• 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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Great Gem Gauges

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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Chapter 6

Great Gem Gauges

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

Discord sat up, stretching and popping several joints along his serpentine back. “Nothing passes time like a good night’s sleep,” he mused as he stood up from a bed, walking across the air as if there was an invisible floor. The main game table, where his map and game pieces sat, still grew from the peak of the mountain.

That one little sapling, however, had expanded since it’s original planting. It now had a root system that gripped the top of the mountain like the talons of an eagle. From those roots, several branches had grown and formed into additional furniture for Discord to use. The squiggly bed he had been sleeping in, and additional dining table with chairs, cabinets, and a large reading chair with leaf cushions that stood next to a bookcase full of books comprised entirely of leaves.

Scratching at the back of his head, causing a few little chaotic things to fall to the mountain below, Discord strode over to the cabinets. He cracked one open, rummaged around inside, tossed out a rubber ducky, and then removed an unmarked metal can. A smile spread on his lips as he rotated the can, as if reading the nonexistent label as he closed the cabinet behind him.

Using his eagle talons, Discord easily removed the lid from the can. He then turned it over and began shaking it, trying to empty its contents over the dining table. It took a few shakes, but then the deluge began. A breakfast banquet, fit for a spirit of chaos, spilled out of the can, taking up every square inch of the dining table. There were some breakfast staples like pancakes and muffins, but everything had its chaotic twist. The pancakes had poison joke syrup. The juices were different colors of rainbow water from the Cloudsdale Weather Factory. The fruits were fake, made out of wax, wood, and paper.

Still, to Discord, it was an appetizing spread. He pulled a plate out of his ear, and quickly filled it with food before strolling away from the buffet and towards the game table, where the map of the Rainbow Range and his game pieces all stood. “Better check on how our players are doing. Have to have something to tell Fluttershy when I check in on the positively perky Ponyville.”

His eyes located one party, which was trekking through the forest towards Lumberton. It was Twilight, Shining, Maud, and Cadance, though there were two little flags sticking out of the groups’ game pieces. One was on Cadance, and it was a pink color a few shades darker than her coat. The other little flag was a dark blue, and was sticking out of Twilight’s game piece. The flags' triangular shape indicated they were what his little game would consider debuffs.

After taking a bite out of a wax apple, Discord snapped his paw and produced a game book, which featured a lovely illustration of him on the front pulling puppet strings on generic ponies. The book appeared on an unused corner of the table, and flipped opened to a particular page near the back. It was a debuff appendix, where Discord began to look up the colors of the flags.

“Let’s see, Cadance is dealing with a restless baby,” Discord said before chuckling a little to himself. “Oh, trust me dear, that baby is going to be so much more restless when it comes out. Now, Twilight... sleep deprived by nightmares. Oh my, I wonder why Luna wouldn’t calm her dreams. Though, I do suppose I dodged the buck with that one. If Luna had visited her, then my little distraction may have been unraveled by a pair of princesses that can’t understand the meaning in my madness.”

Still, Discord shut the book before lifting his plate of food above his head. The top half of his head, with the seam forming at his jaw bone, flipped open like the lid of a trash can. The hole in his mouth and throat widened, and he dumped his remaining food into the waiting throat. His head then snapped shut, and with a small burp he patted his now satisfied stomach.

“Ah, just like the chaotic ether of space used to make,” he said with a self-amused chuckle. He then looked back to his gameboard, taking note where Nyx and Spike’s pieces had ended up. “Well, the search and rescue storyline may be a bit tired, but Twilight certainly has her character motivation. Still, looks like they’re trying to play it safe and get Cadance to Lumberton. Those silly ponies, don’t they know a creature encounter can happen anywhere?”

Discord swirled his wrist, once more producing the round die that had tens of thousands of sides. He then gave it a gentle toss, letting it roll along the table before coming to a gentle stop near the center of the map. Then, once more, the spirit of chaos used a magnifying glass to get in close and read the die’s result number.

It was then his face fell a little, his smile forming into a frown. The die had landed on 64,992, the highest number across the entire surface. Discord stood puzzled, stroking his goatee with his paw as his eyes wandered to the four pieces on the board that would be affected by the roll.

