• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,705 Views, 206 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven

A pony begins a journey to find his parents, lost heroes who vanished years ago.

  • ...

Do Something

Chapter Twenty Nine: Do Something

Antares shivered a bit as he sat with his back to the library door, simply breathing slowly in and out. He closed his eyes, then swallowed thickly as he tilted his head up towards the night sky, feeling the moon's rays shimmering down over him quietly before he murmured: “I just... Mom, Dad, if you're out there somewhere, if you can somehow... help... please. I could... we all could really use your aid right about now.”

“They are always with you, Antares, even when they are not.” said a gentle voice, and Antares twitched before grimacing a bit at Selene as the Nephilim slowly strode towards him, a soft smile on her face. “Greetings, young prince.”

“Selene...” Antares murmured, and he looked slowly over the strange creature, before half-turning his head away and mumbling: “I don't know if I can honestly say it's good to see you or not. Maybe it's not fair, but you didn't do a whole lot to help out... in fact, it seemed like you were happy to just sit around and watch us all struggle until Greece finally lit the holy oil.”

“I suppose I was confused. Normally I am not permitted to fight or show great feats of power... worry not, in the future, I will remedy this.” Selene smiled gently, then she added softly: “Besides, what does it matter? We have eradicated many of the Takers. You and Celestia spoke at great length before she left again... the Dawn Bringer will no doubt figure out a way to stop the monster.”

Antares was silent, and Selene's endless gaze seemed to intensify, the Nephilim tilting her head with interest. “You are angry with her. And afraid... and do not believe that things will work as hoped.”

The glossy-black young stallion closed his eyes, bowing his head forwards as he reached silently up to place with the onyx star hanging around his neck as he murmured: “What's the point in trying to lie, Selene? It's one in the morning, my Mom is... gone again... Celestia is being blinded by emotion and she made me stay here. She barely took the time to wash off the blood and repair her armor before she ran back out to the battlefield with Sleipnir. Pinkamena, Apps, you, and a whole bunch of other demons are all on duty too, I know... but right now, she's out there, with my uncle and a whole bunch of Starlit Knights and Nibelung and... I barely even know what they're doing.

“I get that I'm young. I get that... she wants to protect me, and protect Ponyville. But at full strength, with a massive army, with a trap that worked perfectly... we still... people still...” Antares shivered. “And Cancer and Griselda shoved us back. If we hadn't had luck on our side, if Greece hadn't been preparing that escape plan... the Takers would have chased us all the way into Ponyville. We would have all died...”

Selene only smiled, however, asking gently: “Then what would you have her do, Antares? What would you do, given the situation? It is easy to criticize, but-”

“You know that's not what I mean!” Antares replied in a frustrated voice, stomping a hoof against the ground, and then he clenched his eyes shut when Selene only gazed at him almost tenderly. “I... sorry. It's just... everything that's happened...”

“I cannot say I understand... but I sympathize, young Antares. At least to a point.” Selene replied softly, and she looked thoughtfully over the young unicorn for a few moments before continuing: “Celestia is trying her best. But the Dawn Bringer is a creature of passion. She acts logically, yes, and her stratagem is always sound, but she is all the same driven by her emotions. This creates... confusion.”

“I know... I know.” Antares murmured, glancing up. “And it's not that I don't trust her or doubt in her. It's that I'm scared of Cancer and Griselda... that I have this awful feeling in my gut things are going to get a lot worse before they start getting better.”

Selene smiled calmly at this, tilting her head as she asked: “And why is that a bad thing, Antares Mīrus? You long for experiences, do you not? You desire to be on the battlefield, to take on great odds as your parents did. This is that very opportunity; you should be happy for it, young prince of the night.”

The glossy-black unicorn looked almost repulsed at this thought, shivering a bit as he shook his head weakly, and there was silence between the two for a few moments before Selene tilted her head and asked curiously: “What will you do if the Valkyrie fails? How will you lead us if the Dawn Bringer falls? There is no one else, after all, with Twilight lost...”

“My... my mom isn't lost, she's fine, and... I mean, there's you, and Sleipnir, and... and... Celestia is going to be fine!” Antares argued, grimacing and shaking his head hurriedly as he glared across at the still calm, smiling Nephilim. “Selene...”

But the creature only continued to gaze at him with interest in its endless, galactic eyes, before she replied gently: “I am only an administrator first and foremost, Antares. I do not give commands and take leads for my sake or that of others, but merely follow the orders that I am given by the few I find worthy of my appreciation and idolization. The Dawn Bringer has always been most efficient in this... it is why she favors me as head of Subterra. I am a figurehead, and an obedient daughter of the moon: but I am no guide myself.”

For some reason, this made Antares shudder, and he grimaced a little before shifting uncomfortably as he carefully drew his eyes over Selene, trying to read her body language, sizing her up apprehensively. But the Nephilim was almost impossible for him to get a fix on: she was so strange, so alien, and her body stood almost stock-still, never betraying a twitch or a movement, as beautiful and frozen as a statue. Her expressions were like masks, worn in imitation of the emotions around her, like a machine that was trying to convince itself and the world it was alive. The only thing that gave away anything at all was her gaze, but when Antares met those eyes, it was like staring into the depths of space and hoping to catch a glimpse of god among the stars...

Antares realized he was looking into Selene's eyes, and he winced back and closed his own tightly, taking a short, sharp breath as the Nephilim chuckled quietly, murmuring: “Fear not, Antares... fear not for yourself, and nor for me. Simply breathe: what will happen, will happen, and you cannot stop it. You cannot save everyone, but you will not fail everyone either; you are a worthy successor to your parents' victories and defeats.”

“I don't know if I should thank you or be mad at you.” Antares mumbled, and Selene only laughed quietly before the young stallion sighed, looking ahead and saying finally: “Just... be careful, and keep an eye on Celestia. Make sure she gets out okay... that things don't go wrong.”

“I am afraid that last order has already gone wrong, Antares... I do not have the power to force everything to go right.” Selene said gently, and Antares grumbled under his breath as he dropped his head forwards. For a few moments, silence spiraled out, and then the Nephilim turned away and said softly: “Your friends are still awake inside the library. They are scared for you, young stallion. Go, spend some time with them.”

Antares sighed after a moment, watching as the glowing, winged unicorn-shaped creature walked slowly away. He watched her go, then closed his eyes and bowed his head forwards, murmuring: “I guess... I guess I should.”

He shook his head slowly, then turned around and silently pushed the door open, smiling awkwardly as he carefully made his way back inside. Rustproof, Meadowlark, Prestige and Avalon all looked quickly up at him from where they were sitting in an awkward circle on the floor, and the young stallion quietly closed the door behind him as he walked over to join the circle before lowering his head and mumbling: “I'm... I'm okay now. I'm sorry I got so upset guys, I'm being stupid about this whole thing.”

“No, you ain't, Mir. Hell, I was pretty damn angry myself, after all.” Avalon said moodily, looking up at him and nodding once. The tiny Pegasus was wrapped in a blanket, and had a mug of tea in front of her that she kept making faces at, but when Meadowlark reached out and nudged her firmly, the young golden mare finally groaned and picked this up, sipping at it grouchily and shivering once. “I... I ain't so bad off. Really.”

“Yes, midget, you only vomited once tonight.” Prestige said softly, and Avalon gave her a surly look. The two studied each other for a moment, and then the young unicorn mare shifted a little before saying quietly: “I would prefer you didn't die. There aren't many angry shorn-wing runts in Ponyville that I could see myself getting along with.”

“I hate you, Prissy.” Avalon smiled all the same, then she rose her head and shook it quickly as Antares sat down by Rustproof, as the enormous blue pony gave him a nod and a reassuring look. “But hey, I am doing better. I just need sleep. And we all know I'm great at sleeping.”

