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An MLP:FiM Fanfiction by Midnight Shadow
The train was moving swiftly and steadily, speeding through the mountainous passes out of Stalliongrad. Snow was gently falling, the first of the season in the lowlands where the great city was situated. Chip shivered, he was glad to be going back South, even though he knew the seasons were changing there as much as anywhere else.
Equestrian steam trains come in two flavours, pondered Chip. The first was the more traditional pony-powered train. The second had horsepower of an entirely different sort. Both of them featured a similar-looking engine-car, which had always confused him. As an honoured passenger of the Royal Equestrian Mail Line, he was finally finding out what separated the two. The latter utilized some form of magic to get the water to move the train. The former held multiple teams of ponies, and the steam engine heated water for the teamsters to bathe in when they switched, not to mention heating the passenger cars... and somehow, as crazy as it seemed, they also used the heated water to cool others. Chip shook his head in wonder; and he'd thought the idea of a pony-shaped dragon had sounded strange when he'd first heard it.
"How come you have ponies to pull the train?" Chip had asked. The ponies and dragons all had given him a dirty look, and he'd apologized.
"T'ain't a bad thing," one of the teamsters had finally said, "but what do we do if they don't need us? 'Sides," the pony had continued, "ain't no faster with one o' them new-fangled steam engines, and less to break down without."
That had got a round murmuring of agreement from all present. The dragons, pegasi and earth ponies all were often found tinkering with parts of their train during otherwise 'down' times, even with as few moving parts as a pony-pulled steam-train had. One of the teamsters had been called in to buck a sticky valve - Chip eyed it nervously, if it stuck closed, the pressure would build in the system until it blew, filling the cab with steam. The same would happen if it broke off, so the application of percussive maintenance was gentle at best. If it merely didn't open properly, the heated sections wouldn't be, and that included the bathing car for the off-duty earth ponies that pulled the train.
The caboose was large and spacious. Chip had taken that brief look in the tender, which was equally spacious, but had been hustled out until they were underway. The caboose, on the other hoof, was for relaxing in. Chip had reluctantly divested himself of his armour, and had instead put on an oily cap and neck-tie. Masquerading as a railpony was probably unnecessary, but fun. It meant he got to pull the whistle-chord, which he did with glee before the pegasi and dragons in the cab chucked him out, laughing.
"So you're Pin's new owner, huh? Don't look like much any dragon I've seen." huffed an older engineer pony, a grey pegasus with a picture of crossed spanners on his flank as a cutiemark. Chip couldn't tell if he was actually grey, or if it was just the ever-present grime that had dyed him that way. He could barely see the stallion's cutiemark.
"Not all dragons have wings or claws," Chip stated idly, gazing out the window at the dark countryside whizzing past, flurries of snowflakes shimmering softly.
"'E's a dragon, alright," stated a surprisingly small voice, which belonged to an equally small dragon. "Dragons always know other dragons, and 'e's a dragon. I'm Runt," the creature said, proffering a paw. Chip took it carefully with his hoof, and shook, looking down at the beast Runt was sitting on. Runt grinned, his bottom jaw dropping open in mirth, "And this is Biscuit, my faithful steed."
Biscuit, a gingerbread coloured creature that was all curls, tail and ears, barked a greeting before whining and turning her head up at the dragon. She looked deliberately out the window and then back at the dragon. Runt dismounted from the ornate saddle, "Alright then, but mind yourself."
Chip giggled behind a hoof as Biscuit leaped up onto the plush seats, pawed open a window and stuck her head out, tongue flapping in the breeze.
"Dogs." Runt said. "You hungry?"
Chip blinked, "What?"
Runt waddled to a contraption in the forward left corner of the car, and filled a bowl with something hot and bubbling out of a ladle that glowed faintly red, "Soup." The dragon eased it away from Hairpin when she took a sniff, "Uh-uh, this is dragon soup. Not good for ponies. It's barium feldspar."
Hairpin raised her head up, backing away from the odd mixture with the strangely acrid fumes that burnt her nostrils.
"Oh don't look at me like that, it's not refined. It's got just enough to give a bit of a kick. It's not like I'm peddling whizbang. Awful stuff. This? This is good, wholesome chow."
