• Published 26th Apr 2015
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The Substitute Demon - Reykan



Right before the Elements struck, the Nightmare unleashed a spell out of desperation. A substitution spell. Otherwise known as the correct use of Kawarimi.

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The Mission: Steal the Moon

Cimmerian's group made a slow but steady pace on their way to Canterlot. They only encountered a few roving patrols of drones, each easily dealt with by the alicorn and the changeling queen. Zelus even took a few for herself, using them to guard the group as they slept. The drones would die soon and it caused the queen no small amount of discomfort to allow herself to bind them, but when asked about it she merely stated she'd persevere.

'Won't we all,' the alicorn thought to himself, watching as Twilight became more and more agitated the closer they came to Canterlot. Even with his words and assurances, it was the place of both her torment and her failure. Where in giving in to the Nightmare, she'd torn down her own country. She'd destroyed the country built by her loving teacher.

The castle itself was soon in view, the group resting just outside of Ponyville and using the Apple Family Barn as their last stop before they entered the city itself. Cimmerian wouldn't permit them to move any closer, instead insisting they get some extra sleep before they made the last rush.

"I don't know how long it will be, but we need to be ready to move. The drones will mostly be distracted once the minotaurs reach Canterlot Mountain and it will take the minotaurs a long time to fight through them, but I want us gone long before then."

"What about the queens that are not there?" Zelus asked.

"That's up to you, Zelly," he answered as he watched the buzzing cloud around the city on the mountain. "We could leave them and let them cause more trouble for the minotaurs, or you can destroy them yourself."

The queen nodded, moving back into the barn to find a comfortable place to rest. She would rest for an hour, then it would be Cimmerian's turn. Twilight was jittering nearby, nervously stroking her own silky tail as she looked upon the mountain. The alicorn sighed, moving closer and using a wing to pull her close.

"It's almost over, Twilight. We'll get Luna free, then take this country back. Nothing will be the same, but Equestria will survive. Not even you could destroy it completely, and that's saying something. You're a smart mare, and powerful."

"I used to be powerful," Twilight sighed. "The magic this drone is capable of channeling is more than a normal changeling, but it's still not even a fifth of my power as a unicorn, much less the power I had as an alicorn. It's likely I'll never have that kind of power again."

"Don't count yourself out. Either the queens will work with you to develop stronger drones, or we'll get your body back. There are issues with both outcomes, but we'll worry about that when we get there. For now we focus on our mission. You have that array memorized, right?"

"I could write it out in my sleep. The moment we get into the chamber we're keeping luna in-"

Cimmerian shook his head, cutting her off.

"No, if the chamber the queens are in isn't flooded with drones, I want you to etch the array in there. Luna will likely be small in her weakened state and I can move her more easily than we can move the queens. We'll also need the room, depending on how many survive and how bloated they are. You're certain we can't reach the main control crystals from Luna's room?"

"We could, but it would be quite the trip through what's likely to be a very open and difficult to navigate area. I know for a fact that I wanted that to be one of the most defended areas in Canterlot, even more so than the queens. If somepony managed to hit the queens, I had a few queen eggs in storage I could pull out in...an....I completely forgot about those."

"Are they in some sort of stasis?" the stallion questioned, worry seeping into his voice.

"Yes, they are. I remember where I put them now, they were actually hidden so well there isn't a pony aside from myself or the Nightmare that knows about them, and I don't know if the Nightmare knows how to use them. I mean, there's a lot that goes into preparing a queen for that kind of egg laying, to say nothing about the work that would be needed for bringing those proto-queens to maturity. That's a whole battery of issues in and of itself. It took me nearly four weeks of study to find the proper triggers to force a proto-queen to molt! Four weeks with unfettered access to queens and proto-queens and every bit of their biology! It would have been insulting if the mechanisms weren't so complicated. Because of that though, it was an amazing discovery. Did you know they can hold off their final molt indefinitely? A proto-queen can remain a proto-queen until she finds a suitable location to settle down, even if it means waiting decades if not centuries! Of course, when waiting for such an extended time, a proto-queen won't just wander around. She usually digs out a small cave or seals off a natural one and enters a form of hibernation. Why, if we could find a way to replicate that kind of stasis in ponies we could-"

Cimmerian nodded along absentmindedly, doing his best to keep up with her excited chattering about the advancements possible or technologies she'd love to look into. Eventually Zelus arrived, giving him a little time to get his own sleep. He nodded off, too distracted to really try anything while waiting. He couldn't be caught away from his body in a time like this. So instead he dozed as he usually did, listening to the lazy rolling of waves on a beach.

<-(0)->

it was with a nearly monumental effort that a certain mare managed to roll herself out of her comfortable bed. Finally settling onto her hooves, she winced as she felt her organs shifting, an almost alien sensation given how few of those changelings normally had. She grumbled as she made her way to her newly renovated bathroom, the toilet that had been installed an unfortunate necessity given her recent biological changes.

'It's never simple,' she grumbled, her muttering shifting onto a giggle as she felt the weight of both her alien organs and the internal chamber that currently housed her most treasured possessions.

Three foals of mixed species.

The first she was certain was a changeling at this point. The young female was already showing a link, a phantom presence in the dream hive and giving her an almost ravenous hunger for emotions. The second weight in her belly seemed to almost radiate heat, the pony-like foal already showing that it was warm blooded. The third...

Pandinus wasn't certain. It felt like a mixture of the other two, a little heat mixed with a faint pull on her emotional reserves. It also wasn't like it was the only one making her crave solid foods for once in her life. That went to all three of them, she was certain of that.

'What changes would that cause in a changeling queen? Will she always be required to consume solid foods?'

Exiting her room after her now-more-than-daily ritual she came to a halt, the momentum causing her to wince as her organs shifted at the sudden stop.

It wasn't a weakness. As Cimmerian had explained to her, food like wheat and carrots could be grown in a wide variety of places. There were also the pathfinders and rangers, the ponies and griffons she'd spoken with that survived in the wilds. Some griffons would brag of years spent alone, only their claws and their wits keeping them going. Since she was a changeling queen and had no issue with either the meats served by griffons or the roughest vegetation served by ponies, surely an omnivorous queen that could sustain herself on solid foods would be an advantage. She would be able to survive even alone in the farthest reaches of the world.

"If you keep doing that, I'm going to assume you're contacting Cimmerian."

Pandinus blinked as she returned to reality, finding a grinning pink alicorn and her changeling proto-queen attaché standing before her. And on the mare's back...

Din's belly rumbled as the scents of sausages, eggs, and other breakfast foods reached her but staring at the platter the recovering princess before her was carrying and weighing it against the emptiness in her gut she just knew it wouldn't be enough.

"I'm headed to the dining hall. I'm afraid I'm rather hungry this morning."

'Mist, could you send two jars of honey to the dining hall for me?'

'Of course, your highness,' the medical drone replied. 'Any unidentifiable aches or pains this morning or just the usual?'

'Just the usual issues. No shapeshifting of the barrel, legs are still fine. Odd sensations from the digestive system, but that's becoming a bit easier to deal with. Aside from needing to...dispose of the excess waste, it's not unpleasant.'