“Yeah, I don't know if that's something you should say with such pride.” Antares said with a small smile, and Avalon grunted as she sipped at her tea before the young stallion shook his head a bit. “But I'm glad. I really am... you... you all mean a lot to me. I'm glad I can depend on all of you even now, but... Aviator, you should go and get some rest. All of you should, we've... we've all had it rough.”

“No, not yet.” Meadowlark said softly, glancing over at Antares, and Rustproof nodded a little in agreement as the young unicorn stallion looked up curiously. “Antares, we're... we all know that Celestia is setting up something tonight, for another battle with Cancer. Do you know where it's taking place and what's going on?”

“I...” Antares hesitated, and then he nodded after a moment, sighing. “Yeah, I do. I know the basics of the plan... even though Celestia wants me to stay out of this one. The reason Apps isn't here is because she, Pinkamena, and a whole bunch of other demons are getting ready...”

“So's Zecora, but she wouldn't tell me anything about what's going on.” Meadowlark murmured, and then the red Pegasus shook her head slowly, looking apprehensively at the floor. “It makes me really nervous, Antares. Celestia seemed... really angry when she left. And she took most of the Starlit Knights that had arrived with her... what's she planning? The... the attack...”

“Yeah. It wasn't good.” Antares shook his head a little, then he hesitated before closing his eyes. “I think she's going to target the Takers this time... I think she means to destroy as many of them as possible and then... attack Griselda, but I don't know. She was hard to read... she was so focused, so intent, but so...”

He fell quiet, and there was silence for a few moments before Rustproof shifted slowly, then reached up and carefully pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his breast pocket. Meadowlark sighed tiredly and looked across at him imploringly, and then Antares smiled a bit, glancing over at the young male as he said softly: “You better not, Rusty. Not just because you're not supposed to but because if Mom or Aunt Tia smell your smoke in the library, they'll probably do some pretty awful things to you.”

Rustproof paused at this, then slowly tucked the box of cigarettes back away in his pocket before Avalon mumbled: “I could really go for a smoke right now. Or a whole buttload of caffeine. Or one of those pills your Mom takes sometimes, Rusty, that let her work for twenty hours straight. Your Mom's really weird, you know that?”

“Yeah. But she's a good pony. So's Dad.” Rustproof said softly, nodding a little as he smiled a bit and glanced down. “I'm lucky they're my parents.”

Antares smiled a little himself as Meadowlark gazed across at the blue earth pony softly, and Prestige shifted uncomfortably before Avalon said mildly: “Even though Cowlick's kind of psychotic sometimes and you spend like. Ninety percent of your time working?”

“I like working. I like the facility. And I like Momma. She makes me feel just like I'm her real son, after all.” Rustproof replied with another small smile, and the other ponies all looked with surprise at the earth pony before he chuckled a little, glancing up quietly at the others and only giving them a quietly-entertained look.

Prestige was the first to react, shifting a bit before she asked finally: “So you... your parents told you that...”

Rustproof only gave the unicorn mare a gentle look, then he turned his eyes back over the group with a slow shrug. “I ain't stupid. Momma's real strong but she's not too tall. Dad's lanky-like. I don't look none or seem none like either of 'em, too, and... ain't like I never heard none of the rumors or nothing. But it's okay. Momma's my Momma. Dad's my Dad. That's all there is to it.”

There was quiet for a few moments, and then Antares reached up and firmly squeezed Rustproof's shoulder, and the young earth pony smiled softly before Meadowlark murmured quietly: “So I guess you really are lucky in a way then, huh?”

Rusty agreed with a smile and a nod, and Avalon snorted as she sipped slowly at her tea, muttering: “You're way too nice, kid. Me? I'd be breaking things and screaming my head off if I found out I was... you know. But I think that's because... you know. I'm kinda attached to my Mom and Dad.”

“They'd still be your parents.” Antares pointed out, and Avalon blew a raspberry at him that shortly turned into a long yawn. Then she cursed tiredly and slumped a little, rubbing slowly at her face. “Ava, seriously, you should go to bed...”

“Oh, fine, I'm going to go sleep in the guest room then. I'm too goddamn tired to go home and... and Mom and Dad are both gone with Celestia.” Avalon quieted, lowering her head a little, and Antares softened as he inwardly cursed himself: he'd gotten so caught up with everything he'd forgotten that all his friends had plenty of worries of their own. From badly-hurt parents to ones freshly taking to the battlefield... but Avalon seemed to catch the train of his thoughts, looking up with a small smile. “Hey, it's fine. Big Mac and Soarin' will help take care of 'em both, and there's lots of others there and stuff. Besides, Mom and Dad are... they're really tough.”

There was quiet for a few moments, and then Avalon cleared her throat and nodded before putting the half-full mug of tea down and pushing it away with a grimace “Yeah, bed. Bed would be swell. And Rusty, you should head home too. If tough little me is going off to sleep then a big softie like you really should consider hitting the hay.”

Rustproof hesitantly nodded, and then he glanced over at the window and murmured: “Yeah. Home would be good.”

The earth pony climbed to his hooves, and Meadowlark smiled as she stood up as well, saying quietly: “Then I'll walk with you, Rustproof. And Antares... get... get some good sleep yourself, okay?” The red Pegasus hesitated for a moment... then she hurried forwards, and the two traded a tight hug as Prestige glanced awkwardly away. Meadowlark pulled back after a moment, though, and Antares smiled faintly at her before the scarlet Pegasus glanced between the young unicorns, murmuring: “Take care of each other.”

“I promise.” Prestige said softly, glancing almost embarrassedly at Meadowlark, almost like she was ashamed of herself, and Meadowlark nodded slowly before turning as Rustproof tossed the others a quick wave, then followed the mare out. For a few moments there was silence... and then it was interrupted by Avalon sneezing loudly as she looked up at the two thoughtfully.

Prestige and Antares both looked mildly over their shoulders at her, and then Avalon cocked her head and began curiously: “So like, when you two have sex...”

“Oh shut up, Ava.” Antares muttered, blushing beet red, and Prestige grumbled and pointedly looked away as the young Pegasus grinned up at them... then sneezed again, and the young stallion winced a bit as he asked quietly: “Hey, are you sure you're okay? You look kind of... flushed.”

“Maybe I'm...” Then Avalon halted in whatever rude response she was about to give as she visibly swayed on the spot, before grasping at her head and mumbling: “Oh hell. Oh hell, that's not good. Okay, screw this, I'm going to bed.”

With that, Avalon carefully shrugged off the blanket and climbed to her hooves, awkwardly beginning to turn around... but instead, she tripped over the blanket and fell in a sprawl, wings buzzing weakly once as her eyes blinked lethargically. Antares looked down at her with concern, but Avalon only smacked her lips loudly before her eyes slowly closed, and a few moments later, she started to snore.

Prestige looked with disbelief at the tiny Pegasus before Antares sighed tiredly, walking forwards as his horn glowed and gently, carefully lifted the small body of the mare off the ground as he muttered: “I'll put her up in the guest room, Prestige, and meet you in Celestia's room in a minute, okay?”

“Alright, hero. I'll be waiting for you.” Prestige replied softly, and Antares smiled after a moment, nodding to her as he gently dropped Avalon's small body over his back. Prestige leaned in quickly, and the two unicorns traded a gentle kiss before the young stallion turned and headed for the stairs, feeling things inside him... finally starting to settle a little.

He carried Avalon over to the bed and shifted her off to set her down on it, smiling a little as he reached for the quilt at the bottom of the bed... and then he winced when Avalon's eyes opened and she grabbed his foreleg, looking up at him blearily before peering at him meditatively: “Hey. Am I drunk or sick?”

“Sick.” Antares answered awkwardly, and Avalon nodded slowly before she gently let go of him, then flopped backwards and rolled over onto her side, curling up in a tiny ball. The young stallion hesitated, looking at her before he slipped forwards, reaching up to gently brush her rugged mane back as he muttered: “Avalon, you feel really hot... you're... sweating and... I think I should go and get Meadowlark or somepony, or maybe we should go to the clinic...”

