• Published 25th Apr 2012
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Semper Fidelis - Bobcat

In the aftermath of It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia, Soarin comes to visit Applejack.

  • ...

Chapter 4: Dulce Et Decorum Est

Semper Fidelis

Chapter 4

Dulce et Decorum est

So. This was what Tirek did to worlds.

In the wake of the chariot, the vibrant forest had turned grey and brown. It didn't even look dead; it just looked like an old photograph. Soarin could see a few animals making their way through the trees, but they looked wrong, somehow. Like the trees, their colors were muted, and something about the way they moved was deeply unsettling; they were moving in quick jerks, rather than smooth, natural motions. It reminded him of watching a beetle dart about, pause, then dart about again, and squirrels and birds weren't supposed to move that way.

The sight made Soarin's stomach churn. And to think, for all that time, Scorpan could only sit in someone else's head and watch them make it so over and over again. Soarin considered abandoning his plan and just beating the tar out of the demon lord with his hooves... but no. Applejack was counting on him. He was going to see her again, and no momentary emotion was going to keep him from that.

Finally, he caught sight of the grey rainbow trail. Its smell reminded him of the dragons; it made sense, considering they were both soaked in corrupting magic. Soarin pulled up until he couldn't smell the rainbow anymore. He figured that if he could smell it, that meant tiny bits of it were going into his body and that wouldn't do him any good.

As he closed in, he could see Tirek sitting in his chariot without a care in the world. In fact, if Soarin wasn't mistaken, the sick jerk was laughing. Unfortunately for Soarin, he was standing in the chariot facing backwards, watching the world turn grey. He locked eyes with the demon and cursed. So much for pulling this off stealthily.

And once again, Soarin felt the presence in his brain. "So. You managed to stand after that. I must say, I'm surprised. Well done, Wonderbolt."

Soarin ignored him. Maybe if he didn't think, Tirek would just get bored?

"I'm not that easy to shake off. But you've piqued my curiosity; now I'm going to find out how exactly you recovered so quickly."

Soarin cursed. Panicking, he tried to make as much mental noise as he could. He imagined loud music, the crying of foals, hooves on chalkboards, anything to drown out that oily feeling that was spreading through his brain.

After a few moments, the voice piped up again. "Well. That was certainly irritating. But I got what I wanted. Though I must say, I'm disappointed. You get a second chance because of a momentary error and you rush back for another beating? That shows a shocking lack of pattern recognition."

Soarin smirked cockily. "I know I'm stupid, though I'm surprised at you. For somepony who thinks he's so perfect, I'm surprised you're willing to admit you made a mistake."

He hated Tirek's laughter. "I never said I was perfect, simply that I'm the only being whose will matters. There's an important philosophical distinction. Now, let me give you one last chance. Run. Run away, and when I am good and ready, I will give you immortality as my right hand man. You'll be the second most important being in creation."

"Bargaining, Tirek? Sounds to me like you're afraid."

The annoyance was palpable; it was so strong that it snuffed out Soarin's temporary wave of confidence. "Don't misunderstand me, Wing Sergeant Soarin von Richthofen. I don't have the power to fix you right now, but I have more than enough to simply kill you outright. Frankly, though, I've had too many delays with taking this ridiculous world, and I would rather not waste anyone with the capacity to serve me."

Soarin shook his head and increased his speed, gathering elemental magic as he went. "No thanks. You're threatening everything and everypony I've ever cared about; I'm not about to roll over and let you have your way."

"Very well. You've wasted twenty-four years on something other than my grand project, so why not throw away all of your potential?" Soarin felt the presence begin to pull away from him, only to pause. "And I know exactly what you're planning. You and I both know it's impossible to do alone."

Soarin firmly said, "Correction: it's never been tried alone."

"There's no use lying to me; I can feel just how false that bravado is."

It was official; Soarin hated mind readers. "I guess either way, we'll both find out, won't we?"

"Yes. We shall." And with that, a hail of black lightning bolts flew up from Tirek's trident. Of course, Soarin had anticipated that; he'd begun the barrel roll as soon as Tirek had stopped talking to him. Tirek's aim was further off the mark than in their last encounter; then again, Soarin wasn't having to slow himself to get to melee range. No, he just passed Tirek without a look back. More bolts flew around him, one even managing to singe his tail.

But it was too late; he was already out of sight of Tirek's chariot. He hoped Tirek kept flying straight; he wasn't sure how large an area of effect this would have, so he needed to pull it off as close to Tirek as he could manage. He could only hope that the demon lord would keep after him just to try and prevent him from pulling off his plan.

Finally, he felt like he'd built up enough momentum and magic. He flared out one wing and started spinning. The clouds and magic behind him started twisting like a corkscrew. He was glad he hadn't had a real lunch, or else he would be in real danger of losing it. As it was, it was hard enough to keep going in a straight line.

Now for the hard part. This technique, the Guided Tornado, was supposed to be done by whole weather teams. It was how the snow was cleared during winter wrap-ups. The lead pony established the spin, and other ponies in the arrow expended the energy to enlarge it into an enormous cone. He'd seen it clear skies in seconds.

