• Published 15th Jan 2014
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Hard Reset 2: Reset Harder - horizon



Twilight Sparkle is stuck in a time loop amid a changeling invasion. This time, she's not the only one whose day is repeating.

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Off The Rails

T-0 C-0:

There's a story you hear about Clover the Clever if you spend any length of time around professional wizards. Supposedly, when she was creating the discipline of ornithomancy, every time her explorations ground to a halt she would stop and take a bath. After relaxing in warm water for fifteen minutes, she'd float a rubber duck in front of her muzzle, and then she would explain her problems to the toy. That forced her to focus and organize her approach when she was spreading herself too thin.

"Twilight? You're not really going to start blowing things up, are you?" Spike says, catching his breath while the smoke from several hastily written scrolls zips off through the city.

"Figure of speech. Gratuitous destruction would work against what we're trying to accomplish here."

Spike is the best rubber duck ever. He asks questions.

"Which is to say, painlessly stopping today's changeling invasion," Celestia says. "I believe Twilight was about to explain the plan to us."

"We have the advantage of numbers, but they will always have the advantage of surprise, since Chrysalis can always reset and adapt the infiltration to foil any pre-planned defenses," I say. "That's why the Princess couldn't organize the Guard to repel them on her own. With Princess Celestia and Chrysalis using their time loops to neutralize each other's planning, however, I become a wild card. That's why I'm going to go catch a ride down to the train where our friends are coming up the mountain, and bring them here before the swarm catches up to them. Once the six of us get back here, we put on the Elements of Harmony, and we blast Chrysalis into next week."

Spike's mouth opens and closes. "You mean, like, literally?"

"Yeah. Or, at any rate, out of her time loop, so we can clean things up from there without opposition."

"Can you do that?"

"The world's most powerful artifacts can. I hope."

"They can," Celestia says firmly. "They have."

Spike combs through his crest, staring out into space, his young brain working overtime. I can almost see smoke coming out of his ears when the thought-gears finally unjam. "The Elements are already here in Canterlot, right?" he asks me. "Why aren't you, y'know, taking them with you?"

"Something about Chrysalis' current plans is making them unusually volatile," Celestia says. "Twilight couldn't move them that far without setting them off. If they stay here, I can personally keep them stable until we have all six bearers present."

Spike frowns, looking outside — where smoke from several burning buildings mingles with the dissipating fog from fire crews' spent clouds. "Alright. But … you're in a time loop too, right, Princess? Why not go back and tell everypony to take an earlier train, and avoid all the fighting?"

Celestia nods. "The problem is, we need to delay the invasion as long as possible relative to their arrival, to minimize the damage done before we can use the Elements. The instant anypony does anything that gets the changelings suspicious of being unmasked, the infiltrators attack immediately. Both I and your friends are being watched, so I haven't been able to pass them any messages without starting the invasion early. Believe me, I've tried."

We walk outside amid distant shouts and screams and the clangs of weaponry. The two phaetons I just commissioned pull up to the Library steps, along with a half-dozen Guard pegasi: enough to pull the chariots and fend off skirmishers, but hopefully not enough to call attention to my mission.

Celestia sweeps a hoof around. "As much as I'd prefer to delay even longer, forcing Chrysalis' hoof now should keep her too busy to deal with Twilight's trip. And now I need to go oversee the defense and keep the world from exploding." She smiles at me. "I'd wish you luck, but there's none like the luck we make for ourselves."

I curl my neck around hers in a brief hug, and then reach down and nuzzle Spike. I'll be seeing them both soon enough, but regardless, this does feel like a moment worth acknowledging. The start of the home stretch.

I should know better than to jinx things like that.

T-2 C-1:

I buck the Royal Guard behind me hard in the face as he gets within pounce range. Celestia's horn lights up, and another screams as he's set on fire. The remaining four soldiers freeze, eyes bugging out, until they realize that the corpses falling to the ground are covered in black chitin.

"I guess we're a little short-hooved this trip," I say to the actual ponies, stepping onto the first phaeton's platform. "I'll need you all in the leads, two apiece. Fly like you mean it. I'll provide close-range fire support, but mostly, we want to outfly trouble —"

T-4 C-2:

"— which means circling around to the southwest rather than taking the direct route, because somepony forgot to mention the fierce fighting around the south gate barracks." I shoot Celestia a glare.

