• Published 26th Mar 2015
  • 19,649 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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Dogs' Gambit

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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Chapter 4

Dogs' Gambit

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

“I think... I think I’ve... got... it... ” A resounding clank emanated from beneath the royal train car, and Twilight’s harsh shout followed soon after. “Ow!”

Twilight levitated herself out from beneath the train car, rubbing her head while carrying a hunk of crystal in her magic. Her body was covered in dust and miniscule fragments of gems, and her brow was furrowed in frustration. “Why does everything in the crystal empire have to be made out of crystal? I mean, really? What’s wrong with metal?”

“The Crystal Empire isn’t exactly filled with ore mines and smelters, and the empire’s crystal can be stronger than metal,” Shining said as Twilight walked towards him.

He and Nyx were laying on the improvised picnic blanket. The filly had been distracting herself with a game of solitaire with their deck of cards, though it was an exercise in futility. They had lost four cards from the deck when they hit the rock slide. Cadance was trying to nap under the shade of nearby trees, though her frequent tossing and turning made it evident she was struggling to stay comfortable. Spike was having no such issue. He was sprawled out in the sun, snoozing away with his gambling sunglasses on. Maud was the only other pony up and about, inspecting and breaking apart the rocks that fell from the cliff side in an effort to clear the tracks.

“Sure, but that doesn’t do us any good if I can’t fix it,” Twilight said as she glared at the bit of crystal that had snapped loose from the bottom of the train car. “The brakes are still locked up after the rock slide, and now I’ve broken this off. I don’t even know what this is.”

“Twilight, remember that trick Cadance taught you.”

Twilight puffed out her cheeks, but she took Shining’s advice all the same. She took in a deep breath and breathed it out while her forehoof followed the common gesture Cadance had taught her. She did this twice, and then rolled her shoulders. “Okay, okay... I’m calmed down.”

“Are you sure?” Shining asked as he watched Twilight plop down on the opposite side of the picnic blanket.

Twilight nodded, setting the broken hunk of crystal down and looking to the western horizon. “It’s starting to get dark.”

Nyx looked up from the cards, having once more come to a spot where the missing three of clubs had doomed her to losing the game. “I’m starting to get hungry, too. Uncle Shining, I thought you said the guards would come find us a long time ago.”

“I know I did, and they should have been here by now. I’m starting to think something happened.”

“Like what?” Twilight asked.

“I don’t know, but I wonder if that rock slide was really an accident.” Shining slowly got to his hooves, stretching his legs and shaking his head before looking back down at Twilight. “We should figure out how to get back to the empire on our own. At the very least we should start a fire and figure how where we’re going to sleep tonight before it gets too dark.”

“Couldn’t we stay in the train car?” Nyx asked as she began to collect and stack the playing cards.

Shining laughed a little, nodding his head. “Yeah, the car would work for tonight, which means the only thing we need to worry about is fire and food.”

“You mean firewood and food.” Twilight lifted a hoof and pointed to her left. “Don’t forget, we have a fire breathing dragon with us.”


“So we’re basically going to be camping.” Nyx looked Shining down a moment, then began to smile as excitement built in her body. “Oh, can we tell stories around the campfire. When my friends went camping with their big sisters and Rainbow Dash, they say they told stories. Oh, and can I go get the firewood? Please?”

Shining glanced at his sister with a smirk before focusing his attention back on Nyx. “Sure, just go grab Spike. When you’re camping, you should never go off into the forest alone and you should never get too far away from camp.”

Nyx nodded, and quickly scampered off to wake Spike from his nap. As she did that, Shining looked back to Twilight. “Why didn’t you take Nyx along on this camping trip with her friends?”

“She and I were watching a comet through my telescope that night. We didn’t even know all my friends and her friends had gone off until they had already come back. But don’t you worry. Though camping was never my favorite thing, she, Spike, and I will be going along on the next trip sometime in spring.”

“Just don’t take any books with you,” Shining said with a playful, knowing smile. “The few times we went camping with Dad, you always spent more time reading than you did anything else.”

“Hey, I was reading nature books.” Twilight and Shining smiled at the memory, but then their faces fell as they faced the reality of the situation. “So, do you really think this could have been planned?”

“The guards should have found us by now. Since they haven’t, we have to assume the worst: that it might be days before they get here. Normally, I’d be okay with roughing it for a little while, but...” Shining fell quiet a moment and looked over his shoulder at his wife. “I’m worried about Cadance and the foal. After everything she’s been through, I don’t think camping out in the middle of the forest is something the doctor would recommend.”