Chip sniffed it, his stomach gurgling loudly to remind him he was, in fact, rather hungry. Hairpin made a face as Chip chowed down. Very shortly he asked for another. And another. A fourth bowl later saw the young stallion rolling on the floor with all four hooves in the air, tongue lolling out. "S-s-s-so good." he managed.
Hairpin shook her head, "Masters, can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em."
Chip looked over at her, head askew, "What do you mean?"
"I-" Hairpin looked out the window, suddenly silent.
"I'm sorry," Chip said, blushing, "I didn't mean-"
Runt, looking up from his own bowl which he was still licking clean, snorted, "New to this, I guess? Must be quite the story, seeing as you're... you." the dragon gulped down a few more mouthfuls before continuing, "You're young, too. Still a... what do they call it, a blank flank?"
Chip winced, making Runt pause in his bowl-cleaning duties, "Oh, I'm sorry there. Didn't know it was a... a thing."
"It's okay," Chip began, opening his muzzle to explain. He was interrupted, however.
"What's it like?" asked a small voice. Both dragons looked up at Hairpin, seated on the large, wide seat, somehow attempting to hide behind her hooves.
"What's what like?" Chip asked.
"Being a blank flank. I... I never was."
"What?" Chip rolled over onto his belly, tucking his hooves in under himself, "How can that be? No pony is born with a cutiemark."
"I was. I was born with Pig Iron's clan mark on my flank. Same as my father, same as my siblings. I got my cutiemark also, but... I've never been a blank flank. I... I kind of wonder what it's like."
Chip looked down at his flank, something he'd quite forgotten about. He twisted a forehoof about to touch his haunch where his cutiemark would one day be. He hoped. He wondered, briefly, if pony-shaped dragons even got cutiemarks. "I wonder why I don't have the Diamond Clan's mark?"
Hairpin snorted, "That's easy. You're a part of the clan. I belong to it."
Chip winced, "I'm sorry."
"You should stop being sorry. I..." Hairpin clammed up for a second, "I wouldn't know what to do if I didn't have an owner. It must be scary."
"What do you mean?" Chip asked.
Hairpin looked down at Chip, a faint smile on her face, "I was born the pet of Pig Iron. He's been like... my second father, all my life. Always there, keeping me safe. My mother taught me to fly, but Pig Iron taught me to excel. When your parents tell you to do something, you stand up to them and rebel. When your owner tells you to do something, you do it better than they want. I learned to cross him, to confound him, and finally... to love and respect him, like I love and respect my parents. He's always come through for me. I know some ponies... don't get the same treatment from their owners, but I always did."
"I... I promise to be the best owner I can be."
"I know, kid, I know. If I didn't think you could do it, I'd go ho-" Hairpin paused, "back."
"You can go back, you know. I can... give you back to him?"
"Pig Iron wants you safe," Hairpin said, "only way he could help was to give me to you. I couldn't abandon you even if you sent me back. It wouldn't be right. You're stuck with me, kid, and I wanna be stuck with you. Stalliongrad is too far away from it all for me, Pig's known that for the last few years. You're the best thing to happen to me. You live down in Neighvada, right?"
"Close. I guess I live in Tacksworn, now, but I have business in Neighvada."
Hairpin's countenance lit up like the dawn, "Oh I'm going to love this."
Runt face-pawed, "Be strict with her allowance, Chip. Her gambling debts could become yours."
"Oh hush!" Hairpin flicked a tail at the little dragon, "As if."
Runt waggled a claw, "I remember a certain wage-bet about beating the train across the Canterlot Gorge."
"That was different. And you fed me anyway."
"Only because Pig Iron'd skin me if I let his favourite filly flounder."
Chip relaxed on the floor as the dragon and pony continued arguing, pulling down some cushions with his teeth. He missed Sunshine and Silver, and their anger still hurt, but he was safe with friends and he was going home. He felt good, very good. He yawned, it had been a long night. The train journey would take a few days, same as before. He could probably afford to sleep.
The diamond dog bowed, eyes on the floor. He daren't raise his head to gaze at his employer. His predecessor had, and had promptly lost it. "My lord, the ambassador's son lives."
There was a snarl, "I figured as much. See to it that this extension on his time left is short."
