• Published 8th May 2016
  • 3,316 Views, 127 Comments

Substitute - RQK



Everything has a price. The smallest of actions, both good and bad, can place many into the grave. The roots run deep, after all, in any and all Equestrias.

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3 - Dimensional

The wind, populated by wayward water particles, blew through Twilight Sparkle’s mane. The loud roar of splashing and churning water battered her ears as two separate waterfalls crashed down momentously on either side of her small strip of land.

She peered at the portal just in front of the cliff face. This one, unlike the portal in the mountains which had been several times her size, seemed more fitted for a standard pony.

Applejack appeared beside her. “Well, Ah figure we might as well see what’s on the other side.”

Rarity strolled up, taking Twilight’s other side. “I agree. Especially now that we have a good idea of what’s over there.”

A pink blur raced past them. “Last one through the portal’s a rotten egg!” Pinkie Pie called, skipping along at breakneck speeds.

Rainbow Dash poked her head through the other girls and scowled. “Oh, nuh-uh!” she yelled before hopping over them and surging forth.

“Now wait just a minute!” Applejack exclaimed, but the two were already through. She stood for a moment and then shrugged. “Eh, what are ya gunna do with those two?”

Twilight giggled.

“I’m okay with being a rotten egg if you girls are,” Fluttershy said, appearing beside them with a smile.

Rarity flicked her mane about and nodded. “It’s a rough term, but… let’s be rotten eggs together.”

The four trotted toward the portal as a single unit. They each acknowledged the guards surrounding it and, one by one, squeezed through the portal.

The trees on the other side danced about, but Twilight chalked that up to the wind, despite their sways appearing too pronounced to be natural.

Something pink and blue dashed above the trees, prompting the six of them to glance up. Another blur appeared, and then a third. Then two at the same time.

“Rainbow, can you go up there and see what those are?” Applejack asked.

Rainbow Dash smirked and saluted. “I’m on it,” she said before flying upward.

She glanced around, waiting for something. She swiveled about until, finally, another blue blur tried to race past, and she snatched it. And then she sampled the strange object; it was fluffy like a cloud but with a sugary sweet flavor.

“Cotton candy!” Rainbow Dash declared.

“Oh! Ohoh!” Pinkie Pie gasped. “Can you bring me some?” she called.

Rainbow Dash shrugged, gathered the cotton candy cloud, and spun it into a manageable shape. She flew back down to them. “Here.”

Pinkie Pie beamed and then devoured it in one fluid bite.

“That cotton candy cloud is pretty telling already, but let’s go this way,” Twilight said, leading them toward the riverbank.

They wove through the trees, stepping over multicolored roots. A squirrel with a tail several feet long hung off a tree, nibbling on a piece of pineapple. But as they looked closer, they saw that the squirrel was, in fact, un-eating the fruit.

They arrived at the riverbank and observed the water which, while turbulent as they expected, flowed in the opposite direction. Their eyes followed it to the base of the falls themselves which, to their dull surprise, fell up the cliff.

“Cotton candy clouds, water is moving the wrong way, and weird squirrels,” Rarity said.

They stood in silence on that river bank, their eyes drawn toward some patchworks on the horizon.

“Discord,” they said in unison.

Twilight hummed. She scrutinized the sky’s patterns, yet at the same time, her thoughts drifted elsewhere to places related yet so far removed.

Applejack adjusted her stetson and then patted Twilight on the shoulder. “Well, whatcha thinkin’?”

“Well,” Twilight replied at last, “this pretty much confirms what we thought about every alternate timeline existing.”

“Eeyup.”

“Oh goodness, that’s not so good,” Fluttershy whimpered.

“Took the words out of my mouth,” Rarity added. “We really do have a potent issue on our hooves. It would be… most awful if Discord caught us out here.”

Rainbow Dash twisted her hoof into the pudding-dirt. “Yeah, or if Nightmare Moon suddenly found the portal back in Canterlot.”

“Or King Sombra,” Applejack added.

Twilight sighed. “Well, for now, we’re going to have to hope for the best,” she said. “I can’t close the portals because some external magic is keeping them open. Whoever’s making that portal has to cancel the spell on their own.”

“Well, as fun as this place is…” Pinkie Pie said as she snatched a snozzberry off a nearby tree. She took a few moments to chew, swallowed, hummed in delight, grabbed another snozzberry and ate that one too, and then stored several more in her mane. “We probably should get outta here before somepony sees us.”

Applejack started back into the wood. “Ah hear ya on that.”

As they walked back toward the portal, Twilight paced internally. While her body navigated the living terrain, her mind tried to navigate what little she had. We don’t know the actual scope of any of this yet, she thought. Why do these things even exist? What’s making them? Why do they go between these timelines and ours? How did whomever made these figure out how to travel between timelines? How did they even know about the alternate timelines?

And that’s assuming it’s a pony, and we don’t know even that!

Twilight snorted and took one last look at the riverbank before the trees obscured it. Her eyes scanned for any sign that anything was following them, but she found nothing.

She turned and looked at her friends who trotted in silence. They kept alert but calm sans Pinkie Pie who made sleuthy maneuvers through the trees. Twilight could not tell what was going on in their heads, but she had no doubt that this too was on their minds, except perhaps Pinkie Pie who was busy slurping a puddle of chocolate milk.

Twilight wondered what they thought about it.

And what Celestia and Luna would think about it.

And, most of all, what Starlight Glimmer would think about it.


Sunset Shimmer nibbled on her hoof while staring at the far door. She watched the train car beyond sway in rhythm with the creaks and groans of the wheels below. With little room to stretch her legs, considering other passengers had packed into every seat, Sunset tried anything to busy herself mentally.

But her eyes still occasionally wandered. The other ponies in the carriage bided their time over books and hushed conversations.

There must have been some sort of event tonight, Sunset decided.