Twilight nodded as her eyes wandered to Spike, who was yawning and stretching as he and Nyx headed into the forest. “I’m worried about the fact Celestia hasn’t responded to the letter I sent her. She could have flown out here with a chariot to rescue us by now. If this was planned, I’d hate to think that whoever was doing this was able to intercept my message.” Twilight looked back to Shining. “So what’s the plan?"

“We could go to Lumberton.”

Shining and Twilight jumped, and quickly turned their heads to see Maud. She had crept up behind them while they had been focusing on one another and Cadance, as silent as a stone. Still, Maud paid little mind to the scare she had given to the pair. She glanced down at the dirt a moment, dug a little in it with her hoof, and when her curiosity about it passed, she looked back up at them. “Lumberton is the closest town. It’s where I get my supplies and send letters to Pinkie Pie.“

“How far is it?” Twilight asked.

“It’s little more than half a day’s hike from here.”

Shining brought a hoof to his chin, tapping it gently as he thought. “That isn’t too far, and we could probably follow the train tracks all the way there.”

“If you follow the train tracks it will take a full day.” Maud looked back down to the dirt and resumed scratching at it with her hoof. This time, however, her purpose was artistic. She drew out a rough shape, depicting the mountains in the area as well as the train tracks. She marked their position and the spot where Lumberton was with a big x.

“The trail through the forest goes straight to Lumberton. The tracks go along the ridge line.”

“It might take longer, but it might also be safer,” Twilight said as she studied the dirt map. “If there are guards coming to look for us, they’ll be looking along the tracks. If we follow them to Lumberton, we’ll be able to get to town without diminishing our chances of being found.”