'Would you like to speak with one of the pony doctors again some time today?'

'That won't be necessary. Thank you, Mist.'

'It's my pleasure, your highness. If you need anything else you need only ask.'

Din nodded, more to herself than the drone. There had been a change in the hive when Zelus's hatchlings were first introduced. New blood, the first additions to any hive since the changelings first were driven to flight. It wasn't hers, true, but technically she'd become pregnant first. Would it be herself or Zelus that should be accounted for having the first clutch since The Hunt?

'It really doesn't matter, I suppose. In our own ways we were both first,' she thought, nodding in acknowledgement of the beings passing her by. They all were respectful, they all also radiated a bit of curiosity or loyalty at her passing, the difference between Cimmerians followers and the refugees. Not everyone was trusting of the stallion but that was fine with her. There were enough that loved him and trusted his word to sustain her hive. That didn't mean she didn't need him though. She was already craving that special form of love he'd started to radiate in her presence. The love for her, and what she carried.

She absentmindedly grabbed a tray in her magic, going down the line of breakfast items and quickly filling her plate. She grabbed another, and a third before making her way to her usual spot, setting all three plates down and beginning to eat even as her magic seasoned this item or buttered the toast. She listened with little interest as a few ponies and changelings practiced instruments, adding a bit of atmosphere that she didn't find any reason to object to. In fact the tunes were nice. Soothing, in some cases. She would have to see about getting one of those music machines some of the ponies were speaking of, a record player. She was sure Cimmerian would like it as well.

Din sighed, already missing the male and the pampering he would give her. Waking up to a plate of foods that he would feed her while they were in bed, his smothering her in his wings, drowning out all other scents and sounds, nibbling her neck or whispering into her lower belly as though they could hear him. Perhaps they could. After all, what did she know of live births? She was supposed to be laying eggs.

"Your honey, Queen Pandinus," a drone buzzed, setting two jars of emotion next to her breakfast. She nodded, smirking as the drone watched in a fascinated horror as she ate solid foods not out of curiosity or to keep her disguise believable but in actual hunger.

It was amazing what one could get used to. Here she was eating like a pony and only wondering at how natural it felt at the moment. She was curious actually. Could she keep her current set-up even after her pregnancy? The organs likely wouldn't be absorbing as much and her actual hunger would drop but if she decided to do this again...no, when she decided to. When she decided to use the stallion's seed a second time, her body would be ready. It also gave her a unique perspective. She'd always seen those that needed physical foods as weaker but the amount of energy involved in the processing of said materials was ridiculous.

Din swallowed the last of her solid breakfast before popping open a jar and beginning to chug the sweet sustenance that was changeling honey. All the drones were producing it now, or at least a good portion of them. Some were even getting access to love, meaning she wasn't entirely dependent on her own reserves. More advancement, more impossibilities. Drones pulling in several jars of love, and the only reason they couldn't bring in more was because they didn't have the capacity.

The drones just weren't used to such large quantities of emotion. Centuries of getting by on what they could nab without alerting their food source made them incredibly efficient, but they just couldn't handle the larger quantities of emotion the were dealing with now.

'That will need to be fixed. A little honey in cocoons should help make the changes. Expand their capacity, allow the emotion to flow a bit easier.'

The heavy queen finished the second jar without hesitation. Feeling the emotion-honey and the solid foods mixed in her gut had been strange, but now it was just a pleasant feeling. Some foods actually absorbed the honey, leaving them to radiate the emotion even hours later. It certainly wasn't efficient, but it helped stave off her own hunger while she worked, reducing the need to snack later.

The changeling queen made her way to the war room, still the center of activity in the Temple. Both of the top ponies were there, Gleam and Weaver silently reading reports and making note of anything important that was occurring nearby. Once more she found it inefficient, but it had its uses. The two kept physical copies of those reports, rather than reviewing a drones report and then forgetting about it. She didn't have to memorize patrols for her drones either, as one of the griffons were writing those up. Which left her...

"You didn't have to come," Gleam said, smiling gently as she looked up from her current focus.

"I like to stay in the know. I also won't have a drone doing this just so I know where everything stands," Din scoffed. "I am a queen, Gleam, and a little discomfort is t going to stop me from doing my job."

Shadow snorted in amusement, looking at the two over his own pile of paper.

"You knew she was going to come, Gleam. She does it more out of boredom than anything else though. No stallion to harass or to keep her occupied. Tartarus, even when he is here she ends up in this room, nibbling on his neck like a puppy looking for affection."

"Speaking of which, how did it go?"

Gleam blushed hotly, at the topic.

"We uh, didn't manage to get away. There's just too much to do at the moment and with Cimmerian gone, well-"

"Oh no you don't. I told you two to have a lunch in the port. There are ground and air transports going back and forth between here and there all day and there's even an inn. We have the bits and I can hold down this mess. Now get out, both of you! Depriving my children of their food, how dare you!"

Pandinus shuffled around the table and began shoving both of them out of the room, closing the now much more sturdy and nice looking door behind them. She turned around and stared at the mess of a table before an idea occurred to her.

'Does anyone have experience with secretarial work, even as an infiltration position?'

There were a few responses and she found herself laughing as they offered any knowledge she may need.

'Oh no, you misunderstand. I need you to actually help me with this, not tell me how. Please come to the war room.'

Giggling as the drones realized what they had volunteered for, the queen looked out over the jungle. It was an odd and confusing existence she now led, but it was more than she'd hoped for.

<-(0)->

Cimmerian snorted awake, someone rustling his body having jerked him from his dream.

"I think the Minotaurs are reaching the maximum range the drones are being allowed to wander."

The stallion rose, nodding as a yawn split his face. It was nearly daybreak now, and they'd settled in in the late evening.

"While I, ahh-ha, appreciate the extra sleep, you didn't have to do that."

"You know as well as I do that I don't sleep in the same way as you do. I had our acquisitions standing watch," the changeling queen responded.

"You mean you kept watch through the drones."

"I set them to alert us if anything approached. Other than that I was working with Twilight on gardening herself against the array. It ignored her when she was a pony but it will be calling to her when we get there."

"Alright, let's get moving. Do you need help securing her?" He asked.

Zelus shook her head.

"Get your own packs, I can handle mine."

"'M nuh luggage," Twilight mumbled, sleepily rubbing at her eyes.

"Shush," The larger mare said, pressing a hoof to the drone-rider's mouth. "Luggage doesn't argue."


The three made good time on their way to the mountain. Too good of time it turned out. The minotaurs were being surprisingly cautious about this, moving little by little and peeling off the scouting parties while they moved closer, leaving no changelings to swarm them from behind. At the rate they were going it would take them a long while, and while the queens would keep pumping out drones to replace the ones killed, thus making the strategy senseless, it meant that Cimmerians group would have to wait.

The alicorn wasn't a fan of that. To push things forward he needed Cairn to rush the Keep, grabbing the full attention of the drones and the Nightmare. As the group flew closer to the Minotaur camp, keeping high enough to avoid any arrows or crossbows, Cimmerian caught sight of what he assumed was the bull's command tent.

