• 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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Who? What? I Don't Know!

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan

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Chapter 8

Who? What? I Don't Know!

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

Nyx wouldn’t deny it; she pictured her first night of official camping going differently.

Yes, there was a camp fire and they were using some old logs for seats. The stars were twinkling above, and the symphony of the forest at night serenaded them in the background. Spike was next to her, chewing on a cheap gem while she had been provided an apple and some leafy greens for dinner. All those things worked with her expectations.

Flim and Flam, however, replaced the ponies she would have wanted to go camping with, and any sort of fun activities were replaced with the brothers calculating their profits. Flim was keeping careful records, taking notes on each gem while Flam did the levitation. The pair had dumped every gem out of the wagon when they made camp, and were now working to return the trove of jewels back to the cart piece by piece.

“We’ve easily passed the double line, brother of mine,” Flim said, grinning ear to ear as he finished writing down the estimated value of a particularly large gem. He was using his magic to write, burning the numbers quickly into the page with a focused beam of magic instead of using ink or a quill. It was probably a very useful skill to develop for a traveling salespony, or for a cheapskate that didn’t want to waste money on ink and quills.

Nyx was still trying to decide which was truer for the Flim Flam Brothers.

“You two really were a stroke of good fortune,” Flam said, glancing over at Spike and Nyx as he continued levitating the lucrative gems in a conga line past Flim. “You’ve easily increased our profits by fifty percent.”

“Maybe even seventy-five,” Flim added.

“Isn’t it more important we saved you from facing a mob of angry diamond dogs?” Nyx asked as she munched on the dinner she had been provided.

Flim smiled, as if Nyx had just said an amusing joke. “Oh, I’m sure we would have managed.”

“We always do,” Flam said, the grin on his face matching his brother’s.

Spike rolled his eyes, took a bite out of what had been one of the cheapest gems from the pile, and spoke through his full mouth. “Yeah, con artists like you always manage to get away, until you don’t.”

Flam’s mustache flicked a little, and he glared down Spike from across the campfire. “We are not con artists. We are entrepreneurs and inventors. The creators of great and wonderful inventions that will better the lives of everypony across Equestria.”

“You’re as deluded as your miracle elixir,” Spike said before taking another bite from his gem. The conversation fell there, burning away in the pops and crackles of the campfire. Spike was content to stare into the distance and chew his gem. Flim and Flam focused on their gem counting, both parties choosing to simply ignore one another.

It was a situation that made Nyx frown, but one she did not try to remedy until her dinner was over. After eating the last bite of greens, she tossed the napkin that had been her plate into the fire. Without a meal to distract her, Nyx’s mind wandered to the stories Twilight had told her about the infamous brothers.

“How did it tell if an apple was good or bad?”

The sudden break in silence made Flam turn his head away from the gemstone levitation line. “Sorry, didn’t catch that.”

“In your cider machine, how did it tell if an apple was good or bad?”

Flam looked back to the gems, remaining silent for a moment before deciding to answer. “It was a comparison enchantment. We created some magical templates of different varieties of apples and the spell made the comparison. If the apple didn’t match any of the templates sufficiently, the apple was rejected and dropped by a pair of movable conveyor belts.”

“And how did it make the cider?”

Flam shrugged, as if the question was sublimely simple. “Same way Applejack and her family make cider. It used a grinding wheel.”

“So, then what—”

“Now hold on there, kid,” Flim said, setting down the scroll he was using to tally their profits. Flam also returned the uncounted gems back to the pile on the ground. “Our Super Speedy Cider Squeezy Six Thousand is a one of a kind machine, and is full of trade secrets. You can’t just go asking about every detail of its design. Not unless you’re willing to pay for it.”

Spike furrowed his brow and motioned to Nyx with a claw. “How exactly is she supposed to pay? We don’t have any bits.”

Flim and Flam took a seat at the fire, the pair glancing at one another with confident smiles before looking back at their unexpected guests. “Well, we do have a few questions of our own we’d like to ask. So how about we make it a fair trade? We’ll answer a question if you answer a question.”

“That seems fair,” Nyx said, cutting off Spike who opened his mouth to say something. That something, however, would remain unsaid as Flim and Flam didn’t waste a moment.

“Just so we all know exactly where we stand, let’s get this little mystery off the table,” Flim said. “Now, we’ve been talking, comparing notes, and we just want to verify one little thing. Are you the Nightmare Moon that took over Equestria last Summer? And remember, be truthful.”

“Because you can’t con a con pony,” Flam added.

Nyx flattened her ears, but after a few moments nodded her head. “Yes, I’m the same pony, but I’m not like that anymore.”

“Oh, we don’t doubt that,” Flam said, though he and Flim were still smiling. “I doubt anypony with a mean streak like that would have let herself get caught by diamond dogs.”

“That and you did say you’re tagging along with this little fire-starter.” Flim motioned to Spike, who stuck his tongue out at the stallion. “And we know he’s in close with Princess Twilight. So, second question.”

“But isn’t it my turn?” Nyx asked.

Flim wagged his hoof, as if lecturing a much younger pony. “Now now, you got to ask two questions first. We’re just zeroing out the books. Now, you're still a full blooded alicorn, correct? You aren’t just a unicorn with wings after getting zapped or rainbowed or whatever turned you back from the mare that was taking over Equestria.”

