Rarity looked up, dust stinging her eyes, ears ringing. Dusky grabbed onto a dog's armored back, beating its head with her wings, fangs sunk into its neck. The dog threw himself backwards to crush Dusky, but she leapt to the cave ceiling and hung upside-down from the smooth stone.
Cloudchaser landed on the dog's chest, and held a wingblade to his jugular. He opened his hands and stilled. His mouth moved, but Rarity couldn't hear his words over the ringing.
Other guards held another four dogs at spear or sword point.
Two dogs ran down the tunnel, deeper into the warrens.
As Rarity's hearing returned, she heard a stallion screaming: "Mare down! Mare down! Medic!"
Rarity spun, lighting her horn bright, looking for the injured trooper.
The other troopers were binding the Dogs' hands and ankles, and stripping them to the fur to check for weapons. Twilight zapped each of them with a spell, and the ropes binding them glowed a soft pink, magically reinforced.
Sparkler sprawled flat on her belly, right leg splayed out, the shaft of an arrow sticking from the meaty part of her thigh, blood soaking her poncho. She twisted and almost bit down on the arrow.
Redheart, galloping up, smacked her on the nose. "No! It's near an artery."
Rarity flopped down next to Sparkler and grabbed her head, held her cheek to cheek, holding tight so that Sparkler had to look forward, away from her own wound.
But holding Sparkler that way put the bloody action right in front of Rarity's nose. She swallowed and clamped her jaws tight.
"Rarity," Redheart said, "hold still. I need your hornlight."
With hooves and teeth, Redheart tore Sparkler's poncho away from the arrow shaft. Blood smeared Redheart's muzzle. The arrow had punched clean through the armor and deep into Sparkler's flesh.
"I thought Guard armor was enchanted?" snapped Rarity.
"When... when... when the enchantments get old and weak..." Sparkler gasped, "they give the regulars fresh armor, and give the old to the Home Guard."
Rarity gasped. The reservists had marched into battle with armor they knew was inferior.
"Shhhh, I've got you," Rarity whispered into Sparkler's ear. The injured trooper's body shook as Redheart grabbed a pair of shears in her teeth and snipped off the feathered shaft of the arrow. Sparkler broke out in sweat and Rarity wiped her forehead.
"Dinky," Sparkler breathed, gritting her teeth. "Dinky..."
"We're getting your sister back," Rarity said. "Don't worry. Redheart's an artist."
"Flip on your back," Redheart commanded, guiding Sparkler's damaged thigh as Rarity helped her roll. Once upside-down, Sparkler tucked her tail over her belly.
"I've gotta get this out," Redheart snapped. "It's really close to the artery. Hold still. Princess! Princess Twilight!"
Twilight sprinted and slid down next to Sparkler, opposite Rarity. "Yes, Redheart?"
Redheart nosed Sparkler's steel combat knife from its sheath. "If I hit the artery, heat that blade red-hot with a spell so I can cauterize the wound."
Sparkler shuddered. "Will, will I lose my leg?"
"Hold still," Redheart growled.
Twilight forced a smile, and touched her nose to Sparkler's, looking into the upside-down mare's eyes from a few inches away.
"We both live in Ponyville, but we only ever hang out when there's a crisis," Twilight said. "Thanks for handling Cranky and Matilda's wedding when we fought the bugbear."
"No... no... no prob'm...." Sparkler's sweat was turning frothy.
Redheart grabbed a scalpel in her teeth and cut at the inside of her thigh, where the arrow's point distended the skin.
Tears filled Sparkler's eyes.
"Remember school?" Twilight said.
Sparkler's left foreleg pounded the ground, and she gasped for breath as Redheart's scalpel sliced deep into muscle, her blood now pouring. Rarity hugged her tighter. Sparkler wheezed, "Yeah.... yeah, Twilight."
"Remember when Lemon Hearts got her head stuck in the flask in potions class?"
"Tryin' distract?" Sparkler gasped, blinking to clear her eyes, shaking harder as Redheart cut her thigh muscles open.