"I'll get that cleaned up by the time you return," she says, having the grace to sound ashamed, "and meet you at the gate with the Elements."

There's an exciting moment when a changeling patrol spots us just past the city walls, but in between some hornbolts and a near-freefall descent, they quickly lose their enthusiasm for pursuit. We level off into a steep, fast glide, letting gravity pull us down to the lower slopes, where the 6:28 train from Ponyville is winding its way up the first of the mountain's many switchbacks.

Closing in on it is a ragged cluster of flying black figures — a full wing, nearly a hundred strong. Just beyond them, to the south, is the main swarm.

"That is a lot of changelings," one of the guards pulling my phaeton murmurs.

"Well, then," I say, "we'll have to work fast. Swing the phaetons around as we get close to the train, near the top half of that steep switchback there, and let it round the switchback and catch up with you. I'll have my friends ready to board by then."

I brace on the side of the air-chariot, waiting for my moment as we approach the tight switchback. The train wheezes into view far underneath us, pouring on the steampower and hoofpower in a futile attempt to outrun its pursuers. I ready a soft-landing charm and leap —

T-5 C-2:

— aiming for the flat wooden roof of a cargo car rather than the slick yet attractive curved metal roof of a passenger car. This time, I slam down squarely, paralyzed in a crouch for a few moments while the spell safely dissipates the kinetic energy of my fall.

As I'm struggling back up, I hear hooves on metal. I look up. Bon Bon is climbing the ladder up the side of the cargo car to join me on the roof. Her eyes are wide with concern. "Twilight! I heard you land. Is everything okay?"

I look over her shoulders at the giant swarm of approaching death she's ignoring. "Oh, stuff it, bug," I say, stepping forward —

T-6 C-2:

— with Home Run floating at my side —

T-7 C-2:

This time, I brandish my bat and wait for her to make the first move.

T-9 C-3:

I back away as she lifts herself into a hind-legged fighting stance. "Okay, that's Krav Naga," I say, cautiously impressed. "A dragon martial art."

"She encourages her underqueens to travel." The thing that isn't Bon Bon smiles humorlessly and advances.

T-11 C-3:

This time, I leap as she lunges, swinging a hoof down at her in an overhead chop before she gets into grappling range. She blocks effortlessly. But as my hoof glances off her foreleg, I unleash the spell I'd been holding — no longer a soft-landing charm, but a kinetic-transfer charm supercharged with the impact from my leap from the phaeton.

Before she can even flinch, she's traveling at terminal velocity. With a sound like an explosion, her body blasts through the roof beneath us, as well as several layers of heavy wooden crates. A plume of dust, debris, and green mist jets up from the cargo car's new skylight.

I land from my jump and smile down into the silent hole. "Allow me to help you with your travel plans."

I hop down between the cars and heroically fling open the door to the passenger … ahem. I get a good grip on the stuck door and I … ohforstarssake. Locked? I pound on the door and shout. They don't let me in, probably because of the half-dozen changelings who just caught up with the train and cannonballed straight into me —

T-12 C-3:

Well, that was stupid. I immediately teleport past the locked door.

Right into a small group of black figures holding the passengers hostage —

T-13 C-3:

— who are neatly dispatched by spell and bat while they're still processing my arrival.

None of my friends are in this car. I collar a passenger who looks vaguely familiar from home. "Pinkie Pie," I say urgently, starting with the one pony who everypony is guaranteed to know. "Where is she?"

Half of the passengers immediately point toward the next car. The rest point back toward where I came in. I groan and facehoof. If there are already changelings in the train, of course they're here for the highest-value targets on board. Oh, well. I'll have to find the real ones, right after I beat down the half-dozen changelings who just smashed in through the windows.

These have neither surprise nor exotic martial arts on their side.

Seconds later, I dislodge Home Run from the two changelings I shishkebabbed to the wall and amble forward, whistling "Smile, Smile, Smile." The door unlocks easily from the inside. The next car, however, is locked again. I sigh, prep a few spells, and teleport.

Five familiar faces turn to me from their posts at their boarded-up windows. "Twilight!" a poofy-haired Pinkie wails. "We're doomed! There's all these icky buggy things —"

I set off a kinetic burst to her right. The impact smashes her through the barricaded window, and she vanishes with a yelp. The other four stare at me in open-mouthed horror.