“I think so,” Nyx answered, though she didn’t know for sure what Flim and Flam were trying to get at. Could a pony have wings and a horn without being an alicorn?

“Wonderful. Now, in light of our heroism in assisting in your escape as well as the transportation and company we’ll be providing to get you home, would you be willing to part with some of your feathers and a sample of your magic?”

“Hey, that’s your third question,” Spike snapped while pointing an accusing claw at the brothers.

Flam shrugged his shoulders. “Why ruin the momentum? Besides, if the kid here agrees to our little request we’ll let her ask all the questions she wants.”

Spike hopped down from his seat on the log and stomped towards the brothers. “And why do you want that stuff?”

“Sorry, trade secret,” the brothers said in perfect unison, as if the phrase was one they knew by heart.

Spike gritted his teeth and formed a fist with one claw, but he didn’t throw a punch. He just turned back around to face Nyx. “Don’t give these crooks a thing.”

“Oh, why don’t you relax and take a break from the bossy dragon routine? I hear nothing unwinds a dragon like fire.” Flim used a little shove of magic to knock Spike into the fire pit. Spike made a small yelp, but was otherwise unharmed. His fireproof scales provided all the protection he could need as he got up and dusted himself clean of the ashes.

Nyx glanced back and forth between Flim, Flam, and Spike, but then focused on the brothers. “You have to tell me why you want it before I’ll give it to you.”

“Now now, kid, it isn’t your turn to ask a question.”

“I didn't ask a question. I made a statement.”

The brothers glanced at one another, then chuckled. “You’ve got a quick wit, kid,” Flam said. “It’s all about the magic. Every kind of pony has different kind of magic, but in alicorns that magic gets all mixed together. It becomes more powerful and more potent, just the kind of thing to really put some kick into our magical inventions. Now, we’ll admit, we’ve tried before to recreate the mixture, but have never quite got the ratio right. That’s why we’d like to try and get a baseline.”

Nyx eyed the brothers before glancing at Spike. He was shaking his head, as if trying to wave her off from her actions, but her curiosity was getting the better of her. She had a dozen of questions she wanted to ask, but one in particular was burning in her mind. “I’ll agree if you two answer my next question honestly.”

Flim glanced at Flam. Flam glanced at Flim. Then, together, they smiled and nodded. “Deal.”

Nyx nodded her head in return. “Okay, why don’t you two sell good inventions instead of junk?”

The smiles on the brothers’ faces quickly fell into frowns. “What do you mean by that?” Flim asked.

“Twilight told me about your cider machine. You two tried to put Applejack’s family out of business with it, but the machine itself sounded amazing. Twilight is really good at magic, but she admitted that she was impressed. She said that you two had to be very talented magical engineers to put together a device like that which was capable of operating autonomously on raw unicorn magic.

“But after that, all you two seem to be doing is trying to cheat,” Nyx continued. “You made that fake elixir, and just today you tried to sell those faulty Gem Gauges. Would it have been really that much more difficult to make them work right in the first place? I mean, you were able to give me and Spike instructions on how to fix the gauges. Couldn’t you have just sold something that really works in the first place?”

Flim stood up and picked up the scroll, intending to return to his gem counting. “Listen, kid, we learned our lesson after the Super Speedy Cider Squeezy Six Thousand. We put everything we had into that machine and ponies still went and chased us off. Doing it right isn’t worth the time and effort.”

“That’s your own fault,” Spike said, raising his voice. “Sure the machine was great, but you two were horrible. You were trying to steal Applejack’s business away.”

“We offered her a chance for a partnership.”

“At twenty five percent when her family were the ones growing the apples! You two were just greedy, and trust me, a dragon knows greed when he sees it.”

Flim just rolled his eyes. “You two are just too young to understand. Come on, Flam, we have to have these gems counted before we go to bed.”

“Be right there, brother of mine,” Flam said, getting up from his seat at the fire. His eyes lingered on Nyx and Spike a moment, then he twitched his mustache and frowned. He turned around, and resumed his task of levitating the gems so Flim could continue his tally. Spike just shook his head at the pair while Nyx continued to watch, a small frown on her own lips.

