• Published 26th Mar 2015
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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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You Hit a Rock

Author's Note:

4/3/2015
On this, the eve of Season 5, I do offer this next chapter of The Road Home, which represents the end of the stories first act. Now, come what may in Season 5, I will relish in the AU and grandfathering situation that I have created by managing to get the first three chapters of this story out before the faithful day.

Again, if typos are noticed, place report them via PM, and I wish you all a good day from Babscon 2015.

Also, for those who asking, my goal is to update this story biweekly, though chapters may on occasion come on a weekly basis if the real life is agreeable to me and those pre-reading/editing the story.

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan, JustAnotherTimeLord

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

Chapter 3

You Hit a Rock

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

“Come on, a pool would be so awesome!”

Rarity rolled her eyes as she, Fluttershy, and Rainbow Dash walked towards the crystal palace. Fluttershy had been helping her load a cart of supplies at Carousel Boutique when Rainbow flew in. At first she was being very helpful, even volunteering to pull the heavy cart. Yet, after several minutes of pleasantries, Rainbow’s true purpose came to light, a purpose Rarity shot down quickly.

“I am sorry, Rainbow Dash, but we’re remodeling a palace, not a playhouse. We can’t just add such a monstrosity.”

“It is not a monstrosity,” Rainbow argued, venting her frustration into the hitch of the cart as she worked to keep pace with her unburdened friends.

Using her magic, Rarity began to construct a floating model of Rainbow’s vision from little sticks and leaves she was picking up off the ground as they walked. “You want us to construct an gargantuan pool with no less than three water slides, a two-story diving board, a hot tub, an accompanying lazy river, and give it the capability to generate five foot waves.”

“Don’t forget the swim-up cider bar,” Rainbow said, an eager smile spreading on her face as she looked at the model.

“Rainbow? Rainbow!” Rarity’s brow furrowed. She released her magic, causing the model she assembled to scatter to the dirt and snapping Rainbow’s attention back to the conversation. “Rainbow Dash, it is a fine design for a water park, but it is highly inappropriate for a royal palace. I mean, maybe if Pinkie Pie was the one who became a princess I could see it working. One could expect her castle to be geared more towards such absurdity, but this is Twilight we’re talking about. She enjoys the simple and the practical. Don’t you remember how much she loved that dress I made for her birthday?”

“Well then what about the ballroom?” Rainbow asked. “If Twilight is so simple and practical, why the heck does she need something like that?”

“Because she is a princess. Whether she likes it or not, she is going to have to host parties from time to time, and a ballroom can serve multiple purposes. If you fill it with tables, then the ballroom can become a fine dining hall to greet a royal delegation. If you set up a string quartet, the room can play host to an elegant gala. Give it to Pinkie Pie, and we can all probably imagine the wild party she would be able to host.”

Fluttershy picked up her pace just a little, getting a single step ahead of Rarity so she could look past her to see Rainbow. “If it’s any consolation, I think adding a garden in the back is a lovely idea.”

“Yes, and it’s an idea I would love to pursue,” Rarity said, a smile of inspiration on her face. The smile, however, faded quickly. “Unfortunately, we can’t just start making changes to the grounds. The land where the palace grew was owned by the town. The mayor signed over the ownership to Twilight at Princess Celestia’s request, but we don’t know where the property lines are. If we just start building a garden willy-nilly—”

Rarity turned away from Fluttershy to look at Rainbow Dash. “—or if we break ground on a pool without knowing where the property ends or the town’s ordinances, we could cause a lot of trouble for ourselves, the mayor, and for Twilight. After all, not everypony in town is happy a second castle sprung up out of nowhere near Ponyville.”

“Yeah, yeah. I get it, no pool.” Rainbow Dash stuck out her tongue and blew a raspberry.

“I am sorry you are disappointed, but we can return to the idea of a garden and perhaps even a pool after we’ve finished the palace’s interior,” Rarity said as the trio turned onto the road that led straight to the castle’s front steps, where they could see Applejack sitting and waiting. “Besides, Applejack would never agree. She’d say we have enough work ahead of us getting the castle ready.”

Rainbow’s frown turned up, becoming the faintest smile. “No, she’d say ‘Have y’all lost yer minds, cause that idea is a few apples short of a bushel.’”

Fluttershy, Rarity, and Rainbow couldn’t help but snicker as they reached the steps of Twilight’s castle. They looked up at Applejack, who had gotten up from where she was sitting and had come down to meet them. “Rarity, are you a few apples short of a bushel? I thought I told you only to bring the essentials?”

