It was another typical evening in Anaheim. Warm, slightly smoggy, and full of the sounds of laser fire. The Mighty Ducks were once again embroiled in battle with their enemies, the Saurians. Tonight, the object of their dispute was an object that had fallen to Earth not half an hour ago, in a vacant lot towards the outskirts of town.
"I'm gonna stomp you ducks flat!" Siege growled. The large orange lizard launched a volley of blaster shots in the general direction of the six heroes.
"Check," Nosedive snorted, ducking behind a pile of bricks. "All I need now is one 'miserable mallards,' and I've got a Bingo."
Sharing Dive's cover was Duke L'Orange, who regarded his younger teammate with a mixture of exasperation and amusement. "I wanna see your card when we get back to the Pond, junior."
"Some people just can't lose gracefully," Dive replied, popping up just long enough to launch a puck barrage at his attackers.
Mallory McMallard, on Duke's other side, pulled her head down as one of Wraith's fireballs roared over the barricade. "Case in point," the redhead replied, indicating the Saurian sorcerer.
The Chameleon, Dragaunus' shape-shifting henchman, suddenly shimmered, his features morphing into an accurate, if somewhat green, likeness of Danny Glover. "I'm getting too old for this-" His impression was cut off as one of Wildwing's pucks forced him to duck.
"We're gonna be running low on pucks soon," the leader of the Ducks mused. "We've got to end this as soon as possible." Then he blinked. "Tanya, where's Grin?"
"Well, uh, I think he's, y'know- ending this." The blonde pointed to a nearby wall, which had once been part of a building. In the half-light cast by the street lamps, Wildwing could see that the wall was beginning to sway.
"Ducks! Pull back!" he yelled, doing so himself. The others followed, Nosedive and Mallory laying down a barrage of cover fire as they did so.
"Hah!" Siege crowed in triumph. "We've got 'em on the run."
Wraith was less optimistic. "I wonder. Chameleon, how many ducks do you see retreating?"
Chameleon immediately began to count- on his fingers. "Uh- one, two, three, four, five. Five, Wraith." The three Saurians looked at each other, then upwards as the sounds of tortured masonry became more apparent.
"Uh-oh," they chorused. At that moment, the wall fell.
Using his Mask, Wildwing surveyed the pile of rubble, shaking his head. "Ouch," he remarked. "I hope Dragaunus has stocked up on aspirin."
"They SURVIVED that?" Mallory asked, incredulous. Wildwing nodded.
"I'm afraid so. But on the bright side, they probably won't walk for a week."
At that moment, the last member of the team joined them, dusting off his hands. "Without a strong foundation, the loftiest edifice will fall," Grin remarked calmly. The other Ducks regarded him for a long moment, then shook their heads. No one really understood Grin, but at seven-foot plus, no one was going to argue with him, either.
"I say we see just what has old Lizard-Lips so riled up," Duke suggested.
"Good idea, Duke," Wildwing agreed. The Ducks made their way to the edge of the crater that the falling object had dug.
Kneeling beside the hole, Tanya pressed a button on the Omnitool she wore at her wrist. A probe came out and bathed the object, a basketball sized, roughly spherical object of some clear material, in a blue light.
"Well, it's a crystal of some kind, looks like it has energy-conducting properties," Tanya reported.
"Why would Dragaunus want it?" asked Wildwing, leaning closer.
"Darned if I know. I'd have to perform more detailed analysis on it, back at my lab."
Wildwing straightened up. "Then let's get it there. Grin, can you move that thing?"
The larger duck nodded. "Certainly."
"Then do it- but wear gloves. We don't want to take any chances."
The next morning, Tanya was in her lab bright and early, ready to start her analysis of the crystal they had obtained the night before. As she approached the storage cabinet, she pulled on a pair of thin work gloves. Wildwing had insisted that she wear them during her analysis, and she wasn't about to go against him, no matter how silly she felt. _Wildwing can be so paranoid,_ she thought to herself. Still, she had to admit that his paranoia had saved their tails on more than one occasion.
Setting the crystal on her worktable, Tanya had to laugh. She had a number of years on Wildwing, but somehow he always managed to make her feel like a younger sister. _Probably all the practice he gets with Nosedive,_ she mused.
Pushing those thoughts out of her mind, she turned her attention to the crystal before her. She was looking forward to finding out just what made this hunk of rock so special. Tanya loved puzzles; that was one of the reasons she'd fallen in love with machines. Well, that and a love of building things. But a complicated piece of equipment was one of the best puzzles a girl could ask for, and she loved figuring them out and putting them together. No piece of clear rock was going to hide its secrets from her.
Almost as if it had sensed her thought, the crystal suddenly began to shine with a strange white light. Tanya raised her hands to shield her vision, but not in time. A burst of brilliant radiance filled the room, and when it cleared, Tanya was standing quite calmly in the center of the room. She seemed unchanged- except that her eyes were now completely black. An evil grin crossed her face, and she began to laugh.
It was a beautiful morning, and Nosedive was primed to experience it in his usual fashion- spending the day with his friends at Captain Comics. Some judicious pleading had convinced Wildwing to let his younger brother go, mainly to keep him from driving all the Ducks insane. But Wildwing wasn't about to let his younger brother get out of the Pond completely unscathed.
"Now remember, keep an eye on your communicator," Wildwing instructed, for what had to be the third time, as the two of them stood outside the Pond. "I want to be able to get in touch with you in a hurry, in case Dragaunus tries something. He wanted that crystal pretty badly last night, and giving up on stuff is NOT his style."