Her eyes fell on an onyx stallion in the seat right across from her. He sat with his eyes in a brochure, his expression one of naïve indifference. That much was understandable; Sunset herself found educational finances a bore, but that wasn’t what caught her attention.

She knew she wouldn’t have thought anything of it on any other night, but even at the station, she had seen twenty of him, all with dark coats and equally dark manes. Three of them sat nearby, and the others had undoubtedly interspersed throughout the rest of the cars.

Maybe they were members of the Night Guard. Sunset wasn’t sure.

Starlight Glimmer, who sat next to her, regarded the crystal ball on the seat between them.

Inside the ball, Princess Celestia sat in her chambers. Her regalia, however, lay on her desk, and she lay comfortably with a Jade Singer novel and a glass of wine.

Starlight chuckled. “Kinda weird, but okay.”

The train rumbled onwards, passing a wall of rock on the left and skirting a deep drop-off on the right. It wove a thin line manufactured into the mountainside. With the cloudy skies obscuring the early evening sun, Sunset found it hard to see.

“Princess Luna gave this to us,” Starlight said with renewed fervor. “I have to guess it’s important. There’s gotta be something special with it, right?”

Sunset nodded vacantly. “It is. This crystal ball… was what allowed me to work out how to get Twilight back.” Sunset scratched her muzzle in thought. “This ball looks nine days back in time, so that’s Princess Celestia nine days ago.”

Starlight’s jaw dislodged from her muzzle and then she stared into the ball. With the slightest shudder, she nodded in acknowledgment.

“We’re watching her from nine days into her future,” Sunset continued. “So… naturally, it’s also possible for someone to watch us from nine days into our future.” She drummed her hooves against the seat in thought. “Which…”

At that, she looked toward the ceiling, searching for something that she would never see. “Hey! Is anypony watching up there?”

Starlight also glanced up, her eyebrow cocked in full.

After a short silence, an answer came. “Yes,” said a voice, “I’m here! I’m here.”

Starlight jumped in her seat, her wide eyes centering on the crystal ball between them. The ball had spoken with a familiar voice. “T-Twilight Sparkle!?”

“Not so loud!” Twilight’s voice replied.

That prompted both of them to look up and notice the odd glares, especially from the stallion sitting across from them.

“Listen,” Twilight’s voice said, “I need you to find someplace private. Okay?”

Sunset hopped to her hooves. “Alright. Come on, Starlight.”

Starlight stood up, and together they strolled toward the rear of the car. Opening the door, they passed into the vestibule. After considering the deafening roar of the wheels underneath, they pressed on into the train’s caboose.

The room’s dull wood, with crates and boxes and other pieces of cargo all about, was a definite far cry from the lively colors of the cozy passenger cars behind them. A single rope ladder dangled from an unlocked but unopened hatch in the ceiling.

“Okay,” Starlight began as she levitated the crystal ball before her, “this is really something. So, you’re… talking to us from the future?”

“Well…” Twilight’s voice replied, “there’s more to it than that, but… yes.”

Even as Sunset brushed by her, checking to make sure nopony lay hidden out on the rear platform, Starlight regarded the object with a quizzical grin. As she sat back on the floor, she floated it into her hooves. “That is just the coolest thing. I’d like one of these.”

Inside the crystal ball, Princess Celestia blinked and glanced around the room. “H-hello? Who goes there?”

Starlight jumped in response, fumbling the ball for a few seconds. “Oh! Oh gosh, Twilight, what did I do?”

“What?” Twilight’s voice asked.

“Uhm, Princess Celestia just responded to me. I think.”

Princess Celestia flared her horn and levitated a crystal ball (which, to Starlight, appeared pure white) in front of her. She stared into it while humming to herself.

“Oh,” Twilight’s voice said. “Yes. If you’re touching the ball—or if you’re touching somepony who’s touching the ball, and so on and so forth—she’ll be able to hear you like you’re hearing me right now,” Twilight’s voice explained.

Starlight paled. “…Well, now you tell me,” she grumbled. She turned her attention back toward the princess within the ball. “Uhm, hi, Princess Celestia.”

Inside the ball, Celestia straightened up. “Hello. Who is this?”

“Starlight. Starlight Glimmer.”

At that, Celestia smiled. “Oh, Starlight, I remember you. How are you?”

Starlight sighed in relief and managed to put a smile back on her face. “Oh, I’m good. I’m on a train with Sunset right now and I’m learning how to use this thing.”

For a few moments, Celestia’s expression remained unchanged. But then she blinked. “Wait a moment. Sunset? As in Sunset Shimmer?”

Sunset arrived back at that moment and draped a hoof over Starlight’s shoulder. “Yeah, hi. We can’t really talk right now. But it’s good to see you.”

Celestia’s gaze fleeted around the room as she lost herself in some thought. And then she nodded. “It’s good to hear you too.”

“Same,” Starlight agreed. “Anyway, sorry to bother you!”

“It is no problem,” Celestia replied. With that, she set her own crystal ball down on the cushion beside her and returned to her reading.

At that, Sunset looked up. “Twilight, you have some explaining to do.”

Starlight whirled around in alarm to gauge the severity of Sunset’s frown and then looked up as well.

“…Yes,” Twilight’s voice replied, “I guess I do.”

“You’re the reason we were summoned to Canterlot. You’re the one that instructed the princesses to give us the crystal ball.”

“All true.”

“So... why?” Sunset asked with a sharpness in her voice.

“Well,” Twilight’s voice replied, “I… have a task for you. And I’m not sure you’re going to like it.”

“And that is?”

“Do you remember all of those very dark ponies that boarded your train?”

Sunset swallowed, peered back into the passenger car beyond, and settled her gaze on the dark-coated stallion that had been sitting opposite them. “Yeah,” she replied.

“That’s no coincidence. They’re called unponies. I don’t have time to go into details, but…” Twilight’s voice trailed off. “You’ll learn about them soon enough,” she finished, her tone sharp yet hesitant.