“No, fine, I'm... I'm fine.” Avalon mumbled, opening her eyes and blinking slowly before she glanced over her shoulder at him with a brief shake of her head. “No... no hospitals or nothing. And no unicorns or... Meadowlarks or Scarlet Sages... just... put a blanket on me and... let me sleep.”

“Do you want me to get your tea? Or water or anything?” Antares asked quietly, his horn glowing as he lifted the quilt from the bottom of the bed with telekinesis to drape it gently over the Pegasus, but she only mumbled and pushed her face into the bed. Antares hesitated, and then he leaned up and reached out to touch her shoulder, saying quietly: “Okay. Let me know if I can do anything for you, okay? Prestige and I will be in Celestia's room.”

“Getting busy.” Avalon mumbled, and Antares sighed, but at the same time it reassured him a little as he smiled a bit and reached a hoof out to rub her back through the blanket. The tiny Pegasus shifted a bit, then smiled herself, mumbling: “Go touch your marefriend. You wanna cheat on her go see Meadowlark, I'm too... too tired for sex right now.”

“You don't have to always act so tough, Ava.” Antares said quietly, and Avalon was quiet before the young stallion finally nodded a little and stepped back, adding softly: “I'll come check on you later, okay?”

There was silence, and then Avalon mumbled and nodded, seeming to loosen up a little before the young stallion turned away, heading out of the guest room with a smile and back down the steps. Then he frowned and halted in the main room, feeling a chill run through his veins as he looked down at the floor and saw... blood?

Slowly, the young stallion looked back and forth, feeling his mouth go dry as he followed the trail of droplets with his eyes. It led down the corridor, and Antares felt a wild moment of fear as he bolted forwards, knocking the mug of tea still sitting on the ground flying as he rushed down the hall and shouted: “Prestige!”

“Antares?” Prestige sounded confused as she poked her head out of the door, and the young stallion breathed a sigh of relief: before he could explain or even point out the trail of droplets that went past the door, however, there was a loud clanging from the kitchen, and the unicorn mare flinched before gritting her teeth as her horn glowed, trembling even as she forced herself to straighten as the young stallion slid to a halt beside her. “What was that?”

“Let's... let's check it out.” Antares said quietly, and Prestige looked nervous, but she managed to nod all the same. Antares smiled at her reassuringly, then he grimaced as there was a rattling again before starting slowly forwards, with Prestige following just behind.

The two unicorns strode to the kitchen, before Antares flinched at a scraping sound before he gritted his teeth and began to leap forwards: but just as he began to jump, a hand reached into the doorway and seized him by the mane, yanking him painfully into the air as he yelled and he heard Prestige scream before there was a whirl of sound and violence and distortion...

Vertigo ripped through his mind, followed by the very painful, cold feeling of landing with a loud smack on... snow? But... “Sorry. Pain... hurts.”

“What?” Antares shook his head out weakly at the voice, and then he frowned slowly before looking up... and staring in shock at the sight of Allonym, knocking everything else out of his mind for the moment. The Draconequus was a bit pale, his suit jacket hung in ripped tatters, and white, blood-soaked bandages were wrapped all around his chest and here and there over his limbs. Antares could only gape, flabbergasted, as the Avatar slowly straightened before reaching up and rubbing at his bruised features. “Y-You... Allonym?”

“Yes, me Allonym.” the Draconequus muttered, and then he closed his eyes and shook his head slowly, shivering a bit as he hugged himself around the middle. “This sucks. Thank crap it's cold out here and it's numbing me. I'm... healing slower than anticipated.”

“Allonym, I saw you f-fall, I thought... are you... wait, where... where are we?” Antares looked incredulously back and forth as the wind whipped by, kicking up a gust of snow that blew past them, and the young stallion winced and cursed under his breath as he flinched away from the biting frost. He shivered, stomping his hooves in the knee-deep snow as he looked back and forth before realizing he couldn't even see that far: it wasn't snowing, but the wind kept kicking up drifts here and there, swirling the powder into a blinding gale around him, and the clouds covered the night sky above. A moment later, Antares frowned a little, realizing how close the clouds were before he looked sharply back and forth and understood they were standing on some high plateau, likely far above the ground. “Where... why is it... I don't understand.”

The Draconequus was silent for a few moments, but Antares gave him time as he looked apprehensively at the chimerical creature: he looked like he was trying to dredge up his strength, and it made the glossy-black unicorn nervous. How badly hurt was he? Had Cancer infected him? Did- “Enough questions, kid! My head can only take so much right now!”

Antares flinched in surprise, and then Allonym mumbled to himself, closing his mismatched eyes as he rubbed pointedly at his temples. “I'm fine. Sort of. Yes, I look like garbage, and I'm bleeding basically everywhere, but that's not important. Fun fact about being an Avatar: apparently I'm pretty much indestructible and nothing I've run into so far can kill me. Another fun fact: I still feel all the pain and suck and lameness of whatever happens to me.”

There was silence, and then Allonym closed his eyes, rubbing at his face slowly as he mumbled: “I shouldn't've interfered, though. Who knows what happened when Cancer got his tentacles on me? Who knows what I've given him, how much stronger I'm responsible for making him, I'm so stupid, stupid, so goddamn stupid... and now I got no choice but to keep interfering. To try and set things right...”

“Allonym, hey, calm down.” Antares said quietly, stepping forwards nervously, and the Draconequus looked up miserably, before the young stallion shook his head and closed his eyes. “It's my fault. I was the one who kept pushing you... you've been warning us the whole time your powers have consequences... you should have stayed back instead of trying to protect us.”

“No, it's my fault. I tried to make the headlines instead of just sitting back and writing things down like I should have.” Allonym murmured in response, sighing a little and dropping his head forwards. “And now here I am, trying to do it again. We're... I dunno. Somewhere near Celestia's planned ambush. Griselda and Cancer are on their way, they'll be attacking her just before morning. But you can't kill Griselda with a powerful force. She's a living hive... that outer shell, however monstrous it looks, it isn't what's important. You need to kill the real queen inside her... you know that, don't you?”

“I... I don't know.” Antares replied weakly after a moment, and Allonym frowned down at him, tilting his head before the young, glossy black stallion trembled. “I only know one thing for sure, okay? It's that I have a really bad feeling about things. But I haven't had time to think, none of us have, and Aunt Tia is so furious... she wants to destroy that monster at any cost...”

“And that's the catch.” Allonym responded, closing his eyes and shivering a little. “She can, Antares, she can and will destroy the hive. But the cost will be enormous... and it won't kill Griselda. Slow her down, but she and Cancer will rebuild the living hive... will evolve, will spawn a whole hell of a lot more Takers that will be even tougher than the bugs you've already dealt with. You need to convince Celestia to change her plans or draw her forces back or... or something.”

“Or something?” Antares asked incredulously, and then he snarled, leaning forwards and asking sharply: “What the hell kind of plan is that, Allonym? How is that helpful?”

“It's helpful because if you don't do something, you all die.” Allonym retorted, and Antares fell silent at this before the Draconequus winced and looked back and forth as the wind blew and snow blasted over them. “I don't know where we are. I'm hurting too much to get a good lock on anything, I just took you as close as I could manage in one jump. Now go find Celestia and do something.”

With that, the Draconequus vanished in a puff, and Antares cursed under his breath before he closed his eyes tightly, digging his hooves through the snow as he shivered and the wind blew fiercely, pelting him with a wave of snow. He shifted for a moment, then rose his head and gritted his teeth, looking up at the cloudy skies above before he spread his leathery wings and simply charged towards the edge of the plateau.

Antares leapt off, looking down into the white-stained shadows below through a blast of snow and wind, cursing as his leathery wings flapped hard and sent a tremor of pain through his body. He swayed unevenly in the air as the howling wind whipped by, looking sharply back and forth before turning in a slow, wide U, glancing at the plateau he had leapt off of and grimacing: it was almost at the top of what looked like almost a straight, natural tower of stone, and the young stallion shook his head with a curse... then looked sharply back at this landmark, whispering: “Wait!”

