Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

Bloodstained (Part 20)

Part 20

It would be wrong of me to deny that my first thought upon seeing Princess Luna fall from the skies like a vaguely pony-shaped shooting star was 'I bloody told you so', although I am very much aware of the fact that admitting it is as petty as it is treasonous no matter how right I was. I could only watch the falling, twisting form of my divine Auntie plummet with agonising slowness, turning and flailing in a clumsy and futile attempt to right herself in a manner that was entirely unlike her usual self-assured dexterousness, with a strange sense of numbness, as if my mind either could not or simply refused to adequately process what I was witnessing. Judging by the vacant and slack-jawed expressions on the other ponies around me who were in a position to be able to stop and look, I was not the only one (though with Cannon Fodder it was difficult to tell, as he almost always looked like that).

From my low vantage point within the courtyard, close to the castle itself where the wounded received triage and a fair distance away from the fighting that was still raging close to the shattered gates and the breach in the castle walls, I saw and felt a violent discharge of magical energy, like tense knot directly behind my horn, as a flare of blue, then green, and then emerald-green once more flashed briefly from behind a dark cloud. Then from the dense cover of murky grey a dark blue and silvery speck in the sky, glinting brightly in the harsh moonlight as it tumbled and turned violently, dropped in a single straight line earthwards and then disappeared just behind the outer walls of the fortress. There was an ominous 'thud', and then silence reigned. [Blueblood is likely exaggerating for dramatic effect here, as just the previous paragraph he describes the battle as still raging and it is highly improbable that he would have heard Princess Luna hitting the ground with such clarity.] In an instant, the bright mood of unbridled triumphalism at our imminent victory was utterly crushed, and I could only stand in quiet, dawning terror and exchange horrified stares with the soldiers around me.

I cannot stress how damnably lucky we were that out of those soldiers present on the field only a relatively small minority were not sufficiently occupied enough to watch Princess Luna fall, which was not likely to be a significant proportion of our meagre battalion as the majority were still fighting for their lives pushing the enemy back to the outer walls. I couldn't speak for the pegasi still up there, visible only as tiny black specks when they darted across the face of the moon, but as they had a metaphorical front row seat to Luna's humiliation I can't imagine that the mood up there was entirely sanguine. Those of us still on the ground who did witness her rather undignified failure reacted about as well as I did, which is to say with blind panic and horror, though I like to think that I managed to mask the sudden thrill of overwhelming dread that crept up from behind and suddenly enveloped me as if a towel drenched in ice-water had been draped across my shoulders. The dry mouth, the chill that slithered over my skin, the pounding of my heart, and the churning of my guts; I had become far too familiar with these sensations in all too short a time, and despite what other soldiers might tell you one never truly gets 'used to it'.

With my legs rapidly turning into quivering jelly I looked to the ponies around me, and as I saw that those who were not wailing in unbelieving horror stared at me expectantly, from the lowly guardsponies to their officers, and even the medics and those wounded not rendered insensate by painkillers and sedatives, as if I somehow knew what was going on and how to fix it. Naturally, I had no bloody clue what I was supposed to do now. As ever to do nothing would have been suicide, whereas performing any action, no matter how foolhardy or insane, always offered at least some small sliver of survival. Already a plan was rapidly forming in my head, and at the same time a more careful and paranoid portion of my mind was busy formulating a way for me to avoid actively taking part in said plan.

"You there," I said, pointing towards a rather timid-looking ensign. The young colt stared bug-eyed at me, before he apparently remembered who I am and stiffened slightly.

"S-sir!" he said, his barely-broken voice stammered awkwardly.

"Find Captain Red Coat and Lieutenant Southern Cross and bring them here." I then pointed towards his friend, another ensign standing next to him. In the darkness of night and illuminated only by a few flickering torches by the castle walls, the pitch black shadows danced wildly across his face and his wide, terrified eyes. "And you, I need you to round up any fighting pony you can find who isn't already on the front lines. A full platoon should do. Find any walking wounded who can still wield a spear if you have to."

I took a brief moment to pause for dramatic effect, casting my gaze over the huddled mass of guardsponies crowded around me. A veritable sea of eyes stared back, illuminated and made almost lambent by the flickering torch lights and the magical glow of various horn lights. Each one, silently pleading with me to get them through this awful night alive, felt like vast weights had been placed upon my back as the pagan god of old who must bear the weight of the sky. Faust almighty, but seeing the haunting sight of all of those desperate faces all fixed upon mine was almost enough to shatter this hastily-built facade of counterfeit authority that I had erected about me like armour. The fact that I had no bloody clue as to what I was trying to do certainly did nothing to help warm the ice water that seemed to rapidly fill my lungs, but I knew that keeping these guardsponies busy would at the very least keep them from realising the true futility of our cause and start considering contemplating the dreaded 'S' word.

"Right now the Princess needs us," I said, lowering my voice slightly to a suitably grave level. Turning my gaze over the soldiers, I took a pause ostensibly for dramatic effect but really to try and organise the jumbled, chaotic mess that my thoughts had become. "Her life and the course of this war may hinge upon what we do in the next hour. Future generations will read of the choices we make tonight, so let's make sure they only read of our heroism and our dedication to our duty. Now go."