"One, she didn't have despair hair," I say, pointing to my mane, "and two, the real Pinkie would have had a warning of impending defenestration — tingly tongue, itchy hoof, twitchy tail — and been huddled under a seat away from the window." I light my horn, focusing on the intricate patterns of a changeling detection spell. "I think it's time to find out who else here is a fake."

T-14 C-3:

All of them. Sigh.

I disable them before they can jump me this time and try to beat some information out of "Fluttershy," but she's made of far sterner stuff than the original. While I'm finding creative ways to grill her, the train derails.

T-15 C-3:

Despite my best efforts, "Applejack" remains tight-mouthed until the train derails.

T-16 C-3:

"Rarity" puts on a brave face, but she's clearly moments from cracking when we're interrupted by the train derailing. Hmm. A weak link, but I'll need to speed things up.

T-24 C-4:

Bon Bon climbs the ladder up the side of the cargo car to join me on the roof. Her eyes are wide with concern. "Twilight! I heard you land. Is everything okay?"

"Oh, Bon Bon! A familiar face! Thank goodness," I say. "How'd you escape the changelings inside the passenger car?"

"I, uh," she says, eyes flicking around, "was in the bathroom when they attacked. I snuck out the window."

"Oh. I thought it might have been because you kicked their plots with the Krav Naga you learned when Chrysalis sent you to the Eastern Deserts."

I see her muscles tense for a leap at me. Then the crate of books I hauled all the way here from the Canterlot Library — and fired skyward right before I jumped from the phaeton — slams down onto her head.

Before she can even flinch, she's squashed … well, like a bug. There's a sound like an explosion as the crate continues on and bursts through the roof beneath us. A plume of dust and debris jets up from the cargo car's new skylight.

That was so worth the eight loops it took to line up.

I gallop over the passenger car, leap to the next one, and stomp a sharp metal spike into the roof over the fourth window on the left. I grip my teeth around the rope that's tied to the spike, give it a tug to make sure it's secure, and then fling myself off the side of the train. The rope snaps taut, and I swing down and back in, smashing hinds-first through the barricaded window.

The things-that-are-not-my-friends inside recover first, but they're caught just enough off guard to try faking me out. "Twilight!" Pinkie wails, bounding forward in search of a hug. "We're doomed —"

I touch her on the forehead and finally discharge the kinetic-transfer charm. With a sick snap of heavy wood and squeal of protesting metal, the floor gives way and she vanishes beneath us. The car jostles as its left rear wheels hit an obstruction and hop the track for a split second. "Pinkie" lets out an unearthly shriek, dissected by train wheels into a quickly fading echo, intercut with sickening thumps.

I turn to "Rarity," who is staring with eyes as wide as saucers. "You," I say, leveling a hoof. "Tell me where the real versions of you are, or you go down the hole after her."

"Th-three cars back, behind s-some crates in the right rear," she says instantly, not even bothering with the accent.

"What were you going to do when you got to Canterlot?"

"G-give them to Chrysalis as high-value hostages, and b-become them to infiltrate any remaining resistance." She shifts back into a small changeling, who if she were a pony I would estimate at a year or two shy of my age, and sinks to her knees, trembling. "Please don't kill me."

I shrug. I'm making progress; I can afford to be generous. "Sure, why not? I've got things to do, and you've never hurt me before. Stay here, and keep it that way."

I'm freeing my friends from their cocoons when the train derails. Dammit. I forgot about that.

T-46 C-15:

I've hit a wall. So did Celestia, apparently — some Guards she was leading hit a string of nasty ambushes after Chrysalis shifted strategies — but she says she's got things back under control. I fill her in on my progress.

"I need some extra troops," I say. "The changelings on the train start sabotaging the engine as soon as I start my attack, and when the boiler explodes, it tips the engine off the track and pulls the rest of the train with it. But while I go prevent that, the wing of reinforcements arrives, and some of the flyers attack the phaetons while others collapse a bridge at the far end of the switchback. I can't kill them all fast enough to save both my ride and the train."

Celestia grabs a piece of parchment and does some math. "Their sabotage only starts when you arrive. If you get there two minutes later, you'll reach the train at the same time as the reinforcements, and you can take out the aerial troops first and mop up the ones on the train afterward."

I frown. "I've gotten good at fighting, but I'm no alicorn, and in midair I can't take cover or force them to bottleneck. I can kill maybe twenty." I hear Spike make a little strangled noise, but he looks away when I glance at him. "Not a whole wing."