“I’m a little worried about asking Cadance to walk all that way. Also, if the rock slide was planned, then we may run into whoever orchestrated it along the tracks. They may very well be the reason why the guards haven’t reached us yet. I think we should follow the trail through the forest.”

~~~

Through a tiny hole in the cliff side, a single eye watched the royal family as they picnicked besides their abandoned train car. The eye belonged to a tall, long-snouted, lean-built diamond dog who stood in a tunnel that had been dug on the interior of the cliff face, with only a few inches of rock separating it from the outside world. The lean dog was not alone either. Behind him, in the tunnel, peeking through several other smaller holes at varying heights, were a dozen more members of his pack.

“It looks so beautiful.”

“What kind of gem do you think it is?”

“Do you think everything inside is made of jewel's too?”

Duke's pack-mates were rambling in hushed voices about the crystal train car that was sitting on the tracks. That was what had drawn them in. Their small prospecting party, which had been surveying the Rainbow Range, had seen the familiar glint of a gemstone from a nearby ridge. They had been hoping to discover a small, exposed outcropping of crystals.

It was perhaps the biggest hunk of crystal any of them had seen, and as diamond dogs, they were naturally excited. Even in the periphery of his vision, Duke could see the wagging of his comrade's tails.

But his eyes remained fixed on the ponies instead, the gears in his mind spinning as he weighed his options very carefully.

“Duke, they are only ones here.”

The small scampering of paws drew Duke away from his peephole. The smallest member of their group, a scruffy little dog named Biscuit, was running up the tunnel towards everyone else. He quickly ran under, over, and around all the other dogs before stopping next to Duke. Biscuit was making no effort to hide his excitement. He was young, this was only his second or third prospecting expedition, and they had stumbled across a mother load.

“They have no guards?” Duke asked, having to really crane his head down to focus his eyes on Biscuit.

“No one. I checked all around. They are the only ones.”

“What about wings and horns?”

“All of them except the dragon and gray one has magic horns, and three of them have wings: the purple one, the black one, and the fat pink one.”

“That's a lot of magic.” The words were followed by a long, wet slurp. The concern had come from the largest of their group, a heavy drooling diamond dog who had the build and stature to rival a buffalo. Though, some of that size was because of his thick, fluffy coat. He was a dog truly built for the colder winters the pack as a whole faced in the Rainbow Range.

“That's okay, Buck.” Biscuit yipped to the largest dog before looking back to Duke. “They are leaving. I overheard the purple one, the white one, and the gray one. They are going to try and go to Lumberton. They are going to leave the crystal. We can take it after they've left.”

“Don't you think they'll come back for it?” Buck asked.

“Who cares?! We'll be gone. It will be ours. Come on, Duke, let's take it. Please, let's take it. We can roll it on the rails. It will be so easy, and they'll never find us. Come on, let's take it. Let's take it.”

“Biscuit, shush,” Duke snapped, quieting the small, bouncing diamond dog before peeking back out his peephole. He silently contemplated the situation, but with each passing second the smile on his face grew larger. It was mirroring the blossoming of a plan in his idea, a daring gambit.

“We will take the car,” he said as he turned to the rest of his dogs, “and we'll be taking the ponies too.”

“Why? Why take ponies?” Biscuit asked. “Ponies are not gems.”

“To get even more gems.” Duke raised his paw and began scratching designs on the wall. At first the lines were nothing, but slowly but surely they began to form a shape that all the diamond dogs recognized. It was a shape none of them but Duke had seen in person, but they had heard of through stories and legends that were known to every pack on the continent, if not in the entire world.

“The pink pony, she is the princess of the Crystal Empire,” Duke said as he finished scratching out his crude sketch of the empire's central castle. “I bet the purple one and black one are princesses too. We have three pony princesses out there, and ponies care about their pretty princesses. I say, we pupnap them and demand a ransom.”

“But I thought there were only two pony princesses, sun-mover and moon-mover,” Buck said before slurping a particularly thick bit of slobber. “When did ponies get five?”

“It doesn't matter. What matters is that they are unguarded and that none of them are sun-mover or moon-mover. If we capture them, we'll be able to get more than one crystal train car. We'll get a whole train a hundred cars long, with each car filled to the brim with even more glittering gems.

“Think about it,” Duke said, stepping amongst his comrades. “Each of us could be living in a crystal, with more wealth than we know what to do with. The pack will call us champions. Every dog will know of us as the ones that finally struck a blow against greedy ponies who rule this part of the continent.”

“But what about their magic?” Buck asked. “Four of them have horns.”

“One is a filly and another is fat. That means we only have to worry about two, and ponies are sentimental.” Duke brought his paw to the tunnel wall again, scratching out shapes that formed represented the rudimentary parts of his plan.

“We go after easy ones first. We take the dragon, the filly, the fat one, and the gray mare. We then use them to force the purple one and the white one to do what we say. After that we'll load them all up in their train car and hide them someplace. We'll then send message to ponies, demanding a train of crystal. When they give it to us, we'll tell them where to find their princesses.”

Duke's smile grew, his lips peeling back to reveal sharp, carnivorous fangs. “Then, we leave and live as alpha's for the rest of our lives.”

“Yes! Yes!” Biscuit said, bouncing with excitement. “Let's pupnap the ponies! Let's pupnap the ponies!”

The other dogs began to bark and wag their tails in agreement. Even Buck, who had been the most cautious, was grinning at the thought of the gems. Duke smiled back at all of them. Yes, they'd all be well off when this finished, but he'd be the best. He was, after all, the alpha of the prospecting group. He would get the biggest share. While the others got one car, he'd get four plus the crystal engine pulling the crystal train. With all that, he could become alpha of the Rainbow Range pack.

Fate had given him an opportunity, and he would seize it with the simplest plan of all. A plan that played off the ponies sentimentality. The white one and the purple one wouldn't dare do anything to put the other ponies in jeopardy. It was all so simple.

What could possibly go wrong?

~~~

“What if we split up? Maud and I can go along the tracks in case we run into guards, and you can take everypony else through the forest.”

Shining shook his head as he, Twilight, and Maud remained huddled around the map drawn in the dirt. “No, Maud’s the one that knows the forest. If we go through the forest, she has to be there to make sure we don’t get lost, and I don’t want you going along the tracks by yourself.”

“I could take Nyx and Spike with me,” Twilight proposed.

Shining tapped his hoof a few times, eyes focused on the map until he glanced up at Twilight. “You could, but I don’t know how much help they would be if you ran into trouble, and there could be trouble. What if we left some kind of note or sign here for the guards, so they know where we went? I think we have some paper in the train car, and if we don’t have ink, we could burn the message into the paper with magic. Then, all we have to do is put the note someplace where it will be easy to find.”

“That isn’t a bad—”

“Help!”

Instantly, Twilight’s mind went from careful planning to panic. She got to her hooves, and looked in the direction of the forest. “Nyx?” She took a step towards the trees, ears turned forward and wings ready to carry her in hurried flight. There was a few moments of silence, and then she saw a burst of green light: Spike’s fire. After that the stillness and silence of the forest returned, and Twilight’s concern only grew.

“Maud! Cadance!”