Maybe the answer had been honest, but that didn’t mean she had to like it.

~~~

The subtle shuffling of dirt went unnoticed in the changeling outpost. The gentle crumbling from the ceiling was seen by none in the empty tunnel. A hole formed, just wide enough for the smallest of mice, but it steadily grew as tiny paws scraped at the edges. First came a wet canine nose, then the head of a dog not much bigger than a loaf of pony bread. But at the moment, the diamond dog’s size was to his advantage.

Biscuit turned his head around, checking the tunnel for any sign of life before he dropped from the ceiling. He landed quietly, with only a few crumbs of dirt and pebbles announcing anything had happened at all. Still, Biscuit did not linger in the middle of the floor. He darted for the wall, ducking behind a stalagmite. “Ponies?” he whispered as he craned his neck and propped up one of his flopped ears open with a paw.

There was no reply. Biscuit shrank back behind the stalagmite, growling and gritting his teeth. “Why Biscuit worried about ponies? Ponies wouldn’t worry about him. Should go back to Duke, tell him where ponies are. Then we come take ponies back.” The growl in Biscuit’s throat died. “But ponies likely escape before we come, then where is Biscuit? He has no gems and mad Duke. Biscuit help ponies, he might get more gems. Duke still be mad, but who care! Biscuit have gems!

“But where ponies?” Biscuit sniffed at the air. “Know they’re here. I can smell them. That and smoke. Changelings stink of burning from all their fiery disguise magic.” With a snort and a shake of his head, Biscuit took a single step out from the stalagmite. A plume of green light in the distant tunnel, however, made him quickly retreat back into hiding. He heard the clicking of hooves, and soon a single changeling came striding down the tunnel. To Biscuit, it was like any other changeling. It had holes in the legs and looked like a bug that needed to be squashed.

What interested Biscuit was the sound accompanying the changelings steps. He or she was wearing saddlebags, and they were clinking. It was a musical sound to a diamond dog. It sounded like gems, two whole bags full of them. A smile played at Biscuit’s lips even as he hugged the back side of the stalagmite, ensuring he wasn’t seen as the changeling slowly passed. Biscuit went unnoticed, the changeling continuing down the tunnel with a flat, tired expression.

Biscuit waited until the changeling was almost out of sight, then made his move. He moved to another stalagmite, and then another. He stalked the changeling, grinning as the clinking sound continued to serenade him. “Must be a dozen gems. Diamonds? No, rubies and emeralds,” Biscuit whispered. “Ponies can wait. Must see why changeling has gems. Maybe they have more. Maybe Biscuit could help himself to a few, or as many as he could carry.”

Changelings didn’t need gems anyway, not like ponies or diamond dogs.

The changeling descended a set of steps, going into a lower tunnel before taking the first right turn. Biscuit lingered at the top of the steps for just a moment, then sprinted down them before pressing himself up against the wall. He peeked around the corner, for just a moment, then retreated back again. He licked his nose and swallowed a knot in his throat before finding the courage to peek again.

The room beyond was filled with changelings, dozens of them. They were all facing a single raised platform, where one changeling was pacing back and forth as if deep in thought. On the far wall was a great deal of changeling goo that had been smeared into shapes and pictures. It looked like the work of some young pup to Biscuit, speaking of no artistic talent. He couldn’t even tell what some of the pictures were supposed to be, if they were to represent anything.

“Ahah!”

The sudden shout of the changeling on the platform made Biscuit retreat back behind his corner, as if he had been seen. Yet, when he didn’t hear the telltale stampede of changelings in pursuit, Biscuit dared to look again. The lead changeling was smearing the goo on the wall around, making a picture. To Biscuit, it looked like a giraffe choking on a broom.

“We’ll make the ponies eat hay until they are stupid like the scarecrows in their fields. Then, we’ll use them as scarecrows. We’ll put them in the fields of Lumberton and they will spy on their own kind all for the glory of the hive!”

“But what if they don’t like hay?” one of the changelings in the swarm asked.

The changeling on the platform cursed and threw a glob of goo at the one that had spoken up. “Curses, you’re right. The scarecrow plan relies too heavily on them having an insatiable hunger for hay. We must think of something else.”

“What are you doing now?”

The new voice was from another changeling, one that was climbing up onto the platform with the first. It was the one Biscuit had been stalking, he could tell by the saddlebags it wore. That and he was able to notice a few other differences now that he saw the two changelings standing next to one another. The one he had been following was shorter than the others, like a teenager to an adult.

“Ah, S-43, I trust your mission was successful?” The artistically challenged changeling licked his lips as an excited chittering began to come from the rest of the swarm. The smaller changeling just rolled its eyes, but levitated off its saddlebags and opened the flaps. Biscuit was excited for a moment, but that feeling died quickly. The gems he thought he had heard were really snow globes, dozens of snow globes that glowed with a pink hue.

“Yes, I got dinner,” the bag-carrying changeling said. Its voice was an octave higher. Perhaps it was a female. That was how diamond dogs worked, and Biscuit couldn’t think of a reason why changelings wouldn’t be the same.

“Excellent! Come, my fellow drones of Outpost S, let us feast!” The lead changeling took the bag, and began tossing out the snow globes to the clamoring crowd. Each snow globe thrown was promptly caught and opened. That released the pink energy within, forming explosive clouds that the changelings began to dance in. They sipped on the clouds.

