning back against the wall. Inwardly, I winced at my blunt words. Rarity had been through a lot that day, and I probably wasn’t doing her any favors with my attitude. Before I could make an attempt at small talk, however, Pinkie Pie scurried back over to me, a glass of punch balanced on her nose.
“Thanks,” I said, relieving her of the glass before it could topple over, “So, uh…are any more of your friends here?” Barely a moment after I’d spoken, I saw Twilight Sparkle approaching me with two pegasi in tow. One had a blue coat with a rather impressive rainbow mane, and hovered just above Twilight. The other pegasus sported a yellow coat and pink mane, though, unlike her comrade, she seemed content to keep her hooves on the ground.
“Jack,” Twilight said as she stopped in front of me, “I’d like you to mee-” Before she could finish, the rainbow-maned pegaus zipped in front of me and offered me her hoof.
“What’s up?” she said, “My name’s Rainbow Dash, fastest flier in Equestria!” Her chest puffed out visibly as she spoke, and it was all I could do to resist rolling my eyes. I could already tell that Rainbow Dash’s brazen attitude was going to get on my nerves. Nonetheless, I politely shook her proffered hoof.
“Charmed,” I grunted, before glancing down at the yellow pegaus. She immediately seemed to shrink under my gaze, prompting me to raise a questioning eyebrow at Twilight Sparkle. I mean, I knew some ponies were still hesitant around me, but it wasn’t like I was that scary to look at.
“This is Fluttershy,” Twilight said, laying a comforting hoof on her friend’s shoulder, “Fluttershy, this is Jack. He’s the one who saved Applebloom earlier today.”
“Yup,” I replied, kneeling down in front of the timid pegaus and holding my hand out, “Twilight’s told me all about you. You like to take care of animals, right?” Honestly, you’d think I was wearing a skull mask and howling like an idiot, given how Fluttershy was shaking. But after a moment, she tentatively rested her hoof in my hand, though she still hid behind her mane as she spoke.
“H-hello,” she said, her voice barely a whisper, “And y-yes, I do love taking care of animals.”
“Fluttershy is the best vet in Ponyville,” Rainbow Dash quipped from beside me, “Seriously, don’t let her tell you otherwise.” The rest of her friends agreed, causing Fluttershy to blush in embarrassment.
“Oh!” Pinkie Pie added, raising her hoof in the air, “And she’s the nicest, kindest, sweetest pony in the history of Eques-”
An earth-rattling roar shook the air, interrupting Pinkie Pie and just about every other pony in the room. I shot to my feet, gripping my seeker rifle and raising it to chest height as another roar echoed through the town. I spared a glance at Twilight, who had paled visibly at the sound. In fact, all of the ponies in the room seemed to have gone stock-still at the thunderous noise. Whatever it belonged to must not have been particularly friendly.
“Alright, listen up!” I shouted, causing every pair of eyes in the room to look at me, “Twilight, take everyone here and get them out of Ponyville.” I pointed to Rainbow Dash. “You say you’re a fast flier? Prove it. Spread the word to every pony you can. Tell them to get the hell outta town.”
“Are you kidding?” she retorted, folding her forelegs belligerently, “There’s no way I’m leaving my friends!”
I narrowed my eyes at Rainbow Dash and took a step forward. “Don’t push me, girl,” I growled at her, “I won’t think twice about breaking those pretty wings of yours.”
The pegasus glared at me and remained right where she was, demonstrating what she probably thought was bravery. In reality, she was only making me want to follow up on my threat. Her friends seemed indecisive towards what to do, though I had a feeling they'd back Rainbow Dash if things escalated further.
“That’s enough!” Twilight Sparkle suddenly snapped, surprising both Rainbow Dash and me. The unicorn quickly interposed herself between us, her expression determined. “Rainbow Dash, trust me. Jack knows what he’s doing. You can catch up with us later, alright? Right now, you're the only one fast enough to warn the rest of Ponyville."
Rainbow Dash looked as though she was going to argue, but after a moment, she merely nodded at Twilight and zipped from the room. She left a prismatic contrail behind her, and the speed of her passing caused several papers plates to fly into the air. Had I not been so annoyed at her attitude, I probably would have found the display of speed impressive. Instead, I merely gave a derisive snort and strode towards the bakery’s door, my helmet sealing itself into place.
“Jack!” Twilight called after me, “You can’t go outside, it’s too dangerous!”