Shining’s shout made Twilight quickly turn back around. Maud and Cadance were gone. Nothing but air remained where the two mares had been. Tunnels had opened up beneath them and swallowed them whole like gaping maws. Twilight stared blankly at the nearest tunnel, and from the back of her mind a memory came tumbling to the forefront of her consciousness. “Diamond dogs. It’s diamond dogs!”

“Very smart, purple princess.”

The unfamiliar voice came from the direction of the train car, and both Twilight and Shining turned and looked to see its source. A lanky, long nosed diamond dog stood on top of the car, and below him three tunnels opened up in the soft earth. From those tunnels nearly a dozen dogs came clawing out, bringing with them Maud, Nyx, Spike, and Cadance. Cadance was held by the largest, his massive hands holding onto her neck and wings. Bits of slobber spilled from the corners of his mouth, dripping onto Cadance’s back and making her shiver and cringe.

Spike was being held upside down by his tail by another dog. He was swinging his claws, trying to punch the dog in the nose. The dog, however, just laughed, smirked, and taunted Spike by putting on his gambling sunglasses.

The smallest dog in the group was keeping Nyx pinned the same way the largest was holding Cadance. A paw on the wings, pinning them together behind the back, and the other claw on the neck. Twilight could vaguely remember reading somewhere that pinning wings like that was a somewhat safe way to restrain creatures like pegasi and griffins, though her blood boiled seeing Nyx treated as such.

Maud was the last one to be drawn out of the tunnels. She was on her back, each hoof being held by a diamond dog. A few of the dogs restraining her looked a bit bruised and beaten. One had an eye that was already swelling shut. Their expression made it clear she was still struggling, though Maud herself looked as calm and collected as ever.

“Let them go, now!” Shining demanded as a magical aura formed his horn, a spell that would fire with but a thought.

“We don’t take orders from you, pony,” Duke snapped as he looked down from the top of the train car. “You greedy, greedy ponies. You have all of Equestria. You have Crystal Empire, while diamond dogs live off scraps. No more. You will come quietly, you will be hostages, and you encourage sun-mover and moon-mover to give us a whole train of crystal. If you don’t, we’ll sharpen our claws on these four.”

“Sharpen claws, sharpen claws!” Biscuit said, bouncing as his grip on Nyx tightened, making the filly cringe.

Twilight took a step forward at this, as if wanting to tackle the small dog for even that small bit of pain Nyx experienced, but Shining held her back for a moment. He shook his head, silently telling her not to attack, but Twilight could see it in his eyes. He had no intention of bowing to the demands of these few dogs. They just needed to play it calmly.

“Do you really think you can get away with this?” Shining shouted to Duke. “Even if we go with you now, we can just escape later. All it will take is the right spell and the right time. If you let them go now, though, we’ll forget this ever happened.”

“Escape? You try to escape, we hurt someone. Maybe we start with the little dragon, or perhaps the little filly. I hear it hurts to have feathers plucked, and she has so many little feathers on her wings.” Duke’s smile only grew. “And don’t worry, we have magic suppressors at the pack’s den. Once we get back there, all of you will be just as defenseless as your friends. No magic and no wings.”

“They’re our family, not just our friends,” Twilight snarled.

“I’m not, I’m just a friend,” Maud said flatly, even as she continued to struggle against the four diamond dogs who kept her held down. “I’m not as defenseless either.”

“And neither am I!” Spike shouted before drawing in a deep breath. He then breathed out, unleashing a surge of fire straight into the face of the diamond dog holding him. The dog yelped and quickly dropped Spike, tumbling back from the flames and the sunglasses that were melting a little on his face. His flailing led him to trip over one of the dogs holding Maud, freeing one of her hind hooves.

That one free hoof coiled back like a serpent, then struck with a bone-cracking smack against the ribcage of another dog that was holding her down. That dog was sent flying from the force of the blow, and soon the other two followed. Spike’s one burst of fire had caused chaos, and it was chaos Shining and Twilight quickly took advantage of. Twilight rushed the small dog holding Nyx while Shining launched a blast of magic into the face of the largest dog.

“Duke!” Biscuit yelped, quickly releasing Nyx and diving into the nearest hole with his tail between his legs. Twilight urged her hooves to move with even greater pace. She would only need a few more seconds to close the gap between her and Nyx, but the small dog’s yelp didn’t go unheeded. With a thud, Duke landed between Twilight and Nyx. He lunged with one fist, striking Twilight in the chest. Her own forward momentum worsened the blow, and Twilight crumpled to the ground.

