Not even a minute later, we reach the central mine shaft. The hoofsteps resonating through the depths reveal that the paladins are still giving chase. One has to admire their stamina considering they've been chasing Three this whole time while wearing their platemails.
"IT'S RUNNING BACK TO THE CONFLUX!"
"Get ready, One," I whisper, and tap into Three.
He's limping through the tunnel, hoofsteps in his wake. I feel the pain shooting through his left hind leg with every step.
That's why they were able to keep up with him. His leg has been cut open.
"Three, when you get to the edge-"
He enters the wide open circular shaft and keeps running towards the edge of the wide abyss in the middle.
"Boooooooooossssssssssssssssss!" he screams, jumping forward while flailing his legs.
A golden aura envelops him, snatching him from the air and pulling him towards us on the lower floor right under from where he jumped. The paladins will have to take the long way around the whole shaft. I don't think I saw a pegasus with them.
We're just one level under the paladins, so we didn't buy ourselves that much time, but anything is better than having them right on our backs.
"Ahh, crap... Eight rubs her horn. Some golden symbols on the circumference of her suppressor are lighting the darkness, "Stupid thing."
On reflex, I shoot some love into Three whose leg heals immediately, or at least the visible damage disappears. As I take my next step, my legs buckle, and I realize I'm gasping for breath.
That was a dumb idea. I'm almost out. In my rush I didn't realize how low on love I was.
Don't panic! Emegency plan, head, now!
"Three, orders. Run back through the healing cave and out of the mines via the tunnel we took when we first arrived. Eight, Ten, Four, and the others are already evacuating."
"Alright, let's go, boss!" he wants to pull me up. I stop him.
"We need to… buy all of you some more time."
"Three, that was an order. The longer you wait, the more time we need to buy. Besides, One is awesome and she's got my back."
Three bites his lower lip, then turns away.
"If you say so, boss," he darts off.
One raises her eyebrow, watching the paladins descending the walkways on the other side of the central chasm.
"Touching, but I'm not one to give my life for others in a glorious final standoff."
Contrary to her statement, she's not actually moving.
"Neither am I, but I don't need you to have TWO targets to protect," I raise my foreleg, and she pulls me back up on all fours, "Let's see if we can lose them."
Walking as fast as I can, we return back to the healing cave. All we need to do now is…
...fight our way through seven more paladins arriving via the tunnel to our house, examining the green love crystals, and immediately turning their heads towards us.
Good, Three got through safely.
"I knew we were forgetting something," says One nonchalantly. Her narrowed eyes betray her trying to solve the situation and failing to find a positive result.
Yeah, the paladins attacking the house got through the debris fallen from the second floor.
"Maybe picking a cave this close to the house wasn't the best idea," I comment. We are boned.
"Next time you can drag the wounded through half of the mines on your own."
I look around, and can't help chuckling,
"I'll make some notes for my next life, One. Well, no matter what Eight might say, it's been a pleasure knowing you," I stand between One and the paladins forming a half-circle in front of us.
My mental link to One flares up.
"I can buy you few seconds, I think."
"You can also take the damn thing off of my horn, you wannabe hero."
I take a step backwards, bumping into One's chest with my backside. Then I back off further around her as the circle of paladins grows tighter.
I reach for the suppressor around her horn, manage to do a single quick turn, then-
Pain whenever I take a breath. Stomping around. More paladins. Muffled sounds of everything.
Eventually, I can focus again. Unfortunately, the thing I focus on when I move my neck is a chunk of missing chitin on the right side of my barrel.
Ewww… green flesh and goo.
Fortunately, though, the paladins seem to be having trouble that don't involve me, and for the moment I'm kinda forgotten.
Okay, back on all fours, slowly and carefully.
Eight's sword which now looks more like a saw leaves a paladin corpse in its wake. She dodges backwards away from a flying hammer, a bolt of purple energy hitting her side turning her move into a half-baked cartwheel.
She's holding the attention of five paladins who can't easily get close to a target this fast, durable, strong, and agile at the same time, but they don't need to. She's backing off, trying not to get surrounded, because it's clear even to me that if that happens, they'll just blast her with magic again.