“So then… why do we care about them?” Sunset asked, ducking away from the entrance.

The crystal ball went silent as if considering its words. And then, with a sharp whisper, Twilight’s voice replied, “Because… here in a few moments, they are going to try and take the train.”

Sunset blinked and felt her heart skip a beat. “They’re… going… to take the train?”

“Yes. And let me check… hold on.” The crystal ball went silent for a few moments, and then, “Yes. A few of them are already moving up toward the engine.”

Starlight collapsed against the wall. “Oh… goodness. Oh goodness gracious.”

Sunset, on the other hoof, silently rampaged around the room.

“Oh goodness, this is bad,” Starlight continued.

And then Sunset zipped back over to the door, staring into the room beyond. She paled, however, when her eyes met the unstallion staring back at her with an almost equal intensity. She ducked under the door’s window and cursed herself for appearing so obvious.

“Okay,” Starlight began, rising to all fours. “So, we have to stop them?”

“I’m afraid so,” the crystal ball replied.

“What do they want?”

“They’re trying to reroute the train to someplace else.”

“Where?”

“…It’s a long story, but it involves those portals that popped up. They’re trying to take it through the one that’s on that unused spur further down the mountain.”

Sunset snuck away from the door and slunk back over. “Okay,” she asked, nearly seething. “Why?”

“They’re collecting ponies,” Twilight’s voice replied.

Sunset stamped a hoof against the floor. “Why!?”

“That’s also a long story and you’re going to find out soon anyway,” Twilight’s voice said, a stern sharpness in her tone. “Right now, I need you to focus on the present.”

Starlight shook her head. “You throw us right into the middle of things and expect us to focus?” she asked, glaring up in contempt. “How do you think I feel right now, Twilight?”

The crystal ball sighed. “I’m… sorry. I didn’t really mean for any of this to happen. Right now, I’m actually winging this, and all I knew was that you were on that train. And… I needed you to be on that train anyway.”

“Twilight.”

“Starlight,” Twilight’s voice pleaded, her voice strained, “please. There’s a lot more riding on this than just those other ponies on the train. I beg you.” With those final three words, Twilight’s voice cracked, bringing a chilling silence after it.

Sunset met Starlight’s questioning gaze and the both of them frowned. Twilight never spoke that way. Sunset pictured the mare somewhere above them, but the image looked nothing like what Twilight had looked when she last saw her; a ragged and jaded mare hunched over the ball somewhere solitary had replaced the Twilight she knew.

The two mares debated the whole situation solely through the looks that they gave each other. But once Sunset relented, Starlight sighed and followed suit.

Sunset snorted. “Whatever. At least tell me that we succeeded in your layer,” she growled.

“Yes,” Twilight’s voice replied, “you did. But that won’t mean anything if you stand around.”

“…Uhm, excuse me?” Starlight asked, raising an incredulous eyebrow.

Sunset shushed her, earning an annoyed glare. “Fine, whatever. What do we have?”

The crystal ball went silent. And then, “Well… there’re twenty aboard the train. And right now… two of them are heading your way.”

“Hayseed!” Sunset kicked a dent into the nearest box.

“And do they know we’re back here!?” Starlight cried.

“I would think so,” Twilight’s voice replied. “He did see you, after all.”

Starlight took a quick stock of the caboose once more, stroked her chin in thought, and jumped as a proverbial light bulb lit above her head. “Quick! Up that ladder!”

The two then scampered up the rope ladder. They flipped the hatch door open and climbed into a small observation room just in time for the two unponies to push through the door and creep inside.

“They saw you,” Twilight’s voice warned.

“That’s okay,” Starlight whispered as she rolled over the edge. “Let them come.”

Sunset peered through the opening as their enemies reached the ladder themselves.

To that end, Starlight dashed over to the window and flung it open, exposing them to the howling wind and metallic clatter outside. She barred Sunset from jumping through and then dragged her into the dark recesses of the loft.

The both of them watched as the rope ladder hung taut and then oscillated as somepony ascended. The nails securing it to the wall creaked in time with the motion.

“Now!” Twilight’s voice cried.

They sprang forward just as their first foe poked his head through. He had just enough time to find the window before they pounced. They hurled him into the wall behind them before they peered back over and each shot a beam at the stallion on the ladder. The unpony lost his grip and fell backward onto the floor.

The first unpony, still behind them, hopped to his hooves, lit his horn and threw his own blast at them, but they rolled out of the way. He shot at Starlight then, only for the shot to bounce pathetically off her sudden shield.

Sunset hopped to her hooves and shot her own beam, but he dodged and threw one back. It rammed into her, sending her stumbling back into the wall. Starlight then returned the favor in the form of a well-placed blast, sending him into the other wall and knocking him out cold.

“You okay?” Starlight asked, rushing over.

Sunset climbed to her hooves and dusted the offended spot off. “Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. He didn’t hit me that hard.”

Starlight snorted and trotted over toward the downed unpony. “I’m surprised you let him hit you, Celestia’s student.”

“I’m out of practice,” Sunset replied, peering down at the unstallion splayed across the caboose floor below. She reached out with her magic and pulled him upwards, only for him to fly through the hatchway and slam against the roof, leaving a dent.

Sunset cried out in surprise at her own display.

Starlight groaned. “Out of practice, huh?”

Sunset turned red. “I didn’t mean to do that either, promise,” she replied as she lowered him against his partner. “That was… weird!”

“Like he’s not even there, right?” Twilight’s voice asked.

Sunset started, and then nodded. “Uh, yeah! I felt nothing. It was like… levitating a feather.”

“Yes, that’s another thing. Unponies react strongly to magic. I’m not sure why that is yet. Still working on it.”

Starlight blushed and then shrugged. “Oh, okay I guess.”

“And that brings me to my next point,” Twilight’s voice said, “I need you to be careful.”