In that moment, Duke spun around and grabbed Nyx and Spike, taking one in each paw before throwing them into the train car and climbing in himself. “Forget others! We take two little ones! Get car moving!” A few of the diamond dogs that had been trying to recapture Maud woofed an acknowledgement and quickly rushed to the nearest end of the car. They dug their paws into the ground and tried to shove the car, but the wheels refused to budge.

Twilight grunted through her teeth, pushing through the pain and getting back to her hooves. She began calling on her magic, the aura enveloping the entire car. She’d lift the whole thing off the tracks if she had too. Already the car began to shift as her spell applied a greater and greater lifting force. The wheels began to lose touch with the tracks, and Duke had to brace himself against the car’s door frame.

But then a resounding thud hit the car, knocking it free of Twilight's magic. The thud came from the largest diamond dog, the one that had been holding Cadance. Shining had gone after him the moment the fighting began, and after a scuffle, he had thrown the dog clean into the air. The dog flew like a bird for a brief few seconds, then came falling back to the earth like a stone. A stone that landed firmly on the roof of the train car, knocking it free from Twilight’s magic.

With the spell no longer holding it up, the train dropped back to the tracks. The wheel’s made a deafening clank when they reconnected with the tracks, and then began to turn. The impact of the landing freed up the breaks, and with the shove of the diamond dogs, the train began to roll downhill.

“You want little ones back, you fill our demands! A train of crystal, filled with crystal, in three days!” Duke shouted as his dogs piled onto the car, adding their own momentum as the train car began to rumble away. In the windows Nyx and Spike appeared, both looking back at Twilight, but before they could even cry out for help, they were grabbed by paws and pulled out of view.

“Get back here!” In a single leap Twilight was airborne, flying after the train car with all the speed she could muster. She was gaining quickly, but the train car was accelerating as well. Without the guiding presence of a locomotive, it was careening down the tracks at speeds greater than intended. On some turns, the car leaned so far to one side, some of the wheels began to lose contact with the tracks. Still, the diamond dog’s didn’t even try to apply the brakes, even if they were ruined.

Twilight reached out with her magic as she flew, grasping the back of the train and trying to slow it down. The dogs, however, took quick notice, and soon they began throwing anything they could from the train’s interior. They broke apart the card table, took the sheets from the bed, and anything else that wasn’t bolted down became a possible projectile.

One particularly well aimed pillow forced Twilight to bank up, and as she did, she could see a large stretch of the train tracks. For the next several miles the tracks sloped downward, but that wasn’t Twilight’s greatest concern. What worried her was the next bend in the tracks. It was a sharp turn near the edge of a cliff, and at the car’s current speed, it wouldn’t be able to make the turn.

It would roll off the tracks and down the edge of the cliff to the valley below.

Knowing what danger was quickly approaching, Twilight dove back towards the car and resumed her efforts to slow it down. She reached out her magic, but as before the dogs threw things at her, forcing her to break her concentration to avoid being knocked out of the air. “You have to slow down!” she shouted, pleading with them. “You’ll never make the turn.”

Duke poked his head out of the car’s front door, and glanced down the tracks. It was a glimmer of hope that he would see reason, but instead of applying the brakes, Duke just looked back at Twilight and smiled. He then disappeared back into the car. A few moments later the dogs began throwing even more things at her. From the back of the train and from every window, the diamond dogs were chucking everything they could find to keep Twilight from slowing the train.

The turn was looming closer. Soon, there wouldn’t be enough time for her to slow down the car. Twilight’s breathing began to grow ragged, both from the effort of flying and from her own panic. She at least had to make sure the train could make the turn. She couldn’t let it crash, not with Nyx and Spike inside. So she flew in closer and closer, trying to dodge while still casting her spell. Her magic began to wrap around the back of the train. She got a grip, and she began to pull on the train. It just needed to be going a little slower. A little slower and it would make it around the bend.

But then a diamond dog got lucky. One dog threw a table leg like a discus, making it spin through the air. Twilight moved her head to the side enough to avoid being struck head on by the hunk of wood, but as it spun, part of it came back around. It hit the back of her head hard, making Twilight see stars. Her spell disappeared in the wind, and she fumbled in the air trying to stay aloft.

It was, in the end, a fruitless effort. Twilight couldn’t keep herself up, and had to resort to a hard landing beside the tracks. She skipped and ran a few times, dispersing some of her forward momentum before eventually falling forward. She tumbled head over hoof once in the dirt before landing on her stomach. She gasped for breath, struggling to recapture the air that had been knocked from her lungs. Twilight then looked up, searching for the train car.