'Normally not the kind of thing I'd try, but what the hell. If it works, it works.'


Cairn was alerted to something approaching the camp by the shouting of sentries. It wasn't anything new as the drones had been fairly constant in their attacks, a few drones following the same routes each day. The patrols didn't react to his killing them either. The next day would see another set of drones running the same route, even after his troops had killed over two hundred of them.

'What monstrous force can suffer such losses and not react?'

The call that drew his attention though, was the shout that they had spotted an Alicorn. The bull rushed out of his tent, a longbow in hand, and looked skyward. Sure enough he soon spotted a small group flying through the air, mere specs in the distance at their current height. They were flying overhead, making a circuitous route around the mountain to approach it from a different angle. Unlike Cairn and his army, the ponies didn't need to take the mountain path. Just another reason to hate them, in his opinion.

One dark shape split away from the other, further killing the chances of ballista actually managing to hit something. The shape flew closer, almost-no not almost, it flew directly over the Minotaur encampment.

"Spyglass!" He shouted, instantly being handed one. He found the lazily drifting shape, confirming that it was a feathered shape, the other being sharp with almost blurring wings; a changeling. There was something on its back but the bull shifted to focus on the feathered shape. It might have been...

Something fell from the dark, feathered flier. Cairn ducked his head, thinking it might be an arrow or an explosive of some sort. A cowardly attack from a distance his own weapons couldn't reach. The object struck his tent, a horrible ripping coming from the roof as the missile tore through the roof of his tent.

The bull waited, watching nervously as the spots flew away in no hurry. After a minute he sent a soldier into his tent, to make certain it wasn't a bomb. It wouldn't do to be assassinated by the demon because of his pride. Pride that nearly made him rush the city of Canterlot. He likely would have if not for his military advisors and the warnings of the drone. He-

"It, it's not a bomb, my chief. It's-"

Cairn pushed past the young bull, nearly knocking him to the ground in his haste. He opened his tent and looked to the hole in the roof before looking down. His eyes widened and his blood boiled at the sight.

"My rug!"


Cimmerian was flying slightly awkwardly while using his magic to, for lack of a better way to phrase it, clean himself up a bit. It was crude but judging by the scream of inarticulate rage, Cairn was suitably annoyed and would be moving forward soon.

Zelus meanwhile was howling with laughter.

"You actually, haha, and right on his tent! I had no idea one could accurately do that! I wonder what you hit? Do you think you managed to hit his bed?"

"Don't know, don't really care. We need him pressing his attack, not sitting around trying to kill the drones five at a time. The queens are fully restocking their numbers overnight. They'll never get anywhere at this rate."

Shaking his head and still flushed with embarrassment, the alicorn looked back to the camp.

"I just hope that works the way I want it to. He could decide to come after us specifically."

There was a distant horn sounding behind them and the group stopped. Cimmerian watched cautiously as the minotaurs began
marching out, leaving a small force to guard the camp. The banners were raised, the drums sounded, and soon the army began to move.

Right towards Canterlot.

The alicorn barely suppressed a hoof-pump. The political ramifications of his move were still hitting him, years of fighting possible just to hurry his own mission but he couldn't put this off. The faster they removed the threat, even if it was done by another threat, the better off they were.

The small group turned and flew towards their start point, eagerly awaiting the beginning of the battle. When the minotaurs began their assault in earnest, their own mission would begin.

<-(0)->

It was nearly four hours after the group had reached their designated start point that the drones swarming the mountain began to react to an external presence. The lower layers began to peel away, followed by more and more as the Crystal arrays tried to fill in the old patrol routes with new drones. Before long the buzzing doubles, the reserves that had been in hibernation deep in the castle finally being called forth to fight. That was their cue.

The small group took flight, flying fast and low while maintaining complete silence. Zelus and Cimmerian both knew their jobs and had reviewed the maps enough to know the route by heart. The queen sped for a moment while Cimmerian lagged, allowing the mare to take the lead. Even without words, Zelus had access to Twilights sight. She could see exactly where the drone-riding mare was focused and thus knew exactly where they were going so it only made sense that she would lead the group.

The sounds of combat grew steadily louder even from the other side of the mountain. A few drone patrols were still wandering the area of their approach, but the few that did approach the trio were met with little mercy.

Cimmerian drew a blade with his jaws, not trusting the alarms to not notice his magic at this range. Zelus freely cast, but it was only because hers was a different kind of magic. One that would not set off the alarms Twilight had created.

Zelus was a whirling mass of blades suspended in green magic, easily moving through the assaulting drones without even slowing. One managed to catch her pack with a hoof, desperate to slow the mare but was met with a solid hoof to its fragile skull. The stallion saw the drone fall, only paying the slightest attention as another drone drew his attention. He twisted into a roll, letting their combined momentum to drag the creature through the blade and leaving his flight almost completely unaltered.

'Thank you Zelus,' he thought as the approached the shelf Canterlot was hanging from. at their speed most of the drones that were left were only now beginning to react and if they had enough distance between themselves and the drones by the time they reached the shadows under the city they would be home free.

The group rushed onward, now pulling into a steep climb as they made their way to the tunnel. The plan was relatively simple. Zelus would climb the tunnel, using the natural climbing abilities of her species, and grow him a rope once she reached the top and the entrance to the escape tunnel. Nobody could fly up the tunnel and it would still be tight for the two of them but with their wings tucked it should be possible.

The alicorn focused, his eyes allowing him to make out the rocks in the darkness ahead. He scanned the rocks quickly, trying to use the changeling queen's bearing to find-

'There, that's it! We got it!'

His excitement died shortly after he spotted the entrance. Either due to their proximity or his Spike in excitement, a good fifty drones dropped from their hiding places in the rocks along with several emaciated thestrals and pegasi. Biting back a curse he moved closer to the queen and spoke to her over the howling wind.

"Get the rope in position, I'll lose them."

He grinned as the changeling mare snarled at him, but she nodded and kept her weapons ahead of her. Cimmerian in the meantime allowed a few emotions to bloom, catching the attention of most of the drones even as Zelus continued to cut a gory swath through their numbers. Pulling up and rolling into a dive, the alicorn heard the buzzing getting closer as the drones reached the changeling queen and passed her without a second thought.

'Not really reacting to changelings. Either they give emotions priority or they just don't see her.'

Either way it made her job easier. Now he had to lose them though. With a single flap of his large wings he propelled himself straight down. He rolled mid-flight, putting his belly to the mountain and squinting as the drones from before finally came into view. This wouldn't be comfortable.

The large body of the alicorn drove through the fragile chitin of the drones and scattered those struck like bugs on a windshield. Blinking the gore out of his eyes, Cimmerian twisted and circled the mountain, slowing and looking back to make certain he still had his tail.

'Yup, still a bunch of angry bugs.'