But he was alone. He had to pump more and more of his own energy into it to compensate, and the larger it got, the harder it would be to maintain. But if he made it too small, there was no guarantee it would clear enough of the sky to catch Tirek in the sun's rays. He felt himself slowing as energy went into the tornado, but that was okay. He'd expected that.

Oh how it hurt. Pegasi were not meant to pump out this much energy this quickly. It felt like he was expelling his soul through his pores, and the wind flashing at his exposed muzzle wasn't helping matters. He gritted his teeth and tried to think of something else.

Applejack's letters. Number two was his favorite. He had it pretty close to memorized.

"D-dear Soarin." Huffing and puffing, he began to slowly turn the whirling monstrosity upwards. It was as big as it would get before he just lost it altogether. "Ah hope this apple cobbler finds you in good spirits. Has Captain Spitfire forgiven you yet? Ah really want to see you again." His wings screamed with pain and exhaustion. Sweat was pooling inside his goggles and stinging his eyes. He could barely see; he hoped he was still going up. "Things on the farm have been pretty normal. The red delicious apples are coming in really nice and..."

He had to stop; his breath had more important things to do than help him focus, as leaden wings strained to keep him flying straight up. He saw the sea of blackness above him. Yup. He was definitely going up. He was doing it! Slowly. Too slowly. He'd used up all of his momentum and magic making the twister, and he felt like he was flapping through syrup.

Every flight instructor he'd ever studied under had told him that the body of a pegasus was not made to fly without magic. Oh well. Soarin von Richthofen wasn't going to quit just because some fancy-pants physicist told him it couldn't be done. He started flapping faster and he slowly but surely fought gravity's pull. Every inch felt like a mile. He felt like he was going to die; he just wanted to give up.

"Ah really want to see you again."

He could see stars in front of his eyes. His wings burned, his lungs burned, even his legs burned, and they weren't doing anything.

"Whatever happens, ah love you."

But it was so hard. Couldn't somepony else do it? He could just close his eyes and rest... it sounded so nice.

"This ain't no time for doubt. Ah believe in you, Soarin."

Well, that settled it, didn't it? He forced his wings to flap even harder. He felt muscles strain and he was worried he was going to lose the tornado any second.

And then he was blinded by a bright light. The sun hurt his eyes, but it was a welcome hurt. It meant he'd succeeded. He chanced a look to his right and the sea of blackness was receding away from him, blown away by the gale force winds he'd brought behind him. He released his hold on the tornado and the wild winds dispersed, taking the clouds with them.

After a moment, he realized he was starting to fall; gravity was finally having its way with him. Oh well, he'd been expecting that. Between his cracked goggles and the sweat in his eyes, he could barely distinguish sky from ground, much less see if he'd caught Tirek in the sun's rays. He hoped so; it'd suck to pull off the impossible just to have it not mean anything.

The ground was rushing up at him. Soarin spread out his wings and legs; the drag slowed him down, but not nearly enough. Faster and faster he fell; there was no way he was going to survive this fall. He'd been ready to do or die; it hadn't occurred to him that he could do then die.

Then, with a sudden jolt, he stopped in midair. What the hay? Blast it, he still couldn't see! He glanced around, flung away the goggles and rubbed the salty sweat from his eyes. Still half blind, he called out, "H-huh? Who did that?"

He felt a tingling sensation across his skin as he floated above the ground. It must have been magic. He was slowly and gently turned around; he found himself facing six ponies standing in front of a pegasus style moving wagon. The only one he recognized was Big Macintosh. One of them, a pegasus stallion with a baseball cap and a five o'clock shadow, was still hitched to the wagon and breathing hard. He must have hauled all five ponies from Ponyville; considering how much trouble he had with the weight of one pony, Soarin was impressed.

One of the ponies, a light brown earth pony wearing a dingy brown overcoat and a multicolored scarf, shot him a cocky grin and replied, "It's Whooves, actually. Doctor Whooves."

A light blue unicorn with a glowing horn glared at Doctor Whooves. "Oh yeah, because you're the one who caught him."

He grinned sheepishly. "Oh come on, Colgate, how often do I get a chance to namedrop like that? I thought you'd be happy for me!"

Soarin glanced around. They were standing at the edge of the forest, and in the distance he could see what he supposed was Sierra Maredre. Wait, he'd cleared the whole forest? Just how fast had he been going?

Big Macintosh coughed into his hoof. "Ah think we got bigger problems." Everypony followed his gaze and gasped.

Rainbow Dash cried out, "Look out below!"

Soarin let out a cheer; he was the only one not horrified by the sight of six screaming ponies tied to a chariot falling right at them. Rainbow Dash and the yellow one (Fluttershy, if he remembered the letters right) were flapping as hard as they could, but they obviously couldn't control their descent. And there was no sign of Tirek.

But he didn't care. Applejack was Applejack again! He'd done it!

The pegasus stallion hurriedly unhitched himself and took off. "C'mon, Derpy!"

"Right behind you, Boxy!" The wall eyed mare followed shortly behind. The two grabbed the sides of the chariot with their hooves and managed to stabilize it. The four pegasi worked frantically and only just managed to avoid a crash landing; Fluttershy was obviously drained from the effort, as she tried to sit down, but was held in a standing position by her harness.