Dive grimaced. "Yeah, yeah, I know already. Lighten up, bro. No WAY Draggy is getting into the Pond, not after last time."
"Yeah, well, I've learned never to say never, all right? You be careful, baby bro. And have a good time."
"A whole day away from you? You know it!" Dive ducked his brother's swat and headed off towards the mall, which was within walking distance of the Pond. Wildwing watched him go, trying to ignore the feeling of dread creeping up his spine. Not even Dive could get himself into trouble at a comic book shop, right?
The tone of his communicator startled Wildwing out of his thoughts. Looking down, he saw a blank screen, but it was Tanya's voice that addressed him.
"I've got the crystal analyzed," the scientist reported. "Unfortunately, it seems to, uh, be interfering with our com signals- some type of low-level radiation, I think. If you guys'll come down here, I can, y'know, brief you on what this thing does."
Wildwing nodded, even though he knew she couldn't see him. "I'll be down in a minute, Tanya. Wildwing out." Closing the signal, he headed back into the Pond.
Wildwing arrived at Tanya's lab not long after the rest of the Ducks. Nosedive wasn't there, he noticed; apparently his brother hadn't thought Tanya's discovery important enough to return for. Wildwing shrugged. It didn't really matter. If they needed Dive, he could always call him. No way Dive would ignore a call from his older brother, not if he wanted to keep his head.
"So what does this hunk of junk do?" Duke asked, addressing Tanya's back. The younger woman hadn't turned around as her teammates entered the room, instead fussing with the crystal.
"Oh, I think you'll really like it," she snickered. Wildwing frowned. Tanya barely sounded like herself- her voice was cold and emotionless. Then she turned around, and the other four ducks gasped. Her eyes were pure, featureless black.
Mallory startled, reaching instinctively for the puck launcher she carried. "What in the name of Drake Ducaine?" she gasped.
Tanya smirked. "Not even close," she snapped, laying her hands on the crystal. Brilliant light shot out, blinding all of them.
When Wildwing's vision returned, he found himself surrounded by his teammates. "Guys?" he asked, backing slowly towards the door. All four of his friends had pure black eyes now, and they were advancing on him.
"He seems to be immune," Grin observed coldly.
"Probably because he wears the Mask," Mallory replied, her tone a frightening singsong. "He can't see the light the way we do.
Duke smiled nastily, without the dry humor the expression usually contained. "Then we'll just have to show him, won't we?"
Knowing he couldn't fight all four of his teammates, Wildwing tried to make a break for the door, but Grin was faster. The larger duck pinned his leader's arms behind him, holding him fast. Stepping closer, Duke reached up and pulled the Mask off Wildwing's face. Tanya touched the crystal, and the world was seared away in a flash of light.
Phil Palmfeather, manager for the Mighty Ducks, was having a good day. He'd booked his hockey-playing heroes for several publicity stunts, and now all he had to do was talk Wildwing into playing along with them. That was easier said than done, but Phil had confidence that he could get at least half of them past the team captain. Probably. If he was in a good mood.
He strode from his office to the front entrance of the Pond, already plotting several angles of attack. _Listen to me,_ he thought wryly. _A year managing a commando team from another planet and I'm even beginning to TALK in military metaphors._ Shrugging, Phil put that behind him. Now, he could probably get Wildwing to agree to an autograph signing out of hand... especially since it was for charity. Like all the Ducks, Wildwing had a soft spot for kids. But the photo shoots- those might be a little harder.
Seeing Wildwing heading out the front door, Phil hurried to catch up with him. This just might work out after all. Then Phil caught a glimpse of Wildwing's face, and all his thoughts of publicity stunts went right out the window.
First and foremost, Wildwing wasn't wearing the Mask. In all the time that Phil had known the younger man, Wildwing had NEVER had the Mask of Ducaine off for longer than absolutely necessary. He even wore it when off-duty- or as close to off-duty as Wildwing ever got. It was the symbol of his team leadership and the Ducks' most powerful weapon in the fight against Dragaunus. Like most of the fans and even the other Ducks, Phil had come to consider the Mask almost permanently bonded to Wildwing's face.
Beyond that, however, Wildwing was wearing sunglasses, on a day that most Anaheim natives would consider only mildly bright. One thing the Ducks weren't was light sensitive. And even if he needed to protect his eyes, why wouldn't Wildwing just wear the Mask?
Last of all, though, was the aura of utter cold that Wildwing radiated. It was something Phil had only seen a few times before, and only once directed at him. It had been just after one of his publicity stunts had landed Nosedive in the infirmary with a concussion. Generally, when Wildwing got like this, someone was an inch away from dying.
"Hey, Wildwing, booby, what's up?" Phil called, trying to sound nonchalant. A year with the Ducks had honed his trouble radar to a fine pitch, and alarm bells were going off in his skull.
"Phil," Wildwing greeted him coolly. "Have you seen Nosedive recently?"
The manager frowned. "I thought he said he was going comic-shop hopping," he replied easily. "What's the matter?"
"We need him back here," Wildwing replied curtly. "I'm going to go get him."
"Can't you just call him?"
"Uh- no. Our coms are down- we think it has something to do with that crystal Tanya discovered. Now if you'll excuse me." Wildwing strode across the street, heading for the Anaheim Mall. Phil watched him go, chewing his lip. Coming to a decision, he turned on his heel and headed for his car. He had a feeling that he'd better find Nosedive before Wildwing did, or there was going to be major trouble.