One is occupying the remaining two, staying on the defensive, and leading them away from me.
Suddenly, when I'm finally back up, she looks past the duo she's fighting straight at me. I'm expecting a mental instruction or something, but nothing comes.
A paladin notices, immediately leaving her to his companion, and rushing towards me. I can hear the incoming hoofsteps from the tunnel through which we came back after rescuing Three, meaning that the other paladin group will be here immediately.
"Sorry for using you as a bait, but I'll need the few seconds you promised," One's voice finally rings in my head.
The best I can do is back off from the rapidly approaching paladin levitating a spear.
Out of nowhere, electricity crawls through my chitin. The paladins slow their attack, and some look around.
The remaining pony who was fighting One is clutching his neck, trying to stop the growing stream of blood, while the changeling is grasping her horn while golden lightning dances around her and earths itself through her smoldering chitin.
"This is why they say-"
She screams in pain.
"-that if you want-"
Air fills with the heavy stench of burning flesh.
"-something done properly-"
Green links appear between the remaining love crystals and her horn, the shimmering goo quickly losing its light.
Drips of glowing molten red metal run down her forehead like streams of sweat.
The main group of paladins arrives.
The first new paladin to enter the cave turns around, and cleaves the head of the paladin behind him off.
"Wha-?" a unicorn charging magic against One screams as the earthpony protecting him from One knocks him on the ground before stomping his horn off.
"FOR THE PRINCESS! FOR THE LIGHT!" calls out a unicorn from the arriving group, his horn filling the cavern with warm white glow, "PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER, MY BRETHREN! STEEL YOUR MINDS! BREAK YOUR SHACKLES!"
The light explodes, leaving confused paladins blinking and looking at the recent additions to the dead. They recover quickly, though.
"Grab the King, watchdog!" One calls out, rushing towards our exit.
One's non-violent order still works, stunning the paladins for a moment which Eight uses to bolt towards me and sling me over her back.
We run, but One stops by the tunnel mouth, the glow of her horn flaring.
"I KNEW you were stealing the love we were bringing in," Eight hisses at her.
One gives her a wide smile.
"You can thank me later, warhound."
The ceiling rumbles.
The recovering paladins look up.
A rain of rocks greets them.
"RETREAT! RETREAT!" comes an order.
One's eyes cross, and I realize even she's nearing the end of her rope.
"I... tend to… agree," she gasps for breath, "Whoah?"
In a violent purple blur, she's suddenly on Eight's back slung next to me, our warrior's hooves glowing green.
Eight gallops so fast the stomping of her hooves almost drowns the crumbling mine shaft. Suddenly, she slams her forelegs into the floor, turning around on the spot. One and I, of course, continue flying before tumbling across the rocks.
"Owwww..." I mutter, my head snapping up when I recall what just happened. One helps me get up, "EIGHT?!"
"Get… the hole… out..." she growls, holding a gigantic slab of the ceiling on her back, and clearly failing.
The chitin on her legs cracks. Her head and neck are horizontal with the floor as she stares at us.
"Wait, no!" I take a step towards her. The ceiling sinks lower, blasting dust everywhere and blocking my view.
Eight's mental link is weak, and exhausted.
"I wonder… what rank… I could have had… for this..."
"EIGHT!" I scream, but back off as more cracks spread through the ceiling.
"Warhounds aren't done when they're tired. They're done when their master says so!" One's voice echoes through our minds. I feel a torrent of pure love leave her and blast Eight, and I finally realize the power difference between the two.
One keels over, stopping only when she hits my side and slides onto the floor.
For her, the love she had left wasn't enough to solve the situation. For Eight, though...
Now sitting on her haunches, propping the enormous chunk of rock with her back, Eight begins dragging herself forward, sparks flying from her chitin grinding against stone. Step by step, with green blood trickling from the cracks in her carapace, she presses on. Stream of saliva dripping from her mouth turns to acid, hissing against the floor, but Eight keeps going.
Inch by inch.
The hellish apparition of blood, fractured chitin, dust, and raw stubborn rage reaches the end of the loose ceiling, and takes her final step.