"If we send more guards with you," Celestia says, "you'll get pursuit from the city, and you'll be no better off. What about a force multiplier to augment the power of your spells?"

"Power isn't the issue — I've already learned powerful enough spells to splatter a changeling in one shot. I just can't keep up with their numbers. What I need is area control, or area denial, or vastly increased area-of-effect." I do some mental math. "Maybe if I force them to cluster and then electrocute the lot of them with a From Thin Air … hmm. Do you think a Want-It-Need-It spell would work on changelings?"

In an instant, Celestia's expression turns glacial. "That's not funny, Twilight."

I blink. My love spell did cause problems the first time around, but that vehement of a reaction makes no sense — not from the pony who asked me to write an analysis on why it snowballed out of control and how I could have neutralized it if she hadn't arrived. Then I remember what she said earlier: something I did changed history. Presumably the version she remembers went beyond a narrowly averted disaster.

"I'm sorry," I say, wincing. That seems inadequate, so I add, "That was inappropriate. It, uh, just seemed like a relevant question given my dilemma."

Celestia's icy mask softens into a frown. After several tense moments, she shakes her head and sighs. "We'll discuss the difference between 'relevant' and 'appropriate' later, after we figure out how you're killing a full wing of changelings. Have you run across Cavaneigh's Chaining in your research?"

I let out a breath and try to tamp down my adrenaline. Now I'm curious about the button I unintentionally pressed, but it's not as important as stopping the invasion. Nothing's as important as stopping the invasion. Everything else can wait until I'm not dying every few hours. "I haven't," I say, "but that's fixable. Is it more efficient than adjuring a time-limited self-replication augmentation onto the base attack?"

"Significantly. Kills-per-thaum is going to be a major concern given the raw numbers involved. Even you would be pushing it, trying to kill them all with a single spell."

Spike says something incoherent that sounds like "Erg."

I stare at him for a moment before responding. "Then I should zap the first half, and give myself some recharge time with a tactical retreat before taking out the rest."

"That wouldn't work. The survivors would scatter, and taking them out individually would slow you down too much."

"If they scatter they won't have the numbers to kill my escorts. Mission accomplished."

"But that commits you to guarding the phaetons, and you won't be able to take out the changelings who derail the train."

My little purple dragon clears his throat, looking increasingly green. "What is it, Spike?" I snap.

He shifts his weight from claw to claw. "Um, Twilight … I know you're going through weird timey-wimey things right now, but you two are starting to scare me. Where are my best friends who know that friendship always wins? Why can't you not kill them?"

Cynical comebacks spring into my mind, but before they can reach my tongue, his words find fertile soil somewhere in the back of my brain. I stare at him mutely. Ideas germinate and sprout.

Celestia and I turn to each other simultaneously. I can see the same glimmers of ideas in her eyes.

Best. Rubber. Duck. Ever.

T-47 C-16:

Once she slips on the travelling robe, Sweet Voice is a dead ringer for me. The shape of the face, the color of the coat, the mane (note to self: really ought to style it less severely) … even my dam might be fooled at a quick glance. It's not even an illusion spell. All dyed and styled, I'm sure, but all real.

"Should I ask why you have a body double for me on your personal payroll?" I say, donning the invisibility cloak.

"Now Twilight," Celestia says, "there are any number of perfectly innocent explanations for that."

It's a joke. We both laugh, but then my mind processes the unspoken implications and lurches to a halt. "Wait, you're saying that the actual explanation is …"

Celestia blinks, and a pink flush spreads across her muzzle. "Oh! Oh, my. Also perfectly innocent, thank you, although it's long, intricate, and begs an awkward conversation about the contingency plans I've created in the event of you being indisposed during a national crisis."

My jaw drops. "Sweet stars, you're blushing," I manage amid incredulous laughter. "I can't remember the last time I've seen you blush."

This time, she's not laughing with me. She looks away.

My laughter dies away. "… Princess?"

"You haven't," she says faintly. "Nopony has in a thousand years. Too politically awkward."

"Oh. I … um. Sorry." The obvious thought occurs. "Because you reset, right?"

"Yes."

Silence stretches. I clear my throat. "Do you want to? Reset, I mean."

Celestia lets out a shaky breath. "I … almost did. I want to, yes. But I shouldn't. You deserve better than that, especially after all that happened." She looks back at me, touching a hoof to my pastern, and the fear in her eyes is as out of place as the changelings in the streets. "You … need me to be trustworthy, and that needs to be bigger than my pride."