The bell above the door to Captain Comics jingled, causing Mook and Thrash, the two teenage clerks, to look up. Mook's jaw dropped open as she saw who had just come through the door. "Phil?" the purple-haired teen asked incredulously. She knew the Ducks' manager, of course- Nosedive was one of her best friends. But she had never expected to see the overweight man enter the comic shop.
"I don't have time to talk," Phil replied, pushing his bangs out of his eyes. "Have you guys seen Nosedive around?"
"I thought the guys had the day off," Thrash replied, folding his arms across his chest.
"They do. Look, this is IMPORTANT!"
Mook and Thrash exchanged glances, then shrugged. "He was here, but we were doing inventory and couldn't talk. He went down to the arcade to wait 'til our shift was up," Mook replied. "Why?"
Phil shook his head. "I don't have time to explain. Has Wildwing been by here?"
"No way," Thrash replied. "I don't think we've seen him in here since the electricity monsters."
"Well, he'll be by soon," the manager replied. "When he gets here, do NOT, under any circumstances, tell him where Nosedive is. I think you'll see why when he gets here. Trust me, it's safest for everybody. Do you understand?"
Mook snorted. "Not a bit. But we'll do like you say."
"Good." With that, Phil hurried out the door with a speed he usually reserved for lawsuits, heading for the video arcade.
Nosedive was deep into a round of Cyber-Sleezoids, his favorite video game, when a hand fell on his shoulder. Not looking up from the screen, he raised an eyebrow. "Gee, guys, I didn't know your shift at the comic shop got over so fast."
"It's Phil, Dive," came the reply. Nosedive was so startled that he crashed and burned, losing his final life.
"PHIL! Look what you did!" the young duck protested, whirling around.
The brown-haired human did not look repentant. "Sorry. Look, we need to talk, but not here. This'll be the next place Wildwing looks for you after Captain Comics, and I don't want to be here when he shows up."
Nosedive raised an eyebrow. "Look, I've hidden from Wildwing's wrath, and you've hidden from Wildwing's wrath, but this is the first time I've had you suggest we do so together. What have we done that has him on the warpath?"
"It's not like that, kid. Come on, we have to get out of here!"
Dive could see that Phil was actually nervous- no, he was _scared._ Wildwing could get upset with Phil occasionally, but he'd never hurt him. Something was definitely up. Dropping his sarcastic demeanor, Dive nodded.
"Okay, let's go."
Nosedive looked out the window of Phil's car as the scenery of downtown Anaheim rolled past. "Are we headed anywhere in particular, Phil, or do you just wanna run up the mileage?"
"We need to talk, kid. First off, is there any disease or something that makes you guys light sensitive? I can think of a few that do that to humans, but is there anything for ducks?"
"Not that I know of. I was kind of sensitive for a while after getting sprung from the mines, but we're all beyond that. Why?"
Phil sighed. "Because I ran into Wildwing today, and he was wearing sunglasses. Sunglasses, on a partly cloudy day! And he wasn't wearing the Mask. It didn't get broken, did it?"
"No, he was wearing it when I left," Dive replied. Now he was beginning to get worried. "Phil, are you saying something's wrong with Wildwing?"
The human nodded, his expression troubled. "He seemed mad, Nosedive. And not mad like he gets at you or me, either. I mean ANGRY, like when he's going up against Dragaunus- but it seemed like he was mad at you. And he NEVER gets that way with you."
Dive grimaced. He'd have to admit that Phil was right. Wildwing had chewed him out numerous times over the years, and always for some stupid stunt that truly deserved it. No matter how annoyed Wing got, though, Dive had never seen him at the edge of violence, the way he was against Dragaunus. That was one of the few constants Dive had in his life- that Wildwing would never hurt him.
"There's more, isn't there?" Dive asked, seeing that Phil still seemed tense. "Come on, Phil, give."
"I'm not sure," his manager sighed. "I only caught a quick glimpse- but I could swear that Wildwing's eyes were pure black. Gave me the creeps."
Dive let out a thin hiss. "It must be Dragaunus," he decided finally. "And if he's gotten a hold of Wild, he's almost certainly gotten the rest of the Ducks." Straightening up, he came to a decision. "Phil, drop me at the Pond. Around the back. I'm going in there and see if I can't get to the bottom of this."
"By yourself?" Phil cried, even as he turned to head for the hockey rink. "Are you even armed?"
Dive reached behind himself and pulled a puck blaster from where it had been tucked at his waist, under his shirt. "Like the man says, don't leave home without it. Apparently, Wildwing's paranoia is catching."
Phil sighed. "This is not going to go well. I just know it."
Picking his way through the sewers that led beneath the Pond, Dive made a face. It wasn't the most glamorous place for a secret entrance, but he supposed that was the point. Dive knew he couldn't count on any help from the other Ducks- he had to assume they were all under the control of whatever had altered Wildwing. He couldn't see Duke and Grin letting Wing out of their sight if they weren't.
So walking in the front door was out. He'd be dead or worse before he knew what hit him. That left this doorway, here in the sewers. Wildwing had come through here once, way back when Dragaunus had taken over the Pond the first time. Dive seriously doubted that this was a repeat of that situation. They'd boosted their security through the stratosphere to keep something like this from ever happening again. Whatever was going on, though, it HAD to be located in their headquarters. He was the only one who had left that day, and he was the only one not affected.