He gave a few more flaps, quickly accelerating to his maximum speed before circling the mountain enough to catch sight of the Minotaur army currently battling its way up the slopes. Seeing the hundreds if not thousands of drones swarming an idea reached him. It would likely make the minotaurs more difficult to deal with but at the moment he could already see their lines flagging under the endless swarms. There just wasn't enough room on the roads for a proper fighting formation.

Cimmerian looped away from the mountain and climbed, knowing his current plan was almost as stupid as any other. He could be overestimating his speed, overestimating his durability, overestimating the power of the wind, hundreds of issues and more that he couldn't think of. But the minotaurs needed to reach Canterlot. To that end, he needed to give them some support, some room to breath.
Looping up and around as he reached the apex of his ascent, the alicorn began to speed towards the mountain.

'So much here is different from home. Belief, willpower, magic. These things can overcome physics if you apply them in great enough amounts. I know this should work. I've seen it done, I can do this.'

Approaching the swarm that was still tailing him the alicorn went into a tight spin, the after pressure from his flight catching any drones that didn't shatter against him and dragging them along with him, he kept spinning, too. He needed the speed to maintain the wind. He needed the wind for this move. He grinned, even as his will faltered just the slightest bit.

'Oh this is going to hurt.'


Cairn was furious. For every drone his forces cut down, two more arrived to take their place. Sure the drones were like fighting tissue paper. Even the ponies who would sometimes arrive to battle them were frail, only really taking a few strikes from the weakest of his army to die. But the numbers. They were almost endless.

He was debating the pros and cons of calling a retreat when he saw a dark shape rocket past, a smaller swarm of the drones chasing after it. The bull scowled but didn't speak, instead reaching for his spyglass. Sure enough it was the demon alicorn, currently going into a steep climb in order to gain altitude. At the height of his climb he looped over himself and twisted into a dive, spinning as he reached the drones pursuing him. As the alicorn continued to spin, a wind tunnel following the dark shape that dragged his enemies into an invisible vortex, Cairn had the first inklings of what the creature was doing.

'There's no way. He'd smear himself-he is. The mad creature's going to-'

"Brace for crosswinds! Anchor yourself or get down! GET DOWN!"

Taking his large ax and burying it into the mountain path, the Minotaur used a meaty fist to cover his eyes but watched as long as he could. The alicorn reached the outer edges of the swarm and then all hell broke lose.

There was a sound of shattering stone, the mountain shook slightly underneath him. A few rocks rolled down from above, but Cairn didn't have time to look to find if the alicorn had smeared himself or managed to survive. The next moment the tailwind stallion had been using to drag along his pursuers struck, throwing all airborne creatures into the mountainside. A plate-wearing bull stepped in front of him at the last moment, bracing himself for the storm of chitin and gore. The wind howled for a moment and there were several shouts of pain as the changeling drones were shattered and broken.

Cairn opened his eyes, finally certain that he couldn't catch a stray rock or chitin shard in his eye for such and act. Looking around, he was left uncertain what to think.

The swarm that had been pelting them since the onset was lowered to a fraction of its original strength, most of the beasts now forming a thick layer of gore on the mountainside and on the still-standing troops he could see. Bulls were starting to pick themselves up off the path, many looking around and pulling out weapons to fight off the four or five drones that were attempting to attack even now. Several others were walking to the cliff side, hurriedly pulling a few of the lighter bulls up from where they'd nearly fallen.

'But where'a the alicorn?'

A sick squelching noise brought his attention to the cliff side high above him. Some of the gore that was layered onto the wall began to shift, bits of chitin and slime falling onto the trail or off of the mountainside. From under the layer of goop the shape of a pair of wings emerged, flapping weakly and beating against the rock in an attempt to throw the gore off of them. The shape of an alicorn's head pulled out of a small indent in the mountain as well, the clean rock underneath the demon giving him away more than anything else. It was almost impossible to see any dark fur amidst the chitin and green goop.

Cairn drew his bow even as the alicorn managed to free itself from the rock, drunkenly fluttering in place as the stallion regained his bearings. Cimmerian gave a wave with a hoof and began to fly away, turning and slowly floating towards the other side of the mountain again. As the alicorn left, Cairn fired. The stallion didn't react though, likely still numb from his impact against the cliff.

'The damn monster, what would it take to kill one?'

"My chieftain, the army wishes to know your orders."

Cairn looked away from the drunkenly flying stallion to the bull, a sneer forming on his lips.

"We continue. We take this damned city and prove once and for all that the ponies can be defeated."

The soldiers switched places, the ones from the back passing his leading unit and allowing them to clean themselves up a bit as well as recover from their almost constant battle to this point. He was pushing hard, but he also wasn't stupid. With the loss of most of the drones, the capital would be even easier to take. But he would also be racing against the alicorn to reach whatever super-weapon Celestia had hidden away in the castle. The lower number of drones meant less to impede Cimmerian as well. He wouldn't let that bastard get his hooves on it. It belonged to the minotaurs. It belonged to Cairn.

As he began trying to wipe some of the muck from his pelt, the bull grinned, spitting into the slimy trail that was even now beginning to fade away.

'Why stop with the ponies? With Celestia's superweapon in my possession I'll do what she was never able to do even in a thousand years. I will conquer this world.'

<-(0)->

It was with a great effort that Zelus finally pulled the alicorn over the edge of the pit. The climb hadn't been easy even for her so the alicorn had stood no chance of moving up the long drop and into the escape tunnel without help. As she pulled him into the small alcove that Twilight and herself were occupying she noticed several things. Firstly that he was absolutely caked in a layer of slime and shards of chitin. The second thing she noticed was how he was walking very carefully.

"You hurt yourself? Again? Cimmerian, we just started this mission."

"Well you know how it, uh goes," the punch-drunk stallion chuckled. "One minute you're flying around looking for a place to drop off a couple dozen angry drones and ponies, the second you see something that reminds you of a cartoon you once saw and think to yourself 'I bet I could do that.' I did, which was totally awesome, but good lord did it hurt."

Zelus shook her head, grabbing one of the stallion's legs and feeling it.

"It doesn't feel broken, but I wouldn't put it past you to have injured it in some-"

"Oh my gosh! Cimmerian, there's an arrow in your butt!"

At Twilight's outburst both of them looked to his rear, seeing the long shaft of an arrow sticking out of the slowly hardening layer of goop on his back.

"Huh, would you look at that."

Grumbling, Zelus pulled the stallion before her and began attempting to wipe away the slime. It was already starting to fade, but that didn't mean she wanted it getting into the wound. Satisfied that the area was as clean as possible given current conditions, she pulled out a small dagger and stabbed it into his flank.

The fact the alicorn only winced at the injury she inflicted worried her but she instead focused on the task at hoof. She cut along the arrow's entry route and grabbed the shaft with her teeth. Pulling it out, she spat it on the ground and took the bandages Twilight was holding. The changelings applied it quickly and efficiently, Twilight standing on his back to allow her better access while Zelus used her longer legs to thread the bandage around his leg and barrel.

Satisfied the stallion was properly bandaged, Zelus nodded to her assistant and moved to re-equip her packs.