With that, Antares curved his flight to the side, letting himself drop lower, remembering when Avalon had pointed it while they were walking... but they had been distant, and the view from the ground had mostly been obstructed because...

“There!” Antares shouted to himself, as his eyes locked on a dim glow coming up from a narrow gorge, flanked on either side by enormous, dangerous cliffs. And then what should have been obvious to Antares from the start finally struck him, and he half-fell out of the air, zigzagging down as one of his wings twitched in midair and refused to flap for a moment. He gritted his teeth, then suddenly spun himself sharply before arching his back, and his whole body flexed as his wings flapped hard and he was able to shoot back towards the skies instead of crashing into snow-covered rocks below.

Snow: he had only half-noticed it before, then disregarded it in his absolute confusion about everything. It looked like the dead of winter here, and Antares breathed hard as he shot towards the gorge disbelievingly. He winged down, curving his flight to dip into the trench, and his eyes widened as he flew low over barricades and traps that were being hurriedly set up: there were countless barrels of Valhalla's oil, unicorns were placing dangerously-glowing runes here and there over the walls and floor of the bottleneck gorge, and demons and Starlit Knights all stood at the ready in-

A bolt shot by, and Antares winced and almost flew into a wall of the gorge as yells rose up through the trench. Knights pointed and stared and called to each other as Antares flailed his hooves, shouting: “Wait, it's me! It's Antares Mīrus!”

There was another rumble through the crowd as Antares winced and let himself drop a bit lower, sailing towards the back of the trench... and then he sighed in both relief and more than a bit of fear as he saw Celestia standing ahead with Sleipnir, the ivory winged unicorn staring up with disbelief as the young stallion dropped to his hooves in front of her with a wheeze. Burning Desire was nearby as well, looking dumbfounded, while Selene only smiled calmly from where she sat against the far stone wall with a bevy of demons in masks, the Nephilim saying softly: “How interesting.”

“Interesting, no. Antares, explain yourself immediately.” Celestia said sharply as she stepped forwards, amethyst eyes flashing, and Antares winced back a bit before Sleipnir quickly strode up to his sister's side and reached up to firmly grasp her shoulder. The ivory mare grimaced, but she seemed to relent a little, sighing quietly before saying in a quieter voice: “I told you to stay at home for a reason, Antares. Did anyone else come with you?”

“I... no, no, I was at the library, and then I found... I mean, I saw a trail of blood. I followed it and Allonym grabbed me and then... we were over on top of that big tower of rock.”Antares said finally, shaking his head out as he looked up at her, before gazing back and forth as he felt a cold, bracing wind whisper through the trench: but even though it was freezing, there was little snow here at least. “What's... what's going on?”

“The cold should help us slow down Cancer and Griselda, and I'm hoping it affects the Takers badly as well.” Celestia shook her head, then she sighed and said quietly: “Antares, if you want to help, you may stay, but we don't have much time to finish preparations. Every second is crucial and I-”

“No, I... Aunt Tia, wait, you need to listen. This... this won't go well. You can't stop Griselda like this, Allonym told me.” Antares said almost desperately, and Celestia frowned, her amethyst eyes darkening as she leaned back a bit. “Griselda's outer body isn't important, she'll... she and Cancer will just regenerate. You have to attack her core. The real Griselda, inside that thing...”

Celestia was silent as she looked down at Antares, seeming to weigh his words... and then, finally, she slowly shook her head, the glossy-black young stallion looking up weakly at her as she said softly: “Antares, I trust you. But I don't know how much I trust Allonym, and I believe in not only myself, but the power of the people around me and the soldiers under my command. Once we bring down Griselda and Cancer, we'll incinerate them both. There won't be a scrap of either of them left behind.”

Antares only shook his head worriedly in response, however, looking up almost pleadingly as he whispered: “Aunt Tia, please, you've never doubted in my instincts before-”

“And I don't doubt them now, but we have no choice but to push forwards.” Celestia said quietly, but her voice carried more of a tone of command, and her eyes betrayed a mounting tenseness that bordered on frustration. “We need to do this. I need to do this, and stop this monstrosity, and this is our best chance to do so-”

“That's what you said last time, Aunt Tia!” Antares shouted before he could stop himself, and when Celestia flinched back in surprise, the young stallion clenched his eyes shut and whispered: “I know you're... angry, and upset and you feel guilty as hell but this isn't the way to solve that, and-”

“Enough.” Celestia said sharply, and then she shook her head, electricity sparking through her rainbow mane as she leaned forwards, eyes cold and dangerous and maybe the slightest it uneasy. But any discomfort she was feeling was hidden in the firmness of her voice, as she ordered: “Sleipnir, take Antares to the rear echelon. He can help clean up.”

Antares opened his mouth, but Celestia only shook her head shortly, holding up a hoof. “No, enough. Burning Desire, Selene, both of you come with me. Sleipnir, meet me-”

“I shall meet thou, where I meet thou, sister.” Sleipnir said courteously, and when Celestia frowned over her shoulder at him, the vine-maned stallion smiled and bowed his head a little, but his gaze carried a gentle chastisement as he said softly: “Perhaps thou shall feel more like thyself when we meet again, Celestia.”

Celestia shifted uncomfortably and turned her head quickly away, closing her eyes... and then she simply gave the briefest of nods before beginning to stride down the gorge towards the front lines. Burning Desire smiled awkwardly at Antares as he followed, and Selene laughed quietly, followed by the masked demons as she gave a curious look to the young stallion as she passed.

Antares only stood with his head bowed, eyes clenched shut as he breathed roughly in and out before he felt Sleipnir's hooves gently grasping his shoulders, as the enormous stallion leaned down a bit and asked quietly: “Tell me what the Draconequus told thee, nephew.”

“He said... I had to do something.” Antares laughed weakly, shaking his head slowly before he looked up into his uncle's concerned, gentle features, and then he smiled weakly. “That was all he said, and I got so mad at him, but he said if I didn't do something, anything... everyone dies. I don't know what to do, though, Sleipnir, I... I just know that Griselda can't be stopped here. Can't be defeated like this... or... I don't know, maybe she can, but if Cancer gets away, or Celestia doesn't... I... I...”

“'Tis alright. 'Tis alright, Antares.” Sleipnir said quietly, and then he shook his head slowly before hesitating and glancing up at the top of the cliffs, murmuring: “Celestia has wagered heavily upon the hope that the monsters will avoid the snow and cold, and will try and attack us directly as they did last time... but we are in a bad position. Oh, aye, Griselda will undoubtedly storm straight down the gorge, and will suffer the full wrath that Celestia plans to bring down upon her head... but if the foe takes even a moment to think, to try and work around our plans...”

“We'll be swarmed from behind and above.” Antares murmured, shaking his head before he frowned and looked up in confusion. “Wait. What time is it?”

“'Tis about four in the morn, why?” Sleipnir frowned, and Antares winced a bit, then shook his head, not wanting to think about how he had apparently lost at least two or three hours of time. He'd thought that Allonym's teleportation had been instantaneous... but now it sounded more like... he didn't even know. He wasn't sure he even wanted to. “Antares, thou should leave, the monster will be drawing within striking distance soon, and mother nature whispers that the enemy is ferocious, and the cold has only worsened their hunger. Find a safe place to watch, and should the worst happen, then thou can-”

“No, I won't... I won't let that happen.” Antares said sharply, and then he looked down the trench, breathing hard before clenching his eyes shut. I have to do something. I have to change things somehow... “I just wish I knew what to do.”