"B-but, my lord, we-"
"Don't know where he is. This, also, I have forseen. You morons couldn't find your tails with both paws if you fell on your backsides!" the figure's voice rose to a rumbling bellow that shook the room.
The diamond dog shook with fear. Displeasing the lord was a sure-fire way to get promoted, for the surviving personnel.
The figure on the throne leaned back, sucking on a water-pipe, puffing smoke rings in the semi-darkness, "Relax, I am of a jovial mind this eve. He is... accessible. The mail train from Stalliongrad will be passing through Canterlot on its way South. He may attempt to reach Celestia if he does not head directly for Tacksworn. Such intervention would prove... detrimental to my plans. And to your health."
"My lord!" the diamond dog whimpered.
"You will see to it that he has a chance for neither option. Take your best demolitions experts. Canterlot Gorge Viaduct is old, and in need of repairs. Until now, it has stood the test of time. Think how much of a shame it will be when it falls."
"The... the viaduct?"
"Bring it down!" the figure roared, slamming a claw so hard into the throne that it cracked, "I want that viaduct blasted into rubble, and I want that wretched whelp buried under it. Make it happen, or I will reupholster my throne with your hide and my den with those of your family!"
"My lord." the diamond dog whimpered again, his voice a hoarse whisper, tail tucked between his legs. He backed out of the room, as quickly as he could, eyes not leaving the plush carpeted floor until he was well out of the throne room. Then he turned tail, and fled.
Sharptooth breathed a sigh of relief, a small spurt of flame leaving his nostrils. It was finished, the first version of Chip's wings. He had taken Chip's initial foalish designs and wrought them into something admirable, with a few of his own innovations of course. Made of thin, light, yet strong metal and precision-milled gears, the strange device would be cumbersome on the ground, but in the air... well, he sincerely hoped that when in the air, it would prove more than adequate to the task of allowing his wingless son a modicum of solo flight. He smiled, wiping his paws off with a rag, as he walked around the device.
He was still in his hoard cave when an unheard signal made him raise his spines in defense. Intruders! They weren't inside, but they were trying. They were diamond dogs, but even diamond dogs cannot dig everywhere. Especially not when that somewhere is into a dragon's cave. He heard them then, scrabbling at his door. A window shattered, and various ornaments from his windowsill smashed to the ground. He growled, breathing deeply. They dared!
"Dragon not here?" one asked.
"Better hope dragon not here." the other replied.
There was a low, ominous growl from a corridor. Two pearlescent eyes glowed a warm amber, and hot red and orange flames briefly illuminated a winged, scaled, ambulatory nightmare. There was a sound not entirely unlike two diamond dogs relieving themselves, and then a reverberating roar shook the mountain top.
Chip yawned, sunlight streaming in through the windows. He'd curled up on the floor of the caboose in the corner, near the furnace that was still heating the draconic 'soup'. At least, he thought to himself, draconic food doesn't tend to go off. He wondered, partially intrigued and partially horrified, how old the soup was.
"Mornin' sleepyhead," said Spanners, the maintenance-pegasus. Chip wasn't sure if that was a name or a nickname, it didn't seem to matter. "Fancy checkin' out th' engine?"
"Oh yeah! Could I? Where're the others?" Chip stood up and looked around, stretching, his bones popping and cracking as he did so.
"Runt's fixin' the brake plates a'gin, muh pegasus pals is checkin' inventory an' seeing to thu' team switchover, Ah'm fixin' this here thamaturgical whatchamacallit and Hairpin's... uh... kinna busy right now."
Spanners rolled his eyes skywards, "Gal ain't got out much recently." he said, finally.
"She's... getting reacquainted with old friends. Of the male sort. Alone." Spanners shook his head and waited, patiently, for Chip to get the hint. He did, blushing crimson. "We got a jacuzzi, see, and-"
"ThankyouI'dliketoseetheenginenowifIcould" Chip coughed out.
Spanners deliberately and carefully put the device he was fiddling with down. He'd been sitting slumped in an odd posture on a seat, device jammed between his hind legs, held between his forehooves, and an old, dirty spanner in his muzzle. Occasionally he would use a wing to flick a part before adjusting with the spanner, or just his lips. "Come on then. I'll fly ya, gotta be careful though, steam train an' all."
