• Published 26th Mar 2015
  • 19,658 Views, 1,175 Comments

The Road Home - Pen Stroke


Discord tosses Twilight and her family into an unexpected adventure while the rest of Twilight's friend get to work on the new crystal palace. All together, they'll do everything to ensure that Twilight and her family have a place to call home.

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Two Steps Forward

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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Chapter 11

Two Steps Forward

====================

Every muscle in Twilight’s body was tense, moving her form in measured degrees. She needed to be slow but swift. Slow enough not to be noticed, but fast enough that she wasn’t tempting fate. Her head moved past the white fluff, extending outward until her eyes could see the ground. She tried to snap a mental photo, take in all the details she could, then Twilight quickly drew her head back to where it had been.

Twilight had not been sure the white, fluffy cumulus cloud was going to be a sufficient hiding place. After Shining bucked the leader in the jaw, the whole changeling outpost had been buzzing like a fallen wasp's nest. They only had a few minutes before the swarm would be upon them. They needed to hide, but their only other option was to try and conceal themselves among the trees. That seemed even less suitable.

So, after casting a few cloud walking spells, Twilight and everyone else in their merry group took refuge within the cumulus fortress. The changelings streamed out into the forest in their absurd spider disguises, and began to search with feverish determination. With each passing minute, Twilight was sure they would be discovered. Equestrian Royal Guard search procedures, which she had studied with Shining to help him impress his commanding officers once upon a time, were very clear. If those you are pursuing are suspected of having capabilities of flight or magic, then you had to search the sky as diligently as you would search the ground.

As the minutes turned into an hour, Twilight began gritting her teeth and pacing anxiously within the cloud. The changelings below were defying any and all logic. They never looked skyward. They never thought to search the clouds. In fact, they didn’t seem intent to expand their search at all. The logic was simple. If you could not find something after searching one location, you should try looking someplace else. Yet, the changelings searched for them like they were a missing set of keys, incapable of moving or thinking.

Twilight couldn’t help herself, and took it as a personal insult to her intelligence.

Shining, however, had been keen to point out that the changelings idiocy was their saving grace. If they wouldn’t look to the clouds, then perhaps they could use their fluffy fortress to escape. All it would take was a little spell to gently push them away from the changelings and towards refuge. It was a spell Twilight was easily capable of casting, and soon their little cloud was shifting across the sky as if nudged by an unfelt breeze.

That had all started at sunset, when the long shadows of the forest had stretched across the landscape like long, proud, unicorn horns reaching out to greet the rising moon. Now the shadows stretched in the other direction, beckoning the last traces of the moon to sleep while the sun rose in the east.

"Keep searching! We will find the stupid ponies soon, and then they shall tell me the secrets of their baseball and high kickers."

Twilight’s eyebrow twitched as she retreated back into the hollowed out center of the cloud. Her propulsion spell had been flawless, as had her calculations. The gentle wind spell should have carried them away from the changelings overnight, but the not entirely tamed weather of the mountains had betrayed them. She had heard it, while lying awake. The trees had rustled below, indicating a natural wind. It had been too dark during the night to get a gauge of which way the wind was blowing, if it was with them or against them. Now, in the morning light, she saw the bitter truth.

“We’ve hardly moved,” Twilight cursed as she flopped back into the clouds. She stared at the ceiling of their fluffy fortress, tired eyes blurring until she could rub them with a hoof. Everyone else had been able to get a good night's sleep, and in fact they were still snoozing even as the sun began to rise.

Shining and Cadance had wrapped themselves in some of the cloud, only their heads poking out of the white fluff as they embraced. The dog, Biscuit, was curled up like a normal dog sleeping in a basket while the changeling was sprawled out like a dead body, her mouth slightly cracked open. Twilight wasn’t entirely sure, but in the wee hours of the night she was sure she saw some magical energy flowing into S43’s mouth. She couldn’t say if it was intentional or instinctual, but with Shining and Cadance nearby, Twilight couldn’t blame S43 for grabbing some love to eat.

