I take it as a small matter of pride that I didn't immediately void my bowels at the first sight of Queen Chrysalis, as unlike some of the ponies that now lay dead around me I had the foresight to use the latrines before the battle. If I was to die then I was determined to make my death as dignified as possible, not that the state of my corpse would be the most pressing thing on my mind when I inevitably find myself standing before Faust Herself with my soul weighed against all of the sins that I have wilfully committed over my too-short life. Nevertheless, as the dark mistress of the Changeling race glided towards me upon cadaverously thin limbs, her damnably intelligent eyes glinting in the weak glow of my horn and lips pulled back into a triumphant snarl, I began to silently pray that when I would see the Maker of All in the next few minutes to judge how I was going to spend the rest of eternity that She was in a particularly generous mood tonight. Considering how Changelings treated their prisoners, dying and facing eternal damnation in Tartarus for a lifetime of indulging in all manner of carnal pleasures might have been the more preferable outcome.
"What a lovely family reunion," said Chrysalis, her voice positively soaked in the self-assured smugness of somepony who knows without a doubt that they have won. "It's such a shame that Princess Celestia isn't here to join us, but I expect you'll see her again shortly when we march on Canterlot and the Tyrant of the Sun [Not one of my favourite titles, as this one had somehow endured since the end of the re-unification of Equestria by those ponies unwilling to accept our rule. Despite those ponies being long dead now, this epithet is still widely in use in the modern era by the enemies of Equestria] kneels before me."
The Queen stopped, and regarded me with a chillingly proud expression on her face as if she had just noticed me standing there, sabre hovering limply between us, doing my absolute best not to collapse from exhaustion and sheer terror. Around us the Changeling drones had formed a circle around us, as if standing in audience to a duel that was about to take place between two offended aristocrats. Indeed, there was a peculiar sense of formality to the proceedings that was only enhanced by the eerie silence [From this we can infer that the artillery bombardment had ceased, presumably for fear of hitting any survivors from the failed attack. Either that, or Blueblood is once again exaggerating], and one that I found disturbingly out of odds with the pure violence that I had just gone through. A multitude of glistening, unintelligent eyes stared at me seemingly from all directions, and I recall feeling most conspicuous at the time; that is, under all of the fear that gripped me by the throat with its ice-cold talons.
"I remember you," she said, the tone of her voice dancing in a strangely playful manner as she addressed me. "In the catacombs beneath Canterlot. It was you who disrupted my servants' spell and stopped the summoning ritual. It was a bit of a setback, but, as you can see, things have worked out just perfectly for me regardless."
"I'm so glad," I remarked flatly, though I think the fear I was attempting to mask with my usual brand of faux-glibness was betrayed when I took an involuntary step back from her.
As the dull ache at the root of my horn grew more painful and seemed to envelope the front portion of my brain like an awful hangover with none of the knowledge of the pleasant times that must have preceded it, I had no choice but to let Princess Luna drop the few scant inches back down to the ground. She groaned as she hit the dusty earth, and lay sprawled by my side. Her chest rose and fell sharply with every ragged, dry breath, and those wide, ice-blue eyes of hers fixed upon mine with no small amount of fear behind them. Her lips, caked over with dried blood and swollen with bruises, opened, and moved with what looked like considerable effort. I quickly divined that Luna wanted to speak with me, perhaps to apologise for the hell that she had put me through both since her return from the moon and during this most recent insanity that I've had to endure. If she was, then it was rather too late for that. I glanced warily to see Chrysalis watching with an offensively satisfied expression on her face, and lowered my head as if to inspect the Princess' injuries.
"Stall her," whispered Luna. Her voice was dry and rasping, and her words were slow and measured as if each syllable took herculean effort to speak. "Reinforcements are coming." Her eyelids closed and her neck fell limp, making her head loll awkwardly to the side and splash onto the oozing mud as she once more slipped into unconsciousness.
I wanted to slap her bruised, bloodied face and demand exactly how in Tartarus was I to 'stall' the Queen of the Changelings of all ponies, and for how long? That the main attack force must strike at the rear of the Changeling army, and with Chrysalis presumably distracted, somehow, by me, a faint glimmer of hope danced like a tiny firefly amidst the all-consuming darkness, provided that I could do one of the very few things that I have any degree of talent in and waste everypony's time over something trivial. Chrysalis didn't seem the type to tolerate the usual sort of mindless, empty chatter that I tend to employ at parties that are too boring to hold my attention for very long and are devoid of any shapely mares, guests or staff, for me to seduce, and judging by the expression on her face I very doubted that she would have been up for that either. No, if I 'read' her correctly, the creature that stood before me was possessed of a sizeable ego, and such ponies tend to be rather in love with their own voices. My only chance, therefore, was to try to appeal to that particular facet of her personality, and encourage her to gloat to her heart's content. I thus took a moment to compose myself, and turned to face the embodiment of one of the greatest and most insidious threats to all of ponykind my generation has ever endured.
Against all logic, sense, and reasoning, I positioned myself between Chrysalis and Luna, my blade held high as if to strike at the long, sinuous neck of the Changeling Queen at a moment's notice. I squared my shoulders and straightened my posture until I looked like the very picture of Equestrian defiance in the face of the overwhelming savagery and cruelty of the enemy, at least I damn well hoped so, for all I really wanted to do was shrivel up into a little, broken ball and simply wait for the inevitable.
"That's about as far as you'll go," I said, trying, and probably failing, to inject some confidence into my voice. I jabbed my sword towards my nemesis' armoured neck in what I had hoped was a suitably threatening gesture. "You won't harm the Princess."
Chrysalis chuckled softly. "I have no intention of harming your dear, precious little pony princess," she said, though the still-playful tone of voice certainly implied that it was clearly not the case. "As for you, princeling, that all depends upon what you do next. They say that in her throne room in Canterlot, Princess Luna merely has to speak a single word for concealed snipers to strike a pony who has dared to offend her dead. [I would like to reassure ponies reading this that this is an unsubstantiated rumour with not a single iota of truth to it; any snipers concealed in the alcoves of our throne room are there for the protection of our subjects.] Here," -she waved a hoof at the writhing mass of Changelings that surrounded us, and they all shrieked wordlessly seemingly at her unspoken bidding- "I won't even have to open my mouth before my dear children tear you to pieces."
"I'll have to bear that in mind," I said, eyeing her 'children' around us, those slavish, drugged, mindless drones. "But if you want the Princess, then you're going to have to go through me first."
Damnation, that mouth of mine was going to get me killed one of these days. Faust knows I've accidentally offended more than my fair share ponies to the point of murderous vendettas, only for it all to end like this because I happened to push the Queen of the Changelings a little too far. I was fortunate, however, that she seemed to find my reckless defiance to be more humorous than threatening.
"It may have escaped your attention, but I've won," she said, sweeping her hoof over the dead bodies that surrounded us and then at the castle that loomed darkly behind me. I was about to point out that there were still rather more Changeling corpses than there were dead ponies, but I remembered that she probably didn't care in the slightest. "You are alone now, and I don't want to have to kill you, princeling; you're far more useful to me alive than dead. So I'm going to offer you the chance to lay down your sword and come peacefully."
I tilted my head to one side, and I lowered my sword slightly. "Forgive me if I say that I don't entirely trust you."
Something certainly felt wrong, and by that I don't mean the fact that I was alone, surrounded by the enemy, confronted by the evil Queen of the Changelings, and that one of our Princesses was slowly dying next to me. No, I mean that there a singular, nagging doubt at the back of my mind and once more itching at my hooves that there was one facet of this whole situation that simply did not fit - that I was still alive. If she wanted Princess Luna and only her then I should have been lying dead in a pool of my own blood along with the other, unfortunate ponies whose corpses stared accusingly at me with sightless, dead eyes; no, Chrysalis wanted me alive for some reason, and I was not looking forward to finding it out.
"It's not a matter of trust," she said, with a contemptuous swish of her mane. The thin, silky strands floated and drifted like a disturbed spiders' web before settling once more across her muzzle and neck. "If you want to live, then you will throw down that weapon of yours and kneel. It's as simple as that, princeling."
Dear reader, if I may address you directly, whomever you are, if you wish to preserve your image of me, the great hero Blueblood who saved not only one but two princesses, who rescued the 3rd Regiment of the Solar Guard from destruction, and who would later go on to such feats as recovering the lost Royal Standard and saving Ponyville, then I advise that you skip the following paragraphs. In my defence, it took a few moments of careful thought, by which I mean mentally flailing at ideas until I exhausted all but the only sensible option, before I severed the magical hold on my blade.
My sword, one of the few things that I could rely on in this world not to disappoint me, fell to the soggy ground with a strangely threatening squelch of congealing mud. The weight upon my horn was lifted, but inwardly I instantly felt awful. I expect this emotion was what others might call disgrace; it was a hideous, sickly feeling in the pit of my stomach and in my chest far worse than any sensation of raw terror that I had felt before. It was as if my insides, unclean and diseased, had been scooped out and I had been left hollow. Yes, I had committed the cardinal sin for which there can be no forgiveness for a commissar, and indeed I am greatly ashamed to admit that my colleagues have executed less deserving ponies for merely considering the option of surrender yet I continue to be held as the ideal by which all of my kind are measured. I ask any of you reading this, would you have done anything else in my situation? Certain ponies would of course think that they might have attacked and slain the Queen instead, or simply allow themselves to die for their Princesses and their country. To such self-righteous ponies I say that only when one faces one's own mortality as I have done does one find the measure of a pony, and they who boast that they would have performed differently are either liars or very foalish.
It was not by choice that I then fell to my knees, and in my defence I will say that it was due to sheer exhaustion than in genuine supplication to the malevolent horror standing before me. If knowing that I had voluntarily surrendered my blade has coloured your opinion of me, I care not, but I expect most ponies would expect me to say that it had all been part of an elaborate ruse. It was not - I simply had enough of pretending and I just wanted to live.
"See, we can be reasonable after all," said Chrysalis mockingly. She stepped forwards, and cupped my chin with a hoof that felt ice-cold to the touch. My head was lifted uncomfortably so that I had no choice but to look into the vast, pale green eyes of hers, like alchemical flasks filled with noxious poison swirling and congealing, uncomfortably close to mine. I suppressed a shudder through my spine. "Would you like to come quietly, or shall my children drag you kicking and screaming?"
"That, uh, won't be necessary," I said, or whimpered, to be more accurate. With a weak shove I pushed the desiccated, yet somehow elegant and certainly hooficured appendage from my face, and in a gesture that showed that the arrogant flame of aristocratic pride had not yet been extinguished within me, affected to wipe my muzzle clean with a slightly stained hoofkerchief.
Chrysalis grinned mockingly at my tiny show of rebellion, but otherwise seemed content to let me struggle back to my hooves. My legs quivered and shook beneath me, as if they were about to simply collapse under my own prodigious weight. Nevertheless, I felt that my lineage - over two thousand years of the famed and feared House of Blood - could not end so ignominiously. My situation certainly looked hopeless, yes, but in this dank pit of despair the prospect of rescue by the main attacking force, should it actually arrive in time, was like a rope to pull me free dancing just inches away from my outstretched hooves.
"I just want to ask something," I said, at length. My mind raced with my heart hammering frantically in my chest; a myriad of jumbled thoughts and ideas seemingly flittered through my head with no semblance of order, and all I could do was metaphorically grasp at them blindly and hope whatever words, sentences, and themes that I could successfully pluck from the miasma of raw ideas and hope they made some sort of sense. Or that I wouldn't be torn into thin strips at a moment's notice.
"Now?" she said incredulously.
I pointed at the multitude around us. "We appear to have plenty of time," I said, doing my best to keep the irony from showing in my voice.
Chrysalis paused, and then snorted. "Very well, then."
"How did you know Princess Luna would be here?" I asked, saying the first coherent thing that my fractured and sleep-deprived mind could piece together.
There was that mocking laughter again, and the tall, stick-thin creature circled about me with an absurdly arrogant gait, though despite her strutting around like an overly-confident peacock in one of the more extravagant gardens of Canterlot I found very little to be amused by at the time. As she walked, I followed to keep myself between her and the Princess, as if I would be little more than a momentary delay should she get bored of humouring me. Of course, it went against my initial instincts to use the limp, unconscious body of Princess Luna as a pony-shield, but, again, I feared that given these particular circumstances it would have hardly made any difference at all.