Sleipnir only smiled at this, however, reaching up and silently ruffling the younger stallion's mane, making him glare a little despite himself up at his uncle as the enormous earth pony chided: “Antares, thou hast already done much! Look at thou, standing here with all of us, 'tis something is it not? Unless I am very much mistaken, something can be almost anything... and Celestia took thy warning to heart, I know she did, no matter how... upset... she may have seemed. Celestia is merely... prickly at times. Do not fear, 'tis not thy fault.”

Antares only lowered his head, frowning a bit before he looked up and asked uncertainly: “Is... her plan that good? That... do you think...”

“There is always a chance of victory, Antares. And with Celestia, that chance is usually quite high.” Sleipnir replied gently, and then he hesitated for a moment before shaking his head as he glanced nervously up at the cliffs. “As I said, 'tis only that... I think Celestia overestimates the cutting power of the cold against these monstrosities, and perhaps their minds, but... I do not know how intelligent these creatures truly are, and nor do I dare guess. My beloved sister is enraged... and just as when she was Freya, she seeks blood now, and is willing to take risks to get it.”

“So if you had some way to guarantee they swarmed down the gorge...” Antares murmured, and then he lowered his head before looking up sharply, muttering: “Sorry, Sleipnir, I gotta go do something.”

With that, Antares leapt into the air, flapping his wings firmly as he winced, and the earth pony looked dumbly up after him before grasping at his skull with a groan, shouting: “No, Antares! Oh damnation, sister shall have my head and thine if thou does not come back here!”

The young stallion ignored his uncle, keeping his eyes forwards and staying intent on the path ahead as he shot down the trench. He flapped his wings firmly, propelling himself as fast as he dared as he gritted his teeth, ignoring the pain radiating through his back before he shot over Celestia's head, the ivory winged unicorn looking up in surprise before shouting: “Antares, stop!”

Antares ignored her, even though it took more willpower than he knew he had to resist listening to Celestia: his aunt, his mentor, and a pony he idolized as a heroine, a warrior, and a leader. A pony who was almost everything he wanted to be... even though he was well aware that just like him, she had her flaws.

Then the young stallion winced as he heard a shouted order, and even though he was already moving at breakneck speeds, it was only moments before he could hear two Pegasi behind him, and then Rainbow Dash's voice shouted: “Dammit, Antares, the hell are you doing? You're acting crazier than my daughter!”

“I got him!” Soarin' called, and Antares winced, risking a look back over his shoulder: fast as he was, he was no match for two former Wonderbolts, and two of the fastest Pegasi in Equestria, especially with his aching wings... and then Antares' eyes narrowed before he gritted his teeth, waiting before he sensed more than heard Soarin' lunge with a grunt, and the young stallion simply furled his wings and dropped out of the air.

Soarin' winced as he missed, but without missing a beat, the Pegasus twisted his body and hammered his hooves into the wall, charging along the cliff face before his wings flapped a few times and he launched himself easily back up beside Rainbow Dash, who grinned in spite of himself: now Antares was sprinting along the rocky floor of the gorge, and the powder-blue Pegasus veered down, saying sharply: “Okay, you're fast as hell on hoof, Antares, but I'm still way faster in the air than you and-”

Antares, however, shot the two Pegasi a half-embarrassed grin over his shoulder as his horn glowed, and Rainbow Dash had enough time to feel a moment of surprise before the young stallion's horn flashed brightly, and then he vanished from sight. Rainbow gaped in shock, flapping to a stop as Soarin' stared and did the same, the two Pegasi still able to hear the young stallion's hooves against the rock and see a strange twist of light here and there, but both were too stunned to keep up the pursuit... and Rainbow Dash was well aware that while nabbing Antares would be difficult to begin with, stopping the young stallion while invisible... “Oh dude. Celestia's going to kill us.”

“Only if that thing doesn't kill us first.” Soarin' almost whispered, and Rainbow frowned before looking up... and staring in horror alongside his fellow Pegasus at the massive monstrosity that was perhaps only a few kilometers away, slinking as low as its monstrous, enormous body would let it, squeezed between the walls of the deep trench before Rainbow cursed under his breath.

The Pegasus hovered for a moment, then he glanced over at Soarin', saying quickly: “Quick, you head back and warn Celestia that thing is on its way. I'm gonna go after Antares and find out what the hell he's thinking.”

Soarin' nodded quickly in response, and then both Pegasi turned and shot through the air in opposite directions, Rainbow careful to raise his flight higher through the air, into the uncomfortable cold and bluster of the false winter that Celestia had brought into this section of the rugged terrain. Behind him, the ambush was like a glowing beacon: in front of him, the hulking monster was a glowing, black and green mass that was slowly forcing its way down the trench, with countless squirming shapes around it in the darkness covered in faintly glowing points of ill viridian light...

And then Rainbow's eyes widened in shock as he stared ahead, Antares' voice breaking the near-silence, piercing through the terrible rumbles in the night as he yelled: “Hey, Cancer! You and your wife looking for me? I'm right here!”

Griselda growled, raising her massive head as her bulky body flexed, her eyes glowing brighter at the sound of the voice. And atop one of her oversized shoulders, the mottled beast that was Cancer looked up sharply, snarling in surprise as a ripple went through the swarm of Takers flooding all around their Queen, huddled together in a single mass for warmth and because Cancer wanted to hit the all-too-obvious ambush ahead with a nasty counterattack of his own.

But only a hundred or so feet away from the edge of the swarm, there was a flicker... before Antares Mīrus seemed to burst out of thin air, his horn glowing brightly as he rose his head defiantly, glaring at the horde of Takers ahead of him as they screamed in hunger and bloodlust at the sight of the young unicorn. Before any of them could rush forwards, however, Griselda leaned down, and Cancer leapt onto her face and scurried hurriedly down to the end of her scarred, burnt muzzle, shouting furiously: “Everyone please take a seat and shut the hell up!”

The swarm fell silent, the only sound in the air buzzing wings and Griselda's heavy breathing as Antares came to a halt, his horn raised high and glowing like a beacon as Cancer glared down at him, then leaned forwards and shouted: “You! You dirty little punk, what the hell do you think you're doing here? Standin' out there, glaring up at me, like I'm the bad guy here?”

Cancer paused, frowned at this thought and leaned back, rubbing at his face as he mumbled: “Am I the bad guy here? I dunno. I might be. Oh who cares! The point is that you're a snide little bastard if you're here for any reason except to be quickly and cruelly torn into shreds and eaten. And you better damn well have brought a napkin and some cigarettes or mints if you have!”

“No, actually, I'm here because...” Antares stopped, then looked at Cancer... and even with all the distance between them, even in the deep darkness as they were, it felt like they were only a few feet apart, crimson, glowing eyes locked with the cold midnight-cyan of the young stallion.

He was silent, not letting the monster rush him even as the mottled white entity squirmed and gestured impatiently, not letting the fear take over even as he saw destruction, and emptiness, and everything he had been taught to fight against in that scarlet gaze... before Antares smiled calmly, and said in as gentle and kind a voice he could manage: “I am here because I pity you, and think this is all a big misunderstanding we should sit down and work out. I am here because I believe that really, you're nothing more than a sad, pathetic, and lonely little pony who just needs a friend, and a hug, and I would like to offer that to you.”

Cancer stared in disbelief, jaw falling slightly agape before he slowly gritted his teeth, his red eyes glowing brighter as his body rippled grotesquely, a snarl spreading over his face before he leaned forwards and shouted furiously: “What the hell did you just say? Don't you talk down to me, boy, don't you say a goddamn word to me, you don't got no idea what the hell-”

“I understand and accept your anger and I'm really just here to try and help move past that. It's okay if you're having feelings you can't understand right now, we'll help you work through them every step of the way. I'm sure you're just very confused.” Antares said seriously, taking a few steps forwards, trying to make himself appear more loose, more welcoming as he forced himself to smile wider despite the tenseness of his body. “You have a right to exist. You and I are going to be best friends, isn't that right?”

Cancer gave a horrifying, wordless, strangled scream, clawing wildly at the end of Griselda's muzzle as the gigantic hive-beast only rumbled, and then the destruction entity leaned forwards and shrieked: “Have you lost your stupid little mind, kid?”