"We need to move. The faster we get in the faster we get out, the faster we get back to camp and have you looked at by a doctor."

"I'll be fine," Cimmerian slurred, walking past her into the tunnel and doing his best not to trip. "It's not like it's the first time I played bait while you finished an important mission. It's why I keep you around. You're good at getting the important stuff done. And making sure I survive."

Zelus bit back a hiss at his self-deprecating humor. Pandinus would be pissed if she found out about this but it wasn't as if she could have prevented it. Not in this situation at least. She was too busy trying to make sure they could get to their goal. What the idiot did in the meantime was his own stupid fault.

The changelings followed along behind him, both well aware of what they were walking into. This was the source of the drones, as well as the strongest point of the arrays sphere of influence. It wouldn't be able to just grab them of course, but they'd been able to hear the siren call for a while now.

Giving a quick glance to the wincing drone following along behind her, Zelus made a mental note to ask the mare about it later on. About how it felt when she was the one who had designed the array. Did it sound different to her with her pony mind? Or was it harder because she had been the one to create the abomination? Certainly it was while under the influence of the Nightmare but it was still her hooves and spells that had created the arrays.


Cimmerian grinned even as he wobbled a bit from his earlier impact with the cliff. It had hurt like hell and he would likely be walking funny for days afterwards but the fact that he'd pulled it off was almost enough to dampen what little pain was getting through his dazed nerves.

'That and Din will kill me when she learns about that. It was still cool as hell, though.'

He watched with little interest as they passed through the corridor. For the most part it was almost completely dark save a few glowing crystals here and there. Then there came the first sign of activity, and it was a doozy. Opening up a fairly simple door, Cim was pretty sure he was in the labs.

"Twilight, I'mma slap you for this."

The place looked like a mad scientist had built it. Tesla coils sparked for no apparent reason, there were a few tanks with what he assumed were dead changelings from experimentation and even a few tables with bubbling fluids. The strangest part was that there was also a layer of dust on everything. This amount of activity was the base level for this lab. Which likely meant that all of the activity was for nothing.

"Is there anything actually being done in here or did the Nightmare just use your idea of a mad scientists lab when it made this place?"

"Is that a changeling horn?" Zelus asked, walking up to one bubbling holding-tank and tapping on the glass. "You devoted an entire vat to a single part of a changeling? And one that isn't even that remarkable? You and I both know the link-receptors are in the skull, Twilight. This is just being silly."

"T-this doesn't bother you?" Twilight asked in shock. "There are dead changelings in those vats!"

"Twilight, this is something out of a cheesy sci-fi horror fic," the alicorn chastised her. "I'm doing my best not to laugh at this. Yea it's horrible but the way it's set up-"

"Is the way a nymph would expect a mad scientists laboratory to look like. Certainly you could have done better than this."

"We are not doing this," Twilight muttered, burying her head in her hooves. "We are not spending time talking about how bad my evil laboratory looks when we're here for Luna and the queens."

"I don't know, I think we have some time," the queen giggled, tapping on the glass of another tank, this one with a single piece of changeling chitin.

"Wait, is that a flank-plate? Twilight, why are you keeping a changeling butt in one of these tanks?"

"Because she wants to stare at butts all day, duh," the alicorn answered, grinning as he took one last look around the lab. "Okay, but seriously-"

"Ha, butt!"

"Seriously, where are Luna and the queens?"

"I kept them down this hallway. One of the last things the Nightmare wanted to work on was finding a way to force the array's connection on Luna but she was having trouble making it stick."

Twilight led the group into a small corridor from the lab, several thick doors that reminded the stallion of blast doors from a sci-fi movie sitting open along the path.

"The doors were set to close if ever there was a breach or one of the queens got loose but they had to be activated manually. Now that I think about it, it's kind of useless. I probably should have set them to react to any kind of breach of security."

"Yea, you can think up improvements to your doomsday lab later. Is that it?" Cimmerian asked, pointing to a heavy door in their path.

"That's where we kept the queens," Twilight said. "Zelus, that's where you will want to go. The eggs were supposed to slide into another room with the conveyers too small for the drones to fit through but be careful. All that will be between you and them will be some metal bars and their lack of horns. They're still very dangerous, and strong too."

"Not as strong as I am now," the changeling queen whispered. "Twilight, make certain that Luna is well and if I do not tell you otherwise or follow you, bring her with you. We shall set up our teleport array-"

"The lab may be better unless the queen's chamber is really big or we manage to save a bunch of queens," Cimmerian said, looking back down the hallway. "I actually expected some sort of security in here but I guess this is also the kind of thing you don't show your troops. That's Luna's door?"

A nod from the drone rider confirmed his suspicions and he moved closer to the relatively new door. A quick check for traps and he pushed it open with a hoof.

Cimmerian winced as he took sight of the smaller alicorn mare strapped to the table in the middle of the room. There were arrays etched all over her, each one apparently failing as none of them had any color.

"The Nightmare couldn't figure out why the arrays didn't work," Twilight explained. "I understood by then, but I already was doing my best to mislead her. I, I, oh my goodness, what have I done..."

"You fucked up, Sparkle, I get it. Now help me get her lose. Is there any kind of alarm holding her or that we need to worry about?"

"Three or four," Twilight replied, shrugging as he stared at her. "I set up alarms for everything, all keyed to alert me with a different frequency if they were tripped. We already tripped three and Zelus will trip several more but the minotaurs have also been tripping them for the last few hours. The Nightmare doesn't know how to turn them off, so right now she likely won't even notice the addition of a few more. I don't think she even knows what the tones are set for. I mean, I had damaged gate set to vibrate my ear at 5 rpm, a queen escaping is a horn buzzer, the lab being invaded will buzz her left shoulder right behind the peak of the socket, and the castle itself being infiltrated is another seven different alarms based on the point of entry. They're actually based on Pinkie's Pinkie Sense, but with so many alarms I had to use some of the same body parts over again so I went with different frequencies for different causes. I memorized them, but the Nightmare didn't. With all the alarms going off in her head, it will likely be difficult to focus on anything."

Cimmerian stopped in his examination of the comatose mare before him to look at the black and purple drone.

"Twilight, that's the kind of thing I'd like to know ahead of time. I get it, it doesn't seem important. But we're tripping alarms as we go around and that's not something I want to hear."

The mare's ears folded back and he sighed.

"It's fine, in a way I feel better about this. I was waiting for some sort of alarm to go off and send in a ton of drones or troops but to hear the alarms were tied directly to you...I still don't like it and would prefer you warn me beforehand but I'm fine with this too. Just keep it in mind in the future, okay? Some of us prefer to know such things even if you don't think it's relevant."

Wasting no more time, Cimmerian moved over and began looking for a way to remove the bands holding the small mare down. It was almost painful seeing her like this when he knew what she was supposed to look like at the height of her power. Now though she was once more a filly, a form she would likely be both familiar with and sick and tired of at this point. Array scars littered her body except for where the straps held her to the table and possibly her underside. Her wings were missing a few feathers and she was filthy, but that could be fixed. It would all be fixed.