“Good,” I grunted in reply, glancing at her over my shoulder, “Don’t wait up for me.”
Before she could protest further, I leapt forward and soared into the night sky.
As soon as I was airborne, my RIG immediately began mapping out sections of Ponyville. I saw crowds of ponies galloping through the streets in terror, looking fearfully towards the southern part of town. I didn’t see where the trouble was at first, until a gout of green flames illuminated the sky above Ponyville, followed closely by a mighty roar. I tore my eyes away from the town and looked up towards the origins of the flames, expecting to see some new type of minion from Aurelius.
What I got, however…was a dragon. An honest-to-God, fire-breathing dragon. He was incredibly tall, his wings were broad, and his scalers were blacker than sin. The claws at the ends of his hands were easily as long as I was, and his red eyes seemed to smolder like coals. Even as I watched, he landed atop the town’s pavilion and tore gouges into the thick wood. He would have set it ablaze, too, if it hadn’t been for the trio of seeker bolts I embedded into his snout. He snorted in annoyance and turned his baleful gaze towards me. Rather than attack, however, he opened his mouth and began speaking.
“Greetings, little man,” the dragon rumbled, his voice deep and gravelly, “Lord Aurelius told me of you. He says you are a mighty warrior...but I daresay you look no stronger than the ponies of this wretched town.”
“That right? Guess your boss forgot to tell you that I could do this.” Before the dragon could retort, I lifted my seeker rifle and planted a bolt right into one of his over-sized eyes. He roared in agony and unleashed a gout of flames, forcing me to dodge out of the way. I quickly began ascending, hoping to lure the dragon away from the town and its inhabitants. The last thing Ponyville needed was a human and a giant lizard brawling in the streets.
As I expected, the dragon unfurled his wings and leapt after me, smoke curling from his nostrils. I swiveled around and emptied the remaining bolts of my seeker rifle into his head. His thick, jagged scales were like armor, however, and bolts did little more than aggravate him further. I cursed vehemently as I dodged another pillar of green fire and slung my seeker rifle, quickly considering my options. I didn’t have enough ammo to whittle away at the dragon, and I had no illusions of taking him on up close. His claws would have torn through my armor with ease, and I knew for a fact he was stronger than me. What I did have, however, was the advantage of maneuverability, and the dragon was having trouble playing catch-up. Speed was my ultimate advantage over him, and I knew just how to use it.
I clenched my right hand into a tight fist and blink-clicked an icon on my HUD. Barely a second later, a blade slid smoothly from a slit cut into my vambrace. It was nearly two-feet in length, and gleamed in the pale light of the moon above me. Officially, these types of blades were meant to help rescue workers pry open doors on ships and space stations, on the off-chance the power was down and a RIG couldn’t access the door’s controls. EarthGov, however, saw fit to adapt them for military use, and as a result, many members of the Special Forces utilized them regularly. The alloys used in their construction rendered them durable, sharp, and lethal in the hands of a trained soldier like myself.
The dragon was about to learn that the hard way.
I intentionally slowed my ascent, allowing the beast to begin closing the distance between us. Just before he could swipe his talons at me, my suit’s thrusters cut out entirely, letting me free-fall past his back. I reached out and gripped one of his scales, anchoring myself firmly in place. The dragon snarled in fury and began spinning around in an effort to dislodge me, but I held on grimly as I began pulling myself forward. Beneath my helmet, my teeth were bared in a savage grin as I inched towards the dragon’s neck. The exhilaration of the mid-air battle had my heart racing, and my blood pumped at a furious pace. The fact that I was going to slay a dragon, of all things, was not lost on me, and I already planned on taking a few of its scales as a trophy.
Finally, after a few close calls, I reached the dragon’s neck. With an adrenaline-infused shout of defiance, I raised my blade and plunged it into the soft, unprotected flesh beneath his scales. He roared in agony and pain, twisting wildly in the air and bellowing random blasts of flame. I pulled my blade free and stabbed again, the dragon’s blood staining my gauntlet crimson. Before I could wrench the blade out again, however, the dragon finally pulled a move that caused me to tumble off it’s neck. Moving with serpentine speed, despite his injury, the dragon snapped me up in his jaws. Or rather, he tried to. I managed to catch two of his massive fangs, preventing him from closing his mouth all the way. My arms shook from the exertion, and the joints of my suit were whirring in protest from the strain. Despite my efforts, the fangs inched gradually closer to my face, spittle dripping from their tips and onto my visor.