Redheart spit out the scalpel, and began working the shaft-end of the arrow deeper into Sparkler's thigh, and the wicked barbed end of the arrow, black metal coated in gore, emerged out of the meat.
Rarity swallowed, and hugged Sparkler tighter.
"Lemon Hearts ran all over the lab," Twilight said. "Moon Dancer and I were working. I don't remember who saved Lemon Hearts, do you?"
Redheart got the barb free, and then slid the arrow shaft clean through and out the far side.
"Gaaaaahhhhh!" Sparkler grabbed Twilight around the neck, shaking, breath shuddering, uninjured thigh spasming against the floor.
"Missed the artery!" Redheart cheered.
"She's done, darling," Rarity whispered.
Sparkler looked over, across her belly, at Redheart packing the wound with gauze.
"That hurt! Sweet Celestia, in training, they didn't explain how much that hurts. I... I've peed all over myself."
"It's okay, darling," Rarity whispered into her ear, trying to ignore the stench of blood, agony sweat, and rank urine.
Wiping her face with a wing, blood pouring from her nose and muzzle, Dusky trotted up from where she had been securing the prisoners. "Redheart? How's the sergeant?"
"She's not walking on that, skipper," Redheart said, slapping a sticky bandage over Sparkler's wound. "She needs surgery stat. Can we spare somepony to get her topside?"
"Congratulations, Sergeant Sparkler," Dusky said. "Your wounded-in-action decoration will have the first Combat-T device in history. Luna hates being a walking medal factory, Princess Twilight. I bet you won't enjoy it, either."
Twilight's face paled, and then she said, "Let's hope none of these decorations are posthumous. And your nose is broken, Major. You're bleeding badly."
"Pfffttt. I did this earlier today, tossing a hoofball with Spike at your castle."
"You're a worse liar than Applejack," replied Twilight.
"Rarity," Dusky asked, "can you carry Sparkler back to the surface?"
"No!" Sparkler shouted. "I'm not leaving this cave without my sister!"
"Sister?" Dusky said. "Lieutenant Davenport, did you allow a trooper on a mission to rescue her own sister?"
"Yes, skipper. This isn't Canterlot. I can't spare one of my squad leaders."
Dusky flapped her wings and glared. "We'll talk later. All right, Sergeant Sparkler. You won't go topside but you can't walk. So you stay here." Dusky pulled a grenade from her satchel, and held it up, balanced on a hoof. "Can you levitate this? Or is your magic blown out from the pain?"
The wounded sergeant blinked her eyes and lit her horn, and her grayish-opal aura lifted the grenade and carried it to her.
"Good," Dusky said, then raised her voice to be heard. "That's a fragmentation grenade, enchanted for higher bursting power. If the dogs struggle against their bonds, or other dogs try to rescue them... kill them. We can't have dogs loose in our rear."
The dogs stopped squirming against the Twilight-enchanted ropes.
Sparkler nodded. "Yes, skipper. Get my sister back."
Dusky leaned down, and kissed Sparkler's mane, just behind her horn. "I swear—I swear—I won't leave this cave, alive or dead, without those foals."
They continued their advance. Twilight squelched light fixtures, and Dusky crawled along the ceiling and dropped stun grenades onto three more strongpoints, allowing the rest of the troopers to swarm and tie up the dogs with minimum bloodshed.
Not to say no bloodshed. The scalp flapped free on Cloudchaser's forehead, skullbone exposed, and her white bangs dripped red. Most of the troopers, Davenport, and Twilight bore bloody cuts and scrapes. Rarity's right flank bled from a rock fragment that had sliced open her poncho, and would need at least dozen stitches.
Birch Bucket, a seafoam-green unicorn whose day job was at the Ponyville Spa, limped on a broken foreleg, using a crutch improvised from his sword scabbard.
Redheart, unwounded but her white medic's poncho red with others' blood, packed gauze into an unconscious Diamond Dog's bleeding ears.
Several Dogs were going to need major medical treatment, when all was over. If the battle took too long, they very well might die. Redheart stabilized them as best she could, and Twilight cast time-slowing spells on them to reduce their bleeding.