For in his little game, the higher the roll, the more dangerous the encounter.

~~~

“I thought you said it was just a half day to Lumberton if we went through the forest,” Cadance whined as they continued to trek along the forest paths. Maud was in the lead with Twilight following a few steps behind. Biscuit, their little captive, was admiring his bribery gem quietly in the bubble spell being maintained by Twilight. Cadance was then the third in line with Shining taking up the rear, to protect against any further Diamond Dog attacks and to help Cadance if she struggled. “Shouldn’t we be there by now?”

“We’re nearing the last ridge,” Maud answered as she continued to follow the nature trail as it wound its way up hillside. “We’ll be able to see Lumberton from the top. The rest of the way will be downhill.”

“Good!” Twilight, despite the bags under her eyes, was walking with purpose. Her wings were flicking and itching, as if desiring just to fly ahead and get the trip over with. But she kept her four hooves on the ground, though her patience for the length of their hike was running almost as short as Cadance’s. “When we hit town, Shining, you take Cadance to a hotel or the train station. I’m going to invoke a royal draft, form a militia, and get everypony marching back out here.”

“You can’t invoke a royal draft, Twilight.”

“Just watch me!”

Shining sighed, shaking his head as the quartet took the final few steps before reaching the crest of the hill. The Rainbow Range stretched out before them, towering mountains of pines and rock. Small lumber camps dotted the nearby peaks, like adolescent pimples. That was where the lumber ponies of Lumberton applied their craft, cutting down trees and planting new ones as they made their livings off the forest.

“Finally! Come on, I don’t want Nyx and Spike to be with those dogs for any longer than they have to.” Twilight passed Maud, continuing down the trail that had been their winding roadway through the forest. The path lead to the bottom of the hill, then joined with a logging road to provide a quick, smooth, straight line to Lumberton. Yet, before Twilight could even take three steps, Maud reached out and nabbed her tail, halting Twilight’s advance.

“Hey!” Twilight spun around, glaring down Maud while her tail flicked a little in annoyance and from the unexpected pain. “What was that for?”

“Something is wrong,” Maud said. She lifted a hoof, pointing rocks that bordered the path ahead on either side. “All those rocks aren’t where they were last time I was through here. They’ve all been turned. That one there was turned three degrees clockwise, and that one over there was turned a degree counterclockwise.”

“Maud, I know you care a lot about rocks, but what does it matter if the rocks were turned?” Twilight asked. “I mean, who just turns a rock and then leaves? You’re probably just imagining it.” She turned and tried to take another step down the path, but once more Maud caught her tail and gave it a yank.

“Quit it!” Twilight said, yanking her tail away from Maud. “Look, maybe the rocks were turned, but I don’t care. We need to get to Lumberton so that we can hike right back into this Celestia forsaken forest to look for Nyx and Spike. It’s not like the rocks are going to spring up and attack us or anything.”

With that Twilight began walking down the path, ensuring her tail stayed safely away from Maud until she was a few feet ahead. She trotted between the rocks, glancing between them but personally finding nothing out of the ordinary. She kept trotting until she reached the next bend in the path, and that was when she turned and shouted back at the others. “See! Absolutely nothing happened! Can we go now!?”

“Is it just me, or is Twilight acting like she’s been replaced with a changeling?” Cadance said as she, Maud, and Shining started walking down the path to catch up with Twilight.

“She’s just worried about Nyx and Spike,” Shining said, trying to defend his sister, though he did so with a frown. “I doubt I’d be any different if you had been taken instead. And she is right, they’re the ones in greater danger right now, but making sure you’re safe will let us go looking for them without worrying the dogs might get you.”

“Well, then I guess I’m lucky I have my loving husband here with me.” Cadance smiled, and gently leaned in to kiss Shining on the cheek.

“Save it for Lumberton you two!”

Shining and Cadance rolled their eyes at Twilight’s snippy shout, but they did not attempt to kiss again. They and Maud caught up with Twilight, rounded the bend in the path, and continued descending the mountain side. They left the suspiciously turned stones behind, passing back into the heavy forest. Canopy enclosed above them, and an odd stillness beset the forest.

A single snapping twig was their only warning. All four of them heard it, and froze up as their ears turned trying to pinpoint the sound. Yet, it was too little, too late. From the trees numerous spiders descended upon the group. The smallest ones stood at equal height to the four ponies. The largest of the group was bigger than a tree, and had in fact been standing as tall as possible, letting its legs mimic tree trunks. Each was wearing something of an outfit. The largest had on a large, black and yellow striped turtleneck sweater and a bowler hat almost too small for his head. Two of his eyes were covered with eye patches.

“You guys again!” Twilight shouted, recognizing the giant tarantulas which had caused such trouble for her and her friends when they were searching for Chrysalis in the wild south of Equestria. “What are you even doing in the Rainbow Range!?”

The largest tarantula just screeched as he and his posse encircled the four ponies. Webbing was launched like a volley of arrows. The sticky strands pinned the four ponies where they stood. Twilight was glaring daggers at the spiders, and her horn was glowing with magic as she began to free herself from their silk. But then she felt something heavy and metallic snapping into place around her neck.

Her magic fizzed and faltered, like water trying to escape a hose that had been crimped shut. Twilight didn’t even have to look to know what metallic accessory the tarantulas had just given her. It was an anti-magic collar, and it was an old one too. Modern collars were made of fairly light metal, blocking magic but not being overly uncomfortable. The weight around her neck was far heavier than it should have been. The collar she now wore was probably older than she was.

Shining and Cadance met the same fate as Twilight, bound in spider silk with their magic suppressed. Even Maud, who had given trouble to the Diamond Dogs, was unable to free herself from the silk. They were trapped, and even if they weren’t, the spiders weren’t wasting any time. They approached the four ponies, tidying and adding to the spider silk until all four were carefully wrapped in silken cocoons with their heads sticking out.

Worst of all, in Twilight’s mind, was the escape of Biscuit. With their magic suppressed, her bubble spell had popped, and the little Diamond Dog had disappeared in the commotion.

Then the largest tarantula picked up the four, sticking them to his back with a bit of additional webbing before the whole posse began scaling the cliff. They shot out webbing, using the boulders above to anchor their threads. The weight of spiders scaling the cliff on the strands caused the rocks to turn where they stood.

“I told you something was wrong with the boulders.”

“Now is not a good time, Maud!” Twilight snapped, the blood rushing to her head as they were carted away by the giant tarantulas.