Rainbow Dash couldn’t contain herself. Her snickering grew to full out laughter. She tucked in her legs, hanging from the wagon’s halter as she held her side.

“What’s so funny?”

“Oh, nothing,” Rarity said between a few chuckles of her own. “And I assure you, Applejack, I have brought only the essentials. I have all my designs, including the ones I did previously. You never know when some old work may provide new inspiration. I have paper, quills, ink, pencils, and design charcoal so I can flush out some of the details while everypony works on the broad strokes.”

Rarity pointed at a few bits and bobs that stuck out of the cart while Rainbow Dash unhitched herself and went over to Fluttershy, who was struggling not to join in the contagious laughter. Rarity spoke over all this, keeping Applejack’s attention on the cart. “I have some fabric samples so I can compare them to the crystalline color. I have my small work desk. A mare simply can’t do such delicate designs on the floor. I also must simply have shelving to hold my fabric samples as well. They can’t lay about and get dirty.”

“And what about your couch?” Applejack asked, pointing to the large, red cushioned piece of furniture.

“First, it is a chaise longue. It is not a couch. Second, this is major home remodeling. I imagine all of us will need someplace to faint at some point, or at the very least sit down.” Rarity’s horn began to glow, a levitation spell enveloping some of the lighter objects in the cart and carrying them towards the door. “Now, are we ready to get started? Are the volunteers already inside?”


“Nope, haven’t seen any other pony all morning,” Applejack said.

“But what about the ponies from the Crystal Empire?” Rainbow Dash asked as she wiped a tear from her eye, finally managing to calm her giggles. “They were going to take the next train and spend the night in Ponyville. They should be here by now.”

“Well, I haven’t seen ‘em.”

“Hey, girls, do you hear something?” Fluttershy asked, gingerly inserting herself into the conversation. With Rainbow’s laughter now gone, the quartet could hear something on the wind. It was subtle, but it was growing stronger with each passing second.

“It sounds like... singing,” Rainbow Dash said, her ears swiveling to try and discern where the noise was coming from.

Rarity nodded. “Yes, and I believe I also hear some instruments.”

“Singing... instruments... oh no.” Applejack walked past Rarity, focusing her eyes on the intersection at the far end of the road that lead to the palace’s front gate. The other three soon joined her, each looking on as the music grew louder. It had a strong, driving melody that was supported by the thumping of drums.

At the far intersection, a few ponies rounded the corner and came into the view. They were followed by others, marching and swaying and singing in time to the music. At first it was just a few, a dozen or so, but more and more ponies came into view. When there was no way to really count how many ponies were walking to the palace, the marching band the four mares heard at a distance came into view.

That band only marked the halfway point of the crowd.

At the middle of it all, bouncing and laughing, was Pinkie Pie. She waved one hoof ecstatically at her friends. The four of them could only force smiles and give weak little waves in return. “You said yesterday it was going to take an army,” Rarity said, her words directed at Applejack. “Well, it looks like Pinkie Pie got you your army.”