Soarin struggled against the invisible bonds holding him in midair. He needed to check on Applejack! "Let me down!" He paused. "Er, let me down please."

Colgate blinked. "Oh. Right. Sorry." She lowered Soarin to his feet and he staggered, almost falling over instantly. He managed to keep his balance, but just barely; his legs felt like rubber. Ignoring the obvious, he tried to run over to check on Applejack, but almost tripped over his own hooves.

He felt a supporting hoof on his side and he turned to see a friendly looking earth pony stallion with a light yellow coat. "Slow down there, Soarin."

Soarin shot the pony a confused look. "You know who I am?"

The pony matched it. "Why wouldn't I recognize you? There's Wonderbolt posters all over Ponyville."

Soarin facehoofed. "Oh. Right. Sorry, it's been a weird couple of days."

Before the stallion could respond, Big Macintosh called over, "Hey Caramel, we could use them tools. They're tied in but good."

"Coming, Big Mac."

Soarin blinked. "I thought he hated being called that."

Caramel smirked. "We go way back, so I'm allowed." Soarin realized Caramel was wearing a utility belt when he pulled out a screwdriver. Through a full mouth, he said, "Don't worry, I'll get Applejack out in a jiffy."

Soarin nodded appreciatively. Taking it more slowly, he limped over to the chariot, which earned him a concerned look from Applejack.

"You okay, Soarin?"

Soarin chuckled. "I didn't just get turned into a... thing. I should be asking you that." He stretched his legs for emphasis. "But yeah, I'm sore, but I should be fine. And you?"

Applejack frowned. "It was an... experience." She tugged at her restraints, obviously uncomfortable. Considering how she responded to small spaces, Soarin wasn't surprised. He wanted to gush all over Applejack about how worried he'd been, how much he loved her and how hard it had been to watch her being transformed. However, he knew Applejack would just be embarrassed, so he settled for a quick nuzzle and a wingy hug.

"Oh, um, excuse me. I don't want to be a bother, but where are we?" Fluttershy was blushing and trying not to stare at them as Applejack returned the nuzzle.

Rainbow Dash looked over her shoulder. "I want a rematch with that dragon! It didn't get me fair and square! It cheated!"

Twilight Sparkle (Soarin recognized her from when he'd shook her hoof at the Grand Galloping Gala) sarcastically said, "Dash, I think we have slightly bigger problems right now."

Pinkie Pie, newly freed (which Soarin thought was interesting, since Caramel hadn't gotten to her yet), bounced happily in a circle around the still confined ponies. "Yay, we're free! That was so boring! I couldn't move and all they fed us were oats and I bet that meanie Tirek's never even heard the word party!"

Rarity fixed her with an odd look. "I'm surprised you remember that much. One minute those terrible dragons were grabbing me, and the next I was falling out of the sky! Will somepony tell me what's going on here? And what a Tirek is?"

As soon as Applejack was free, she hesitated. From her body language, Soarin could tell that she couldn't decide whether to rush over to Soarin, her friends or Big Macintosh; she kept shifting towards one, then the other. Finally, she just settled for stepping back so she could look at everypony all at once. Her eyes misty, she said, "Ah'm so glad to see all y'all again. Ah thought you were all goners." A few tears rolled down her cheek. "S-sorry fer the waterworks, y'all, but it's been a heck of a week."

Pinkie stopped bouncing. "Aw, it's okay, Applejack." She got a thoughtful expression on her face, and then inspiration struck. "I know what'll help! This calls for a group hug!" Soarin suddenly found himself grabbed and pulled over to Pinkie, along with everypony else... simultaneously.

Soarin sputtered, "H-how?"

Rainbow Dash said, "Don't ask questions and just enjoy your group hug. It's easier that way."

Twilight Sparkle was the first to slip out. "No! This doesn't call for a group hug! Rarity was right, this calls for answers! Who here's been conscious the whole time?"

As a unit, everypony looked at Soarin expectantly. He laughed nervously. "Well, um, it's kind of a long story. Applejack was there for more of it that I was, maybe she should..."

Twilight gave him a comforting little smile. "Just relax and tell us what you know, okay?"

He nodded. "Well, the short version of it is..." His eyes widened as an all too familiar figure strode out of the forest. "... horse apples." So much for Tirek being vaporized by the sunlight like he'd hoped.

Everypony else had the good sense to follow his gaze and start backing away slowly. Twilight was oblivious. She raised an eyebrow. "Horse apples? Maybe that's a little too short? Details are very important to..."

Applejack chomped down on Twilight's tail, pulling her to safety an instant before Tirek could snatch her up.

The demon had seen better days. His fur was slick with sweat, though Soarin didn't think it was a very warm day. Tirek was limping slightly; considering he must have fallen from the chariot, Soarin was surprised he was able to walk at all. He used a hand to shield his eyes from the light and took in the crowd of ponies.

"Hm. There are more of you than I expected. How annoying." Tirek smirked ever so slightly as he caught sight of Soarin. "Oh good. I was hoping you'd survived the fall. After that last delaying tactic, I want to finish you off myself."