“Anger is a very natural response, but I know, why don't we sing a song together? You like to sing, don't you?” Antares said reasonably, even as he felt some insane, internal joy that he knew was half-mean and half-hysterical, as he focused on the destruction entity and everything this creature didn't want to hear. Then he forced a wider smile, sitting back on his haunches and beginning to clap his front hooves childishly, starting to sing in an off-key voice: “Oh, everybody needs a friend, you and me all need a friend, why don't we be each other's friends? Yes, you and me, we can be, the very best of-”

Cancer screamed furiously, his body warping and distorting with his rage as he whipped his head back and forth, frothing at the mouth as he temper-tantrumed and shrieked: “Kill him, kill him, kill that little snot, rip him to shreds, forget about everything else and kill him the hell dead!”

The Takers all screamed, the swarm rippling as Antares winced and spun around, shouting over his shoulder as he began to bolt away: “I respect your opinions!”

“Get him get him get him get him!” Cancer howled furiously, slapping the end of Griselda's muzzle as his eyes burned with rage, leaning forwards as the swarm began to rush straight down the gorge after Antares. “Forget everything, but you kill that little bastard or you grab him and bring him to me, nothing else matters, only the punk, get the punk, kill the punk!”

Griselda leaned forwards, her own furious roar adding to the mix and making the rocky trench vibrate as Antares sprinted as hard and fast as he could force himself to run, moving like lightning along the ground... but the Takers were eager, bolting after him and buzzing through the air on their insectile wings. Antares knew he couldn't keep this up forever... but hopefully, he wouldn't have to manage it for long as his eyes locked on the barricade ahead before he winced as something shot down from above, but he refused to look back, refused to lose his momentum.

And thankfully, a moment later, the presence shouted at him: “Antares, I am now questioning a whole hell of a lot if you're really half as smart as everyone says you are!”

“Monsters focused on me... only me... only me! Celestia... tell Celestia!” Antares managed to shout out between rough pants for breath as he bolted along the trench, and above him, Rainbow Dash's eyes widened before he grunted and shot forwards, a rainbow blur through the air as he poured all his energy into racing to Celestia.

Thankfully, the ivory winged unicorn was standing just behind the raised barricade at the front of the trench, and Rainbow Dash almost crashed to the ground beside her as the enormous, golden-armored mare looked at him sharply as he wheezed out: “Antares... they're after Antares, he said... only him, though!”

“I...” Celestia's eyes widened slightly, mind processing what this could mean for them if it was true, and then she gritted her teeth and nodded, saying quickly: “Go join the other Pegasi above and spread the word through the ranks that there is no retreat no matter how we may seem to be overwhelmed, not unless they see my flare! Selene, Burning Desire, retreat to the second barricade, I'll be the first to test Antares' theory.”

Burning Desire winced as Rainbow grunted and hurried off, but Selene only bowed her head before she turned and strode the short ten feet or so to the second barrier wall, saying calmly: “There is no time to argue with the Dawn Bringer. In moments, Antares will arrive... in moments more, so will the Takers.”

The fiery demon grunted, then he hurried to the other side of the second barricade, slipping through the narrow passage in the wall to take position beside the Yamato Guard. Celestia, meanwhile, only strode forwards to once more look out overtop the barrier, watching calmly as Antares shot down the gorge before leaping upwards and flapping his wings hard to launch himself over the high wall.

He made it, passing overtop Celestia, their eyes meeting for a moment of frozen time in silent apology to one-another... and then the young stallion was past, charging through the maze of barricades and around traps and demons and Starlit Knights.

Celestia, meanwhile, calmly faced back ahead, Tyrfing glowing faintly as it lifted a few inches off her back, hovering ominously as the shrieking and screaming horde of Takers approached. She made no move against them though, only stood and waited as they crashed against the barrier and yanked themselves up along it and over the sides of the chasm, surging over the wall in an awful, hideous tide... and not a single one of the insectile monsters made any move to attack her.

It was almost as if they didn't see her, as they swarmed around her, shrieking furiously. They bounced off her armored frame and leapt over her and ground against her as they passed, but not one tried to claw at her, not one tried to bite or seize her... and Celestia smiled a little despite herself before she tilted her head forwards, feeling both amazement and dark pleasure as she murmured softly: “No need to rush.”

As the insectile creatures sped and leapt past, Celestia breathed slowly in and out, calmly raising her horn as it began to glow brighter and brighter with the energy she gathered, the magic she focused, electricity sparking though her mane as she closed her eyes and let her head fall back. She let the power build through her, until every nerve of her body felt alive with it, until all the strength she wanted to use against the enemy was focused on one spell... and Celestia snapped her horn forwards as her eyes flashed open, glowing almost as bright as the spire standing from her head as a blast of golden flame erupted from her body, disintegrating the Takers unfortunate enough to be passing by her before the aureate fire spread violently to either side of the gorge, racing up along the rocky walls and incinerating more of the beasts as it formed into an immense wall of all-consuming fire.

And yet all the same, the Takers rushed through it, intent only on their prey ahead, thinking nothing of the golden fire even as they were burned to ashes as they tried to rush through the inferno. With their sheer numbers, all the same some of the insect-beasts forced through the glowing holy flames... but calmly, Celestia turned around and strode out of the conflagration, rolling her head on her shoulders as Tyrfing lashed out and tore a stumbling Taker into halves, a slight smile on her face as her amethyst eyes gleamed with battlelust and her horn continued to sizzle as energy wreathed around it, powering the barrier of flames. She could deal with the brunt of the blindly-attacking bugs: she wasn't so greedy she would try and steal every moment of glory from her soldiers.

But all the same, she could hear Griselda roaring in the distance, and even as Celestia's sword began to lash back and forth, tearing apart any Takers that passed close to her, she knew it wouldn't last forever: the swarm was moving far faster than their Queen, but eventually Cancer would understand what was going on and send his forces into attacking anything they were close to instead of all of them charging after Antares. Worse, the wall of fire she had summoned had consumed much of her remaining strength, and keeping it powered would drain her magic reserves further. She wouldn't have enough power left to bombard Griselda safely...

She fought with her body, with her magic, and in her own mind at the same time, reaping through insectile monsters with Tyrfing as she continued to adjust her plans, as her magic kept the powerful barrier running... and behind her, Burning Desire and the Yamato tore their way through the bugs passing by them, as Selene only sat back with a smile, her eyes lingering with interest over the sights around her. Then she glanced up, noting a group of swarming Takers that were charging along the wall high above, and the Nephilim calmly flicked her horn to the side as she said softly: “That won't do.”

The rocky wall beneath the group of Takers burst upwards, knocking them into the air... where they and the dislodged stone eerily floated as black electricity sizzled around them, an awful hum growing before one after the other, the Takers bulged and gargled, then simply exploded, leaving only silently floating remnants behind. Selene smiled calmly, then closed her strange, galactic eyes, and the stones and gore tumbled to the ground as she murmured: “Yes. Burning Desire, friends... we are needed above. The monsters swarm around the cliffs. They are not entirely stupid after all.”

Burning Desire grunted, then he leapt upwards and transformed into a firebird in a flourish, shooting up into the air as Selene smiled, then spread her majestic wings and took flight, rising into the skies above. And all along the tunnel, other demons and Nightmares turned their attention to the cliffs, hurrying to the top of the gorge to attack the Takers that were trying to swarm in: not with the intention of pincering the warriors, but only in eager pursuit of the prey they had been given.

But many Takers were spilling down the cliffs as well, and plenty charged through the maze of barricades, smashing through walls and soldiers only when there was no other way around, screaming eagerly as they tried to close in on Antares. Still, the young stallion was running, but he was able to move at a slower pace now, taking his time to avoid setting off any traps while baiting the monsters into dangerous areas, unable to repress a bit of a grin when a trio of Takers charged over a glowing rune and it exploded, releasing a massive electrical surge that sent all three bug-creatures to the ground.

