• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,684 Views, 205 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven

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

  • ...

For A Mother's Love

Chapter Thirty: For A Mother's Love

Celestia was tired, but there was little time to rest as she compiled information and tried to piece together a strategy that would let them put a stop to the monstrosity on the march towards Ponyville. She knew there wasn't enough time to set up another ambush at the last remaining choke point... they would have to meet Griselda somewhere outside Ponyville, preferably a good distance away, with an attack in the open. But she also understood they wouldn't survive a prolonged battle: even with the Taker swarm greatly reduced, their number was vast and the monsters seemed tireless.

They had maybe a day from now to finish preparations, and Celestia thought they had one chance, given what they had been told about Griselda: a single focused attack that could smash into the monster and find the so-called 'core' inside it. She spent hours going over the roster of who was available, and hated what she found herself forced to settle on.

And that was why Celestia now sat in the library with only Antares for company after a long and difficult conversation, looking down at him quietly as she asked: “Do you understand?”

Antares trembled a bit, and then he swallowed thickly before he looked up and nodded slowly, whispering: “I do. I'm...” He closed his eyes, forcing back everything he wanted to say, everything he was afraid of: that he wasn't ready, that he couldn't do this, that there was no way he could handle something of his magnitude. “I'll do everything I can to stop her.”

“I know you will.” Celestia stopped, then closed her eyes as she murmured: “But don't become me, Antares. The mission is not all important. Your friends are. I... I am trusting you most of all to know the difference between sacrifice and slaughter.”

There was silence, and Antares looked up, opening his mouth, but Celestia only shook her head and rose a hoof, smiling faintly. “Don't. There's no need for you to apologize, Antares. And nor do we have the time or luxury for it. We can discuss it later... for now, I want you to repeat back to me what your mission is.”

“To keep my friends alive above all, if possible...” Antares murmured, and Celestia bowed her head forwards silently. “But you, Burning Desire, and Selene are going to blast open Griselda's chest, because while she's been regenerating... you think there's still a weak point there. An opening leading into... into the hive. Myself, Avalon, Aphrodisia, Pinkamena, and Rainbow Dash are going to rush inside to find and attack the real Griselda... the core, that controls the whole hive-body while your team continues to attack any weak structural points they can find on Griselda's outer shell, with the hope that if you keep harrying her outer body, it'll keep whatever defenses are... inside... distracted.”

“That's correct. Sleipnir, meanwhile, will be leading the forces that will be engaging the Takers, to keep them distracted as well. Remember that: if you're forced to retreat, send up a flare and he'll do everything in his power to help you get clear from Griselda.” Celestia replied quietly, meeting her nephew's eyes. “What I'm asking is unfair. But I'm... I'm drained, Antares, and we have no idea what awaits inside the living hive. I only hope that I and the others will have enough power to blast a way in. You are a good leader... you'll be able to fly in quickly with the others, and make a direct attack.”

“I just wish Avalon was healthier.” Antares murmured quietly, closing his eyes and nodding a little before he sighed and dropped his head forwards, shifting uncomfortably. “I just wish I had more faith in myself. What about Discombobulation and Discord?”

Celestia smiled faintly at this, shaking her head slowly. “Discord refuses to approach Griselda, but has agreed to help keep an eye on Ponyville. I'm still not completely sure of precisely what his motivations are, but I'm glad he's willing to help. And Discombobulation will be out on the field with Sleipnir... he insisted, even though... I'm worried about him straining himself. I don't want to lose him.”

There was quiet for a moment, and then Celestia shook her head slowly, continuing: “Meet me back here in five hours, Antares, that's all the time we have left. Use that time wisely: rest, speak to your friends, and mentally prepare for what's coming. Zecora has agreed to provide potions to give your team extra energy and strength, and I have the feeling we're going to need every advantage that we can get.”

Antares nodded slowly, lowering his head and grimacing a bit before he murmured quietly: “Thank you, Aunt Tia.”

“No, Antares. Thank you for rising to meet this challenge. I applaud it.” Celestia said softly, and their eyes met before she gestured gently at him. “Go ahead, Antares. I'll let you know if anything happens. But make sure you use this time well.”

The young stallion nodded again, and the two looked at each other before the glossy-black unicorn stepped forwards and leaned up to hug his aunt fiercely. She returned the embrace tightly after a moment, closing her eyes and holding him close. Then, as the embrace broke, she smiled silently as Antares turned and strode quietly to the door, his own head bowed as he swallowed thickly and tried to take reassurance in the faith he felt Celestia had in him.

He stepped outside, into the noonday sun and the warm air, looking slowly back and forth... but the whole village felt afraid. Not that he could blame them: a giant monstrosity and her army of bug-children were on their way, guided by a destruction entity that was plague and poison incarnate. He was scared too... he wished that he could run and hide, or even consider fleeing, but he couldn't: not when so many ponies were depending on him, and not when he had such a duty and obligation towards Ponyville.

Antares closed his eyes, dropping his head forwards as he slowly walked through the streets, barely seeing the Starlit Knights and others that strode quickly by with Nibelung laborers to continue the fortification of Ponyville. Defense posts were being set up, as were traps here and there throughout the field, in the event that the Takers continued to attack after Griselda was destroyed.... or honestly and more likely, that they failed to put a stop to Griselda.

Antares was barely aware of where he was going, what he was doing, as he strode silently through town: he thought of Celestia's advice, but he didn't know if he had the heart to see his friends right now. He was supposed to lead them into a deathtrap, after all... including Avalon, who had barely had time to be healed by magic before she was supposed to join them in this do-or-die confrontation. Meadowlark was working at the clinic with Scarlet Sage, Pinkamena was with Aphrodisia, helping her get ready for tonight, Rustproof was with Cowlick as she struggled away in the engineering center, trying to regain her old skills...

Even Prestige had her own tasks to deal with, helping the unicorn mages from Canterlot, he knew: he didn't want to interrupt any of his friends, just for his selfish reasons. So instead, Antares quietly let his hooves guide him through Ponyville, until he reached the small park where the statue of his mother and father sat.

It had been repaired since the battle that had happened months ago now, and Antares looked up silently, studying the images of his parents. He wished Twilight was here, but she was deep in Subterra right now, once more forced to go through the torment of making a new body her own... and he knew with so many body trades so fast, she was in agony, and it would be much longer than usual before her powers were fully restored. He wished he could be with her... he wished he could do something, anything for her...

Antares closed his eyes, breathing slowly in and out before he murmured: “Mom, Dad... I'm scared. I don't know what to do, or who to turn to... or what to even say. I'm going to fight with all the strength I have but... but what if it's not enough? What if I fail? What if my friends get hurt or... worse? I know... I know. I have to do this. I don't want to, but I know that I have to. I wish you were here, though, because... I'm not ready to lead... I always wanted to follow in your hoofsteps and be like you always were, but I'm not ready, I can't handle this... I just want my Mom and Dad back...”

Antares trembled a little, and then he lowered his head as he strode forwards and hauled himself up onto the base of the statue, shivering and closing his eyes as he curled up with the stone imitations of his parents. He swallowed thickly, trying to ignore the feeling of tears running down his cheeks as he tried to make himself small, trying his hardest not to give in to all the pain flooding through his mind and heart and soul as he whispered: “I'm just gonna pretend for a little while. Just... just for a little while...”

And for a little while, that was what Antares did... but in a strange way, it helped, more than he thought it would. Hours later, when he finally slipped away from the base of the statue, he felt like he'd been drained of much of the poison that had grown inside him, like the built-up stress and frustration had ebbed out, and the young stallion swallowed a little and closed his reddened eyes as he murmured: “I'm gonna do this. I can do this. I'm your son, and I'll never forget that...”

Forty minutes later, Antares strode calmly into the library in full armor, coronet of twisted horns supporting his proud horn and his father's vambraces proudly displayed over his forelegs. He glanced back and forth quietly at the ponies that were gathered and waiting, and he smiled faintly, bowing his head forwards as he murmured: “Sorry. I... I was visiting...”

He broke off, but there was no need for anything further as Celestia nodded slowly: she was once more dressed in full armor herself, with Burning Desire and Selene flanking her. Then Antares' eyes were drawn to Zecora as the zebra stepped in front of the table, dressed in what looked like some kind of stiff hide armor and with a strange bracer around one foreleg: a needle extended out from it, and Antares wondered nervously what the tool was used for as she gestured at the five jars on the table. “This energy brew will grant both speed and strength, but its effects will only last for half the night's length. Then, unfortunately, all of you are going to experience quite a crash, so I must ask for all of you to be careful, not brash.”

“It's going to hurt afterwards for a while... although you all might be so exhausted when the effects wear off you might just collapse and sleep through the pain.” Meadowlark smiled faintly, and Antares nodded slowly as he looked at the Pegasus: she was wearing a gemstone vest and had her medicine bag hanging off her side... and he realized she was wearing the same kind of strange bracer as Zecora had on, too. “Still, it's... it's the best we can give you. And while it lasts... it'll push you past your normal limits.”