I give her a reassuring smile and slide forward into a hug. "Thank you," I whisper. "That means a lot."

We hold each other in silence for a bit. I feel her muscles slowly untense, and I lay my head against her neck, feeling the warm and rapid beat of her heart pulse against my cheek. She draws in a breath, and lets it out, her body briefly shaking before the rigid tension returns.

I look up. Just like that, the mask is back on.

"You should reset," she says.

T-48 C-17:

I don't ask what happened last loop. She doesn't volunteer.

Sweet Voice slips on the travelling robe. "Should I ask why you have a body double for me on your personal payroll?" I say, donning the invisibility cloak.

"Oh, you know," Celestia waves a hoof casually, "politics."

I chuckle. "That happens."

Sweet Voice and the invisible me climb onto a single phaeton, with two guards pulling and two flying escort. We circle to the southwest, evade the patrol, and glide down in a slower descent to the train, making sure to keep the guards' wings fresh. Inside the cloak, I keep an eye on my pocket watch.

When we get to the train, the reinforcement wing is already upon us —

T-53 C-17:

— so, after some fine-tuning, we arrive a little earlier, in time for just their four fastest fliers to engage us. "Twilight" fires off a few energy beams to stun two, and the unattached guards buck the other two changelings out of the air to get us temporarily clear. However, the rest of the wing is already closing in from several directions.

"Twilight" screams a retreat as the train passes beneath us. I leap off the phaeton unnoticed, and while I'm waiting for the soft-landing charm to finish dissipating my impact, I see the phaeton turn tail and jet back toward Canterlot at top speed, a swarm of changelings trailing behind.

I sneak through the unlocked door to the cargo car the first time that there are no changelings in sight, settle in atop some boxes near my friends' cocoons, and wait. Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen. Changelings occasionally pass through the car, or dump cocooned ponies near me, but the train chugs onward and upward.

Six p.m. We're close enough to Canterlot that I can smell the fires of the city burning. I open the cocoons to make sure my friends are alright, and they wake up with a thousand questions I can't answer yet. First, it's time to report in.

T-54 C-62:

"How many deaths? Sweet stars, what happened?"

Celestia's expression screams an exhaustion her posture doesn't reflect. "Three hours of delaying actions punctuated by ambushes happened, trying to keep our troops from direct conflict and from getting pinned down. I had to ensure we still have the strength to counterattack and push through to the train station when you arrive." She smiles. "The good news is, now that you've confirmed the plan works on your end, we're in the home stretch."

"Out of curiosity, how many times have you told me that now?"

"Eight, but this time Luna and I are going to use the main Guard force for a feint and break away to deliver the Elements on our own."

"Hmm. Chrysalis knows you're looping, right? Wouldn't you make a more effective feint, forcing her to confront you directly while Luna sneaks the Elements to us?"

"If I didn't have to personally keep the Elements from exploding, then you could have taken them with you in the first place."

"Oh. Right."

We give each other unnecessary good-luck wishes and, once again, I head for the train. It's uneventful, which is to say, the skirmishing and killing and fleeing and singlehorned infiltration of an entire hostile army goes off exactly as I remember it. I even manage to sneak in a nap while I'm waiting for the train to approach Canterlot.

Shortly after 6:00, I deadbolt the doors, float several of the heaviest boxes I can find in front of them, and walk over to the cocoons. I'm about to break them open when I'm distracted by a small scratching noise on the side wall of the car. I freeze. The sound stops.

I slide the hood of my invisibility cloak back over my head, and tiphoof over to the area where I heard the sound. It starts again — a barely audible, arrhythmic scrape that alternates between longer and shorter sounds. Horse code? It's hard to make out the pattern, so I lean in silently and put my ear to the wood.

There's a thunderous roar. The world spins around me.

My body hits the floor amid a shower of kindling and splinters. A large black form rolls and grapples with me. I throw off the hoof at my throat, kicking madly, and fling myself sideways straight into the buffeting thwack of a wing. I roll the other way, and something catches and pulls me back, and I thrash and wriggle and break free of the ominous grasp of … my invisibility cloak. Oops.

I roll away and struggle to unsteady hooves as Chrysalis grabs the limp pile of cloth in her teeth, stomps one end down with a hoof, and yanks. There's a sick tearing noise and the spark of enchantment discharge. Two halves of a faded grey cloak flutter down to the floor.