The problem with entering through this entrance, Dive thought to himself, was that the sensors logged the codes when anyone entered. It would be the equivalent of holding up a neon sign saying, "Here I am! Come and kill me!" Not particularly how Dive wanted this adventure to end up. He'd much rather wind up the conquering hero, hailed by all... which was about as likely as Dragaunus growing a heart. Ah, who was he kidding? He'd settle for getting all his friends back in one piece- even Mallory, although she was always on his case for something or other.
All of which was a moot point if he couldn't sneak into the Pond without announcing his presence. Luckily, when it came to breaking and entering, Dive had been taught by the best, Duke L'Orange himself. _And heavens help both of us if Wildwing ever finds THAT out,_ Dive mused. He could just imagine his older brother's reaction. Duke's skills were no problem for Wildwing- when it was Duke using them. Somehow, though, Dive doubted his older brother's tolerance for such things extended to him.
Having the twin advantages of Duke's teachings and having seen Tanya's blueprints, Dive was able to fix the code lock so that it didn't inform anyone where he was. That done, he slipped into the passageway like a ghost.
His first order of business, Dive decided, was to get back to his room and get his armor. Considering that he was going to spend the whole day lounging around, he hadn't bothered to bring his recall, which meant that he was going to have to fetch it manually. _You know, I am beginning to understand Wildwing's paranoia,_ he thought to himself. He wasn't sure he'd ever go ANYWHERE without his armor again. Without his armor, he couldn't take so much as one hit from a puck launcher, which meant he'd have to be even better than he thought he was. No way he wanted to take chances like that any longer than necessary.
Lost in these thoughts, Nosedive almost walked directly into Tanya. For a second, the two simply stared at each other in shock, Dive nearly paralyzed by the sight of Tanya's jet black eyes. _Sweet Mother of Ducks,_ the teenager thought, horrified. _What has HAPPENED here?_
Dive recovered from his shock quickly, however. This was good, because Tanya was bringing her Omnitool to bear on him. Dive raised his hands in the classic "surrender" position.
"I don't suppose we could talk this out?" he asked, with little real hope.
"Surrender in the name of Lord Dragaunus," was her only reply.
Dive seemed to consider that. "No, I don't think so," he shot back. Dropping to the floor, he rolled forward and fired his puck launcher, all in one smooth motion. Tanya never had a chance. She dropped to the ground, unconscious.
Moving to her side, Dive quickly checked her pulse, and breathed a sigh of relief when he found it throbbing strongly. "Now, to find you a nice place to sleep this off," Dive muttered, lifting the older woman over his shoulder. "I seriously hope you don't remember any of this when you wake up, Tanya," he continued, needing to keep talking. "You'll probably be sick." Finding a storage closet, Dive deposited his unconscious burden inside. He then sealed the door and shorted out the lock. Tanya MIGHT be able to burn her way out of there with her Omnitool, but she'd be stuck in there for a good long time. Hopefully long enough for him to find a way to return his companions to normal.
"Well, at least one question is answered," he muttered to himself, starting for his quarters once again. "Dragaunus DEFINITELY is behind this. But HOW?" Dive had a feeling he wasn't going to like the answer.
Once back in his armor, Dive felt a lot better. Besides the protection the suit offered, it gave him a sort of psychological boost. He always felt a little more capable dressed for damage. Now, as he crept along the corridor, he thought about his next destination. He had to get to the Ready Room, he decided. Once there, he could instruct the security system to ignore his communicator signal. That way, even if the other ducks realized he was in the building, they wouldn't be able to track him.
Plus, he could use Drake 1 to search for whatever was turning his teammates against him. He wasn't sure it would work, but he needed to try. The problem was, he didn't even know what he was looking for. That could put a serious crimp in his plans.
The sounds of soft footsteps coming along the hall nearly sent Nosedive into a panic. Looking around, he searched for some avenue of escape, but couldn't find what he needed. Then his gaze caught on an air exchange, halfway up the wall. It would be a tight fit, but he didn't have a lot of options right now.
With speed honed by years of skating and almost a year of battling lizards, Dive was able to pop the cover off the vent and worm his way inside. Last, he pulled the grate back on after him, getting it shut just as three of his teammates rounded the corner. Dive stifled a low groan when he saw that it was Wildwing in the lead. His older brother's eyes were as black as those of any of the others.
"I looked everywhere for that brat," Wildwing was saying. "It's like he disappeared off the face of the Earth."
"Maybe Phil warned him," Duke offered. "You said he saw you leaving."
Wildwing snorted. "Right. Phil couldn't figure out something like this, not even if you drew him a picture."
Mallory, the last member of the trio, suddenly looked up from her com. "Something else, Wildwing. We can't raise Tanya on her com. Her tracker says she's in one of the closets, but she's not moving."
Stopping dead in his tracks, Wildwing whirled, eyes blazing. "He's HERE," he whispered. "Somehow that bratty little brother of mine got back into the building."
"But we would have seen him come in!" Duke protested. "All the doors are set to tell us whenever someone enters."
"I'm telling you, he's HERE. He must have ghosted the sensors. You could do that, couldn't you, Duke?"
Wary of the tone in Wildwing's voice, the ex-thief hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah, I guess so."
"Well if you can do it, he can do it. We've got to find him before he makes more trouble. Start patrolling this place on foot. We HAVE to catch him"
Mallory cocked her head. "And what do we do with him then?"
Wildwing's answer chilled Nosedive to the bone. "Then he either joins us- or he dies."
Dive held still until the three ducks had moved on, then let out a deep breath. The stakes had just gone up, big time. Maybe he'd just stay in the ducts all the way to Drake 1. Yeah, that sounded like a VERY good idea. Feeling rather like a sardine, Dive began to crawl through the vents, hoping he remembered where he was going.