“Just get out some of that paper you brought,” Applejack replied. “We’re going to need to write names down.”

~~~

The rocky, pine-forested mountains of the Rainbow Range stood stalwart as the train rumbled northward towards the Crystal Empire. Its cars were filled with ponies of every shape and size. Some rode on the train for business, making just another trip to the empire. Others rode with great excitement and wonder. They watched the trees roll by the windows, their anticipation spiking each time they thought they saw a glimmering glimpse of their destination.

Those in the last car of the train found the ride a trip home with family. Cadance and Shining’s royal car had been hitched to the back of the morning express. The clicks and clacks of wheels on rails was barely audible within the walls of the car, and that was for the best.


For a great game of wits was unfolding within.

Nyx peeked over the rim of her glasses before quickly focusing her attention back on her magic. Two playing cards floated in her levitation spell, hiding her face away from the others at the table. The game had begun mysteriously in her eyes. Without words being spoken about why, they had purchased five bags of jelly beans from the train station’s snack shop before boarding. Then, the moment they were on the train, Spike produced a deck of cards from their luggage.

Now she, Twilight, Spike, Aunt Cadance, and Uncle Shining were locked in a battle of wits, luck, and bluffing. Playing cards, specifically Dodge Hold’em, was a tradition of the family to pass time on long train rides. It had started with Night Light, Velvet, and Shining, and grew to include Twilight and Spike when they were old enough to understand how to play. Cadance was drawn in the moment she started dating Shining, and now Nyx was the latest inductee.

“Raise,” Twilight said, tossing a few more jelly beans into the pile. Her winnings were substantial, the result of a system of rules and equations she had developed to beat her brother and father at their own game. Everyone else at the table had suffered varying degrees of loss. Shining had suffered the most, down to a few final beans, while everyone else had enough to go at least a few more rounds.

“Fold,” Cadance said before tossing her cards towards the discard pile. She would have likely been doing better, at least staying even with Twilight, if she hadn’t been nibbling on the occasional jelly bean here and there.

Spike played with a pair of sunglasses on, claiming they were importance to his strategy. It was nearly impossible to tell where he was looking, though it hadn’t saved him from losing to Twilight. Still, after inspecting his cards for a few moments, Spike counted out the correct amount of jelly beans and tossed them into the pot. “I’ll call.”

Shining threw the last of his beans in, tossing them away as if resigning himself to his fate of being the first out. That left Nyx in the hot seat. Did she call, fold, or raise? Sure, she understood the rules, but that wasn’t the part about the game that made it difficult. It was guessing what your opponents had.

“Ummmmm....” Nyx glanced up from her cards again, looking to the three cards that had been laid out over the course of the round. There was an ace, a king, and three other number cards resting face up before her. “I’ll... call.” She tossed the required number of beans onto the pile, which lead to final reveal.

Twilight laid out her cards, showing she had a pair of kings, which worked with the cards on the table to make a three of a kind with an ace high. At just the sight of those cards Spike tossed his to the discard pile and dropped his head to the table with a small thud.

Shining, in stark contrast to Spike, grinned at the sight. He turned over his two cards, revealing two aces. Twilight’s jaw dropped open while Shining wore a smug smile. His eyes moved to Nyx, still grinning as if what was to come was just a formality. “So, what do you have?”

Glancing down, Nyx double checked her two cards before laying them out on the table. At first, it seemed like nothing but garbage, two random low number cards. Shining even began to reach for his winnings, an impressive pile of jelly beans, but Twilight used her own magic to interfere with her brother’s levitation spell.

“Wait, look at her cards again.”

Shining did just that, and slowly his grin fell into a disbelieving “O” shape. Nyx’s two cards both bore the suit of hearts, joining three others that were resting on the table. “She has a flush!”

“She has a flush,” Twilight said, levitating the pile over to Nyx.

Nyx was wearing a huge grin, but it was less of victory and more of relief. She had remembered the rules correctly. A flush was stronger than a three of a kind. She used her magic to pull the pile of beans a bit closer, and quickly began sorting them into the flavors she liked and the ones she didn’t. She had been betting the ones she didn’t like first, since she assumed they’d get to eat the jelly beans once the game was over.

“Good job, Nyx,” Twilight praised before smiling over at Shining. “And bad luck, Shining. Pocket aces and you got beat by a flush.”

“Tell me about it,” Shining said, but he did so with a smile. He added his own cards to the discard pile before getting up from his seat, and got up from the table to stretch. “But you better be careful, Twilie. With that luck, Nyx may just unseat you as family card shark.”


“I’m not a card shark, Shining, despite what you may think,” Twilight said as she began to deal the next set of hoof.

“Yes, you're just an unassuming Princess of Friendship.” Cadance snuck one more of the jelly beans into her mouth and tucked it into a corner where she could let it slowly dissolve away. “Your humbleness just makes you a better card shark in my opinion.”

“I just have a proven strategy that ensures I take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. There is nothing wrong with that.”

“Ah, but there is something wrong. With your strategy, you don’t take risks.” Shining stood up from the table and moved behind Nyx. “If you had gotten Nyx’s hoof, you would have folded after betting the blind. The reason she won is because she stayed in and took the risk. I’d even bet she wins all the beans.”

Shining leaned into Nyx, grinning as he kept his eyes on Twilight. “Come on, Nyx. You can beat Twilight, right? Show her the risk takers can win against her stagnant strategy.”

Nyx glanced back and forth between her mother and her uncle, suddenly finding herself needing to pick a side. She then smiled, took off her glasses, and joined Shining in staring down Twilight using her true eyes. It was a sight that made Twilight giggle as she finished dealing the cards and picked up the two she had laid out in front of herself. “All right, Nyx, just don’t be disappointed if Shining’s strategy—”

A clatter across the top of the roof, like a heavy hail, drowned out Twilight’s words. It was followed by a sensation of deceleration as the royal train car slowed down. Nyx rolled back onto her cushion, unable to catch herself while the jelly beans slipped off the table and scattered to the floor. The car then abruptly stopped, everypony and everything inside getting jostled forward as the loud pang of the impact assaulted their ears.

“Is everypony okay?” Twilight asked once everything had settled down and she was able to get her bearings.

Moans and groans of assurance came from everypony. Nyx sat up in her cushion at the table, a few of the jelly beans lingering in her mane. Shining recovered just as quickly, and rushed to Cadance’s side. She reassured him with a wave of one forehoof while she used the other to cradle her gravid belly.

“What happened?” Nyx asked. She looked around for her glasses, only to find that they had slid off the table and gotten smashed under Shining’s hoof.

Spike, who had clung to the table during the chaos, quickly got up from his seat and towards the couch that stood beneath one of the car’s windows. He climbed up onto it, opened the window, and stuck his head outside. “We hit a boulder,” he shouted back inside.

“The train hit a boulder!?” Twilight asked as she began to clean up the mess, gathering the playing cards and putting them back in their sleeve. “Was there a rock slide?”

Pulling his head back in through the window, Spike looked to Twilight. “No and yes.”

“What do you mean?”

“It looks like there was a rock slide,” Spike said. “But the train didn’t hit it.”

“Then why did we stop?” Cadance asked.

“Because we did hit it.”

Twilight frowned, her eyebrows arching as she moved over to Spike. “You're not making any sense.”

Spike hopped down from the chair and moved to the door. He opened it, stepped outside, and motioned for somepony to follow. Twilight and Nyx did, following Spike as he lead the pair a few steps away from the train before turning and pointing. “It doesn’t make much sense to me either, but it’s hard to argue with that.”

Nyx and Twilight turned, their eyes following Spike’s pointed claw until they were looking at the front of the car. There, the obvious results of a rock slide laid before them. The train had been chugging beside a low cliff face. The tracks and the surrounding area were littered with small rocks, and a single large boulder sat directly in the way. The royal car had slammed right into the rocks, yet the rest of the train was gone, as if only their car had been struck by the calamity.

“H-how is this possible?” Twilight asked, her eyes scanning the area for some sensible explanation.

“You hit a rock.”

Twilight, Spike, and Nyx all turned, looking to the voice that Twilight found all to familiar. A mare was navigating her way down the crumbled cliff face, hopping from rock to rock with the agility of a mountain goat. She then landed on the grass, looking at Twilight with an emotionally flat face and speaking with even flatter tones.

“It is a sedimentary rock,” Maud Pie said.