It was at the turn. The front end began to go around the curved pieces of track, and as they did, the weight shifted. The car leaned to the left. It was only a little at first, but as Twilight watched, the car tilted more and more. The wheels on the right side began to lose contact with the track. But still, for a moment it looked like she had done enough. For a moment, to her eyes, it looked like the car wasn’t going to derail.

But then she saw the diamond dogs on the back. They, like those within, threw their weight to the left side. The additional shift was the final push the car needed. It lost its balance and began falling to the left side. Twilight watched in silent horror as the car fell off the tracks and tumbled over the edge of the cliff.

Images flashed in her mind the moment the car disappeared from her sight. Memories of the dream, of Tirek holding Nyx’s broken glasses and Spike’s shattered scales. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she scrambled to her hooves. She took to her wings, ignoring every pain and ache as she flew after the car.

She reached the edge of the cliff just as the sundering sound of splintering trees reached her ears. The car had reached the bottom of the cliff, crashing through the forest below before impacting the ground below. She lingered there for just a moment, hovering above the edge of the cliff in disbelief and horror. She feared the worst, but she pushed those thoughts from her head and dove. She dove, plummeting down the cliff side like a hawk swooping out of the sky.

If there was any chance, any hope, she had to get Nyx and Spike quickly.

~~~

“Twilight? Twilight!?”

Shining Armor trotted up the tracks. Maud was staying with Cadance, making sure she stayed safe. That gave Shining the freedom to chase after Twilight and the dogs, but he still hadn’t found them. Surely they couldn’t have gotten that far ahead. Fears of his sister being lost in the vast mountains or being captured began to creep into Shining’s mind, but like mist in the morning sun, they burned away when he caught sight of a familiar purple color.

Twilight flew slowly into view, rising from behind the lip of the cliff. Shining broke into a gallop, closing the gap that separated them as quickly as he could. Twilight was the antonym to Shining's haste. She was flapping her wings just barely enough to stay in the air, and didn’t even seem to register Shining was there. She looked exhausted to the point it was sheer willpower that was keeping her moving.

“Twilie,” Shining shouted once more when they were within feet of one another. He came to a stop just as Twilight landed, and let her lean against her shoulder for support. “Are you okay? What happened?”

“They’re gone,” she said as if not wanting to hear the words herself.

“They got away? But how could they get away from you?”

That hint of accusation in Shining’s voice, though it wasn’t intended, ignited Twilight’s anger like it was a barrel of oil. Her brow furrowed, her wings spread, and she glared at Shining even as she continued to use him for support. “Because those dirty dogs made the car fall off the tracks, fall off the cliff, fall through the air, and crash into the forest down there. Yet somehow, during all of that, they managed to pull a disappearing act that would make Trixie jealous! I searched the forest twice. Twice! First randomly, then in a careful grid, and they are no where to be found.”

Twilight and pointed her hoof. “Why did you throw that dog?”

Shining was dumbstruck for a moment, trying to think of what Twilight was talking about. He then remembered the big dog that had been restraining his wife. “I had to get him off Cadance, what else was I supposed to do?”

“There were a million things you could have done that were better than throwing him at the train. I was levitating the train, but because that dog hit it, it fell out of my magic and that somehow fixed the brakes. They wouldn’t have been able to get away if you had just thrown that dog into the forest.”

“Twilie, you can’t think this was my fault.”

“Sure I can. I’m doing it right now.” With a grunt she took her weight off Shining. She steadied herself for a few moments before turning to glare at Shining. “They got away with Spike and Nyx, my family, and it’s your fault. See, easy!” Twilight’s final words carried a heavy sarcasm, like a thick frosting on a cake.

“Why were you levitating the train car in the first place?” Shining asked, words growing harsh as he began to defend himself against his sister’s accusations. “The brakes were broken. They weren’t going to be able to go anywhere. That tall dog was basically locking himself into his own cage.”

“Well... I...” Twilight puffed out her cheeks, as if there were a thousands words trying to come out at once but none of them were an appropriate rebuttal for Shining’s accusation. Eventually, Twilight just let out a sound that was halfway between a frustrated groan and a roar. She dropped to her haunches, brooding for a few seconds before looking back to Shining. “Where’s Cadance and Maud?”

“Back down the track waiting for us, and keeping an eye on our new little friend. We caught a small diamond dog. He was left behind by the others when they made their escape on the train.”

“And you still have him?” Twilight asked, a small smile forming to celebrate the bit of good fortune. She walked away from the cliff, trotting along the tracks back the way Shining had come. “Good, he can tell us where the rest of his friends went. Then you and I can go after them, save Nyx and Spike, catch up with Maud and Cadance, and go to the Crystal Empire. Then I can find that spell and finally put this whole messy mess behind me.”

Shining ran a few steps until he caught up with Twilight, then matched her pace as they trotted along the track. “Twilie... I know you’re worried. I am too, but I just can’t leave Cadance with Maud. I have to make sure she gets to Lumberton.”

“What about Nyx and Spike?”

“What about my wife and my unborn foal?” Shining asked in rebuttal. “Cadance shouldn’t even be out here, not after everything that went on with Tirek. We need to get her someplace safe first. Someplace with a real bed and real food.”’

“But we can’t go all the way to Lumberton now. That will just let those diamond dogs get farther away.”

“I know, but they didn’t take Spike and Nyx to hurt them,” Shining said, trying to calm Twilight. “They want a ransom, and on top of that, we have that little dog. The little dog can help us find them. Besides, it’s going to start getting dark soon, and the dogs know the terrain better than we do. Chasing after them now would just make it easier for them to capture you and me, then there’s nothing to stop them from getting Maud and Cadance.”

Twilight vocalized her frustration in a mixture of grunts and grumbles, but she was too tired to protest further. Shining had the military experience in this situation. Yes, perhaps she didn’t agree with how he was prioritizing matters, but he was right about one thing. The diamond dogs had no reason to hurt Nyx and Spike, not like Tirek. They would be all right. Spike would take care of Nyx.

He was a good big brother like that.