~~~

“Breakfast, pony and dragon.”

Nyx grumbled as she sat up, a less than restful night’s sleep behind her as bits of old hay stuck out of her mane. The announcement of breakfast was the only tell it was morning inside the cage she and Spike had been placed in. The Diamond Dogs had carried them all night, whisking them through tunnels and caverns until they reached what the lead dog of the squad, Duke, called The Den.

It was an underground city of Diamond Dogs, and far different in nature than the welcoming city Rainbow Dash once visited. It was dark, dank, and every corner smelt like dog. Rickety wooden ramps spanned the length of the main cavern, connecting hollowed out rooms along the walls. Their cage was put in what looked to be a private residence, though it was hardly more furnished than her and Spike’s cage.

The room had an old bed with a hair covered mattress and a single, rickety table with large wooden logs for chairs. The table sat below a small window that looked out on the rest of the cavern while the room’s door connected to a narrow tunnel that defined what was possibly The Den’s equivalent to an apartment complex.

In comparison, their cage was probably the most well cared for thing in the entire apartment, though the old hay that was their bed was less than comfortable.

Her and Spike’s breakfast was being served by one of the largest of dogs that had taken them, Buck. Nyx had picked up his name from the numerous conversations the dogs had as they salivated over the gems they were going to get as ransom. Buck seemed to salivate endlessly as it was, but at the very least he seemed to make an effort not to let his drool drip into their food.

Buck had to fiddle with the cage’s key, which seemed unusually tiny in comparison to his paw, but soon he had the door open. He placed their food in, then shut the door without incident. Spike had tried to escape when they were given dinner, when a less kind dog had been on duty. He was thrown back into the cage mercilessly. Only his dragon scales kept him from getting more than a sore spot.

“Hope you like. Dogs don’t have lot of pony and dragon food, except gems. But dragon is not getting good gems.”

Nyx openly frowned at the plate of hay and cup of water. The hay was only slightly fresher than what they had been sleeping on. The little metal cup had been bruised and battered, but thankfully the water within was from a clean mountain spring. It was perhaps the one luxury all the dogs of The Den were able to enjoy in equal measure. Glancing over at the plate meant for Spike, she saw two pieces of bread what were dusted with tiny, little bitty shards of gems. The leftovers from some unknown gem cutter.

“I’ll be back soon for plates. Be done eating by then.” With that Buck turned and left the apartment, going off to attend to unknown business with the rest of his prospecting pack.

“Spike,” Nyx said, prodding him awake with a hoof. “Didn’t you say Twilight would rescue us by now?”

With a grumble and a yawn, Spike sat up and stretched. He pressed on the small of his back, causing the vertebrae to pop before his eyes slid open. He seemed a bit confused himself at the sight that he had woken up in the exact same place he had fallen asleep. “That’s weird. When Rarity was taken by Diamond Dogs we only needed a few hours to rescue her. I wonder what’s taking her so long.”

“You don’t think something's happened to them? Could the Diamond Dogs have gotten them too?”

“Nah, that tall one would have been in here to brag about it.” Spike picked up the gem dust sandwich, shaking his head as he turned it over in his claw. “Don’t they know how annoying it is to eat gem shards this small? The bits will get stuck in my teeth and I’ll be picking at them all day. It’s worse than popcorn.”