In watching her skulk about, apparently only to indulge her own ego, for I often find that creatures such as she are often in possession of very large but ultimately fragile egos that must be constantly nurtured by their own self-aggrandising behaviour and by belittling others, the Princess and me in this case, I studied her carefully. She was as tall as the kinder of my two aunties, though her form was quite grotesquely thin even compared to that of Celestia, whose slender and elegant physique had been regarded as the standard of beauty by which all other mares have been measured. [I'm flattered, though I find such attention from stallions to be rather grating after half a dozen millennia.] Despite her slenderness bordering on extremely unhealthy for a mare of that size, and despite the thick, armoured chitin layered upon taut skin, underneath which well-toned and firm muscle could be seen rippling with every fluid movement, there was a strange and ultimately disturbing sense of sensuality about this 'mare' standing before me. The way that the thin, gossamer-like strands of her mane were coyly draped to partially conceal a disturbingly pony-like eye, the sharp and patrician features of her face, and the otherworldly grace granted by her delicate form, which belied the power that lay in the sinew and muscle that propelled it, was all very alluring in a way that I couldn't quite put my hoof on.
"What makes you think I did?" she said, not stopping in her circuit around me. A playful smirk tugged on the ends of her lips, if she had any that surrounded the thin opening on her face she called a mouth.
I affected a nonchalant shrug, one entirely in keeping with that false stiff-upper-lip persona of mine that she may or may not have even been aware of. "Why else would you lead your drones into battle personally? Why would you put yourself at risk unless you could be assured of your prize?"
Chrysalis stopped, for which I was thankful because following her walking around in a circle was starting to make me feel dizzy. "There is little that goes on in Equestria that I'm not aware of," she said.
"But the Royal Guard has been completely purged of your drones," I said, doing my best to keep the fires of her ego going by feigning ignorance. Ponies, I find, tend to lower their guard when they think they're dealing with a blithering idiot; I should know, since I've made that mistake far too many times to count. In actuality I had already put two-and-two together, so to speak, and came to what I had thought was a fairly accurate conclusion.
Her thin, slit-like mouth opened as if to speak, and remained open long enough for me to view the rows upon rows of razor-sharp fangs, before cold maw settled into a wide grin that looked far too wide for the noble lines of her deceptively elegant face to allow. "I'm not a fool, princeling," she said, after a moment of thought. "I know what you're trying to do, and you'll receive no villain's exposition from me. I shan't waste any more time here discussing this."
The Changelings advanced on me, and it was a great sense of resignation that I hung my head in quiet shame, and readied myself for whatever fate awaited me in their monstrous hive cities. It was then that a sudden roar of flames shook me from my self-inflicted fugue, and as I looked up to see through the cloudy haze that fogged my vision the orange and yellow glow of raw fire danced and writhed energetically in the distance. Shrieks of Changelings burning horrifically to death filled the air, amidst the rising clamour of the battle rejoined. Hope flared once more within me, rekindled by the advancing flames that consumed the enemy, as Chrysalis snarled in anger and turned to address this new threat.
The drones swarmed around me and I was knocked to the ground under a flurry of hooves. Splattered in mud, dozens of hooves scrambled frantically, yet more lashed out upon my already battered body. Pain flared across my frame as hooves trampled on me - against my chest, flanks, and limbs mainly. That they seemed only interested in inflicting pain, rather than outright killing me, did not occur to me at the time, and I could only flail my aching limbs, joints and muscles shrieking in protest of this new exertion after nearly a full night of battle, against the onslaught of hooves.
Something warm and wet splattered onto my face, and when I dared to open my eyes I found that the beatings had ceased. I was alive, but why? Through the bleary fog that shrouded by eyes I could see a vague shape looming over me, and strong hooves gripped roughly around my aching shoulders and brought me back up to a quite wobbly standing position. My vision soon sharpened, though I didn't need that to tell me that it was Cannon Fodder propping me up, as his peculiar and unique aroma of body odour, an unwashed tunic, and stale brown stew and ale rations identified him almost immediately. There he stood, a grubby, dirty hoof clad in dirtier steel held me by the shoulder, while in his maw he proffered my fallen blade.
"Sorry I took so long," he said, or at least that's what I think he said. His usual disregard for the niceties of elocution was worsened by the steel in his maw.
I gratefully accepted my blade, and I was never happier to see my erstwhile aide before. "Better late than never," I said, with an earnest grin despite the sheer exhaustion that deadened my muscles.