Sunset lifted the unstallions and propped them against the corner. “Yeah yeah,” she replied offhoofedly.

I mean it, girls,” the crystal ball warned.

Starlight hummed and glanced out the window. “I don’t think they’ll give us much trouble, Twilight,” she affirmed.

“Yes! And that’s the whole point! I know that you can just blast them and be done with it, but I need all of them unharmed!”

The two paused, exchanged furtive glances, and then looked up toward some unseen entity (but, rather, Sunset looked up out of habit and Starlight followed her lead) with contemplative frowns. And then, after a few unhelpful gesticulations, Starlight threw her hooves into the air. “Well… that complicates things.”

“I know that’s asking a lot of restraint, but I know you can do it. I believe in you.”

The two mares stood there, contemplating it in silence. The train rolled on and the car shook as it went over ties in the track.

“’Kay then,” Starlight began, clapping. “What’s our plan?” she asked.

Sunset straightened up. “Right. We have to stop them from taking ponies through the portal.”

“And they’re going to do that by driving the train through.”

“And the portal is on some spur.”

“If I remember correctly… that spur is off the Baltimare line.”

“This train’s supposed to go to Ponyville. They’d have to reroute it to the Baltimare line first.”

“And then onto the spur.”

Sunset paused and tapped a hoof against her chin. “They can’t do that unless the tracks are routed that way.”

Starlight groaned. “They must have accomplices on the ground at each junction along the way.”

“Which we can’t do anything about.”

“Which means… the train will go that way.” Starlight shook her head. “You’d think the engineers would notice and stop the train.”

Sunset frowned. “And… well… I guess that’s why they’re taking the engine; to prevent the engineers from doing that.”

Starlight threw her hooves into the air. “Great! Well then, I guess that leaves us. We’ll have to stop the train ourselves!”

“…Yeah.”

Starlight thought for a moment and then said, “Okay, what do we have for brakes?”

“Those trains use chain-continuous brakes,” Twilight’s voice chimed in. “Those are operated from the engine.”

Starlight snorted. “So then, we have to take the engine.”

Sunset nodded. “How do we get up there?”

Starlight hummed and glanced through the hatchway toward the door leading to the rest of the cars. “Well… I don’t really think we can go through the cars without getting noticed. I’d rather not risk a fight in there.”

“I counted three in that carriage we were in,” Sunset added, “and chances are that one’s still in there. He’ll notice us right away if we come out alone.”

“But we still have to make the engine!” Starlight cried. “There has to be another way.”

Sunset scratched her chin. I… could get all of us there in a single instant. ...But on a moving train over this distance? She shuddered. Yeah, no.

She leaned out the window instead, glanced down the long, steel snake as it thundered along, and saw the engine disappearing around a bend in the cliff. The wind smashed against her face, blowing her mane in all directions, prompting her to squint through it.

“Do you think we can make it?” Sunset asked. “You know, using the roof?”

Starlight poked her head out the window as well. “I think… that it’s only six or seven cars. Probably a minute, tops.” She turned to meet Sunset’s eyes and swallowed. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”

Sunset sighed. “Okay. Let’s go for it.”

She climbed through the window, exposing herself to every bit of the elements. Her world shook and swayed with the cars and her hooves tried to slip out from under her. With a steep cliff hurdling by on her left and a steep drop-off inviting her to fall to her doom on her right, Sunset did her best to keep her eyes forward.

After Starlight stepped through the window with the crystal ball floating behind her, the two galloped across the roof, each step a mountainous metallic thud as the roof caved and rebounded under their weight.

The wind howled at such intensity that they found it difficult to hear the train rumbling right below their hooves. Sunset was sure that the slightest shift would send her flying, and so she surged forward, eager to best it first. With each victory, her vision grew clearer until, finally, it likened to running on solid ground on a calm day.

And that was just in time to meet the first passenger car. She bounded across the gap and landed, prompting the steel plate to respond with a sharp pwack. The wind gained ground against her, and the cycle began anew.

Starlight landed right behind her to the same metallic report. The two galloped on.

One gap down, several more to go. But even with the engine in sight, it appeared as distant as the moon.

Even as she bounded over the second gap, Sunset felt her heart race. She could have been home, studying for a chemistry test over a bowl of cheese dip.

She growled and summoned forth from her reserves and then sprinted forward with renewed energy. The third gap offered no trouble. In her mind, she swore that somepony was getting punched by the end of the night.

Up ahead, a head poked up from between the cars. The unstallion growled when he saw them and then fired a spell.

Sunset dropped a few hair’s length underneath it, sliding across the roofing. Starlight, meanwhile, threw up a shield, off which the beam ricocheted harmlessly into the mountainside.

Sunset shot a beam of her own, but it hit so much air that the unstallion didn’t even try to dodge. Rather, he climbed out from between the cars and onto the roof proper. There, he fired another shot.

Again, Sunset dodged, but then lost her balance. She fell chest-first, sliding down the incline toward the cliff-side of the car.

Starlight, still behind her barrier, gasped. “Hold on!” she cried, flaring her horn and wrapping her aura around Sunset just as her back hoof dangled off the edge.

Sunset shivered and tried to drag herself up. Once certain enough, she took another shot at the unstallion, but her bolt missed him just as much as the first.

“You really need to work on your aim!” Starlight cried, shooting a blast of her own.

The stallion ducked and subsequently lost precious footing. He rolled over just before her next shot burned into the steel where he had been splayed out.

“Restraint, Starlight!” Twilight’s voice exclaimed.

Starlight recoiled. “...Right, sorry!”

Starlight advanced forward while firing another, less-powerful beam. The unstallion hopped to his hooves and shot back in kind. The two beams collided, the report cracking the air around them. The nexus, howling from the perpetual collision, jettisoned blinding-white sparks.

Sunset watched, hoping the beams wouldn’t entwine. At that, she resolved to climb back to her hooves.