“So... I guess all we can do is keep waiting for her,” Nyx said, remembering the time Granny Smith had made a citizen’s arrest and she just waited under an apple basket for Spike to save her.

Spike took a bite of the sandwich, chewing it a few times before swallowing. He then used his free claw to flick the bars of the cage, making a small, metallic ping. “This metal isn’t heat treated. A good dragon fire and it will melt like ice cream in summer. We could try escaping on our own. That big dog won’t be back here for a half hour.”

“Do you really think that’s a good idea? That dog last night threw you pretty hard when you tried to get out the cage door.”

“Pfft, it only hurt a little. I am a mighty dragon after all, and these dogs are pinheads. I bet we’ll be long gone before they even notice. Besides, we’ve also got a bit of magic on our side,” Spike said, tapping on Nyx’s horn. “They didn’t think to put an anti-magic collar on you, that or they didn’t have one small enough. Either way, we get out of this cage, out of this room, out of this hole, and we’ll be in the Crystal Empire before sunset.”

Nyx scrunched up her nose, as if Spike’s short-sighted escape plan was producing a foul stench. But then she looked to the hay that was supposed to be her breakfast. Raw grass straight off the ground was easily more appetizing, and there would be plenty of that to be had if they managed to get above ground.

“Okay, let’s do it, but we should get some canteens before getting out of these tunnels. Besides having a way to start a fire, having a portable source of water is an important priority when it comes to hiking.”

“A word for word recitation from Hoof Travel’s Guide to Camping,” Spike said with a small chuckle before sucking in a deep breath. He held it for just a moment, letting the dragon fires within ignite before breathing out a controlled stream of green flames. He focused on the cage’s lock, which began to distort and melt under the fire. Nyx shielded her face with a hoof, feeling the heat even as she sat at the back of the cage.

The one breath of fire was enough, though, and Spike cautiously pushed open the cage door. He waited and listened a moment, ensuring no dog had seen the light from his fire. He then motioned towards Nyx, and she stepped out of the cage, being careful to avoid the still warm metal. “Step one complete,” Spike said with a confident smile.

“Okay, what’s step two then?”

“Step two is... to wing it from here,” Spike admitted as he crept towards the rickety, wooden plank door that separated the small apartment from the rest of The Den.

~~~

“Well, we got farther than I thought we would without being seen,” Spike admitted. He and Nyx were hiding beneath a low sitting, rickety wooden cart. They had made it out of the apartment and the apartment complex to one of The Den’s main thoroughfares. The street wound around the floor of the cavern that contained The Den, passing between merchant stalls and more permanent businesses that occupied the hollowed out interiors of building-sized stalagmites.

There was, however, no way for them to cross the street or go much further without risking being seen.

“Maybe if we wait here long enough, someone will move this cart and we can follow along underneath.”

“I don’t think this thing is going anywhere,” Nyx said as she used her hoof to point over her shoulder, drawing Spike’s attention to the cart’s axel. It was split clean in two.

“You wouldn’t happen to know a spell to fix something like that?”

Nyx shook her head.

“Too bad I couldn’t be a dog again,” Spike said as he looked out at the many Diamond Dogs that were going about their business. Selling gems, buying gems, bartering for better prices on gems, and occasionally buying something simpler like food. “Sure, I might be the smallest one out there, but I doubt those diamond doofi would look twice. Where’s a magic mirror when you need one?”

“I thought you didn’t like being a dog in that other world?”

Spike rocked his head back and forth for a moment before leaning in, as if trying to ensure the broken cart axle didn’t hear his words. “Between you and me, getting an ear scratch as a dog by a human is one of the best things ever. Those fingers of theirs get just the right spot, and when Rarity’s the one giving the scratch...”

The memory alone was leaving Spike with a smitten look on his face as his dragon tail wagged slightly back and forth. Nyx, in comparison, could only shake her head before shuffling towards the edge of the broken cart. They couldn’t just hide underneath it forever. Eventually Duke and his dogs would notice they were gone, and then they would probably hunt them down like bloodhounds. There had to be some way for them to get out of The Den without drawing attention to themselves.

“Hey! There are ponies over there!”

Nyx froze up, snapping her head in the direction of the voice. The dog that had shouted, however, was not pointing at her or even looking at the broken cart. He was waving his paws, with the biggest grin Nyx had ever seen on a diamond dog face. Admittedly, she hadn't seen many diamond dogs smiling in a nice way, but there was no mistaking the dog’s excitement.

“Ponies that can find gems! Ponies selling things to find gems! They found gem in middle of the street!”

The crowd began to shift, like metal being attracted by a magnet. Some merchants were even closing their stalls as they began to move with the rest of the crowd. Nyx herself couldn’t deny her curiosity, and she dared to peek a little further out from the cart to try and see what all the excitement was about. Whoever these ponies were, they were drawing a lot of attention.

And, perhaps, that was just her and Spike’s ticket out of The Den.

“Spike, come on, we should go see what’s going on,” Nyx said, yet Spike didn’t reply. Turning her head, she saw Spike was now belly up with one of his legs kicking, still lost in the memory of being ear scratched as a dog by a human hand.