~~~

“Greedy ponies will get nothing out of me. Nothing!”

“What’s your name?”

“Biscuit, and that’s all you need to know. That’s all I tell you.” The small diamond dog pounded his paws against the smooth, magical surface. He had been placed inside a magical bubble, a spell Princess Cadance was maintaining. She was resting in the shade of a tree just off the tracks, while Maud and Biscuit were on the soft earth. Biscuit’s spherical cage had been pressed into the dirt to keep him from rolling it around, and Maud was staring him down with her stone-like expression.

“You will tell me more,” Maud said.

“I will not.” Biscuit punched the interior of the barrier.

“You will.”

“I won’t.”

“You will.”

“I won’t. I won’t. I won’t!” Biscuit bounced with each word, jumping around in the barrier spell like the small, yipping dog he was. It was then, however, Maud lurched her head forward. Less than an inch separated her face from the edge of the sphere, and the sudden movement made Biscuit fall onto his back. He had his eyes fixed on Maud, and a certain terror filled his core as he saw her usually flat expression slowly fall into the slightest of frown.

“You will tell me what I want to know.”

“Okay, okay!” Biscuit whined, tail sneaking up between his legs. “Just stop the scary face. Stop frowning!”

Maud’s lips relaxed, and with even that slightest movement, the sense of impending doom that Biscuit had been feeling dissipated. He slowly climbed back to his paws before looking over at Cadance and pointing a claw at Maud. “You should keep her in barrier spell, fat one. She’s crazy! Crazy!”

The spherical spell suddenly grew very small, and Biscuit found himself crammed up against the sides. Cadance was glaring him down now, her horn glowing as the sphere grew a little smaller and a little tighter. “What was that?”

“Oh... uh... pretty, pretty pink princess pony. Yes, you’re very pretty, and pink. Yes, very pink too, and pretty. And so thin. How do you do it?”

Cadance gave a satisfied nod, and the sphere returned to its normal size. Still, even as Biscuit recovered from his near crushing, the barrier was turned, bringing his attention back to Maud. “Where would your friends have taken Nyx and Spike?” she asked.

“There are lots of places. I don’t know which one. We were just out here to find gems. Didn’t come to pupnap ponies. Duke might take them back to main den, or he might take them to an outpost cave.”

“How many outpost caves are there?”

“I don’t know,” Biscuit snapped and waved his arms as high as he could in the bubble. “Don’t need to know. We’re prospectors. We find gems, send report back to main den, they send diggers. We hardly use outpost caves. Only Duke would know where most of them are. He’s the only one that needs to know. I just find gems: pretty pretty gems.”