Rarity shook her head, her own ears ringing.
Twilight looked at her and mouthed words.
Twilight leaned in and shouted into Rarity's ears. "We're all gonna need some Zecora potions for our hearing tomorrow!"
Dusky waved, Follow Me! and the ponies advanced deeper into the cave. Birch Bucket stayed behind, leaned against the wall, cradling his broken leg, levitating another grenade, and watching the tied-up dogs.
He, too, was under orders to kill them if they tried to escape.
Rarity waved at Dusky. The batpony fluttered down from the ceiling and whispered, "What?"
"I recognize this. We're coming up on the center of the Dogs' lair." Rarity's horn glowed involuntarily, and she could taste a particularly rich pocket of blue diamonds just at her hooves. "Ohhhh... myyyy.... No! I mustn't get distracted. Dusky, I'm willing to go forward and parley with them. This Rex villain may be the new alpha, but Fido and Spot will still be his henchdogs. I may be able to talk some sense."
"I don't know, Rarity...." Dusky rubbed her chin. "They're really interested in fighting. More than I had expected. Lieutenant?"
Davenport shrugged. "I'd hate to give them another hostage, but if your goal is still to negotiate, well, somepony has to negotiate."
"Princess?" Dusky said.
"It's our least-bad idea. I can teleport in and then back out with Rarity in two, two and a half seconds, if needed."
Redheart trotted up. "Skipper? Rover said they'll respect the red cross. Let me go, too, and see if they'll let me check on the foals."
"They might respect the red cross," Dusky said.
"Foals, skipper," Redheart said. "Foals. I'll risk it. Foals. I volunteer. Foals."
Dusky turned around, with her back to the others, flapped her wings three times, and stomped. Then she turned back. "Ponies have died before under my orders. That hurts worse than when I took my own grenade burst."
"But—" Rarity said.
"But do it, Rarity. Redheart. Approved, on my discretion and responsibility. Princess, keep a close watch. Redheart, you aren't volunteering, I'm ordering you to go forward, so that it's on my withers if you get hurt. Everypony, stand to. If they attack our delegation, we'll go in and we kill anydog that doesn't instantly throw down arms."
"You're my best friend. Please don't die."
Rarity removed her poncho, wearing nothing but her own coat, to show the Dogs she was unarmed. Blood trickled from the laceration on her right flank. Redheart stripped her armor and wore only her blood-stained red cross poncho, and a pair of large white saddlebags, also marked with red crosses, slung over her hips.
"Dogs!" Twilight shouted, her voice thundering from magic amplification. "Dogs, we're sending in two unarmed ponies to talk."
The echoes of Twilight's voice died, and then silence reigned through the cavern.
Rarity closed her eyes, listening to the ringing from Dusky's stun grenades in her ears and the pounding of her heart. My hearing is badly damaged, Rarity thought. I hope Zecora has something!
With her eyes closed, she was holding Sparkler again, and her own body shook with the purple unicorn's pain. Her foreleg throbbed with Birch Bucket's broken bone, and her eyes watered with Cloudchaser's seeping blood. I must stop dwelling on this, I must think of the foals and not the wounded....
The fight with the changelings before Cadance and Shining Armor's wedding had been objectively worse, more desperate, higher stakes and against more dangerous enemies, but over in mere seconds.
This grinding advance down the caverns left her with time—ninety minutes and counting, four barricades and counting, slowed by Dusky's meticulous set-piece attacks—damnable time to worry and fret and stew in her own tension and adrenaline. Dizziness filled her and Rarity shook her head. She wanted to go behind a rock and vomit.
"Okay!" came back a Dog's voice, loudly. "Okay, send in ponies with not weapons to bark with us."
Rarity looked into Dusky's yellow eyes.
"Your play," Dusky said. "Get us those foals back. You can promise immunity, you can promise audiences with the Mayor and Princesses, but nothing more. You can't encourage them to try this again. Nocreature's been killed yet, but this can't happen again. They have to learn this is a losing play. A draw is fine, but the dogs can't win."
Rarity nodded once, a jerky twitch of her head.