"Ah'm a pegasus, kid. What do pegasi do?"
Spanners sighed again, "Y'all ain't so smart inna mornin', are ya? We walk on clouds. Steam is clouds, boy. Makes flyin' hard if'n you gotta dodge that."
Chip blushed, embarrassed, as Spanners ruffled his mane, "None o' that now. Two choices though; y'all can trust me t'hold ya, or ya can hop on."
Chip settled for being held, though it didn't stop him screaming the whole way - mostly with joy once he got used to it. Trusting a huge dragon to fly him was one thing, but a grubby pegasus was another. Spanners was, however, more than up to the task.
Landing in the tender was relatively simple, if lumpy. It was partially full of coal, which was being fed to two smallish dragons by pegasi - small in terms of dragons, larger than Sharptooth. They were snoring as they alternately opened their maws for more coal before chowing down on the flammable snack. Their flames were bathing a single boiler. They looked disgustingly happy with themselves. Chip snagged a piece of coal with a hoof, munching it idly, as Spanners showed him the ropes. The pegasus barely batted an eyelid.
The train was populated by twelve earth ponies - six of which were pulling, the other six were freshening up and relaxing from their shift - as well as a flock of pegasi and a hoof-full of dragons, the smallest of which was Runt with his dog Biscuit. Biscuit got spoiled by every member of the crew, but was also a valued member of the team.
"So," Runt popped his head up through a hatch in the floor, "how do you like her?"
"It's so cool!" Chip replied, hooking a hoof around the whistle-chord and pulling it again.
"Ya know, you could always join the Equestrian Mail Service. Plenty of room for dragons, even pony shaped ones."
"I can't fly though... or breathe fire that well."
At that, Spanners did raise an eyebrow, "Ye can breathe fire?"
"Let me guess," Runt heaved himself up through the floor hatch, fending off an enthusiastic Biscuit, "yer dad says every dragon's gotta learn fire breathin', fightin', bellowin' an' flyin', right?"
"Yer learnin' ta fly?" Spanners lifted his ears in disbelief.
"Mostly down, am I right?" Runt laughed as Chip nodded, laughing, "Traditionalist, then. Come on, show us."
Chip stood up straight; this was his chance to show off, to prove himself. He took a deep breath, felt the flames within his belly rise, and then he huffed out, spreading his muzzle wide as... hot air puffed out. Spanners fell about laughing, kicking all four legs in the air. Chip blushed, hotly, hotter than his 'flames', "I did say I'm not very good at it!" he protested.
"Never you mind him, come 'ere..." Runt snagged Chip's muzzle, yanked it open and peered inside, "Mmm, yes, I think I got it... hang on."
Chip balked as the little dragon shoved almost his entire forearm into Chip's body, routing around for something. There was a brief flash of green that made his ears ring, and then Chip felt the undeniably odd sensation of the little dragon pulling his arm back out. Chip gagged, "What the heck?"
"Just a little bit of a push, hatchling. You're too young for your fire to stay lit for long, so I gave it a bit of a helping paw. Now try!"
Chip hiccuped, flames spurting out of his nostrils. He clapped a hoof to his muzzle, then lowered it again. Tentatively, he breathed out. A spurt of orange flame rent the air. Experimentally, he huffed and puffed, noting how the flames changed colour from a yellow, through orange and red to a bright blue depending on how he exhaled.
"Well now if that don't beat all. You dragons get stranger every day." Spanners said, clapping his hooves together.
"Just stay away from the tender, okay kid? I'm not explaining why all that coal went up in smoke whilst still external to Blaze and Furnace there." Runt pointed to each of the boiler dragons in turn, who had opened sleepy eyes to peer at Chip.
Chip promised, then went back to staring down his own muzzle at the flames, a silly grin plastered across it.
"One more support, then get clear! The whole building's gonna come down when it goes!" growled a voice in the darkness.
Butch nodded, then snorted. The movement would never be seen. He bent to his task - demolishing the supports for the building up above. As it finally gave way, he leaped for the tunnel wall, claws flashing as they sliced through the solid rock to carve out a new exit tunnel. With a rumbling crash, the swiss-cheese foundations collapsed entirely, and the building - a local store - fell terminally into its own new sub-sub-basement. With it went the fire, extinguishing itself amidst the rain of debris. Butch bounded up into the open air, it was night-time, but the town was brightly lit by fires. This latest effort had been to demolish an already-doomed store, to act as a firebreak. Clashes of locals with intruders had spread throughout the town as the diamond dogs methodically - if somewhat haphazardly - ransacked the town for anything resembling a map. It was clear they had no idea what they were looking for, but it didn't stop them. Likely belongings were piled in heaps, which were in turn sifted through by diamond dogs and then alternately protected and guarded by townsfolk. Things had already come to blows, with many small injuries and a few bigger ones. The atmosphere had rapidly changed from merely angry to enraged, and it was only going to get worse.
Butch picked up a large piece of timber from the makeshift firebreak and brandished it menacingly - it was going to be hard putting the town back together, and seeing as it was his own family's store that had just been demolished, he wasn't feeling very charitable. He growled, astonished when the low rumbling bounced off the rest of the neighbourhood. Looking behind him, and up, he saw why. the pegasi had finally returned, bringing with them dark clouds that sizzled and shook with pent up energy. The words offensive weather came back to him and he grinned as targeted lightning bolts started hitting the enemy trolls.
A cheer rose up as not only the town but the elements began to fight back. Battle was joined.
The diamond dog whined, his whimper cut off as Sharptooth flexed his claws. His pack mate was slumped over, top half of his torso bent at an angle that precluded anything including 'breathing' being likely.
"Who sent you, dog?" Sharptooth leaned closer, smoke pouring out of his nostrils.
"I... I can't!" the diamond dog implored, "My lord-" he clammed up, almost as if his muzzle were wired shut.
The dragon glared down at him, baring his teeth, "Geas or no geas, mongrel, you will tell me what you know. Why now, why do you seek the map? What part does my son play in this? Why murder his parents? Speak, cur!"
"No... part..." the dog-troll eeked out, "no part no more."
"No more?" Sharptooth leaned closer, teeth a hairs breadth from the troll's muzzle.
"We... had no choice! Two days gone... by high king, please! They said you gone!"
"TWO DAYS AGO WHAT?!" roared Sharptooth.
"He... died. He was returning and... train-"
Sharptooth froze for a moment, breath caught in his throat. Then a long, low keening howl rose from deep in his heart. He clenched his claws into fists, pulping the diamond dog that had been whimpering in his grasp. Tossing the shredded body aside, he exploded through the front door of his cave, bellowing with rage as the fires of revenge lit the night. On outspread wings, vengeance took flight.
Chip was jostled awake as the distant explosion rocked the train. Blinking sleep away, he suddenly came fully alert.
"Chip, Chip lad! You've gotta get up!" It was Runt, shaking his shoulder, the dragon's trusty steed of a dog barking and whining as she ran in circles around the caboose.
"What's going on?" Chip leaped to his hooves and shook his head from the sudden vertigo.
"Those friends Pin warned us about... they've gone and bombed the viaduct! Madness!"
"They who what when what?" stammered Chip. He leaped to the window and fumbled with the latch in his teeth before opening it. They were almost at Canterlot, the great city in the mountain was visible in the distance, but before they could get there the train had to pass through the famous Canterlot Gorge. The train passed across on an old stone viaduct, built in ages past. It was tall, well-built... and currently crumbling ahead and behind them.
"Whatever you did, kid, you certainly pissed off the wrong sort."
"I'm sorry!" Chip wailed as he shrugged into his saddlebags, "I didn't know they'd do this!"
"No time now," Runt said, leaping onto his trusty steed, "but you can help make things right."
"Gotta help get the crew back here, to the caboose. Emergency pegasus release, we'll be fine if we get everypony hitched up and everyone else inside. First though, we've gotta get to the tender and the cab!"
"How? I can't fly!"
"The roof. Up you go!"
Reluctantly, Chip clambered up the ladder at the back of the car in front of the caboose, whimpering as more explosions rocked the very tracks the train was running on. A few seconds later and he was standing on the roof of the car. He felt Runt hop onto his back, taking a solid hold of his mane. He grit his teeth and started running, leaping across the gaps between the cars.