Soarin had placed himself in front of Applejack intentionally; after that comment, she was having none of that and bumped him aside. "Delayin' tactic?" She spat dismissively. "You're talkin' a big game, but ah'm countin' thirteen of us and one of you, and Scorpan told us that yer magic doesn't work when the sun shines!"

Tirek smirked. That put a chill down Soarin's spine. "I say delaying tactic because I mean delaying tactic. Also, there is a 'g' there. You ought to consider pronouncing it properly." Applejack bristled at that. His eyes scanned across the group, making eye contact with each pony in turn. Everypony flinched under his stare. "At nightfall, you and your friends will become fixed again. There is no magic in the ten realms that can reverse my blessing."

Everypony started murmuring nervously. Seeking to prevent a panic, Soarin spoke up. "No magic but the Elements of Harmony! And we've got them all right here! Act as tough as you like, you're finished now!" He shot one of his patented recruitment poster smiles at Twilight, feeling just as confident as he looked. "So go on, girls! Do your stuff!"

Twilight coughed into her hoof. "Actually, we sort of need some artifacts to use the Elements."

Soarin gulped. "And those are where?"

Almost simultaneously, all six of them said forlornly, "Ponyville." Nuts. He'd worried they would say that.

Tirek laughed. As always, Soarin wished he wouldn't; he didn't do it right. "So you see, it's hopeless. Listen well, my little ponies: Tirek always wins. The question is, how many of your friends die first? Don't think that I can't destroy everyone here without my magic. If you give yourselves up quietly, they will live to see the dawn of the new age. If you don't, they will be the last casualties of this campaign."

Doctor Whooves spoke up. "While your offer is most generous, Mr. Tirek, was it?" Without waiting for confirmation, he continued, "Yes, well, Mr. Tirek, while your offer is most generous, my associates and I are going to need a moment to talk it over."

Tirek gestured dismissively. "Go ahead, discuss it among yourselves. Take all the time you like; every moment brings us closer to sundown." He crossed his arms and waited.

Most of the ponies present glanced around and whispered to each other, utterly lost. Soarin didn't blame them. It was Big Macintosh who cut through the confusion. "Ah don't know exactly what's goin' on here, but ah'll be hanged 'fore he gets his hooves on mah sister again."

Fluttershy shook her head. "No, please. If... if there's nothing we can do, I don't want anything to happen to anypony."

Applejack shook her head forcefully. "No way, Shy. Yer heart's in the right place, but it ain't gonna end with us. He gets us, it's game over for Equestria."

Tirek commented, "Your friend has a lot of sense, Applejack. You should listen to her."

Applejack responded with some words that made everypony blush.

After an awkward post-cuss pause, Rarity turned and looked at Twilight expectantly. "Well?"

The purple unicorn looked back quizzically. "Well what?"

Rarity gave an annoyed groan. "I for one am not going to just stand by and let this beast take us again! I know you must have some sort of spell that can get us the Element necklaces!"

"I don't have a spell for everything, Rarity," Twilight said, exasperated.

Applejack snorted. "Horse apples. You always do." There were nods of agreement from everypony present.

Twilight rubbed her chin thoughtfully. Finally she said, "Well, I suppose I could use the resonance between us and our Elements to teleport them here. It's not an easy spell, though. To get them all here, I'd need the six of us to use as foci."

Caramel spoke up. "And how long with that take?"

Twilight muttered something that flew over Soarin's head completely. It sounded like math, but not quite; math would have had more numbers and less gibberish. "I think it would be about five minutes. Give or take."

Big Macintosh nodded firmly. "Then you got yer five minutes. You get to safety and we'll all hold him off." The rest of the posse nodded just as firmly and lined up next to Big Macintosh, forming a defensive line between everypony else and Tirek.

Twilight Sparkle smiled gratefully. "Thanks, Big Macintosh. Don't worry, I'm 87% sure I can do this."

Soarin assumed a slightly wobbly ready position next to the red stallion. "Those are the best odds I've heard since I got here. Let's do this!"

Big Macintosh shoved Soarin towards the girls with his back leg, almost bowling him over. "Sorry, but you ain't part of 'we'."

Soarin was sure he hadn't heard that right. "Th-that's awfully harsh, isn't it? I mean, I don't know any of you that well, but..."

The laconic farmer interrupted him. "Ah didn't mean it like that. Y'all can barely walk; you're in no shape to fight."

Soarin furrowed his brow. "I'm not about to leave you guys alone against him."

Tirek barked a harsh laugh, obviously enjoying the show. "I'd forgotten just how much time you lesser beings spent arguing! This is exactly the sort of problem I'm here to fix."

Big Macintosh shifted the hay in his mouth. "Ah can see why you wanna stay and teach this guy some manners. Still, you've done your part, and you done it good. It's our turn now."

"I just..." Soarin struggled with the words. He just wasn't ready to be useless yet, but it sounded petty in those words.

The red stallion looked him right in the eyes. Apparently the ability to read somepony completely ran in the family. "Then do me a favor and watch mah sister and her friends while Twilight does her thing. Can ah count on you to do that for me?"

"I won't let you down, Big Macintosh." He saluted the stallion, who returned the gesture.