~~~

It took careful maneuvering, but Spike and Nyx skirted the edge of the street to follow the flow of the crowd. They moved between boxes, stalls, and anything else large enough to hide them from view. The whole effort was made easier by the dogs’ growing interest in the gem-finding ponies. Nyx tried to think of who it could be. What pony would be courageous enough, or desperate enough, to come to such a place to sell something?

But then she and Spike saw them, a pair who were likely more desperate than courageous. In the crowded street they had parked a sleek and polished cart. It was not one pulled by harness but instead driven forward by a magically-fuel engine. The cart was laden with hundreds if not thousands of the same device. A stick, in the shape of a dowsing rod, with numerous metal bits, bobs, and gauges attached to it.

And the two ponies selling the contraptions to the eager crowd, trading sticks for hooffulls of gems, were the famously infamous Flim Flam Brothers.

“Now don’t push, don’t push. There are plenty of Great Gem Gauges to go around, though supplies are limited,” Flim shouted to the crowd as he passed out a trio of the devices with his magic.

“Yes,” Flam shouted as well. “So maybe you should push a little, but don’t hurt yourselves. How are you going to find all those gems if you go and hurt yourselves?”

“I should have known,” Spike said as he and Nyx watched the spectacle from behind a sealed barrel. “They probably got chased out of every decent pony town in Equestria when news of their miracle elixir got around.”

“Does that really matter right now? They can help us get out of here,” Nyx said as she and Spike moved to a nearby stalagmite, bringing themselves another few feet closer. After a few more steps, jumps, and a bit of squirming under a table, Nyx and Spike reached the back of the brothers’ cart. With their closer perspective, they could see the cart was a far cry from the mobile factory that was the Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000. It was just a cart with a magical engine attached in the simplest way possible. It was a nice cart, but from all the stories Nyx had heard, she expected more.

Still, after double checking to ensure no dog would see them, the pair climbed into the cart. Besides the piles of gem gauges, the brothers’ had a few provisions. A barrel of water was tucked away in one back corner of the cart while some crates and traveling bags were in the other. Nyx and Spike chose to hid behind the crates and bags, staying low just in case Duke or one of his cohorts were in the crowd.

“Psst!”

Spike hissed through his teeth and waved a claw, trying to get the moustached Flam’s attention. Yet both brothers were wrapped up in their sales, passing out the gauges and adding more and more gems to an ever growing pile. When Spike’s attempts continued to prove ineffective, Nyx gave it a try. She reached out with her magic, and gave the slightest tug on Flam’s moustache.

That managed to get his attention. Flam quickly turned to try and find the perpetrator of the moustache pulling, and his eyes quickly looked on the filly and dragon in their cart. He looked confused, for just a moment, but like a true salespony he didn’t let it trip him up for more than a moment. He passed out a few more gem gauges, then whispered something to Flim.

The clean shaven brother glanced Nyx and Spike’s way just a moment, then nodded before speaking even louder. “You know what. You fine canines have been such wonderful customers, it’s time for a Great Gem Gauge Giveaway! That’s right. The first dog to answer the following question gets a free Gem Gauge. What is the average number of teeth in a diamond dog’s mouth?”

Immediately, the crowd of dogs were distracted, opening their mouths and trying to count their teeth. It was a perfect distraction, letting Flam step over to the corner of the cart and duck his head down. He looked at the two incredulously, almost as if looking at mice he had found nibbling in a pantry. “I know you. You’re that lizard that brought that hourglass to our cider competition in Ponyville. What’s your name? Spear, Nail, Skewer?”

“Spike, and I’m not a lizard. I’m a dragon.”

“Don’t dragons breathe fire?” Flam asked with a raised eyebrow.

Spike gave a small puff of fire from his nostrils. “You want me to singe your mustache off to prove it?”