A feathered shape fluttered up beside him, "Master! I can't let you-"
"No. Time." huffed Chip, "Gotta. Move. Fast." He leaped the last car, tumbling down the pile of coal and into the tender, spilling his passenger. Bursting into the cab, he met ordered commotion.
"Shut it down! Vent it!"
"On it! Quenching!"
"Pulling team clear!"
"Brakes won't respond! Luna's bent horn but those brakes were supposed to be fixed!"
"Leave 'em! Slowing down now ain't gonna help!"
"I've got 'em!" shouted Runt, clambering back down the hatch, "Maybe I can stop us, or at least slow us down, buy some time." The hatch clanged shut.
Chip cowered away from the busy forms of pegasi and dragons as they all scampered about the cab, "What can I do?" he yelled.
"Get up top, tell us how long we got before this whole thing pitches into the drink!" one of the pegasi shouted, pointing with a hoof, "We can't spare anypony else."
"Hairpin!" Chip shouted, "Help get the rest of the teamsters to the caboose!"
"Yes, master!" Hairpin shouted, saluting, before zooming off.
Chip ran up the coal hill, turned around and leaped onto the roof of the cab. Looking behind him, he saw the viaduct crumbling to pieces. Slowing down would be at least as fatal as speeding up. Ahead, another fireball from down at the very bottom of the valley flashed. It was a while later before he heard the boom. It worried him that he could still hear it, even above the roar of the wind. Whoever it was, was serious.
"A few miles!" he shouted down, "A couple of minutes, tops!"
"Horsefeathers!" shouted one of the pegasi, "Right, that's it! Leave it! We can't save it. Get clear!"
Chip helped the non-pegasi earth ponies clamber up the coal hill. The pegasi had unhitched them and had flown them to the cab in what was obviously a practiced emergency maneuver, but flying them to the caboose would have to wait. The pegasi flew directly to the caboose, where Chip could see them, distantly, shrugging into different harnesses.
Running back across the train car roofs, Chip watched spellbound as the pegasi flew out in what had to be an amazingly difficult procedure. They were flying backwards in their harnesses until all six of the crew pegasi were in position... however something was wrong. Leaping down, Chip could hear the swearing. One of the earth pegasi had taken to hammering on a lever, but it suddenly broke.
"Celestia buck me with both hooves!" the pony swore, "That's it, we're dead."
"What? What is it?" Chip shouted.
"Damned mechanism is stuck!"
The earth pony pointed, and Chip looked. The lever led to a gear and pulley system that disengaged the inside of the caboose from the frame and wheels. It had caught, stuck firm from never having been used.
"It's okay! I think I can get it!" Chip shouted, wind whipping his words away.
"What, kid? That's solid freakin' metal down there..."
"Yeah," Chip said, grinning, "and I haven't had breakfast yet."
Chip bent down... he could almost reach it! He swore under his breath and leaped to the next car, scootched down onto his belly and then stretched his neck out under the caboose. Taking a good solid grip onto the offending gear, he bit. Yanking it out and spitting, he did it again. And again. And again. Suddenly, the whole mechanism sheared off. Before he could move, the caboose slid free, wings springing out from underneath, as the boxy but serviceable emergency sky-chariot left the train behind... and left Chip.
"Master!" screamed Hairpin, and she leaped out of the chariot, diving towards Chip.
"Wait," Chip shouted, "You've forgotten somepony... Runt!"
Hairpin swooped and landed on the car roof, "No time, Chip, Get on!"
"No," Chip shook his head, "no, we're going to get him!"
"There's still time!"
Spanners watched, from the relative safety of the airborne emergency chariot, as the strange dragon-pony disappeared into the steam and smoke.
"What're you doin' kid," Spanners said under his breath, "that's a sure-fire way to get a bad case of-"
Spanners never finished his sentence. There was yet another explosion, and the whole viaduct lurched to one side. With an agonizing rumble, the great arched structure gave up, and crumbled. The train, engine and all, plunged straight down into the gorge. In a massive plume of smoke and steam, the engine and its precious cargo slammed into the rocky waters far below, a belch of flame sending the mushrooming cloud skywards.
Spanner's breath caught in his throat, "Celestia go with you, kid..."