Halfway to Drake 1, Nosedive suddenly remembered exactly what was bothering him about the conversation he'd seen in the hallway. Wildwing STILL hadn't been wearing the Mask. Dive hadn't noticed, being too preoccupied with hearing his friends discussing him as if he were some type of insect. That didn't make ANY sense, however. Maybe, just maybe, Wildwing would have removed the Mask to go look for Dive, to give the impression that it was just a casual matter. But now that Dive was in the Pond, and the Ducks were obviously on alert, why wouldn't Wildwing have the Mask on? Its scanning abilities would be invaluable in hunting Dive down.
_Maybe- maybe whatever Dragaunus did to him makes him unable to wear it,_ Dive theorized, still crawling through the vents. None of them really understood how the Mask worked, not even Tanya, who had repaired it a few times. All she ever did was copy the circuits she found inside. For the first time, Dive wondered if maybe there was more to the Mask of Ducaine than just super-science. After all, the Ancient Saurians were masters of magic, not technology. Maybe Drake Ducaine had decided to fight fire with fire.
_Or maybe the Mask just blocks out the transmission of the control signal. Whatever it is, the Mask HAS to be proof against whatever Dragaunus did. That's the only reason Wildwing would EVER take it off, Dragaunus' control or not._
With that in mind, Dive popped the vent cover and carefully moved himself into the Ready Room. No doubt about it, his first priority was to get the Mask. Not only could it protect him from Dragaunus' control, the precious artifact had to be kept from Dragaunus at all costs. _Not to mention it'll come in REAL handy doing all this covert stuff._ Not for the first time that day, Dive heartily wished that Duke was with him. The older duck had taught Dive a number of things, but when it came to sneaking around, Duke was still and would always be the master.
"No time to think of that now, Nosedive," he told himself. "First things first, make Drake 1 ignore you." After Dragaunus' first attack on the Pond, Tanya had insisted that they all learn the security protocols, just in case. Dive had done one better, learning the programs inside and out. He had to admit that he got a definite rush out of hacking. And he had remembered a trick that Wildwing and Klegghorn had used while infiltrating the Pond. A hole blasted in the floor had shielded their biorhythms and Wildwing's com signal, making Drake 1 think he had been eliminated. It hadn't lasted long, but then, neither did the Saurians' attention spans. After that little fiasco, Dive had buried a program in the mainframe, just in case.
Calling it up now, he quickly instructed Drake 1 to ignore his communicator and biorhythm signals. That would allow him to ghost through the Pond pretty much undetected. And without Tanya, the odds of the other ducks finding and disabling his program were practically nil.
Looking up at the clock on the wall, Dive grimaced. He figured he had about ten minutes before his use of Drake 1 set off every alarm bell in the place and brought the Ducks running to play the Funeral March for him. Hopefully that would be enough time. Quickly, he keyed in a search command, instructing the computer to find the Mask. With its unusual energy readings, the Mask was easily traceable anywhere in the Pond.
Bingo! It was in the armory, which made sense, now that Nosedive thought about it. But was it guarded? He couldn't imagine Wildwing being that lax. Quickly, he had Drake 1 bring up the positions of the other ducks, and groaned. One guard, outside the armory door, and according to the signal, it was Grin.
"Of course!" he muttered to himself. "Why is nothing ever easy?"
"Because that would take all the fun out of it, kid," Duke replied flatly, stepping into the Ready Room. He held a puck launcher in one hand, rather than his usual saber. Mallory was only a few steps behind him. This was not good.
Dive shifted slightly. "Boy, Duke, I can't tell which eye you lost anymore," he replied lightly. "I guess your vision's going, what with your advanced age and all."
Unusually, the crack about Duke's age failed to hit its mark. Normally the ex-thief was VERY defensive about being the oldest member of the team, but now it was as if he hadn't even heard Nosedive's jibe.
"Make it easy on yourself, kid," Duke continued. "Surrender. Join us, and serve Lord Dragaunus. It's the best way."
"I'd rather put this puck launcher to my own head," Dive shot back. Duke shrugged.
"Your choice." He and Mallory opened fire.
Dive had been expecting this, though, and he dropped to ground, rolling as he returned fire. Taking cover behind one of the computer consoles, he spotted another vent opening. Looked as if he was going back in the tin can again. As he ripped the cover off the vent, Dive grinned slightly, remembering a line from a movie he and Duke had watched the other night. "Yippie-ki-yay," he grinned breathlessly. Then he took off down the vent, leaving Duke and Mallory far behind.
Quietly, with the same stealth he used for late-night refrigerator raids, Dive popped the grate off the vent and lowered himself into the armory. Around him lay a wealth of weaponry, from puck bazookas to ice shields. This was where the majority of the weapons were stored, although most of the Ducks kept a sidearm with them almost all of the time. Wildwing was different, mainly because the gloves from his battle gear prevented him from handling anything with a trigger guard. That was the reason Wildwing had a launcher built into his right gauntlet.
Grabbing a bazooka, Dive considered it for a moment, then replaced it. The high-powered weapon would be next to useless in the small confines of the Pond, and would no doubt blow apart anyone it hit. That wasn't the effect he was going for. No, what he needed was ammo. Gas pucks, freeze pucks, bola pucks, Nosedive slipped a few of each into the pockets built into his uniform. Then he turned his attention to the thing that had brought him to the armory in the first place- the Mask of Ducaine.