Flam lifted a hoof to his face, quickly guarding his precious facial hair. “That won’t be necessary, but that doesn’t tell me what you’re doing in our cart, what you’re doing this far from Ponyville, or who the squirt is.” Flam focused in on Nyx, and his eyebrow curled up as his eyes drifted between Nyx’s forehead and her back. “Wait a minute, what’s with those eyes, that horn, and them wings? That’d make you... but now that bottom line doesn’t add up. It don’t add up one bit. There are four princesses in Equestria, though they seem sure to be popping up like weeds as of late.”

“I’m not really a princess,” Nyx said, trying to be pleasant to their best hope of escape while Spike seemed content to scowl at Flam. “But can you help us? We got kidnapped by some of these diamond dogs. They’re holding us ransom.”

“A ransom, you say,” Flam said, stroking his moustache. “Well, I supposed my brother and I can’t leave fellow equines to these rough and tumble dogs, but we aren’t leaving until we’ve sold our stock of gem gauges.”

“Or until the dogs realize they’re worthless.” Spike reached out and picked up one of the gauges. “Let me guess, you two just bolted some metal to sticks.”

“I’ll have you know we’ve applied the highest quality gem finding charm to those sticks. But yes, the metal is just for show. You have to know your audience, after all, and diamond dogs aren’t going to believe a naked stick can find them gems.”

“But the charm can’t recharge,” Nyx said. She took the gem gauge from Spike, turning it over in her own little levitation charm. She was inspecting the stick as if examining a complex puzzle, using the one skill she had gotten fairly proficient at in the past year: magical analysis. It was a skill Twilight was more than eager to encourage, and something that could be done with very little magic. “If it could, it’d be drawing on my levitation spell. Once the charge is gone, then the sticks will stop working.”

“Yes, but we’ll be long gone by then,” Flam assured with a slick, salespony smile. “The charm only activates if the stick is held by something with a heartbeat, and it’s got enough power for two hours of continuous use.”

“How long have you two been here?” Spike asked.

“Two and a half hours, but don’t worry. I doubt any one dog has been using his gem gauge for that long.”

“Hey! Mine stopped working!”

Flam stood up straight, he and Flim looking to one fairly large bulldog that was pushing his way through the crowd. He slapped his gem gauge down on the ground right in front of the cart, then pointed at it like it was a misbehaving pet. “It stopped finding gems. Fix it!” That one dog was joined by others that had been among the first to buy the Flim Flam’s product. With each new dissatisfied canine that appeared, the crowd’s mood progressively shifted into that of a pack of angry dogs.

“Oh... well... you see...” Flim stammered, pulling at the collar of his undershirt with a little whiff of magic.

“There is a very logical, reasonable, and crowd-appeasing—” Flam felt the tug of a spell on his moustache again, and he looked back down at his two unexpected guests.

“Say it’s a factory defect. Tell them you’ll fix all of the gauges,” Nyx said as she held up one of the gem gauges. “Then apply a second charm that can recharge the first. You could use the metal decorations to anchor the charm.”

“But then we can’t sell replacements if we ever return,” Flam argued.

Spike snatched the gem gauge and waved it at Flim, threatening to conk him on the nose. “Do you really think these dogs would let you come back if you swindle them now?”

“Fair point,” Flam said before clearing his throat and sitting up straight. “My dear canines, we must express our deepest apologies. Upon closer inspection, we have discovered these gem gauges do have a minor defect.”

Flim looked at his brother as he had just lost his mind. “They do?”

“Yes, but worry not, we can fix them all right here, right now.” Flam cast a levitation spell on the stick the first dissatisfied dog had thrown into the dirt. “You see, my dear canine, your gauge is not broken. It’s simple run out of power. But, with a little unicorn ingenuity, I can apply a Flim Flam Brother’s Patented Kinetic Screw Recharge Enchantment. With it, you’ll be able to put the power back in your gauge.”

Flam applied the charm, and then handed the gauge back to its owner. “Now sir, please, place both of your paws on the detecting tip of the gauge. Yes, very good. Now, work your paws back and forth to make it spin.”

The dog did as instructed, and the gauge began to spit out little sparks of magic. The crowd’s anger was disappeared by the display, all of them watching intently as if it was a grand firework display in a clear night sky.

“As you may notice, the sparks are red. But as you spin it, they’ll begin changing color to green. When they are green, that means your gem gauge is charged and ready to use.”

“Look! Look! Sparks already changing color!” The now satisfied diamond dog cheered.

Flam slipped over beside his brother, hurriedly whispering something into his ear. Flim nodded a few times, a smile spreading on his own face. The brother’s then parted, Flim clearing his throat and trying to get the crowd attention while Flam returned to Nyx and Spike.

“Okay you two, time to get to work,” Flam said as he began to rummage in some of the nearby travel bags.