Doctor Whooves wrapped his front leg around Soarin's neck; Soarin was uncomfortable at the overly familiar gesture. Doctor Whooves didn't seem to notice. "Are you done showing everypony how brave you are yet? We don't exactly have a lot of time here." Before Soarin could protest (just who did this guy think he was, talking to him like that?), Doctor Whooves started pulling him towards the girls, who were whispering with Twilight about the details of the spell. It was something about auras and other stuff Soarin left to the unicorns. "Splendid! I think it's best we be going."

The Wonderbolt raised an eyebrow, letting go of his annoyance... for now. "You aren't staying to help?"

"Well, I'm not much good in a hoof fight..."

Colgate spoke up. "He really isn't." There were nods and murmured agreements all around.

"Ahem, I think that's quite enough agreement." Doctor Whooves fixed them all with an annoyed glare. "Anyhow, my talent isn't hoofticuffs. But I'm dandy with improvisation if I have some material to work with. So while we get to that safe distance, you're going to tell me every last detail you can think of so I can craft a battle strategy."

Soarin frowned. He felt like everypony was just trying to make him feel better about getting sent to the bench; after all, Applejack knew everything he did and she was going with the girls by default. Then again, winning was more important than sparing his feelings, and if he was completely honest with himself, he really would just get in the way. "Alright." He turned back towards the posse. "Be careful, everypony. He must have fallen from a hundred feet up and survived; he won't go down easily." With that, he, Doctor Whooves and the girls took off. Soarin wasn't sure where they were going, but that was fine by him; he couldn't get much above a trot, so he was bringing up the rear by several lengths. Applejack stayed close to him; he gave her a grateful nod.

The sounds of battle cries reached his ears and Soarin looked over his shoulder as they galloped; if he couldn't help, he could at least watch. Big Macintosh opened up the fight with a swift applebuck at the spot where Tirek's hyu-man and pony parts met, staggering the demon. The pegasi began flying in tight circles around Tirek, and Colgate used the confusion to telekinetically fling a rock that smacked him in the face. Caramel followed that up with his own buck to Tirek's side.

And then Tirek stomped one of his mighty hooves. The shockwave knocked all five of them end over end. Soarin didn't see what happened next as they descended a hill, though he heard more hard blows. He regretted leaving them behind, as much as it made sense. It was obvious that everypony did, as they ran in silence.

Doctor Whooves said, "I believe you're along to tell us what you know about tall, dark and gruesome back there."

Soarin welcomed the distraction. "His name is Tirek. A week ago..."

Soarin hadn't spent a lot of time around unicorns. Not that he held any ill will towards them, but just by virtue of living in Cloudsdale most of his life, he hadn't exactly had a lot of opportunities. So as much as Twilight had said it was a complicated spell, Soarin couldn't see any sign of it aside from a look of discomfort on Twilight's face and glowing. Lots and lots of glowing; even the other girls were glowing, each of them radiating a different color. He hoped that meant it was working. She'd set herself at the center of her friends, who she'd positioned in a pentagon. The girls all had their eyes closed and seemed to concentrating just as hard as Twilight. They were atop a nearby hill and Soarin and Doctor Whooves were sitting at its base, resting and waiting for something to happen.

Soarin, careful not to talk above a whisper, said, "So, what have you improvised so far? We might need that plan soon; I can't hear Tirek stomping anymore."

Doctor Whooves shrugged. "I admit, this one is a bit of a toughie. I'm used to having more in the way of equipment, or an enemy with an obvious weakness." He shot Soarin a confident grin. "But don't worry, I've been in worse jams than this before."

Soarin raised an eyebrow. "Worse than an invincible demon who can blot out of the sun forever and turn everypony in creation into mindless slaves?"

Doctor Whooves scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "Okay, okay, I'll concede that I haven't been in worse jams, just jams of a similar flavor and consistency, to strain the metaphor." He looked back towards Twilight and the girls. "I suppose we just wait and if Tirek comes, we play decoy long enough for them to deploy the Rainbow of Light."

"I thought you weren't any good in a fight," Soarin asked playfully.

"Not as an active participant, no. But I have my tricks." Doctor Whooves fished something metallic and cylindrical from his left sleeve and held it in his mouth at the ready. "In fact, I think you just got your chance to see them in action."

Soarin cursed as Tirek calmly and confidently strode down the hill towards them. Aside from his limp being more pronounced, he looked none the worse for wear. Tirek crowed, "I must say, they held up better than I expected. That was what, three minutes? I've smashed whole armies in less time; but then," he said, flashing Soarin a predatory grin, "I'm not exactly at full capacity at the moment. None of you silly little things would last five seconds on my turf."

Doctor Whooves muttered, "Three minutes and eighteen seconds, but who's counting?"

Thankfully, Soarin was also doing fine; he hadn't recovered enough to fly, but he could at least walk without tripping over himself. He hazarded a glance behind him; the girls seemed utterly oblivious to the danger. Soarin could see glowing outlines pulsing about their necks or, in Twilight's case, her forehead. He figured that meant it was working.

Tirek peered at the girls and seemed to reach the same conclusion; his grin was predatory, showing his sharpened canines. "Time to end this farce." With that, he charged forward.