It sat on a shelf at about head-level, in its white, inert form. Picking it up, he regarded it somberly. He'd worn it once, and only once, during the very short period when Wildwing had resigned as leader of the Mighty Ducks. He knew how to work it- it wasn't really all that difficult. _Almost as if it knows what you want,_ he thought, then pushed the idea away.
No, it wasn't lack of knowledge that made Dive reluctant to wear the Mask. The artifact was the symbol of leadership for the team, though, and by wearing it, Dive felt as if he was somehow betraying his brother, giving up on him. Taking the Mask was like admitting that Wildwing- HIS Wildwing- wouldn't be coming back.
_That's bull,_ he told himself angrily. _I'm doing this to GET Wildwing back, nothing more. I'm not taking over as leader, I'm just- borrowing it for a while._ Taking a deep breath, he picked the Mask up and settled it on his face.
It didn't fit quite right- a little too big, like a boy wearing his big brother's clothes. _Which is pretty much the case,_ Dive thought wryly. Funny how Wildwing was the only one who could REALLY fit the Mask. It had been made centuries ago, specifically to fit Drake Ducaine's face. And only Wildwing, whose beak was unusually long by Puckworld standards, really fit the thing. It was almost as if- the Mask had been made for him, and him alone.
Dive shook his head, pulling himself out of those thoughts. He had a job to do, and this wasn't getting it done. Taking a deep breath, he turned to the door and activated the Mask.
The power of the scanners was such that looking through the metal walls of the armory was no problem. Outside the door, Dive could see the large shape of Grin, still guarding the door. Chuckling to himself, Dive shook his head. Not even Grin would be expecting an attack from behind.
Palming the door open, Dive wrapped his burly teammate in the clutches of a bola puck before the other duck could react. Designed by Tanya to contain even the phenomenal strength of Siege, the bola would hold Grin quite well, at least for long enough for Dive to pull off a rescue.
Dragging Grin back into the armory, Dive shut the door and quickly shorted out the lock. There. Without his consent, nothing short of a blowtorch would be getting Grin out of there now.
Next order of business- find whatever was controlling his friends. Dive had learned more from Tanya over the past year than he was willing to admit, and he knew that whatever he was looking for, it would have to be putting out huge sources of energy. Relaxing, he activated the Mask once again.
Immediately he saw a dark energy pulsing through the corridors. Holding onto his lunch with an effort, Dive traced the flow back to its source- Tanya's lab.
"Of course!" he exclaimed. "That crystal! Dragaunus WANTED us to have it! He must have shot it up into the atmosphere with the Raptor's guns- it wouldn't be all that hard to plot the trajectory... Dang it, and we fell right for it!" He slammed his hand into the wall. Then, getting a hold of himself, he headed down the hall. It was time to take care of things.
This apparently was not Nosedive's day. No sooner had he eased his way out of the elevator than he was struck from the side, sending him sprawling. Craning his neck to see his assailant, Dive was only half-surprised to find Wildwing staring down at him, black eyes gleaming with an insane fury.
"End of the line, little brother," Wildwing hissed. "You're out of choices. Surrender or die."
Dive growled. "Option C, none of the above. You know, bro, there's just one thing I've got to say to you- get OFF- MY- BACK!" With those words, he shoved upwards, unseating Wildwing long enough for Dive to break free. Separated now, the two ducks circled cautiously in the hall, neither one wanting to make the first move.
"I see you're wearing the Mask," Wildwing observed casually. "Looks a little big on you, doesn't it? If you think you're stepping into my shoes, you're sorely mistaken."
Dive shook his head. "Under the circumstances, I'm the only one capable- or worthy." He grinned suddenly, the most obnoxious smile he could dredge up. "Of course, we always knew that. Why do you think you can't wear the Mask anymore?" Dive felt sick at using his older brother's weakness against him, but if that's what it took to get Wildwing back, he'd do it.
A sneer crossed Wing's face, but Dive could see that the barb had hit home. "You're pathetic, baby bro. You can't take me on, so you're hiding behind that piece of junk."
"I'M pathetic?" Dive's eyebrows shot to his hairline. "Get real! I'm the one with the Mask! I'm the one carrying on the tradition of Drake Ducaine! You're the pathetic one, Wildwing. All you are now is just another one of Dragaunus' pawns. Just like Lucretia DeCoy."
That was the last straw. Wildwing's temper finally broke, and he threw himself at his younger brother, locking his hands around Dive's throat. As the two of them fell to the ground, Dive thought hysterically, _Now what?_
"I may be one of Dragaunus' pawns," Wildwing whispered, his voice almost demonic, "but at least I'm the one breathing."
Dive's vision was getting hazy, and he knew he wasn't going to be able to hold on much longer. _Funny,_ he thought irrelevantly. _I always figured the last thing I'd ever see was the end of a Saurian blaster. Never thought I'd be looking at Wildwing._ NO! He wasn't going to die like this! First of all, it would absolutely RUIN his social life, and secondly, it would destroy Wildwing- the real Wildwing- utterly. Dive could give up if it was his life on the line, but not when it was his brother at stake. No way.
But how was he going to stop it? Wildwing's grip was like titanium, and there was no way Dive could break it. That meant he had to get Wing to let go, and fast, before Dive passed out from oxygen loss. But how to break the spell?