“They are stranger than ponies,” Biscuit said, sniffing and quickly sneezing out a bit of the pink haze. It smelled like music, which was a mind-boggling message for him to process. Yet, that was what his mind came up with based on the mist’s scent. It smelled of music, and the confusion only further diminished Biscuit's interest. No gems, strange smelling smoke. He was getting ready to slip away and search the hive for the ponies when he heard the smaller changeling speaking again.

“Now, S-1, care to tell me what all this stuff on the wall is about?”

“We are trying to figure out what to do with our new captives.”

The smaller changeling blinked, then groaned and shook her head. “I thought I told you squirrels don’t count as captives.”

“The squirrels will meet their destined doom, this I swear to you, S-43,” S-1 said as he cracked open a snow globe of his own. The pink cloud exploded into his face, but he drank up the mist quickly before closing up the snow globe and tossing it back to S-43. “But no, this time we have captives far more valuable than squirrels. We have ponies.”

S-43 dropped the snow globe she was levitating and barely managed to catch the sphere of glass before it smashed against the ground. “You caught ponies?”

“Yes, four of them. They were coming down the trail while we were out on our daily spider-form exercises, and they’re real special. Two of them have wings and horns.”

S-43 brought her forehooves to S-1’s neck. For a moment Biscuit thought he was going to see a bug squash another bug, but S-43 only went as far as to ensure she had S-1’s attention. “You caught princesses?! Have you reported to Queen Chrysalis?”

“Oh, short, stupid S-43,” S-1 said, patting it on the head before freeing it from her hooves. “Our mission here is to continue Operation Sweet Maple. That is all our beautiful, tall, and wise queen cares about. If we went calling her up for every little troop movement and pony event, we’d be the laughing stocks of the other outposts.”

“But you... caught princesses. What color were they?”

S-1 shrugged as he took another snow globe and let another cloud of pink envelope his face. “I don’t know. I think the fat one was pink, and the loud one was gray. No, maybe that was the purple one. The gray one was the stupid dirt pony.”

“Cadance and Twilight... you caught Cadance and Twilight!” S-43 stared dumbfounded, trying to find words as the changelings all around her just reveled in the snow globes she had brought. Then she bolted, flying over the swarm and straight to where Biscuit was hiding.

Biscuit managed to duck back behind his corner before she got too close, pressing himself against the wall as if attempting to become nothing more than dog-colored graffiti. The changeling called S-43 bolted past him, racing down the tunnel before making a left turn into an adjoining cavern. There was more clattering and clanking, and once more the sound was reminding Biscuit of gems. Perhaps he had simply been away from jewels for too long, but he couldn’t deny his curiosity.

He quickly bolted across the opening to the larger cavern, then ran down the tunnel until he was at the archway where S-43 had disappeared. A green glow was now emanating from within, and as Biscuit looked inside, it was very easy for him to see the source. A large green crystal ball, looking to be nothing more than gloried glass, sat on a pedestal. Within its smooth surface, cloudy shapes were swirling until a figure took shape.

“Who is it?” The voice came from the crystal, though Biscuit could not make out who was speaking. The changeling S-43 was blocking his view, but he could still clearly hear the conversation going on.

The shorter changeling saluted the sphere. “Central hive, this is Sierra Forty-Three of Outpost Sierra reporting in. I have important news for the queen. Please, I need a direct connection.”

“Only S-1 can request a direct connection to her majesty. What is so important that you think you take up some of your queen’s precious time?”

“We have captured two high value targets.”

A snerk came from the sphere. “What, has Outpost S captured another army of squirrels bent on disrupting your precious mission?”

“No! It’s not squirrels! We have—”

“Whatever it is, S-43, you need to follow the rules. Outpost S is only to report progress on Operation Sugar Sap once every few months. The queen will hear all about your captives in a few weeks. Central Hive out.”

“No, wait, we have the—” The sphere went dark before S-43 could say another word, and for a moment everything was still. S-43 had her hooves on the sphere, resting her weight against the once glowing orb. Biscuit then ducked back a bit, only keeping one eye peeked around the corner as he heard a deep growl coming from the changeling.

Like fire tossed on gunpowder, she began to rampage. Bursts of magic, unsavory words, bucks, and kicks flowed through her body like she was a rolling explosion. She hit the sphere, the wall, the ceiling, and the floor. Nothing in the chamber was properly damaged, but the scorch marks from her magic let smoldering trails of smoke into the air.

“Fine! You want to treat me like that!? Maybe I should help the ponies escape! What would central hive think about that?! Maybe then you’d bother to remember the name of the useless mission you’ve put us on!” S-43 screamed before sending another blast of magic at the orb. The changeling then began to calm, taking deep breathes as she continued to stare down the crystal ball. It was like she was waiting for it to give her another excuse to blast it.

Biscuit watched this, the gears in his brain spinning. He had an idea. It was crazy. It was foolish. Yet, it was probably the fastest way for him to save the ponies, and the faster he saved them the more gems they were likely to give. It was as if every second wasted was another precious gem being taken from his possible reward.

So, to maximize his payoff, Biscuit stepped out from his corner.

“You really want to help ponies?”

S-43 spun her head around, glaring down the unexpected intruder. Biscuit waved and smiled back, and immediately began regretting aspects of his decision.