“And normally I would never give such a dangerous brew to forces of the night...” Zecora paused, then smiled faintly over at Pinkamena and Aphrodisia, who were resting with Sleipnir and Pinkie Pie. “But I understand well that perhaps your help is instrumental in stopping this blight.”

“Screw you too, Stripes.” Pinkamena grumbled moodily as she sharpened her axe slowly, but when Pinkie Pie looked at her imploringly, the demon sighed and added grudgingly from behind her waterfall of mane: “But thanks, too, I guess.”

Zecora nodded once, and Rainbow Dash grunted as he looked up from beside Avalon, lightweight plate gleaming over his body. Applejack sat on his other side, rubbing one of his shoulders worriedly, dressed herself in a gemstone vest and with a rifle slung over her back as she said quietly: “Just make sure you all get back in one piece. Wouldn't be right for Zecora and all us to do all this for you and you to go dyin' on us, right?”

“Right.” Rainbow smiled after a moment, then he winked at her and shook his head briefly. “Hey, don't you worry, I got this, okay? Me and Avalon... no better team, right?”

“Right.” Avalon nodded firmly, and the tiny Pegasus held a hoof up to bump it against her father's as her crosshatch blades gleamed dangerously over her forelegs, before she shook her armored body out and grinned slightly beneath her bladed helm. “Yeah, I'm getting excited, I ain't scared at all... we're gonna kick her ass.”

Antares smiled faintly, then he looked quietly, silently across at Prestige, who gazed back at him softly, not speaking. She was smiling, but worry was in her eyes, and Antares did his best to reassure her with his gaze before he returned his eyes to the table, as Celestia said quietly: “If it's at all possible, I'll try to follow you in to help your attack on the core. But I have confidence in you all, and my powers might be put to better use attacking and harrying Griselda from the outside anyway. But remember: if things don't go according to plan, make your own strategy as you go. Victory begins with a strong strategy but the triumphant are those who can learn from and adapt to the situation as it evolves.”

The young stallion nodded quickly, and Antares glanced back and forth before he asked finally: “Where's Rustproof? Already dispatched?”

“He and Cowlick are working with the Nibelung Architects to finish fortifications and traps outside of Ponyville, yes.” Celestia nodded, then she gestured to the table, saying softly: “But we're running out of time. Antares; you and your team drink the potions, and then we'll move out.”

Antares nodded in answer, taking a slow breath before he strode towards the table as Rainbow Dash, Avalon, Pinkamena and Aphrodisia all did the same. They glanced down at the potions before Rainbow hesitated, glancing up and asking: “Celestia, are... you sure you don't want mine? You would be a lot better to have out on the field, at full strength...”

“Thank you, Rainbow Dash, but I have enough strength for what we have to do.” Celestia replied softly, shaking her head and giving a small smile. “Besides, I could accidentally hurt myself or others with my magic if I was overcharged. And the price I would pay afterwards for using such an amplifier...”

“It's better we don't give Tia too much power, she'll overload like a microwave.” came a wry voice, and Celestia glanced over her shoulder with a quiet laugh as Discombobulation strode down the back steps of the library, grimacing a bit. “This is going to go great, really. This is like that annoying point in the story where you're supposed to lose, no matter what you do. I hate those parts.”

Celestia only shook her head slowly, then returned her amethyst eyes over the others as the five hesitated for a moment longer... then Antares swallowed thickly as he picked up the potion, looking down into the open jar before murmuring: “Good luck to all of us. Let's make our friends and family proud.”

With that, Antares tilted the jar back and drank deeply from it, surprised by the sweet, cloying taste of the potion; the others did the same, before empty jars thudded back down to the table as Antares felt his eyes widen, gasping in surprise at the feeling that sizzled through his body as Pinkamena grinned and Aphrodisia hugged herself with a low, soft sigh.

Avalon was breathing rapidly in and out, and Rainbow had his teeth grit before he looked up with a grunt, his magenta eyes flashing. “Holy hell, I feel like I could move faster than lightning!”

“Let's test that theory later.” Pinkamena muttered, and Rainbow glowered across at her as the demon looked up with a slight smile, her eyes almost glowing with unnatural light. “But that does have a kick to it... almost as much as...”

Pinkamena stopped, glancing at Antares, and the young stallion frowned... but before he could question anything, Celestia took over, saying clearly: “Sleipnir, you know what to do. Head out and get ready. Everypony else, get into your teams, or head to your stations. We all have our jobs.”

There were nods and sounds of agreement as all eyes looked up at Celestia, who nodded quickly back, and Antares was glad to simply fall back and let the enormous winged unicorn take over for this part as the others hurried on their way. Yet all the same, as Celestia strode past and he moved to follow her, Antares could feel Avalon and Aphrodisia immediately falling into pace on either side of him, and even Rainbow and Pinkamena looking at him: like already, they trusted him as their leader, even though he was only a little older than Avalon and they were both far more experienced.

But part of him was glad for it, too, and he felt honored by their respect, their almost-deference to him, even as he visibly focused on Celestia, listening as she began calmly: “Griselda, by now, will have reached the Everfree Forest. The Takers seem to be trying to avoid traveling inside the forest itself: on the last check, the swarm was staying airborne if possible, overtop the canopy of trees. This works to our advantage.”

Antares nodded, focusing on the winged unicorn as they left the library and began quickly down the street: his concentration felt sharp and acute, and his mind felt like it was moving faster. Better still, it was easier than usual to push away his anxieties and fears before they could start to mount, as he asked quietly: “Will it be to Sleipnir's benefit as well?”

“Undoubtedly. The Everfree as it is protects us, thanks to the living heart and soul of the forest. These monsters not only repulse the sentient forces of nature in the woods, Sleipnir has a strong affinity and alliance with nature. I have no doubt that the forest will shelter and even protect our forces, while impeding the Takers and Cancer.” Celestia said quietly, then she looked pointedly towards Antares. “There is one last thing I need to mention. If you see Cancer... I want you to retreat immediately. He is too dangerous to engage, especially inside the hive. But if you lure him outside or into the open... I will deal with the monster myself.”

Antares nodded slowly at this, picking clearly up on what Celestia was saying beneath her words before she looked ahead again and began to rehash other points they had already discussed. Antares listened closely all the same, even as he felt a few uneasy stirrings and strange thoughts of his own murmuring just beneath the surface of his conscious mind. He could feel the tenseness of the ivory winged unicorn, and a hunger that lurked beneath her calm features and soft voice: a desire for revenge she planned to get, one way or another.

Celestia led them out of Ponyville, and then stopped, looking silently over the fields, at the traps that were being set, the defensive positions being dug in, the fortification and barricades. For a moment, the group was silent, before Greece caught sight of Celestia from where he was directing a short tower being set up, and the Architect winced as he hurried towards her, calling: “Fancy-corn, we have a problem, we used up almost all of our blessed oil in the ambush and I have none left to-”

“It's alright, Greece. One way or another, this will all be over shortly. Just do what you can with what's left, and let us handle the rest.” Celestia said quietly, and the dwarf looked at her nervously before the ivory mare smiled and bowed her head to him. “Please excuse me now. We have to go and deal with the enemy before it gets any closer to Ponyville.”

Greece hesitantly stepped back as Celestia calmly spread her wings, and Antares simply stood for a moment, breathing slowly. With his senses so attuned, he realized he could feel not just Celestia's emotions, hidden beneath her porcelain features, but a terrible, cruel rumbling in the distance beneath the dusky evening skies. He realized that even if Griselda was far enough away they couldn't yet see her with their naked eyes, after almost three days of travel, the monstrosity was close enough that her awful presence could be felt, mixing with the raw, destructive force that was Cancer... and both those evils could in all likelihood feel them just as clearly.

Then Celestia leapt into the air, and she was joined a moment later by Selene and Burning Desire in his firebird form, the two flanking her as Antares silently watched for a moment, feeling all that weight dropping on his shoulders at once... and yet inside him, something stirring. Something that made him bear up even under the stress and the fear and everything else, as he spread his own leathery wings and took a slow breath... then threw himself into the air, hearing Avalon and Rainbow Dash take flight beside him as Aphrodisia and Pinkamena both burst into dark smoke.

He tossed one nervous look over his shoulder as they left the ground, seeing Sleipnir waving encouragingly from the gates of Ponyville... and both Meadowlark and Prestige, the latter smiling and waving herself despite the worry still clearly shining in her eyes. He could feel the wish for silent luck from them both, though, for him and everypony taking part in the spearhead... and he closed his eyes as he faced back and forwards, feeling a tremble run through his body as he silently promised again to do his best... to make things work out, one way or another, in the best possible way that he could.

There was no more need to talk, though, and no more need for words as the group flew forwards, Antares grimacing a little at the pain that went through his body with every flap of his wings, but he kept himself steady, breathing hard and focusing on what was ahead as the group sailed through the air together, with the two shapeless, smoky serpents that were Pinkamena and Aphrodisia circling lazily around the flying ponies.