Around us the battle still raged, yet Cannon Fodder, apparently seeing that I was injured, though at the time I was only aware of a dull ache that seemed to encompass the entirety of my body, had decided that making sure that I was still alive and of relatively good health, in spite of my injuries, his highest priority. I was flattered. The wall of steel and gold, fringed in fire, slaughtered the bewildered drones, but the element of surprise would only provide an all too brief advantage.
Mister Yellow, I saw, was at the forefront, and he was amongst the first to be slain. Under a barrage of blows from the enemy, he wrapped his hooves around a Changeling drone in a morbid embrace, and his body burst into flames. A vast, burning inferno of intense heat ripped through the horde as he and at least a score of the drones were immolated in a roiling sea of fire. In the chaos I saw Captain Red Coat, his spear tipped with green and flashing by the light of those drones burning alive, and his eyes were ablaze with the barely controlled fury of battle. Screaming exhortations to his stallions, he directed them to form a wide defensive ring around Cannon Fodder, Luna, and me, and before I could thank him for his assistance he was once more overtaken with that maddening bloodlust that clouds a stallion's mind and sight with the deep, primal urge to kill that lies hidden and waiting in the depths of the equine psyche, and he plunged straight into the fight once more.
"Did they arrive?" I asked Cannon Fodder, who blinked vacantly at me. "Did Shining Armour arrive?"
He shook his head no. "Nothing yet, sir. Messenger said they'd be here by sunrise."
I looked to the east to see that the sky had been tinged with purple, but that the stars were still visible and the promised dawn was still some time away. "So, what are you doing here?"
"I saw you were in trouble so I asked the Captain to help me get you out of here."
I felt rather touched by his comment, inspired by his rather dog-like devotion towards me. However, with the fight still raging around us there was no time for me to indulge in the niceties of such sentimentality. Despite his initial success, Red Coat's ill thought-out plan was rapidly falling to pieces. With the initial shock of the attack gone and Mister Yellow now a charred skeleton lying entwined with the smoking husk of chitin amidst a field of burning corpses, the momentum had turned against us. The horde had recovered and was pressing its counter-attack on this beleaguered little pocket of Equestrian territory. We had to fall back to the relative safety of the fortress, even if it meant retreating back into the stygian darkness of the keep's labyrinthine corridors.
"Alright, we've been dallying around out here for long enough," I said to Cannon Fodder. "Back inside. Now!"
My magic was drained, and so Cannon Fodder and I had to resort to dragging Luna along the ground by her hooves in a manner that was rather undignified and reminded me of the time when I was sixteen years old and had to be dragged back to school in the like manner after an interesting morning with a crate of illicit champagne. Twilight Sparkle—or rather another two of her magically-created simulacra—appeared by my side and took hold of one of Luna's forelegs each. The Princess cried out in pain, and let fly a string of exceedingly colourful and loud curses in florid Ancient Equestrian, invoking some violent sexual imagery that I shall not repeat here, but would have made the lowest of the street scum of Trottingham blush with embarrassment. At the very least, however, it proved that she was still alive, awake, and somewhat lucid.
We found our route back blocked by more drones, who swarmed around Red Coat's soldiers. I caught sight of the Captain, who looked to me, murder burning in his eyes as the lust for blood seemed to have taken him utterly. His dented and battered armour, with scratches so deep as to expose the fresh, shiny mithril beneath the dull grey lacquer and grim decoration that coated it, was splattered in green ichor and crimson blood, to give the previously fresh-faced and eternally optimistic teenager a darkly malevolent aura about him. Nevertheless, he still had enough control of himself to have recognised my frantic pointing towards the keep and divined my meaning. He responded by bellowing an order, lost amidst the roar of the fight, but nevertheless obeyed by his stallions with the alacrity expected of their military training.
The troops formed a cordon around Luna and myself, fending off the Changeling attacks that ebbed and flowed like the relentless tide crashing against the jagged rocks of a tiny island. I couldn't see as much, for my vision had once more become fogged, and brilliant yellow stars flickered over my eyes as I struggled to drag Luna back towards the breach in the walls. The fortress loomed tantalisingly close, with the foot of the pile of rubble leading upwards into the breach and the relative safety of the courtyard like a stairway to heaven. I had but to drag the limp form of my Auntie, who seemed somewhat lighter now that she was awake, up the sloping pile of broken masonry and rubble.
For a moment it looked as if we were going to make it, but fortune once more decided that it was being far too generous with me. In my initial elation at having been rescued and in the franticness of our disorderly retreat back to the keep I had, against all logic and reason, completely forgotten about Queen Chrysalis. A stark reminder came when the ground before me erupted in brilliant green flames that I would have only just been able to see over were I to stand up straight. I dropped Luna's leg and stumbled back away from the scorching heat that singed the fur on my muzzle, and desperate not to be trapped I tried to dart around the column of fire only to find that it had spread. A burning ring of eldritch green flames had enveloped around Luna, Cannon Fodder, Captain Red Coat, the two Twilight Sparkles, and me, separating us from the soldiers who were escorting us.
"Dispel it!" I shouted at the closest Twilight clone. "Quickly!"
Twilight Sparkle's horn crackled uselessly with wasted energy, and she looked at me with a deeply apologetic expression on her face. "I'm sorry," she said, apparently on the verge of weeping. "I can't."
"Not your fault," I said with a quiet sense of resignation, despite internally screaming at her. Looking back now, I can hardly blame her; she had gone through a lot that night for a civilian, and though she was certainly extremely powerful and skilled in the magical arts she was by no means omnipotent, so the well of energy from which she drew must have been nigh exhausted by now.
I was about to order Cannon Fodder to march through the fire instead in the hope that his magic-draining abilities would simply remove them. Quite why I didn't ask him to do that before asking the obviously exhausted Twilight Sparkle to try dispelling the flames I'm still not sure, aside from my own weariness weighing down on my mind like the entire contents of her personal library crushing down on my skull. Cannon Fodder's own dog-like devotion to me meant that it was likely he would have walked straight into those searing flames even if he was not a Blank if I had so ordered him to, it was quite endearing in a rather pathetic sort of way. Nevertheless, before I could even finish giving him the order a dark shadow loomed behind the flames, and through the flickering, dancing spectres of green and black this amorphous, shifting shape coalesced into the shape of a grotesquely tall pony. The flames parted, like a curtain being opened, and Queen Chrysalis strode through, the ashes crunching beneath her hooves.
Red Coat let loose a scream of incoherent rage and charged straight at Chrysalis, spear lowered for the creature's exposed, elegant throat, with the sort of disregard for his own safety that the Commissariat has been struggling to inculcate into the common soldiery since its inception. Before I could raise a hoof to stop him the Queen of all Changelings lowered her head, took aim, and a coruscating beam of brilliant green magic was cast directly towards the charging stallion. One of the Twilights had darted forwards and pushed the charging stallion out of the way. There were two shrieks of agony; the clone was immolated utterly in a puff of ash, having taken the full brunt of the blast, while Red Coat was only clipped by it. He crumpled to the ground motionless.
I was in too much of a state of shock to do anything productive, but the remaining Twilight simulacrum, after she had finished screaming out in some worryingly unseen pain, darted to Red Coat's side, apparently heedless of the monster that had just so callously murdered her twin. [These simulacra, of course, cannot be considered to be alive, being mere puppets animated and directed by their master. Nevertheless, it is known that the caster experiences everything that the clones 'feel', up to and including the pain of their deaths. Sadly, some unicorns can suffer great mental trauma if this should happen, which can take a great deal of therapy and support for them to overcome.] As Twilight fussed over the limp form of the teenaged Captain, Queen Chrysalis strode forth with a bearing of supreme confidence about her deceptively elegant posture; one that belied the untold malice and hatred that lay beneath those sharp, patrician features of hers.
"He's alive!" exclaimed Twilight. She shifted out of the way, and in the light of her horn I could see that Red Coat's right foreleg had been reduced to a bloody, smouldering stump. His armour was scorched, with the ornamentation on his mithril plates burned away. The right side of his face was burned horribly, such that I felt my stomach heave at the sight of the flesh melting and sloughing like molten candle wax, until it solidified into a cracked, blackened ruin of those once-youthful good looks, interlaced with a horrid lattice work of congealing blood. "Oh Celestia, I don't think I can... The wound's cauterised, he won't bleed out. He's... he's gone into shock."
Chrysalis ignored them, and simply strode past to approach Princess Luna and me. "Enough," she snarled, punctuating that with a stomp of her hoof that sent a faint tremor through the rubble beneath us. The battle around us seemed to stop, save for the distant rumble of artillery and the roar of the fight continuing further away from us, as the surviving guardsponies beyond the ring of fire grouped together and watched the shrieking Changelings warily with spears lowered and horns charged. The Queen's horn still glowed with charged magic, and she aimed it squarely at the half-conscious Princess by my side. "Surrender, Princeling, or you and your precious little Princess die!"
I had barely any strength left to raise my sword, but both Twilight Sparkle and a considerable numbers of guardsponies were watching me, so the surrender that would have spared my life (if Chrysalis could be trusted to follow her word, of course) was out of the question. By now the skies to the east had become a canvas of blazing pinks and reds, and the thinning cover of cloud too was tinged and highlighted with those ethereal and otherworldly colours of the twilight just before the dawn. In the early light the ruination of the battle had become plain to see for all, and beyond the green flames that encircled us like a ring, amidst the groups of guardsponies and Changelings alike standing in silent audience, the dead lay still, their bodies desecrated beyond recognition by war. The dawn was coming, and I had but to survive to see it.
Cannon Fodder stood by my side, resolute and blindingly obedient as always with an almost defiant expression on his usually blank and placidly bovine face. I noticed that the fires closest to him were weaker than the rest of them, and another spark of hope flared within and soon spread like a fire. Doing my best not to let on that I had just thought of something, I locked eyes with my aide and surreptitiously tilted my head towards the chitinous abomination slowly approaching us. It was most fortunate that he had understood my intentions clearly, and that Chrysalis was apparently so distracted by her evident frustration of her imminent victory being repeatedly confounded by the likes of me bumbling around like the confused little imbecile that I am. He nodded his head quietly, and as Chrysalis glided towards me like a lioness stalking a helpless gazelle fawn he stumbled awkwardly out of her way but remained close.
"No," I said, and once more I had another brief fit of suicidal insanity and placed myself between Luna and Chrysalis. The Changeling Queen stopped, and tilted her head to one side. "I don't think you will."
She snorted, and shook her head. "I tire of these games," she said, and her horn flared menacingly with barely restrained power. "What makes you think that I should spare your lives?"
There was a quiet pause, disturbed only by the distant, muffled roar of the fight still raging beyond my sight and the closer crackle of fires. [Blueblood does not give any further information on how the battle progressed elsewhere. Once again, readers desiring further elucidation on the subject are directed to Paperweight's excellent 'A Concise History of the Changeling Wars’, and those who seek even greater detail are recommended to read the relevant seventeen chapters devoted to the subject in Twilight Sparkle's 'Blood in the Badlands'. For the benefit of those readers who do not have access to those books, the bulk of the battalion remained within the castle walls fighting a fierce defence under the leadership of Company Sergeant Major Square Basher at the gates and at the breach.] I felt as if I was going to vomit, except that there was actually nothing inside for me to throw up. Of course, splattering the remains of last night's dinner of brown stew and that bottle of scotch I kept secreted in my office was unlikely to have made Chrysalis feel more inclined to sparing my life and listening to what I had to say. Speaking of her, the Queen snarled at me, her face twisted into a foul expression of hatred and spurned victory; I could tell by that look, one that had been directed at me many times before in my life by those ponies I had wronged and, by either the result of guile or the threat or use of bloody violence, watched me get away completely without consequence, that she was merely seconds away from blasting my head from my neck.
"Celestia?" she repeated, and then threw her head back in a brief, callous burst of mocking laughter. "The Princess of the Sun and ruler of all ponykind, and I defeated her in mere seconds. The pony you are so foolishly trying to protect put up a more challenging fight than she did! I have nothing to fear from her."
I shook my head. By this stage I was getting desperate, or rather more so than I was before. With little other choice I merely spoke the first coherent thoughts that came into my head, and hoped beyond hope that they would stall her long enough for aid to come. But then what? Even if General Crimson Arrow's attacking force could arrive soon, they would still have a veritable army of Changelings to fight through before they could get to me, and by that time I would either be long dead or already on my way to the Hive. Nevertheless, a slim, minute chance is better than no chance at all, as I have always said, and thus I continued rambling.
"She was holding back," I said, spreading my hooves broadly and affecting to straighten myself up like a stallion, in spite of the waves of agony that wracked through the muscles in my back. "She could have blasted you into ashes, and in my opinion she should have, really. Princess Celestia always believes that everypony is deserving of another chance at redemption."
"For once we are in agreement," she spat, "in part, at least - she should have killed me when she had the chance. She is weak, like all of your kind; constrained by such naïveté and blinded by that pathetic ideology of Harmony that blinds her to the reality of the world. Very soon she will pay the price if what you are saying is correct."
"No, that's what makes her stronger," I said, between rasping breaths. I was tired beyond reckoning, and felt as if I was in a daze, as if exceedingly drunk but without the pleasant feelings that usually accompany several bottles of a fine Chablis.
In truth it felt as if my mouth was running independently of my conscious mind, which was telling me to shut up, curl up in a foetal position on the ground, and pray that my imminent death would be swift and painless so that I might berate Princess Luna in the afterlife for having gotten me into this position in the first place. Nevertheless, whatever it was that my subconscious was making me speak seemed to be working, as the impatient snarl on the Queen's face slackened somewhat. If I could lull her into that false sense of security, by letting her believe that she had won (after all, at the time it certainly looked as if she had), then that might just buy us enough time.
"She could have destroyed you," I continued, fighting the waves of nausea that assailed me, "in the same way she could have killed Nightmare Moon. The crimes she committed during the Nightmare Heresy should have earned her the death penalty a thousandfold, and not one pony would have questioned it. Yet Princess Celestia knew that there was some hope of salvation for the monster that her beloved sister had become, and had instead banished her until such a time that she could be redeemed. Celestia holds back because she believes that everypony has a chance to redeem themselves. Kill us here, and you'll find out what happens when she no longer believes that you are worthy of redemption."
Chrysalis paused, clearly mulling over the idea in her head slowly as her brow furrowed into a small, concentrated frown. Whatever it was that I was half-consciously, half-drunkenly doing, seemed to be working, against all reasoning, and more importantly, she still had not noticed Cannon Fodder lingering rather closer to her than would have otherwise been considered normal for a pony when presented with the supposed arch-enemy of all Equestria. Even his unique aroma, cutting through even the stench of blood, death, gunpowder, smoke, and effluvia, she seemed blissfully unaware of. My hooves continued to itch, and deep down I knew that the real reason why I was still breathing was not due to my clumsy oratory, but simply because the Queen believed it was more expedient to keep me alive.
"No," she said thoughtfully. "If Celestia had the strength she would have used it."
"Who was it who bound Tirek within the darkest depths of Tartarus? Who was it who overthrew Discord and imprisoned him in stone? Kill us now and I swear it, the whole fury of the sun will come crashing down on you. Nothing will remain of your kingdom, save for blackened ash to stand as a silent memorial to your foolishness."
[In the interest of fairness, and that my sister would never forgive me if I did not assign her due credit, in both of those events Princess Luna played an equal part to mine in ending those threats to Equestria.]
A hot breeze from the south buffeted the sweat-soaked clothes that clung to my body. Queen Chrysalis took a few steps forwards towards me, and as she did so, unknowingly wandering within Cannon Fodder's magical null field, the ethereal flames that encircled us flickered, spluttered, and then died as if doused in water. The soldiers around eyed us warily, though a warning glance at the Lieutenant, his left foreleg bandaged up and his helmet replaced by bound bandages stained with blood about his head, dissuaded them. The timing had to be right, and I thank Faust nightly to this day that Chrysalis was far too occupied with me to notice that her powerful magics had been sapped by the void that my aide possessed in lieu of a soul.
"Shut up," she said curtly. "One last chance - surrender or..."
She stopped. The sun rose to the east, and the battlefield was flooded with bright, yellow light that blinded us all, more radiant than the first glimmers of sunrise had any right to be. I raised my hoof, ignoring the stab of pain in my shoulder from a bite wound that I had not noticed before, to shield my eyes from the blazing sun and saw that this new light came not from the fierce orange-red sliver emerging slowly from the shimmering sands, but from a far brighter source that appeared to be hovering some dozens of feet in the air above us.
The light faded a little; enough for me to discern the shape of a pony amidst the golden radiance. Tall and statuesque, this heavily armoured pony, clad in shimmering golden armour etched with baroque and ornate embellishments upon the sweeping curves of the lacquered mithril plates, was held aloft by the slow, graceful beating of two great wings. Behind this figure, emerging from the cover of clouds, was an entire company and more of pegasi clad in silver and gold, like flickering specks of dust dancing in the rays of the sun.
The dawn had come.