Well, if Doctor Whooves hadn't improvised a plan, that fell on Soarin. However, he had nothing; he didn't know how to fight something several times his size without the benefit of flight. So, he counter charged, hoping against hope that he could win the game of chicken. It seemed that Doctor Whooves, for all his protests about being hopeless in a fist fight, had decided to join him.

At what seemed like the last possible second, though, Doctor Whooves leapt at Soarin, knocking him out of the way. The two went end over end and landed in a heap. Tirek passed them by, not giving their strange behavior a second thought. Soarin struggled to his feet, sputtering, "What was that for?"

Doctor Whooves pointed upwards and gave Soarin a smug little grin. "I'd expect you of all ponies to look up occasionally."

Before Soarin could check the skies himself, the ground shook and a draconic roar filled the air. Soarin was shocked to see Vibria standing there, her master straddling her neck. Soarin noticed that the dragon was in terrible shape; there were large holes punched in her wing, her body was covered in gashes and scorch marks, and her breathing seemed very labored.

Tirek had the basic decency to look shocked. He took in the sight of the hyu-man and the dragon, stepping back carefully. He soon regained his composure and said dispassionately, "I can't say I was expecting to ever see you again. How did you evade eight dragons?"

Scorpan spat, "Evade nothing! Let me show you what I did to your stupid puppets!" With that, Scorpan leapt down from Vibria's neck straight at the demon lord, his voice letting loose a savage war cry. Somewhere along the way, Scorpan had found a crude club made from a chunk of driftwood. With an ease borne of long experience, he brought it down on Tirek's head with a mighty crack. Unfortunately, it was the club that shattered, not Tirek's skull. Still, it staggered the demon, who cried out in pain. Scorpan followed up with another blow with the ruined club's handle, which knocked off another chunk of club and elicited another grunt of pain from Tirek. The hyu-man dropped his useless weapon and threw a wild punch at the demon, which connected with a loud snap. Soarin felt a thrill; Tirek could be hurt! This wasn't hopeless! He finally untangled himself from Doctor Whooves and charged in, ready to leap into the fray.

And Soarin's heart sank as Scorpan cradled his hand and yelped in pain.

Tirek smirked. "I see; you caressed them into submission. An unusual tactic for a man who styles himself a warrior, I must say." Faster than Soarin could see, Tirek lashed out, knocking Scorpan twenty feet away. The hyu-man landed hard and didn't move again. "I so missed beating the tar out of him. My little sessions with his better half just weren't satisfying."

Vibria glanced over at Scorpan's unconscious form with as much concern as her reptilian face could express. She looked forlornly in his direction for a long moment; Soarin wondered if dragons could cry, because she clearly looked like she wanted to. Then without warning, she snapped her head around and bathed Tirek in a blue firestorm. Soarin was thankful he'd stopped his charge; he doubted Vibria would have restrained herself if he'd been closer. As it was, the waves of heat brought forth a fresh wave of sweat.

Soarin had no idea how long Vibria's attack lasted. He stood there, transfixed by the almost beautiful flames. Finally, Vibria coughed, her flame was replaced by smoke and she lowered herself onto all fours, obviously exhausted by the effort. Soarin was sure that nothing could survive that.

Soarin was getting really tired of being wrong all the time. Tirek casually walked over to the dragon; Vibria snapped at him, but Tirek sidestepped the attack and grabbed her by the nostril. A dragon larger than an elephant struggled against the grip of a being about the size of her head... and Tirek won the contest of strength. He slammed his fist down upon the top of her head, dropping her instantly.

And then Tirek turned to face Soarin. Soarin worked his wings futilely, trying to get away. And Tirek was relishing the fear. "What, you're surprised? I've ground whole planets beneath my hooves. I didn't always have magic. I had to claim my birthright by force." He rubbed a trickle of blood from the small gash Scorpan's club had left on his head as he confidently strode towards Soarin. The slight limp was still there; the blood and the limp proved that he wasn't impervious, but after what Soarin had just seen, he knew this was above his pay grade. "From the moment I set eyes upon this world, its fate was sealed."

"I-I won't give up." Soarin kicked himself for stuttering his defiant declaration.

"I don't expect you do." Tirek's expression went from amused to annoyed. "I know your type; I've sent thousands of them to oblivion."

Soarin tensed up, ready to spring into action. "Oh you think you know me so well? You can't possibly understand me; you don't care about anything but yourself."

Tirek barked a laugh. "Even if I hadn't been in your mind, I'd understand you. You're a worthy opponent." Tirek scowled again. "I hate worthy opponents. It's a waste to destroy you because you are so close to the truth. You realize that your will is flawed and unimportant, so you rightfully entrust it to another. Yes, so close... but so far. You and yours just pick your state, your church, your lover, or something else in place of the only being worthy of your devotion."

Unshakable? Hardly; he was shaking plenty. "Yeah, you've got me pegged. You can do whatever you like, I'm not going to surrender."

Tirek snarled, "That's what I hate about fighting your type. Someone who's fighting for themselves can be reasoned with. You're just incurably deluded."

Soarin pawed the ground defiantly. "At least I have somepony in my life I'd die for. I almost feel sorry for you."