~~~

“We’ve got them!”

Those three words were better than any alarm clock for waking Flim and Flam. The two brothers bolted up and ignored the dirt and leaves in their mane as they scrambled to their hooves. With a spark of magic, Flim brought new life to the campfire, tossing on several logs while Flam quickly rushed back to check the cart. All the gems were accounted for. Not one was out of place. Yet, in the light of the renewed fire, the two could see exactly who was shouting those three hated words and why.

A pack of diamond dogs had come into their camp, but their interest was not in the cart of gems. If it had been, the brothers’ security spells would have been set off. Instead, they saw a few of the dogs were holding Nyx and Spike, silencing their protests. At the same time, two of the pack, a particularly large dog and a long, lean, and narrow snouted one approached the brothers.

“Gentle... dogs,” Flam said, forcing a smile. “Is there something we can help you with?”

“Did you help these two escape den?” The long-snouted Diamond Dog asked, a deep snarl in each word. He pointed back at Nyx and Spike, but never took his eyes off the brothers.

“Them? We’ve never seen them before in our lives,” Flim said, sounding like a defendant on a witness stand.

“Then why were they sleeping by your fire?”

Flim laughed, smiled, then laughed again. “Why, there is a very plain and logical explanation for that. Isn’t there, Flam?”

“But of course,” Flam responded, smoothing his mustache with a bit of magic. “They must have escaped from your den on their own and stowed away in our cart.”

The long-snouted dog leaned in close, glaring down the two brothers for several long seconds before finally turning away. “Fine, then you won’t care if we take them back with us.”

“Not at all,” Flim said. “Please, feel free to take them wherever you want. I hear Whinnyland is wonderful this time of year. Lovely weather and no lines. Isn’t that right, Flam?”

“Y-yes, of course!” Flam answered back. His eyes flicked away from the lead dog, who was motioning for the rest of the pack to follow him, and looked to Nyx and Spike. Spike was glaring daggers at them, and struggling with all his strength against his captor’s grip. The diamond dog in question, however, had a glove on the paw he was using to hold Spike’s mouth. Though Flam couldn’t be sure from a distance, he guessed it was something fireproof. Still, without saying a word, Spike was accusing the brothers of being exactly what he thought they were all along.

Nyx’s gaze was not as aggressive, but was just as punishing if not more. Her eyes kept flicking back and forth between the brothers, pleading for them to do something. There was no accusation. There was no anger, just a plead. A plead for them to do the right thing. Normally such eyes would not faze the fast talking Flim Flam Brothers. They had turned away ponies with the same eyes who were asking for refunds.

But this time, a lingering of what Nyx said earlier was picking at the back of Flam’s brain.

“Wait.”

The dogs all stopped, turning back around. Flim was looking at his brother like his head had just popped like a confetti filled balloon. “Why wait?” The long-snouted dog and Flim asked in unison.

“I have something to admit,” Flam said, taking a step forward. He hung on that word for a moment, looking across all the diamond dogs. He then abruptly turned his head and pointed an accusing hoof at Flim. “My brother helped those two escape.”

“I did no such thing,” Flim snapped back. The two brothers turned to face one another. Flim was glaring down Flam with honest confusion, but the mustached brother didn’t offer a word in reply. He motioned with his eyes once, then winked with his right eye. Flim understood the message, the horrified expression on his face made it clear. He shook his head once, trying to stop what Flam was doing. Flam, however, had already turned back to the diamond dogs.

“Yes, I saw my brother talking to those two while we were selling our Great Gem Gauges. He must have been promising to smuggle them out of the city. Please, good sirs, take him with you and teach him why it is so unwise to cross such mighty and powerful diamond dogs.”

Flim stomped a few steps forward. The brothers were now face to face, on either side of the fire. They began to circle, horns glowing threateningly with magic. “Take me? Take him for being such a liar. I can’t believe my own brother would besmirch my honor like this. Why, I bet you were the one that helped them, and now you’re just trying to pawn me off on these dogs so you can take all our gems for yourself.”

“Are you calling me a thief?”

“If the mustache fits,” Flim snapped back.

Flam’s magic flared, and several gems were taken from the cart. He circled them around his body, like a threatening maelstrom of stones. “I’ll teach you, you backalley barker.” Flim did the same, the two brothers now circling the fire as they threatened one another with a bludgeoning of gemstones.

“You couldn’t sell selzer to a sad clown to save your life.” Flim launched one gem forward. Flam juked his head to the left, allowing the gem to zip past and imbed itself in one of the trees near the campsite.

“Should we stop them, Duke?” The largest dog asked, lapping up drool that tried to escape his mouth on each syllable. The long-snouted dog, Duke, held up a paw and shook his head. He was watching the developing fight with a big grin, as if finding perverse entertainment in seeing two ponies going after one another.

Flam used his magic to put several gems together into a single, large wrecking ball of crystal. All it took then was a surge of magic to drive the sphere at Flim’s head. The clean-shaven brother ducked and rolled, then shot a few more of his gems at Flam. “You fight like my sister,” he taunted as he picked himself up off the ground.

“We have the same sister,” Flam snapped as he took another swing with the wrecking ball. “And she fights better than you do, so I’ll take that as a compliment.” Flam began calling on more and more gems from the cart, creating a swarm of crystal that swirled through the air with murderous intent. “You can’t hope to win, brother. I’ve always been better at magic.”

“I believe you're confused, brother of mine. The only thing you're good at is running your mouth.” Flim began levitating more of the gems as well. Between the two brothers, they had emptied the cart and were holding their entire hoard of jewels in the air above their heads. “I am the master of magic between the two of us.”

“Really? Are you ready to put your money where your mouth is?”

“I’ll gladly shove every one of these precious jewels down your throat.”

The brothers stopped circling the campfire, their stance parallel to the line of diamond dogs that were watching the evolving fight. Some were whispering between one another, taking bets on who would win. Duke was just wearing a big grin as he watched with his forearms crossed, like a ruler watching gladiators fight in his arena.

“No more talking,” Flam said as he furrowed his brow.

Flim cracked his neck. “No more insults.”

“Now, we settle this.” The two spoke unison as they turned their heads to look at the dogs. The smile fell from the Duke’s face, but before he could bark an order, the brothers’ trap was sprung. Flim and Flam started hurling their hoard of gems. The first volley knocked several dogs out with swift blows to the head. Those that remained began to scramble and dove for cover. Nyx and Spike were released, and immediately the two sprinted to hide behind Flim and Flam.