~~~

“Oh, and we can’t forget all those crystal ponies. I didn’t recruit them, but Rainbow Dash must have really inspired them when she went to the empire. They all seem super excited to help.” Pinkie Pie beamed. She and her friends had retreated into the castle, leaving the volunteers outside to mingle and recover from marching all across Ponyville.

“Honestly, it wasn’t that hard.” Rainbow sat at the table Discord had made appear the previous day. The tea-party patterned table cloth and place-settings had vanished, leaving only the cushions and the table. Rainbow turned and looked down at her cushion, punching it with a hoof a few times as she continued to speak. “I just had to mention how they’d be helping the Brave and Glorious Spike. After that, the whole empire seemed ready to come down to Ponyville.”

Fluttershy peeked out the nearest window, looking at the sea of ponies outside. “There are so many. I hope we don’t have to turn any away. Some of them came so far, it would be rude to tell them they couldn’t help.”

“I’ll try my best to not do that.” Applejack looked over a list of all the volunteers, one Rarity had written up after listening to Pinkie Pie ramble off where she had found the ponies and how many there were. “Honestly, this kind of turnout gives me hope we’ll actually be able to pull this off. With this many ponies, we’ll even be able to run in shifts. There won’t be an hour in the day when somepony ain’t working on this castle.”

Rarity smiled and nodded as she tucked away her writing supplies. “That’s wonderful to hear, Applejack, but even with shifts, there are too many ponies for you to organize all on your own. We all know your work tends to suffer a little if you push yourself too hard. Also, I’ll admit, I wouldn’t mind taking a few volunteers help me flesh out the interior design.”

“I was thinking just about the same thing,” Applejack said. “I’ve got to be focusing on the renovations, but there’s a lot of other stuff that will need to be done, especially now that we have so many volunteers. The first thing we need to worry about is housing.”

“What, like building houses?” Rainbow asked.

Applejack shook her head. “No, what I mean is food, water, and beds. A lot of those volunteers came from out of town, and there aren’t enough spare rooms in Ponyville to hold them all. We need a place where everypony can go when they’re not working. We also need to think about feeding this army. Ponies can’t work on an empty stomach.”