"Save your pity. I..." Tirek stopped suddenly and covered his ears, his face contorted in agony. Soarin blinked. Had his silent prayer for Tirek to drop dead been answered?

"Girls, girls, please. You're both pretty!" Doctor Whooves held the metal tube in his teeth like a cigar. After a few seconds, there was the sound of glass breaking and the blue lights running along its sides went dead. Whooves glared down at the device. "Bloody sonic screwdriver, you run it at 3,000% capacity for a few seconds and it acts like you're the bad guy. Oh well, it did its job." Whooves smirked cockily at Soarin. "Sorry to interrupt your little staring match, but I hate machismo. It's so dreadfully dull, am I right?"

Soarin shook his head. "No no, I'm fine with not meeting my maker just yet." To his dismay, Tirek was stumbling back to his feet, still clutching his ears. "I don't suppose you have another one of those? It seemed to do the trick."

Whooves shrugged apologetically. "Sorry, fresh out. Don't worry, I have a plan."

"Oh good, you finally improvised something. Care to let me in on it?"

Whooves tilted his head, indicating a spot near the fallen Vibria and whispered, "I'm going to be as annoying as ponily possible and keep his focus on me."

Soarin nodded, whispering back, "That's a good use of your skills."

Whooves laughed. "You're a cheeky one, aren't you? I approve!" Without warning, his face became deathly serious. "But focus. You get over there so you can see the girls; they ought to be getting their spells done soon, unless Twilight Sparkle messed up the spell, in which case it's been nice knowing you."

Soarin frowned. "You sure you'll be okay?"

Whooves winked. "Don't worry, I'm surprisingly resilient." With that, he trotted up to Tirek like he was going to ask him the time of day. Soarin wondered if the Earth Pony was brave or stupid; then again, after some of the stuff he'd pulled, he wasn't one to judge. He trotted over to his mark as inconspicuously as he could.

Fortunately, Whooves had Tirek's complete attention. He uncovered his ears, his hands shaking with anger. A thin trickle of blood flowed from his right ear; when Tirek saw the crimson stain on his hand, he clenched his fist tightly and redoubled his rage-filled trembling. Tirek narrowed his eyes, looking from the screwdriver to Whooves and back. A little too loudly, he said, "So. That's what you are. I was wondering when I'd run into one of your kind."

"Oh, I see my reputation precedes me!" Whooves slipped the screwdriver back up his sleeve without missing a step. "I'd blush if it wasn't mutual. We've been wondering when you'd show up."

Soarin couldn't see Tirek's face any longer, but he knew the demon's mannerisms; he could imagine the arrogant smirk crossing his face. "You've been keeping tabs on me? What a waste of time. You Time Lords are well known for your intellect, but you have no powers beyond those of any other useless little pony."

Doctor Whooves reared up on his hind legs, cocked his head and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Hm, you're right about that. And I have no resources, no real backup, no weapons..." His eyes widened in mock horror. "Oh dear, it seems that everything really is hopeless! Oh what was I ever thinking, tampering with powers beyond my ken?" He melodramatically put his wrist to his forehead and pretended to swoon. "Oh wait! I do have one last option! Bargaining! You were just telling Soarin that you were willing to be reasonable!"

Tirek crossed his arms, his voice full of obvious confusion. "You'd assist me in conquering this mud ball?"

Whooves shook his head firmly. "Oh no no no, that just isn't in the cards, mate. But," he added, fishing a brown paper bag from his jacket's pocket, "if you call the whole thing off, I'll give you... a jelly baby." Whooves popped one of the candies in his mouth. "Mmm! See? They're good."

Tirek stood as still as a statue.

Whooves said, "Okay, you drive a hard bargain, Tirek. Two, but no cherry, they're the good ones."

"I must say, Time Lord," Tirek said after a long, pregnant silence, "I've never had anyone offer me candy before."

Whooves nudged him in the side conspiratorially. "Then it pleases me to be the first! So, as long as we're filling in the childhood you never had, what say we go play some..."

Tirek smacked him in the face with a fierce backhand, sending Whooves sprawling. "So much for your vaunted intellect."

Whooves wasn't moving. Oh sweet Celestia, he wasn't moving. Applejack was right, the guy was just crazy! Offering him candy? That was his big plan? Soarin would slap him if Tirek hadn't already done it for him!

Then a rock hit Soarin in the shin. He flinched, glancing around for the source of the attack.

Soarin let out a relieved sigh. "Oh thank goodness." Not twenty feet away, hiding in Vibria's unconscious shadow was Applejack and her friends; Rarity's horn was still glowing. They were wearing gold jewelry emblazoned with their cutie marks. They'd done it. They'd actually done it. Wait, what was Twilight doing? Gesturing at her wrist? What did that... they needed more time? Seriously?

Tirek turned around, his face split by a sadistic grin. "That was oddly satisfying. So, von Richthofen, it's just you and me. A shame, really. I wanted your little lover to watch me rip you apart, but I suppose I can describe it to her when she comes running to me at sundown." With that, Tirek came at him at a full gallop.

Tirek didn't see them? Good. That meant he could actually buy them time. But what could he do? He'd one-shotted a grown dragon. There was nothing he could do. Every instinct in him told him to run like the hounds of hell were on his tail... which was surprisingly close to the truth.