It was only fifteen minutes before they saw the shape of Griselda on the horizon, and Celestia leaned forwards slightly, her eyes focusing on the behemoth. The Taker swarm surrounded her, buzzing around her almost like a living shield as her monstrous arms reached forwards, clawing up entire tracts of forest as the smaller, hoof-ending limbs extending from her chest stomped and crunched broken trees beneath them, leaving splinters and ruin in her wake. And Antares shivered as he looked ahead, sharp eyes and heightened acuity taking in details he wished could go unseen: in the short few days that had passed, he could see even from here that the living hide had regenerated a new head in place of the old... but it was little more than a warped and monstrous skull covered in slimy wax and webbing, with a single glowing eye in one socket and an oversized mouth filled with oversized teeth.

And he could feel it again... the buzzing in his mind, but it was more distinct, again likely thanks to his heightened senses. He could feel the rage, and hunger, and blurred, primal emotions that were all Griselda had left in her body: she was like a savage and beaten dog, too stupid to understand her master was the hoof that beat her, not fed her. She was little better than the Takers themselves: mindless and drooling sycophants, oversized insects that could only obey the orders of their Queen and only possessed hunger and whatever they were forced to attain to feed that hunger...

Antares gritted his teeth... and then he looked up sharply as a ripple passed through the swarm as they drew closer, and Griselda roared loudly enough to make the air around the vibrate, the Everfree Forest seeming to shudder beneath them before Celestia said calmly: “Antares, keep your team back for the moment. Wait for us to strike, then move in immediately: by then, Sleipnir should be moving his own team into position to draw the Takers' attention into the forest. Selene, Burning Desire... it's time.”

And without further ado, without waiting for questions or anything else, Celestia lunged forwards, her horn beginning to glow brightly as her wings flapped powerfully, a golden aura steadily growing around her. Antares winced, then grimaced as one of the demons shot up past him, calling on instinct: “It'll be okay, Apps, just hold on!”

“Don't tell anypony you guys... but I'm scared as hell.” Avalon muttered as she hovered, breathing hard and looking forwards even as she ground her crosshatch blades together, before the tiny Pegasus smiled as Rainbow Dash ruffled her mane quietly. “But I'm gonna do what I do best, Dad.”

“Good. Me too, Ava. Try and keep up to your old stallion now, huh?” Rainbow Dash grinned and winked before he looked ahead, adding: “And Antares, I hope you don't let me down either. Twilight never stops talking about you, and even my daughter here says you're pretty damn amazing... so let's see what happens when you're not trying to pull off some crazy scheme, huh?”

Then the trio looked forwards as the two demons swirled around them, attention drawn by rising howls of the Takers in the distance as the swarm began to converge on the glowing light that was Celestia, Burning Desire, and Selene. There was a moment of worry, as what looked like a black cloud fell over them... but it lasted only a moment, as the radiant beacon ripped its way fearlessly through the swarm of Takers that attempted to converge on top of them like an arrow through smoke.

But Celestia was so intent, so focused, that she barely noticed the Takers she simply crashed through, her teeth grit, her horn glowing as her entire body burned with golden fire. She hurtled onwards like a rocket, Burning Desire wincing and barely able to keep up with her as Selene flew on her other side, the Nephilim's endless gaze locked on Griselda as the monstrosity leaned up and roared at them, beginning to reach one of its massive claws slowly up as if it thought it could catch them, as Takers swarmed out of holes all through her hunched back and even up from the empty socket in the massive, living hive's skull.

And then Selene simply vanished in a burst of white light before reappearing only a short distance from the monstrosity's chest, snapping her horn forwards with a calm, cold smile on her face. There was a thunderous rumble, followed by a tremendous boom as Griselda's back arched, the monster howling as its enormous limb swung slowly backwards and immense cracks ripped through its chest and body. Chunks of carapace tumbled down from it as cavernous openings were hammered wider and Takers swarming over the creature simply exploded as if suddenly placed under immense pressure.

Selene launched herself backwards with an easy flap of her wings as Griselda began to lean forwards again, before Celestia rocketed down from the sky and smashed directly into the softest target she could see: a wide, half-shut wound in the stomach region, the ivory winged unicorn tearing into this with enough force to rip the opening wide before she snapped her horn forwards with a snarl and kicked off with all four hooves.

A shockwave of golden fire erupted from her body in all directions, with such tremendous force that it launched Celestia backwards into the air as a tunnel leading into the hive was revealed and blown wide open from the force of the blast. Griselda roared in fury and pain, which audibly rose to new levels as Burning Desire shot down, the firebird flapping his wings hard as his eyes flashed to send a wave of red flames washing up over her, searing the area around the wound and sending a wall of flames wafting down the tunnel to further amplify the golden fires burning here and there, and incinerate the Takers attempting to rush up and out of the living hive.

Then the firebird shot upwards as Selene twisted in one direction and Celestia rose as well, snapping her horn forwards to fling a blade of golden flame into the monster's skull-like features. It drew the beast's attention as the Takers shrieked and swarmed after the three, as the massive monstrosity grabbed at Celestia.

The slow swipe was easy enough for the winged unicorn to avoid, grimacing as she twisted around the immense limb before flicking her horn to the side, a beam of golden firing from her horn and burning a trail up along Griselda's skull. It did little damage but infuriated the monster further, the creature turning with a roar as Celestia fought the urge to dive down into that hole she had opened, to rush inside and try to destroy this beast herself even as she sensed the others moving in fast... before all her attention was drawn towards a voice that shouted furiously: “White weasel! You really so eager to die, you stupid ass crowbait?”

Celestia looked down with a snarl to see Cancer standing on Griselda's hunched-up back, the mottled-white monster glaring up at her before he shouted: “Forget about them, honey-cheeks! Keep moving towards that little dirt-heap town and let the kiddies do their-”

Then part of Cancer's shoulder was blown away as he screeched in surprise, grasping at the wound and looking back and forth in shock. He snarled up at Celestia, but she only grinned before the destruction entity yelped a second bullet plowed into his chest, glaring downwards now as he howled: “They're in the trees! Half of you deal with the white weasel and her friends, the other half of you get those stupid ponies out of the forest! Now let's march, Griselda, I don't got all damn-”

Celestia smashed both rear hooves into Cancer's turned-away head, knocking him flying down Griselda's hunched back before the ivory equine landed on top of the living hive, her eyes glowing with fury as her three golden swords formed in the air around her. She began to stride forwards as Cancer clawed his way up to stand, his crimson eyes furious as screaming Takers began to emerge from half-hidden holes and vents all along Griselda's back, but Celestia paid them little heed as she said softly: “No easy escape this time, monster. I've been waiting for this chance for a long time now.”

“Bring it on, white weasel. You'll make a delicious appetizer.” Cancer growled in return, his front limbs becoming claws as his body rippled, his grin spreading wider as his jaws expanded and his red eyes glowed. “Sic 'er, boys!”

Takers lunged at her from all sides, and Celestia's swords whirled around her, ripping through the bodies of insect-beasts as Cancer charged at her with a cackle even as Celestia leapt forwards as well with her horn glowing. Valkyrie reborn and destruction entity clashed, power sizzling through the air at their combat as more Takers swarmed in, drawn by the ferocity of the battle.

Guns fired from below as Takers buzzed down and tried to force through the thick canopy of trees, squealing in frustration as branches seemed to shift now and then to block their progress. More hissed through the air, chasing after Burning Desire as he winged back and forth in firebird form, then dove low along Griselda's body tail before transforming back into his fiery stallion shape, galloping along her immense, slimy lower body as he flicked his glowing horn to create a cloud of smoke in front of himself that several Takers charged blindly into. There were several bright flashes... and a moment later, Burning Desire calmly walked out of the cloud, leaving only ashes and embers behind as he gritted his teeth and looked up as more Takers swarmed down towards him.

Selene shot by Griselda's skull, swinging her horn out... and the massive monster was stalled as a blast of pressure surrounded its single eye, dropping its head low with a roar of agony. Then she smiled over her shoulder as she felt a tingle in her mind, dark, galaxy-like eyes easily watching as Antares shot in towards Griselda's stomach with the Pegasi flanking him on either side, the dark shapes of Aphrodisia and Pinkamena both shooting forwards eagerly into the wound first. “Good.”

Black, smoky shapes tore through a tunnel of wax, flesh, and sludge, bursting out into a wide central chamber before they both solidified into demons... and Aphrodisia winced as she looked down at herself, her armor gone before she complained, oblivious for the moment to the hissing insect-creatures that filled the room: “Mommy! I lost my armor!”

“I told you that you needed more practice. Transporting other crap while incorporeal is hard as hell.” Pinkamena grumbled in response, then she reached up and yanked her axe off her back before tossing it over to the younger demon, Aphrodisia catching it with a warm look. “Have fun, kid.”

“Thanks, Mommy!” Aphrodisia said brightly, and then she grinned as Antares shot out of the tunnel entrance and into the room, the young, glossy black unicorn rearing back in shock as he dropped to his hooves between the two demons, while Rainbow Dash and Avalon took up position just above, looking in horror out at the room. “Look what Mommy's letting me use, Nova!”

“Think we got bigger concerns at the moment, Pinkslap...” Antares murmured, shivering as he stared in horror across the enormous, dome-shaped room. It was filled with chitinous-armored, small and sleek Takers, all with glowing eyes and somehow much more intimidating than the larger creatures outside, reeking of malevolence as more of them slowly crawled out of other openings all throughout the room. And in the center of it all, was Griselda, the core, the true Queen of the Hive.