“But where could we put so many ponies?” Fluttershy asked. She was still looking out the window, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible as she just looked at all the ponies outside. She seemed uneasy at her hooves just looking at the crowd.

“What about if we put them in tents behind the castle?” Rarity asked, speaking the idea gingerly as if it was not fully formed. “It could be something of a big campsite.”

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea if we had a few hundred tents on hoof,” Applejack said, “but unless you’ve got a secret stash someplace, I don’t think that’s going to work.”

“Oh! Oh! I have an idea!” Pinkie Pie bounced in her seat and waved her hoof above her head, like a student eagerly wanting to be chosen by the teacher. A role that was left up to Applejack.

“What you got, Pinkie?”

“Well, we need a big building with lots of empty space. A building where we can feed an army and that’s kind of close by. Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can only think of one place that fits the bill. It’s big, it’s made of stone, and Twilight wants to turn it into a school.”

“Of course, Night Stone Castle.” Rarity got up from the table and moved over beside Fluttershy, looking out the window. Her vision, however, didn’t linger on the crowd. Instead she looked to the far side of Ponyville, to the quarries where she would occasionally go hunting for gems. The seat of Nyx’s throne during her brief weeks as Equestria’s queen, Night Stone Castle stood in the same place it had for the past year.

“Half of Ponyville stayed in that castle while we were rebuilding the town after the monster attack,” Rarity said, her smile growing as the idea took root in her head. “It easily has enough space for all the volunteers. We’ll just have to ask the mayor if we can borrow it for a week.”

“That’s good thinking, Pinkie,” Applejack complimented. “I don’t suppose you’d be up for taking some of our volunteers and making sure everypony’s somewhat comfortable?”

Pinkie Pie smiled and brought one of her forehooves up in salute. “Admiral Applejack, under my command, the Hospitality Platoon will keep that castle ship shape. Every pony will have a bed and three square meals, and we’ll have nightly parties to keep morale high. It will be one of my longest deployments as Ponyville’s Party Planner, but I won’t let you down. Just give me a few dozen soldiers, and I’ll handle the rest.”

Applejack nodded, smiling at Pinkie’s enthusiasm. “Take as many as you think you’ll need, and the same goes for you, Rarity.”

“What about me and Fluttershy? How can we help?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“If you don’t mind, Fluttershy, I’d like to have your expertise on the design team,” Rarity said. “You do have a wonderful knowledge of sewing, and your cottage has a very warm, homey feel that I would love to try and replicate in certain parts of the palace.”

Fluttershy smiled and came away from the window. “I think I’d like that very much.”

“As for you, Rainbow, I need to talk with the crystal ponies first about what it takes to build crystal walls. Since I bet it takes more than sweet words and a song, we’re going to need somepony to organize a delivery team. They’ll be the ones making sure we have the supplies we need. Think you can put together a team like that?”

“You bet I can,” Rainbow said. She swung her forehoof, intending to slam it down against the table for emphasis. The table, however, gave way under the blow. A large chunk broke off, sending Rainbow crashing to the floor with a noticeable thud.

“Oh my goodness.” Fluttershy jumped out of her seat, flew over the table, and landed beside Rainbow. “What happened?”

“I believe this is why Discord said he wouldn’t be of much help to us,” Rarity said, picking up the chunk of the table that had been broken away. Though it was not visible from the exterior, the wood of the table had become filled with small air pockets, making it brittle. With just a small application of magic, Rarity was able to break the small chunk of wood in half. “It seems his table from yesterday has been... what’s the best word for it... dissolving? Yes, it has been slowly dissolving in the presence of the palace’s natural magic. ”

Rainbow picked herself up off the floor, trying to rub away a sore spot on her foreleg. “Where is Discord anyway? I thought you wanted him to tell us how his distraction was going each morning?”

“He did tell me,” Applejack said, pointing to a bit of her mane. There, a small corner of folded paper pushed into view. The origami pony from the previous day wiggled and squirmed out of its hiding place. “That thing started talking while I was waiting for the rest of y’all to get here. It said that Twilight and her family got on a train for the Crystal Empire this morning, and that Discord was going to make sure the trip there was going to be a long one.”

“What does he mean by that?” Rainbow asked.

“He’ll probably do something like replace all the coal on the train with brownies or something.”