“Why do diamond dogs love gems so much?” Cadance asked. She grunted and hauled her gravid form up before walking out from beneath the shade of the tree. She levitated Biscuit’s sphere off the ground, and held the small dog to her eye level. “You’re not dragons, so you don’t eat them, and I doubt you have a hoarding instinct like dragon’s either.”

“Why do prissy ponies like pretty flowers and pies? Diamond dogs like gems because we like gems. We use them as money. We use them as decorations. If you have a lot, you are big shot. You are an alpha. If you have few, you're a prospecting dog digging in the dirt. You’re like me, but I’m going to be alpha someday. Could be tomorrow if you give Duke the train of gems he wants.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Cadance said.

“Well then, you never see your little ones again,” Biscuit said, daring to smile just a little.

“Wouldn’t Duke be worried about you? Wouldn’t he be interested in exchanging you for Spike and Nyx?”

Biscuit let out a loud, bark-like laugh. “Ha, diamond dogs not like prissy ponies. We are pack, and we are dogs. We worry about ourselves first and the pack as a whole second. Duke won’t pass up gemstone payday for just me. I wouldn’t do it if I was in his paws. Wanna know why? Because he knows and I know you prissy ponies won’t hurt me.”

Once more, Cadance shrank the sphere down to the smallest size it could be, forcing Biscuit to contort into an odd shape as his limbs and face were pressed against the inside of the barrier. “Okay, okay, uncle! Uncle!” Biscuit yelped, getting Cadance to return the sphere to its regular size.

“I have an idea,” Maud said, and with no further explanation, she turned and began walking down the tracks. Cadance and Biscuit glanced at one another, each hoping the other had some idea what Maud was doing. Still, neither had an answer, and they could only watch as Maud continued walking while keeping her eyes focused on the dirt.

She then abruptly stopped and began to scrap at the ground with her hoof. She did this for a good minute before bending down and, with her teeth, removing something from the ground. She then turned back around and walked back over to Cadance and Biscuit. As she got closer, it became plain to see the thing in her mouth was a gem the size of a crab apple.

Biscuit pressed his face willingly against the edge of the sphere, and wagged his tail while his eyes remained fixed on the gem. “How did you do that? Tell me, how did you do that? Can I have it? It’s so pretty! Can I have it? Please, can I have it? Pretty gray pony, can I please have it? It’s so pretty!”

“You can have it,” Maud said, simple words that made Biscuit back flip for joy inside his sphere, an impressive feat considering the minimal space. “But, you have to do something for us.”

Biscuit’s jubilation ended, and he eyed Maud with an uneasy curiosity. “What you want me to do?”

“You help us.”

Cadance smiled and turned the spell sphere, making Biscuit once more look her in the eye. “Yeah, you’ll help us. You’ll help us find Nyx and Spike, and if you do we’ll give you gems.”

Biscuit glanced over at the gem Maud held, twiddling his paws as he thought. “How many gems?”

“We’ll give you that one now, and once everypony is back in the Crystal Empire safely, you’ll be allowed to leave with all the gems you can carry.”

“I want all the gems I can put in a cart,” Biscuit haggled before motioning to himself. “Look at me, I’m tiny. You trying to swindle me with my own size.”

“Alright, but you aren’t getting a cart full,” Cadance said. She then fell silent for a few moments, contemplating the negotiation before making a new offer. “How about a suitcase full?” We’ll even get you a nice one with wheels so you can pull it like a cart.”

Biscuit twiddled his claws again, then clasped them together. He put on a big, pleading smile and tried to perform his best puppy dog face. “Can the suitcase be made of gems?”

Cadance rolled her eyes at the display, but nodded all the same. “Yes, it can.”

Giggling, Biscuit nodded his head. “Yes, that is a lot of gems. Biscuit can be group leader like Duke with that many gems. Now, give me that one. I want that one. It’s so pretty. I want it. I want to hold it. It’s an emerald, right? I want to hold my emerald.”

Cadance opened a small hole in the barrier spell, and then gestured with a hoof towards Maud. The gray mare took a single step forward, bringing the emerald within reach of the hole. Biscuit grabbed it instantly, and then laid back in the sphere and happily giggled as he examined the gem in the fading sunlight. He had just betrayed Duke for a pile of gems bigger than he was.

Duke would be so proud.

Author's Note:

The chapter delayed a day because of Fimfiction outage. Still, hope you all enjoy it. Again, if you notice errors, please PM them to me. I truly appreciate it. As of today, 4/17/2015, The Road Home is on a two week chapter cycle, so the next chapter should be out around April 30th.