Another unpony popped her head through the gap behind them. She found her companion in distress, gasped, and then took to the air. She arced through the sky above and then dove headlong toward them.

“Look out!” Twilight’s voice cried.

By the time Sunset noticed and charged up a counterspell, the pegasus unmare had bowled into Starlight. The magic beams swayed and buckled and then rebounded with tremendous velocity. The nexus died against the cliffside, leaving an explosive memento in the form of rock and root showering the train, leaving them coughing and wheezing.

Moreover, it rocked the carriage, and no doubt jostled the remaining cars. Even as Sunset found her footing again, she frowned.

“…That’ll do it,” Twilight’s voice sighed.

Sunset began tracking the pegasus as she swooped about for an aerial view. Meanwhile, Starlight renewed her duel with the unpony unicorn, trading blasts with him without either finding their mark.

And as an earth unpony scampered onto the roof a few cars away, the pegasus charged.

Oh no you don’t, Sunset thought with a snarl. She shot out a fireball as big as the train itself. It fanned out, crackling and howling like a miniature sun. Everypony on top of the car sweltered in its heat.

The pegasus ground to a halt just before the flames reached her, and she first tried to dive around it, only for Sunset to follow. The pegasus eventually retreated far out of the fireball’s reach to observe.

Starlight watched the fireball dissipate with a pale face. “…Oh,” she cooed.

“That… was nice,” Twilight’s voice began, “but you have incoming behind you.”

Sunset whirled around to find an earth unstallion charging her down. Starlight, who still dueled ahead of her, also glanced back, throwing up a shield as she did so.

Thinking quickly, Sunset focused energy into her horn and disappeared in a flash of light.

The earth unpony crashed into the air and then the metal roof a second later.

Starlight frowned as another blast hit her shield. “…What?”

Sunset stumbled back into existence on the other side of Starlight’s foe. She got her bearings, planted her hooves into the ground, and then bucked. Her hindhooves punched straight into him, launching him across the car. He tumbled pathetically against the steel and ground to a stop just before Starlight’s hooves.

Starlight flung a crystallization spell onto the unicorn, freezing him to the car’s roof, and then gawked at Sunset. “How the heck…?”

Sunset thumped her chest. “It’s a little something I picked up.”

“That’s… pretty cool.” Starlight narrowed her eyes, “But that would have been useful a lot earlier.”

“I can’t even hit the broadside of a barn right now,” Sunset retorted. “I’m not feeling that confident.”

“Look sharp!” Twilight’s voice barked. “Miss pegasus is diving in and you’ve got two more about to join you up there.”

The two companions glanced up to see the unpony swoop through the air, hesitate, and then switch to rapid serpentines.

Starlight shot several volleys into the sky, and the pegasus weaved through them, all at the cost of losing ground.

“Ahead of you, Sunset!” the crystal ball warned.

Two more appeared on the roof two cars ahead. One took to the air and joined his companion in the sky, and the other charged, her earthly hooves like thunder against the metal. Behind Sunset and Starlight, the other earth unpony stood up and snorted and dragged his hoof against the roof.

All four of their foes charged at once; Starlight continued her volley against the two from the air, but Sunset found the two on the ground, charging from either side, a larger issue. She shot a beam at the newest arrival, but the other managed to ram head-first into the crystal trapping the unicorn foe. The crystal cracked and the unicorn inside stirred. With a flare of his horn, he shattered the rest of it. The unicorn stood up amidst the pile of crystal shards, gave his companion a nod, and then shot a beam at Starlight.

Starlight screamed and teetered for a few moments. The crystal ball, once held by her magic, shot into the air. She lost her footing and tumbled over the side of the train and down the cliff face beyond.

Sunset reached out with her magic, but Starlight was already gone. She swore, with no recourse but to catch the crystal ball when it plummeted back down near her. Crying out, she grabbed a passing tree branch with her magic. She then whipped the unicorn with it, sending him tumbling backward. She whirled around and shot a fireball at the earth unponies behind her, leaving several soot marks on their muzzles and tiny flames in their manes, swearing at them as she did so.

“They’re still coming!” Twilight’s voice exclaimed. “Your two friends from the caboose are on the way!”

Sunset glared down the length of the train to see the two unstallions from before bounding across the roof. They were enough cars away that they couldn’t take any good shots, but neither could she.

She could have been home watching Horse Whisperer. Instead, here she was outnumbered. Three unicorns and two earths on either side, and two pegasi in the air.

The pegasi, however, didn’t appear happy. In fact, they had recoiled out of alarm. From the way they scooted away from the cliff, something below had spooked them. And then a beam shot between the two of them, grazing one and shooing away the other.

Starlight floated back up into view, supported by her own magic.

Sunset let out a breath and let a huge grin spread across her face.

Starlight’s expression bore holes into the two pegasi as she floated along, closing the distance between them at a meandering pace. She let out a volley of purple light.

One unpegasus’ eyes grew wide and Sunset swore she could see her mouth something before she took flight, not intending to let Starlight close.

“Well,” Sunset chuckled, “that’s… something.”

While Starlight engaged her foes in the air, Sunset turned her attention back to the unponies on the roof. She shot a fireball at the large group in front of her, causing them to duck for cover. She then whirled around, grabbed bits and pieces of rock off the cliffside, and hurled them at the foes behind her.

She threw up a rudimentary force field and charged straight through her own fireball, toting the crystal ball all the while. She emerged from the flames and immediately bowled over some unfortunate unstallion on the other side.

She skidded to a halt and quick-fired at another unpony poking up between the gaps in front of her. Unfortunately, her actions bought her more immediate foes enough time to take stock of her and charge her in kind.

“Incoming!” Twilight’s voice warned.

Sunset punched the roof with her magic. The metal protested and fussed but gave way all the same, leaving a sizeable depression in the car. Her foes tumbled into it, piling onto each other with “Oof!”s and “Ack!”s.