“Work? For what?”

“Well, you were the ones that said you were trying to escape. Well, we’ll be glad to help you, but now that we have to fix all the gem gauges we sold, it’s going to take us longer to leave. Unless, of course, you help. So congratulations, you two have been promoted from escapees to gem gauge repair specialists.”

“But we can’t risk being seen.”

Flam began shifting the crates and bags from the corner of the cart, stacking them into what could be described as a fort constructed by a young pony. “I’ll hang a curtain over the hole and you two can pretend you're a vending machine. Dog puts a gem gauge in, you fix it, and then you slip it back out. Not a single canine will need to see what’s going on behind the curtain.”

After finishing stacking the boxes, Flam levitated the two inside the small space which was no larger than their previous cage. He then cracked open one of the crates on the top and removed a blank scroll. “Now, you have to apply the charms to fix the gem gauge. The charm is very entry level. You seem to have a handle on levitation, so these shouldn’t be beyond your skill. One is a basic kinetic dynamo charm, and the other is a firework enchantment. Apply them following these instructions and you shouldn’t have any trouble.”

Flam lowered the instructions, which he had burnt onto the paper with magic, into the box fort and gave them to Nyx. “I’ve also added some instructions for an upgrade. That’s where you come in, dragon. If a dog slides in their gem gauge with a gem, use your dragon fire to attach one of these.” Flam dropped a box in Spike’s lap, full of little metal gauges. “They’re magic detectors we got for a steal from a warehouse auction. They should act as nice little charge indicator. Just weld them on with your dragon fire.”

“Aren’t there child labor laws against stuff like this?” Spike asked as he picked up one of the bit sized gauges from the box.

“You’re not working for bits, you’re helping us get out of here faster so all four of us don’t end up being held for ransom.” Flam took the lid off one of the smallest crates, turned it over, and burnt some lettering in on the far side. He then leaned up against the exterior of the box fort, near the little window he had left. It was a basic sign for the diamond dogs, giving them instructions and saying how much the gem gauge upgrade cost.

“Now better get ready, you already got a nice big line.” With that Flam took a pair of light blankets out from one of the traveling bags. He draped them over the box fort, closing off the top as well as creating a parted curtain for the window. Spike glared at the blankets, looking to the same place he and Nyx had been able to see Flam just moments ago. He then sighed as the first gem gauge was slid through the window along with a gem.

“Well, guess we’d better get started.”

“Hey, it’s better than being in that cage with that old hay,” Nyx said, trying to stay positive as she began to read Flam’s instructions. She was surprised, to say the least. The instructions were detailed, and demonstrated a knowledge of magic Nyx wouldn’t have expected from the two salesponies. Normally there would need to be a fourth, more complex charm to link the three other bits of magic together. Yet, just by how the three charms were positioned on the stick, the resulting behavior would be as desired. It wouldn’t be as good as it could be. Twilight could probably make a much better gem finding device.