But sleep had not been so generous for Twilight. She had gotten a few hours, but each time she dozed off her dreams were once more plagued by Tirek. They had, in fact, gotten worse. Now the power-hungry centaur was aided by an army of diamond dogs and the changeling queen as well. It was a war against Equestria, one where so many others were losing their lives. It was horrible, and it always ended with Tirek gloating about how he had slain Spike and Nyx, leaving hardly any trace.

All this stuff with the changelings had been a distraction. Twilight had to focus on herself, Shining, and Cadance while they were in danger. But now, now they were safe and her concerns for Nyx and Spike returned with full force. Were the diamond dogs taking care of them? Were they even still in the Rainbow Range, or had they been spirited away to some other hole in the ground? At this point, would they simply have to give the dogs the ransom and hope they kept their word? It was a boiling broth of worry in her mind. A mixture of uncertainty, love, rage, and—

“I would like to get down now.”

—mild annoyance.

Maud had been the only other one unable to get a restful night’s sleep. She was ill at ease in a cloud, more agitated than Twilight would have ever imagined possible. Maud would get up, pace in tiny circles, then sit back down. She’d knead at the cumulus beneath their hooves like a cat, trying to find something solid beneath the fluff. Maud would then lay down to try to sleep, but she’d be up again in a few minutes to repeat the ritual. A ritual that, with the nearing dawn, had grown to include her speaking the same statement to Twilight over and over again.

"I would like to get down now."

Twilight sighed, rubbing her tired eyes before dragging her hoof down her face. Her features stretched, skin pulled taught before it popped back into place once she removed her hoof. Twilight didn’t know if it was caused by an anxiety of heights or unease caused by being separated from the ground, but her patience for Maud's behavior was running thin. “We can’t get down until the changelings leave or my wind spell pushes us away from them.”

“But I would like to get down now.”

Twilight flopped over from her back to her belly, burying her face and a grunt of frustration into the clouds. She then sat up. Bits of cloud clung here and there, giving Twilight a rough beard with bushy eyebrows. Yet, Twilight took no notice of it as she smiled at Maud, having finally thought of something that might help them both find some peace. “Why don’t you pet Boulder for a while. I’m sure that’d help you relax.”

“It is very relaxing to pet Boulder." The faintest of smiles formed on Maud's lips. She stuck her hoof into the pocket of her dress. “He’s a very good pet like that. He's always ready to listen, and is there when... when...” The movement of Maud’s hoof, previously leisurely and habitual, grew frantic. She fished and dug around in the small pocket before quickly switching forehooves so she could do the same for the other.

Maud repeated this once more, checking both pockets before giving them a tug. She turned the pockets inside out, shaking out a few little pieces of lint but nothing else. She then planted both hooves in the cloud. Maud looked at Twilight, a few of her muscles quivering as if trying to make an expression. Twilight opened her mouth to ask what was wrong, but was cut off when Maud turned and began walking towards one of the surrounding walls.

“Where are you going?” Twilight said, taking a few steps to follow Maud.

“Boulder’s missing. I have to go find him.” With not a word more, Maud brought her forehooves together. She pulled apart the clouds beneath her, creating a gaping hole between her limbs. She glanced one final time at Twilight, then brought her legs in.

Twilight scrambled, wisps of her magic trying to grasp Maud but it was too late. She dropped like a rock, disappearing from view as she plummeted to the ground below. Immediately Twilight’s mind raced as she moved to the edge of the hole. A drop from this high could injure a pony badly. What would she tell Pinkie Pie if Maud hurt herself? What was worse, what would she do if Maud was recaptured? They had only just escaped, and they wouldn’t have Biscuit and S43 to rescue them a second time if they were recaptured.

Yet, when Twilight looked down through the hole, she saw Maud had landed safely. Her fall had been broken by one of the changelings, the legs of the spider disguise twitching as Maud climbed down. For a moment her body language was relaxed. She planted her hooves firmly on the ground and twisted them around, as if reacquainting herself with the sensation of dirt. Yet her landing had not gone unnoticed. The other changelings were swarming, dropping out of their disguises. They carried nets composed of their hoof-made webbing, and tried to throw them out to catch her.