“Aw, that sounds delicious!” Pinkie Pie said, frowning a little as if she was missing out on something amazing.

~~~

“One more time, please, from the beginning,” Twilight said, rubbing her forehead. She and Maud were standing near the front of the wrecked royal train car. The rest of her family were resting a few feet away from the tracks, eating lunch while using the bedspread from the car as a picnic blanket. Twilight was pretty hungry herself, but first she simply needed to properly understand how they ended up in their predicament.

“There was a rock slide. It started with smaller rocks. Those rocks hit the top of the train. I think one must have broken the coupling between your car and the rest of the train. Some of the small rocks also got caught in the wheels. They made your car slow down after it got uncoupled. Then the big rocks fell, and your car crashed into them.” Maud explained it all in a very factual manner, as if it was something that occurred every other day.

“But how did the rocks fall?”

“They fell like rocks.”

Twilight groaned, shaking her head. “No, what I mean is, how did the rock slide start?”

“Oh, I think that was me.” Maud reached into her dress, pulling out a small chunk of jagged, glassy black rock with a subtle green shine. “I was surveying the rocks on top of the cliff when I found this. It’s a piece of obsidian.”

Twilight levitated the small, jagged stone in her magic, turning it over a few times before depositing it back in Maud’s hoof. “And why does finding this make you think you caused the rock slide?”

“Everything started after I pulled it out of the ground.” Maud slipped the piece of obsidian back into the same pocket where she kept Boulder. “It’s strange. The cliff didn’t look like it was unstable. Obsidian isn’t common to this region either. Still, rocks are very mysterious. They hold the world’s secrets in their sediments.”

Twilight rubbed the bridge of her nose with a hoof, still not understanding how a huge chunk of cliff could fall by pulling a shard of obsidian out of the ground. Still, Maud had explained what happened the same way three times now. Twilight doubted she was going to get more information, so it was time to change topics. “What are you doing all the way out here in the Rainbow Range anyway? Is it part of your rocktorate research trip?”

“I’m studying the local geology to see if it explains why the trees here burn in so many different colors. It is for my thesis.” Maud used her hoof to scoop up a small bit of dirt, rolling it around before slipping the sample into her other pocket. “So far, the results have been very exciting,” she said with the same enthusiasm she used to express her poetry.

Which, to Twilight, looked to be almost none at all.

“Well, at the very least nopony was hurt,” Twilight said as she turned and walked back towards her family. Maud followed in her wake, and soon the pair sat down to join the picnic lunch already in progress.

“So, how bad is it?” Cadance asked before taking another bite of her sandwich. All the food had been prepared by Night Light and Velvet, a travel lunch for them all to enjoy instead of buying food at the train station.

“Once we get rid of the rocks, everything should be fine. I think we just have to wait for the train to come back. I mean, they’re bound to notice the royal car is missing sooner or later. We might even get lucky. Another train could come along and give us a ride.”

“I doubt that will happen,” Maud said. She took Boulder out of her pocket and set him down near one of the sandwiches before taking a bite from one of the few pears that had been packed with the lunch.

“Why’s that?” Nyx asked.

“The twelve train is the only one that uses these tracks. It stops at Lumberton before going to the empire.” Maud took another bite from the pear, chewed it, and swallowed before continuing. “The other trains take the newer tracks on the west side of the mountain. It’s faster.”

“And the number twelve only runs once a week,” Shining said as he rubbed his forehead. “There were petitioners from Lumberton in the Crystal Empire earlier this summer. They wanted us to change the train schedule so the number twelve would run more frequently. I’m suddenly wishing we had agreed to the request.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure the train will be back to pick us up before we know it,” Twilight assured, words that made Cadance smile approvingly at her sister-in-law.

“That’s very calm and collected of you Twilight. I’m surprised you aren’t panicking a bit more.”

“Well, I did just have to deal with a magic consuming centaur. This rock slide kind of pales in comparison to that,” Twilight said as she wrapped one of the sandwiches in a levitation spell and brought it close to her mouth. “Besides, I’m sure your royal guards will be back to pick us up in no time.”

~~~

Flash Sentry walked with his small squad of four towards the train station. It was a bright, beautiful day in the Crystal Empire. Just about every gem was gleaming beneath a clear blue sky, and there was a smile on almost every face. It was the kind of day that gave the Crystal Heart an extra kick of power, which in turn made everypony feel even better. The squad was pulling the royal carriage, their mission simply to pick up Shining Armor and Princess Cadance from the train station.

“It will be nice to have the Princess and Prince back in the empire.”

Flash nodded, though he kept his eyes on the road instead of looking at his squad-mate, Lapis Lance. “Yes, it will. The whole empire brightened up when we got word yesterday they’d be returning.”

“You know what I heard? Princess Twilight and her family might be coming with them.”