Antares shivered in disgust at how she was melded into the hive itself, and then he shouted in shock, the others looking at him with surprise when he felt Griselda's mind tear savagely at his own. Not with any concentrated telepathy, not with some mental attack... but her mind was like a rabid animal's mind, biting and ripping at his just from the barest contact of their eyes. And Griselda snarled, leaning forwards as she gurgled, then rasped, drool dripping from her jaws: “Pony... kill... kill... kill them!”

Griselda threw her head back with a scream as her horn glowed venomous green, and the Takers echoed her cry before they swarmed forwards in a dark wave. Antares snarled, then he looked up sharply, shouting: “Get the queen, just plow through her guards!”

Antares snapped his horn forwards, unleashing a blast of white light that knocked several of the bug-creatures sprawling backwards, and Rainbow and Avalon both shot up into the air, immediately launching themselves towards Griselda. Takers leapt up at them and launched themselves off walls and even the ceiling, wings buzzing to propel themselves into the path of the Pegasi, but both Avalon and Rainbow dodged around even the swiftest of bug-beasts with ease.

Avalon lashed her crosshatch blades out as she passed the Taker Guards, sending up sparks as the sharp blades tore into surprisingly-solid natural armor while her father kicked off the head of one bug creature that tried to get in his way, giving himself an extra boost before he dove straight at Griselda with a snarl... but the monster only hissed at him, her horn continuing to glow brightly as a dome of green energy sizzled into being around her, and Rainbow's eyes widened a moment before he crashed into this, then cursed and kicked hard off it, wincing at how solid the force-field felt as he yelled: “We got a problem, An-”

Two Takers collided with him in midair, ripping and tearing at his armor, and Rainbow yelled in surprise even as Avalon crashed into the shield herself before she snarled as she began to hack and smash against it viciously. But inside, Griselda only grinned widely, hissing through her fangs up at the tiny Pegasus as her eyes glowed out of skull-like features, broken mind still working enough for the monster to take cruel pleasure in the failure of the tiny Pegasus to damage her protective barrier.

Then a Taker seized Avalon's rear hooves and yanked her down, another slashing a claw viciously into her wing and sending up a burst of feathers as the tiny Pegasus howled in agony, then spun around and kicked both hind legs hard into the Taker that had grabbed her. It screeched as it was knocked flying, and Avalon swung her forelegs in a windmill as she rolled quickly up to her hooves, eyes blazing as she shouted angrily: “Come get some, then!”

The Takers were more than happy to oblige, one lunging straight at her with a scream... and Avalon swung both forelegs down into its features, sinking the elongated, razor-like blades deep into its skull before slamming the monster hard to the ground. She threw herself backwards, flapping her wings once to propel herself a little higher even as she cursed in pain before wincing as she felt her hind legs contact with Griselda's force-field, and she kicked hard off it to launch herself forwards, forcing her wings to flap again despite how badly the injured one hurt.

She crash-tackled a Taker Guard backwards and kicked off it like a springboard, the insect-beast letting out a snarl as Avalon attempted to rejoin her friends, wincing over her shoulder... then grinning despite herself, feeling a surge of both admiration and pride as her father shoved the last Taker clinging to him off his body before firmly kicking it in the gut with both rear hooves, knocking it flying into another of the bug-beasts that was just beginning to lunge.

Rainbow launched himself sharply downwards with a flap of his wings, smashing into another of the carapace-armored Takers and crunching it to the floor, pausing for a moment with muscles tense and teeth grit, wings shivering before he threw himself upwards and flapped them as hard as possible, a short, intense boom sounding as the surrounding Takers were disoriented by a short, sharp shockwave of force and he was thrown back into the air, flapping his wings hard again to shoot forwards to join the others as he shouted at Antares: “We're gonna need a hell of a hit to get through that shield, and I don't have the room for a Rainboom!”

Antares cursed under his breath as he dodged away from another Taker, swinging a hoof up at the last moment to hit it just under the jaw and knock it sprawling. But as his eyes looked back and forth, his sharpened senses went to work, analyzing the situation as the demons fought on either side of him with hoof and axe.

Pinkamena was grinning coldly, smashing in armor-like bodies with her front hooves and throwing Taker Guard in all directions, while Aphrodisia was laughing, looking almost crazed as she swung the crescent-bladed axe viciously back and forth in wide but smooth arcs: her movements were wild and long, but Aphrodisia was twisting her entire body into each and every swing, almost dancing with the deadly axe as she tore through bodies and cut off limbs, evading all but the fastest attacks from the-

A Taker seized into Antares' side, digging its hook-like claws into his armor and yanking him viciously to the ground to try and pin him as another Taker lunged forwards, and Antares was only saved by instinct as he yelled in shock and flicked his horn out, releasing a blast of telekinesis that knocked the diving Taker away. Then he hurriedly forced himself to half-roll onto his back, seizing the Taker's knocked-loose limb before flinging himself hard in the other direction: the result was the Taker being slammed face-first into the floor and Antares rolling to his hooves above the stunned bug-creature before he twisted hard, snapping the monster's front leg.

The Taker screeched, and Antares leapt backwards, eyes locked on the bug beast as it hurried up to its clawed feet... and then the young stallion stared in shock as the Taker's horn glowed sickly green before its limb took on the same aura, the creature's limb cracking loudly before it visibly snapped back together and its claw flexed.

Antares heard Griselda's hiss as he looked back and forth, seeing the other Takers: how their horns were glowing here and there as well, how even the worst of wounds were healing as crushed chests pushed back out like dents being hammered out of metal, as awful wounds filled with black and green sludge that hardened like cement, as the monstrosities reattached limbs with all the ease of gluing broken toy parts back together.

The Taker lunged at him again, and Antares swung his horn viciously into the creature, knocking it staggering before he snapped his horn out and blasted the beast backwards, breathing harder as he looked back and forth in horror as Griselda gave a raspy, hoarse laugh beneath her shield, watching with eagerness as the Takers hissed and howled and swarmed. And even with Rainbow fighting next to Apps and Avalon supporting Pinkamena, Antares could see with horror that sheer numbers were going to win the day... even without considering the awful regeneration of the puppet-like Guards.

Two Takers lunged at him, and Antares barely reacted in time, seizing one in midair and swinging it into the other to throw them both to the ground. The monsters hissed and screamed, and Antares stumbled backwards, shaking his head wildly as panic surged through his senses before he gritted his teeth and concentrated on a spell Selene had taught him, snapping his horn upwards as he dropped his body low.

There was a bright flash, and an illusionary image of Antares leapt high into the air, its horn a vibrant beacon as its leathery wings flapped hard and carried it over the crowd of Takers. Griselda looked up at this with a growl as it seemed to shoot straight for her, and the attention of the Takers were drawn to the almost-perfect copy of Antares as the young stallion winced from where he had simply pressed himself as low to the ground as he could, shouting quickly: “We need to get out of here!”

Griselda's attention snapped back forwards at the sound, even as the illusionary Antares sailed just over her shield as Takers lunged up and after it, a few managing to claw through the image and distort it but none of them intelligent enough on their own to understand what it actually was... and Rainbow Dash cursed as Aphrodisia whined while raising the axe high over her head: “But we were just getting start-”

She was cut off with a gurgle when a claw plunged into her exposed stomach, Pinkamena snarling... but Aphrodisia's eyes glowed as she hissed in fury, slashing viciously down and slicing the Taker in front of her into two halves. Then she cursed and spat blood, shivering once before Pinkamena slapped a Taker away and shouted: “Aphrodisia, go find Daddy! Let's get the hell out of here!”

Aphrodisia leapt backwards without argument, hissing at the Takers before she burst backwards into dark smoke that shot quickly for the tunnel, Pinkamena's axe flying through the air before the Devourer demon barreled across the crowd of Takers to catch it just before it could hit the ground, skidding around on her hind hooves as she lashed it viciously outwards, knocking several of the bug-beasts flying. “And the rest of you, you heard the kid! Go!”

“That includes you too, Pinkamena!” Antares shouted, surprised by his own forcefulness as Pinkamena glanced over her shoulder with surprise... then grinned a little as she nodded shortly, snapping her axe onto her back before she leapt smoothly out of the way of a Taker that dove at her before bursting apart into black smoke.

As the second demon fled, Antares hurriedly backpedaled towards the entrance... before wincing as Griselda screamed, and the Takers surged forwards intently. Immediately, the young stallion turned and bolted for the exit, Rainbow Dash already flying down the tunnel and Avalon sprinting after her father as Antares winced over his shoulder: the bug-beasts were only a few feet behind him, clawing and biting after him, some of them leaping to the walls and ceiling to try and surround and overwhelm him completely.

Antares spread his wings and leapt forwards, flapping them hard to give himself an extra boost just as he reached the tunnel exit, leaping out towards safety... and then he howled as he was tackled from above by another Taker, the monster biting savagely down into his shoulder and crunching the steel pauldron like paper, young stallion howling in agony as he and the bug creature fell to the ground below and hit with a loud crunch. They bounced along the forest floor, the monstrosity thankfully knocked loose as Antares rolled onto his stomach with a curse of pain, looking up towards the Taker with a snarl.

But the danger didn't come from the stunned bug-beast: instead, Antares felt his instincts screaming at him a moment too late, looking over his shoulder before a Taker Beetle's claw descended on his back, crushing him down into the ground before the monster leaned over him and spewed a stream of green goo over his pinned body. Antares howled, squirming and trying to throw himself upwards, but it was to no avail as he found himself caught in the hardening substance, his eyes going wide with terror as the Taker Beetle drew back with a low growl as other Takers screamed and Griselda roared, the enormous, living hive calling out to the nearby Takers to come and fetch their prize.

The bug-creatures began to swarm in, screaming and hissing eagerly, but then the monstrosities flinched, seeming almost confused as Selene appeared out of thin air just above Antares. She smiled calmly, flapping her wings slowly before she closed her eyes and tilted her head back, and Antares felt the ground beneath him shatter; felt a horrible, tremendous surge of power as his eyes widened in shock, pressure building around him as the world became dark.

The screams of the Takers seemed distant now as his vision became bruised purple, the only points of light from white streaks that shot back and forth in front of him, gargling as he felt like his body was being crushed by an impossible, endless weight... and then, above it all, he heard Selene's voice saying gently: “Sometimes we must hurt the ones we love to save them. Take solace: I shall hurt our enemies far more.”

Even from where she was battling Cancer atop one of Griselda's oversized shoulders, Celestia felt the shockwave that tore through the air, staggering as Cancer squawked before the ivory winged unicorn gritted her teeth as she saw a purple flare burst high into the night sky: the sign that Antares had been forced to retreat. She looked towards the mottled white monster, breathing hard as blood dripped from her mouth and slime from her golden, glowing swords, and Cancer glared back at her before his red eyes glowed as he gargled, then rasped: “Destroy. Kill. Revenge. Nothing matters, all must die, all must be purified in the Void...”

Celestia's eyes widened slightly as Cancer's head wrenched back and forth, the monster shrieking in fury as its claws grabbed at its head wildly, its body rippling as bones and extra limbs and horrific mutations tore across its frame... and yet beneath this mass of unstable destruction incarnate, she had for a moment glimpsed herself, her own motivations, what she had once nearly become... what she was almost becoming again, for all her good intentions. And then Cancer looked up at her, screaming: “Stop staring at me, white weasel, and just die already!”

The monster leapt towards her, and all three of Celestia's swords shot forwards, burying through the beast's body and knocking him staggering backwards. But a moment later, Cancer howled in rage, reaching up and yanking two of the swords free with his front claws before leaping towards her again and swinging them viciously downwards, and Celestia winced before she flicked her horn hard, creating a barrier of golden light.

Her own swords clanged into it as Cancer crashed into the golden wall, hind legs kicking into it as tentacles of mottled flesh and grasping arms ripped out of his body, seizing, clawing, crashing into the barrier. The monster screamed at her through the wall as Celestia leaned backwards in shock, before the destruction entity slammed his face into the golden light-made-solid, howling: “Kill her, kill her, kill you!”

Celestia could hear more Takers buzzing in from behind her, as Cancer managed to crack the magic barrier in front of her, the winged unicorn cursing as she looked back and forth... and then her eyes widened as she spotted a gleaming, dragon-headed cane sticking out of Griselda's shoulder, lodged deep in the mutant flesh. She seized into it with telekinesis, and it lit up brightly as she flicked her horn to the side, yanking it free with surprising ease before glaring at Cancer and shouting: “This isn't over yet, monster!”

The ivory winged unicorn snapped her horn forwards, and her golden swords blew apart one after the other in bursts of aureate fire, knocking Cancer senseless as his claws were all but disintegrated and chest blown open. Then he screamed as the barrier exploded as well, knocking him flying backwards like a comet, wreathed in golden flames as he bounced several times along Griselda's shoulder before slipping over the edge and falling with a howl of outrage to the ground far below.

Celestia spun around, swinging the cane with her movement by telekinesis, and the first Taker to try and tackle her was smashed through the air like a toy, colliding with another bug-beast and sending them both hurtling towards the ground. Then Celestia leapt forwards as she guided the cane in another vicious strike down into the skull of the next Taker in line, knocking it out of her way as she spread her wings and flew up towards the sky above, cane lashing out like a sword around her as she shouted, fighting down fear and passion and most of all, battle-rage: “Full retreat! Return to Ponyville!”

Griselda roared loudly as if trying to drown out this order, but many of the forces from Ponyville were already hurriedly escaping, and the rest were quick to listen to Celestia's order despite their own furies and misgivings. And yet Celestia knew they had no other choice, even as she cursed quietly to herself, looking over her shoulder with her teeth grit: they had failed, and they had lost their last chance to keep Ponyville safe: now the most they could hope to do was minimize the damage... and hope that Ponyville wouldn't be the site of their final stand.

Antares awoke with a moan of pain to a world that was only blurs and sounds, coughing blood before he heard a curse that sounded both frustrated and relieved at the same time... and then he cried out in agony as he felt hooves press against his chest, before Scarlet Sage's voice whispered to him soothingly: “I know it hurts, little brother, just hold on... hold on...”

Antares groaned again... then arched his back, eyes snapping wide as his blood seemed to boil in his body, unable to repress a howl before he slumped as the pain ended as suddenly as it had come. He breathed hard in and out, then trembled and touched his chest, trying to sit up... before shivering at the fact he couldn't, his eyes looking weakly back and forth as he whispered: “Where... where am I...”

But his vision was returning now as Scarlet Sage leaned over him... and his eyes widened as he realized she was dressed in her armor, the silver scale mail gleaming over her frame and a bladed bracelet glinting around one foreleg as she said quietly: “You're at the clinic, Antares. You need to stay here with the others... you're out of this fight.”

“No, I can... I, I can...” Antares tried to sit up again, but Scarlet Sage reached up and grasped his shoulder gently: not to stop him, but more to comfort him, as he failed again to sit up when agony blurred through him and he slumped back to the pillows and bed. He shivered weakly, then looked up and whispered: “What... what happened? I... oh no, I failed...”

“No, Antares, you did what you could. The others told Celestia what happened, it's not your fault.” Scarlet Sage said forcefully, and then she shook her head and added quietly: “You need to stay here, and don't try to move too much. Selene saved you but... you got caught by her powers too. Your ribs were... crushed, and there was... a lot of internal damage. I've done the best I could but you need to let your body heal what it can, and Zecora and I will continue to treat you afterwards. It was a really bad combination with... with the potion you took wearing off, and the pain side effect kicking in.”

Antares whimpered a little despite himself, slowly staring down at his chest: wrapped in bandages, and he realized there was something hard over him, almost like breastplate... to protect his body, he thought. He breathed slowly in and out, shaking his head weakly before Scarlet Sage leaned in and touched his face, saying quietly: “You're going to get better. We have some of the best healers around who are going to do everything to make you better, Antares. But we're... we're short on time. Griselda is maybe ten minutes away from Ponyville and her swarm is-”

Scarlet Sage looked up with a wince as a klaxon cut through the air, and she gritted her teeth before shaking her head sharply. “The swarm is here. Meadowlark, Antares is awake! Keep an eye on him and everypony here, I need to go help out the others!”

Meadowlark looked up from across the room, but Scarlet Sage didn't have the time to wait for a response; the silvery Pegasus spun around, running towards the door even as a bolt of pain ran through her as she heard Antares calling weakly to her.

In moments she was out of the clinic, looking quickly back and forth before a terrible roar shook the air, and Scarlet Sage spread her wings and leapt upwards, flying quickly into the air and gazing over the wall with a wince at the sight of the massive, hulking monstrosity that was Griselda in the distance. And worse, as she looked up, she saw Takers descending from the sky towards them as other bug-creatures tore through the field, screaming and shrieking and heedless of the bullets and arrows and magic that was already pelting into the attacking horde.

Scarlet Sage dropped back to the street, beginning to run towards town square, and a Taker leapt into her path: without slowing, Scarlet Sage simply slammed both front hooves into its head and vaulted over it, flapping her wings once to launch herself further away from the disoriented beast as she focused on her objective. Then her eyes widened as there was a rumbling before a Taker Beetle plowed out of an alley, knocking wooden fencing and debris flying as it skidded into her path and turned to roar at her furiously.

Scarlet Sage set herself, gritting her teeth before the Beetle leaned forwards, vomiting a stream of goo at her, but the Pegasus quickly sidestepped, then flapped her wings and propelled herself upwards, quickly using the bladed bracelet to slice her own foreleg open before swinging her limb out as her eyes began to glow.

Blood splattered down over the Beetle's features, and it snarled before Scarlet Sage's red eyes flashed as she grimaced and shoved a hoof towards the monster: immediately, the blood that had splashed over the monster bubbled and swirled before hardening, becoming like cement over the creature's eyes and blinding it as it howled in frustration and stumbled back and forth. The Pegasus used this opportunity to fly quickly past the blinded monster, reminding herself that she had to get to Celestia: that nothing else mattered at this point but-

She saw the Takers too late, and Scarlet Sage yelled in shock as the three bug-creatures tackled her out of the air, driving her down to the ground with a loud bang. She snarled as one bit at her, just managing to yank her head out of the way before she slammed her skull into its nose, and the bug creature hissed and staggered backwards before the Pegasus kicked the second beast off her, then cried out in agony when the third monster raked its claws through her wing.

Feathers and blood burst up, and Scarlet rolled to her hooves before one of the Takers tackled her, crushing her down as her wounded wing flapped, sending droplets of blood everywhere. Scarlet Sage released another hiss of pain as the monster's claws tore at her scalp and its jaws bit at her, thankfully only getting a mouthful of her mane and little more than a nip to her skin before her eyes glowed as she arched her back, uncontrollable fury filling her up for a moment.

The droplets of her blood over the ground and that had splattered on the Takers boiled violently, then burst into intense red flames that distracted the monsters as they shrieked in agony. Immediately, Scarlet Sage yanked herself free from beneath them, then she spun around and slammed a hoof into the nearest Taker's head, knocking it stumbling before she slashed her bladed bracelet hard across the monster's face.

It sent up a burst of green-black blood, the Taker shrieking as the red flames burnt themselves out but the other monsters continued to shake themselves violently, still distracted by the pain. Then the Pegasus leapt forwards, seizing the monster she had just attacked around the neck and wincing in disgust even as she forced herself to lean down and lick up the awful blood from the bug-like monster's wound, then shove it backwards as pain wrenched through her system.

Buzzing voices entered her head, whispers that were both insane and primal, and Scarlet Sage gasped for a moment before she looked up as her eyes flashed as the Takers all looked suddenly, sharply up... and then the Pegasus bared her teeth, her eyes glowing brighter as she realized these monsters all shared almost identical blood, that she wasn't just tapping into the wounded beast, she could tap into the others nearby as well.

Green electricity sizzled over the Takers' horns, and then they threw their heads back and screamed: and behind her, where the monster had stumbled back into the alley, the blinded Taker Beetle howled miserably as well as psychic static shocked through its mind. The Takers collapsed one-by-one as Scarlet Sage used her powers to block the mental link between the servants and their Queen, even as she could feel the accumulating rage of their hive mind trying to smash into her own brain, trying to order her to do things, trying to simply hurt this intruder into their mentality as Scarlet Sage shivered, then spread her wings and leapt to the air, rasping: “Just hold on... just hold on...”

But the blood was already taking a toll on her: even if she was immune to most diseases and blood-borne infections, the blood was alien, monstrous, unnatural: and far worse were the effects on her mind, as it gave her both the power to crush the minds of the Takers near her, but also made her into as much as a receiver for Griselda as the rest of the hive was. She could feel the mental pressure building slowly, and she knew it wouldn't be long before she would have to break the link she had forged through Taker blood or risk her mind crumbling, and... who knew what would happen then.

But for now, she shot onwards, and the Takers she passed or who drew near to her shrieked in agony, feeling mental static blasting through their minds and severing the ever-important link with their Queen when the Pegasus came within twenty feet of them. Scarlet Sage was already beginning to turn pale, though, and she was unsteady by the time she reached the square, which was littered not just with bodies of Takers but barricades and a few fallen Starlit Knights and Nibelung as well.

Celestia glanced sharply towards her, and Scarlet Sage stumbled, then leaned to the side and vomited loudly before shivering once. But then her pallor slowly began to return as the winged unicorn approached with Sleipnir, Discombobulation and Pinkamena, and Scarlet Sage looked up as she shook herself out, whispering: “I'm okay. I was able to make a blood link with the Takers... it lets me break into their minds. But it hurts like hell and I felt... I felt myself losing myself. I just broke the connection, and I can already feel my strength coming back, though, I'll do it again in a few minutes.”

“Scarlet Sage, it's too dangerous if it has that much an effect on you.” Celestia said quietly, but Scarlet Sage shook her head vehemently as she slowly straightened.

“No, it'll be fine.” she said forcefully, breathing a little harder, and Celestia looked down at her apprehensively before the Blood Seer whispered: “I want to use my powers for good, not evil. Healing ponies is a start, but fighting these monsters off is even better in some ways. Besides, it's the best way to ensure that you guys get to Griselda, Celestia.”

“You're taking after your mother, Scarlet Sage.” Celestia said softly, and Scarlet Sage smiled wanly before the ivory winged unicorn nodded quickly, looking up towards the sky as the screams of Takers sounded from above. “We have no time to argue, anyway. Discombobulation, where's Discord?”

“Either hiding or 'lying in wait,' but they both amount to the same thing.” Discombobulation replied mildly, rubbing slowly as his metallic limb as he glanced moodily up. “Don't count on Discord to help, Celestia. It's the only way you can be sure that he will. Don't worry, I'll do the dreaded 'protect the village' mission and wait out the timer until he decides to show up.”

The winged unicorn nodded quickly, then she glanced over her shoulder as the Draconequus bowed and vanished: Sleipnir was bruised, his armor damaged, but he looked ready: likewise, Pinkamena had a few cuts that were healing much slower than her normal rapid regeneration, but she was grinning and her red-rimmed eyes were all-but-glowing, as she looked up and said coldly: “Come on, Princess Sunshine. We don't got time to dally.”

“You're right.” Celestia closed her eyes, rolling her shoulders slowly, feeling Tyrfing's strangely comforting weight before she glanced up as one of Griselda's echoing roars tore through the air, saying sharply: “There is no failure here. We either achieve victory or we are all destroyed. Understood?”

“Aye, big sister, and let us hope we do not die just yet. 'Twould be embarrassing, Luna would surely never let us live it down... or well, thou knows what I mean.” Sleipnir replied with a firm smile, looking up and nodding quickly, and Celestia shook her head slowly as Pinkamena smiled wryly at her husband. “Honor to us, sister!”

“Honor above all.” Celestia agreed, and then she turned and began to sprint forwards, the other ponies falling in pace beside her as she shouted: “Let's show these cowards what that means!”

Sleipnir and Pinkamena both roared, and Scarlet Sage gritted her teeth as the group sprinted down the road, charging past Takers and soldiers that were fighting back the invading bug-beasts alongside demons and other forces; they passed ponies young and old fighting as fiercely and fearlessly as they could against monsters spawned by raw destruction, and sights both incredible and terrible: and yet all the same, there was no time to slow, to stop, only to charge forwards as the looming monster in the distance tore itself ever closer.

They reached the gates in record time, trampling their way through any monstrosity that dared to get in their path, and as they shot out into the field they were joined by Burning Desire, Selene, and Zecora. The group of demons, pony and zebra rammed down a safe aisle left between the traps and barricades, as Takers engaged the first line of defense and stumbled into traps and clawed over walls, howling in hunger and fury as the horde pushed ever forwards.

A bug-beast lunged into their path, and without slowing, Celestia leapt forwards as Tyrfing snapped off her back, whickering out to decapitate it in one fell swoop. The others leapt around the stumbling, headless body, but Scarlet Sage spread her wings and swiped her hooves through the monster's blood as she passed before quickly licking it up as she flew above the group, her eyes beginning to glow as she reforged the mental link and looked up with a snarl.

She felt their minds again, felt the link becoming solid... and then Griselda roared, and horrific, animal visions tore through her brain, Scarlet Sage screaming in shock before blood burst from her ears as she reared back, a convulsion ripping through her body as mental claws savaged her mind, mental jaws bit violently again and again and again into her psyche. She tumbled from the air with a gargle, and Burning Desire winced over his shoulder as Takers screamed in what sounded like mocking pleasure before the demon leapt backwards with a curse to charge towards the fallen Pegasus.

He smashed one Taker away as it lunged towards Scarlet's prone, drooling form, then snapped his horn outwards, creating a cloud of smoke around them. It disoriented the other beasts that were trying to close in, and a moment later Burning Desire lunged out of the crowd with a curse, hurrying back towards the front lines with Scarlet Sage on his back.

He risked a look over his shoulder, and then snapped his horn to the side to create a wall of fire that drove back the Takers trying to follow him, before looking ahead and wincing as a Taker leapt in front of him; he was saved by a golden blur, however, and the demon staggered to a halt as the Taker was crushed face-first into the ground.

A second Taker lunged at the back of the Pegasus, but she calmly swung one rear hoof back and smashed it backwards, before her single wing flapped as she pushed herself off the ground, doing a short, rolling flip over a Taker that tried to dive into her. Both her hooves crashed down into its back and forced it down, and like liquid, she swept one hoof quickly to the side: it first smashed across the back of the pinned Taker's head, knocking it senseless, before catching a second Taker by the face and slamming it firmly down into the one she had already pinned, cracking both their skulls.

Then Fluttershy looked over her shoulder, eyes glowing with a strange luminescence as she said quietly: “Please, let's hurry back inside. I don't like doing this, even though I let Nirvana take away my fear for now.”

Burning Desire nodded curtly, then he risked another look back over his shoulder even as more Takers screamed and surged in around them... but the group was almost at Griselda now. But Celestia snarled as a swarm of Takers charged towards them, led by several enormous Beetles... except Sleipnir barreled past her with a grin, shouting to his sister as he ran by: “I shall join thee as soon as I can, Celestia, but it seems first I must play a game with these silly children!”

“Sleipnir!” Celestia shouted... but the gigantic earth pony had already rammed into the first Beetle, knocking it flying and drawing the attention of the other monsters to him. Then Celestia cursed, leaping to the air and spreading her wings as Zecora skidded to a halt and yanked a potion out of the belt around her body, throwing it with a hard toss into another Taker Beetle that was running towards them, and it exploded with a tremendous bang as the zebra shouted some insult in her own language, drawing attention to her as well.

A bug-beast lunged at the striped equine's flank, and Zecora winced... but a moment later, Pinkamena crushed the beast out of the air with her axe, grinning darkly over at the zebra as she said easily: “Looks like you owe your life to a demon now, shaman. Must be humiliating, being saved by one of my kind and all.”

Zecora only gave a thin smile even as her eyes flicked up, sending a silent prayer to Celestia and Selene as the two flew quickly towards Griselda. The monster glared at them with its single, baleful green eye, roaring as it dragged itself forwards, and Celestia's eyes locked on the wound in the living hive's stomach before Selene said softly: “I'm sorry, Dawn Bringer. It looks like you face this alone.”

Shrieks sounded through the air, and Celestia looked up in shock as a swarm of Takers lifted off from where they had been roosting over Griselda's back, flying eagerly forwards... but Selene gracefully shot upwards to meet them, the Nephilim's horn beginning to glow as her endless gaze locked on the horde, saying softly: “Your kind means nothing to me.”

Celestia cursed and forced herself to look down even as a shockwave rippled through the air, pushing herself into flying harder, faster, diving towards the open entrance that led into the living hive as Griselda roared and continued to drag itself ever forwards... and just as she arched her back, swooping in as Tyrfing drew back beside her, just as she began to drop into the torn-open jaw of the cavern, a hideous, mottled white shape lunged out and tackled her, knocking her crashing backwards as Cancer's claws ripped into her armor and he screamed gleefully into her face: “Been waiting for you, white weasel! What took you so long?”

Celestia's wings flapped wildly as she shouted in pain, twisting back and forth as Cancer cackled as his lower body became serpentine, twisting violently around Celestia's lower body before they both cursed as she zigzagged through the air and ricocheted off Griselda's chest. Still, the winged unicorn forced herself to continue to fly upwards even as Cancer tried to drag her down, his claws locked into her shoulders as he constricted tighter around her, turning her armor into a painful cage as he continued in a vicious, eager voice: “You and me got a bone to pick before I kill you, bitch! You're gonna be the perfect bait for that scumbag crowbait punk kid of yours!”

“Get off me!” Celestia snarled, sweeping in Tyrfing, but Cancer only shoved himself against her with a snarl, making her body sway and narrowly dodging the awkward swipe of the blade before the destruction entity leaned back and swung a claw out, hitting the flat of the sword and knocking it loose from Celestia's telekinetic grip. It fell through the air, spinning wildly as Celestia tried to turn, still trying her hardest to fly, to stay in control, as Cancer clung to her and they shot higher, higher, higher...

Celestia's horn began to glow, and Cancer snarled as he brought a claw back as it warped into a bony blade, preparing to strike... and then he screamed as both he and Celestia were encased in a golden glow. They were flying above Griselda now, twisting back and forth through the air, both of them shining with radiance, Celestia wincing in agony as she felt the monster crushing her even as she forcefully tried to neutralize him, making the beast's body ripple as he howled in pain and struggled against the energy that was coursing through him and turning his body to wax. They were trapped in stalemate, Celestia unable to focus on another spell as her pain worsened with every movement, and Cancer unable to move with the holy energy flooding his poisonous system, unable to transform his body or swing his bony blade forwards no matter how hard he tried.

They were like a glowing beacon, and Cowlick cursed from where she was standing on top of the engineering building, binoculars focused on this before they roved to Griselda. The monster was still moving closer, was beginning to tear into the plains now, and after that it would be mere minutes before it reached Ponyville. The glowing star could only be Celestia trying to fight off something, and if even Celestia was being kept busy she didn't want to guess what had happened to the others...

“Momma, what is it?” Rustproof asked worriedly as he hurried towards her, and Cowlick grimaced over her shoulder at her son. He was dressed in his rumpled engineer's overalls, but one of the dark stains along his arm was clearly blood or pus from his wound that still wasn't healing properly.

“Get back inside, Rusty, that's an order not just from your Momma but from your boss.” Cowlick said sharply, and Rustproof winced before the engineer growled out at the battlefield, tossing the binoculars away and turning to half-shove Rustproof towards the door. “Come on, I need you shipping stuff out. Looks like everything's gone to hell... you rigged up the last of those barrels of blessed oil yet, in case Greece has gotta try and buy time for Ponyville to be evacuated?”

“Bombs are set up...” Rustproof said nervously as they strode through the open door and hurried down the stairs, Cowlick still pushing her son ahead of her before he added quickly: “Momma, you need to go stay with Dad, you ain't-”

“I'm fine!” Cowlick shouted, then she shook her head sharply as Rustproof quailed a bit, cursing under her breath before looking almost pleadingly at her son. “Kid, you gotta do what's right, no matter what other ponies tell you, okay? What happens to me don't matter, not if it protects you and your Dad, and goddammit, I am not going to just sit around here and wait to die! I might not be able to stop that monster out there but I'm gonna damn well kill every one of those fugly bastards I can!”

She half-shoved Rustproof across the second floor landing, then pointed at him and said firmly: “Go down to the basement, help the others. Momma's gonna go out and do what she does best. You take care of things, Rusty, you're... you're my son, and I love you. You take care of your Dad, too.”

“Momma, no!” Rustproof shouted, but Cowlick only shook her head and turned, shoving through the doors as the blue earth pony looked after her with a tremble, then he winced and grabbed his wounded limb as it gave an ache... but the tears in his eyes weren't from any physical pain as he looked after her, whispering: “I love you too, Momma, but...”

Rustproof trembled, then reached up and rubbed at his face before turning and stumbling down the stairs to the basement level. He shoved his way through the doors, the enormous blue earth pony breathing hard as he hurried towards the assembly room, where workers were assembling clips of bullets, guns, everything and anything that could be passed out in a hurry to the soldiers outside.

Yet his hooves stopped and refused to take him forwards another step as he began to pass the testing room, breathing hard as he slowly turned his attention towards the double doors before hurrying forwards and shoving his way through. He looked first at Parsimony, then towards the wooden barrels that had been rigged into crude bombs, alongside several tanks of chemical fuel Rustproof had been mixing and working on timers for before he'd gone to worriedly look for his mother when she hadn't joined him... and then lastly, his eyes roved to what they'd moved out of the assembly room and into here for storage. Rustproof's personal project...

His eyes locked on this, then moved towards the barrels: he glanced back and forth, breathing hard before he felt a strange epiphany rise in his mind, a sense of destiny, of everything that had meant to be. And the earth pony turned his eyes towards his toolkit before he ran forwards, gritting his teeth as he went immediately to work, moving faster and more desperately than he ever had in his entire life.

Only a floor above, Cowlick strode towards the doors leading out of the engineering building, her bandanna tied tight around her forehead and goggles over her eyes, rifle on her back but another weapon of her own design holstered by one hip: the handle was built to lock around her hoof, with no guard and a lengthened trigger her hoof could use easily. It had twin, black barrels and she needed to reload it after every shot... but she had plenty of shells for the shotgun in the bandolier around her body.

She opened the pack hanging on her other hip and yanked out a plastic bottle, fumbling off the cap before simply tilting it back to pour several pills into her mouth and loudly chewing the amphetamines up. She simply tossed the rest of the bottle aside, then reached back and pulled out a cigarette and a lighter. She took her time lighting up, letting the amphetamines kick in, senses sharpening, muscles tightening, her already wild thoughts becoming a little more blurred together before she tucked the lighter away and shoved the doors open, storming out into the street and cracking her neck as she exhaled a blast of smoke from her nose.

The engineer turned to stride fearlessly down the street towards the open gates, ignoring the screams of the Takers, ignoring the corpses she strode over, her eyes glaring out from behind her goggles. She could see the monster closing in, could hear Griselda's roars echoing through the dark sky, and it made her blood boil as she snarled: “I swear that if I have to I will kill you myself, you oversized bitch. I may not be any demon or Valkyrie or hero or whatever, but I'll be damned if I let you lay a single goddamn claw on my town or my son while I'm still breathing!”

Then Cowlick glanced up as a scream filled the air and a Taker dove down towards her, but the mare leaned back and shoved her hoof back through the loop handle of the shotgun, yanking it free from the holster and swinging the sawed-off up to fire a shot directly into the monster's face, blowing most of its head away as she shouted furiously: “I ain't scared of you! I ain't scared of any of you! I can't put stuff together no more but I can sure as hell take each and every one of you bastards apart!”

Cowlick snapped the shotgun open, ejecting the empty shells and shoving two more quickly into place as her eyes glowed with rage, adrenaline, and amphetamine-enhanced madness, and then she hurried forwards as fast as she could on three legs with the shotgun secured over the forth. Another Taker attempted to charge in from the side, but Cowlick only slapped it hard across the face with the sawed-off, making it squawk before she shoved the gun into its jaws, grinning viciously before she pulled the trigger and reveled in the splatter that resulted.

She reloaded and continued forwards, tucking the shotgun away only after she passed through the gate and the Starlit Knights and Nibelung that were firing into the ever-forcing-forwards crowd of bug-creatures along the front lines. The engineer licked her lips at this, rolling her cigarette between her teeth before she drew her rifle off her back, taking aim with it and muttering: “This is where I wanna be. Let me show you how it's done.”

Her hooves were steady, her aim was as good as ever, and bullet after bullet blasted into Takers, some passing dangerously close to other warriors and demons on the field. But she didn't care: her mind was a maelstrom and all she could think about was killing these monsters, was hurting them, was fighting for as long as she could, to give her family a chance to survive and escape. She snarled, fearsome as any demon on the battlefield, her mind filled with swirling images of love and death.

Then she frowned as a rumbling filled the air, looking up sharply: it grew, louder and louder, and Cowlick cursed before she turned around, beginning to raise her rifle, wondering if it meant the monsters that were flying over them had decided to try and pincer the front line instead of wreaking havoc in town... before she simply stared in shock at the sight of what was approaching with a mechanical roar.

It was the project Rustproof had been building to try and impress her: a motorized bike, a wide, almost one-ton two wheeled monster of a machine with a low saddle seat and polished black and blue metal making up the thick frame. The engine of the motorcycle roared as it shot towards them, powered by chemical fuel and enhanced with voltaic topazes, and Rustproof himself was astride the goliath bike, rear hooves locked securely into fitted cusps and front hooves grasping the wide handlebars, his orange mane blowing back in the wind as he leaned forwards.

And on either side of the motorcycle, he had managed to rig up the explosive barrels and fuel containers near the additional thrusters on the bike's rear, and Cowlick could only gape as Rustproof shot forwards on the motorcycle, unable to fathom what she was seeing before her son blasted by and the force of his passage knocked her stumbling. She stared after him, and then her eyes widened, forgetting about the bloodshed, the violence, and everything else as she threw her rifle away and sprinted into the field, screaming: “Rustproof, stop!”

But the enormous blue earth pony only closed his eyes for a moment, shivering as he twisted the throttle higher, and engine roared in response as the motorcycle tore through the field. Then he looked sharply up, breathing hard, and feeling a strange serenity despite everything else that was going on around him as he weaved past screaming Takers, barricades, and startled soldiers, swerving back and forth as the motorcycle he had poured so much of himself into building responded like it was part of his body, better than he'd ever dreamed.

The rubber tires ripped up the field as he tore through it, and Rustproof gritted his teeth, eyes blazing as he focused on his objective, determination rising up through the strange sense of peace: no longer was there fear, or anxiety, or anything else. Just a need to do, just a need to follow through with this, just the one chance he knew he had to protect the ponies who had always protected him. Who had taken him in, loved him, made him feel like he belonged here in this village, with all his friends and family he would do anything, give anything, to save...

The earth pony twisted the handlebars hard, then dropped a hoof back, seizing the lever that stood out on the side of the bike as he skidded around a Taker Beetle that lunged at him before he tensed his body, leaning back slightly as another Taker Beetle directly ahead set itself in his path and roared at him... and just past it was Griselda, dragging herself ever closer, ignoring enemy and ally in her way as the wound pulsed in her stomach...

The Taker Beetle vomited a spray of goo at the motorcycle, and Rustproof leaned to the side, rider and machine just swaying out of the way before he leaned backwards with a grunt and yanked hard on the handlebars: the front tire of the bike rose high as Rustproof shot towards the Beetle, then the motorcycle slammed into the monster, Rustproof grunting as the bike bounced and the creature was squished back with a shriek before the motorcycle shot up the dome-shaped carapace like a ramp and launched into the air.

The earth pony leaned forwards as he flew towards the opening leading into the inner hive, but the arc was too short to make it... and then, just as he began to fall, he slammed the lever forwards, and the thrusters around the motorcycle's back tire burst into life, giving him the extra boost he needed into the tunnel. The bike shot straight through the passage like a steel comet, Rustproof leaning forwards as he bounced painfully before hurtling into the chamber that housed Griselda, the motorcycle knocking Taker Guards flying like dominoes as the Queen reared back in shock at the sight.

Her horn started to glow too little, too late, as she shrieked in surprise... and then Rustproof wrenched the handlebars hard to the side, and the motorcycle twisted as it skidded over the floor before crashing sideways into Griselda, one of the barrels of blessed oil bursting apart as the Queen started to raise her arms defensively. One of her limbs was wrenched almost out of her socket as the other snapped like a twig, and the bike rose halfway up her twisted body as fuel splashed up over the monstrosity.

Griselda screamed as a shudder ran through the living hive and the Takers all squealed, Rustproof cursing in pain and disorientation at the sudden stop... and then he closed his eyes, breathing slowly as the knocked-flat monster snarled, then reached a claw up and seized into the handlebars of the stalled motorcycle, yanking herself slowly up as she bared her fangs at him, then screamed at the earth pony. Yet Rustproof didn't look at her: he didn't even look at the Takers as they began to close in, instead slowly straightening with his eyes still closed before he calmly reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a box of cigarettes.

He popped this open, leaning down to put one between his lips before he rose his head and opened his eyes, and then he absently shook a single wooden match out of the box into his hoof. Griselda froze at the sight of this, her claw still grasping the handlebar of the bike to hold herself steady, other arm hanging limply at her side as the Taker Guard all froze as well. She seemed to realize what it meant, as fuel continued to spill out from the shattered barrel, forming a larger and larger puddle around them as it glistened over her body and half of her skull-like features.

Rustproof smiled calmly, then he brought the match up and gently put it against Griselda's skull-like face before flicking it firmly, and the monster flinched as the match sparked into life. Slowly, Rustproof brought it back, lighting his cigarette and taking a deep inhale as Griselda rasped in and out, trembling at the sight of the burning match before Rustproof slowly shook it out and tossed the blackened stump quietly away.

The monster hissed at this as if relieved, glaring more defiantly up at Rustproof now, even as its eyes stayed nervously on the lit cigarette as the earth pony took a long drag, then pulled it out of his muzzle with a smile. He studied the cylinder as he blew out a plume of smoke, and then his eyes flicked fearlessly up to Griselda, saying quietly: “It's funny, you know. Momma always said smoking would kill me. Says I gotta quit these things before somethin' bad happens to me. But it was always hard for me, findin' a reason I should stop. Always felt like it was part of me somehow.”

He stopped, then brought the cigarette to his muzzle, taking another slow drag before tapping the ashes aside... and then he smiled again as he looked calmly into the monster's eyes, pulling it loose from his jaws and saying softly: “I guess we were both kinda right.”

For a few moments, Rustproof studied the cigarette in his hoof like it was the final piece to some magnificent puzzle, the answer to all of life's riddles... and then he simply held it out to the side and allowed the cylinder to drop. It spun once as it fell through the air, and Griselda shrieked and grabbed wildly at it as Taker Guards rushed vainly forwards, and Rustproof only smiled and closed his eyes.

The cigarette landed in a puddle of golden oil, floating for a moment before the volatile fuel burst into aureate flames that raced up along the streaks of chemical and blessed oil over Griselda's body. The creature threw her head back and screamed in terror as much as pain, rearing away and staring in horror as the fires eagerly spread backwards to the shattered barrel in the same moment-

The living hive's howls of agony were nothing compared to the explosion that lit up the night, the entire monstrosity becoming nothing but a massive bonfire of gold and red and toxic green. It screamed, and the Takers screamed with it, and Cancer looked down with shock from where he and Celestia were still wrestling in the skies above, his grip loosening and giving Celestia enough time to snap her horn out and blast Cancer loose from her body, sending him falling with a howl of denial towards his burning bride below.

Cowlick's wordless shriek cut above even the screams of the Takers and their Queen, and ponies stared in awe, in shock, in joy, in pain towards the living hive as it gave another mournful wail, as more explosions tore up through its body as it burned rapidly away from within. The monstrosity quaked, then howled in torment before slowly, lethargically beginning to collapse forwards, crashing down to the field and shaking the earth with its death.

Takers too, were falling, their queen's death sending the furthest into short-lived frenzies before they fell still, the closest simply slumping to the ground, mindless and dead. In one fell swoop, the living hive and its terrible, insectile army had been eradicated... and not by any Valkyrie or demon or warrior, not by winged unicorn or chosen one, but a young earth pony who was really only just a colt for all his size, by a prodigal engineer who had always been quiet, and kind, and done his best to be good for all his flaws.

And even as a few soldiers tried to cheer, Cowlick's cries of pain and denial was what tore loudest through the air as she hammered her hooves against the ground, goggles doing nothing to hide her tears as she stared weakly at the burning pyre that was her son's last act of love, devotion, and sacrifice.