Hm. Running would buy time just as well as fighting. Finally, after reigning them in for three days, Soarin let his instincts have their head and he bolted away as fast as his legs would take him. He hazarded a glance back. Tirek was closing in on him (not surprising, since Tirek's stride was longer than Soarin's whole body). He also saw Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie struggling to restrain a desperate Applejack. She wanted to come for him again, but he couldn't let that happen. The world had barely survived her compassion last time. He locked eyes with her and shook his head. She stopped her struggle and nodded hesitantly.

Soarin didn't get to see what the girls did next as he felt an iron vice close around his tail. He struggled vainly against hands that had wrestled a dragon to the ground; the outcome was never in doubt. But that didn't mean he was going to make it easy! He swung his forelegs wildly as he was hauled into the air painfully by the hair of his tail. He connected with Tirek's face; while the demon flinched instinctively, it was clear that Soarin may as well have hit him with gentle summer breeze.

Tirek gave him a broad, predatory grin; Soarin didn't know how Tirek managed to fit so many shark-like teeth into one mouth. "Gotcha. Now I just have to decide what to do with you."

Soarin wanted to say something witty, like in the adventure novels. Something that would cut Tirek to the quick with its cleverness and incisiveness. "Oh yeah?" Nuts.

"Shut up!" Tirek punched him in the solar plexus, and for an instant there was nothing in the world but pain. Something had snapped inside of him, and it felt like his ribs were on fire. When everything came back into focus, Tirek was in mid tirade. "... sick of you ponies! The incessant talking! The thoughts, the beliefs behind those thoughts, all of it! I don't want any of it, I just want to be alone! Shut up and die with dignity!"

It was hard to think of a response through the pain, though the demon was obviously holding off another attack because... why? The demon hated the talking and thinking of others; why was he waiting for him to answer? Did Tirek, deep down, really care about what other beings thought? Was this all a desperate cry for help from a being who felt so isolated and picked on that he assumed that everypony's thoughts and words could only be intended to hurt him?

Wow, Tirek must have hit Soarin pretty hard if he was taking that idea seriously. Soarin locked eyes with the demon; it was a little late, but he'd finally come up with his adventure book line. "You know... I don't recall anypony asking you for your opinion."

With a roar of anger, Tirek swung his arm in a wide arc, smashing Soarin into the ground. More pops; he wondered how many ribs he could break before he'd just pass out. Tirek lifted him up again, this time by the mane, bringing them face to face.

"I won't forget you, Soarin von Richthofen. I'll want to, but I won't. Know that you'll live on in the memory of the only being who matters." He held up his hand level with Soarin's eyes, and Soarin noticed that Tirek's fingernails were sharpened to fine points. "Now say good night."

"Stop right there!" Twilight Sparkle's voice rang out with a confidence worthy of Celestia's star pupil. The rest of the girls flanked her on either side, their jewels radiating energy. Applejack obviously wanted to break formation, but was keeping it together. Twilight continued, her tiara glowing brightest of all. "In the name of Princess Celestia, we're going to..."

"Just do it, Twi!"

When Rainbow Dash spoke, it was like a spell was lifted on Tirek, and he dropped Soarin like he was a sack of potatoes.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as adrenaline rushed through his veins. Soarin made a split second calculation; the girls were starting to glow and float into the air, just like Applejack had described. Tirek was digging in, ready for a charge that would carry him into the girls' midst. Would he be able to stop them? Soarin wasn't about to risk it. He came up with a plan, but it was going to hurt. A lot.

Soarin landed on his front legs and it burned like somepony was rubbing his ribs with lemon juice that was on fire. He avoided blacking out and kept his balance, though he was wobbly. Time to share his pain. He lashed out with an applebuck that would make Applejack proud, if she could have seen it. And just like he'd hoped, he caught Tirek in his bad leg.

Tirek screamed in agony and fell over... right on top of Soarin. Soarin must have screamed, though he didn't remember it; when he was aware of something beyond the blinding pain, his throat was raw.

The demon was still sprawled atop him; Soarin could barely see in the bright, multicolored lights emanating from the floating girls. Tirek said, "It's not fair! I'm the one true soul! The man who dared to launch the war against all! How did you ridiculous, tiny horses best me?"

Soarin wheezed, "I'll admit, we got lucky a lot."

Tirek struggled to turn to see Soarin, but the centaur body plan was not made for that kind of flexibility. He settled for calling out, "You don't win either! You're dying alone too!"

Soarin never knew if Tirek heard it, as the beam of coruscating energy slammed into the ground nearby, digging a shallow, arcing trench around them. But against the pain in his chest and the hundreds of pounds of demon pressing down on him, he defiantly cried out, "If you die for something, you don't die alone!"

The energy from the Rainbow of Light arced upwards, forming a tornado of blinding light. He hoped Applejack could forgive him for not making it. It was one promise he really wasn't going to be able to keep. At least the energy that was about to kill him was gorgeous to look at, as much as Tirek shrieked just at the sight of it. The demon was wailing piteously and covering his eyes. Soarin did the same as the light became too bright for him.

And then there was darkness.

End of Chapter 4