“Well…shit,” I grunted, realizing that I didn’t have much in the way of options. Even then, those were cut to only one as I saw fire beginning to gather at the back of the dragon’s throat.
This is gonna hurt, I thought to myself. I quickly heaved a deep breath. before releasing my grip on one of the dragon’s fangs and shoving my blade into the roof of his mouth. My left arm promptly buckled from the lack of support, causing a particularly long tooth to pierce my shoulder. Red-hot pain laced through my neck and arm, but I forced myself to ignore it as I twisted my blade, causing the dragon to finally open his mouth and shake me loose. Fire roared out a moment later, briefly engulfing me as I tumbled away. My suit insulated me from the intense heat, but my RIG wasn’t so lucky. The fire made its internal temperature spike, to the point where a warning flashed across my HUD.
Internal temperature critical, it stated, Thrusters: Offline.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I hollered as I fell towards Ponyville, trailing smoke like a comet. The dragon, fortunately, didn’t seem eager to give chase, and I saw it fly away in the opposite direction. My satisfaction, however, was tainted by the fact that I was hurtling towards the ground at breakneck speeds. Not to mention that my left shoulder hurt like seven kinds of hell, and I was bleeding like a stuck pig. It wasn’t lethal, but that hardly mattered, given my inevitable reunion with one of Ponyville’s streets.
I may have been plummeting towards the the ground, but even without my thrusters, I still had an option for survival. It was crazy, and maybe even a little stupid, yet an option nonetheless. But my timing would have to be more than perfect, else I’d wind up nothing more than a twisted mess of metal and blood. With that mental image clearly in mind, I spread my arms and legs, doing my best to control my descent towards Ponyville. My target was the town square, which provided me ample room to land. If my landing went according to plan, that is.
Collision imminent, my HUD calmly told me, to which I replied with a grumbled curse. I dismissed the warning, and any other icons on my HUD, with a blink. I needed my vision clear for what I was about to do, and that moment, my HUD was just in the way. The ground steadily moved closer, the wind whistling past my ears like a siren’s call. But I still I waited. I waited until I was a mere thirty feet from the ground, before slamming my left arm into my chest and triggering my stasis module.
Instantly, time seemed to slow as the blue-white field enveloped me. My movements seemed more than sluggish, as if elastic cords were tied to my limbs. The world around me blurred, and I heard nothing as my free-fall turned into a slow, gentle float downward. I have to admit, the sensation of being hit with a stasis field isn’t the most pleasant thing I’ve experienced. Of course, at that moment, I wasn’t really complaining. It had saved me from a rather unpleasant death…even if it made me look like a boneless carcass that was limply floating towards the ground.
The stasis wore off when I was about fifteen feet from the ground, leaving me to collide solidly with the street. I hissed in pain as the impact aggravated my shoulder, but my armor was barely even scratched from the drop. I rolled onto my back as my helmet stored itself away, the cool night air feeling pleasant as it brushed against my face. I stared up the sky for a long moment, before I began laughing quietly. The adrenaline was wearing off, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of what had just happened: A mid-air battle with a talking dragon. God, it was like something out of a cheesy fantasy novel…but there I was, having just done exactly that.
“Jack Ventralis!” I shouted to no one in particular, “Dragon Fighter!” I made to fist pump the air, but quickly lowered my arm when my shoulder throbbed. Hey, I may have been a professional soldier, but even I found time to be silly on certain occasions. Once my mirth had subsided, I sat up, removed my pauldron, and began tending my wound. I may have been bruised, battered, and little sore…but I was alive. Through a battle with a dragon and an uncontrolled free-fall, I was still alive.
I didn’t know what Aurelius had planned next, but I’d won that round of his game, and was ready for more. Because I knew, through everything that had happened, one thing was certain: No matter what Aurelius did, and no matter what creatures he sent to fight…the Reaper was coming for him.
One way or another, I was coming for him.
Author's Note: Lordy, I got this chapter out quickly. Consider it my apology for taking so long with the last one.
As always, thanks to Invictus for being an amazing pre-reader and helping me forge this latest installment of 'When Death Knocks'. Hopefully, I can make chapters like this more quickly. I mean, I heard that everyone likes it when a good story updates, so hey, might as well give it a shot!
Thanks for reading!