The young stallion looked ahead and winced as he saw a group of Nibelung and what looked like supply carriages, set up at what was undoubtedly the end of the long ambush corridor... and the glossy-black unicorn gritted his teeth as he charged into the open area, skidding around in a circle before he raised his head high and shouted: “I'm right here! Come and get me!”

And the first wave of Takers that had survived the pursuit screamed as they charged towards Antares, their horns glowing as they excitedly relayed the news through their hive mind to their Queen... and inside the living hive, Cancer grinned widely, his red eyes glowing brightly. One of his claws was buried deep in the real Griselda's back, and the Queen was shivering in not pain, but ecstasy. Her center horn was glowing brightly, and all the information she was getting was being passed on to Cancer, who giggled insanely, red eyes glowing as he whispered: “Yes! Yes, that's it, get him, boys! No, nothing else matters, I don't care how many of you babies die, as long as you get me that pony... don't pay attention to any of them! Don't mind your comrades, they're dying for a good cause, don't care how you do it, but you get me that punk, you bring him to me or you make him dead and then you bring him to me so I can feast on his entrails!”

Cancer threw his head back and laughed as Griselda arched her own back and gave a primal, undulating scream... and the massive, living hive leaned forwards and roared at the wall of golden flames that was only fifty feet away now, joined by a chorus of answering and eager shrieks from the swarm that was still charging eagerly forwards all around her, more Takers swarming out of large rips in the gargantuan monster's hunched-up back to join the army already making its way eagerly forwards.

Ponies and demons both winced at the awful, shrieking cacophony and the terrible rumbles sent through the gorge by the gigantic monstrosity's roar. More than ever, though, the Takers only had eyes for Antares, swarming greedily towards where he was waiting for them at the end of the long ambush path, hooves and horn lashing out as he fought savagely against the Takers swarming after him, knowing he had no other choice.

Antares gritted his teeth as he leapt backwards, avoiding a Taker's pounce before the young stallion threw himself into the air and flapped his wings once, launching himself upwards to avoid two more Takers that charged in from the side, screaming. They skittered into each other when they tried to spin around, as other Takers clawed and threw themselves over one-another to try and get to Antares, whipped into a frenzy by Cancer's orders to destroy or capture the young stallion.

Antares crashed down on top of a Taker's back, squashing it flat before he winced when another of the swarming bug creatures tried to lunge in from the side... but a moment later, most of its head was blown away by a Nibelung with a rifle as other engineers and workers began to hurriedly yank weapons out of carriages.

The young stallion grinned... and a Taker's claw ripped into his side, knocking him staggering with a yell of pain before at least four more of the bug beasts lunged on top of him, crushing him down into the ground. Antares was only aware of pain and sound and blurs of carapace and claw as he tried to yank himself free, shouting wordlessly as he shoved at the ground, the heavy bodies on top of him, panic threatening to overwhelm his senses as he felt claws both scratching through his coat and trying to seize eagerly into him so they could drag him away-

“Barbarians, thy kind are worser than the mountain whores!” A hoof smashed into one of the Takers on top of Antares with enough force to knock the entire group of insect-beasts flying like dominoes, squealing as they crashed and rolled in all directions and Antares was able to lunge to his hooves, gasping and covered in bruises, cuts and blood. Then he looked up in dumb surprise as Sleipnir seized his shoulder and steadied him, grinning down at the young stallion cheerfully. “Fear not, nephew, the better and friendlier half of thy family is here to protect thee... that, and it seems that where thou art, 'tis where the most battle is to be had.”

Antares stared a little, then he winced and looked ahead as a Taker rushed towards them, screaming... but Sleipnir only smiled indulgently a moment before Pinkamena leapt in from the side, an enormous, black-steel Nibelung battle axe in her hooves swiping viciously upwards and decapitating the bug-beast as the half-demon grinned widely, red-rimmed eyes flashing. “I should thank you, Antares, you're an even better trouble-magnet than your father!”

A moment later, another Taker was crushed as Aphrodisia dropped down on top of it with a wide, vicious grin on her features, the young demon's eyes glowing as she called eagerly: “Look at them all, Mommy! And we get to kill them?”

“We do. Slippers, you stay back and watch out for Antares, my little girl and me are gonna have some fun.” Pinkamena licked her teeth slowly as another wave of Takers charged forwards, the banded metal armor covering the demon's body glinting as she rolled her head on her shoulders, leaning forwards over her axe as she scraped it against the stone floor of the gorge.

Sleipnir grunted in agreement even as he stomped a hoof firmly down on a crippled Taker that was trying to crawl towards Antares, as behind them Nibelung and ponies fired into the thin ranks of the next wave of insect-creatures that had survived the run through the ambush trench. There were perhaps a dozen of them... and yet Pinkamena showed no fear, and Aphrodisia was grinning widely, her body shivering with excitement beneath her gemstone vest as Antares looked slowly up and whispered: “Guys... thank you.”

“No, Antares... thank you.” Pinkamena said almost gently, even as the first Taker sprinted forwards and away from the pack, trying to lunge past her... and with a sudden fierce reap of her axe, the insect creature's legs were literally cut out from beneath it as the demon leapt forwards and roared: “Tear them apart!”

Aphrodisia laughed in glee, her eyes glowing as she lunged into the fray, pouncing on the nearest Taker as the Wrath side of the demon clearly began to overtake her personality, and Antares winced as two Takers managed to slip past the demons, dropping into a ready position... but Sleipnir was in front of him in a moment, launching one bug-beast backwards with a single blow before his other front hoof whipped out and caught the bony tail of the second as it passed, yanking it backwards by this before flinging the squealing Taker in an arc high through the air. “Ready thyself, Antares! There are many more on the way, and we must hold as long as possible!”

Antares nodded, wincing, as more shrieks rose through the air, mixing with the sounds of battle across the gorge... and at the very front of the ambush line, Celestia looked up with a snarl as Griselda hauled herself within fifty feet of the golden barrier of flames that the ivory winged unicorn had created. All around her were countless corpses of the bug-beasts, many of them smoldering and burning slowly away to ashes, and yet they only continued to surge forwards in greater numbers: there were always more coming, and Celestia was beginning to wonder if there was any end to the horde.

“Get out of the way, weasel!” screamed a voice, and Celestia looked sharply up to see Cancer sitting on the end of Griselda's muzzle, leaning down with fury burning in his crimson eyes. “I'll kill you later, get out of the way, I got a bone to pick with that dumbass kid of yours!”

Celestia breathed hard in and out, and then she looked sharply back and forth before shouting: “Selene, Burning Desire, to me!”

And without waiting for a response, Celestia concentrated, rearing back as her glowing horn surged with electricity and power, and the wall of golden flames in front of her trembled before it was drawn backwards towards her horn in a rush. The holy fire coalesced just above her head in a swirling, ever-shrinking maelstrom, Cancer leaning forwards with a wide grin as he said cheerfully: “Well, that's more like it, weasel, maybe you got some sense after-”

The golden flames condensed into a miniature, white-hot sun, and then Celestia snapped her head forwards with a curse of pain to fling it towards Griselda's features, the recoil enough to blow the ivory winged unicorn backwards and sear her own features. But the recoil was nothing compared to when the orb collided with the monstrosity above, striking just beneath its jaw and exploding in a concentrated blast that launched Cancer high into the sky with a squeal of agony and simply disintegrated most of Griselda's head.

The hive-entity staggered backwards, its hunched back and upper body catching aflame as the monstrosity screamed... and inside Griselda, the core, the true Griselda arched her back as her eyes bulged, howling in misery. All across the gorge, Takers shrieked and wailed as they felt the same agony as their Queen, staggering and becoming even easier prey than they already were: an opportunity that Antares and those guarding him seized eagerly on at the other end of the trench.