Next explosion of dust heralds the end of our access and escape route. However, as the brown and grey mess settles, Eight leans down to One.
"Now can we kill her?" she says, voice weak and raspy. One limply waves her forelegs, barely able to cross them in front of her face.
"Eight!" I lightly smack her forehead.
"Good," she bares her fangs, "No one else is a challenge."
With One on Eight's back, we limp the through the last remnants of the tunnel, the part which isn't directly under the mountain, and towards the inviting fresh night air.
Eight stops, dropping One on the grass. I freeze, tears welling in my eyes.
After all this. After all the pain and fighting…
There are six changelings left sitting or lying around between four dead paladins. Ten is one of them, staring at us, shaking. Four is sitting on the ground, weak and unable to move. A changeling warrior, one of those we rescued, is lying near her in a pool of blood and chitin shards.
Everyone looks drained. Everyone but Three. I feel no link, no life, no love from the motionless drone at all.
"What… happened?" whispers Eight first.
Ten pulls himself up on all fours, his head hung low.
"After Eight left, five double digits started draining everyone. We tried to stop them, but… none of us are… strong," he looks at the survivors who turn their heads away, "Three tried to stop them as soon as he came, saying you're right behind him. That made them mad. They sucked him dry, and left."
I fall on my plot.
"Eight… what do I do?" I bury my head in my hooves. As I gasp for breath, I feel something snap inside me, "Eight?" my voice is trembling.
"Yes, King?" she grits her teeth, looking into the distance.
"Do you want… proof?"
"Don't waste energy on bringing them back here. Return what love you can."
Wordlessly, she melds with the darkness.
A deep breath as Four collapses on the grass makes me turn around. One taps her forehead, and Four's body goes completely limp. She walks over to Three, and taps his muzzle and head several times. I sense a very minor transfer of love, and Three's faint link reappears. He doesn't react to anything I do, but the connection is still there. In the end, One taps his forehead again, and he goes limp like Ten, both now in dormant mode.
"I revived his mind. He's not physically damaged, so that's a plus," One looks straight at me, "Why is your lip all wibbly? No- NO! Don't you DARE start crying on- oof!"
"Thank yoooouuuuu!" I blubber, now hanging on her with my forelegs wrapped around her neck.
"Look, hey, it's not over. He still needs love, we all do. He's just not dead right now. It's not difficult to do if the changeling was in a good shape before, just completely energy inefficient when used on drones," she tries to push me off. No chance. She looks at the group of stunned changelings when she hears Ten's quiet chuckle, "Someone tell him something, I'm choking here!"
"Let me just drink this in for a little longer," Ten covers his muzzle with his hoof, "The dreadful ONE, the hungry demon, Chrysalis' personal enforcer having no clue what to do as a new changeling king somehow transformed from a DRONE is hanging on her neck, smearing tears and snot of pure joy all over her chitin. Aaaah..." he breathes out, "life is fun."
I can't see it, but I know One's eye must have just twitched.
"Ten, you'll be the one carrying Three."
"AND whoever else can't move."
"Still worth it."
"BUT... can you do it without legs?"
"I wouldn't make a good backpack."
"STOP HUGGING ME!" she finally manages to pry me off of her, "Let's leave it for later. I'll show you more interesting methods of sharing love. Preferably with Eight watching from a cage, unable to do anything. That would be reeeeal fun."
Why do I get the feeling that with One unleashed and unchained my headache will only get worse?
Well, if I live to experience it then I guess I shouldn't complain.
Alright, time for an executive decision, since everyone is looking at me.
"Does anyone know a nearby pony settlement that WON'T be crawling with guards or these 'paladins'?"
Ten raises his hoof.
"There's a pony village a day's worth-" he pauses, giving a sudden tired look to everyone in a terrible shape, "two days' worth of walking south. It's sorta small, but mostly inhabited by earthponies so we should be able to outsmart them even in our shape. Ponytown… Ponycity… Ponyville, right!"
"Alright, everyone, let's go."
One points at Three, then at Ten who sighs and mutters:
"Damn… she wasn't kidding."