“Where is Boulder?” Maud asked as she sidestepped the thrown web. A changeling leapt at her, fangs bared and a dreadful hiss escaping its lips. Yet Maud was not phased. She reared her head back a little, then snapped it forward. Maud’s head collided with the changelings, a cringe-inducing crack filling the air as the changeling collapsed to the ground, knocked out cold.

Two more changelings tried to rush Maud after that, but she sprang into the air with a Pinkie quality bounce. She then dropped back onto the two changelings, managing to put both into a headlock. “Where’s Boulder?” she asked the changeling she was holding with her forehooves. She then looked down at the one she was suffocating with just her hindlegs. “Have you seen Boulder?”

The two changelings collapsed, passing out from the deprivation of oxygen, and so the combat went. Twilight could only stare, utterly marveled by what she was seeing. She might have used the word fluid to describe the combat, but that wasn’t entirely accurate. Maud hardly moved between blows, often returning to just standing calmly, but each blow was swift and on point. It was like a dance with all the movements in-between cut out. Maud was only hitting the important poses, and all the while she was grilling the changelings about Boulder.

“Gray dirt pony!”

Twilight glanced in the direction of the voice, recognizing its owner by sight and sound. It was the changeling leader, S1, and he was standing before the half of the hive’s forces that Maud had yet to knock out. “You think you're special with your special moves and your combat prowess, but you are not! You are nothing compared to the overwhelming might of the changeling hive and our glorious queen. You are simply prolonging the inevitable.”

“There you are, Boulder. You had me worried.”

S1 glanced over his shoulder, expecting to see some pony or other creature. But all he saw was his hive, and he looked back to Maud with an arched eyebrow. “Who are you talking to? There is no one named Boulder here, and there are no big rocks either. Tell me to whom you speak! I demand it!”

“Boulder’s stuck in your hoof.” Maud began to slowly walk towards the changeling leader. “Please give him back to me. He’s my pet.”

S1 turned his forehoof over, seeing a small stone that was stuck to the bottom by a bit of goo. He removed Boulder with a tug, then held it up where Maud could see. “This? This is your Boulder? This is only a pebble." S1 turned Boulder over a few times, a grin spreading onto his lips. "Yet, this stone is entirely saturated with love. It is practically oozing with affection and care. This must have built up over years."

Maud nodded her head. She stopped in front of S1, and held out her hoof expectantly. "I have had Boulder for a very long time. He is my one and only pet. I tried to have others, but Boulder's the best. Now please, give him back."

"With this much love, even you, scary dirt pony, would be nothing before my might," S1 said, his smile only growing. Then, with a single snap decision, S1 flicked Boulder up in the air. Every eye was on the small stone, Twilight, Maud, and all the changelings behind S1 watched as it flipped a few times in the air before falling back towards the earth. S1 then opened his mouth, and with a sharp snap caught the stone in his throat. Twilight felt her own heart skip a beat. With a held breath, she watched as S1 coughed and choked a little on Boulder before finally managing to swallow him down. The changelings behind him were grinning, as if their victory was assured. Maud was frozen in place. Twilight could not see her eyes, but her head was pointed directly at S1.

"Delicious," S1 said as he licked his lips, the expression of pained swallowing behind replaced with satisfaction. "That is fine, aged love.”

Twilight's eyes glanced feverishly between the changelings and Maud. She didn't know what to expect, but every instinct in her body was telling her to back away. With a small glimmer of magic, she increased the power of her wind spell, trying to get their cloud moving more swiftly away from the scene below. Maud had still not moved. She was still just standing there, her face hidden from Twilight's perspective by her mane. Still, even as Twilight put more distance between herself and Maud, she felt like she was watching a ticking time bomb.

The changelings were reacting as well. Those in the swarm behind S1 starting to back away, a couple of them hissing like cornered rats. Even S1, who had been reveling in his consumption of love, was beginning to frown and cower in fear. He tried to put on a strong face. S1 raised his forehooves, stomped them to the ground, and flashed his changeling magic as he hissed at Maud. A few of the swarm tried to follow S1's lead. For a moment, the swarm was rallying behind their leader.

That was when Maud took a single step towards them.