The two ensigns scampered off to follow my orders. I turned away and walked towards the outer castle walls closest to where I had seen Luna fall, my legs feeling as if they were about to snap under me like dry twigs. That short speech certainly was not one of my better ones, which are by and large cobbled together from those sickeningly patronising slogans vomited onto print paper by those hacks in the Ministry of Misinformation and carefully reworded in a way that made grammatical and thematic sense, but even by my abysmally low standards of public speaking those few sentences were the most abysmal, clichéd nonsense imaginable. That some of them have been remembered and recorded in those irritatingly officious collections of 'inspirational' quotations from supposed great ponies troubles me greatly. Nevertheless, those passé sentences were the best that I could manage for now, and as I stepped away I looked over my shoulder past Cannon Fodder waddling after me and saw that, at the very least, it still had the desired effect in motivating the troops for now. I crossed the short distance to the wall and mounted the steep, narrow stairs to the chemin de ronde, and a ridiculous thought had entered into my weary mind; I had become one of the lowest and most base creatures to crawl upon Faust's good, clean world: An actor.

I stumbled a few times on the stairs, parts of which crumbled disconcertingly beneath my hooves, but despite those minor setbacks I had made it to the top with only my dignity wounded. There, away from the rather dubious protection of the ancient stone walls, with the chill wind from the north plucking at my still-damp uniform and sending ice-cold daggers through my flesh, I looked out across a sea of darkness and felt horribly exposed and isolated. To the left where the first tinges of morning had coloured the clouded eastern sky with a deep shade of royal purple, there was a fuzzy and indistinct mass stretching out before me that I could imagine was the cracked and undulating surface of the ground, and where it met the roiling chaos of dark storm clouds billowing across the skies was indistinct, the effect of which meant that the demarcation of the horizon was unclear and thus quite unsettling to me. Nevertheless, despite my eyes having become used to the darkness by now I failed to find the fallen alicorn in the darkness. I scanned over the desolate, empty wasteland, with the bulk of the Changeling horde a smear the colour of a malevolent shade of dark green that rippled and crawled closer like spilt water spreading through a tablecloth, to find only vague and indistinct shapes against the black that seemed to shift in and out of existence whenever I tried to focus on them.

Luna had to be out there, and my signature blue bow tie would be replaced with one of rope if I crawled back to Canterlot and tried to explain to the Commissariat what had happened to Princess Luna. Even if there was nothing that I could have done about it, ponies would undoubtedly want somepony to take the blame for her capture or death. [I would like to believe that my little ponies are more forgiving and understanding than that, though I cannot help but agree with Blueblood's point here.]

Standing there with only Cannon Fodder for company I felt an overwhelming sensation of loneliness and fatigue hit me, as if the strain and exhaustion of what I had gone through these past hours had finally caught up in the first moment of peace and solitude I had experienced for what felt like a very long time (relatively speaking, of course; the horror of Luna's fall was not exactly something I could ignore). Foremost amongst the waves of tiredness and myriad stabs of pain that sapped the strength from my numb limbs was an overwhelming desire for home. Of course, homesickness is something everypony in Their Highness' Armed Forces experiences when sent out on campaign, except those for whom the Royal Guard was an escape from home for one reason or another, but in my weakened state and with my imminent and violent death bearing down upon me with all of the subtlety and poise of Cannon Fodder attacking an all-you-can-eat buffet, all I could think of was how much I longed for the reassuring darkness and emptiness of the Sanguine Palace. I wanted the desolate halls and dusty, mouldering tapestries hanging from crumbling stone walls, I wanted my bed, my servants, my valet, my gardens, my gentlecolt's club, my courtesans, and even my shrill harridan of a mother and those conniving little sisters of mine. I wanted to go home.

"There's an awful lot of Changelings down there," said Cannon Fodder, interrupting my self-indulgent reverie.

I briskly rubbed my hooves on my face in a vain attempt to bring back some semblance of energy to my form, and followed my aide's blank, uncomprehending gaze out in the blank void beyond the walls. "The Changelings are still way over there," I said, nodding my head back towards the odd green smudge on the horizon.

"Begging your pardon, sir," he said, somewhat sheepishly and while pointing empathically at what I had hitherto believed was merely the ground. "But they're all down there."

With little else to do while those two ensigns carried out my orders I decided to humour Cannon Fodder, and though I knew that his complete and utter lack of imagination meant that he was unlikely to have made it up and that his exceedingly deferential nature meant that he was equally unlikely to have pointed it out to me unless he thought it was worthy enough of my attention, I prayed that he was wrong. He was not. What I had thought to be the seemingly endless plains of desolate wasteland surrounding our tiny fortress was in fact a vast horde of Changelings, so tightly packed together that in this darkness they had all appeared to be part of one amorphous mass, with their various limbs and layers of chitin interpreted by my tired eyes to be the dry cracks, clusters of rocks, and the small, craggy hills that scar the landscape like a tumultuous sea that has somehow solidified. As the realisation of what I was truly seeing hit me I felt sick, and when I belatedly came to the obvious conclusion that Princess Luna was down there amongst them, either dead or captured, it was all I could do to keep myself from vomiting the remains of my last meal over the Changelings below.

I stared into the swarm, my eyes running over the half-glimpsed and vague shadows cast by the multitude of limbs and concealed, darkened figures. Dear Faust, it was as if the entire Badlands had been emptied of all of its Changelings and they were all hurled against the fragile ramparts of our castle. Then, the clouds overhead parted, and the moon shone overhead to briefly illuminate the patch of the horde immediately below us, bringing the writhing mass of chitin into stark relief in the sickly yellow light. Amidst the glint of slick, black armoured chitin I saw the colder, more refined glint of glimmering mithril standing out from its dingy surroundings, like a ship of bright steel standing out against a stormy sea. The enemy around this flicker of light shifted and swarmed around it, and between the seemingly endless Changelings I could only catch furtive glimpses of a figure that was unmistakeably an alicorn princess. When I saw her fully it felt like my heart had skipped a beat, and then exploded into a tempo of frantic pumping as if to make up for that; Princess Luna, sprawled limp atop a pool of her own blood and her wings charred and twisted into grotesque angles like the branches of a long dead tree, was only a few dozen feet or so from where I stood. For a moment I feared the worst and that she might be dead, but presently I saw her head loll awkwardly to the side, and a single hoof, bloodied and singed, rose, as if grasping for the sky itself, and then fell.

"She's alive!" I shouted. I turned to look over my shoulder at the hastily assembled platoon of guardsponies. "The Princess is still alive!"

The guardsponies seemed cheered by the news, judging by the single, wordless roar that rose up from the crowd. Spears and swords, at least those that were still in one piece, were thrust to the night sky above, before the soldiers went about their business with renewed vigour. The news, too, emboldened me, inasmuch as I could be now knowing that we would have to go and rescue her somehow before the Changelings carried her away. That they had not already done so, and instead seemed content to merely swarm about her like corpse flies about a dead body, should have tipped me off that the enemy was up to their usual devious tricks. Aside from the itching in my hooves, which I had put down to my usual anxiety or a possible incoming heart attack, the thought that I was about to willingly walk straight into a trap was far from foremost in my mind; by comparison that thought was but a mere foal cowering in the shadow of the great looming giant that was the notion that the plan that I was hastily putting together in my mind offered only the slimmest chance of survival in the first place. My ancestor, Princess Hotblood, might have approved, I thought as I made my way back down the steps again.

Captain Red Coat and Lieutenant Southern Cross were waiting for me as I reached the bottom, the former had received a rather nasty gash on his cheek that, were the blow not deflected by the nose guard of his helmet, might have split his muzzle in two, and the latter's armour and fur was covered in what appeared to be fresh scorch marks from must have been very close explosions. As I approached, Red Coat looked up at me with exhausted, glazed eyes that seemed to plead with me to make this awful night just end. Southern Cross busied himself tinkering with a rather complicated piece of electronic equipment that was probably a detonator of some sort, and standing there close to him with his pouches full of sticks of dynamite and his false limb buzzing irritably made me feel much less safe than I did on the battlements looking over at the vast horde of drones, all of whom had a vested interest in seeing me very, very dead.

"Gentlecolts," I said. Red Coat offered a weary salute, despite me quietly dissuading him by waving a hoof at him, and Southern Cross simply nodded his head in my direction and resumed his tinkering. His tufted ears swivelled attentively in my direction, reassuring me that despite his complete lack of manners that he was paying attention to what I was saying. "I'll be blunt; Princess Luna is in trouble and needs our help."

Southern Cross snapped his head up, and the device in his hooves made a peculiar whirring noise. He fumbled frantically with his box, before dropping it on the soggy ground between us, where it exploded with a dull, wet 'crump' and a shower of mud all over my front. With a dejected sigh he muttered a quiet litany of curse words, and then looked up at me and said, "The Princess? What's the Princess doing way out here in a bloody warzone for?"

"I don't know," I lied, though I could hardly tell them and the small cluster of soldiers around us that their beloved Princess had tagged along with them in disguise just to satisfy some foalish need for acceptance and apparently out of sheer boredom. "But she's out there," I continued, pointing a hoof at the wall behind me, "surrounded by the enemy and she needs us. Now."

"How the bloody hell are we meant to do that?" Southern Cross snapped. I would have been well within my rights to have him flogged for that remark, but considering our situation and what we have just been through I was willing to let that outburst slide.

"Rescue her," said Captain Red Coat, his voice robotic and his timbre curiously devoid of emotion. The way that he appeared to be staring through me, rather than at me, felt quite disturbing. Faust almighty, he was far too young to have been put through this. "Obviously."

"Good; tonight is a night of action, not words," I said, and the strong, bitter taste of bile rose up my throat at yet another fatuous cliché, or that might have just been the sheer terror of what I was about to propose. By all accounts I was overstepping the mark here, as according to Princesses' Regulations, or at least the latest edition of that weighty doorstop of a book, a commissar's purpose was to evaluate officers' command decisions and offer advice or punishment as appropriate. I, however, was not prepared to wait while Captain Red Coat vacillated pathetically, as he was wont to do in times of stress. "We will have to charge in over the walls, grab her, and take her back here."

"I have an idea," said Red Coat before I had the chance to outline the details of my plan. Not wanting to offend him, I nodded my head gently to encourage him to continue. "Lieutenant Southern Cross' engineers can demolish a section of the wall just there, near where the Princess is. Before the dust clears, a platoon will charge in, seize the Princess, and carry her back to the fortress under the cover of artillery fire before the Changelings know what's happened."

The stony silence and wary looks I received from ponies around me made clear what they thought about Red Coat's rather dire little plan more than any words could, though I have to concede that what I had put together at such short notice was for the most part identical (although my plan involved me staying firmly out of this insane idea, probably on the pretext of 'awaiting Crimson Arrow's reinforcements', while I was all but certain that Red Coat expected me to lead the charge into the breach). Perhaps I was rubbing off on the young lad; a rather troubling thought. Though Red Coat had become quite sullen and withdrawn since his first blooding in that Faust-damned valley, except when the topic of his endearingly pathetic infatuation with Twilight Sparkle arose, it was quite unlike the chatty and blunt Lieutenant Southern Cross to suddenly turn quiet. Nevertheless, out of either fear or some sort of misguided trust in me (which is something I still cannot understand) he looked to me, as if waiting for my assent, before Captain Red Coat apparently remembered he was supposedly the most senior officer present aside from myself [Not quite, as though commissars indeed have the power to countermand and punish officers, they exist outside of the Royal Guard's hierarchy of command and therefore occupy a rather nebulous legal position. De facto, however, Blueblood is indeed correct in this case].

"Those are my orders," he said, renewed confidence strengthening his croaking voice.

Southern Cross sucked air through his teeth in a sharp hiss and regarded the walls behind me with a calculating look. "Alright," he said, at length, "one bloody great hole in the wall coming up for you."

The engineers proceeded with their work with a sense of quiet, almost sombre efficiency, while still at the crumbling gates over yonder the battle no longer raged, but had died down to a quiet simmer as the last of the Changelings were pushed from the courtyard. Explosives were measured out, prepared, and then fixed to the sheer walls by way of unicorns levitating the bundled sticks with their coiled wires onto the stone itself. [Unlike infantry regiments, which separate the three races of ponies out into three distinct and separate companies, engineer units tend towards mixed platoons for greater versatility in the field. This is due to their doctrine of assignment in small groups, usually just platoons, instead of deployed as large formations in the same manner as infantry regiments.] Their work was meticulous and slow, and strangely was devoid of the good-natured and often vulgar chatting that I had observed when they had lain the mine underneath the rubble of the breach. Perhaps the severity of the situation had revealed a level of professionalism that had lain hidden beneath their gruff, ill-disciplined exterior, or perhaps, as it did with many of the guardsponies in Black Venom Pass, their first experience of true battle, with all of its horror, had simply stripped their garrulous levity aside.

Red Coat and I spent the next few minutes detailing the specifics of his plan, which is to say that I filled in the specifics of his plan and he merely nodded along or made various noises indicating that he agreed with what I was saying. The engineers would demolish that section of the wall, preferably taking out a large number of Changelings in the process, and while the enemy were standing there surprised that we would blow up a part of our own fortress the unicorns would rush into the breach and unload a fusillade of magic missiles into the swarm. It would then be up to the earth ponies to take advantage of the confusion, charge into the enemy, rescue Princess Luna, and drag her away. At least, that was the theory behind what we were about to do, and the itching in my hooves did very little to fill me with hope that we would succeed, or that I would see the sun rise this morning.

Red Coat took a heavy gulp of water from his flask, and then stared at the wall where the engineers still worked. "Commissar, do you think this will work?" he said, doing his hardest to keep his voice under control.

I forced a warm smile to my face, in spite of the ice behind it. "If Faust wills it," I said, once more using that all-too-common verbal equivalent of a casual shrug. "In battle, doing nothing is often the very worst thing an officer can do."

Red Coat nodded. "I know, I know, that's what they all said in the Academy. But they didn't say anything about what having all of the responsibility of an officer is like, or how being in combat feels."

Of all the times for me to play therapist to this colt, who, for some peculiar reason, had seen fit to view me as some sort of father figure despite only five years separating us, this was hardly the most appropriate. Then again, it was not as if either of us had anything else productive to do while the engineers were still conducting their meticulous work.

"I don't think lectures and textbooks can ever make a good officer," I said, saying the first thing that popped into my head that sounded vaguely relevant (as opposed to just the frantic screaming of my subconscious). Strangely and against all reason, this teenager seemed very much interested in the useless drivel that issued forth from my lips. "It's only in the crucible of battle that we find the true measure of a soldier; and trust me, you're doing good."

I'll admit the last one was something of a white lie, but it worked and seemed to cheer him up a little. As I wanted to make sure that when we were hurled once more at the enemy that he was not going to boldly turn tail and flee, thus leaving me alone with a veritable flood of drones all wanting to tear my face off and wear it like a mask. At the very least, one more body, heavily armoured and probably in far better shape than mine I might add, to place between me and the Changelings couldn't hurt.

Thankfully there was no time for me to continue spouting this insipid nonsense, as from the crowd just behind me I heard a loud commotion, and in the dim light I saw soldiers assembled in a standard platoon square formation grumble and fidget awkwardly as if somepony small was trying to push his or her way through them. The platoon sergeant screamed his usual diatribe of verbal abuse at them, and from between the two soldiers standing in the front rank the very last pony I ever wanted to see emerged.

"Lady Sparkle?" Red Coat spluttered, his eyes bulging out of his head as an odd expression that was a mix between confusion and eagerness formed on his face.

The young mare almost ran straight into Red Coat's armoured chest, before she stopped with a mad flurry of her muddy hooves and splattered slime everywhere. She panted and heaved from exertion, her ill-fitting plate armour bounced and clattered against her small and somewhat pudgy frame, and her helmet once more dropped over her eyes to where a bruise a darker shade of purple tinged her muzzle. She collected herself quickly, and then stood to what somepony might charitably call 'attention' if they were blind, and offered a salute by way of bashing her hoof against her forehead.

"What are you doing here?" I snapped, pushing my way past the bewildered Captain Red Coat towards her. "I ordered you to stay in your quarters."

Instead of apologising meekly and turning away, as the Twilight Sparkle that I grew up with and terrorised would have done, she merely glowered back with a glint of newfound determination in her tear-soaked eyes. It was a rare pony that could withstand a well-practiced number four stare from a commissar, especially one inspired by the Mistress of Intimidation herself Princess Luna, but, and I'm not sure how, there was a new confidence within her that I had not seen before. Perhaps I had underestimated her, but confident or not this was no place for her.

"I'm still there," she said, with an insufferably smug smile on her lips that I wanted to remove by slamming her face into the ground with extreme force.

I was about to say something when another mare - another Twilight Sparkle identical in every possible way to the one that I had just spoken to - slipped out from between the serried ranks of soldiers. "I'm there too!" she said. Then another emerged just behind her, and then another and another until I was all but surrounded by what appeared to me to be a veritable army of these clones, these simulacra, all watching me with the same sort of quiet intensity as the first. Their movements, when they moved, for more often than not they remained as still as disturbingly life-like sculptures, were awkward and jerky, as if propelled by invisible cables manipulated by a mad puppeteer.

"I saw what happened to Princess Luna," said one of the Twilights, mercifully, for if they had all spoken at the same time I might have fled and taken my chances with the Changelings. "And I know you told me to stay in my room, and I'm still there. Well, the real me is at least. I figured you could use some help."

She had a point, and at that point I was willing to accept any help wherever it came from, especially if it meant even more bodies to place between myself and the enemy. However, the strain of maintaining all of these magic automatons must have been immense, even for an exceedingly powerful unicorn as Twilight herself. Don't think for a moment that I was the least bit concerned about her well-being, but rather her ability to maintain the extra numbers to bolster our ranks was most pressing on my mind. As the simulacra arranged themselves into a standard infantry section just in front of the soldiers, who were all understandably upset at having seen a number of identical ponies appear from seemingly out of nowhere, an idea, tentative and unformed, blossomed like a flower on the first day of Spring in my mind.

"Lady Sparkle," I said, having collected myself once more and decided which of the Twilights appeared to be the one in charge, "do you think you can teleport Princess Luna out of there?"

The Twilight Sparkle that addressed me shook her head. "If I thought I could I would have tried already," she said. "She's too far away, and I need an unobstructed view of the pony I'm trying to teleport, and I can't see Luna for all of the Changelings in the way. I don't know enough about alicorn meta-physiology to teleport a whole one; something could get scrambled or lost in the jump, or her soul could disappear into the void forever. I could try, but I don't want to risk it." [For the benefit of earth ponies, pegasi, and other races unable to manifest their magic directly as unicorns do, teleportation, particularly of another pony from some distance away from the caster, is an innately risky method that requires years of practice to perfect. Those readers with unicorn friends need not fear as accidents are exceedingly rare and not necessarily fatal, provided that the caster is close to whomever they are teleporting and has good knowledge of where they are teleporting to.]

I snorted in barely-concealed irritation; she's one of the most powerful unicorns alive today and the bearer of the Element of Magic and yet she can't teleport Princess Luna out of a sticky situation. "I should have known things are never quite as simple as I hope them to be," I remarked dryly.

"Sorry," said Twilight meekly. "But a botched teleport could cost the Princess one of her limbs or even turn her inside out, if she's lucky."

Frankly, it was a risk I was willing to take, and at the very least I could go back to Canterlot with the congealed bloody mess that was once an alicorn princess of Equestria and claim that I had made some attempt to help her. Even though Twilight was all but flat-out refusing to follow that order, and I was in no mind to cause a rift between us, or widen the already gaping chasm that separated us to put it more accurately, I relented. And although I was disappointed, I was already hastily altering that plan, and as I did so I found that I very much disliked where it was going.

"How many ponies can you teleport at once?" I asked.

Every single one of the Twilights cocked her head to one side and frowned slightly in perfect unison, which sent an involuntary shudder through the crooked, brittle remains of my spine. "I don't know," said one of them, a different one from the first this time.

"What do you mean you don't know?" I snapped.

"It's like asking a pegasus how high she can fly; you don't know until you try. I've teleported my friends out of danger before, so I guess I could manage a small group of five or maybe even ten. Why do you ask?"

I jabbed a hoof in the direction of the wall just behind me. "There's about a thousand Changelings out there between us and the Princess. If you can teleport yourself and perhaps an infantry section in to secure her and then bring them all back in less time than it takes for Professor Square Root to start hitting the valium every morning [This is a reference to Blueblood's and Twilight's former maths teacher at the School for Gifted Unicorns. Unfortunately, due the teenaged Prince Blueblood's complete inability to grasp the fundamentals of basic algebra and various behaviour incidents, as I believe schools tend to call 'being naughty' these days, Professor Square Root's mental state deteriorated until he was forced to retire early following a very public nervous breakdown during a parent-teacher conference] then it'll be a damn sight easier for all involved.” I paused for dramatic effect, and looked at Twilight with as much quiet, dignified determination as I could muster. “You could save lives.”

Twilight tapped her hoof to her chin and hummed thoughtfully. “I suppose it would be possible, but it won't be without its risks.”

“What kind of risks are we talking about?” I asked.

“Meadowbrook’s third law states that when an object or a pony is teleported into a space already occupied by something else then the obstructing object is displaced to make room. If it’s a living creature then the poor thing will be physically torn into pieces. It, uh, really isn't pleasant to see.”

“Good,” I said, to her evident surprise. “It means a few less Changelings to worry about.”

“I meant Princess Luna,” she said.

So did I, but I kept that to myself. “We’ll go in next to her then, and get her out.”

I looked to Captain Red Coat, who merely nodded along with this insane scheme. I didn't much like it either, but it was still our best shot at getting the Princess out alive and me with my reputation intact. Of course, I had oh-so-heroically agreed to help lead this allegedly dangerous mission knowing that it was for the most part relatively safe provided that Twilight knew what she was doing.

At that point Lieutenant Southern Cross came bounding back to me, inasmuch as he can with that clumsy, hissing prosthetic of his. He stopped, his hooves sticking in the mire, and indicated the wall behind him with a swift nod of his head in that direction.

"It's all ready for you," he said. He paid the Twilight simulacra only the slightest of bemused glances, before he apparently decided that whatever it was it wasn't worth the trouble.

The soldiers and engineers soon cleared the space around the charges. I watched with anxiety cloying in my guts as the last of the sappers made some last minute checks on the dynamite and the wiring, before he too scampered back to what we had hoped was a safe enough distance. By my side, our hastily assembled section of just five soldiers, plus myself and three of the Twilight clones, which was as many as Twilight would dare teleport at once, [Presumably, Cannon Fodder did not take part in this rescue attempt as, being a Blank, he would inadvertently disrupt the teleportation spells] watched as Lieutenant Southern Cross rested his hoof on the plunger, and with a single, firm movement, depressed it swiftly.

There was only the shortest of delays between depressing the plunger and the detonation of the charges, but it was enough to make me turn my head and open my mouth to start complaining. A series of dull crumps, as if softened by the water that ran down the crumbling walls, turned my attention back where it belonged. The charges had been positioned in a large semi-circle, around fifty feet across, and as each of the charges exploded in rapid succession deep cracks and fissures snaked their way across the face of the wall in sharp, jagged lines that followed the contours of the vast stone blocks and the mortar that cemented them together. A plume of acrid dust rose from the ancient cracked walls, but despite the obvious cracks that ravaged its surface the structure still held firm.

I was about to yell at Lieutenant Southern Cross with language that would have made Captain Blitzkrieg blush, but he fixed me with that easy grin he always wore when he had something else up his sleeve. "Wait for it," he said in a slightly sing-song sort of voice.

The deep but loud rumble of crumbling masonry turned my attention back to the wall, and sure enough the entire edifice where those explosive charges had been placed and detonated began to collapse inwards. The cracks and fissures deepened under the strain, and as more dust trickled down, the walls soon lost all semblance of structural integrity. As if pushed by an invisible titan the entire section of wall teetered away from us, before it simply disintegrated under its own ungainly mass. Stones, quarried from the dry earth around us from times before Equestria was but a mere dream for those long-dead idealistic ponies, rained down upon those Changelings unfortunate enough to be congregating just outside the walls. When the dust eventually settled, where a sturdy, if worn by time and the dry climate, wall once stood in defiance of untold armies that have laid siege to this ancient fortress aeons ago was now a large, gaping hole, around thirty feet wide, through which the murky darkness of pre-dawn could be seen.

“Good engineering,” said Southern Cross, acknowledging my slack-jawed expression by widening his grin, “is using precisely the right amount of material. No more, no less.”

There was no time for me to deliver the witticism I was swiftly formulating in my mind. The unicorns, reinforced by the remainder of the Twilights, swarmed forwards onto the still-settling pile of smashed debris, into the cloud of dust and smoke that lingered where the wall once stood. The corporal bellowed an order whose words were lost in the din of battle, and the unicorns fired a series of volleys at rapid fire, not even bothering to aim into the dense mass of Changelings below. With that going on I steeled myself for what was to come next.

I was never comfortable with the concept of teleportation; though I know statistically I am more likely to die walking down the streets of Canterlot and being hit on the head by a grapefruit dropped by some clumsy pegasus on the way back from the weekly shop than to suffer any form of accident being teleported, but the idea of having my constituent molecules disassembled, hurled through the void between realities, and then reassembled in hopefully the correct order simply didn't sit well with me. However, needs must as the Nightmare drives, and I looked to the Twilight clones and the soldiers with barely concealed trepidation crawling up my throat like half-digested brown stew after a night’s heavy drinking in the 1st Solar Guard’s officers’ mess.

In truth the entire experience was entirely painless; one second I was surrounded by soldiers advancing into the breach behind me, the next I was surrounded entirely by bewildered Changelings. The absence of any feeling at all, despite lasting less than a second, was most disconcerting. There was no warmth, no cold – nothing for a brief instance, as if my consciousness had simply ceased to be. Perhaps that’s what being dead feels like.

My hooves squelched in a fetlock-deep pile of strange green mush that oozed and leaked a foul reeking emerald liquid. The stench was one that was all-too familiar that to me, and in the flash of purple light that accompanied me I saw that the ichor around me was a large puddle from which great streaks of the sickly stuff emanated from where I stood like the rays of the sun. I soon realised that what I was standing in was the remains of the poor Changeling drone that was unfortunate to have been in my way when I teleported in, and that it had literally burst apart.

The other soldiers and the Twilight Sparkles emerged with greater alacrity than I did, and as they blinked into existence again with eight bright flashes of purple light and that distinct chiming sound of perfectly discharged residual energy, gruesomely displacing the Changelings in the way by reducing them to bloodied piles of offal and chitin and blood, they all lunged straight into the enemy. The Changelings shrieked, alerted to our presence now, and the swarm rippled and swelled around us as if it were an organic thing responding to an invasion by a malignant bacteria.

Driven by pure instinct and reflexes I parried the incoming jaws of a drone with my sword. Its slathering maw clenched tight around the blade, but I failed to slice through its flesh and chitin enough for me to free my weapon easily. Tugging on the grip only gouged at the edges of the beast's mouth, forming two imitations of Colonel Sunshine Smiles' horrid scar on either side. I pushed my foe forwards with my hooves, ducking under the grasping hooves of the drone's friend as they grabbed for my head, and toppled the shrieking, flailing Changeling backwards over its hind legs onto the ground. With the beast on the ground and beneath my hooves I wrenched my sword free from its maw, turning it bladed-down as it rose, and then plunged it into the creature's eye socket. That disgusting compound eye burst messily, and the beast's shrill cries and wild thrashing ceased when the blade point drove into its primitive drugged brain.

With that one dead I lashed out with my hind legs, catching the Changeling behind me square in the muzzle by chance more than design. There was a sickening, wet 'crack' as the force of the blow twisted its head violently to the side, snapping its neck in the process. It stumbled into my rump drunkenly with its head turned at an unnaturally steep angle, before it simply collapsed dead.

We soon regrouped, with the Twilights keeping the Changelings at safe enough distance from me by using an obscene amount of firepower discharged at a rate that I had hitherto thought impossible. From just beyond our tiny, myopic view of the battlefield, reduced to a few scant feet around this minute shell of Equestrian soil, shells erupted, blossoming great clouds of dust and viscera that were far too close for comfort, such that I was soon splattered in yet more mud and gore and felt the sting of ripped chitin upon my skin. I trusted in Sergeant Bramley Apple's superlative accuracy, but damnation, he was cutting it bloody fine.

As we fought, felling the drones too surprised by the sudden appearance of soldiers in their midst, I took the opportunity to step away from the fighting, and reared up on my hind legs to spot the glimmer of steel and gems amongst the amorphous mass of glistening slick chitin that had to be the Princess. “She's over there!" I cried out, pointing in her direction. "Forwards! For Equestria!"

The soldiers reacted to my order with the same efficiency expected of them, though the Twilights were a little slow and somewhat clumsy in responding. Nevertheless, Changeling after Changeling drone was felled under the withering firepower the three simulacra poured out, such that the field seemed bathed in a bright purple glow. I had noticed, however, that she was not shooting to kill, but merely stunning the beasts into a magically-induced state of unconsciousness instead. I expect that this all sounds very heroic, and judging by the huge oil painting depicting this fateful charge that hangs pride of place in the Royal Canterlot Public Gallery, next to the exquisite sculptures by the ancient unicorn masters and a rather ugly and more ‘modern’ painting of what appears to be two amoebas fornicating over turbot, it certainly did to war artists who never stepped hoof within a hundred miles of the Badlands. The painting seems to omit that little detail, along with the soldiers and me slaughtering the stunned and defenceless drones as they slept. More importantly, however, it neglected to show that the enemy seemed very reluctant to fight back, almost as if they were luring us towards the fallen Princess.

Reluctant or not we cleaved a bloody path through the enemy towards my Auntie. My hooves itched as we approached Luna, her broken figure lay sprawled on the ground in a gradually spreading pool of blood. Her limbs were splayed out to the side and her wings, once so proud and graceful, were snapped and shattered into grotesque, burnt mockeries of their former glory twisted into angles and shapes that should have been impossible. Despite her injuries, her armour blackened and cracked and her flesh beneath charred and torn, she was still alive. Her head lifted, and she winced in agony as she turned it to face us, and, for once, she smiled at me before slipping back into unconsciousness.

"She's alive!" one of the soldiers cried. "Faust be praised! The Princess lives!"

"Now, Twilight!" I cried, eager to be out of here. The Changelings had crept away from us, forming a ring of hissing, shrieking chitin and those abominable, soulless eyes staring at us as if restrained by whatever foul intelligence was commanding them. There was something wrong, and I wasn't about to sit around and wait to see what would happen. “Get us out now!”

The horn of one of the Twilights flickered, and then faltered in a useless shower of sparks and lavender smoke. A flash of panic was on her face as she tried again, once, twice, with the same results. When she looked at me with an expression of utmost dread I felt the same feeling of dawning horror of just how completely and utterly bucked we all were.

“I can't!” she cried desperately, on the verge of weeping. “I’m sorry. Between manifesting all of these simulacra and magic missiles, I don't have enough energy left in me to teleport us back."

I would have hit her, had nopony else been watching, but we were all going to die now anyway so really there was no reason for me not to. Though I had no compunction against hitting mares (despite what your father might have told you they are certainly not defenceless, in my personal experience), I nevertheless felt that striking Twilight, despite her clearly deserving it for having lured me out here to get myself and the rest of these soldiers killed, was somehow distasteful. At the very least I consoled myself with the fact that Twilight would continue to live with knowing she had sent me to my death, and the image of my body being disembowelled would be scarred into her memory.

"We're going to have to bloody hoof it then," I said, trying not to let my frustration show too much. If anything, I was doing my best to keep calm for the benefit of the guardsponies as much as trying to fool myself into thinking we could get out of here alive and with the Princess.

Carrying her proved tricky even with the benefit of telekinetic magic, especially with my current state of exhaustion and the alicorn’s weight. As I enveloped her in my aura and lifted her off the ground a few scant inches, a dull ache formed right at the base of my horn, which only increased when I tried to pull her closer to me. Her hooves dragged the ground as she was moved.

It was then, however, that the Changelings gave up on their curiously silent vigil and attacked. A guardspony was dead instantly; his throat ripped out by razor-sharp fangs. One of the Twilights fell under an onslaught of jagged hoofs, while the others frantically fired blindly into the oncoming mass of chitin of hooves, felling them by scores until they too succumbed to the sheer weight of numbers. I could only watch in futile despair, my ability to fight hampered by the great mass of partially-conscious alicorn weighing me down and draining my magic. My only hope was to fight my way back to the castle carrying the Princess with me, and thus I pushed onwards through the swarm that engulfed us – my slow, lethargic swings of the sword easily dodged by the drones in my way, or otherwise merely chipping the tough chitin, and any attempt at shooting resulted in pathetic sparks of magic that dissipated uselessly back into the ether.

Nevertheless I struggled on, determined that neither me or my illustrious line, such as it was, would end like this. I should have noticed that the drones seemed decidedly uninterested in attacking me, instead content to rip the poor soldiers and the Twilight simulacra to pieces instead. Damnation, I can't help but feel that their blood stains my hooves, and those faces, twisted in agony as they died thousands of miles from home and from the ponies they loved, haunt me still. I was alone with Luna; alive, but through the fog of exhaustion that clouded my mind I stumbled uselessly, my vision blurred and my horn stabbed with agony.

The Changelings parted to make way for something, and out from the gloom stepped a tall, gangly figure that I knew I had seen before, but failed to recognise instantly. It moved with a swift, shuddering movement that, despite its disturbingly insect-like gait, held a sort of imperious elegance that only an alicorn possesses. Indeed, the creature was as tall as one, rivalling Princess Celestia for size, though it was far skinnier and more disturbingly gangly, as if starved, than my Auntie. It was only when it moved into the weak, faltering glow of my aura still wrapped around my sword did I recognise it. I had seen that face before, staring at me from beyond a ring of green fire in the catacombs beneath Canterlot.

Queen Chrysalis laughed mockingly.