“No! Don’t let them get aw—” Duke tried to shout, but in the moment he dared to poke his head out from behind his arms a gem smacked him square in the eye. He tumbled over backward into the largest dog’s arms, who quickly began to carry Duke back. They joined the other dogs in retreat, the whole pack quickly disappearing into the night.

“Ha! That’s right. Run home with your tails between your legs,” Flam shouted. He turned to Flim, grinning about the victory until he saw the deep frown on his brother’s face. Flam forced his smile a little bigger. “Your performance was marvelous brother. Really, it was. I truly felt like you wanted to break my nose with a gem of equal or greater size.”

“Oh, I wasn’t acting that part,” Flim said as he began to return the unthrown gems to their cart. “What were you thinking? They were just going to take those two and leave. We were off the hook. Why go and make ourselves part of a situation?”

“Well, we don’t know for certain if the magic sample we’ll get from the kid is going to be very potent. I mean, look at her. She’s so short, but Princess Twilight is a good, strong, adult alicorn, and I imagine she’ll be very grateful we returned these two unharmed. Why not hedge our bets and get some additional samples? If we can finally crack the secret to alicorn magic, then won’t it be worth a hundred carts of gems?”


“I hope you’re right, brother, because we have now officially lost these profits.” Flim called on his magic, pulling a pair of rough and worn saddlebags from the cart. “Those dogs will be back, and we’re not going to stay ahead of them, even with a self-propelling cart. So, now help me gather the most profitable percentage of our profits before those dogs come back.”

“Let me lend you a claw.” Flim and Flam looked over, seeing Spike had climbed up into the cart and was now picking through the pile of gems. “I am a dragon after all. I can spot the best gems faster than any pony.”

“Okay, me and the dragon will worry about the gems.” Flim walked over to the cart, beginning to levitate a few of the gems he knew were high value from the inventory they had done earlier. “You and the kid get the fire out and make some fake tracks. Maybe that will buy us some time before the diamond dogs come and make us regret our little show.”

“We’ll get right on that, brother.” Flam laughed a little, feeling the fear leave his system. “For a moment there,” he said, directing his head slightly in Nyx’s direction. “I thought he was actually going to break my nose.” He then looked at Nyx. The small filly was wearing a very happy, if perhaps smug, smile. “What are you grinning about?”

“Oh nothing,” Nyx said, trying to reel in her smile but failing. “So, how do we make fake tracks?”

“We've just got to start walking off into the forest in some direction and then I’ll levitate us back to the camp. We just need to do that a few times,” he said, turning and starting the process. Nyx followed behind, still grinning in a way that was almost infectious.

“So, you and Flim said I could ask all the questions I wanted earlier, but then you two went back to counting gems. Can I ask some of my other questions now?”

Flam sighed, but nodded his head. “Sure, kid, just don’t fall behind. We want to make at least three fake trails before my brother and the dragon finish loading the bags.”

“Spike, his name is Spike and mine is Nyx.”

“I’ll try to remember that. Now, what did you want to ask?”