“Where did you hear that?” Flash asked as they passed beneath the crystalline archway that marked the edge of the empire. They were very close to the train station now, and as they hoped, it looked like the train hadn’t arrived yet.

“I heard it from a messenger pegasus from Canterlot,” Lapis Lance answered. He was hitched just to Flash’s right while their other two squad members, Gem Shield and Ardent, were behind them. “She was flying out here with some royal letters from Princess Celestia when she flew over the train station there. She said she saw Princess Twilight, Spike the Brave and Glorious, as well as Nyx boarding the royal train car with Prince Armor and Princess Cadance.”

“I wish you had told us that sooner. My colt would be so disappointed if he heard I met the Great and Honorable Spike, the Brave and Glorious and didn’t get his autograph.” Ardent cursed under his breath. “Maybe I can pick up something from the train station gift shop and have him sign that?”

Flash shook his head as the squad reached the front of the station and began to unhitch themselves from the royal chariot. “I still don’t understand why all of you worship Spike like that. I'm not saying he didn't play a big role in Sombra's defeat, but he wouldn't have been able to deliver the Crystal Heart to Cadance if Twilight hadn’t found it.”

“Yes, but Spike the Brave and Glorious ran headlong into King Sombra’s assault,” Ardent said, a smile growing on his face. “I was standing in the crowd that day. He leapt and bound across the growing black crystal. I’d almost compare it to an ice skater gracefully gliding across a pond. He dipped and dove, zigged and zagged. He did it all to bring back our precious relic. But oh, then the tragedy when he slipped. When he went tumbling down towards King Sombra, who was rising like a dark tidal wave to meet him. But even then, when faced with what looked to be certain doom, Spike was reaching for the Crystal Heart. Sombra would only take the Crystal Heart if he pulled it from the Great and Honorable Spike’s cold, dead claws.”

“I guess you just had to be there,” Flash said before turning his head to the sound of a train whistle. He and his fellow guards had reached the station’s platform, and now watched with other onlookers as the train came rumbling into the station. But as the train slowed to a stop, a pang of panic began to grow in the pit of Flash Sentry’s stomach. “Where’s the royal car?”

“Could we have the wrong train?” Gem Shield asked.

“No,” Lapis Lance answered. “They were supposed to be on the number twelve from Canterlot. This is the number twelve from Canterlot. The royal car should be attached to it.”

“Maybe something happened to change the plan?”

Flash shook his head. “No, that pegasus messenger said she saw them getting on the train. Something’s wrong. We need to talk to the conductor. Does anypony see her?”

Gem Shield raised a hoof and pointed towards the front of the train. “She’s over there.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, the four guards rushed over to the conductor, who was helping some passengers disembark the train. The stomping of hooves made the crystal mare turn around, but the momentary panic calmed when she saw who it was. “Oh, good afternoon, is there something I can help you with?”

“Where’s the royal car?” Ardent asked.

She laughed a little. “Why, it’s at the back of the train. It was the last car we hitched.”

“No, it isn’t.”

The conductor looked at them a bit confused, then took a few steps away from the train so she could see down it’s length. The color and glimmer of her crystal coat noticeably faded when the dreadful realization hit her. “I... it should be there.”

“Where are the guards that were supposed to be accompanying the Princesses and Prince?” Flash asked.

“In the last baggage car, at the end of the train. We cleared out a little space for them so they could be as close to the royal car as possible.”

That was all the direction Flash needed. He turned and galloped towards the end of the train, his squad and the conductor following in his wake. The other ponies on the platform were growing curious, and looking on while whispering to one another. Flash and the other guards, however, took no notice of them and rushed inside the last baggage car.

There, they found their fellow soldiers sprawled out on the floor. There were holes in the ceiling of the wooden car, and the floor was littered with small stones. Ardent rushed ahead of the rest of the squad, bending over and checking the life signs of their comrades. “They’re still alive, but they’re out cold.”

“Were they attacked?” Gem Shield asked as he moved beneath the holes in the ceiling. “Were Princess Cadance and Prince Armor kidnapped?”

“Kidnapped? The crystal princess was... kidnapped, on my train.” The conductor’s colors had faded so much, you’d think she was staring down King Sombra. Her breathing was labored, and she was uneasy on her hooves. Flash could tell what was going to happen, but before he could turn to calm the mare she was gone. She was out the door of the baggage car, screaming at the top of her lungs for everypony in the train station to hear. “The crystal princess has been kidnapped!”

“Gem Shield, you have a big mouth sometimes,” Flash snapped as he began to trot to the door. “You three stay here and try to wake these ponies up. I’ve got to fly back to the palace and tell Commander Quartz what happened before we have a mass panic on our hooves.”