Dusky patted Rarity's head with a wing. "Stay alive, if at all practical. Good luck."
Rarity trotted down the cavern and into the gallery at the center of the Dogs' territory, Redheart close at her right.
The stench of unwashed dog and rotten food chewed by rotten teeth pressed down on her. Her stomach twisted, but luckily dinner was many hours past. The temperature dropped several degrees and humidity beaded on Rarity's coat.
Rex was obvious: more than Rover's size, about the same off-white color as Bon Bon, and covered with bloody clawmarks from his fight for alpha.
"Pretty pony!" Spot called with a wave. "You comed back!"
"Take me to the foals!" Redheart said with a stomp, her sergeant's snap in her voice. "Now."
Fido and two armored dogs pawed through her bags and under her poncho. She scowled, but she allowed the frisking. After they decided Redheart was, in fact, unarmed, they lead her to a side tunnel. Rarity counted carefully: third tunnel to counter-clockwise of the entrance they had just come through.
"Rex, I presume?"
"Yessss. You are gem finding pony. I heard about you. Maybe we keep you again, but put on muzzle so not whining. Or put dumbcane in food. A few weeks of that, you never whine again!"
"You're ever such a smart dog, Rex," Rarity said, batting her eyelashes and flirting her tail. "Otherwise, how could you have become alpha? Surely a smart alpha knows that Dog packs who kidnap ponies get trouble, darling, and packs that kidnap foals suffer even worse. Surely you don't want trouble for your first day as alpha, do you? You've such a handsome coat, and it would be ever such a tragedy if you had to hide it away, deep in the Everfree, forever, because—"
"Shut false flattering face," Rex ordered.
"Simply by giving us those foals back, you'll show how merciful and well-considered your leadership is, and tomorrow, when the Princesses arrive, they would certainly be more than happy to—"
"—more than happy to listen to your grievances over a nice spot of tea—no offense, Spot—and discuss with you how—"
"Pony!" Rex yelled, and threw a rock that hit Rarity in the left cheek. "I will break your jaw if keep babbling."
Rarity scowled at him, and felt a drop of blood trickling from where the rock had sliced her. "You realize, don't you, darling, that a company of the Guard" — no reason to undersell by saying something truthful, like half a platoon of Home Guard reservists with decrepit armor — "is ready to storm in here? Do you realize that an entire battalion is en route from Canterlot, and the Mountain Battalion of batponies will be here a few hours after that? Whatever are you thinking, Rex, kidnapping foals? Have you cubic zirconia for brains?"
The other dogs murmured, and one banged a spear against the floor.
"You have just fifteen or twenty. I smell. You not dare storm in here."
"Oh no?" Rarity said, drawing herself up to her full height, and with what she hoped was a haughty flip of her disheveled mane. "One of those ponies is an alicorn princess, with more magic in a hoof shaving than your entire pack has in all their carcasses. Another one of us is a batpony, late of the Household Battalion, trained and hardened to rescue hostages and fight in caves. Are you really willing to risk your pack's lives against them?"
"You talk nasty, pony. Maybe I cut talky parts. Have you debarked."
Rarity's eyes widened at the threat to her vocal chords, and her knees shook. She stormed several steps forward and poked Rex in his belly with a hoof. "Even by Diamond Dog standards, you. Are. Stupid. Rex. Rover came to Ponyville and made a deal to preserve this pack's lives," she made an encompassing gesture at the other dogs, "and we've not killed any dog, yet, although several are rather worse for their wear. But if you've harmed those foals, or if we need to cut our way through you ruffians to save them, we will!"
"Traitor!" Rex hissed. "Rover makes deal with ponies? He not deserved this pack!"
"You don't deserve this pack! Rover came to us to save your dogs' lives. Ponies are herd animals, and the herd will always protect the foals from the pack. We've no desire to kill. But we will. Give us those foals back now, and never dare test us again!"
"Oh? And without hostages, your princess collapses our tunnels on us and our pups tomorrow."
"Lies! Lies and slander." Rarity flipped her mane and tail, thinking. "I'm given the authority to deal with you. Wish you immunity? Wish you to return to the status of a few hours ago, before you took our foals? I can make that deal. But you must give them back."