“What was the first thing you and your brother invented together?”

~~~

“You will now tell me everything I want to know or suffer my neverending wrath,” the changeling leader hissed, the blinding cone of light from his horn flashing in Twilight’s face. She winced and looked away, though brightly colored spots still danced behind her eyelids.

“I can’t answer any questions when I can’t see,” Twilight said.

“Lies!” the changeling leader bellowed. “I know for a fact that ponies do not require their eyes for thinking or speaking. Such a trick might work on lesser changelings, but I am too smart for such tactics. You use your eyes for seeing and for the conveying of secret messages. It says so in this intelligence booklet my drones intercepted from one of your mountain scouting parties.”

The changeling held up the booklet in question, which was in fact a mare’s fashion magazine. The biggest headline on the front cover, next to a picture of a pegasus with particularly large and feathery wings, was “The ten secrets your stallion’s eyes are telling you.”

Twilight looked at Shining, Cadance, and Maud. She had been taken a few feet away from the others, singled out while still being kept in the same room. Maud’s face was as emotionless as always. Cadance and Shining, on the other hoof, mimicked Twilight’s own confused expression.

“Do not look away from me, pony.” The changeling used his magic to turn Twilight’s head back forward. “Now, tell me, what is the purpose of your mountain scouting parties? Have you uncovered Operation Sweet Maple? What is the secret to their patrol routine? Why do they frequently stop in the night to sing and cook the things call s’mores?”

“Are you talking about hikers?”

“Ah, so that’s what you call them: high kickers. Are they specially trained to kick objects very high? What are their offensive and defensive capabilities? Tell me.” The changeling leaned in uncomfortably close, eyelid twitching as he entered an unofficial staring contest with Twilight.

“They aren’t high kickers,” Twilight said as she crained her head back, trying to reestablish her personal space. “They’re hikers and campers. They’re in the mountains to have fun. They aren’t on any mission.”

“You cannot deceive me. Your intelligence booklets clearly indicate you ponies dislike sweat, and all those scouting parties do is walk and sweat. Walk, sweat, and eat those mushy, disgusting s’mores. No right minded creature would endure such things for entertainment.”

“Dinner time.”

The changeling in front of Twilight winced, and turned around to glare at another, shorter changeling that was coming into the room. “S-43, how dare you interrupt me during my interrogation? I am this close to cracking the secrets of the high kickers.”

“The word is hikers!”

“Silence, you,” the lead changeling snapped, glaring back at Twilight just a moment before redirecting his aggression back at the changeling called S-43. “Now, explain yourself.”

“You want the captives to be alive long enough for you to interrogate, don’t you? Then they need dinner. Don’t worry, it’s the lowest of their food. It’s hay.” S-43 approached Cadance, Shining, and Maud, using her magic to levitate three masses of hay into the range of the trio’s mouths. “I’ll wait until you're done with the purple one before feeding her.”

“Well... good, you do that, and do it quietly! The art of interrogation is a fine and delicate one, and a master must not be disturbed.”

“Yes sir, S-1.”

The changeling leader, S-1, made a grunt as he nodded his head once. He then looked back at Twilight, grinning. “Now, pony, you will tell me your most prized and guarded secrets.” He paused a moment, licking his lips and leaving a little trail of goo on his face. It made Twilight grimace and shiver.

“What do ponies love more,” S-1 said, nearly shouting in Twilight’s ear. “Is it pancakes with syrup or is it waffles with syrup?”

“No. No more. I can’t take anymore. I’ll tell you anything. Really, just let me go. I can’t imagine suffering such tortures.”

Twilight and S-1 turned and looked at Maud. Twilight was entirely confused. Maud had grown up with Pinkie Pie. If anything, S-1’s line of questioning was laughable, but it could not have been as torturous as some of the things a young, energetic Pinkie Pie had done. Well, maybe it was a little painful, but just because of how moronic the questions were. Yet, Maud had said the words, plainly and clearly, and now S-1 was wearing a maniacal grin.

“Yes, gray dirt pony, tell me your secrets.” S-1 said, quickly crossing the room to Maud. S-43 was still feeding Cadance and Shining, but stepped out of the way so S-1 could get right in Maud’s face.

“Yes. I will tell you everything,” Maud said. If she was truly scared or panicked, she expressed it with the same energy she expressed any other emotion. Still, Twilight was baffled, and only grew more so when Maud continued speaking. “Would you like to know how to decipher the secret messages encoded in common baseball games?”

S-1’s eyes lit up. “Of course, why else would so many ponies endure such a boring activity? Yes, dirt pony, tell me the secrets of these messages.”

“It’s all about what ponies play what positions. We’ll start with first base,” Maud answered, meeting S-1’s intense stare with her own, unflinching, almost unblinking gaze. “Who is on first.”

“Who is on first?” S-1 asked.

“Exactly.”

S-1 blinked, his mouth chittering a moment before he raised his voice. “Dirt pony! You will tell me the name of the pony on first base so I can know its significance.”

“Who.”

“Do not play games with me, dirt pony! You have claimed to have this knowledge, and now you will share it or face my wrath! You know the name of this pony on the base of first, correct?”

“Yes,” Maud answered.

“And what is his name?”

“What’s on second base.”

“Do not change the subject, dirt pony! We are discussing the first base and only the first base. Though there may be three of them on the field in the asinine game, we shall focus on one and only one. We focus on the base of first, and the name of the pony there. For the name of the pony there holds a great secret. Now, who is on first?”

“Exactly.”

Once more S-1’s mouth chittered. He turned and stomped away from Maud, doing two circles before stomping back up to her. At this point S-43 had finished feeding Cadance and Shining, and was now making her way towards Twilight. “Listen, dirt pony, you will tell me the truth plain and simply. If you do so now, you might be spared my wrath.”

“Who is on first.”

“Why are you asking me?!” S-1 shouted, bits of changeling goo flying from his mouth to splatter onto Maud’s face. “It is you with the secrets. It is you who knows the code hidden in the names of the players on their bases. This is information I do not have, but you do. You will tell it to me, that way I no longer don’t know the secret. Now tell me. Tell me. Tell me!”

“Who is on first base.”

“I don’t know!”

“She’s on third base.”

S-1’s eye twitched, his mouth chittered, and he once more stomped away from Maud. He was kicking and stomping at the dirt. Twilight's view of this, however, was blocked as the changeling S-43 stepped into her field of view. The changeling levitated a particularly large mass of hay in front of Twilight’s mouth. Twilight was about to take a bite. She was hungry, but she stopped when she noticed a little wet nose sticking out from the pile.

“Biscuit?” Twilight whispered.