The most surprising thing he saw was that Luna's horn was still intact. To that small blessing he could only attribute the Nightmare's desire for Luna to remain combat capable, either after she was fixed with the array or if she could somehow take the alicorn's body.

'God, that would be a bitch, wouldn't it? I can ask Zelus- no, I can ask Twilight.'

"Let me know if her emotions seem weird when we wake her up."

With that the stallion moved closer to the table and began gently shaking the blue alicorn mare.

"Luna. Luna, wake up. Luuuuna."

The mare moved away from his hoof and he frowned, poking her again.

"Luna? Luna can you hear me?"

"Oh my gosh, she activated- I'm sorry, Cimmerian, I didn't even notice. The table has several arrays to keep ponies or drones docile while I work. Numbing arrays, stunners, vision and sound dampeners, she likely can't feel, see or hear anything at the moment. Here, let me turn them-"

"No! No, you do NOT expose someone who's been in a deprivation chamber for who knows how long to too much at once, it can hurt them badly. Have you ever been in a dark room and had someone flip the light on? Especially when you were sleeping? Multiply that by several days of being in total silence and darkness. You are not doing that to her."

Moving around the room, Cimmerian began grabbing things here and there. A bunch of cotton that would act as earplugs, some bandages that could be held over the mares eyes, even a pair of nose plugs in the event the smells were a bit too much. They'd have to be careful with her and watch carefully, as he had no way of knowing how long Luna had been in the magical isolation chamber and they'd have no way to know until she was able to tell them herself.

'Even then we may never know. Here, it's not possible to tell how much time has passed. Unless she could feel the time passing through her connection to the moon.'

"Sparkles, this is two. I need to know these things beforehand. Now help me get this stuff on her."

Luna was shifting as they worked, or at least trying to, but it was clear that the mare was both exhausted and just about out of fight.

'Don't think I'm going to have to worry about the Nightmare having taken her if she was left like this. It would have turned the arrays off first.'

Making certain all of the items were properly secured to the smaller alicorn, Cimmerian gave Twilight a nod. The drone-rider turned to a small controlling array, deactivating the spells one by one until with a snap, even the bands holding Luna down were turned off and retracted into the table.

Slowly, Cimmerian touched his hoof to Luna's, pulling back slightly as she jumped at the sudden contact. It made her ears perk though, and she moved her other hoof to grab his leg and began to feel what it was she had been touched by. Frowning at the dry croak the blue mare made, he pulled out his canteen...only to scowl as he found it punctured by a rock shard.
"Fuck. Got any spare water, Sparkle?"

<-(0)->

Zelus was almost shaking with nerves as she forced open the heavy door that led to the queen holding area. The array's pull wasn't any stronger here than it had been, in fact after destroying the one in the Everfree she felt strong enough to fight it even if she was captured and the they tried to forcefully slave her to the link. The thing that scared her was the state of the queens she found.

Like Heart had been they were bloated, their reproductive organs working overtime to keep up with he extreme number of drones that was required by the arrays in the patrolling of the city. Even as she watched the queens would flex and shift. Eggs would drop behind them into a soft trough, carrying away the nymph to used as another cog in its unfeeling machine. They were lifeless to her eyes, the faces of these mares betraying no thought, no emotion. A nearby Crystal thrummed with power but she passed by it. This close to the main arrays, its destruction wouldn't stop the queens or the drones. There were too many others nearby. All it would do if she attempted to destroy it would be to set off an alarm that someone was in the queen chamber.

Instead she approached the cages, kicking away a few bones of deceased victims that the queens had been fed in their madness. They didn't even react to her presence. They could sense emotion, but the energy she had was not radiated. It was a form of energy they were not programmed to respond to.

Zelus bent the bars apart and began to check the first queen in the line, grabbing the mare's head in her hooves and using her magic to prod the broodmare's mind for any semblance of sanity. A thought, a memory, a desire. Something to use to follow it back to where the queen's hibernating mind was hiding away. She already knew that for some there would be no recovery. But she had to try, she had to give them a chance, even if they ended up leaving the hive once they'd recovered. She'd been given that chance, as had Heart, Lestidae, and now Pulmonus. She had to try, she owed it to her species.

Zelus pulled away from the first queen after nearly three minutes of prodding and searching. She moved to the next queen, silently repeating her promise like a mantra. She had to try, she had to give them a chance. She poked, she called out in the queen's mind, she twisted a link-connection, an action that would cause an odd pain and would wake her from even the deepest sleep, a trick her old companion had taught her a few months ago in the event they were put into a magical sleep. Still the second broodmare didn't respond.

Choking back her anxiety, Zelus nearly broke the third queen's neck as she lifted the bloated mare's head in her hooves. She had to try, she had to-

'I see you.'

The armored mare gave an almost manic giggle, following the faint wisps of memories through the maze of a mind. It was an older queen, one who knew how to protect themselves from a mental battle. She was still there.

'Open your eyes. Open them and find that this hell is about to end.'

Zelus was nearly giggling when she felt the queen stirring, likely for the first time in a long while. She was about to try speaking again when it all went wrong.

'Freedom,' the queen mumbled, reversing Zelus' intrusion and pushing into her own mind. 'I need...to get out.'

Zelus' words were ignored, the older mare brutally making her way into Zelus' own mind. It wasn't kind, it wasn't like her times with her mother or swapping around with Pandinus, this was the feeling of her physical control being suppressed by force.

With a grunt of effort, Zelus pushed back against the still weak mare, leaving them staring at each other in the waking world as their connection was broken. Panting with the rush of adrenaline, Zelus put her hoof on the other queen's neck, pressing down and choking the older mare even as she ground her teeth. She wanted to, to-

'No, they're scared. I should have seen this as a possibility. They need to get out of here and are willing to do anything. It's not evil, it's just desperation.'

Taking a breath to calm herself, Zelus removed her hoof from the bloated mare's neck and lifted the queen's head.

"We are getting the surviving queens out of here. The Mad Queen is losing her grip on Canterlot even now. I am checking to find which of you survived. After we get out of here, you will be given time to recover and when you wish, you may leave. None will stop you. My hive sister has already given this offer to four queens that have been freed before this including myself, so far only one has caused problems and the only issue Pandinus had with her was she stole drones from my sisters hive. She stole drones that did not belong to her when she chose to leave."

Letting the queen's head fall to the ground none-too-gently in order to make her irritation known, Zelus made her way to the next queen. She wouldn't make the same mistake twice, though. This time she was cautious, poking here and there in the subjugated mare's mind. Once more the mare was empty though, leaving Zelus with a measly one queen for four she'd checked. Looking over the rest of the queen's she began counting the remaining mares when she caught sight of something that made her blood run cold.

At the far end of the chamber were five empty cells, three of which seemed to have been occupied at some time in the past. The other two though, the last two were clean and unused. Sure there was room in the chamber for more of the cells, but these two were prepared. These two cells were waiting for occupants.

'She knew of us, knew we were on the run.'