Gem Shield, Lapis Lance, and Ardent all nodded, and quickly encircled their fallen comrades while Flash Sentry spread his wings and took flight. This was a rare moment where he was thankful that the majority of crystal ponies didn’t have wings. He could get ahead of the panic that was stirring up at the train station and, with the rest of the empire’s royal guard, hopefully stop a public panic.

Because if a panic started, then the Crystal Heart’s effects would weaken. If that happened, then the crystal ponies would panic even more, and before they knew it, half the empire would descend into mass hysteria. It was a cycle of emotion, one that worked to the empire’s benefit when everypony was feeling good. But in a situation like this, trying to stop the panic from spreading was like trying to stop a dam from breaking.

They had to stop the flood before it could get started.

~~~

Near the highest peak of the Rainbow Range, a single seedling danced on the mountain winds. It turned and swirled, flitting up and down in the air before finally coming to a delicate landing on the very tip of the peak. There it lingered, just a moment, before it sprouted. The small tendrils of life grew quickly, splitting the stone of the mountain to form roots. The green plant grew brown and became sheathed in bark, as if a tree was intending to conquer the mountain with its mere presence.

Yet no tree grew from the seedling. Instead, the roots and wood formed into a table. Large, square, and varnished with a deep, warm color, the table took shape as a familiar creature came riding closer on a scooter formed from a flock of ducks.

Discord brought the scooter to a stop and stepped off, and the moment he let go the ducks were freed from his magic and went honking off in a panic. Discord, however, paid them no mind as he slumped off a shoulder bag and began to rummage around the interior.

“Let’s see, what do I need first? Oh, but of course: the map.” He tossed a carefully folded piece of paper over his shoulder while continuing to rummage in the bag. The paper landed on the table, and immediately began to unfold across the finely polished surface. Inch by inch it revealed itself to be a detailed map of the Rainbow Range, with the highest peak as the central landmark.

“Ah, here it is.” Discord withdrew a small cloth sack from his bag, and opened it gingerly before placing its contents on the table. One by one, little pony figurines took their place on the map, each one appearing to be lovingly carved and painted. The ponies they depicted were ones that Discord knew quite well, even if he had taken some liberties in their likeness.

“We have Shining Armor, the Crystal Paladin,” Discord said as he placed the first statue, which depicted Shining Armor in a full suit of plate mail and sporting the Crystal Empire flag. He then set down a figuring resembling Twilight in long, bright-blue wizard robes and a beard with the same coloring as her mane. “Oh, and our very experienced Wizard, Twilight Sparkle.”

Discord withdrew another carving, turning it around in his claw as he snickered. It showed Cadance with a very regal dress. She was laying out across the couch, looking even more pregnant than she really was. “We have our Pregnant Princess. Not really a playable class, but some ponies just don’t know how to prepare for an adventure.

“And of course, we can’t forget about our low level tag alongs. I made new character sheets just for you.” Discord set out two more statues. One was of Spike, dressed with the froofy costume he wore for Hearth’s Warming and carrying a guitar. The other was Nyx, who was in dark red robes that looked to be a few sizes two big. “Spike the Bard, a raiser of spirits and occasional hero of the journey. Then there is Nyx, our warlock. Yes, I know dear, you're not the evil type anymore, but the group already has a wizard. Besides, at your level you’re just tagging along to soak up experience.”

Discord turned over the fabric sack, emptying its remaining contents onto the table just off the edge of the map. There were numerous other figurines of different creatures, ranging from the cute and harmless to the horrifying and deadly. There were also numerous dice with differing side counts, including one that, to the naked eye, looked perfectly spherical.

“Oh, I do love using my special skills to help a friend in need, and being allowed to have such fun at the same time is an added benefit. Still, what kind of Master of the Universe would I be if I left the players of my little game sitting on their rumps in the forest?” Discord picked up the spherical die, rolling it around in his paw a moment before dropping it on the table.

“So, after being cut off from the rest of the train by a rock slide, your party encounters—” Discord paused, watching as the sphere rolled to a stop on the map. He then leaned in with a magnifying glass, revealing the sphere was actually a die with tens of thousands of sides. He managed to focus in on the number that was on the highest point of the die, and he couldn’t help but smile as he leaned back.

“Oh, Twilight, you and your family are going to have fun with this one,” Discord said. He set the magnifying glass down and, from his pile of creature statues, began to set a dozen similar looking creatures all around the five figurines that represented his little adventurers.

“Let the game begin!”