"FINALLY!" she shouts, spitting out a small strand of fabric that had gotten hooked to her fang. "Noy jitat. Do you have ANY IDEA how much grief that First-forsaken thing caused me?" She looks up at me and narrows her eyes. "Now it's time for teacher's pet to play dead."

I open and close my mouth. My heart is hammering in my chest. This can't be happening! I was so close! On blind instinct, I snatch Home Run out of its shoulder holster and swing it in a vicious arc at her neck. Chrysalis leaps backward, barely dodging. I reverse the swing into a diagonal downward slash, which she leans underneath, and then I leap forward at her with an incoherent scream, hoof lashing out at her face. She catches my leg, wheels me over her back, and flings me into a wall.

The blow croggles me for a second, but not long enough for me to miss seeing her brace to spring at me. I fumble for Home Run, and my aura closes around it and lashes out just in time to intercept her jump with a vertical sweep — or at least it would have if she hadn't paused for a moment right before leaping, causing the bat to whiff through empty air. As I'm fighting to redirect my bat's momentum into another swing, she lunges forward, headbutting my nose with a crack I feel rather than hear. My vision fuzzes out amid a moment of vertigo, and when it returns, she's sitting on my chest, firmly grasping my neck in her forehooves.

"Your move, princess," she says, staring down at me smugly.

Her hooves clamp down and squeeze. Suffocation is not a quick way to go.

T-55 C-74:

I wake up thrashing and screaming.

Celestia has leapt into the evocation circle and grabbed me in a fierce hug by the time I scramble upright. I cling to her, gasping for breath. She makes little shushing noises, nuzzling maternally at my neck.

"Chrysalis," I stammer.

"I know," Celestia whispers. "She's figured out we're trying to reach your friends, but she's run out of ways to stop Luna and I from reaching the station. She's panicking and desperate."

"No. This is all wrong." A sob escapes my muzzle. "I, I was supposed to fix things while you fought her, and I was going to get everything perfect because she wouldn't show up to stop me and, and, now she's fighting me and she'll keep resetting and I'll never ever be done." I collapse bawling against her side.

"You don't need perfection," Celestia says firmly. "Twilight. Listen. If you and your friends can get past her just once to activate the Elements, then we win. It doesn't matter what else goes wrong that loop, because we can reset to fix it and she won't be able to do a thing about it. This is her last stand."

I struggle to slow my breathing, tamping my hysteria down with the calm reason of her words, letting my tears play themselves out as she holds me. Finally, I wipe at my cheeks with a dirty hoof and nod. She's right. I can't kill Chrysalis, but I can out-think, disable or delay her — and all I have to do is wake up my friends and protect them until Celestia arrives.

"Be strong, Twilight," Celestia says, letting me go and stepping back.

I nod. We've got unlimited attempts and coordination and twice as many chances to reset. I've got an invisibility cloak. I can teleport. One success. I can do this.

Sweet Voice and I climb into the phaeton and fly down the mountain in silence. My mind is replaying the fight over and over again. Something slowly dawns on me. Every one of those improbable, graceful dodges represents a time when I beat her. In my panic, I was swinging to kill, and I must have, because in the loop I remembered, she knew exactly what to expect.

Well … not exactly. "Your move, princess"? Did she think Celestia was the one behind this? How could she have forgotten seeing …

A smile spreads across my muzzle. Wait a minute. I'm the one who died, that time back in the burning library when she had her epiphany. She straight-up killed me on the train. She must not even know I'm looping yet!

Do I have any idea how much grief that invisibility cloak caused? No … but given how upset she was, I think I can guess. And she didn't get rid of it. Oh no. She hasn't even seen grief yet.

I giggle. What with me being invisible, she won't see it. She'll just suffer, time after time, until she cracks and gets careless and leaves me an opening to knock her out.

I prepare for our aerial skirmish as we draw closer to the swarm, but the incoming changelings seem oddly uninterested in us. The phaeton rounds a ridgetop on its descent toward the train tracks. The mountain slope falls away — as does my smile. The train's not there.

I look around and spot it almost immediately. It's down at the very bottom of the mountain, at the base of a plume of dark smoke, burning brightly on the tracks.

There are no survivors.

Author's Note:

The next chapter, "The End," will post Weds 1/29.

It is most emphatically not the final chapter.

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