Rex cocked his right hand back and slapped her, a wicked backhand, knocking Rarity several feet across the gallery. She slid another body length or two after she landed, the rough dirt and grit grinding into her coat and rubbing bloody spots across her left flank.
She lost five or ten seconds, dazed, or perhaps even unconscious. Her eyes swam with tears and the edges of her vision sparkled.
She stood up—shakily, to be sure, darling—and fixed her eyes on the dog. It took several more seconds for her double vision to clear.
Salty blood ran down the back of her throat. Her neck throbbed with whiplash and her muzzle bent at a funny angle at the bottom edge of her vision. Broken sinus bones flared with her pounding heartbeat and oh sweet Celestia it hurt.
She shook her head, clearing her thoughts.
I never told mother and father goodbye, she realized. I never told Sweetie Belle goodbye. Oh, by Celestia and Luna, I don't want to die in this cavern.
Blood poured from her shattered nose to the floor.
Her back hooves twitched and her spine tingled, ready to spin and run, gallop as fast as she could for the cavern entrance and the rainy night and fresh air.
She looked over her shoulder, judging the distance to her escape.
Then she looked back at the alpha Diamond Dog. Those four fillies didn't get to tell anypony goodbye, either.
She looked up the tunnel and made a wave-off gesture with her left forehoof, hoping to prevent a rescue assault.
She stomped back to Rex and poked him in the belly again. "I'll forgive that this once, darling, if you give me back our foals!"
Rex leaned forward, nose to nose with her, and her blood smeared onto his snout. He stuck out his tongue and licked some blood off Rarity's nose, then smacked his lips.
"No," Rex said finally. "Shut mouth and wait for red cross pony, then be gone. Barking time is over."
He stood back to his full height, and crossed his arms over his chest.
Rarity plopped down to sit on her haunches, pinched her nose with her forehooves to try to stop the bleeding, tilted her face down, and breathed through her mouth. Blood soaked her forehooves and fetlocks. Her eyes streamed tears no matter how hard she fought against it. By Flurry Heart's fluffy bottom, it hurt.
About ten minutes later, Redheart and her three-dog escort returned from the side tunnel.
Redheart's eyes widened as soon as she saw Rarity's blood, and Rarity shrugged.
They trotted back up the tunnel, Rarity leaving bloody hoofprints behind her, returning to Twilight and the Home Guard.
"The foals are okay," Redheart said.
Redheart wiped blood from Rarity's muzzle, and Rarity screamed as a broken bone shifted inside her snout. Rarity's eyes watered again and her tail thrashed, and she spit out some fragments of teeth.
"They didn't have food or water, so I gave them my canteen," Redheart continued, her voice cracking, "and some lollipops I keep in my bags for my twins. I didn't bring any rations on this little jaunt. Toola Roola has a broken cheekbone. Celestia! That pink filly's face was black and blue. It ripped my heart. Otherwise: they're unharmed. Oh, I gave Toola Roola a mild painkiller."
"Well," Dusky said, "good. If the foals are unharmed, that means I don't feel a moral obligation to kill these dogs. But what's our play? I'm open to suggestions."
Redheart broke open a glass potion ampule, tilted Rarity's head up, and poured the potion down her nostrils. The bleeding slowed. Redheart scrunched her eyes shut. "I can't believe I left them. They're... they're friends with my twins! I know their parents! Coconut Cream's mom is my second cousin—or is it first cousin once removed? They're all alone and they're scared and there's nopony to hug them and and and I need to go back and just hold them until all this is over...." Her shoulders shook, and she sobbed. "They bawled when I left! I left them behind! Guard Medics leave nopony behind!"
"We need you out here, Sergeant," Twilight said. "We're going to get the fillies back, and soon. But we're going to have more wounded before this is over."
"What—how would I feel if my twins were locked in a stone cell, and an adult abandoned them?" Redheart dropped to a whisper. "I have to go back..."