The ponies inside would definitely notice that.

Sunset felt a drop of sweat slide down her brow and finally noticed how short of breath she actually was. Her lungs heaved her entire chest with each motion. Her heart thumped against her insides.

How much magic did she have in reserve? Suddenly, that was a pressing question.

The two stallions from the caboose, whom she had left in the dust, had turned their attention to shooting bolts of energy into the sky, intent on knocking Starlight out of it.

A third pegasus climbed out a window a few cars down and took to the air, intent on helping take Starlight down. While the train rounded a bend, carrying the cars away from the aerial skirmish, Starlight maintained control.

But even then, many of her shots hit air. With each one, Starlight’s confused frown deepened. Her foes moved wherever they wanted, and that included, more times than not, a direction other than that of the train.

Sunset looked around to gauge what lay ahead. The tracks followed the curve of an ever-waning mountain, and even though the plains below still lay down some unfathomable drop, it wasn’t as pronounced. The tracks, despite still following the mountain slope, wove through low-reaching rocks now.

She recognized the area. Her heart sank. We’re pretty far along now!

Sunset glanced up as the newest arrival—an earth unpony—charged her, She teleported on the spot; she disappeared just long enough for him to pass through and land in the heap of unponies before she reappeared.

She glanced back toward Starlight’s battle in the air, which Starlight had managed to pull toward the train again. That, or she was going for a landing, if her panting was any indication.

Starlight’s foes were closing in fast.

We need a way to disable them and be done with it, Sunset thought. This isn’t working.

Sunset threw out a barrier fireball and then oriented her crystal ball in order to look inside. Princess Celestia remained buried in her book, letting off a soft chuckle as she turned the page. She sipped the last drops of her wine before floating the glass onto the desk.

With the mob behind her occupied with detangling themselves, Sunset surged forward again, allowing her mind to work even as she jumped from car to car. I’m going to need some things, she thought. I think I know what I should do here.

“Twilight,” Sunset started.

The crystal ball sighed in the response. “I am… so sorry,” Twilight’s voice replied sorrowfully. “Maybe this was a bit much…”

“Twilight.”

“I was so sure that you could do it because you did it.”

Sunset snorted. “Twilight!”

The crystal ball paused. “…Yes?” Twilight’s voice asked, her tone indicative of the blush that was without a doubt on her face.

“Have we passed the first switch yet?”

“…No, you haven’t. But you’re about two minutes away by my counts, why?”

Sunset hopped another gap and then skidded to a halt. “That will do. Okay,” she said as she wrapped a hoof around the crystal ball and turned her attention toward the alicorn inside. “Princess Celestia, can you hear me?”

Celestia looked up from her book once again with a small smile on her face. “Sunset. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yes, actually. I need some supplies delivered,” she said.

Starlight finally neared the train. She surrounded herself with a shield, but few shots managed to get close enough to necessitate it.

Celestia hummed while turning a page within her book. “I can see to that. Aren’t you heading somewhere?”

“Our train is heading for Ponyville, but I need them sooner than that. Much sooner.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “How soon?”

Sunset puckered her lips, unsure how to phrase it. “Like… immediately soon. Right now soon.”

Celestia sat there, dumbstruck, for several long moments. And then she gasped and blushed. “Oh, yes! Of course. Silly me, I forgot that this crystal ball operates on nine-day intervals.”

Sunset was thankful that Celestia couldn’t see the red on her own face. “Yes! Yes, sorry. Yeah.”

“I… should believe that is perfectly possible. What would you like me to bring you?”

Sunset shook herself off. “Yes, Princess,” she replied, looking back down the train. “We’re going to need some hoofcuffs. And some wing binders. And some magic inhibitors. I would say enough for fifteen of each, just to be safe.”

At that, Celestia frowned. She flipped her book closed and glanced up, her expression stern. “Sunset Shimmer… why would you need something like that?”

Starlight chose that moment to land in the crater two cars away, pressing the unponies within down with her shield. The two unicorns from the caboose continued their assault, but their shots bounced off with little effect.

But now Starlight was sweating and teetering about.

“Hold on a moment,” Sunset said. She lit her horn and hurled out a wind blade. It struck the cliff face, showering the two stallions with chunks of rock and soil.

It gave Starlight just enough opportunity to finally drop her shield. She galloped in Sunset’s direction, glancing behind her in case any stray shots came her way.

“The train we’re on got hijacked,” Sunset explained.

Celestia shot to her hooves and her wings flew open such that each feather stood on end. She looked upwards, shaking like she had seen an aberration. While Celestia normally had a whiter-than-white coat, she had somehow visibly paled.

“We’re working on taking it back before it reaches some sort of portal further down the line. So that’s why we need those,” Sunset continued.

Princess Celestia swallowed. “I see. I see. Then, where are you right now?”

“We’re on the route from Canterlot to Ponyville, but we’re coming up to a junction in the tracks and we’re getting forked toward Baltimare, and then we might get forked onto a spur after that. We’re about a minute away.”

Celestia nodded and levitated over a quill and a parchment. “I’ll see to it,” she replied.

“Thanks,” Sunset replied, “I appreciate it.”

“Coming up here,” Twilight’s voice said, “there is a bag hanging from a tree branch off to the side. That should be it.”

Sunset whirled around right as Starlight joined her. Together, they advanced toward the locomotive with their several foes, both aerial and not, right behind them. But while Starlight was content to simply run, Sunset passed her the ball and shot a few token volleys behind her.

The train itself passed into a wooded area between two of the mountain ridges. Branch after branch arced over the tracks, creating a tunnel of sorts.

Starlight looked up as they reached the next gap, now only two cars away from the engine. “What’s that up there!?” she cried.

Sunset looked up as they bounded over and saw the bright green sack, large enough to fit a pony or two inside, hanging off a rope just over the tracks. “Yes! That’s it!” she cried. She hurled a wind blade at the rope, cutting it in two. She caught the sack and just about slammed it onto the roof.