“Flee!” S1 screamed, and the swarm was gone. They sprinted away from Maud, like cockroaches scattering when a light is turned on. Maud, in turn, took chase. Twilight lost track of them within seconds, the thick trees of the forest obscuring the pursuit from her vision. Still, she felt a chill run down her spine as the moment of danger passed. She had never, ever, been so happy that a pony had not turned around. Maud’s expression, which managed to inspire such fear in the changelings, was one she hoped would never be directed at her.

Rolling her shoulders to try and wash away the feeling of impending doom, Twilight took the opportunity to look around below. She jumped to the top of the cloud, taking a perch on its pinnacle before surveying the surroundings. All the changelings were gone. They could now try and resume their trek to Lumberton. Without Maud, however, Twilight realized they'd never be able to follow the forest trails.

Their original plan was still good. It was a lot easier on Cadance if they continued to use the cloud to ferry themselves to Lumberton.

All she needed was to know which way to make the wind blow.

~~~

“No more mistakes. No more escapes. No more mercy,” Duke said, growling deep in his throat as he lead his diamond dogs through the forest. It had been hours since his dogs had fled from the soldiers. They had lost the trail, and now any hope of finding them again was slim. But failure was not an option in Duke’s mind. They returned to The Den, he rallied even more diamond dogs. A royal ransom for three princesses, a prince, and a dragon. Even divided into dozens of shares, it was the kind of gem payday that could get any self respecting dog drooling.

So his little prospecting squad was now a sizable militia. They marched through the forest, the swiftest of them running and scouting while the main body of the force headed in the direction of Lumberton. That was where the ponies wanted to go. If they could get ahead of them, then they could set a trap.

He clenched his bandaged paw, the one he'd hurt against the cursed magic shield, and squinted through his right eye. His left one was swollen shut now, but the right had recovered enough he wasn’t left blinded. Still, the ponies had insulted and injured him, and he would not let them leave the forest. They would either be prisoners or trophies, and if it happened to be the latter, then they would march on the Crystal Empire and take the greatest prize for themselves.

A slurp came from Duke’s left, drawing his eyes to Buck. “Yes?” he asked the looming, ever-slobbering giant of a diamond dog.

“Are you sure you’re okay? That eye looks like it still hurts real bad.”

“I’m fine,” Duke snapped, clenching his good paw into a fist as a silent threat to such insubordination. He was alpha of this pack, of this militia, and he did not need anyone, let alone Buck, questioning his strength. Still, the patter of paws drew Duke’s ire away from Buck and to a diamond dog that had just come racing up from the forest.

“We’ve spotted the princesses.” The short haired mutt said as he knelt down in front of Duke.

“Where!? Where are they?”

“The guards and the small filly and dragon have reached a crystal train and are now going down the tracks to the pony town. We then saw the purple princess pushing a cloud across the sky in the same direction. If neither group changes direction or speed, they should cross paths near the bridge.”

Duke smiled and turned to look in the direction of the bridge, visible just barely through the tree tops. It was the final crossing the ponies’ trains had to make before beginning their final descent towards the pony lumber town. The bridge itself was not very long, but it was tall. It crossed over a deep ridge, at the bottom of which was a waterfall fed lake. “Then we set our trap there. Get back on the princesses’ trails and alert me if anything changes.” He turned back, raising his voice to bark at the column of dogs. “The rest of you, into the tunnels! We move on the bridge!”

~~~

Discord surveyed his game table as he crunched on a filly scout cookie, the first one from the first box of the oodles he had ordered. Things were progressing nicely, he could see all his little pieces moving and dancing. It was not his most choreographed work. Maintaining control beyond the initial rock slide and some of the initial encounters was a fool's errand.

Yes, he could’ve used a bit of chaotic magic and mind control to make everyone his dancing puppets, but that avenue of action was far from ideal. For one, the chaotic nature of free will was making things even more fun. The other reason was a bit more… self-preserving. At that moment, Twilight's friends would defend him, to a degree, from what was surely going to be a positively livid pair of princesses. If he started taking away free will, then that safety net went out the window.

Discord reached into his ear and pulled out a pocket watch, clicking open the lid a moment and checking the time within. He then snapped the lid shut and gave the chain a yank, causing the watch to snap back into his ear like it was on a spring. He moved the groups of pieces together, three sets converging on a small icon of a bridge that was drawn onto the map. “It’s not going to be enough.”

Rapping the talons of his eagle claw on the table, Discord took another bite of his Mint Mountain cookie as he surveyed the map. “The Diamond Dogs will slow them down again, but that won’t stop them or that crystal choo-choo. They’ll get through, blow right past Lumberton, and head for the empire. Twilight won’t find the spell she’s looking for, and will head home in a huff a few days too early.”

Reaching for the set of pieces that represented the group with Nyx and Spike, he picked up a small locomotive statuette. “This thing has to go, but how?” Discord asked himself, like an artist unsure how to finish a painting. He began doing lazy loops in the air, popping different things in and out of existence as his mind wandered the possibilities.

“Should I have the train break down? No, too pedestrian. Could I trust the diamond dogs to disable it? No, they’ve proven to be anything but reliable as antagonists. Though that is part of the reason why I lured them to the location of the rock slide. Hmmm, maybe I could send them all to a fantasy world of candy where they have to save a vegetable princess. No, Cadance would probably just eat it all.”

"What to do, what to do, what to do?" Discord looked at all his pieces. He had heroes, he had enemies, he had neutrals, and he had a stage. It was a delightful casserole of chaos, but he was missing one ingredient. One final choice, on his behalf, that would make or break the distraction he had so caringly set in motion.

Like a flower blossoming in gentle light of sunrise, Discord's lips formed into smile. With a snap of his claw, he created one final game piece, and delicately placed it on the board. He placed it on the lake which was beneath a bridge the train had to cross. Discord’s placement was ginger, as if adding a garnish to perfect a plate of food before it was served. He then floated back a bit, admiring the gameboard from a distance as his mind played out the many possible outcomes.

Discord brought his eagle claw to his lips, placed a small kiss on his talons, and then tossed his claw out as if spreading the blown kiss to the wind. “Perfect,” he said as he enacted his magic on the mountains of the Rainbow Range a final time. The stage was set, the players were taking their positions, and now only one thing remained.

He just had to sit back with a box of filly scout cookies, enjoy the show, and see if Twilight noticed his little homage to their friendship.

~~~

“Twilight!”

The shout of familiar, but unexpected voices, roused Shining Armor from his slumber. He raised his head, feeling Cadance stir as well. The warm light of morning filtered through the cloud’s fluff, and he felt them come to a stop before hearing the slap of hooves landing on stone. The clatter of galloping legs, both large and small, was soon met by sounds of laughter and Twilight's voice speaking with relief and laughter. “I was so worried.”

With a gentle touch of his horn’s magic, Shining pushed back part of the clouds and saw the source of all the noise. Their cloud was an inch above solid ground, hovering lazily near the edge of a deep but narrow gorge. A short bridge spanned the gap, providing a safe crossing for the train tracks that wound along the mountain side. A waterfall spilled down the nearby ridge, passing by the bridge and tumbling down to a sparkling lake far below. On the railroad tracks, Shining saw a parked crystalline locomotive, and from its cabin several familiar faces of the crystal guard were rushing towards him.

“Prince Armor, sir! We’re so relieved you’re okay,” Flash Sentry said as he, Lapis Lance, Gem Shield, and Ardent quickly moved to the side of the cloud. “Is Princess Cadance with you as well?”

“Yes, we’re all safe,” he assured, looking back as Cadance poked her head out of the cloud. She was groggy, moving sluggishly as sleep’s lingering grip was slow to release her. She stifled a yawn, and kneaded at the cloud trying to find a good hoofing. Without a word, Shining offered his hoof, and Cadance took it with a smile. He helped her down, his wife giving him a quick kiss before looking over at the guards.

The pleasant, well rested smile on Cadance’s fell away. “What took you all so long?”

The four guards winced, but then quickly fell into line. They saluted, and Flash Sentry took a step forward. “We do apologize for the delay in your rescue, Your Highness.”

Shining’s eyes wandered a moment as Flash Sentry recounted the squad’s actions during their mission. He looked to Twilight, who was smothering Spike and Nyx with hugs and kisses. The two were now trying to squirm free of her embrace, all three of them giggling together. The sight made him smile, though his grin weakened a little when he saw two unfamiliar stallions lingering by the train.

“Who are they?” Shining asked once Flash Sentry had reached a pause in his report.

“They are the Flim Flam Brothers, Sir,” Flash answered. “They aided Princess Nyx as well as the Great and Honorable Spike the Brave and Glorious in their escape from the diamond dogs. We have not yet been able to get details from them on why they were in the mountains in the first place. They simply keep saying it is a long story.” Flash then paused, he and the other three guards tensing and lowering into aggressive stances.

Shining followed their intent gazes, and looked over his shoulder to see Biscuit and S43 were looking out the hole in the cloud. They now had their hooves up, looking a bit panicked in the face of the guards aggression. “Sir,” Ardent asked, “are these two prisoners you took during your daring escape? Do we need to arrest them?”

“No,” Shining said with a wave of his hoof. “They are... well, it’s a long story.” That turn of phrase made the guards’ ears twitch, and in turn made Shining chuckle before he stepped forward and clapped a hoof against Flash Sentry’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, I promise to tell the story on our way back. Is there enough room on that train for everyone?”

Flash nodded. “There should be sir. If not, we’ll take positions along the exterior and in the air.”

“Good stallion, let’s get everypony moving.”

“Yes, sir.”

Flash turned and moved over to Twilight, Nyx, and Spike, interrupting their moment and asking them to board the train. Twilight, from a distance, looked a bit surprised to see Flash, but nodded her head and began moving with Nyx and Spike towards the train. At the same time Ardent, Gem Shield, and Lapis Lance began escorting S43 and Biscuit towards the train as well. Despite Shining’s words, the three of them were still understandably cautious around the changeling and diamond dog.

“Well, this was an adventure,” Cadance said as she nuzzled up against Shining. “I don’t think I’ll be leaving our bedroom for a week. Think you can handle the empire without me for that long?”

“I don’t know. I was thinking about doing the same thing,” he said with a chuckle, planting a kiss on Cadance’s lips before the pair began to walk towards the train. He then glanced around, his mind scratching at an unexplained thought before he looked and shouted at Twilight. “Hey, where’s Maud?”

Twilight poked her head out from the train. “Oh, she lost Boulder and needed to go retrieve him.”

“Who’s Boulder?” Cadance asked as she stepped onto the train.

Twilight shrugged as she sat near the back of the locomotive’s cab with her wings wrapped around Spike and Nyx. “Maud’s pet rock.”

“She went back for a pet rock?”

Twilight nodded as Lapis Lance returned to his position at the controls. The locomotive gave a little lurch, its wheels once more turning as it began moving towards the bridge. Gem Shield and Ardent took positions on the step ladders on either side of the locomotive while Flash Sentry stood on the roof, ready to take off when the train gained momentum. The mood was high. Everyone had a smile on their face. Twilight was happy to see Nyx and Spike again, explaining to Cadance what had happened to Maud. Flim and Flam were speaking to Gem Shield, finally beginning their long story about how they had saved a princess and very important dragon. Shining himself stood next to one of the locomotive’s windows, starting to feel the mountain air in his mane.

It looked like their crazy little adventure was finally over.

Then came the shift. A sudden and abrupt tilt to the right sent several of the locomotive’s occupants stumbling to one side. Lapis Lance slammed on the brakes, halting the small bit of forward momentum they had managed to gain. “Is everyone alright?” Twilight asked, trying to shelter Spike and Nyx with her wings.

“Ponies! You will surrender now!”

Shining’s face fell, and he poked his head out the locomotive’s window. He looked forward, back, and then all around before drawing his head back into the cab. “It’s that diamond dog again. He’s got us surrounded. There’re dozens of dogs on both sides of the gorge, and there’s at least two dozen on the bridge beams below us. That jolt we felt, that was them digging out the anchors for the supports.”

“Is this what happened, Your Highness?” Flash asked. “When the train arrived at the empire, it showed signs it was attacked.”

“We don’t know for sure,” Shining answered with an irritated huff. “All we know is that we hit a rock slide or something and that’s what separated our car from the rest of the train. I don’t think these Diamond Dogs orchestrated the initial attack, but they’ve been very persistent in their attempts to take advantage of the situation.”

“Yes, that’s right!” The small diamond dog said, as if eager to please the ponies around him. “We did not cause rock slide. We just found the ponies, including the very thin and pretty pink princess. Yes, the very smart and powerful ponies who Biscuit hopes will figure a way out of this!” Biscuit rang his paws together, forcing a smile even though he seemed intent on cowering in a corner. “Duke would not be happy to find me here.”

Lapis Lance peeked out the window. “The rails of the tracks are still holding. If we could stabilize the right side of the bridge and level the tracks, I could try and hit the throttle and plow through those dogs.”

“I don’t know if I have that kind of magic in me right now,” Twilight said, bringing a hoof to her horn. “But, if it's the only way—”

Shining raised his hoof, placing it on his sister’s leg and lowering it down from her horn. “It’s not. You’ve saved the day enough already. You let your big brother handle this one.” He then motioned to the guards, years of training kicking into gear.

“Ponies! Did you hear me, ponies?” Duke shouted from outside the train. “We demand your surrender! You can’t escape!”

“If we don’t answer he’s going to figure out we’re up to something,” Shining cursed, glancing out the train as his attempts to formulate a plan with the other guards was interrupted. “We need someone to distract them. Does anyone have any ideas?” His gaze roamed between Nyx, Spike, Cadance, Biscuit, and S43, but none could provide an answer. That was when a pair of voices began to ring out into the crisp mountain air.

“Surrender is a very generic term, friend. Isn’t that right, brother of mine?”

“Indeed it is, brother. A surrender must be properly negotiated otherwise you risk the whole thing coming apart at the seams.”

Shining snuck a peek out the window again. The Flim Flam Brothers had climbed up onto the cab, standing on it proudly like they were on a stage. Duke, however, did not look happy to see the two brothers. He bore his teeth and pointed an accusing claw. “You are not princess ponies! Where are princess ponies?”

“Why, they are right below.” The group inside the engine’s cab could hear the rhythmic tapping of Flim’s hoof against the roof. “Yes, three fine examples of Equestrian female royalty are all contained in this, our glittering mode of transport. Why, I’d say they are wrapped up in the prettiest package a diamond dog like you could ever hope for.”

“Prettiest diamond dog present I’ve ever seen,” Flam said. “And let’s not forget about the prince. He’s no less royal, though a bit more aerodynamically challenged. But yes he, them, and everyone here could be all yours and more, after we’ve properly negotiated the terms of the surrender.”

“There are no terms.” Shining heard the clatter of a rock against the top of the train. “You surrender or we drop your train into the lake and fish you all out afterward.”

“Now now, we aren’t trying to say you aren’t negotiating from the position of strength at this present moment,” Flam said as he waved his hoof at the surrounding dogs. “Why, I’ve personally never seen such strength brought to a negotiation before.”

“A sentiment I can share, brother of mine,” Flim added with an enthusiastic swing of his forehoof. “Why, I doubt we have any cards left to play. We poor earth ponies are simply doomed, either to be taken by these ruffians or dropped from a dizzying height.”

“You’re not earth ponies!” Duke barked. “You ponies are stalling! You’re using magic! Take out the bridge!”

The sound of splintering wood sliced through the air. Some of the dogs below dug out the last crumbs of rock still supporting the bridges weight. With a rip, the supports began to pull themselves apart under the weight of the crystal locomotive. “Everyone out!” Shining shouted, forming a half sphere of magic next to the cab. In a single panicked movement every passenger of the locomotive bailed out, nearly collapsing into Shining’s waiting magic.

Shining quickly expanded his magic, enclosing the bubble into a full sphere as he stood on top. This protected the precious cargo below from the sticks and stones being hurled by the diamond dogs. He, however, was forced to try and maneuver on the smooth surface of his shield, ducking his head in different directions. Still, some of the stones and sticks struck him in the legs and on the sides, threatening to unseat him from the protective barrier.

It was then another shield spell took form, this one a familiar pink. Shining looked down and smiled, seeing Twilight flying up to join him on top of the barrier. “Don’t worry, Shining, I’ve got your back,” Twilight said, using her barrier spell to protect the two of them while Shining kept everyone else safe. “How long can you keep up your spell?”

“For a few hours, at least, thanks to that good night’s sleep,” he answered. “What about you?”

“I don’t think I can last that long,” Twilight admitted. “So let’s figure a way out of this. Think if I cast a levitation spell on everyone inside the bubble, we could roll your shield spell along the tracks down to Lumberton?”

A cascade of crashing sounds reached Shining’s ears, making him and Twilight glance down. Far below, the serenity of the mountain lake had been destroyed. The bridge, the rubble from the cliff, and the crystal locomotive impacted the lake like meteors from the sky. Great splashes of water were sent shooting into the air. A small island, in the center of the lake, was the hardest hit. Its delicate meadow flowers were crushed under the weight of the crystal locomotive, which shattered into thousands of pieces and embedded itself deep into the soft soil.

All was still on the lake for a moment after the impact, yet Shining and Twilight could not look away. The birds around the lake were scattering, taking to the sky in a chorus of panicked cries. A single great ripple then coursed across the water, starting at the center island and extending outward until it hit the banks of the lake. That first ripple was followed by another, and then by another. The lake’s surface was soon writhing like a pot of boiling water, and those vibrations were spreading out across the mountains.

Pine trees rustled, and the waterfall, which neighbored the collapsed bridge, shifted and splattered its water in rhythmic cascades. The diamond dogs fell to all fours, digging their claws into the ground while barking in panic at one another.

“What is going on?” Spike asked as he pressed his face against the interior of Shining’s protective bubble.

“Something’s down in the lake!” Cadance shouted, pointing her hoof to the island at the lake’s center. The rocky shores were stirring, stones tumbling as numerous white peaks rose out of the soil. The island itself began to sink, water flooding across its flowery meadow, enveloping the crystal locomotive and any lingering wreckage of the bridge. All of it disappeared beneath the waves as the tremors continued. Then, like a geyser erupting from the depths of the lake bed, something leapt into the air. It was a long serpent, its scales glittering like a cascade of rainbows. It had two serpent heads, one at each end of its body, and both were hissing, bearing long fangs as the creature’s powerful leap brought it closer and closer to where the bridge once stood.

“It’s an ouroboros!” Twilight shouted just before the snake reached Shining’s barrier. It bit down on the spherical shield, some of its teeth managing to pierce the magic. The backlash from his punctured shield made Shining grunt. He tried to plant his hooves and recast the spell, but as one head of the snake clung to the spell, the other head curled around.

“Look out!” Flash Sentry shouted, he and the other guards trying to prepare themselves to defend the royal family and all the civilians. But it was all for naught. The ouroboros’ second head snapped shut on Twilight and Shining, swallowing them and Twilight’s shield spell down in a single gulp. This caused Shining’s spell to pop, the sudden release of magic allowing the creature’s first head to snap shut on the rest of the ponies, all of them succumbing to the creature's gullet.

The last glimpse Shining had seen was Cadance looking up at him, reaching out for him as the jaws of the ouroboros closed around them. The glow of Twilight’s spell gave them some protection and light. They could feel the serpent tumbling back down to the lake from which it had sprung, and the muscles of the creature’s throat were slowly guiding the smooth, spherical shield deeper and deeper into the creature.

Shining’s mind was on the edge of panic, and he opened his mouth to call out in desperation for Cadance. But as he drew in the breath that would fuel his hopeless shouts, a sour taste filled the air. A gas began to seep into Twilight’s barrier, which was not meant to be airtight. He and Twilight coughed, their eyes growing heavy and their bodies numb.

Shining reached out for Twilight, with both hoof and magic, but he and the world began to fall away. His eyes slid shut to blackness, and there his mind remained for a moment before he saw something. In the distance, wrapped in darkness, was a door with light pouring through its seams. It was the only thing he could see, yet the sight of it alone filled him with dread.

Author's Note:

Still catching up from Bronycon. I plan to do a round up post like everyone else, but it may not happen until the weekend. Busy busy busy busy.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the chapter, and as usual, please point out typos you notice via PM.