The small diamond dog poked his head out from the large mass of hay, grinning. “Yes. Biscuit here to rescue you. This changeling going to help.”

“Why would she—” Twilight was unable to finish her question. Biscuit stuffed some hay into her mouth, silencing her question before hushing her with a claw to his mouth.

“Shhh, pony. Loud mouth idiot must not suspect Biscuit is here. This one helps because this outpost stupid. These changelings left too long in eggs or something. They come out stupid. Changeling queen sent them here so they would not annoy her. Operation Sweet Maple is big distraction. But this one not stupid. She wants out. You promise to help her, she help us. She’ll free you from fake sticky spider stuff.”

Twilight finished chewing and swallowed the mouthful of hay she had been given. “How do we know we can trust her?”

“She snuck Biscuit into room, didn’t she? Besides, what you have to lose?”

Twilight glanced back over at Maud, Cadance, and Shining. S-1 was still going back and forth with Maud, though it looked like Shining and Cadance were struggling to contain their own giggles. Still, while the four of them had thought up some ideas for escape, none of them had been able to think of a way out of their magic inhibitors and webbing. And the longer they were here, the more she feared for Nyx and Spike’s safety.

“Okay, okay, it’s a deal,” Twilight said as she looked back to Biscuit and S-43. “So, when are you planning to escape?”

“Right now,” Biscuit said before stuffing more hay into Twilight’s mouth. He then returned to his hiding place within the mass of hay while S-43 took a step back. Twilight’s view of Maud and S-1 was unobstructed once again, and the changeling leader looked like he was going to explode from frustration within a few moments.

“Listen dirt pony, my patience is wearing thin,” S-1 said as he pointed a threatening hoof at Maud. “I will ask you only one more time, and if you cross me, you will suffer. You will suffer a wrath worse than your infamous Moon of Nightmares. Do you understand this?”

“Yes,” Maud answered.

“Good. Good. Now, if I were on this baseball field and I chose to throw the ball to the pony on first base, I’d be throwing it to who?”

“Naturally.”

“Ah-ha! So the pony’s name is Naturally.”

“No.”

“Then who is on first?”

“Naturally.”

S-1’s mouth chittered so loud and with such force it looked like his jaw might pop off. He screamed in aggravation, then turned and pointed his hoof at S-43. “You! You will prepare this gray one for goo immersion torture. I must go and check our intelligence booklets to find out what the name of this pony on first base is.”

The slightest grin formed on Maud’s face. “But What is on second.”

S-1 took a step forward, pressing his nose against Maud’s as he glared her down with all the malice he could muster. “You mock me, dirt pony, but you will tell me the secrets of the baseball field with your dying breath.” S-1 then spun around and stomped out of the room, cursing and mumbling under his breath. S-43 didn’t make a move until S-1 had disappeared from sight, she then set down the bundle of hay she had been levitating. Biscuit sprung out, and quickly ran to the chamber’s entrance to stand guard while S-43 worked to free Twilight from her cocoon.

“Sorry I had the dog do the talking. If S-1 heard me saying something, he would have screamed for five minutes about how I was interrupting his work.” S-43 said as she ripped open a long hole in the fake spider silk. Twilight fell out, shaking and stumbling on her legs. They were tingling in several places, numb from being stuck in the same position for an extended period of time. Still, as Twilight pranced and shook out her hooves, she looked up at the changeling that had helped them.

“How did you know he’d storm out?”

“That’s how S-1 always deals with things that confuse him. He goes and checks the magazines he has the other drones steal from the campers on the mountains.” S-43 answered as she moved towards Cadance, Shining, and Maud. She went to Maud first, offering a sincere smile as she ripped open the cocoon. “But I’ve never seen someone confuse him like that before. What was that?”

“That was an Acorn and Marshmallow skit,” Maud answered. She got out of the cocoon calmly, like she had been sitting in a chair at a dentist’s waiting room. “Grannie Pie had records of their performances. They were Pinkie Pie’s favorite thing to listen to when we were growing up.”

“I think dad has one of their records,” Shining said as S-43 tore open Cadance’s cocoon and then began working on his. “Do you remember it, Twilight? It was the one about how seven times thirteen is equal to twenty-eight. You hated the record.”

Twilight nodded, the memory jumping back to the foreground of her mind. She could remember arguing with her father about how the record was doing the math wrong. He even got a chalkboard one day to show her, but that only made her more frustrated. Their father was just laughing the whole time. In hindsight, she could understand the comedic value, but at the time it had been so aggravating. Math was just not something you got wrong like that.

“Yes, I did,” Twilight said as the numbness was replaced by the sensation of the floor beneath her hooves. “So, how do we get out of here?”

“We've just got to get to the entrance tunnel.” S-43 said. “That will put us right outside Lumberton.”

Cadance frowned, looking to the tunnel entrance. “But that has to be miles away. The changelings were carrying us in those strange spider forms for hours.”

S-43 shook her head, the motions slow and weighted. “No, it’s not. They caught you at the start of their spider calisthenics. After that, rather than drop you off, they carried you for the rest of their exercises. All that time they were carrying you, they were just running around in circles. The main entrance tunnel is just down the hall, five minutes tops.”

“I think I can understand why you're willing to help us now,” Twilight said, feeling a twinge in her brain at just the thought of having to deal with a whole swarm of changelings who thought and acted like S-1.

“What about the inhibitors?” Shining asked, tapping his hoof against the metal collar around his neck.

S-43 lifted a hoof, using it to press on the magical inhibitor until it simply popped free. "These things are older than dirt. The magic stopping runes still work, but the locks are decrepit. If your hooves weren't bound, you would have probably been able to pull them off already. Still, we need to hurry before—" S-43 was cut off when Biscuit came bounding towards the group. He leapt onto Twilight’s back, grasping her mane in one claw as he used the other to point towards the chamber’s entrance.

“Leader is coming back!”

“Ha! You thought you could confuse me dirt pony, but your intelligence booklets have told me the truth. The name of the first base player is called French Kissing, and second base is... a little more convoluted and...” S-1 came around the corner, lowering the magazine from his eyes. He looked across the group of now freed ponies. “Hey!” He paused to roll up the magazine, like he was about to punish a bad dog. “What’s going on in here!?”

“Run!”

Author's Note:

Almost forgot this part. As usual, please PM any typos you may see. Also, fun fact, I wrote the Abbott and Costello reference before the show did their parody. Oh, the joys of writing on a buffer. :rainbowwild: