“Heavy attacks coming in on West Wall Three!”
“Call in Storm Shadow and his regiment!”
“We can’t! He’s pinned down under suppressive fire two units behind East Six!”
“Then get the mages to–”
“No need! I’m on it!”
Channeling into the rune-carved pylons beneath each hand, Shining Armor’s eyes blazed with pure white light as sturdy walls of azure light sprang up around the regiment in question. With the aid of their newly provided cover, Captain Storm Shadow rallied his troops as they charged towards the trenches to bolster the lines on the Western Front.
“Good work, soldier,” Ironside grunted, ice blue eyes flickering to the guard captain for only an instant before returning to the battlefield. That was one fire they’d put out, but only one of the dozens of conflagrations that continued to rage.
The sun had almost finished its descent behind the veil of mountains, and though the evening rays painted the battlefield in bloodied hues, not all of the color came from the light. The fighting had continued for a full day and had shown no signs of stopping. If anything, the evidence was that it would only grow steadily greater and steadily worse.
The first few hours had held over well. Between the steely bulwark of aura mages and the heavy fire of spell cannons, the allied forces had managed to keep Nul’s armies at bay. After all, even great numbers could only do so much against the focused fire and disciplined ranks of well-trained armies, and wave after wave of demonic beasts had smashed themselves against the Equestrian front lines.
Then it changed. The change had come slowly, but it had been as sure and as deadly as the tides of darkness themselves. Beasts that had once charged ahead with reckless abandon began to coordinate their efforts. Instead of headlong rushes to break against the shields, the demons banded together to bring the full force of their numbers against focal points. Exploiting seams in the ranks and weaknesses that should have been invisible to the outward eye, Nul’s armies began to batter and bash their way through.
Ironside had signaled the front ranks to fall back and take shelter in the first line of defenses that lay strewn throughout the valley floor. Icy stone walls intermixed with frozen trenches behind rows of gleaming pikes. Though the dark hordes charged forth in their marauding bands, the multi-layered maze of defenses channeled these groups into orchestrated kill zones where burst mages armed with spell rifles and cannons made short work of them.
Then it had changed again. So long as the darkness was forced to approach, the allies held their ground. But the monstrous forms themselves changed and their onslaught evolved.
Ripping a glistening spine from its back, one demonic being had hurled the appendage like a pitch-black javelin towards the forward ranks. From there, more and more beasts began their barrage, whether it was by more lances ripped straight from their bodies or with oozing black bile that corroded and burned as surely as magma consumed ice. By late afternoon, what had started as lethal, but random rain had quickly focused itself into concentrated deluges of death, death aimed at the ones lying behind the protective ranks of shield and stone.
Flame cannons had attempted to target them, but with a steady torrent of black still pouring through the Jotun Pass, it was all they could do to thin the tides before they reached. Imperium fighters had strafed across their ranks with hails of explosive rounds time and time again, but once more, the blackness responded. Dozens, if not hundreds of grotesque forms took to the sky with fetid wings and bodies too distorted to ever take flight according to natures laws. Within the hour, it was all the fighters could do to keep their airships afloat to continue the aerial barrage so crucial to the ground troops below. The flame cannons took out hundreds with each blast, but that still left thousands more to stream into the valley below.
And this is where Ironside found himself, caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Entrenched as they were, there was no immediate threat of being dislodged by the rampant hoards of eldritch abominations. However, entrenched as they were, there was also little they could do to take on the increasingly heavy barrage of black destruction that rained down from above. While the demons were free to launch themselves forward with suicidal abandon, the allied forces had to worry as much about surviving each new onslaught as they were about attacking. It was a precarious that would have been nearly impossible to balance had it not been for one man and his mystic arts.
With unparalleled mastery of protective shields and runic bulwarks, Shining Armor single-handedly helped the allies keep their foothold strong. Using the complex broadcasting array the Tower mages had set up, the guard captain was able to bring his magic to any point on the battlefield and literally reshape it in defense of his comrades.
“Sir,” the communications lieutenant called, “Colonel White Run is requesting relief for Western Six. They can hold on if needed, but they’re running close to the red zone and could really use the swap.”
“Shining Armor,” Ironside called. “Can you handle that?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
Channeling into the pylons once more, Shining Armor sent spells into amplifying circles forged of the purest mythril, racing through buried conduits that laced the valley floor, and bursting forth from the broadcast totems. The darkness brought forth by the setting sun was momentarily shattered as a solid shield wall, a hundred paces wide and twenty paces high, sprang from the ground right before the allied lines.
The dark hordes continued to pound away at the barrier with bloated hands and scything claws, but the captain’s spells held true as it bought the beleaguered soldiers the few precious minutes they needed to retreat and for fresh soldiers to fill the ranks. Only when Major Striker had his troops fully arrayed, fresh spears glinting forward with spell guns running hot, did Shining Armor release the shield–
–and slump at his post the very instant he did.
“Lieutenant!” Ironside barked. “Hurry up and call–”
“No need, General, I’m already here!”
With more grace and speed than a woman so pregnant should have, Princess Cadance swept into central command, shimmering cloak billowing in the chill breeze as two stretcher-pushing assistants trailed in behind. Sparing neither pause nor hesitation, the crystal princess knelt down beside her husband and immediately began the review.
“Fever’s already spiking,” she announced, her hands quick and methodical as she checked his forehead, eyes, and racing pulse. “Ivy, hurry up and get some augury catalyzers in to stabilize the backlash. Tranq, prep up a three hour coma spell. I want his lights out thirty seconds ago.”
“Three hours?” Shining Armor gaped. “Cadance–”
“Just gave you an order, soldier,” Ironside interjected with the finality of an executioner’s axe. “You’re too valuable to burn out just yet, so if she says rest, you better bloody well rest.”
Whether the guard captain would have protested like a hothead or agreed like a good little soldier, we’ll never know, because before he had a chance to speak, Tranq finished the sleep spell. Eyes rolling into the back of his head, Shining Armor was out faster than a blown bulb and tumbled right onto the open stretcher.
“Get him into Luna’s ward as fast as possible,” Cadance ordered as she laid a few final charms over her sleeping husband. “Every second wasted could be life lost.”
Needing no further encouragement, Ivy and Tranq hoisted the comatose captain up and dashed out the door where an express cart awaited to take them down the slope. Though it took them several moments to fall from sight, the crystal princess couldn’t bring herself to tear that worried gaze away from her exhausted love till he was well and fully gone.
Ironside allowed her those few moments before duty returned.
“How go things at base camp?” he called.
“We’re holding,” Cadance answered, eyes clear as polished quartz as she rose to face the general. “Celestia’s holding the restoration field, Luna maintains the rejuvenation field, and the emotional augments I laid down help reduce the load.”
“Good. And what’s the time frame for a standard soldier to get back on his feet?”
Cadance only hesitated for a moment before responding.
Ironside spoke no words because his grim, icy stare said it all.
Five hours. Five whole hours.
Despite the odds they faced, it wasn’t the demons or their relentless attacks that posted the greatest problems: it was exhaustion. An aura mage running full tilt at the front lines could burn through a day’s worth of energy in a matter of hours with a burst mage only taking half as long. Faced with suicidal charges and unceasing barrages, a well-trained soldier could ration out mana to last through a good day’s worth of fighting, maybe more. But these weren’t straits where one could afford to be frugal. These were waters where you swam your heart out or the leviathan got its dinner.
Once a soldier was spent, the soldier was spent, magically, mentally, and physically as the discipline of spellcraft took a costly toll. In most cases, a fully spent soldier would need a full twenty-four hours to recover from the effects lest they start risking the onset of mana sickness that only made the situation doubly worse. With Luna’s rejuvenation field as well as the cocktail of mana supplements and concentrated rations pumped into each exhausted figure, the medical corp had managed a miracle in shortening a full day’s rest into five hours’ time. In normal circumstances, it would be a medical triumph.
But five hours was still longer than it took a mage to burn out. Factor in travel time to and from the field and that was more time spent outside the field than in. Factor in time in the restoration ward to heal up injuries keeping a soldier out of combat, and the delay only increased. Factor in the inevitable halt when Celestia and Luna needed relief themselves, well…
Debt would only continue to pile up. How long before their credit ran out?
“… How are the princesses doing?” Ironside finally rumbled as he returned eyes to the battlefield.
“They’re holding on,” Cadance serenely nodded. “Apocrypha oversees the Triad and the spell cannons, so they can focus on keeping our soldiers back in the fight. Also…”
“Also… they sent me up to have a word with our… guest.”
If you could imagine a stone growing steadily harder, it would be a good comparison for Ironside’s face.
“I don’t like it,” he growled. “Trusting her, especially at a time like this–”
“–is something we’ll have to do sooner or later,” Cadance cut in. “We need to do this. You know that.”
“Doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Ironside grumbled, and the princess couldn’t help but laugh.
“I doubt anybody likes it very much, but when life gives you lemons–”
“You send them back and call for a double of good brandy.” With this, the general finally chuckled. “Alright then, hurry on up. Just don’t expect me to hold my breath.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”
With a final smart salute, Cadance took to the spiraling staircase that led to the top of the headquarters. Exposed as it was to the frosty air that only seemed to grow harsher in bite with the darkness of night, it was foolish to be out here. Unless, of course, you weren’t wholly human. That worked too.
“Evening, Chrysalis,” Cadance called as she pulled her shimmering cloak a little more tightly around her shoulders. The lone figure on the roof, draped in viridian silks and clad in glistening black, chitin, did not respond.
“So, have you finally decided to cooperate?”
"And why should I do that?” Chrysalis remarked, finally deigning to turn around and fix Cadance with fang-filled smiled. “You have not agreed to my one, simple request.”
Cadance could have responded, but she did not. Considering the numerous times they’d had this conversation before, it was unlikely to do any good.
As she’d stated in her colorful tea party with Celestia, Chrysalis still wanted Shining Armor. She also wanted to negotiate new terms between Equestria and the Changelings, a thoughtfully penned apology from Celestia for her “unlawful imprisonment,” and several dresses custom designed by Rarity for a sending away present, along with a dozen other ridiculous demands. All those could be grudgingly accepted as little more than pricks to their pride, but the one issue had always remained tabled, and that? That was the issue of trading a certain guard captain for aid by the Changeling forces.
Cadance had refused of course, and initially in terms colorful enough to make even the most rough-tongued drill sergeant look on with interest. However, diplomacy prevented her from using such language with Chrysalis, and so after some properly appropriated Lamaze breathing exercises, Cadance had settled down to the difficult task of negotiating the terms between nations which, as it turned out, was not quite as difficult as she thought they’d be. Or maybe it was. Honestly, it was sort of hard to tell.
Chrysalis had in fact cooperated. When asked to mobilize, she’d gathered every last warrior drones and mage her kingdom had to its name. When asked for input in the war room, she’d provided insightful comments on how to best utilize the Hive’s many curious strengths. All through planning and deployment, the larger issues of national treaties and amnesty for actions had been duly hammered out as the Changeling queen followed along as readily as the Tower or Imperium. However, never once had she promised to actually bring her troops into action. Never once had she formally joined the alliance all because one, crucial promise still lay unresolved.
Well, it was time for Cadance to settle it once and for all.
“Honestly,” the crystal princess sighed as she leaned against the railing, “if you’d stop behaving like a child for two minutes, you’d see you didn’t even want Shining Armor in the first place.”
“Excuse me?” Chrysalis gaped as she rounded on Cadance with a very surprised look. “First off, going around calling people children is a very childish thing to do. And second, the fact that I’ve maintained my demands shows that I am in fact quite serious about your soon-to-be ex-husband.”
Though the words rankled her to no end, Cadance let them wash over the polished sheen of her unruffled demeanor.
“Yes, you’ve been insisting after it like a little girl denied a lollipop,” she replied with the slightest of smiles. Okay, maybe she hadn’t let all of it wash over, but enough for it to count, right? “Only, neither you nor the little girl realizes she doesn’t want the lollipop at all.”
“Are you suggesting I’m only going after Shining Armor because I can’t have him?” Chrysalis challenged. “Of call the preposterous–”
“–Of course it’s not the only reason,” Cadance interjected her smile a little wider now, “or even really big part of it. Still, I figured opening up like this would be better than calling you out on a silly little crush, right?”
“– Crush, yes,” Cadance cut in once more as she took more than just a little pleasure in the Changeling Queen’s startled reactions. “You don’t really love Shining Armor. I’m sure that you like him well enough, but it’s really little more than your idolized image of him than anything of substance.”
“I certainly have not idolized him,” Chrysalis intoned, now positively bristling with indignation. “I spent more than a month disguised as you, remember?”
“How could I forget?” Cadance responded with the dry tones of burnt toast.
“And in that time, I’ve seen the real side of him as well,” the Changeling insisted.
“Really?” Cadance challenged. “Have you seen the pictures of him in braces?”
“Every time I pass the parlor,” Chrysalis smirked.
“What about his collection of vintage Batmane action figures?”
“Only every chance he could bring them out.”
“His authentic Starfleet uniform?”
“Right next to the Deadpool suit.”
“And what about the pancake dance?”
“… the what?”
“You mean you don’t know?” Cadance gasped in mock surprise. “If you’ve ever made pancakes for him, then surely you know that every time he sees them, he does a little soft shoe shuffle before he sits down to eat, usually in his skivvies.”
“… You’re kidding. You’re kidding, right?”
“Not in the slightest,” Cadance smiled. “But of course, that doesn’t matter because you obviously know that tickling him under the chin makes him giggle like a girl, right?”
“Or that his preferred cereal is Commander-O’s because he still loves getting the little prizes inside? Or the fact that his favorite part of being an officer is getting people to do paperwork for him? Or how about he’d rather have a nice milkshake over a glass of hard liquor any day of the week?”
“I, ah… well I don’t care,” Chrysalis sniffed, doing her best to restore the regal aplomb she usually wore. Right now, it looked like drawing it back on was giving her some difficulty. “All these things are minor details that you simply have the advantage of seeing after marriage.”
“Perhaps,” Cadance nodded as the silly smile on her face slowly faded. “But what about the other side of him that he never lets out in the light of day?”
“What other side?” Chrysalis smiled, haughty with triumph. “Shining Armor is as composed of a man as they come. Why, if he’s got so much as an ounce of bitterness in him, I’ll eat my gown.”
“You could’ve fooled me,” Cadance answered as a strange, new look softened her face. “Because I’ve seen parts of him that honestly frighten me.”
“Surely you jest,” the Changeling insisted as her smirk slipped just a wit. Cadance shook her head.
“A cadet once got seriously injured during a training exercise and lost his right leg. When he finally got back to his room, he punched a hole through the wall.”
“It was the outer wall of the palace. Six inches of reinforced stone.”
“Oh is right,” Cadance nodded. “When the troops under his care get hurt, he wants to hurt others. But the really scary part is that when his soldiers get killed, he wants to hurt himself. After the Changeling invasion, I sat with him from dusk till dawn because I was afraid he might turn to the bottle or something worse. He blamed himself for what happened there. Still does.”
“I… I didn’t know…”
“Not many do,” Cadance said softly. “He keeps it all hidden away because he doesn’t want others to worry, but just because it’s out of sight doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.”
“And you’re fine with this?” Chrysalis blinked in open astonishment.
“Of course I’m not okay with it,” Cadance frowned. “If I had my way, he’d stop feeling like he’s got to save the world by his lonesome self. But,” she sighed with an, if not happy, at least better than resigned smile, “that’s what I signed up for when I married him."
“And that’s what I want to ask you,” she continued as she fixed the Changeling queen with a pointed stare. “Are you ready to deal with all of that? Are you prepared for him to unleash his deepest, darkest secrets on you because you’re the only one he trusts enough to speak to? Are you able to be the avenue he vents all of his worries and concerns on just to make sure he can sleep through the night? Hm?”
“That’s… I mean… That’s not even fair!” Chrysalis cried out as what certainly wasn’t a look of sulky indignation came to her face. “I just wanted someone to cuddle with while he feeds me chocolate and tells me I’m pretty! I didn’t sign up for all this dramatic doom and gloom.”
“And that’s why you’re still a child,” Cadance smiled with a very satisfied nod. “You’re more in love with the idea of being in love, not the man himself, and that’s why I’m not handing him over to you.”
“… How do you know so much about this, anyway?” Chrysalis mumbled through a dejected glower. Cadance just laughed.
“Girl, please, this is Relationships 101. If you don’t even know this much, there’s no way you’ll ever find a man, let alone a good one.”
“Great,” the Changeling muttered. “I guess I’ll just spend the rest of my immortal life collecting cats or something.”
“You could do that,” Cadance giggled. “Or you could let me help you.”
“… Say what now?”
“You obviously have no idea how to handle a decent relationship,” Cadance nodded as she brought hand to chin in consideration and pursed her lips in thought. “What you need is someone to show you the ropes, help you figure out just what you’re looking for in your own little love muffin.”
“Please tell me that’s not a pet name you actually use,” Chrysalis retched.
“Maybe. Maybe not,” Cadance smiled. “But the offer still stands. After all this is over, there’s still going to be a lot of issues we need to settle between the Changelings and Equestrians. If you were willing to visit on such diplomatic missions, I could take you around Canterlot and show you around, if you catch my drift.”
Chrysalis did, which is probably why her emerald eyes were so large with unbridled shock.
“You’d go to such lengths to help me?” Chrysalis gaped. “Why?”
“To keep your mitts off my man, for one,” Cadance smiled in only half jest. A quarter? Maybe not so much in jest at all. “But also because I think everyone deserves a happily ever after, even if that someone happens to be a shape shifting kidnapper who tried to steal my fiancé.”
“… Has anyone ever told you that you’re too generous for your own good?”
“On occasion,” Cadance giggled. “But Shine also tells me that’s what he loves about me."
At this, the Changeling queen fell silent as she considered the truly staggering amount of new material presented. She certainly still desired to keep Shining Armor for her own, but… what Cadance said did seem to ring with a certain amount of sense. And besides, even if things didn’t work out quite like they both intended, the constant visits to Canterlot would provide ample opportunity to snatch the guard captain back up, correct?
“So,” Cadance smiled as she considered the queen in return. “Do we have a deal?"
“Not just yet,” Chrysalis answered, her regal calm slightly marred by the hitch in her voice. “You have promised to assist us in… learning of relationships. However, simple education is not enough.”
“Seriously?” the crystal princess sighed. "Honestly, I've just about bent as far back as my big, pregnant self can bend. What else under Luna's starry sky could you possibly need?”
“A guarantee. A pledge if you will, that such assistance you offer shall continue henceforth and forthwith until such assistance will no longer be required by completion of the purpose of said proposal.”
Cadance blinked once more, now really confused at the queen’s sudden usage of dense legalese that would have even trained barristers twisted up in knots. Fortunately, the chatter of Canterlot nobility could make even lawyers seem pin-straight in compared to their spaghetti tangle of verbiage, so applying a little experience here, a little inference there, and…
“… Chrysalis,” Cadance began, all smiles and giggling grins. “Are you saying you want me to promise to help you actually find a boyfriend?”
The instantly stiffening spine of the Changeling queen was all the answer she needed.
“You don’t have to be so blunt about it,” Chrysalis replied, her voice a good pitch higher from what was probably a near lethal dose of embarrassment. “I just want to make sure that I’m not getting shortchanged in this whole affair.”
“By making me promise to hook you up with your very own snuggle bunny, I know,” Cadance finished with peels of delighted laughter. “Chrysalis, I think there may be hope for you yet.”
“Yes, yes, we’re all very amused,” the Changeling huffed with undoubtedly flushed cheeks. “Now do you promise or not? It’s not like the war's going any better while we stand here.”
“You’re right,” Cadance replied as the sobering words wiped the smile on your face. “If you fight alongside us, then I, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, as regent of the Crystal Empire, do promise to honor your request. You have my word.”
Chrysalis nodded slightly, mostly in her usual, arrogant grace, but also with a bit of bemused surprise as well.
“So, does this make us girlfriends or something?” Chrysalis intoned as she appraised Cadance over with a new look in her eyes.
“Not quite, but it's a start.” Cadance smiled as she considered the queen in return. “Now how about giving our boys a little help?"
With a haughty sniff in reply, the Changeling queen turned away from Cadance and walked towards the far end of the balcony. Shrugging the silk from her shoulders as if the chill wind did not touch her, Chrysalis spread her gossamer wings beneath the darkened night sky. Those wings quickly faded into a pale blur as their rapid beating bore the Changeling aloft.
There were no spells, no incantations, for what does the queen of a hive need of such things? As dark emerald flames wreathed her body and lit the glow behind her eyes, Chrysalis called out to her brood. To the children set out all across the frozen valley, she sent her orders and commanded that they do her bidding.
A thousand bonfires lit in an instant to mark a thousand hardened warriors fueled by the infernal powers that sourced from their beloved queen. With so much burning passion and fervent ardor presented by the soldiers from a full day’s battle, Chrysalis had drawn more than enough to feed her ravenous brood, the brood that as one, leaped into action.
Like burning meteors, each of those thousand warriors soared into the air, born on insectile wings with their bodies wreathed in flames. As one unit, the Changelings wheeled around, shrieked their inhuman battle cries, and crashed headlong into the armies of Nul.
It was beautifully choreographed chaos. With arms transformed into hooking blades and scything swords, each Changeling tore into the grotesque beasts as valor flowed through their veins and burning courage fed their gouts of searing, emerald flame. Yet even as savage as their offense was, it controlled, linked and orchestrated by their queen from on high with the precision of an elite fighting force spread over an entire battlefield.
All across the battlefield they swept, brilliant dots of emerald light that crisscrossed the frozen ground and tore the dark tides apart. Bombardments on the ground forces slowed, then stopped as the abominations turned to deal with the threat in their midst.
Swelling like a tidal wave, the allied forces surged from their protected ranks and stampeded forth to join the Changelings. Spell crafters enchanted feet for speed, shields for strength, and limbs for a burst of renewed strength. Frozen arrows scoured the battlefield, bringing forth blooms of ice to cover their advance, and overhead, the Imperium armada tore through the airborne beasts and joined the charge, strafing the grounds with explosive rounds that tore dark husks apart in bursts of gore and mist.
The Changeling had carved their allies an opening. Now it was up to them to make the most of it.
“Impressive,” Cadance nodded in genuine praise. “I’m glad we’re fighting on the same side for once.”
“Don’t get cozy,” Chrysalis replied through teeth grit with concentration. Coordinating a thousand raging warriors at once was no mean feat, and the fact that she could respond at all was a testament to her superb command of the Changeling nation. “I’m only doing this because you promised to help me find a decent man. One even better than Shining Armor, of course.” Cadance smiled, now somewhat in awe of Chrysalis single-minded stubbornness.
“Once this is all over, we’ll get right on it.”
Neither one acknowledged that specific choice of words. Once, not if. They couldn’t afford to do anything but hold onto the firm belief that victory would one day come. Perhaps that explained the queen’s insistence on promises and guarantees. One only worried about the future when they believed that the future would eventually come.
Chrysalis simply nodded.
“Once this is over."