Suddenly Dive remembered the artifact he wore on his face, and the thoughts that had been bothering him all night. All the old legends on Puckworld about Saurian magic had one thing in common- it withered away at the touch of the truth. The Saurian cloak of lies was vulnerable to that, and that alone. _And that's what the Mask does,_ Dive realized, his thoughts beginning to fuzz out. _It shows you the truth, whether you're looking for Chameleon in disguise or the fastest way through a maze. The Mask shows you the truth._
It was the only way, but he was only going to get one shot. Releasing his hands from where they were fruitlessly trying to loosen Wildwing's grip, Dive reached up and pulled the Mask off his face. Then, before his brother could react, he shoved it onto Wildwing's face, noticing again how easily it fit. Then, with the last of his strength, he touched the contacts at the temples, activating the Mask.
Wildwing let out a howl that was completely inhuman- and un-ducklike, as a matter of fact. Letting go of Dive's throat, he reared back and staggered away, hands clutching at his temples. He made no move to remove the Mask, however, seeming to be locked in battle with something Dive couldn't see. Suddenly he stiffened, and a strange dark mist seemed to leave his body. Then Wildwing collapsed into a heap on the floor.
Dive pulled himself painfully to his feet, taking a moment to blink away the spots that had insinuated themselves into his vision. Then he staggered slowly, carefully, over to his fallen brother.
"Bro?" he croaked, half-afraid of the answer he might get."
"Dive?" Wildwing whispered, picking himself up. "Sweet heavens, what have I done?"
With a sob, Dive threw himself forward, locking his arms around his brother as if he would never let go. Dragaunus' crystal was still around, the other Ducks no doubt still wanted to kill him, and his throat felt about the size of a drinking straw, but Wildwing was BACK, and all was right with Dive's world again.
"I'm so sorry, Dive," Wildwing began, folding his arms around the sobbing teenager. "I- I couldn't stop myself- I nearly KILLED you! I'm so sorry..."
With an effort, Dive pulled away from his brother just long enough to fix him with a serious stare. "Don't you DARE apologize, bro," he said fiercely. "What happened today was DRAGAUNUS, not you. I know you, Wing. I know that you would never hurt me, never in a million years."
Wildwing started to argue, but cut himself off. The level of trust that he saw in his brother's eyes would brook no contradiction, and he wasn't really up to the argument he knew would result if he tried to blame himself. Finally, he nodded and smiled weakly.
"Pretty good thinking, baby bro," he remarked, loosening his grip on his brother slightly. "Figuring out that the Mask would undo the control."
"Yeah, well," Dive shrugged, "I AM a genius."
At that, Wildwing had to laugh. "You are that, Dive. You are indeed."
"And the rest you know," Wildwing finished. He had removed the Mask while telling Dive about the crystal and what it had done to them, and now he was turning it over in his hands.
"I've been thinking," he said suddenly. Dive rolled his eyes.
"Don't strain yourself." He ducked Wildwing's swat, grinning as he did so.
Wing glared at his brother good-naturedly, but continued. "This thing seems to be the only protection we have against Dragaunus' control, so I think you should wear it until we take out the crystal."
Dive shook his head violently. "Uh-uh, no way! That thing's yours! I'm not the one who knows how to use it! Besides, you're the leader."
"I'm also extremely unsteady on my feet," Wildwing pointed out. "I'm not injured, but I feel like I've been wrung out. If you get controlled by the crystal, I'm history. I can't take on all four of you, especially in this condition. You HAVE to wear it, because you have to be the one to stay free."
After giving his brother a long look, Dive agreed. "But it doesn't matter. You and I are going to head down to Tanya's lab and take out that crystal, and there is no chance on Earth OR Puckworld that Mallory and Duke are gonna stop us."
"Mallory and Duke?" Wildwing raised an eyebrow. "Where's Grin?"
Dive chuckled. "He's meditating in the Armory right now. How do you think I got the Mask?"
Accepting his brother's offered hand, Wildwing got to his feet. "Little brother, you never cease to amaze me."
"I know," Nosedive grinned. "Aren't I great?"
Outside Tanya's lab, Nosedive gave his brother a concerned look. Wildwing had seemed less and less steady as they'd crept through the halls, his concentration fading in and out occasionally. "You ready for this?" Dive asked quietly.
Wildwing grinned wryly. "Do I have a choice?" He sounded somewhat breathless, and almost unconsciously, Dive scanned his brother with the Mask. What he saw caused him to suck in a quick breath. A cloud of dark energy surrounded his brother, fighting to grab a hold of him. It had been unsuccessful so far, but tendrils kept snaking out to try and latch on.
"The crystal is trying to regain control of you, isn't it?" Dive asked. Wing nodded.
"Yeah, I think so. I guess the Mask only- shocked me back to normal. I've still got the energy in my system. I'm fighting it off, though. It should be okay."
"OKAY!" Dive barely remembered to keep his voice down. "Are you NUTS? You should be wearing the Mask! It's the only thing that can fight off the crystal!"
In a lightning-fast move, Wildwing grabbed his brother's wrists before Dive could take off the Mask. "We've been over this, baby bro. You're the one who can get the job done, so YOU wear the Mask."
"And if the crystal gets you again?" Dive demanded hotly. Wildwing sighed.
"You do- whatever you have to, baby bro." Clapping Dive on the shoulder, he turned to the door. "Come on. Let's play some hockey."
Dive nodded. Puck launcher ready, he keyed open the door and immediately dropped to the ground, rolling inside. This move saved him from losing his head to the puck barrage that was instantly fired at him. Coming up on one knee beside one of Tanya's cabinets, Dive opened fire. All his attention on Duke and Mallory, Nosedive was still peripherally aware of his brother scuttling to his side.
"Divide and conquer?" Dive asked easily, snapping off a shot. Wildwing grinned.
"My thoughts exactly. You take Duke, I'll handle Mallory."
Dive snorted. "Sure, stick me with the EASY job." Suddenly an idea occurred to him. "Hey Wing," he said quietly. "Remember how Canard and I used to get you to quit doing homework and go outside?"
"Yeah, you'd pounce on my from both sides and haul me out the door," Wildwing returned. "It was probably the only time you ever agreed on anything." Then Wing saw where his brother was going, and chuckled. "I like it. Let's go for it."
"Watch yourself, bro."
The two split up, moving along the sides of the room in opposite directions. Dive was attempting to draw Duke's fire, hoping to force the older man into a hand-to-hand confrontation. Unfortunately, Dive seemed to be running out of pucks faster. Suddenly a flask on a nearby table caught his eye. Scooping it up, Dive hurled it at his opponent's gun hand, forcing Duke to drop the puck launcher. Then, in a spectacular flying tackle, Dive closed the distance between them.
Meanwhile, Wildwing and Mallory were circling each other cautiously. Wildwing was at a definite disadvantage in this fight, for a number of reasons. One, he didn't want to hurt Mallory, but she had no such compunctions. Two, he didn't have HALF the training in hand-to-hand that she did, and three, he was fighting off the crystal's mind control at the same time. And that was getting harder and harder.
"You can feel it, can't you?" Mallory taunted. "The call of the darkness. Admit it, Wildwing, wasn't it a lot easier to serve Dragaunus? No more fear or uncertainty, wondering if you've made the right decision. Wondering if you're really the leader everyone seems to think you are. Why don't you just give up? Surrender to the power."
Wildwing laughed breathlessly. "Dragaunus really thinks I'm that much of a coward? I don't know whether to be amused or insulted!" Suddenly his hands flew to his head, and he let out an anguished cry.
For his part, Nosedive had just managed to send Duke into Slumberland with a well-placed punch. Hearing Wildwing's shout, Dive looked up to see his brother's eyes flickering between black and their normal white. "Bro!" he yelled, taking a step forward.
Mallory quickly stepped between them, but just as fast, Wildwing surged up, catching her in a neck lock from behind.
"The crystal!" Wildwing yelled. "Shoot it!"
"Are you crazy?" Dive asked. "That could turn you all into vegetables!"
"It's better than living as Dragaunus' slaves," Wildwing replied, struggling to retain both his hold on Mallory and his hold on sanity. "DO IT!"
With a quick prayer to any and all deities that might be listening, Dive whirled and fired three quick shots at the crystal on the main worktable. All three found their mark, and with a brilliant flash, the crystal exploded into a hundred pieces.
When Dive's vision cleared, he found his teammates lying on the floor around him. Hurriedly, he made his way to Wildwing's side, holding his breath. Did it work?
Wing's eyes slowly fluttered open, and Dive was relieved to see they were their normal color. "Man, I feel like I've been run over by the Migrator," Wildwing groaned, sitting up. "Several times."
"You're all right!" Dive yelled, throwing himself at his brother. Latching on, Wildwing returned the hug with interest.
"Yeah, Dive. Thanks to you."
Dive stretched out on the couch in the TV room, relaxing completely. Things were finally back to normal at the Pond. The destruction of the crystal had returned the Ducks to normal, with only mild headaches as a result of their ordeal. Wildwing had cancelled practice for the afternoon, so everyone could recover, and Phil had even agreed to hold off on the publicity stunts for a day or two. No doubt about it, things were pretty good.
"Get your feet of the couch," Wildwing instructed, entering the room. Dive stuck his tongue out at his brother, but did as instructed, swinging his legs off the cushions.
"So what's up, O Exalted One?" Dive asked, bouncing to his feet. Wildwing threw him a mock glare.
"How do you have that much energy?" the older duck wanted to know. "You sneaked into the Pond, fought off FOUR of us, and basically spent the whole morning running. How come WE'RE the ones who are exhausted?"
"Old age?" Dive threw out, grinning wickedly. "And you forgot to add in near-strangulation." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Dive wanted to kick himself. That was a really stupid thing for him to bring up.
Wildwing nodded, turning away. "Right. I forgot about that."
With an exasperated sigh, Nosedive came up behind his brother and turned him around so that the two of them were face to face. "Listen to me, bro. What happened today was Dragaunus' fault, not yours. You gotta let it go, man."
"I couldn't stop myself," Wildwing whispered. "I had my hands locked around your throat, and I was telling myself to let go, practically screaming it, but I couldn't. If you hadn't figured out that the Mask could break the spell, I would have-"
"It's over," Dive cut him off. "And what you would have done doesn't matter. You didn't do it, man, and you didn't WANT to do it. What counts is that it's all over, and we all made it through all right."
Wildwing let out a long breath. "You're right, Dive," he agreed. "Thanks." Then, reaching out, he pulled his little brother close for another hug.
"You haven't hugged me this much since I was six and got lost in the mountains," Dive remarked, his voice muffled.
"I haven't had this bad a scare since then, either," replied Wildwing.
Suddenly a voice from the door caused them to pull away from each other. "Awww," Duke teased, a wide grin on his face. "It's a Kodak moment."
Dive and Wildwing regarded each other for a long moment, then in unison picked up a pair of pillows from the couch and began advancing on their teammate. Duke began backing out the door, still grinning.
"Can't we talk about this?" the ex-thief asked innocently. Wildwing chuckled.
"Get him," he instructed. The two of them closed in, and the sounds
pillow fight echoed throughout the Pond.