While Starlight went to work on unpacking, Sunset renewed her assault, providing cover for the both of them via several rapid volleys. Starlight pulled out several items, all meant to incapacitate ponies. Every single one of them shone a brilliant silver, without a single scratchy patch or dent in them. She pulled out a set of cuffs first, four on each chain, and ensured there were many more within the sack.

Starlight shot the first set of shackles out, guiding them with her magic. Her first target, a unicorn, hopped out of the way, and so Starlight kept going. The shackles ended up buckling tight around an earth pony’s legs, and the sudden constriction tripped him, sending him crashing face-first.

“Good shot!” Twilight’s voice said.

“Thanks!” Starlight replied.

A few foes cried out and rushed to their fallen comrade’s aid, taking stock of the shackles binding him. The rest charged forward with renewed fury, letting out thirsty battle yells. The pegasi swooped down in haphazard dive-bomb attempts.

The two mares ducked under the first two and then Sunset levitated the third dead in their tracks. Sunset managed to hold the unmare long enough for Starlight to fasten the wing binders and shackles on. As soon as they heard it click, they unceremoniously let the pegasus land on the roof with a thud.

There’s two! Sunset thought.

But the others were soon upon them. Even as Starlight shot at and secured an oncoming unicorn, their foes shot back at them, forcing Starlight to revert to her shield spell.

Sunset shot a fireball at them to block their progress, but it only managed to stop the ground advancement. Even then, a blast cut through the flames and hit her in the face, blinding her. She stumbled backward, crying out in annoyance.

“Oh no!” Twilight’s voice cried.

Starlight barely had time to register it as she focused on shooting some more shackles. A third set hit a unicorn and she fished out a magic inhibitor and floated that onto the downed foe’s horn.

“Starlight! Behind you!” Twilight’s voice warned.

The pegasi pounced, slamming Starlight into the roof. She let out a cry but managed to keep her hold on the crystal ball. But the others gathered around and pinned her from all angles. Those that found themselves unoccupied moved in the direction of their shackled companions.

Through blurred vision, Sunset wrapped her own magic around the ball. She tugged at it, breaking it free from Starlight’s feeble magic.

“Get off me!” Starlight exclaimed, shooting a frenzied bolt into nothingness.

A unicorn advanced on Sunset, watching her intently. He moved slowly, cautiously, not daring to peel his eyes off her, despite the crystal ball floating into her grasp. Sunset let off a volley, but it hit air. The unicorn, in turn, fired another shot at her, causing her to lose her footing.

“Get up, Sunset!” Twilight’s voice commanded. “Get up!”

Sunset wrapped her hooves around the ball. “Princess…?” she croaked.

Celestia looked up with renewed alarm. “Sunset? Do you need something else?”

The blur continued to approach her, and Sunset was sure he had an inhibitor in hoof. Sunset moaned. “Oh. Ow. Starlight’s down. Uhm, I probably might need something here at something somewhere.”

Inside the ball, the hair on Celestia’s coat stood on end and her muzzle darkened. “Hang in there, Sunset Shimmer,” she replied, her voice cold and foreboding.

Starlight shot another beam of energy into the sky and hit nothing.

But then, somehow, the sky answered. A single powerful beam as bright and vibrant as the sun blasted the surface, nearly striking Sunset’s adversary dead on.

You will leave her alone!” boomed a voice from above. A moment later, Princess Celestia, glowing with radiant energy, crashed down upon the pile. The remaining scattered, trying to keep their wits about them.

She headbutted them like a madhorse, digging down until Starlight had room to stand again. Those out of reach cowered under the unforgiving shadow of Celestia’s fully stretched wings and the heavy, energy-laden air.

“…Woah,” Twilight’s voice cooed.

The unicorn that had been approaching Sunset before now turned his back to her. Sunset reached toward the bag with her magic and levitated out another set of shackles. Before the unicorn knew what hit him, they shut around his legs and swept him off his hooves.

Got you, she thought, shaking the last of the disorientation out.

Celestia herself levitated several items out of the bag, counted them in the air, and gingerly levitated them on and around the ponies cowering before her. A cuff here, a magic inhibitor there. The pegasi remained airborne, well out of Celestia’s reach.

Starlight stood up and brushed herself off. “Princess Celestia…?”

Celestia smiled. “Hello, Starlight.”

Sunset groaned and, after some difficulty, pulled herself to her hooves as well. “You… came and rescued us?”

Celestia nodded and turned around. “That was my plan for a few days now.”

Sunset smiled weakly. “Heh… well, I appreciate it. Thanks.”

“Princess Celestia!” Twilight’s voice exclaimed. “You… you never said anything about being on that train too!”

At that, Celestia blinked. After taking one more careful glance back at their captives, she nodded. “Well then, Twilight, I guess I’m not telling you that I am on the train.”

The crystal ball paused, and then Twilight’s voice snorted.

“Which, before I forget…” she said, “I must see that for a moment.” Celestia levitated the ball over to herself and wrapped a hoof around it. “Pardon me,” she began.

Inside the crystal ball, Celestia tripped, landing on the floor with a thud. She shot back to her hooves with a beet-red face and whirled around to face her own crystal ball. “Uh, yes! Yes. What is it?”

“Concerning that last part,” Celestia continued, examining her surroundings, “I would say about five minutes from the second switch would be a good spot for intervention.”

Celestia opened her mouth to speak and then hummed as a thought struck her. She nodded sagely and returned to her bed, adjusting a pillow as she sat down. “I see. Thank you. I will be sure to remember that.”

Celestia took her hoof off the ball. “And I know that technically is not me, but that is what I heard as well. And, lo and behold, I remembered!”

Sunset had trouble holding back her laugh and eventually let it out in full. “That’s… impressive!”

Celestia glanced back toward the sky, tracking the pegasi as they weaved over the treetops looking for a possible way in. Her frown returned and she regarded them with narrow eyes. “I have a few guards on the way as well. Hopefully… they will catch up soon.”

Starlight cleared her throat, turning her gaze down the length of the train. “That’s great, Princess, but I don’t think we should wait for them too long.”

Sunset levitated the bag over her head and nodded. “Agreed.”

Starlight shot a single beam at their captives, encasing them in a large block of crystal. The steel buckled under its weight but ultimately held. “That should keep them long enough.”

Celestia straightened herself. “Then let us stop this train!”

The train car thumped in time with the track as they turned and galloped down the roof. Even while the wind fought with them, blowing their manes this way and that, they kept pace with each other without the slightest sign of submission.

The train thundered onward. A misplaced whistle bellowed from the engine. They drew close enough that the smoke exhaust mingled with their air, and they charged headlong into it.

They hopped another gap. And then it was the final car. The engine chugged along at the other end, swaying this way and that.

Sunset coursed energy through her horn in preparation for a new attack. With any luck, she’d be able to fire down on them right as they reached the gap.

From the way Starlight lit her horn, Sunset assumed she was thinking the same thing.

“Expect two of them in there,” Twilight’s voice said.

Starlight and Sunset easily outpaced Celestia who remained content to bring up the rear. Sunset dropped the bag of restraints onto the roof and the two of them slid down through the crack, landing at the very foot of the engine’s open rear.

Celestia, meanwhile, jumped the entire gap, skidding to a halt atop the cabin. She looked back down the length of the entire train, fashioning herself as a sentinel.

Within the cabin, amidst a myriad of pipes and nozzles and gauges and a single spot for the fire pit, two unponies whirled around to meet them. The two engineers lay slumped unconscious against the wall.

Neither mare exchanged greetings, opting to hit their foes with a simultaneous attack. The stallions tumbled into the metal hull, prompting a loud clang as they went. Starlight floated their bag down, and before the stallions could recover, they fixed magic inhibitors and shackles onto them.

Sunset rushed over to one of the unconscious engineers. She noted the spent yet eternal drool that hung off the side of his mouth and grimaced, opting instead to check everything else. She noted a magical burn mark on his lapel and went from there.

Starlight scooted around the downed unponies. A long handle hung down from above the driver’s seat which, through a series of cranks and moving shafts, controlled something deeper within the engine. The throttle, she decided.

“I think this is what we’re looking for,” she announced.

“Yes, pull that back,” Twilight’s voice concurred. “That’ll discontinue power.”

Starlight reached up, threw the handle back and felt the cabin shudder in response. The churning rumble on the other side of the boiler faded away, leaving only the familiar grind of wheel on steel and the occasional metallic clink of tie after tie. The scenery, however, continued galloping by.

Sunset nodded once before trotting over to the other engineer and giving him a once-over.

Starlight frowned. “How are they?”

“They’re out cold but otherwise okay,” she replied. She poked one of them in the stomach and he stirred but only feebly. “You wanna go ahead and hit the brakes?”

Starlight nodded and examined the central console. To her horror, an entire set of levers stuck out in front of her. While each appeared unique, she couldn’t tell which one did what.

Sunset glanced behind them into the very first passenger car. Two unpony stallions pressed up against the glass, forlornly watching the proceedings. The handle jiggled in place but remained locked. Sunset smiled demurely. Ha.

The air cracked as Celestia shot another beam into the sky. An unpony passed overhead, likely one of the pegasi from before. “How’s it going down there?” Celestia called down.

“Uh, we’re working on it!” Starlight cried.

“Try not to take too long,” Celestia replied. “While I have some guards trying to take that second switch back as we speak, I would prefer not to leave all of our success to them.”

Sunset stood up and trotted over. “What’s the matter?”

“I don’t know which one of these is the brake,” Starlight explained, motioning between her choices.

Sunset blinked, feeling a cold sweat on her brow. “Well… yeah. This complicates things, I guess.”

Starlight shook her head. “Twilight, can you give us a little help here?”

“Oh… dear,” Twilight’s voice replied after some moments. “It should be… okay. Yes. Try the yellow handle.”

They found the lever in question and nodded affirmatively to each other. “Alright then,” Sunset said, “here goes nothing.” She pulled it.

The cabin shuddered and lurched under their hooves, throwing them to the hard metal floor. The train whined in protest as it skidded along the tracks. The bag shifted and rolled up against the closed fire pit. The unstallions in the adjacent car, once watching through the window, now found themselves pressed uncomfortably against the glass, with one of them grimacing in front of a small crack.

Above them, Princess Celestia lifted off, flapping her wings and allowing the train to pass by underneath. She burst through the trees, making a beeline for the pegasi above.

The screeching wound down and down and the pulling at their chests grew less and less until, finally, the entire thing stopped. The engine sighed, billowed some final bits of steam, and then idly hummed in wait.

Sunset climbed to her hooves and took a glance outside to confirm that, yes, they had stopped. She giggled and tapped out a celebratory rhythm on the metal.

She then retreated and collapsed against the wall, sighing in relief.

She looked over at the soundly unconscious engineers. In fact, they could have been sleeping.

She looked over at the unponies who lay flopped one on top of the other in front of the door to the adjacent car. While they remained alert, they made no sounds. Rather than appearing panicked like she thought they would be, they looked contemplative, as if merely thinking of what would happen next.

Starlight sat there for a few moments, content to splay herself across the floor. She took several deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling. “What the buck,” she said at length.

Sunset, at that, doubled over and guffawed. “Haha, yeah. Exactly.”

“Great job, girls,” Twilight’s voice said. “I knew you could do it.”

Starlight pumped a hoof into the air in celebration. “Woo hoo.”

Sunset giggled even more. Starlight followed. Finally, the two fell into tired laughter, as much as their breaths could afford them. Eventually, the two went silent once more, content to rest until the guards arrived.