Zelus walked past the remaining mares and stared at the two empty stalls. She could picture it now, actually. She'd likely end up in this first one, being the younger queen, while Lestidae would have been trapped in the second. They would have been enslaved to the arrays by the time they were brought here, their wills crushed, their crowns removed, and their horns shattered even as the arrays did their work, forcing their bodies to change and balloon in size, allowing them to produce more drones more quickly. The two would begin adding to the swarm as they were told to do, and she...she would...

With a scream of rage and terror, the queen ripped the doors off of the cell before her, throwing them across the chamber and embedding the alloyed bars into the far wall. She screamed again, biting the table that would have held her down, pulling it up with enough force to cause the bolts holding it down to give way. She threw it as well and charged forward, bursting through the bars that would have separated her from her now-deceased friend. She raised herself up and stomped on the table, crushing it as she stomped it into an unrecognizable mass of metal. It was so close, and she wasn't this strong back then. It would have been over, that damn alicorn, that damn nightmare would have won and she'd be a brain-dead egg sack. She would have mindlessly laid eggs until the Nightmare decided that it was done with them and found a way to finally kill them as well. It-

"Zelus? Zel! Zelly, talk to me. Are you okay?"

She turned, still heaving and shaking even as she saw Cimmerian approaching. She wanted to lash out, to put him through a wall as well but she could taste it in the air. He wasn't like the one that had put her through this. It was only concern, concern for a friend and a sister. Family.

She continued to shake even as he looked around the cell she was thrashing, his emotions roiling and agitating the starving queens she still hadn't checked. One though, one of the queens was watching carefully, her eyes flickering with the array's power and the mare's own color as she began fighting its influence once more.

"I, I am. I'm sorry, I just saw these cells and-"

"I understand, you got scared," he soothed, pulling her into a hug and smothering her in a protective blanket of emotion and familiar scents. "Look, have you checked any of them? Can we pull any of them out?"

"The, the third queen," she croaked, "The first two and the one after her are blank. I-I haven't gotten any farther than that."

"Okay, I'm going to see about covering her and then I want you to finish checking them. When we get back to camp you can stay right next to me for as long as you need, okay? We're going to finish this, save as many as we can, and then we're going to leave this horrible place."

She wanted to argue, to just sit there for a moment as she recovered from her-episode? What would one even call that?- her thing but she caught sight of Twilight walking in the door, a weak-looking alicorn mare being pulled along behind her on a litter.

'It's not just me. I, I have to finish this. Twilight would get crushed by these mares the moment she makes contact. We need to be careful.'

She began once more, using her magic to pull the door off of its hinges as she approached the fifth queen. Cimmerian was currently stepping closer to the third, shrouding her in his power and causing the color of the arrays to fade completely from the queen's eyes. Zelus picked up the mare's head and focused.

She checked and she moved on.

She checked and moved on.

She checked and told Twilight to alert the alicorn to another living queen.

Zelus was almost done. One last queen remained, the last on the row before the room...she shook her head and picked up the queen's head in her hooves. One of the queens was raving mad, demanding Zelus join them all in service to their new god. Another had presence, memories and such, but Zelus had been unable to garner any kind of reaction from the mare. Cimmerian still wanted to take the mare, though. She deserved the chance, he said, and they would be able to give it a more concerted effort once they were safe.

That was all though. Sixteen queens that had been captured and they saved only four from this hell.

Zelus was slowly rooting through the final queens mind and was about to call a miss when she ran into a wall. A wall in the mare's mind, keeping it safe from her torment. Zelus snapped awake once more, testing the wall for weaknesses as she shifted herself into a more comfortable sitting position. She could already feel Cimmerian moving closer, encompassing the queen in his shadows and granting safety from the arrays. Then she felt him pushing into the mare as well, finding the queen in her dream-like hibernation. As if a door had been opened, Zelus felt herself physically stumble into the last queen's mind.

Cimmerian caught her with his shoulder, bracing her as she realized she was coming into contact with the alicorn in the queen's dream, or whatever this was.

"It's a safe place," Cimmerian whispered. Pointing ahead of them. "It's where she retreated when the world stopped making sense. We may be able to wake her, but we must be very careful. If we do this wrong, we could lose her."

Zelus followed his hoof and saw several changelings dancing and laughing and playing. A queen sitting high on a throne of stone, several little proto-queens giggling and wrestling about, and a few drones buzzing here and there and seeing to the needs of the royals. It was obvious to the armored mare; this was her family. It was a group the queen felt safe around. Should she shift into one of the drones and try to infiltrate the games that way before approaching the queen? Should she just walk up to the mare and start speaking? Should she-

She blinked, watching in confusion as Cimmerian slowly approached the foals and sat down on the ground close to them. He was smiling gently, the type of smile he used on foals in the Temple. Then he started humming some strange tune, a lullaby from what she could tell. Why he would approach the foals though...

Several of the drones faded away as the foals began to take notice of him. A few looked fearful but there were a few that focused, sensing the emotions coming from this strange creature. Cimmerian spoke quietly, almost a whisper as he began to speak.

"Hi, what's your name?"

The nymphs looked to the queen before looking back to him. One spoke in hushed tones, and Zelus realized it was the queen she was searching for. She wanted to slap herself for not seeing it sooner, but it was too late. At least Cimmerian had figured it out before she'd done something stupid.

"Momma said not to talk to strangers. Strangers can hurt us."

"Well my name is Cimmerian," the alicorn said gently. "I'm looking for a little queen. Have you seen her?"

Zelus watched cautiously as the proto-queen looked to her and back to the alicorn, not realizing the queen and the throne had faded from the hallucination.

"I'm gonna be a queen. Momma said I'm gonna be the bestest queen, too," the nymph boasted. "I-where's momma?"

Zelus winced, watching as the proto-queen started looking around in a panic as the rest of the nymphs faded away.

"I don't know," Cimmerian said, concern flooding his voice and emotions, both easily detected by the nymph before him. "Do you know her name?"

The little one thought hard, her frown deepening as she looked around the now-empty cavern.

"I, I think I remember. It was... it was Queen Red, Redo, Ruh-Reduv-"

"Reduviidae," Zelus whispered, stepping closer to the smaller mare. "Queen Reduviidae is your mother?"

The nymph nodded, backing away from the strange queen.

"I take it you know this queen?" Cimmerian asked. She could already feel his unease; he likely knew her answer. There was only one real reason a queen would know another after all.

"Do you know the name Zelus, little one?" Zelus asked the nymph, causing the little changeling to cock her head in thought.

"Zel-us. Zell...Zelly? Do you know Zelus? I think I remember....Momma said something about..."

"My name is Queen Zelus, little one. Queen Reduvii was my mother as well. I had not heard from her in a long while, but I knew..."

Zelus picked the little proto queen up, nuzzling her.

"You're going to be alright, little one. What do you re-"

"Zelus. Give her a moment, please," the stallion pleaded, pointing to the scared nymph in her forelegs.

Zelus almost dropped the smaller mare, placing her on the ground and pointing to Cimmerian.

"This is Cimmerian, little sister. This is the one who helped me when I was scared and lost. He has another queen as a mate, Pandinus, and Din wants to try and help all the queens we can. We're going to help you, he wants to help you, so if you need anything, don't hesitate to ask him, okay?"