Yet Flam’s solution not only worked, but was easy and quick to assemble. The perfect thing for an ever growing line of diamond dogs wanting the repair.

~~~

The spiders remained silent as they skittered through their underground tunnels. It was hard to say how long they had been moving. Were they even in the Rainbow Range anymore? Why had the spiders gone so far out of their way to hunt? Why wasn’t the largest of them being cared for and snuggled like a pet by that rock troll in the distant south?

These questions and more rattled around in Twilight’s brain as she, Maud, Shining, and Cadance were transported by their captors. The anti-magic braces and cocoons proved an effective combination, and it wasn’t entirely uncomfortable. Twilight probably could have taken a nap in the silken strands if not for the perilous situation they found themselves in.

Yet, the journey seemed to finally be at an end. The spiders made a sudden turn from the long tunnel, entering one of many off shooting paths. The tunnel opened up into a larger cavern, and Twilight found herself being unceremoniously shaken off the back of the spider that had been carrying her. Her cocoon fell to the ground, bouncing a few times before landing in a pile with Maud, Shining, and Cadance. They looked no worse for wear, and in fact Cadance looked rested. It was further proof that the tarantulas’ silk was surprisingly comfortable.

“Mission successful!”

Twilight turned her attention to the spiders, who were congratulating one another. Some even looked to be dancing. Yet, as the celebration continued, the spiders began to burn. Green flames sprang from their bodies, and for a moment the cavern was bathed in the warm green glow until, finally, all that remained of the spiders was a swarm of changelings.

“We did it! Yeah, we did it!”

“Victory! Sweet victory!”

“Hey!” Twilight shouted, snapping the changelings out of their celebrations. “What is going on here?”

The changelings stared dumbfounded at Twilight for a moment, then began to laugh like a cackling chorus. One moved forward from the group, looking indistinguishable from the others yet commanding Twilight’s attention. He made a clicking noise with his mouth, and a few changelings responded. They set Twilight, Shining, Cadance, and Maud rightside up before quickly retreating back into the swarm.

“You, foolish ponies, have stumbled upon the greatest secret of the changeling hive. A plan set in motion long before the assault on Canterlot. A plan so dark and evil, that only we, Queen Chrysalis’ most loyal, were entrusted with its completion. You, my little ponies, have stumbled into Operation Sweet Maple!” the commanding changeling shouted, drawing more cheers, hoots, and hollers from the rest of the secret swarm.

“But why were you spiders?”

Maud’s question, dry and pointed, brought the swarm to a still silence. They then began to laugh, none louder than the commanding changeling who strode up to Maud. “Pitiful, stupid, dirt ponies. We know you are not smart enough to comprehend our genius. Not like your three companions, who have extra space for brains in their head cones. Please, tell your stupid friend why we were spiders.”

“How are we supposed to know?” Cadance asked.

The commanding changeling flicked his ears a moment, then pointed an accusing hoof at his four captives. “You aren’t! For that is how brilliant our plan is.” More cheers of jubilation and praise rose from the rest of the swarm. The commander bathed in the admiration of the others for a few minutes before stomping his hoof. The cheering ended just as quickly as it began, and the commander turned back to his four captives.

“We were spiders so that we could blend with the local fauna of these mountains for Operation Sweet Maple. You see, these simple mountain dirt ponies love only three things. They love their families, they love their work, and they love their maple syrup. So we have been endeavoring to slowly but surely build up a cache of love unlike the world has ever known by feeding off the dirt ponies’ love of maple syrup. And once our task is complete, we shall present the love to our beautiful queen so that she might use its power to doom you all!”

Once more the swarm broke into cheers and jubilation, all while Twilight stared at them in utter confusion. Her mind was trying to follow the logic. They were disguising themselves as giant spiders to hide? They couldn’t possibly hide as a gang of giant spiders. And why, when there was much more plentiful forms of love available, were they trying to feed off the love of ponies for maple syrup? Sure, maple syrup was good, but she wouldn’t personally say she loved it.

“Are you all stupid?”

Twilight had been moments from asking the same thing herself, but had been beaten to the punch by Cadance. The commander changeling hissed, rushing up to Cadance and glaring her down. “Do not claim stupidity when you simply fail to grasp our brilliance. You shall be punished for such slander. Yes, punished in the most horrible way possible. The changeling hive will sing songs of how gruesome your punishment will be. Our queen shall tell the tale for generations to come.”

Shining struggled inside his cocoon, twisting his head and flexing to try and overpower the constraining strands. “I won’t let you hurt Cadance.”

“You won’t let us?!” The commanding changeling laughed, little bits of changeling goo flying from his mouth. “What are you going to do to stop us? Your magic is bound. Your hooves are wrapped in the silk we painstakingly crafted to complete our spidery disguises. What are you going to do? Huh? What are you going to do?”

“What are you going to do?”

All eyes in the room turned to Maud, her dry question once more putting a dead stop to all other voices. The changeling swarm glanced between one another, and the commander’s eye twitched as he glared down Maud. “What do you mean? Have I not explained in gruesome detail what horrors I will enact on this pink pony?”

“No, you haven’t. You’ve just been shouting at us.”

The commander growled, but then turned away from Maud and began to rejoin the swarm. “You’ll find out your punishment in the morning. Until then, contemplate the gruesome possibilities while we attend to other important aspects of Operation Sweet Maple. Changelings, to the lower chambers!”

The swarm filed out of the room with practiced efficiency, disappearing into adjoining tunnels and leaving their four pony captives unattended and dumbfounded. Twilight’s eyebrow was arched as far as physically possible. “What just happened?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Shining answered. “There aren’t supposed to be changelings this far north, but they were acting strange. I’ve never heard one talk that much. I didn’t think any of them except the queen could actually talk intelligently.”

Cadance glanced in the direction where the changelings had gone before looking back at Shining and Twilight. “I don’t know if I’d really call what that one was saying ‘intelligent.’”

Author's Note:

Sorry this chapter was a little late, but the update schedule should resume normally going forward. Next chapter should be out around May 28th.

Also, if your wondering about the whole spiders thing, this is a reference to the IDW comics and these tough customers.

Finally, if you notice typos, please PM them to me instead of leaving them in the comments.

I hope everyone has a wonderful day, weekend, and week.