Rarity rubbed a bloody fetlock against Redheart's flank. Rarity had previously altered Redheart's uniform, so she knew Redheart was the lone other pony in the Home Guard unit with the Combat Action Badge, and, like Dusky, was an ex-member of the elite Household Battalion of the Guard. Redheart herself held two wounded-in-action badges. And...
...and, Redheart also actually held the Cross of Valor that Luna desired for Dusky, the citation a deep, dark Royal Secret. That made Redheart perhaps the only pony this side of Canterlot Palace as combat-hardened as Dusky herself.
Redheart sobbed like a baby. "I'm going back. I'm going right now. How abandoned must those little fillies feel?"
"Stand down, simmer down," Davenport said, placing a hoof on her shoulder. "We'll be back there soon enough, together. Concentrate. Tell us everything."
Oh, Rex, you poor stupid scoundrel, Rarity thought. The potion burned her nose, but the pain began to fade as it deadened the nerves. You have no idea what ponies will do to protect our young!
"The fillies are chained, though," Redheart said. "Each of them has one hoof chained to an anchor set into the bedrock."
"The dogs don't like Rex," Rarity said, her voice nasally from the swelling. Talking shifted the broken bones in her face, and she saw stars. "If we can... deal... with him, the situation might be salvageable."
Davenport asked, "Where's the foals' cell, Redheart?"
She stopped wrapping Rarity's snout with tape, and her eyes crossed and defocused. "Down the tunnels seventy-three steps to the gallery. About two and a half hours of a clockface counterclockwise around the gallery, then up a tunnel one hundred forty steps, sharp right, seventy-five or eighty degrees, then two hundred fourteen more steps at a slight downward grade." Redheart looked at Davenport and her eyes refocused. "I counted the steps."
Dusky cuffed her in the shoulder. "You would make a good batpony!"
Twilight cocked her head, spread her hooves wide, and her horn glowed blindingly bright. Her wings and tail drooped as she concentrated on her spell. "I've... I've got them! They're actually quite close, through those rocks right there. Fifty or eighty yards. I can teleport in, there's enough open space. Then I grab them and out."
"Their chains are cold iron, Princess," Redheart warned.
Twilight stood still, head cocked, horn glowing dimly, as she held the spell to keep the foals' position in her teleport-sense. "An alicorn can work cold iron, but it'll take me time... maybe three or four minutes to burn through. Major Fireball, you'll need to hold the Dogs in play for me, so I can work."
Dusky nodded and grinned. Her own broken nose dripped blood across her fangs, making her look like the bloody-fanged bat on the Equuicigalpa Home Guard patch. "Now we've got a plan."
Davenport nodded. "If we can take the dogs, good. But if not... once the Princess has the foals topside, we can make a fighting withdrawl to a chokepoint and stand until Luna and the regulars arrive from Canterlot to relieve us."
"I like how you think, Lieutenant," Dusky said. "Prepare it."
The guardsponies advanced up the tunnel toward the Dogs' central gallery. Rarity followed a few steps behind, carrying one of Redheart's extra first aid kits. Twilight hadn't moved from her spot: once she found the foal's cell—whatever magic had allowed that—she couldn't risk losing them again.
With Birch Bucket and Sparkler wounded, the Home Guard unit was nearly depleted of unicorns: only two remained standing. Blossom Delight, a light-purple mare, and Comet Tail, a yellow stallion, both crawled forward of the others, huddled under their camouflage and staying in the shadows at the edges of the tunnel.
Dusky and Cloudchaser flared their wings and bent their knees.
The remainder of the Home Guards, all earth ponies, pulled off their ponchos, exposing their gold-colored armor, and gripped their spears in their teeth.
Rarity stuffed her hooves in her ears.
Dusky pulled the pin on another stun grenade and bucked it. The two unicorns tossed two stun grenades each with their magic.
Everypony stuffed their hooves or wings in their ears.
Everypony but Twilight, who stood still, several dozen paces behind them, and charged her horn.
BOOM! BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM! The concussion grenades exploded.
Snap-pop! Twilight teleported.
Blossom Delight and Comet Tail slashed at the sconces with spells, and the central gallery went dark.