She stepped back, feeling guilty about scaring the mare like that. There was no telling at this point if the queen truly was that young when she was taken or she was merely hiding in her memories, but any queen should have known...if Zelus had come across the little proto queen before The Hunt, she likely would have killed her without a second thought. Of course she was scared of the larger queen.

Taking a breath to calm herself, something she found herself doing quite a lot of lately, she closed her eyes and merely listened to the nymph as she spoke quietly to the stallion.

"I don't understand..."

"I know, kiddo. It's weird, but the queens that live with me don't act like that. It's...it's not good right now. Something bad happened. The changelings cant live like that right now. We need queens. We need them happy and healthy. You see how big she is? When I first saw her she was rail-thin. She was scared and hungry, and I couldn't stand it. So Din did as I asked, she helped her. Now Zelus is my friend. I help her and keep her safe, and she does the same for me.

"We have three queens in the same hive right now. Pandinus, Heart and Zelus. They don't hurt each other. They won't hurt you, I promise. Now, we're going to leave, and it's up to you. You can stay here for a while and we'll come back to get you, or you can come with us. Which do you want to do?"


Cimmerian returned to the land of the living in the blink of an eye, finding two shining eyes staring back at him. The queen's eyes widened and she began to panic and thrash only to have Zelus move closer and begin whispering into her ear, holding the younger queen in much the same way he had held her. Zelus was reassuring her, telling her it would be fixed, that before too long she would be free to go wherever she wanted. That it was almost over.

"How's the array coming, Sparky?"

"Do NOT call me that," Twilight hissed, turning back to her array with a bit of chalk she had kept in her chitin. "I'm just about done. It had to be big, because well, we're bringing a lot of ponies; er, people. Anyway I'm just putting on the finishing touches now, mostly corrections for the warping all the crystals around us cause. After that I'll need Queen Zelus for some power and we'll be ready to leave. How many...?"

"Three," Cimmerian replied quietly. "Four out of around seventeen queens. That's not good numbers but honestly I'm surprised we did this well. Their race will recover though. I'll make sure of it. Even if I have to supply the food myself."

"You're....insane," the third queen, the first one Zelus had found croaked before breaking into dry, heaving laughter.

"Maybe, but I'm in good company. And it turns out insanity is healthy for changelings. Right Zel?"

The mare set her sister down beside the circle and stood tall beside him, radiating pride as she stared down the other queen.

"I went from a frail mess to this in about a month because his mate gave me the love needed to force the changes quickly. A cocoon of love in which I hibernated while changing myself. She also kept my first clutch. They were there when I returned from the last mission Cimmerian wished to make, and they will be there when I return from this mission. She linked them to our hive and they will be treated as her own."

"And should a time come where Pandinus must travel, I will guard our hive as she did in my absence, and I will keep her nymphs as my own. Because we do not need to fight for food. We have a better way, one that allows our kind to be known and to thrive."

"The Nightmare has already exposed us to the world, more thoroughly than any mad changeling queen before her. Ponies, griffons, minotaurs and zebras will not forget us this time, old one. We are the force that was used to conquer. An army that rose under a pony queen's control and set this world aflame. We will let you do as you please for the most part, once you recover, but do not make the same mistakes my one-time ally did. In our new way of life, the food fights for us and we fight for them. To attack one is to attack the other, and we will defend one another."

"Done!" Twilight cheered, looking up and finding the tense situation that had progressed without her knowing. "Oh..."

Cimmerian chuckled, moving the scowling queen into position.

"We will be able to argue this point at a later time, your highness. For now though, we have places to be. Zelus, what do you want to do with the other queens?"

The thick-armored mare looked back to the cells at the bloated forms still within before looking her sister.

"I think we should destroy them. Were I in their position, death would be a release."

"Kill them," the first queen rasped, "Their minds were not strong enough, only their bodies remain."

"D-destroy them," Zelus' sister whispered. "Don't leave them here. Like this."

Cimmerian nodded, taking out a blade and moving from cell to cell. As a final attempt at freeing them, he would push the shadows around them. It cut off the arrays, letting them free at the very least. It wasn't the only reason he did it though. Some portion of him hoped that one would react. That one would wake up.

"You're wasting your power," a dry voice called to him from across the room.

"Offering someone the chance at freedom is never a waste," he retorted. "If I didn't believe in this sort of thing, I wouldn't even be here. I would have come up here, dropped an explosive in this room and left. Keep that in mind next time you call mercy a waste of time."

He moved down the line just as Zelus had, driving the blade into the queens that didn't respond which was at this point, all of them. Of the thirteen kept in this chamber, he was just about to drive his blade into the eleventh when he stopped, the blade centimeters from the mare's eye.

"Her eye twitched. Zelus, Zel I want you to check- no we'll do it later. Throw her in the array as well. If nothing else I'll sleep better knowing we gave her a fighting chance."

Putting the last queen out of her misery, Cimmerian made his way to the array as well. He watched as Zelus and Twilight began running power into the array, forcing magic through the lines the drone-rider had etched only moments ago. Magic was already in the lines, of course, holding the chalk to the floor and preventing scuffing but now the energy was crackling. The energy rose and his hair stood on end, he took one last look to Luna, making certain the mare was still on the litter and smiled. It was a good day. The only thing that would make it better at this point...

<-(0)->

Cairn huffed as he moved through the halls of Canterlot Castle. The fighting had been brutal but the drones were nowhere near as innumerable as he'd first thought. In fact it seemed the numbers had been tapering off in the last few hours. As the sun set, Cairn moved with determination in his search. It was here, it had to be. This was the library, the alicorn said-

"My Chieftain, we found something over here!"

The bull gave a last sprint to the voice, puffing and panting as he rounded the last corner in the back area. A door stood before him, a plain and otherwise non-descript door that even the minotaurs could feel thrumming with magic.

"This is it, the weapon. I, I've done it. I've beaten that damned alicorn! With, with this we won't have to stop with Equestria. The minotaur people will take this entire planet!"

"My chieftain, are you certain this is wise? It could be a trap set by-"

"No, no that bastard wanted to get here, we even saw him trying to find a way in that was not overcome by those damned swarms. But this, this is my victory! I will never again see a minotaur defeated by any race, in anything! This thing is mine!"

With that Cairn shoulder-checked the door, snapping the locks and breaking one of the doors off of it's hinges. He looked around for the weapon, a confused look appearing on his face as he noticed only a single chair in an otherwise empty white room. It slowly turned to face him, revealing a strange creature with mismatched body parts and a white mask on its face. The chair stopped as it faced Cairn and the minotaurs shifted, drawing weapons and preparing for a fight. Then the abomination spoke.

"Hello. I want to play a game with you all..."

Author's Note:

I love reading stories, but I hate cliffhangers. I also hate having to write half a chapter when I could just keep writing and finish what I was thinking of.

You guys know what else I like? References. Lots of them, like the ones I threw all over this freakin' chapter. Have fun, I did.

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