Burning Desire and Selene both appeared by Celestia a moment later, the fiery stallion flicking his horn forwards with a snarl to send a red fireball rocketing into the mess of golden fire burning rapidly over Griselda's hulking form: it exploded, but the effect wasn't so much to damage the monster; instead it intensified the flames, spreading them faster over the giant's body before Selene arched her back, the glowing Nephilim laughing as her eyes and horn glowed and she whispered: “Mother taught me that Heaven does not know mercy.”

A rumble spread through the air and the ground beneath their hooves quaked, cracks ripping through the rock as chunks of stone slowly began to lift into the air around Griselda. The monster howled as it too was lifted slightly as well, gravity warping and distorting around the goliath as rips and cracks burst through its heavy carapace before there was a loud, tremulous bang, and parts of Griselda's back and chest both crunched inwards, ripping the strange tunnels leading into the living hive-monster open wider and crushing the Takers that were trying to swarm out of the creature's giant body.

A shockwave tore through the air as Selene snapped her horn back downwards, the Nephilim's endless gaze locked on Griselda as the power of her spell knocked the behemoth back a step before Griselda howled pitiably from the stump of neck that was all that remained of its head, and slowly toppled forwards over its own massive front limbs, body reeking as it burned and smoke roiled up from its charring, awful frame. Celestia breathed hard as she gritted her teeth, forcing herself to trembling hooves as Burning Desire laughed in amazement, the shocked sound strangely sharp over the screams of the Takers as they convulsed with the agonies of their Queen.

Then Selene leaned forwards, her features becoming tense as she said quietly: “The monster still lives. There is too much for even you to burn away, Dawn Bringer, you are weakened...”

Celestia hesitated... and then she suddenly snapped her horn upwards, sending a flare of white light into the air before she turned around and spread her wings, flapping them hard as she shot skywards. Burning Desire flinched in surprise, but Selene only smiled calmly as the Nephilim turned and leapt into the air as well, flapping her own glowing wings hard: a moment later, Burning Desire joined the two in his firebird form, as Celestia breathed hard but said clearly: “We've done what we could: with luck, Griselda's progress will be slowed and we've greatly reduced the Taker swarm. It's time for a full retreat... Burning Desire-”

“No need to say it, I'll take care of it!” the firebird replied quickly, swooping down, and the flames around the firebird intensified slightly as he sailed lower through the gorge, just above the traps and barriers. The Takers were still screaming and panicking, while the soldiers and demons were hurriedly retreating up the trench as fast as they could, and Burning Desire glanced quickly back and forth to make sure their allies had safely fled before the firebird flew quickly past a barrel that had been wedged up against the cliff wall.

The firebird's flames wreathed against the dry wood as it passed, the barrel catching alight as Burning Desire shot hurriedly onwards... then winced as the barrel exploded as flames spread to the volatile fuel stored inside. It sent out an avalanche of stone and obliterated the Takers nearby, flaming chunks of rock flying in all directions to pelt other bug-creatures that were still screaming in the trench.

Burning Desire repeated this process with several other barrels, causing portions of the cliff to collapse and incinerating the nearby monsters as he hurried onwards... and as demons vanished and fled and soldiers speedily retreated, the Takers slowly began to get their senses back as Griselda's enormous, charred body gradually started to quiver. Bit-by-bit, the living hive began to rise with a snarl, as inside the beast the true Griselda slowly straightened, bleeding heavily from one eye before she screamed in fury and rage.

The Takers looked up, their horns all pulsing, their eyes glowing as they snarled and lunged no longer after Antares, but at whatever was nearest: but thankfully, most of the soldiers had made their way to the end of the ambush site, where the monsters had been drastically reduced and the rest were being trampled under hoof by escaping Starlit Knights. Sleipnir shouted orders and encouragements from where he stood at the end of the line, marshaling and hustling soldiers past as Antares helped Pinkamena and Aphrodisia drive back the Takers that remained.

Then Sleipnir glanced up sharply as Celestia shot by overhead, and the enormous earth pony ordered: “Now! Do not dally any longer, 'tis time to retreat!”

Pinkamena growled but nodded, smashing down one last Taker before she spun and sprinted after the rest of the Knights, as Antares blasted a Taker that lunged at him backwards with a burst of white flames before he winced as he glanced towards Aphrodisia. She was laughing, her eyes glowing as she tore through the bug creatures like a whirlwind, and the young stallion cursed after a moment before he ran towards her, even as Sleipnir shouted something... and then the young stallion gargled when Aphrodisia turned from the monster she had just torn through to seize the glossy-black unicorn by the neck, grinning up at him through skull-like features as she rasped: “Oh Nova, it's so much fun! Aren't you going to help me have fun? Or do I have to show you the hard way what a delight this is?”

“Apps...” Antares rasped, reaching up to grasp her foreleg, and Aphrodisia grinned wider, baring her fangs at him as she dragged him in closer before he whispered: “Little... sister...”

The light in Aphrodisia's eyes flickered... and then she shook her head violently out before clenching her eyes shut, shivering hard. Antares wheezed, feeling a moment of relief as her grip loosened... before it turned to horror, as a voice screamed: “You stole my sweet victory from me, but you ain't getting away this time, kid, this time I'm going to rip you apart myself!”

Antares and Aphrodisia both looked to the side in horror to see Cancer charging at them, his red eyes glowing, his body smoking and blackened in places but the mottled monstrosity seemingly powered by psychotic rage that gave him endless, freakish vitality. And following him, either on instinct or because of command, a swarm of Takers was heading straight for them, smashing through anything that got in their way and heedlessly trampling any slower-moving or wounded bug creatures that were between Cancer and his prize...

Cancer grinned in triumph, his eyes blazing... before a carriage crashed down halfway between him and his target in a burst of wooden fragments, and the monster skidded to a halt with a squawk even as the Takers continued to swarm forwards before a fireball shot down from the air and crashed into the wagon, flames spreading greedily over it as Cancer squeaked, smelling fuel and chemicals and-

The carriage exploded, the monster howling and yelling in frustration as he was sent rolling violently backwards and the Takers that had stupidly continued forwards were obliterated. Then the mottled white entity crashed down in a prone heap, gargling weakly as he twitched a few times, red eyes staring blankly at the sky as more flames lit up the early morning. But for a few moments, Cancer was too stunned from the series of explosions he'd been caught in over a short period of time, the destruction entity slowly rippling as his cohesion returned little-by-little before he sat up, his wounds already regenerated, the dead and burnt slime replaced with new, viscous flesh.

He shook his head out as Takers paced hurriedly around, screaming and shrieking, a few still trying to pursue the ponies and demons... but they were long gone. Cancer snarled as a shiver ran through his body, staring down the gorge before his eyes widened as he realized they had coated a good portion of the trench ahead with oil and set it alight. The bonfire that had resulted was enough to make it difficult for his Takers to pursue... and from the bangs he could still faintly hear, he guessed that the ponies had plenty of other cheap tricks to keep his babies at bay until they escaped the swarm's range.

Cancer breathed slowly, his red eyes glowing before he straightened and glared furiously down the trench, then looked over his shoulder and screamed: “Hey, bitch! Get your fat ass moving, we got us some ponies to kill!”

A roar echoed down the trench in response, and Cancer grumbled in disgust before he looked back ahead, snarling: “Fine. We'll put you back together, honey, and then we'll charge all the way to that little dirthole village. And we're gonna raze it to the ground, but oh, baby... we're gonna catch that punk kid. Even more than destroying the white weasel and all those other little fleshbags... I want that kid. I want that punk. I want him brought to me alive, at any goddamn cost. And I'm going to take my time eating his insides while he's still breathing, and I'm gonna make the little snot watch.”

Cancer spat to the side, then he turned around, slowly beginning to storm back towards Griselda as he trembled with rage, swearing he'd make all of them suffer for daring to stand up to him... and that he was going to make that punk kid regret he had ever been born.